Last week at the Pittsburgh Pride Parade, a handful of people wore t-shirts saying ‘free dad hugs’ and ‘free mum hugs’.
Throughout the day, they gave hundreds of hugs to support, welcome and share a poignant moment with members of the LGBTQ+ community.
One Pensylvania father was particularly touched by some of the people he embraced. Howie Dittman didn’t expect the small gesture to have such a huge impact as he hugged those that had been rejected by their own families.
The-dad-of two was captured hugging a young woman in her 20s and a man in his 50s in such a tight embrace that the sweet picture quickly went viral.
On Facebook, Howie decided to address all parents and ask them to look introspectively at the way they love their children, especially those that are different.
‘Imagine that, 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,’ he wrote.
‘Think of the depths of their pain. Try to imagine how deep those cuts must be.
Howie’s words and pictures resonated with almost 300,000 people.
The dad attended the Pride Parade with his friend Denna Hays who wore the slogan t-shirt as part of LGBT charity Free Mom Hugs which offers free hugs at Pride-related events. He revealed that the man he was pictured hugging in the image hadn’t spoken to his parents in 30 years after being kicked out at 19 because of ‘who he loves’.
Howie added: ‘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, 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.’
Though he didn’t know much about the young woman, Howie could feel her pain through the intensity with which she hugged him.
‘It doesn’t feel like a huge leap to assume she’s lost those who should love her the most and forever,’ he wrote. In his Facebook post, he urged parents to do better, writing: ‘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. ‘And if by chance anyone knows these folks, please let them know they can reach out any time they need a surrogate dad to talk to. I’ll be there.’
Since the post, Howie’s been inundated with messages from people all over the world, showing support, sharing their own stories of abandonment.
He said it was humbling and sad and he wished it wasn’t necessary.