Free Mom Hugs volunteer called a ‘groomer’ online shares heartbreaking reason for her hugs

Stock image of a woman holding a sign reading "free hugs"

A volunteer in an organisation offering to hug LGBTQ+ people who have been rejected by their families, has shared her powerful story after being labelled a “groomer” by the co-founder of right-wing group Moms for Liberty. 

Content warning: References to suicide

Tiffany Justice, the co-founder of Moms for Liberty, sparked the controversy when she posted about the volunteer on Twitter/X earlier this month, using the “groomer” slur.

“If you are offering kids ‘free mom hugs’ but you aren’t their mom, you might be a groomer,” she wrote, alongside a photo of the volunteer at a Pride event.

Moms for Liberty, which has branches across 48 US states, focuses on opposing the mention of LGBTQ+ rights and race in school curriculums, while advocating book bans.

Last year, the organisation was categorised as a far-right extremist group by civil rights activists at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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The targeted volunteer has since spoken to The Advocate about the experience, joking that she couldn’t be a “groomer”, because “I don’t even bathe my own dogs at home”. 

On a more serious note, the mother and ally revealed the heartbreaking event that led to her joining the Free Mom Hugs organisation: She herself used to hold conservative views about LGBTQ+ people, but changed her worldview after her own daughter, who is queer, attempted to take her own life.

“I stopped being afraid of the unknown in 2016 when my queer daughter tried to take her own life to escape the pain caused by not being accepted for who she was,” the volunteer, who wanted to remain anonymous, said. 

“Thankfully, she was unsuccessful. Thankfully, I let go of everything I held on to prior to that day, except for my kids,” she added. “That fear has now been replaced with the deepest and sweetest joy anyone can imagine.”

Sara Cunningham, the founder of Free Mom Hugs, was “taken aback” by the Moms for Liberty attack, but said the incident had actually worked in their favour, because the community rallied behind them in the aftermath. 

“We do not like that our beautiful and kind volunteers are getting attacked with dangerous misinformation for supporting LGBTQ+ youth across the country,” Cunningham wrote on Facebook. “But we also take it as a compliment that we, as an organisation, are a threat to their messaging and agenda.”

Cunningham created the group in June 2015 after her son came out as gay. She decided to wear a home-made “free mom hugs” button to Oklahoma City Pride, where a young woman approached her and said it had been four years since her own mother hugged her “because I’m a lesbian”. 

Free Mom Hugs has gone from strength to strength after a Facebook post went viral in 2018.

“If you need a mom to attend your same-sex wedding because your biological mom won’t, call me,” Cunningham said. “I’m be there, I’ll be your biggest fan. I’ll even bring the bubbles.” 

Last November, The Philadelphia Enquirer reported that Phillip Fisher Jr, a pastor and local Republican ward leader who volunteered at the Moms for Liberty’s national summit in the city last year, pleaded guilty in 2012 to a charge of aggravated sexual abuse involving a 14-year-old boy, and is registered as a sex offender on both an Illinois state police list and on the US justice department’s website.

Suicide is preventable. Readers who are affected by the issues raised in this story are encouraged to contact Samaritans on 116 123 (, or Mind on 0300 123 3393 ( ​Readers in the US are encouraged to contact the National Suicide Prevention Line on 1-800-273-8255.

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