Scott Dittman — better known to his friends as Howie — says he doesn't wake up in the morning thinking of himself as an LGBT ally. But, last weekend, he still made a big impact.
Dittman, 44, heard his friend Denna was heading to Pittsburgh Pride with Free Mom Hugs, an organization that assists LGBT people and also provides hugs at Pride events.
"And I just said, 'well I’m going to go,' and I hopped on Amazon and grabbed a 'free dad hugs' T-shirt," he told BuzzFeed News. "I just thought it would put a smile on people’s faces."
What he didn't expect was just how big an effect it had, not only on Pride attendees, but on himself.
The first person to hug him was this young woman on the right.
"I turned around and she’s just standing there in front of me with tears in her eyes," said Dittman.
"She just threw her arms around me and just thanked me over and over and over again," he said.
The second big moment was the man on the left. He told Dittman he was abandoned by his parents when he came out at 19.
"He just sobbed and sobbed and thanked us," said Dittman. "He just melted. It was an honor to be involved in that, but it was terrible at the same time."
He said there were all kinds of hugs that day — happy ones, ones with tears, ones full of joy. He could just tell that when people saw him, a switch would flip.
"You could tell they hadn’t had something as simple as a hug from their dad in a long time," he said. "That broke my heart."
When he got back home, he felt angry that so many of the people he hugged were carrying around so much hurt. That's when he decided to post about the experience on Facebook.
"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."
But it didn't stop there. Dittman said he's received over 1,500 messages from strangers. Some are people whose parents don't accept them, and some are those parents themselves.
"I’ve had so many parents reach out to me saying they’ve been crying for days, saying they’ve been those parents, and they’ve reached out to their children they haven’t talked to in years," said Dittman.
"How do even describe that?" he said. "How do you even describe the feeling that gives you?"