Gay Mormon author, brother of an apostle, builds bridges between the LDS and LGBTQ communities

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L to R: Tom Christofferson, Jana Riess, and Lauren Neaves, Affirmation conference, September 23, 2017. Photo courtesy of Lauren Neaves.

 

It’s hard to walk through an Affirmation conference with Tom Christofferson, because every other person wants to chat and give him a hug. He’s just that guy, and he makes time for everyone. There’s something special about him.

So I was grateful for the chance to have lunch with Tom a couple of weeks ago to discuss his new book, That We May Be One: A Gay Mormon’s Perspective on Faith and Family (Deseret Book, Sept. 25).

Some Mormons already know the basic outline of this story: the younger brother of LDS apostle D. Todd Christofferson, Tom returned to the LDS Church three years ago after years of attending his local ward as a non-member. I asked him about faith and family, the two main topics of his book.

P.S. TONIGHT, there is a special event with Tom at the University of Utah; scroll down to the bottom of the interview for details. –JKR

RNS: Your family’s story has been mentioned at General Conference.

Christofferson: When he was called as an apostle, he mentioned that all of his brothers and their spouses were in the audience at General Conference. And there’s a mention of it in the book. That was such an example of his graciousness, that even though my partner and I were not married, that we felt included.

And that was very much the way that my family had always treated us, that we were always included in everything. For example, at Mom and Dad’s 60th wedding anniversary, we had a dinner where it was just the five brothers and their spouses, and we had a picture taken that night of the 12 of us that was blown up to a very large size and was over the fireplace for the rest of their lives. Mom and Dad were always so proud of their five boys, and it was obvious in that photo that there were six boys. It seemed to me that they were never embarrassed about me or my partner.

Several people have told me that on visits to my parents’ house, it gave them such courage and reinforcement to see that picture in such a prominent place, especially if they had LGBT kids themselves.

RNS: Why did you decide to write the book?

Christofferson: It really was that I felt that the way my parents and family had responded, and created a focus on unity and loyalty and love, was something that could be helpful to others. Not that everybody needs to do it in the same way, but that the idea could stimulate other ideas.

The same is true for my ward in New Canaan. Their way of being able to accept me and welcome me was a wonderful example of what wards could do. Knowing of that ward’s example and experience could be interesting and helpful to other wards that want to be welcoming but don’t know how to do it.

I also felt that we could have a better conversation than we’ve been having with the far ends on either side at war with each other. There’s a productive conversation that can be had in the middle, about discipleship. People who aspire to become a Zion community can take the Lord unto his word that all are alike unto him, and we can learn together how to put that into practice.

RNS: Describe the book’s approach, how you mix personal stories with larger issues.

Christofferson: It was never intended to be an autobiography. Rather, I wanted to share lessons my family and I learned, and lessons my ward and I learned. So my story is a way of linking those lessons.

I begin by saying that at age 5, I had a sense that there was something different about me than my four older brothers, but I didn’t really have the language to explain what that was. As a preteen, maybe 12 years old, a kid called me a homo. So I went to the library and looked in the giant Oxford dictionary to see what that word was. And I said, “Wow, I guess he’s right. I am a homo.”

RNS: So that’s how you learned the language about being gay?

Christofferson: Yes. And the funny thing is that that summer afterward was the summer of the Stonewall Riots. We took Time magazine at home, and I remember the coverage in Time. It was not complementary or openhearted, but fairly snide about these “cross-dressers,” at least as I recall it. My reaction when I figured it all out was that I never wanted to have to tell this to anyone, what I had learned about myself.

And so then it became a massive effort in prayer and fasting, trying to be the best little Mormon boy I could, to try to earn a miracle. What I was essentially saying was “Please kill the spirit that is in my body, and put a new one in.” But that’s not how I thought about it at the time. Then, my thought was essentially, “Please take this away. Cure me.”

RNS: How old were you when you did come out?

Christofferson: 26. I had gone on a mission, and thought that if I really tried to do my very best as a missionary, God would take this attraction away. That a miracle would happen. I loved my mission in Montreal, loved my mission presidents Wayne and Marlene Owens, loved the people. And I never experienced the turmoil over being gay on my mission. It wasn’t something that was going on, so I thought, honestly, that this deal I’d made with God had been honored. Then I got home and within a week I was stunned to discover I was still gay. Clearly this “deal” I had made with God was not a deal he had made with me.

RNS: Who did you tell first?

Christofferson: My brother Greg. I had married a woman for a brief period in the temple, and as that marriage was coming to its conclusion, I went to see Greg and I told him that my wife and I were separating, and why. And he and I talked about the best way to tell Mom and Dad. I called my parents and told them my wife and I were separating, and why: “I guess because I’m gay.” There was silence on the other end of the line, and then my mom said, “Well, I guess we’ve always known.” And I thought, “Well, why the heck didn’t we talk about this?” This was 1985 or 86.

RNS: As I do interviews for the Next Mormons book, I’ve been struck by how many people who are having a crisis of some kind (whether it’s a faith crisis in general or specifically about sexuality) talk to their siblings first.

Christofferson: Certainly in my case, and in the case for many, when your parents are devout and active Christians, this is not news they’re quite ready to hear. It was very hard for them at the beginning. My dad thought he had done something wrong, that because his business travel was extensive, he had not been home enough to give me a strong male role model. And their first instinct was to fix it, so every fast Sunday they would fast and ask the rest of the family to join them in asking that this be taken away.

One helpful thing was that my brother Greg was a close friend of the man who was the head of LDS Social Services in Southern California. So he talked to his friend and said, “Who is the best counselor you have, that can help Tom fix this?”

And this fellow said to Greg, “I think I have counseled at least 400 returned missionaries whose greatest desire is to be able to continue in the church. There’s no group that tries harder. But the number of people who have been able to successfully marry a person of the opposite sex and feel like their attractions diminish or disappear is tiny, and I think they were bisexual to begin with.” And that information from somebody he trusted helped Greg and helped my parents to feel that there wasn’t going to be a cure.

RNS: How were your family relationships?

Christofferson: So about 2 years after I came out we were having a family reunion, and as we gathered one night after the grandkids had been put to bed, we had a family prayer.

And my dad said he thought the most important thing we could do was remain loyal to each other and united as a family. And then my mom said, “I’m embarrassed to say that when you boys were little, I thought we were the perfect Mormon family. I thought we had it all figured out. But life happens, and I’ve discovered that not only is there no perfect Mormon family, there is no perfect family. But I do believe we can be perfect in loving each other.”

And then she turned to my brothers and their wives and said, “The most important lesson that your children will learn from the way our family treats their Uncle Tom is that nothing they can ever do will take them outside the circle of our family’s love.”

RNS: Wow.

Christofferson: And that really laid the groundwork for the rest of our engagement as a family, that we were going to be loyal, united, and unqualified in our love for each other. I really do believe that they sought inspiration for how to guide their family, and they received it. Their approach meant that there were no barriers I ever had to overcome.

So when my partner and I got together, that was the environment. They were ready to love him and include him and he was the easiest person in the world to love. And those relationships really grew. He had a special place in his heart for my parents, and they truly loved him.

RNS: Tell me about your decision to start coming back to church.

Christofferson: It was a gradual process of feeling that despite a happy and satisfying life, with our enjoyment of each other as a couple and lots of professional opportunities, there was something missing. A deeper meaning and spirituality.

When I had asked to be excommunicated and left the church immediately after ending my marriage, it wasn’t because I didn’t believe the things I had before. I had a strong belief in Jesus Christ and the Book of Mormon, but I couldn’t see a place for myself as a gay man in the LDS Church. So I needed to begin the journey of finding out what it meant to be gay.

Over time, the desire grew to have that stronger spiritual component in my life. At a certain point, my partner was doing his medical residency, and we moved to New Canaan, CT. I knew there was a ward there, and I started to attend. But I would sneak in a few minutes after sacrament meeting had begun, and leave right after the closing prayer. I had been paying fast offerings, and I put a note in with my offering [asking] to meet with the bishop, who suggested we meet tomorrow night.

I told him, “My partner and I have been together for about 12 years. We have a faithful, monogamous relationship, and I don’t see that changing. Would I be welcome to worship in your ward as a gay man who is in a committed relationship?”

He had been called as bishop just a few months earlier. And he had also just had a career change, where he was responsible for human resources for Goldman Sachs, including the diversity group. So when I asked the question, his instant response was “Absolutely, and please bring your partner. Our focus as a ward is how we can become more diligent and effective disciples of the Savior, and in that effort, all are needed.”

So that began a seven-year journey of feeling the Spirit and wanting to feel it more consistently, more strongly. Over time I started attending more church meetings. But I had always assumed that I would be the most active non-member of the ward, and that was all I would ever be, because my partner and I had made commitments to each other that I felt precluded me from making other commitments.

But about 5 years down the road I had such a strong desire to be a full member of the church, and go to the temple, and do everything I could. I talked with my partner, and began to do the necessary things to make that a possibility. My partner and I had become acquainted socially with the stake president and his wife, and he asked if my partner would be open to coming in to visit him in his office at the church. My partner agreed. So the president explained to him about our views of baptism and the ordinance of salvation, about why this mattered so much to me. “But how do you feel?” he asked my partner.

Among my partner’s many good qualities is honesty. “He’s been baptized once, and I don’t understand why that’s not enough,” he said. “Or why a bunch of men get to sit down and decide whether he’s good enough to be a Mormon. Also, the church talks a lot about families, and for our little family of two, I think you should be doing things that support us, not breaking us apart.”

So the president asked me to join them and said that they’d had the conversation. And he said, “I don’t think you should be baptized, and I don’t want to set a date for us to talk about it again.” He told the two of us to go and talk about it together, which was a beautiful way of being respectful of our relationship and the commitments we had made to each other. So over the better part of the next year, we talked about it from time to time, and at a certain point my partner said, “I think you should do what you think is the right thing for you, and then I’ll have to do what I think is best for me.” That was such an example of his selflessness and love.

I was baptized within a couple months of that, and my hope had been that my partner and I could continue the emotional connection that had become such an important part of my life, while also allowing myself to progress as a disciple of Christ. But after about six months my partner felt that this really was not a path of happiness for him, and then it became my turn to show my love for him in honoring what he thought was best. I was baptized in October of 2014, and we moved apart in April of 2015.

RNS: Any final thoughts?

Christofferson: I really feel like we’re at a moment where the conversation, a new conversation, can take place. More and more members of the church are making it a matter of prayer that the Lord will give us further light and knowledge on this topic, and our hearts would be prepared for that light. I think leaders of the church all over the world are asking to hear what the Lord might say. For a community that desires to be of one heart and one mind, my prayer is that we will find greater knowledge and be given an opportunity to put those desires for unity and love into action.

 

 

FREE EVENT TONIGHT WITH TOM CHRISTOFFERSON AND OTHERS

Thursday, October 5, 7 p.m.

Libby Gardner Concert Hall, 1375 Presidents Circle in Salt Lake City.

Sheri Dew will moderate a conversation between Tom and his former bishop and stake president in Connecticut.