Location: Charlotte, North Carolina
One of my proudest parenting moments was when Noah, all of six years old, stood on the edge of the sandbox at Davie Park and announced that his mommy said he could love whoever he wants! What precipitated this announcement was a group of older boys telling him that boys could only love girls. Noah, distraught that this meant he couldn’t love his dad, had come back to find me (pushing his sisters on the swings) to see if that was true. I explained to him that they were talking about a different kind of love than the one he felt for his dad, but even so, they were totally wrong. So Noah marched back and proclaimed himself free to be whatever and love whoever he wanted.
Walking around Charlotte’s Pride Festival and Parade this past weekend, I couldn’t help but marvel at how much has changed since we first moved to North Carolina twenty years ago. Never would we have observed such a vibrant scene uptown, with tens of thousands of people parading down North Tryon Street in every imaginable kind of outfit and proudly and defiantly proclaiming their right to be and love whoever the hell they want. Those sandbox boys are still out there, and some of them were even at the Pride Festival, trying to get people to repent and find their version of Jesus who somehow is not okay with loving everyone. But they were drowned out by the swarms of folks expressing acceptance and love.
We still have a long way to go, and I know there are people who suffer tremendous discrimination and fear just for being who they are. It is incomprehensible to me that people feel so strongly about curtailing someone else’s rights when those rights have no bearing on how they live their lives. I get the concept of secondhand smoke from folks exerting their right to light up next to me. But someone being queer or transgender next door to me? I just don’t see how that could possibly be something that is hurtful or threatening to me. And when it is your own child, and you can’t find a way to see the individual you raised and loved over your own homophobia? Disgraceful.
It is no wonder, then, that my favorite group at the Pride Festival was the joyful and enthusiastic collection of men and women promising free hugs to anyone who needs them. This wasn’t just a ragtag group of friendly huggers. They are part of a national organization, FreeMomHugs.org, that was initiated a year ago in Oklahoma. Tracy Edmoondson, who heads the Charlotte chapter that was started three months ago and already has over 300 members, says that the group’s mission is to “offer hugs as a way of communicating affirmation, acceptance, and love.” The group attends events throughout the community where people in need could use some support and to know that people care about them. They also provide other kinds of assistance to the LGBTQ community, like serving as stand-ins at weddings. I was delighted to learn after the fact that I know some of the huggers, who posted on Facebook about how much they enjoyed the experience.
Like many of the parents who have joined FreeMomHugs.org, Tracy and her husband have a child who is a member of the LGBTQ community. “It was a no brainer to support people whose families are not affirming,” Tracy says. She says that many of the people seeking hugs during Charlotte’s Pride Festival were shunned by their own families. “One woman got a dad hug,” Tracy says, “because her own father had recently died and she told us he was the only person in her life who affirmed and supported her.” Another woman, dressed in a Free Hugs t-shirt and sporting a colorful rainbow tutu, described herself as “just an ally.” She has a lot of friends who are gay and she says the discrimination they endure, especially within their own families, breaks her heart. One young woman stopped by for hugs because her parents, who haven’t talked to her in three years, hate her.
Many of the huggers were jovial attendees who enjoyed the novelty of a free hug and moved on. But it is clear from talking to the folks doling out the hugs that some of the hugs were poignant and needed reminders that the recipients craved, vital confirmations that people do care about those receiving the hugs. And I am so glad there are good people who want to make sure folks who are marginalized and struggling get the support they need. The help they offer is not limited to hugs – they also work with other local and national organizations to assist with moving expenses, temporary housing, and other needs stemming from discrimination and marginalization – but the hugs are often what starts off the relationship.
I appreciate that these kind and wonderful people are looking out for other kids, not just their own. I hope we will continue to progress on this issue – look how far we have come with gay marriage! – so that this kind of advocacy and support will no longer be needed. But while it is, yay for free hugs! This is definitely the kind in humankind I am delighted to showcase and share.
For more information or to volunteer and join the huggers, visit www.freemomhugs.org.