Man Shows up to Give out Free ‘Dad Hugs’ at Pride to Anyone Whose Parents Have Deserted Them

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It’s Pride month, and across the United States, parades have been held in honor of the LGBTQIA+ community. Many of them have been grand, colorful, and for some, emotionally overwhelming. Being yourself means acknowledging, and in some instances, discarding those who don’t want you to be yourself.

Sadly, a lot of people have parents who can’t accept their kids as they are. But there are other people in the world willing to pick up that parental slack. Howie Dittman is one of those people, and his simple choice of t-shirt — one that reads “Free Dad Hugs” in the kind of big, bold letters you can see from across a parade — ended up meaning a lot to a huge number of people at Pittsburgh’s Pride event.

Read on to learn about some of the people Dittman hugged, what it might have meant to them, and how important it is for dads to be there for their kids…

We’re talking joy, appreciation, and, of course, the titular pride. Pride parades are giant, beautiful explosions of people and emotions, and we couldn’t be more glad they happen every year.

In the midst of all the positivity and support that goes on during Pride, it’s easy to forget that a celebration of LGBTQIA+ people only has to take place because of the anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiment in this country. Confronting that can lead to some uncomfortable feelings.

The first Pride parade in 1970 was more march than parade, as police had broken up a San Francisco gay club, the Stonewall Inn, a year earlier, causing the Stonewall riots. With that dark history in play, it’s easy to re-frame Pride as a necessary statement; a gay flag in the ground, stating that gay people are just that — people — and deserve to be treated as such.

If only the worst thing gay people had to put up with was a frazzled Debra Messing calling them “bad.” Unfortunately, the anti-gay sentiment is all too often much, much worse than that.

Today, there are all kinds of people at Pride. And not only is every last one of them welcomed, but they’re all actively encouraged to do their thing; to really be themselves.

The notion of being your authentic self, and then being seen by other people, is so vital. It’s really beautiful that Pride is a place where that can happen for everyone.

Identities don’t just spring up — they’re formed by the people in our lives. Poor Anakin Skywalker found that out when he got suckered to the Dark Side by Emperor Palpatine. If he hadn’t ever met that evil old dude, Anakin might be volunteering at a galactic soup kitchen to this very day.

It a parent’s job to not only model appropriate behavior to their kids, but also to love them and make them feel special. Otherwise, their kids can grow up to become big ol’ balls of anxiety. (Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.)

I mean, you know plenty of big ol’ balls of anxiety, don’t you? that comes from parenting mistakes. But even the most well-adjusted among us have inherited some kind of issue from our parents.

The one thing a parent absolutely needs to do for their child is show up. And I’m not just talking about for their baseball games — parents have to be present and engaged and really, truly there for their kids.

The phrase “my dad just stepped out for cigarettes” is now shorthand for “my dad walked out on me.” Isn’t it nuts that parents abandoning their child is so prevalent that it needed a shorthand? And it’s especially awful if that parent bounces because their child is gay.

If a parent isn’t there for their child, be it literally or even emotionally, that child will try to fill the hole they leave for the rest of their lives.

Whether it comes from a biological influence or a societal one, we all have an inherent need to feel loved and supported by our parents. It’s vital to our growth as people.

Some parents are just too caught up in their own emotional messes to be their for their kids, so it’s important to have some of that parental slack picked up by other people who care. That’s just what Howie Dittman did this past weekend.

Going to support the organization Free Mom Hugs, Dittman’s friend Denna Hays was off to Pittsburgh Pride to hug anyone who wanted one.

Because listen, when your friend tells you they’re going to a delightful rainbow parade filled with the funnest gay people in all of Pittsburgh, yeah, you’re gonna want to figure out a way to go.

Speaking about the event to BuzzFeed News, Dittman said, “I just said, ‘well I’m going to go,’ and I hopped on Amazon and grabbed a ‘free dad hugs’ T-shirt.”

It sounds like Dittman didn’t think his shirt would make much of a blip on the Pride revelers’ radars. “I just thought it would put a smile on people’s faces,” he said.

Turns out, getting dad hugs are pretty important. A lot of people, who had maybe gone years without, were craving a dad hug — according to CBS News, Dittman “received over 700 hugs in two and a half hours from individuals at the Pittsburgh Pride parade.”

In his interview with BuzzFeed News, Dittman said of his first hug, “I turned around and she’s just standing there in front of me with tears in her eyes. She just threw her arms around me and just thanked me over and over and over again.”

Soon, it began to dawn on Dittman how vital his hug services would be. Talking about his second hugger, Dittman said, “He just sobbed and sobbed and thanked us. He just melted. It was an honor to be involved in that, but it was terrible at the same time.”

I almost wish it were these people — those who needed the hugs — who were being interviewed by BuzzFeed. If they were comfortable, sharing those stories of parental neglect/ abuse/ abandonment can be incredibly helpful.

Dittman took a crack at articulating the feelings of the folks who were in need of a hug. On his Facebook page, he wrote of that first young woman, “it doesn’t feel like a huge leap to assume she’s lost those who should love her the most and forever.”

The fact that there are 700 people who needed a hug, and that so many of them were so moved they broke down in tears, shows that the Free Mom Hugs organization is doing something important.

When Dittman’s post went viral, a number of people reached out on Facebook. “I have been able to connect with the individuals from the particular post,” he said to Scary Mommy, “and have heard from many others that hugged me along the way and remembered.”

It’s hard to step into the mind of a parent who would cut out their child, but I wonder if seeing how much other children are hurting could cause some hard-line anti-gay parents to come around?

Because in his post, Dittman says it like it is.

“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,” Dittman wrote. “Think of the depths of their pain. Try to imagine how deep those cuts must be.”

I wonder if there’s something about dad hugs specifically?

Not long ago, Free Mom Hugs started gaining a little viral traction, but it does feel like Howie Dittman’s story has been much bigger, reaching even the front page of Reddit. Why is it that dad hugs are getting so much more attention?

Not to generalize, but, well, here are some generalizations: our cultural assumption is that dads are less giving; that they’re more guarded, and hard. It’s not necessarily their fault — we’ve got a BS patriarchal society pushing on us that men have to be tough and emotionless. Everyone’s dealing with it, just some better than others.

Again, think of the “my dad stepped out for cigarettes” meme — it is specifically about a dad abandoning their child, and that is a real and enormous problem. That’s why it’s so nice to see a man step out not for cigarettes, but to be there for the kids whose fathers did.