Oklahoma City woman starts movement to embrace gay people

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A July 24 post this year on Facebook sent Sara Cunningham and her organization into overdrive.

The post featured a picture of Cunningham with her hand in the air and this pledge: “If your biological mom won’t come to your same-sex wedding, then call me. I’ll be there and I’ll bring the bubbles.”

The Oklahoma City woman’s post went viral.

“What made it go viral is that people nationwide — worldwide — were saying, ‘I’ll go too,’” Cunningham told The Oklahoman . “If you need a crazy mom in Colorado, call me. If you need an aunt in Minnesota, call me. I’ll be there. If you need an uncle in Virginia, I’ll be there.

“That’s what made it go viral. All around the world people were willing to stand in the gap.”

In the months that followed, chapters sprung up all over the world of Free Mom Hugs, the organization formed by Cunningham in Oklahoma.

Cunningham has been interviewed and written about by national news outlets and contacted for speaking engagements at colleges, symposiums and churches.

And she received a visit from actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who saw her on Facebook and bought the rights to her book “How We Sleep at Night: A Mother’s Memoir.”

Cunningham credits the unintended fame to the power of a mother’s love, which prompted her to start Free Mom Hugs, a nonprofit for parents who love their LGBTQ kids unconditionally and are accepting of others and are dedicated to educating families, church and civic leaders about the gay community and celebrating the lives of all children.

Cunningham, 55, had been a lifelong Southern Baptist. She said her reaction to her son’s announcement that he was gay and in a relationship wasn’t pride, or worry or even surprise. It was terror.

“I thought my son was going to hell,” she said. “It was devastating. It was the most difficult thing that I have been through as a mother and as a woman of faith. And I didn’t know how to navigate through that. It’s like learning a whole new language.”

For three years, Cunningham struggled. She studied and prayed and processed that her son was gay.

“I thought I was the only woman in Oklahoma having this struggle,” she said.

“My son had to go through the process, too. We both prayed that gay away. In church I was praying for some holy bolt of lightning to make him ‘normal.’ But that didn’t happen. Through seeing him live authentically — being happy and healthy — I had to look past myself, my own fears and my own ignorance to see him and celebrate him.”

Cunningham then started reading books by theologians, sociologists and historians. Meanwhile, she saw her now 21-year-old son, Parker, happy for the first time as he began living openly as a gay man.

“I got plugged into the LGBTQ community here in Oklahoma and started hearing horror stories from kids who had been kicked out of their homes, alienated from their church families, rejected and discriminated against from many areas of society,” Cunningham said. “When I realized that my straight son has more rights than my gay son, it was a rude awakening.”

And that awakening lit a fire.

In 2014, Cunningham and her husband attended the Pride Parade in Oklahoma City with their gay son and she published her book. The next year, she attended the Pride Parade wearing a handcrafted “Free Mom Hugs” button.

“I stood there and anyone who made eye contact with me, I would say, ‘Can I offer you a free mom hug?’” Cunningham said.

In 2016, her button grew into a Free Mom Hugs banner that she and others carried in the parade. And she founded the Free Mom Hugs organization.

Cunningham and her group have detractors, including people who believe gays could be turned from a homosexual lifestyle.

Stephen Black, who oversees an organization called First Stone Ministries that offers pastoral counseling to people with “unwanted” same-sex attraction said “any conservative theologian” would say that the Bible condemns homosexuality.

Black said he is not about shaming people.

“We’re about the recovery for people who are living in shame,” he said. “We’re not trying to proselytize the gay community. We’re here for people who don’t want to live that way. And there are many who don’t.”

Professional organizations including the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, as well as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, have condemned so-called conversion therapy.

Sage Mauldin, a professor of human relations at the University of Oklahoma and a member of the Norman Human Rights Commission, who investigates complaints of hate crimes and harassment, has drafted a bill that would make so-called conversion therapy or shame therapy unlawful in Oklahoma. He is hoping to find an Oklahoma lawmaker who will author the bill during the upcoming legislative session.

“LGBT youths consider (conversion therapy) to be tantamount to torture,” Mauldin said. “The underlying motive to the bill is to ensure our LGBT youths have a right to be protected.”

Still a fervent Christian, Cunningham said her belief has become stronger since she has accepted her son’s sexual orientation.

“I’m doing what I wish someone had done when I was trying to figure things out,” she said. “I found faith-based resources that led me to the conclusion that as a Christian society, I believe that we have been duped. Once the scales are lifted from your eyes, you see humanity in a different way.

“I experience God to a much greater degree than I ever thought possible. But I also experience humanity.”


Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com