Tom Christofferson Answers What Brings Him Strength as a Gay Latter-day Saint, How We Can Support LGBTQ Loved Ones + More

"What are some concrete ways members of our church can be more accepting of those who do not share our beliefs?"

Questions like this, and many others regarding our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, are often asked by Latter-day Saints. 

And during a live Q&A with LDS Living Book Club, Latter-day Saint Tom Christofferson, author and founding board member of the LGBTQ support group Encircle, addressed a few of these questions.

Members from all over the world submitted questions for Christofferson, a gay, active member of the Church, and we wanted to share his responses with you. 

1. "What are some concrete ways members of our church can be more accepting of those who do not share our beliefs?" —Jane Clayson Johnson, author of Silent Souls Weeping: Depression—Sharing Stories, Finding Hope

"What I really want to say here is that I hope we find lots of ways to make common cause with people," Christofferson began. "Whatever we may see differently, all of us are united and trying to make the world a better place."

One such commonality Christofferson mentions in the video is a desire to serve others, even if they may have differing views. 

To illustrate, Christofferson shares an opportunity he had to work with Catholic Charities at the MANA House, a peer-support organization for homeless and formerly homeless veterans. 

"And [at the MANA House] I have an opportunity to volunteer with people not of our faith," Christofferson shares. "I love that, to just get to know people and find the things that we have in common as we're trying to help make the world better for people who've done so much for us.

"So I think in all of this, you don't have to agree on everything. You can see the world very differently, and so we find things that will help us want to reach out in friendship and love."

2. "I have two sons who are gay. When my first son came out, he expressed a concern that he felt a lack of hope for his future. Did you experience this lack of hope? And if so, how did you combat it?" —Maureen

Though Christofferson shared in his response to this question that he didn't feel a lack of hope when he came out, he did have his own struggles. 

"In the early years, my whole attempt was to fast and pray that somehow God was going to change this," he says, "and that this reality in my life would be somehow different when I came home from my mission, or whatever it would be. And that obviously didn't happen."

Christofferson says his journey then became one of finding a place to belong. And during this journey, it can be easy for LGBTQ members to lose hope when a place of belonging doesn't seem to exist—like when friends at church abandon LGBTQ members, when family members are no longer loving or engaged, or when people at school go from friends to bullies. It's moments like these where others can truly make a difference and restore lost hope. 

"The good news about that is that's a place that we can step in and ensure that no one feels that they're about to fall," Christofferson says, "that they're left without resources in the world."

3. "How do I respond to people who mischaracterize and misunderstand homosexuality, either in the Church or outside the Church, in a way that feels hurtful and diminishing. How do we respond to that?" —Larry

Though it can be difficult to respond to situations where people mischaracterize or misunderstand homosexuality, Christofferson shared his insights on what we can do to help others understand.

"We start off from a point of view that if we would like to receive respect, we have to give it," Christofferson says. "When we want to be able to share the experiences of our lives and here information that we gain, it means we also want to create an open conversation with someone that they would be free to share their experiences and the questions they have, that we can talk together openly."

As for those who misunderstand homosexuality, Christofferson shares that their intentions may not always be malicious. 

"You know, most people aren't trying to divert; they're simply lacking information or experience," he continues. "And so we are kind and patient, and we will have a lot of opportunities to be able to share what we've learned and to share what we hope other people will come to understand about us and what we would hope they want to be able to share with us that we would understand about them."

4. "What are the three most critical behaviors family members and friends can do to support their LGBTQ loved ones?" —Kate

Using a line from Richard Ostler, Christofferson gave three ways we can support LGBTQ loved ones: "Love, listen, and learn." 

Christofferson shares that these three behaviors have had a huge impact on his life. In fact, one of the reasons he feels he has been so blessed on his journey is because he knew his parents' love for him was "unqualified."

"There wasn't anything I was going to tell them that would cause them to say, 'Oh no, we don't want you,'" Christofferson says. "And I hope that that's the feeling that everyone would have in their family."

But listening and learning aren't always easy. 

 "There's a lot of extra sensitivity kind of waiting to be offended in some way," he says. "It's listening with openness and trust and love."

5. "What are the critical behaviors or beliefs that help LGBTQ members stay in the Church?"—Kate

For one of the final questions in the video, Christofferson shares valuable and profound insight about what can help LGBTQ members stay in the Church. 

"The most critical teaching of our gospel is Jesus Christ," Christofferson shares, "that He was born and lived and atoned for sins, was killed and resurrected and lives today. . . . Everything in our lives is centered on that truth, that Jesus is real, that He knows us and we can know Him. Everything else can come in second place."

6. "How have your thoughts and emotions been strengthened by the Atonement?"—Giovanni

In response to a question about how he has been strengthened by the Atonement, Christofferson shared:

"In the early days of my coming back to church, I feel like I really did not understand Jesus's Atonement in the sense that I wanted to. I didn't understand how it worked. And then I came to the question that really came to become important to me, which was, 'Why? Why? Why was He willing to do this?' And through experiences, I came to feel that the greatest gift that we will ever be given is purely a gift of love—that it represents His love for His Father and His love for us. And in that love, I find enormous power and peace and hope and a challenge to do more—that my heart can be changed to be like His. There are so many ways I can be better than I am. This is a long journey. But the thing that gives me hope and strength to continue that journey is that constant sense of His awareness and love—that He is there with me, and each step of that process I'm willing to invite Him into it."

In response to the final question, Christofferson recognized, "There are all sorts of places where we can either sort of ignore people who don't agree with us or we can engage. . . . In those ways to engage, we make it possible for us to feel the Savior's love and to bring that love to other people . . . that you would be a missionary in that sense or an ambassador of Him to someone who needs to know His reality and His love."

See the video and full transcript of the video below


In That We May Be One, Tom Christofferson shares perspectives gained from his life's journey as a gay man who left The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and then returned to it. After having asked to be excommunicated from the faith he was raised in, Tom spent two decades in a loving relationship with a committed partner. But gradually, the love of family, friends, and strangers and the Spirit of the Lord worked on him until he found himself one night sitting in his car in front of the bishop's house.


Video Transcript

The following has been edited for clarity.

Colin Rivera: Tom Christofferson has spent his career in investment management and asset servicing, living in the US and Europe. He served as a director of corporate and nonprofit boards and was a founding board member of Encircle, a group providing resources to support LGBTQ individuals and their families in Provo, Utah, and now in Salt Lake as well. Tom is an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and serves as an Elder's quorum instructor in his Mesa, Arizona, ward. Please welcome Tom Christofferson. Anything you'd like to say before we get started?

Tom Christofferson: With the high-tech cameras that you see we're being simulcast on Facebook and Instagram, but what people online don't realize is that everyone who's sitting here is actually waiting for the cookies in the other part of the store, and they're just waiting for their cookie to come out. We appreciate you sitting here to wait.

Colin Rivera: Thanks to everyone who's tuning in on the LDS Living Facebook and Instagram pages. Okay, let's get started. So this first question is from Patty, who submitted this question by our Instagram page and she said, "Is it really possible for a young, gay, faithful church member to be happy without a partner?"

Tom Christofferson: We're starting with the easy questions first. I think the answer to that is an individual one, and one I think that is guided by the Spirit for each individual as they look at their life and their circumstances and figure out what's going to be the healthiest and happiest life that they pursue. And for the rest of us, the question is, how can we make sure that we are loving and helping everyone to stay engaged in our families and stay engaged in our ward families, regardless of what they think is the best course for them at this moment in time along their journey. And so I hope that's the response that people get—whatever decision they feel is right at that point—that they know their families and ward families are supporting them. 

Colin Rivera: Thank you. The second question is from Cecily on Instagram. And she said, "I love, in your daily bread chapter, how you talk about waiting for the day of decision and how we don't need to address everything right now—that we can wait, and we can let the Spirit continue to teach us and lead us day by day. But I wonder, if I see signs in my children of this kind of struggle, do I guide them early to find mentors and support? Or do I leave it entirely in their court? I know this is where I would need to rely on the Spirit to guide me. But I'm curious about your thoughts on this issue."

Tom Christofferson: So from one of the world's great procrastinators, I have found a reason why they procrastinate to make a decision. But you know, the idea really is that at 14, when a kid comes out, and the most common age now is between 12 to 14 for kids to come out, they don't need to decide that day who they're going to marry. You know that there's time between age 14 and 24, whatever it is, to prepare to have all the resources and tools and experiences that would help an individual make the best decision that they can. And I think, from the perspective of a parent, we wouldn't suddenly abandon a 14-year-old to their own devices. I think it is really good to help them have the spiritual maturation and access to understanding of their circumstance to know people who are ahead of them in the journey and people who could be mentors and friends. And the key is to encourage them to be a part of everything that they can be as they grow up and make their decisions. 

Colin Rivera: Talking about inclusion, this question was submitted by Jane Clayson Johnson, another author here. And she asks, "What are some concrete ways members of our church can be more accepting of those who do not share our beliefs while still maintaining strong what we believe in, with many people that don't believe way we do." So how can we be more accepting?

Tom Christofferson: So we are definitely outnumbered. And Jane's book, if you haven't read it, is here. It is here and called Silent Souls Weeping. And it's really phenomenal in terms of helping all of us understand the experiences of people with depression and anxiety. So highly recommend it. And I guess when you choose her book, I will submit a question for her.

What I really want to say here is that I hope we find lots of ways to make common cause with people. Whatever we may see differently, all of us were united and trying to make the world a better place—trying to create an environment for kids to grow up healthy and happy and fulfill their dreams and ambitions. But also that all of us are in a safe environment and can, in that, achieve the dreams that we have as well. So I think there are lots of places for us to join together in a common cause.

One of the things I really love in recent years is the Just Search website. My most recent experiences working with Catholic Charities in what's called the MANNA House, in Phoenix. It's a place for homeless veterans to go and this organization helps them to find housing, deal with some of their social and other issues that are causing them to have difficulties in the lives, to look for jobs and other ways to be more stable, and here that I have an opportunity to volunteer with people not of our faith. And I love that. To just get to know people and find the things that we have in common as we're trying to help make the world better for people who've done so much for us. So I think, in all of this, you don't have to agree on everything. You can see the world very differently, and so we find things that will help us want to reach out in friendship and love. Some of my best friends are Republicans. 

Colin Rivera: Thank you so much. Okay, this one is a really commonly asked question. This question comes from Jamie, and she says, "My gay teen is treated so differently by my bishop than by his homeward bishop. Bishop's bring very different life experiences and receive relatively little training. Is there anything members can do to help those when this is a new experience?"

Tom Christofferson: I think we could share our own experiences in that environment. This is helpful, to be able to talk to you about how it works in our family and/or what our experience has been in other wards. I'm sure there is not a bishop out there who is trying to close the door on anyone. But the question is what experiences or skills that might have a way to make us feel the door is open. 

And so anything we can do to help in that regard is useful. I think that there are really great resources for bishops and the resources, pages that are specific to them, I presume they know about that. But you might also want to be sure that they're aware that there are specific resources with regard to LGBTQ issues that are from the Church specifically for them, and that also maybe help. A number of wards have done, in conjunction with the bishop, fifth Sunday events to help the whole ward understand what some of the unique challenges and opportunities are with LGBTQ kids in the ward.

And now people have a place where they can ask questions and feel comfortable getting answers. Given so many ways, this comes down to the accepting versus condoning person, which comes up a lot. How can we be loving and accepting and then not cross the line into condoning? And my thing has been that the way that we show and have it be known is how we live our lives not how we tell them to live theirs. If we are doing the very best we can to follow light and guidance that we've been given in our lives, our example is clear. And our love is clear. Again, I think in all of this are great desires to be sure that people know they always have people who love them and want to support them, who are there they can rely on and know Christ, who are committed and converted to Him. And that at any point in their life, if they want to draw closer to Him in that Spirit, they know who they can seek out. But they can trust in that because of the genuine interest and friendship that's been shown all along. 

Colin Rivera: Larry, on Instagram asks, "How do I respond to people who mischaracterize and misunderstand homosexuality, either in the Church or outside the Church, in a way that feels hurtful and diminishing. How we respond to that?"

Tom Christofferson: We start off from a point of view that if we would like to receive respect, we have to give it. That when we want to be able to share the experiences of our lives with the information that we gain, it means we also want to create an open conversation with someone that they would be free to share their experiences and the questions they have, that we can talk together openly. You know, most people aren't trying to divert. They're simply lacking information or experience. And so we are kind and patient, and we will have a lot of opportunities to be able to share what we've learned and to share what we hope other people will come to understand about us and what we would hope they want to be able to share with us that we would understand about them.

Colin Rivera: Mindy on Instagram asks, "How have you felt love and acceptance from members and non-members as you've gone through your journey?"

Tom Christofferson: Where are the funny ones? These are all heavy. I'm waiting for somebody to say, "What's the best thing about being gay?" That I can decorate my own house!

I think the notion here is when I, when I first came out, this is a few decades ago, at my place of employment there was no one that I knew who was gay or lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, who was out and open about their life. I didn't see any. And so when I began my career I didn't think I could be open and be successful. And over time, I came to be progressively more open with my colleagues and many other people did, too, so that by the time I got to the end of my career, interestingly, at the firm I was at they published statistics of how many members of the executive committee of the firm were LGBTQ people. That's a whole different world from where I started. And I felt the same at church, that this was something that wasn't talked about. And in fact, I don't think our parents, three of my four brothers are here tonight, thank you—hearing stories you've heard before. The other one's in Ohio. But when I first came out with my parents, there was no one that they knew who also had a gay or lesbian or transgender child. I think at a certain point, my mother finally confessed to her sister that they had a gay son and her sister finally confessed to her that she had a lesbian granddaughter. Neither of them shared that information for a while.

But again I see huge progress in this, that in so many ways we are much more willing to be open with each other and just talk about our lives in an authentic way—in an honest and candid way, saying, "Look, here's what brings me to my life. These are things that have been incredibly important to me in my life. And I'm happy to share those and have you know me as I am." So I, as I have progressively learned that I have found, without exception, that that openness is in return greeted with openness and with acceptance and a willingness to hear and deepen friendships and relationships over time because there's nothing that's hidden between us.

Colin Rivera: So we now have some questions from the audience here tonight. This first question comes from Sarah. And, of course, because in the Church and outside the Church people are imperfect—humans by the very nature, are imperfect—she asks, "Do you have any advice for those who've been hurt by Church leaders due to them being LGBT and choose to stay in the Church?"

Tom Christofferson: I guess, first of all, thank you for staying and keeping me company. 

I think the starting point is that whatever hurt you may have never been intentional—that no one set out to create a circumstance where our feelings hurt or we would feel offended. So we start from a recognition of good intent. But I think the next thing is to try to understand, is there anything in whatever has been said that can be useful? And how can I hold on to everything that's going to help me? And for the things that are hurtful, to just move on and find other things for your time and your focus that feel like they really do elevate you and help you feel and bring you closer to Christ. That your experience in the Church is one that allows you to continue to grow, to deepen your witness and your search and to be a person who can, by virtue of the experiences you've had, show greater love to others. 

I love the fact that in our congregations it seems to me like we are much more diverse than when I was a kid in so many aspects. And it would be, it would be really wonderful to continue that. That anybody, wherever they are in their process of conversion—or any other aspect of their life—feels that they have a home with us. In a chapter in the book, I said, I hope someday that they will change that "Visitors Welcome" to "All Are Welcome." But in the meanwhile, I believe you and I can have an effect on that and make sure that anybody who walks through the doors of the chapel can feel welcome and you can at least scoot over and give them a place in the pew next to us.

Colin Rivera: This next question comes from Maureen who says, "I have two sons who are gay. When my first son came out, he expressed a concern that he felt a lack of hope for his future. Did you experience this lack of hope? And if so, how did you combat it?"

Tom Christofferson: I don't think I felt the lack of hope when I came out. In the early years, my whole attempt was to fast and pray that somehow God was going to change this. And that this reality in my life would be somehow different when I came home from my mission, or whatever it would be. And that obviously didn't happen. So my journey was really more of, where do I find a place? How do I find out what this means in my life, and how to go forward? But I think the biggest challenge for people in that [space of] not having hope is when the relationships are disrupted. So they feel the friends they have at church are no longer going to be their friends. Or, even worse, that their family members are no longer going to be loving or engaged. Or people at school are going to somehow go from friends to bullies. You know, that's I think the place where people really lose hope. And the good news about that is that's a place that we can step in and ensure that no one feels that they're about to fall, that they're left without resources in the world.

Colin Rivera: Crystal says, "As a person who just got through a divorce with her wife, and coming back into the Church, what is the best advice?"

Tom Christofferson: I'm not going to rank these in order but one would be—I felt like one of the gifts I had when I first started to come back to church was that because I didn't know anyone, my whole focus at church was feeling the Spirit, listening to what I was being taught, and each week then trying to feel like I had a deeper connection. That wasn't the social connection. There was a connection to the things of the Spirit. And after I had been in the ward a while and I started to know people, I sometimes have to remind myself that the joy of church was not meant to be my social life, but my spiritual life. And it's even better when they can both be there.

I guess the second one is that it's a journey that we, we go on together. And yet it's an individual journey. I think about it in a way that we take the sacrament in our sacrament meeting. As we're all there at the same moment, doing the same thing, again that experience is individual. And so I think as you are coming back, I would take personal ownership of your journey, of your study or pondering your desire to grow. And realize that there will be things at church that can help you with that. But in large measure, it is a self-initiated and self-guided journey that would be the most helpful to you.

Colin Rivera: Thank you. Kate from the audience asks, "What are the three most critical behaviors family members and friends can do to support their LGBTQ loved ones?"

Tom Christofferson: I'm going to steal a line from my friend Richard Ostler, "Love, listen, and learn." I really do think that one of the reasons that I have been so blessed in my journey is that I knew even before I talked to our parents that their love was unqualified, that there wasn't anything I was going to tell them that would cause them to say, "Oh no, we don't want you." And I hope that that's the feeling that everyone would have in their family—so those bonds are unbreakable. And then there's an opportunity beyond that love, to listen and learn from each other and to be honest about the feelings we have when we first come out. It's really hard because there's a lot of extra sensitivity kind of waiting to be offended in some way. So we're wanting to ensure that what somebody says, that they think is helpful, isn't somehow an awkward thing. So I think again, it's listening with openness and trust and love. And then they are open about whatever learning they get from each other and from the Spirit and the circumstances.

Colin Rivera: The following question, that Kate asks is, "What are the critical behaviors or beliefs that help LGBTQ members stay in the Church?"

Tom Christofferson: The most critical teaching of our gospel is Jesus Christ, that He was born and lived and atoned for sins, was killed and resurrected and lives today. So I think that's the critical belief is that everything in our lives is centered on that truth. That Jesus is real, that He knows us and we can know Him. Everything else can come in second place.

Colin Rivera: Okay, we have a final question. This is from Giovanni. He asked, "How have your thoughts and emotions been strengthened by the Atonement?"

Tom Christofferson: In the early days of my coming back to church, I feel like I really did not understand Jesus's Atonement in the sense that I wanted to. I didn't understand how it worked. And then I came to the question that really came to become important to me, which was, "Why? Why? Why was He willing to do this?" And through experiences, I came to feel that the greatest gift that we will ever be given is purely a gift of love—that it represents His love for His Father and His love for us. And in that love, I find enormous power and peace and hope and a challenge to do more—that my heart can be changed to be like His. There are so many ways I can be better than I am. This is a long journey. But the thing that gives me hope and strength to continue that journey is that constant sense of His awareness and love—that He is there with me, and each step of that process I'm willing to invite Him into it.

Colin Rivera: We have a sneaky last question from Dakota. 

Tom Christofferson: Dakota wants a book!

Colin Rivera: And I think it's a great ending question. "What one thing—it can be more than one thing—but what one thing do you hope your readers take away from your book?"

Tom Christofferson: You know, I really, I wanted the book to be a sharing of the experience of our family and the experience I had with a ward family. Not that we did everything perfectly, or this is a template that everyone else needs to follow. Here's one experience, and I hope that it would give anyone who reads it ideas of ways that they can use what they've learned or felt in reading it to broaden the circle of their life to people in whatever circumstance it may be. It doesn't have to be LGBTQ people. It can be people in a faith crisis or people who are our neighbors and, and don't understand the way we believe and don't think they want to know why we believe what we believe. So there are all sorts of places where we can either sort of ignore people who don't agree with us or we can engage. And I hope that in the book there are some ideas of ways to engage. And in those ways to engage, we make it possible for us to feel the Savior's love and to bring that love to other people. So if there's anything that I would hope would be worthwhile in someone's engagement with the book, it would be that: a hope that you would feel the desire to bring Christ's love to someone else, that you would be a missionary in that sense or an ambassador of Him to someone who needs to know His reality and His love. Thank you.

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