League of Women Voters

Mama Bears who hug strangers


There’s a particularly unforgettable scene in the 1994 movie Reality Bites when the tenderhearted Sammy Gray (played by Steve Zahn) rehearses for a moment he fears. He’s snagged his female best friend to rehearse, playing it like a scene out of an old film, turning from a window while calling towards some distance, “Ma! Ma!”

“I’m right here, son,” says the friend playing his mother.

“I have to tell you some [choke] thing. [pause] I am [pause] a homo [pause] sexual.” His voice cracks.

His friend, played by Janeane Garofalo, says in a stilted voice, “Is there a support group to help me come to terms with my own homophobia?” At that time in history, most LGBTQ+ faced rejection from intimate family friends. That sort of rejection persists in some pockets of culture. He and his friend take a euphoric bow toward a camera documenting their “pre-enactment.”

The movie cuts to Gray, sitting cross-legged outside his mother’s home, saying, “Well, I came out to her.” He looks over his shoulder and viewers see his mother pacing back and forth in the window, phone to her ear.

“I think the reason I’ve been celibate for so long is not because I fear the big A [AIDS] but because I can’t really start my life without being honest about who I am,” Gray says. “I mean I wanna ­— I wanna be let back into the house,” he says, covering his eyes. It’s the most devastating scene of the film, and he’s only a secondary character. It evokes the sheer desolation of being rejected by family.

A variation on that scene has repeated itself in real life over and over, like with the 15-year-old kid sitting outside the office of PRIDE Lafayette in late February. Swallowing tears, they ask when the office will open. Their parents just kicked them out and they need a place to stay and some food. True story.

In the film, the answer to Gray’s fictional mother about a support group is PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gay, an organization founded in 1973 by a mother and her gay son. It’s one of many organizations founded by parents of LGBTQ people; in its company are Mama Bears, a support organization connecting parents via the internet, and Free Mom Hugs, a volunteer organization present at most of the Pride events around the country in June.

Heidi Buffenbarger found her way to the Fort Wayne Chapter of Free Mom Hugs via Mama Bears after her oldest came to her as non-binary. Instead of fear and distance, Buffenbarger paused and decided she needed “to understand what the heck that meant because it’s a little different from saying lesbian or bisexual.” Very soon, she connected with Mama Bears, an organization founded in 2014 by Liz Dyer, a mother who wanted to make a kinder, safer, more loving place for all LGBTQ+ people, including her children.

Buffenbarger is a Christian and a nurse. Her family had been attending a non-denominational church that had preached acceptance of everyone and leading everyone to Christ. Confident her congregation was about love and acceptance, she thought that when her leadership baptized a lesbian couple shortly before her child came out, it was a safe and affirming place for all.

Then COVID happened, which marked when everything seemed polarized. As she researched her child’s identity, she also read sermons and theology that bolstered affirmation. And yet, in a discussion with leaders from her church, she learned that after the baptism, the couple had been asked to separate.

“That to me is not the love of Christ at all. So I dove deeper into the issue.” As a nurse, she focused on the science of how hormones, neurotransmitters, and other influences on human identity had shaped her children, as well as others.

Fortunately, when Alyx, Buffenbarger’s oldest, came out to the entire family — and though the grandparents didn’t fully comprehend what it meant — no one was hateful or turned them away. (They/them are the pronouns most often used by non-binary people, who identify neither as male or female.)

“I think as a parent, you are accepting and understanding of your child. The hardest step after that is just the fear that you have, what your child is going to go through growing up and going through life because there are so many people out there that aren’t going to accept this part of them, and even more than that, they could be hateful. Life is hard enough without that extra layer,” Buffenbarger said.

She found Mama Bears supported her and other parents. Often parents like her live in communities where families cannot share pictures, talk freely about why they love and accept their LGBTQ+ family member. They cannot use the correct pronouns nor talk about how happy they are that someone met the love of their life.

As Buffenbarger’s second child matured, they first thought they were attracted to the same sex and later realized they might have another gender identity. Meanwhile, Mama Bears led her Free Mom Hugs, an organization that believes that broken family relationships can be restored so they show up to display love for the LGBTQ+ community, so that family members are empowered to do the same. Free Mom Hugs had called for volunteers to attend Pride events around the state, setting up booths to educate and to do just what their title suggests ­— hug. She’d never attended a Pride event, but found herself leading the Free Mom Hugs booth, setting up and tearing down, and doing most of all hugging, not her natural state.

“I’m actually not a hugger, by nature, right? In my family, you don’t you don’t have emotions. Those are things that you’re allowed to have. So I don’t deal with other people’s emotions well, but when it came to this, it was just so different because I saw myself and my kids in all the faces of the people. They just want a hug to know that somebody still loves them and cares. I can put myself in their shoes. I can’t imagine my kids going through life. Not getting a hug from me,” Buffenbarger said.

Not all who come up for hug have family that rejected them. “Maybe they’d had an affirming parent and that parent died. Or that parent was far away and they don’t get to feel their embrace. So, you know, we get a little bit of everything at the booth.”

In Fort Wayne, Free Mom Hugs sets up at the entrance of the Pride festival so they stand as a shield with their message of acceptance for anyone who enters.

At one event, Buffenbarger brought her eldest, Alyx, with her. It was the first time for Alyx and a mom with two kids approached. One of the kids took to Alyx and for the first time, she saw her child in their element, answering questions and imparting wisdom. Then she saw it could be alright.

“I was really worried that after high school they were just going to live in my basement and never come out. They came out of their shell a little bit when they finally told us who they are. That was step one for them. Then they found a college that is accepting and affirming. They had a summer job right before college at our local library. That summer they just they found their people and figured out that’s what they wanted to do with the rest of their life. So they went to college to work on a degree in library science, where they got connected with even more people who are affirming and love them. And now we’ve got one more year of college before graduating a year early.”

As state chapter leader of Free Mom Hugs, Buffenbarger now shows up to Pride events all over the state. She still encounters people who cling to firm beliefs that gender identity or sexual orientation is not a thing. She’s willing to engage with them, but “if they are going to hurt me and not going to change my mind, if they are not willing to learn, then I walk away.” But, she said, “if they have a different point of view and will listen, then I will talk, Even if they still differ, at least I gave them something to think about.”

Buffenbarger along her fellow huggers and Mama Bears exist so that anyone who finds themselves locked out of family find someone else to assure them of their dignity and value.


The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.