OKLAHOMA CITY, Oklahoma — Across the country, there is an increase of homeless LGBTQ+ teens, and some of the biggest reasons are relationship problems between the parents and the kids. One organization has joined the movement to help parents navigate the world if their child happens to be part of the LGBTQ community.
The organization is called Free Mom Hugs and it’s solely dedicated to supporting and empowering those in the LGBTQ community and helping parents who need education on raising an LGBT child.
“Not only empower the community to have confidence and peace and live authentically on who they are but also to live authentically with their parents,” said Sarah Cunningham, the founder of Free Mom Hugs.
The nonprofit was created out of the relationship between Cunnigham and her son, Parker, after he came out to his mom as gay.
“It’s personal for me because I have a gay son, and I didn’t know what that meant and how to love him and celebrate his identity,” Cunnigham said.
“There was no reality where anyone in my neighborhood or anyone in my church, anyone in my community that would say, ‘Sarah, you’re doing fine. All you need to do is celebrate him,’" Parker said. “She didn’t have that.”
Research from The Trevor Project shows that mental health in LGBTQ teens can relate to the amount of support they get from their family members.
In 2022, the study shows that 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. Youth who felt high social support from their family reported attempting suicide at less than half the rate of those who felt low or moderate social support.
That same study found that 28% of LGBTQ youth reported experiencing homelessness, which is why Free Mom Hugs exists to help educate other families about the importance of support for their kids.
“I would have done things different back then when Parker came out,” Cunnigham said. “I would have invited him to sit down beside me, and I would have let him talk for as long as he wanted to. I would have hugged him and tell him how brave he was to share that with me and that we were going to figure it out and everything is fine. I would have told him we are going to learn about what it means to be gay and celebrate him.”
Free Mom Hugs started in Oklahoma, and now a chapter in every state has been established to provide a network of resources to help people from all walks of life. Families all over the country are providing the necessary tools to help parents build strong bonds with their children.
“My oldest daughter, Nora, grew up understanding who you are attracted to, your gender or who you were, isn’t really relative,” said Ben Ezzell, a father who is part of Free Mom Hugs. “We tried to build that in from the outset. It can be a hard world, and a lot of the things makes me angry. But I found a way to channel that anger into something productive and being part of Free Mom Hugs to help others and help my daughter is that outlet.”
“I’ve had a lot of parents reach out to me when they found out their child was queer in some way,” said Stephanie Ezzell, Ben’s wife. “I think the best advice I give these parents are just listening. That’s a major thing and helping them know and giving them the language to talk to their child. Not to misgender them, not to deadname them, which is words that I don’t think everyone has in their vocabulary. But you must allow them to have that space to figure out who they are.”
Some of the major tools all these families have provided to others are education, respect for identity, communication, and trust. Research from The Trevor Project shows that 35% of LGBTQ youth reported that their parents educated them about LGBTQ people and issues.
“I see relationships restored. I see members of the community who have internalized homophobia and they have more confidence,” Cunningham said. “They’re at peace and they’re really to be themselves and have healthy relationships.”