Late fall can be a bittersweet time of year, especially in rural Texas. Live oak trees, once ablaze with orange and red leaves, begin to look bare. The sun descends from its summertime perch, putting an end to days that stretch luxuriously into night.
Still, there’s plenty of magic to be had in autumn — a campfire crackling on a chilly evening, an apple pie spiced just right with cinnamon, or, say, a wedding.
Tabatha Cash and Marlee Castillo tied the knot last fall at a park in Spearman, TX, on an overcast day that was warm enough for Tabatha, dressed in a long white sleeveless lace dress, not to catch a chill, yet cool enough so that Marlee felt comfortable in a three-piece suit.
Nearly 50 people — aunts and uncles, long-time friends — looked on as the women said their I do’s. But Tabatha’s mother wasn’t among them.
“My mom doesn’t accept that I’m gay,” says Tabatha. “It was understood that she loves me and she loves Marlee, but she doesn't love us together.”
Luckily, nestled in the beaming crowd, was Sara Cunningham, the founder of Free Mom Hugs, an organization that supports the queer community. As she had for several other couples, Sara had offered to act as a stand-in mother for Tabatha on her wedding day. Sara had helped Tabatha arrange a bouquet and get dressed. She dried her tears, blotted her makeup, and fussed over details of the reception.
“To not be accepted by your own family is devastating,” says Sara. “Hopefully I made the day a little better for Tabatha.”
The Start of a Movement
Sara’s journey from religious Midwest mom to queer ally began with her son, Parker, who told her he was gay in 2011 when he was 21.
“I didn’t take the news very well,” says Sara, whose resistance was based on her church’s beliefs about gay people and its interpretation of certain Bible verses.
“I was really wrestling with my faith,” says Sara. “I couldn’t understand how to love my son, but not accept every part of him.”
After a lot of soul-searching, Sara parted ways with the church. She found solace in a private Facebook group for moms of gay children, all of whom felt alienated from their religious communities. The women shared advice for building new relationships with their children and supported each other during difficult times. More than one mother came to the group after her child died by suicide. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth are almost five times more likely to have attempted suicide than heterosexual youth.
By 2015, Sara was ready to embrace the queer community — literally. She pinned a homemade button that read “Free Mom Hugs” onto her sundress and went with Parker to the Oklahoma City Gay Pride parade. “Anyone who made eye contact with me, I would say, ‘Can I offer you a free mom hug or high five?’” Sara says. The first woman who accepted a hug told her she hadn’t been hugged by her mom for four years.
After the parade, as Sara got involved with local LGBTQ groups, she began to see the needs of community first-hand. She met a queer couple living in their car and a young man who had been kicked out of his house after telling his youth pastor he was gay. Sara and a few other moms began collecting donations for them and other struggling queer people — she bought bus tickets and tanks of gas and gave out Target gift cards. The next year Sara founded the nonprofit organization Free Mom Hugs, and extended her outreach even more. She began to officiate gay weddings.
“In talking with the couples before the ceremony, many told me that their parents wouldn’t acknowledge their relationships and refused to come to the wedding,” she says. “It broke my heart.”
Frustrated, Sara took to Facebook in July 2018 with a post that quickly went viral. It said, “If you need a mom to attend your same sex wedding because your biological mom won't. Call me. I'm there. I'll be your biggest fan. I'll even bring the bubbles.”
The response was overwhelming — dozens of couples reached out to ask Sara to attend their weddings as a stand-in. Even more people responded with their own offer to act as a proxy.
“If you need a Mom, an Aunt, a Granny, or just a friend in Florida, I’ll be there,” one woman posted. “Love is love. Period.”
Tabatha and Marlee’s Texas wedding was one of the first ceremonies that Sara attended as a stand-in, and in 2019, she plans to go to at least three more, including the June wedding of Haley Myers-Brannon and Sam Hedrick. Sam grew up in Oklahoma City, in a conservative Christian family who refused to accept his identity.
“When I came out to my parents as transgender, it was a big blow to them,” he says. After Sam met Haley and he decided to propose, he reached out to his parents with the news. “My mom texted and said, ‘we do not believe this is God’s plan for you,’” Sam says.
Then Sara stepped in. Sam had met her through a friend and eventually asked her to attend his and Haley’s wedding in place of his mom. Sara will help him get dressed and be there to talk before the ceremony.
“She’s probably going to let me cry a lot and then help me pull it together,” says Sam. “She’ll be in the front row where my family would normally sit.”
Despite the expansion of Free Mom Hugs, which now has more than 40 chapters in the U.S. and beyond, as well as more than 50,000 Facebook followers, Sara still holds down a full-time job as a secretary for an architectural firm.
And yet, she plans to keep growing, helping transgender community members get their birth certificates changed to reflect their identity, filling prescriptions, providing housing for LGBTQ people who feel unsafe in homeless shelters, and more.
Says Sara, “What we do is way beyond hugs.”
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