Man Goes Viral for Giving Out Free ‘Dad Hugs’ to People Who Needed Them at Pride Parade

A father who wore a “Free Dad Hugs” T-shirt to the Pittsburgh Pride Parade described how it felt to embrace children who had been rejected by their parents.

Last year, Sara Cunningham made news by offering to be a “stand-in mom” for same-sex weddings. The response was overwhelming, and Cunningham went on to start Free Mom Hugs, an organization with local branches all around the country. As cities across the country celebrate Pride month, a father named Howie Dittman is making news for a touching post he wrote after attending the Pittsburgh Pride parade with fellow Free Mom Hugs participants who gave celebrants, well, free hugs.

On Monday, June 10, Dittman, 44, wrote on the Love What Matters Facebook page that he and several pals arrived at the march wearing T-shirts that read “Free Dad Hugs” and “Free Mom Hugs.” “We gave out hundreds of hugs,” the father of two stated. He has an 18-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son. “Hundreds. Some were extremely happy hugs. However, there were far too many people like these two. He’s referring to two hugs, which were captured in moving photographs and shared alongside the tale.

Dittman revealed that the young man he is holding in the first shot was kicked out at 19 when his parents discovered the truth. They haven’t communicated with him since. He wailed on my shoulder. Sobbed. He squeezed me with everything he had. I felt a sliver of the sorrow he carries with him every moment of the day. He was abandoned because of the person he loves. And on June 9th, 2019, he was at a love celebration when he was moved to tears by a shirt that read ‘FREE DAD HUGS’ on a complete stranger.”

He then shared that he didn’t know “the specifics” about the young woman he was hugging in the second photo. “But I know that she saw me from across the street,” he shared. “I wasn’t paying attention. By the time she got to me, she had tears in her eyes. 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. And I can’t stop thinking about her. What she must be going thru with her family… the ones who are supposed to be there for her no matter what. Who does she go to when she needs advice on love, money or just life? Who does she share old memories with that only her parents would have been there for? What are her holidays like? How often does she hope for that phone call, with unconditional love on the other end? I don’t know her story. But it doesn’t feel like a huge leap to assume she’s lost those who should love her the most and forever.”

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

The Pennsylvania father concluded with a plea for other moms and dads: “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.”

Dittman, who runs a volunteer group called Helping Butler County, dedicated to identifying needs in the community and meeting them, tells that he was inspired to attend the Pride Parade when Denna Hays, the founder of the Butler County Alliance for Children, RSVP’d to an event on their local Free Mom Hugs chapter page. “It sounded like a great way to put a smile on peoples’ faces, and I did have a suspicion that dads, in general, aren’t likely as accepting of individuals in the LGBTQ lifestyle as a mom would be,” Dittman explains to “So, I got on Amazon Prime and ordered a shirt.”

He says that following that very first hug—with the young woman in his viral photo—he says knew he wasn’t just going to be about smiles. “The way she looked at me and hugged me…it was clear there was more to it all,” he says. “From there out, it was a mix of joy and sadness from the people that I got to hug. Hugging well over 700 people, there were many who held on and didn’t want to let go. And I wasn’t going to be the first one to stop the hug. I got home and was actually pretty angry about all of it. That their parents had burdened them with that pain, just because of who they loved. As a dad, I can’t even imagine that. So, I penned that post directed at the parents from a parent.”

Wracking up over 6K shares since it was posted earlier this week, Dittman’s experience has touched a nerve with the LGBTQ community and fellow parents. A commenter named Julie Lungwitz Goodman shared that she offered hugs in Buffalo Grove, Illinois’ first Pride Parade. “There were sooo many hugs,” she wrote. “I am an ally and am willing to give that hug and shoulder.”

Another named Jordan Taylor noted, “One of the greatest hugs I have EVER received was on June 8th, 2019 from a woman in a ‘Free Mom Hugs’ shirt outside of LA Pride.”

And a mom named Elizabeth Houser Broome echoed powerful message of this dad’s experience beautifully: “Family isn’t always blood. Sometimes friends and strangers with the best intentions can be just as important. Thank y’all for giving those much needed hugs and acceptance. I’m a mom of two small kids myself. I wish I could’ve been there to hug some folks who needed them as well. And to tell people like my forever hero, Fred Rogers, used to say, ‘I like you just the way you are.’ More love, more hugs, more kindness.”

Dittman says he didn’t think anyone would actually see his post, let alone that it would go viral—and inspire 1,750 conversations he says he has now had with people responding to the post. “I’ve managed to respond to every one of them so far,” he notes. “Many of them have been heterosexual people thanking me for changing their perception. I’ve had parents write me to tell me they were one of those parents that abandoned their children, but that they’ve reached out after seeing the post and are going to try to make it right. I’ve had children of those parents, of all ages, tell me that they got phone calls from their parents for the first time in years, apologizing for not supporting them and asking to reconcile.”

He claims to have heard from “at least half a dozen people” who were intending to commit suicide but now feel hopeful as a result of his post. “I don’t know how to express how overwhelming that is,” Dittman said. “I don’t understand how something I wrote in 10 minutes can have such an impact. But, here we are. Overall, I’m pleased that the message may have influenced a few people’s perceptions of acceptance and true tolerance. I’m not a fan of labels or social categories, so we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing with Helping Butler County and meeting people’s needs simply because they’re people.”