I love how Barb, one of our leaders in Tennessee, shared her story here. So many of our paths to Free Mom Hugs are filled with heartfelt stories.

Barb, thank you for being a part of Free Mom Hugs and helping spread our message and mission.

My journey to be supportive of the LBGTQ+ Community started when my twin boys were about 3 or 4 years old. My older twin always wanted the hot wheels Happy Meals while my younger twin always chose the Barbie Happy Meals. He wanted to wear dresses and I would give him oversized t-shirts in which he could dance and spin. My husband and I sat down and agreed that Jake would either be the best husband a woman could ever ask for or he would be gay. Either way, we were both in agreement that he was our son and we loved him no matter what the future brought.

My husband and I were raised Roman Catholic and the church played a central role in our lives and spirituality. It was one of the factors that drew us together as a couple when we met in college at the tender age of 18. Because of my faith background, the idea that my son might grow up to be gay was a conflict within me. I knew without a doubt that I loved him unconditionally. Yet, I was living in a day to day kind of denial about the possibility that he would be gay when he grew up. To fully grasp that possibility in my everyday life meant I would need to tackle that underlying question about God, salvation, and my church. My life as a mom of twin boys (and do I have some crazy stories about that adventure in life), a younger daughter,  a career, a husband, and life was more than all consuming. I didn’t have the energy or desire to tackle deep theological “what if” questions that could be life changing for my family. I was comfortable just sitting on the fence regarding this moral dilemma until I was forced to figure it out.

When my son was in college, there were several things that started to point us more directly to the possibility that he was gay. We felt that we couldn’t ask him if he was gay. We believed we needed to wait for him to tell us. However, there was always the possibility that we were misinterpreting things and he was straight. Such a confusing unknown time for us. We tried to do what we could to let him know we were OK if he were to tell us he was gay. During this time, I felt, to some extent, like I was trying to undo all those years of Catholic teaching about being gay with which he had grown up. I’m not sure he even got the message of acceptance I was desperately trying to give him in subtle ways.

During his Junior year of college, he came out to us. It was a conversation full of uncertainty, fear and tears. Unable to commit to coming out, he told us he might be straight, gay or bi. He didn’t know what he was.  At that moment, I held him in my arms and cried with him, feeling all his hurt and fear and confusion. As his mom, all I wanted to do was help him figure out this question inside of him, take away all his pain, and protect him from the world. What I didn’t understand, until a friend explained it to me, was that he wasn’t confused about his sexuality, he was full of fear of our reaction so he was presenting it as a maybe to see if we would reject him. At this point, I completely fell apart because it hurt so much to realize how hard it was for him to open up to us and come out. I felt overwhelmed as I didn’t know how to help him or protect him from the prejudices of this world, especially living in this area, the bible belt. Over time, my husband and I were able to research and learn more about the LBGTQ+ community. I reached out to a couple of my friends in the LBGTQ+ community and was able to ask all the crazy questions and was given honest, personal answers. I will forever be grateful to them.

We found sound Christian theology that was accepting of all in the LBGTQ+ community. We began to move farther from our core Catholic faith but continued attending mass and being active in our parish. With time, it became harder and harder to stay in the Catholic Church. There was a friend who told me I was choosing my love for my son over God. There was the couple who watched our children grow up but wouldn’t turn to extend the sign of peace during mass when my son and his now husband attended mass with us. We did have our core of friends who were fully accepting at church but for me it became a time of building walls rather than feeling God in my church. Within a week of legalizing same sex marriage, we formally left the Catholic church and joined the Episcopal church in our town. This was one of the most painful and difficult decisions we ever made but it has been the best choice for us. I have grown spiritually and found my faith home.

My son is grown and married now. He is incredibly talented (yea, I know…I’m his mom so probably not completely unbiased...but he really is crazy smart and talented). When he first came out publicly, about a year after he told us, the youth director at church asked my husband what he wanted for his son. My husband told her that he wanted him to be able to have what we have, a special person to share his life with. My son found that special someone in his husband.

I’m proud of him for being brave enough to move away from the area as he followed his career and then moved again as he followed his now husband even farther away from home to take a risk on their love. I’m proud of him for being brave enough to experiment and find his own personal style and to be his true self out in the world. We are also proud of our other kids and their spouses for being accepting and un-phased with his personal style. I laughed when I went to visit my daughter several months ago. I had commented on the pretty red pumps in her closet and she told me that her brother had given them to her because they didn’t fit him. How many sisters can look to their brother for a pair of pumps!

I first heard about FMH in January 2019. My son sent me an article about Sara Cunningham’s Facebook post. Sara said she would be a mom for any same sex wedding if the parents wouldn’t come. I cried as I read this as my bonus son was struggling with this type of problem so it was close to my heart. I looked for FMH online and found the website. It had more of her story there about going to pride with a t-shirt that said Free Mom Hugs. Being a natural hugger, this touched my heart. I decided I would get an FMH t-shirt and go to Knoxpride that summer. I contacted the planning committee for Knoxpride and attended a public meeting. At the recommendation of a friend, I also approached the vestry at my church to have FMH be one of our outreach programs. By February, I checked back on the FMH website and found a contact for a TN state chapter leader. After we messaged, I ended up becoming the Knoxville area leader! Then this January, I accepted the TN chapter leader as the prior leaders needed to step down. Not planned, but it has been an incredible, fun, and deeply fulfilling experience.

I am most excited and joyful about the opportunity to share hugs, love, and show unconditional love to those who may be feeling excluded. If I can give even a little bit of comfort for even a short time, I’m all in. My first event with FMH was a youth pride. A young person shared with me that their mom had dropped them off at their dad’s house when they came out trans and they haven’t seen her since. They looked at me and said they needed a Barb mom hug because their mom’s name was Barb. I still tear up thinking of that precious soul. And yes, they got a big Mama Bear Hug!

My biggest fear regarding the LGBTQIA+ community is for their physical and emotional safety in their families, communities, and globally. I am also very concerned about their equality in our country.

FMH in TN is new and growing. I’m most excited about all the new area leaders who have stepped up to help organize FMH’s presence at local pride events and more across Tennessee. I’m excited about the growing FMH TN Facebook presence and the wonderful interactions of our followers there. Their participation in helping me identify the various pride events across the state was amazing. Their commitment to helping to keep our community informed about state events including legislative issues is so valuable. It is so encouraging to be connected to the affirmative community there. Just before the stay at home order, our Facebook supporters contributed donations that allowed us to order banners for each area pride event. There are a few that will be sharing this year, but this is a big step forward for us. FMH in TN is growing and as soon as we are able to be together again, we will be sharing those hugs and high fives!

If you too want to share your story or become a volunteer, email us at [email protected]