How Sarah Cunningham became a "stand-in mom" at gay weddings

If mom doesn't approve of your gay wedding, Sarah Cunningham will gladly serve as a "stand-in mom" for the nuptials

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published February 17, 2019 1:00PM (EST)

Sara Cunningham is quick to tell you she only has a “tenth-grade education.” Yet it is clear that her tenth-grade education has not hindered her success in life: she's penned a memoir, "How We Sleep at Night", the film rights for which were recently purchased by Jamie Lee Curtis; she started the nonprofit organization Free Mom Hugs; she works a day job as a secretary for an architectural firm; she officiates LGBTQ weddings; and, lately, she has served as a "stand-in mom" for same-sex weddings.

The Oklahoma native is charming, funny, and endearingly honest about her journey to becoming the LGBTQ activist she is today.  “If you would have told me I was going to be doing this, even in 2013, I would have thought you were crazy,” she said to me in an interview. As the mom of two, Cunningham says her youngest son spent his whole life trying to come out to his family — but her Christian faith teachings kept her from accepting him in the beginning.

“We raised our children in a very conservative church and when Parker turned 21, he said, ‘Mom, I met someone and I need you to be okay about it,’ and that’s the day that he faced his biggest fear, and that was me,” she explained. “And that’s the day that I had to face the reality that my son is gay... raising our children in a conservative church, we were taught and observed this idea that homosexuality, and suicide, are the ultimate sins unforgivable by God.”

But she decided to do the research and educate herself, she said, because as a mom she wanted to love her son for who he was — despite being told by her religious community that homosexuality was a sin. Through a series of pivotal moments, which she emphasizes weren’t “easy,” she became an “accidental activist,” in her words.  “My husband and I stood with our son at the Oklahoma City Pride parade, and it was my first interaction with the community that I fell in love with,” she told Salon.

From there she got plugged into the community, attending PLFAG meetings, showing up at Oklahoma City Pride meetings, and just trying to immerse herself in the community. In 2015, she attended the Pride parade again, but this time she found a new way to get involved: offering free "mom hugs," as she calls them. “I showed up at our Pride festival, and with anyone who made eye contact with me, I offered a free mom hug or a high-five,” she said. “I went home that night covered from head-to-toe with glitter, but I also went home with horror stories that were haunting me about young people who’d been kicked out of their home living in their car, young people who’d been kicked out of their youth group or the church and they confessed to same-sex attraction, and people like my transgender friend who lost everything just to live authentically.”

Her openness would lead to a celebrity moment: In July 2018, Cunningham wrote a Facebook post offering to stand-in as a mom for same-sex couples whose mothers did not accept them. “Out of frustration, I made a social media post and that went viral,” she said. “I had to Google what viral meant. I had no idea what going viral meant.”

Her Facebook post read: “PSA. 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.”

“But what made it so viral is that you had people from all over the world saying, ‘I’ll stand in too,’” she said. “‘If you need a mom in Colorado, you call me. I’ll be there.’ ‘If you need a dad in New Mexico, call me. I’ll be there.’ It was an outpouring of this humanitarian effort to just show up, and stand in, and that’s what’s so outstanding, and shocking, and I was just overwhelmed by it in the very best of ways.”

Several months later, people are still commenting and organizing stand-in arrangements on this post.

Below is an interview about Cunningham’s journey to becoming an activist for same-sex couples, becoming a stand-in mom and how her faith changed along the way. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Nicole: What has it been like being a stand-in mom so far? Do you meet with the couple before, what is the process like?

I attended my first stand-in wedding in November of last year.  It sounds weird to say “last year,” because it hasn’t been that long ago. I was going to officiate this wedding and it turned out that one of the couples’ parents made the announcement that they were not coming to the wedding, and so the young girl, Tabatha, asked if I would [be] a stand-in for her mother, and so I did and I was happy to.

It was a bittersweet experience being there with her, helping her with her hair, help[ing] make decisions, the simple ones like decorations or just helping her with the dress. It’s the things that a mother does. It really was bittersweet because I was glad to be there for her. Of course, I’m not trying to replace her biological mom in that sense, and we still have a relationship, we talk on the phone, we text and stay in contact, and it’s been wonderful, but I just can’t help but wonder if someday her mom might regret not going, and not being part of that life.

In this case, I knew Tabatha’s fiancée. I was [mutual] friends with her family, but I didn’t know Tabatha very well. I met her just occasionally and then, of course, I was going to officiate their wedding and then her mom said she wouldn’t going to be there so I stood in. All of a sudden, that relationship changed from being a friend [to being] officiant to [being the] stand-in mom.

But there are other invitations that I’ve received [where] I don’t know the couples. We had a few exchanges online or phone calls here and there, but I do spend time with the couples. Of course, if I officiate, I have an opportunity to spend more time to get to know them, but certainly, as a stand-in, I take [it] just seriously as officiating.

What happens if you can’t attend a wedding?

I belong to a private online Facebook group [...] called “Serendipitydodah for Moms, Home of the Mama Bears,” and in that group, there’s a subgroup called “Mama Bears to the Rescue,” and you’re talking about 4,000 moms now all across the world... and as we get plugged into the community, we see needs or we hear about needs. If I can’t meet it, then I send it to the Mama Bear to the Rescue group and will find a mom in the area who can help.

Do you think that volunteering and being that loving presence for other couples that that has helped you deepen your relationship with your son?

Yes. Absolutely. I put my family through a really difficult time and I regret that, and I really am doing things that I just wish someone would have done when I was trying to figure it out. I’m so thankful that my son was just graceful enough to allow me that space, and the awkwardness and the pain that, really, it didn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t have to be that way.

I can’t stress enough that it just makes me sad that we went through that and people say, “Would you change anything,” and I used to say, “No;” but now, I say, “Yes, I would have changed everything, Nicole.” I missed a part of his life. He had teachers at his school that were safer than I was. He had friends from church who knew before I did and they were safe.  I just regret that so much, and I know we’re better now and things are right, but it just causes me such regret that we went through that and it didn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t have to be that way. It does not have to be that way.

And now, you’re kind of on the other side of that for so many people, so many individuals and couples being a person who is there for individuals and couples whose parents aren’t accepting of them, so what is that like?

Well, again, it’s the highlight of my life and it’s bittersweet. I can’t think of a better word, but it is bittersweet. What a wonderful thing to be able to give to someone. What a wonderful resource to be able to offer through the private online Facebook group. That’s a resource that’s invaluable. It saves life. It literally is saving lives.

Can you share more about the journey you went through from believing what your church had preached, to disagreeing with it? I imagine that was not easy because it was your community.  

It was so devastating. We spent 20 years in the church and in time the church doors were open. We had relationships there that had gone through births of babies, and funerals, and really doing really good ministry inside and outside of that church, mission trips, and I mean, the church that we served was the hub of the neighborhood, the hub, you voted there and you could stay in the basement if the weather was bad. We poured ourselves, a lifeblood, into this place and I love participating in the faith, the fellowship of believers. We had relationships that were strong and long lasting until our son came out and at that time, it was devastating. We didn’t know how to have that conversation and looking back, they didn’t know how to minister to us, we didn’t know how to minister to each other because we didn’t have resources.

We had absorbed this idea that homosexuality was the ultimate of offences to the God we worshipped, and served and built our life’s morals on. When this happened and you’re hearing things like, “The gates of hell are wide open for them,” meaning the gay community. When you hear words that my son was suddenly turned over to the wilds of the enemy, language like that are… it’s just devastating. They’re debilitating. I mean, just thinking about it, it makes me tremble because I knew what they did to me… can you imagine what they did to my child?

I shamed my child with the very best of intentions. I shamed my child to have to check himself at the door in his own home. I shamed my child when he was checking himself at the door of the church and throwing out journals and losing an entire adolescence of his life from celebrating him and walking with him. Instead, I was burning sage in his room. 

I did things, I said things, I thought things that I regret. It’s the biggest regret I have and I was able to walk through those with my son. He allowed me to ask the questions. He allowed me to ask questions out of ignorance because he was confident in who he was. He had searched the heart of God, the very face of God. He searched his very soul, and so he knew where he stood with God of the universe and God seen that, seen his competence in whom he was. He feared how people would react to him, that was his only fear. He knew who he was and that helped me.

When he was able to live authentically to be himself, to thrive, he was happy and seeing him as a happy man allowed me to look past my own fears, my own ignorance if that makes sense. Seeing him live authentically and thriving was a testament to him and his own spirituality, his own faith walk, and I’m so thankful that he held onto the good things that came from church life.

Shortly after he told me, I went into a depression, I was laid up in my bed like a Saturday afternoon just depressed, discouraged, and Parker came into our bedroom, and he laid down beside me and he said, “Mom, are you going to be okay,” and I said, “Yeah. I just got to figure this out.” I was wrestling with my faith, and the law of condemnation and all those things that I thought if my son’s going to hell for being gay, then I need to stand up and fight for him like my hair is on fire and I was wondering how to do that. And he said, “I understand, but mom, try to understand this: I have sucked it up for 21 years being your son. I need you to suck it up now and be my mom,” and Nicole, that got me out a bit, that got me out of bed.

I needed permission from someone who shared my faith to say, “Sara, you got to search this matter out rather than just being spoon-fed. Why do you believe what do you believe?”

Then, I found resources. I found a safe base to resource it on the history of human sexuality. I found science that gave evidence that convinced me that it’s not a choice at all and I heard testimonies from LGBTQ Christians.       But now, through getting educated and seeing what damage has been done in the name of Christianity, in the Evangelical world, I’m standing up and fighting for my son, and for our friends like my hair is on fire, and I’m accountable to that. I’m accountable to what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard and the outcry, and I’m accountable to that.

Yeah. How would you say that your faith has now changed since going through this experience?

Well, I can tell you I know longer identify as a Christian because I feel guilty by association. I took the wooden cross down from my rearview mirror but now, I identify as a woman of faith and my faith has grown exponentially. I experience God to a much greater degree than I ever thought possible and I experience humanity.

Nicole, I can go to a drag show and I can cry hot tears when I see a beautiful expression of human sexuality that I believe is a gift, I really do. When you can see it in the eyes of love, of an expression of sexuality, it’s not perverted, it’s not offensive. Lightning didn’t strike. You now understand?

It’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful thing and a much better way to see the world. There’s no judgement.

I’m wondering since you have experience in that community and also what would be described as a more progressive community, what advice would you have to people who haven’t experienced a more conservative community around trying to communicate with them about marriage equality, or try to find a place of common ground?

Yeah. Well, I think what I’ve learned the most is that by listening to someone’s story, you can get a grasp of where they grew up, how they grew up and what kind of upbringing they had. You listen and then you validate where they grew up, what kind of things they were taught or how they were educated and depending on where they live. For example, we’re in Oklahoma. It’s a very conservative state. It’s a bible belt. I mean, it’s just… we have to take those things in.

By listening, you can gain an understanding of where they’re coming from, whoever it might be, or whatever issues they’re having, and by validating those things, then you can educate with either faith-based resources, or science or whatever it is because we have it. With today’s technology, we have everything we need to know of what we’re living in. The lives that we are living at this time in this world, we have what we need, maybe not beyond, but to correct the past.

Listen, validate and then educate. Then, to those who might be in the LGBTQ community, if you don’t have people who are supporting you, loving you, celebrating you, to find those people. If you don’t have them in your life, then you find them and that the more you know about yourself through the history of human sexuality, or evidence science, even scripturally, biblically, the more education you have on yourself, the more at peace you’ll be and the more prepared you’ll be with an answer even if it’s to yourself.

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By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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