The Pittsburgh Pride Parade took place on Sunday. Howie Dittman showed up with a special mission: to give out free dad hugs to the queer community. His partner Denna Hays also attended and gave out free mom hugs.
It’s not the first time that someone has showed up in public with a “free hugs” sign. But at a queer event full of young people who’ve been abandoned by their parents for their sexuality, dad hugs and mom hugs take on a whole new meaning.
Howie estimates that he gave out over 700 hugs that day.
“Some were super happy hugs,” he wrote on Facebook.
But other hugs were profound and touching, including two hugs in particular.
“Let me tell you about these two,” Howie wrote.
The first hug was with a man who was kicked out at 19 when his parents found out that he was gay.
“They haven’t spoken to him since,” Howie wrote.
“He cried on my shoulder. Sobbed. Squeezed me with everything he had. I felt a tiny bit of that pain that he carries with him every minute of every day. He was abandoned because of who he loves. And on June 9th, 2019, he was participating in a celebration of love when he was brought to his emotional knees by a shirt that said ‘FREE DAD HUGS’ on a complete stranger.”
The other hug was from a woman. Howie doesn’t know the specifics of her story, but it was clear that she needed a hug from him in that moment.
“She saw me from across the street. I wasn’t paying attention. By the time she got to me, she had tears in her eyes,” he wrote.
“She stood in front of me and looked up at me, with a look of sadness and helplessness that I’ll never forget. She hugged me with everything she had. And I hugged her back. She held on for so long, melting into me, and thanked me endlessly.”
Howie added that he can’t stop thinking about that woman and what she must be going through with her family.
“What are her holidays like?” he wondered. “How often does she hope for that phone call, with unconditional love on the other end?”
He ended his explanation with a call to action for fellow parents.
“Imagine that your child feels SO LOST FROM YOU that they sink into the arms of a complete stranger and sob endlessly just because that stranger is wearing a shirt offering hugs from a dad. Think of the depths of their pain. Try to imagine how deep those cuts must be,” he wrote.
“Please don’t be the parent of a child that has to shoulder that burden. I met WAY too many of them, of all ages, today.”
He then offered for any of the people in these photos to reach out to him if they need a surrogate dad to talk to.
Howie’s photos ended up going incredibly viral, and the people in the photos did come across them and reach out!
“I have been able to connect with the individuals from the particular post, and have heard from many others that hugged me along the way and remembered,” Howie told Scary Mommy.
His words and actions have also resonated with many people across the world. There are over 25,000 comments on his post.
Some comments are from people who, like the people in Howie’s photos, were rejected by their family.
“I’m from Denmark and I love this so so much on so many different levels. I would have loved a free mum hug,” one commenter wrote on his post.
“Luckily I have a fantastisc stepmother who took my mothers place when she failed to be the mother I needed.”
Other comments are from parents who couldn’t fathom doing this to their own children, regardless of their sexuality.
“A parent’s love is supposed to be unconditional,” one mom wrote.
Many people were brought to tears by the post.
Amazingly, this is the first time that Howie has gone to the parade, but he has a lot of experience helping the local community in various ways through his Facebook page, Helping Butler County.
“This is the first time I’ve been able to make it to the parade,” he told Scary Mommy. “But it’s just kind of what we do.”
“We look for opportunities to change a world or two, and we do it.”