After Sara Cunningham’s youngest child told her in 2011 he was gay, it took years for the Oklahoma City secretary and mother of two to accept it. Eventually, she began to stand up against her conservative Baptist church’s stance that homosexuality is shameful.
"We tried to ‘pray the gay away’ for years,” said Cunningham, 55. “And I felt like I had to choose between my son and my faith.”
She chose her son. In July she decided to take a stand in another way. Literally.
Saddened on learning of a same-sex couple whose parents refused to attend their wedding, Cunningham wrote a short post on Facebook over the summer offering to “stand in” as a mother at LGBTQ marriage ceremonies.
“PSA. If you need a mom to attend your same-sex wedding because your biological mom won’t,” she wrote, “call me. I’m there. I’ll be your biggest fan. I’ll even bring the bubbles.”
With it, she posted a photo of herself raising her hand and wearing a necklace with a photo of her son, Parker Cunningham, and his partner at the time. The post was popular, and even seven months after she posted it is still going strong, with more than 10,000 “likes” and almost 9,000 shares.
People took her up on her offer. Cunningham stood in at her first wedding in November, and she has three other LGBTQ weddings booked for 2019. She also has officiated at the weddings of nearly a dozen same-sex couples in Oklahoma, Mississippi and Texas. She left her Baptist faith about four years ago but still considers herself Christian, and she became an ordained minister at her local courthouse so she could perform weddings.
Cunningham’s story and Facebook post caught the eye of some high-profile folks, including actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who saw the post and spent three days in Oklahoma in September with the Cunningham family. Curtis bought the film rights to “How We Sleep at Night,” a memoir Cunningham published in 2014 about her relationship with her son.
“I was moved by her journey,” Curtis said in an interview with The Washington Post. “And I continue to be thrilled as her movement is catching on. I hope to do justice to her story and the story of so many marginalized people in the LGBTQ community.”
Curtis said she was drawn right away to Cunningham’s story.
“I saw the impact that her movement has already had, in and around Oklahoma City,” Curtis said. “It’s exciting to watch something that was born out of such conflict develop into something of such deep compassion and expansive acceptance.”
Cunningham, in turn, has been stunned by the enormous response to her Facebook post.
“I never dreamed that something I posted out of frustration would take off like this,” she said. “But I’m glad that it did. I’ve been hearing from lots of other parents who are also willing to ‘stand up and stand in.’ ”
Here is a sampling of some of the comments on her post: “My husband and I are in Richmond, VA and are ready to volunteer!”
“I would also love to be a stand in mom. Everyone deserves love and happiness! What you are doing is wonderful! I would love to help!”
“This is the most beautiful post with the most wonderful comments I’ve read in my life. You make me tear up ❤️.”
“I’m in Virginia Beach if anyone needs a stand-in dad!!! (I’m 17 but I’m full of dad vibes).”
The movement Cunningham started on Facebook is one of several ways she has been involved in helping the community. In 2017, she founded Free Mom Hugs, a nonprofit that provides support and resources to LGBTQ people and their families.
“Sara always says to surround yourself with people who love you and want to celebrate you,” said Tabatha Cash, 28, who saw Cunningham’s Facebook post and asked her to stand in for her mother at her wedding. She and Marlee Castillo, 25, were married in November in Spearman, Tex.
Cunningham happily accepted. For the Texas wedding, Cunningham bought her own plane ticket and said Castillo’s mother paid for her hotel room.
“There are hundreds like me who sometimes feel like we don’t deserve [love] because of the problems with our families,” Cash said. “To feel loved and welcomed by strangers — people who aren’t obligated to love us — is a different kind of joy and warmth.”
Another person who saw Cunningham’s post, Rob Panos, plans to marry his partner, Jonathan Salazar, 24, in New York City in the fall. He said as soon as he read it, he knew she was meant to attend their wedding.
“It struck a chord with me,” said Panos, 40. “My fiance has a very tattered relationship with his mom. Mine is also a bit rocky. They, unfortunately, don’t provide us with the unconditional love that we need and deserve.”
He added: “We truly can’t wait to hug her.”
When Cunningham’s son came out to her in 2011, she never imagined she would reach out to LGBTQ strangers, let alone share their wedding celebrations, she said. Her own journey of acceptance was bumpy and painful.
Although she had long suspected her son was gay, “I thought it might just be a phase,” she said. “And then when he turned 21, he ‘came out’ to me and said that he’d met someone and needed me to be okay with it.”
At the time, she was not. Her son struggled with it, as well.
“Not only was I living in constant fear as a gay kid in conservative Oklahoma, we were fighting a spiritual battle inside the walls of a non-affirming church,” Parker Cunningham said. “My mother and I were both struggling with what we thought was a literal ‘life or death’ situation when it came to my soul and how I’d spend eternity.”
He said they both felt as though lightning might “strike them down” after he revealed he was gay. “We had no idea how to talk about it,” he said.
Devastated by her son’s news, Sara Cunningham fell into a depression.
“I prayed, I fasted, I burned incense and shamed my son into burning his journals,” she said.
It was only when she and her husband, Rex Cunningham, began to reexamine what was most important to them that they became more open to their son’s sexuality.
“After Parker came out, our family experienced alienation and separation,” Sara Cunningham said. “We’d been in our church for 20 years, and we suddenly had to absorb this idea that our son was unworthy. They didn’t know how to minister to us.”
Cunningham desperately wanted somebody to talk to but did not know where to turn. So in 2014, shocked to learn about the high rate of suicide among young LGBTQ people, “I became an accidental activist,” she said.
She and her husband attended a gay pride parade in Norman, Okla., with their son.
“It was my first encounter with the LGBTQ community, and it was as beautiful as it could be,” Cunningham said. “I realized that I’d been alienated for years by own ignorance and fear.”
The following year, Cunningham attended the parade again, this time wearing a homemade button that read, “Free Mom Hugs."
"Whenever I made eye contact with anybody, I'd offer to give them a hug or a high five,” she said. “I went home covered with glitter."
Parker Cunningham said his mother’s simplest gift is also the most powerful: “It’s just showing up and reminding people that they are loved unconditionally.”