Mums who give free hugs to LGBT+ youth rejected by their families are going digital during coronavirus crisis

Sara Cunningham Free Mom Hugs coronavirus

A group of mums who hand out free hugs to LGBT+ young people who have been rejected by their families are going virtual during coronavirus lockdown.

The group of American mothers are members of US non-profit Free Mom Hugs, an organisation that is “all about moms who love LGBT+ kids”. The charity advocates and educates on behalf of children who have been rejected or discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The organisation was founded by Sara Cunningham, a mother who became an accidental activist when her son came out as gay in 2011. Cunningham initially struggled with her son’s sexuality as it conflicted with her faith, but when she heard about the high suicide rate in the LGBT+ community, she changed her stance.

That led her to set up Free Mom Hugs, which is comprised of mothers who travel around the United States hugging queer youth who have experienced rejection from their parents.

Cunningham also had her own viral moment when she offered on Facebook to act as a “stand-in mom” at same-sex weddings where parents refuse to attend.

Right now, Free Mom Hugs is facing unprecedented challenges. The organisation is all about physical contact, which is now impossible as the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen.

But that isn’t putting a stop to the group of activist parents. Free Mom Hugs is going virtual instead in an effort to make sure LGBT+ young people know that they are loved – particularly if they’re stuck at home with parents who do not accept them.

Sara Cunningham of Free Mom Hugs said they had to adapt quickly to the coronavirus pandemic.

Cunningham told PinkNews that they were expecting 2020 to be their biggest year yet – but then the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to their plans.

“The plug was pulled on what felt like everything,” Cunningham said, explaining that they were left with “disappointment and grief” that they wouldn’t be able to share their message of love and acceptance.

“We knew we had to step up and rally the troops. While we are a non-profit based on physical touch, our mission statement was left unaltered,” she continued.

“Earlier in the year we adopted a phrase, ‘Beyond the Hug’, to describe our programs outside of showing up at events and hugging folks,” Cunningham said.

They may be at home with non-affirming, rejecting parents, and we want them to know we are here for them, supporting them and celebrating them.

“Our non-profit was focused on education and advocacy and we needed to have a way to express that. Little did we know, ‘Beyond the Hug’ would become our battle cry during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“It has become vital to us that we shift our focus to making sure the LGBT+ community that may already feel alone, literally and figuratively, be reassured that we, as chosen family, are not going anywhere.

“They may be at home with non-affirming, rejecting parents, and we want them to know we are here for them, supporting them and celebrating them.”

Cunningham said they are using social media to encourage parents of LGBT+ young people to “do the work, to research and study” so they can better understand their queer children and build “authentic relationships during quarantine.”

They are running a number of events online to keep people engaged with their mission.

“We have already had our Arizona Chapter head up a Virtual Pride weekend that was a tremendous success and other chapters have the possibility of doing the same,” Cunningham added.

They are also planning to launch a “virtual tour” on Mother’s Day in the United States, which is May 10 this year. The virtual tour will shine a light on “heroes and activists” in a number of cities across the country through webinars and live broadcasts. They are also hoping to get musicians, celebrity activists and parents of LGBT+ young people on board to help spread their important message during the pandemic.

“We have definitely been stretched to become virtual, but we are so grateful that going virtual is even a possibility,” Cunningham said.

The mission of Free Mom Hugs has arguably never been as important as right now. The coronavirus pandemic means that countless LGBT+ young people are stuck self-isolating with their families – and some of those families are not accepting of their identities.

Last month, the Manchester-based LGBT Foundation said they had seen a huge surge in calls to their helpline since the UK went into lockdown. They warned that the pandemic will see many LGBT+ young people forced back into the closet in an effort to fit in to anti-LGBT+ environments.

Now, more than ever, it is essential that queer youth know that they are loved and supported – even if they can’t access that support in their own families.