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Sara Cunningham was born and raised in Oklahoma City in a working-class family with four brothers and sisters. She was the social butterfly of the family, or as her mother liked to call her, "the Goose."
"I think she knew I had this knack for sticking my nose in everyone’s business," said Sara. "I always wanted to know if everyone was all right [and] where everybody was."
She dreamed of the day she would leave Oklahoma behind for some place bigger, less landlocked, and with more people. Maybe California.
“I remember in my teens begging my mother to not let me be buried in Oklahoma," said Sara. "But as I’ve grown older, I’ve grown to really appreciate the sense of community here."
That sense of community has kept the now-55-year-old Sara in Oklahoma her whole life. She married there at 22 and began to raise her own family. She wanted her two boys, Travis and Parker Cunningham, to love the same evangelical Christian community she did.
"I loved church life," said Sara. "We were there every time the church doors were open, and the boys were happy to go."
'A Fine Young Man'
Little by little, Sara started noticing things about her younger son, Parker, that concerned her. He grew more quiet and reserved and tended to spend a lot of time alone. One moment that sticks out in Sara’s mind was when Parker was 5 years old and came downstairs wearing one of Sara's dresses, dancing ecstatically.
"We were all taken back by his energy and to see his sheer excitement in that moment," recalled Sara. "That was my first glimpse of like ... that’s different."
Sara says ever since then, she tried to control Parker's behavior. For example, on shopping trips, she would steer him toward more masculine clothes or toys. She forced him to join Cub Scouts.
"I just tried to make Parker a fine young man, very masculine," said Sara.
Instead, Parker became shy and anxious. He struggled to speak openly to his mother about issues he was having at school, and other things, too.
Finally, when he turned 21, Parker told his mother a truth he had only hinted at before: he is gay.
"I just remember that I had to face reality in that moment, in that hour, that I have a gay child," said Sara. "I worried about his salvation. I truly believed that my son was going to hell. I really did."
'Alienated From The Congregation'
Sara spiraled into a depression and when she tried to talk to her friends at church about it, the conversations were awkward. She felt isolated.
"It was painful. We all just became alienated from the congregation," said Sara. "So before long, we just quit going."
There were days when Sara couldn’t get out of bed.
"I’ve heard it said that when a gay child comes out of their closet, the parents often go into theirs and that’s true," she said.
On one of those days, Parker came into her room to ask if she was OK. But what he said next is etched into Sara's memory.
"He said, ‘I need you to understand that I have sucked it up for 21 years being your son, and I need you to suck it up now and be my mom.' ”
That moment motivated Sara to do some soul-searching and research. She began a journey that would change her life forever.
'So Close For Your Entire Life'
Not far from Sara, in neighboring Arkansas, Tabatha Cash was growing up in similar circumstances. On Thanksgiving 2017, the love of her life, her girlfriend, Marlee Castillo, proposed to her.
"So at first it was really, really, really exciting, and then it set in to me about telling my mom and my family," said Tabatha.
Tabatha worried about how her family might react. They were Southern Baptists with strict views against same-sex relationships. Tabatha was close to her four siblings and spoke to her mother almost every day. She didn’t want any of that to change, but she also knew she couldn’t keep her relationship with Marlee a secret.
"So I didn’t know how to marry her and be as happy as I was right then," said Tabatha. "When we told my mom about the engagement ... it turned into this awkwardness after you were so close for your entire life."
Still, the couple continued to plan their wedding. Tabatha’s fiance, Marlee, asked a close family friend to officiate it. That friend was Sara Cunningham from Oklahoma.
By that time, Sara, the same woman who struggled after her own son came out, had become what she calls an “accidental activist.”
She had joined a group for moms with LGBTQ kids called Free Mom Hugs a few years before, and even became an officiant so she could preside over same-sex weddings.
Tabatha remembers the first time she met Sara at a get-together in Arkansas.
"I think we connected because I feel like I saw what I want my mom to be in her," said Tabatha.
Instead of officiating the wedding, Tabatha asked Sara if she would be her stand-in mother. Sara said yes.
On Sept. 1, 2018, Sara stuck by Tabatha's side on her big day. She helped her put on her white dress and made her bouquet.
"It was bittersweet. I felt for Tabatha," said Sara. "She enjoyed the day. She felt honored and celebrated but by the same token, her mother was not there."
Tabatha and her now-wife Marlee say Sara's role as a stand-in mom was so much more than arranging the flowers and helping with the decorations. As a mother who had to come to terms with her own son’s sexuality, she brought a special kind of support Tabatha really needed.
"Sara always gives me hope for my own family," said Tabatha. "The fact that she has experienced it, and experienced every bit of the feelings that my mom is probably going through gives me hope, because she figured out a way to make it all work."
Sara says there are so many moments she regrets not being there for her son when he really needed her. But she’s here now and wants to help others in the gay community who are struggling with rejection from their families.
Sara now volunteers to go to other same-sex weddings if the biological parents refuse to attend. She’s there as a stand-in mom, and as a symbol of how a deep, unconditional love can change everything.
This segment aired on May 2, 2019.
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