Editor’s Note: LGBTQ issues are sensitive and complex. The following article is about one man’s journey and is not in any way meant to suggest that his experience is the right experience for others. We thank Tom Christofferson for graciously sharing his story in an effort to foster greater understanding and a more open dialogue about LGBTQ issues in the Church.
What do you do when your child tells you he is gay?
Tom Christofferson’s parents responded in a way that changed the lives of everyone in the family and took them on an incredible decades-long spiritual journey. While steadfastly holding to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Christoffersons created a family culture of inclusion, understanding, compassion, loyalty, and greater love for one another—all while accepting the realities of each family member’s life and refusing to give up on anyone for any reason.
The Secret Struggle
By the time he was 5 years old, Tom Christofferson knew he was gay—he just didn’t have the vocabulary to express what he was feeling. “I found the language to name it when I was 12 years old,” he recalls. “I prayed constantly that somehow God would change me and that I would never have to tell anybody about these things I was feeling because it would no longer be true.” But throughout his teenage years and as he prepared for his mission, the feelings remained. “I still had this hope that somehow if I served a mission and did the best I could that my reward for doing the right thing would be to no longer be gay.”
But when Christofferson returned from his mission, nothing had changed. “I thought the Lord had welched on the deal, but then I realized that I had made the deal and He hadn’t,” he says.
After his mission, Christofferson attended Brigham Young University. Once again, he thought there was an opportunity to change his sexual orientation.
“I thought, ‘Well, if I get married in the temple, then everything will work out. It’ll show my willingness to do everything that I’m supposed to be doing, and somehow a miracle will occur,’” he says.
So he moved forward with faith and married a woman. But the marriage was annulled a brief time later. “That really brought a major life crisis,” Christofferson recalls. “I felt like I had done the best I could to be a good Mormon boy who had done all the right things and was really trying to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. But I was gay, and I was miserable. I had also made a wonderful woman’s life more challenging than it needed to be.”
When Christofferson was separating from his wife, he called his parents to let them know what was happening. But he didn’t anticipate the direction the conversation would take. “It hadn’t really occurred to me that the obvious question was ‘Why?’ But it came up pretty quickly. I said, ‘Well, I guess because I’m gay.’”
Soon afterward, in 1984, Christofferson decided he was unable to reconcile his homosexuality with his membership in the Church, so he asked to be excommunicated. “I had to find out if I could be gay and happy, and I wanted to feel like I had some integrity about my journey. And at that time, if you just identified as gay, that was enough to be excommunicated. And so that’s what happened.”
Christofferson didn’t leave the Church because he didn’t believe it, however. “I left because I couldn’t see any place for me to live my life in it. And, frankly, I couldn’t figure out how the plan of salvation related to me,” he explains.
A Family United
Christofferson says his parents experienced different phases as they processed the reality of their son’s homosexuality. “My parents’ initial reaction was, ‘How do we fix it?’ This was followed by ‘What have we done wrong?’ Dad wondered if he didn’t spend enough time with me, and Mom wondered if she spent too much.” He continues, “This phase was followed by kind of the grief process, realizing that some of the dreams they had for me were unlikely to come true. Next, it became a cause of fasting and prayer, with family members every fast Sunday asking for the Lord to heal me, to ‘take away the gay’ from my life.”
A couple years after Christofferson came out to his family, they had a family reunion that would define them for life. “One night, Mom and Dad asked all the boys and their spouses to put their kids to bed and come into their room to have a family meeting. We had prayer together, and then our dad talked about his concern that we would be unified as a family and have loyalty to each other.”
Christofferson remembers, “Mom told us, ‘I’ve realized that there is no perfect family, but I believe we can be perfect in our love for each other.’ And then she turned to my brothers and sisters-in-law and said, ‘The most important lesson your kids will learn from the way that our family treats their Uncle Tom is that nothing they can ever do will take them outside the circle of our family’s love.’ That set the tone for everything that happened in our family after that—we were going to love and enjoy each other wherever anybody was in their journey, and we were going to be loyal and united as a family. [My parents] couldn’t give up on either the Church or their child because each one was essential to the other. The Church gave meaning to their understanding of family, and the family fulfilled their understanding of the gospel, so they were unwilling to let either go.”
Seeking the Spirit
Christofferson eventually found a loving and committed partner, one with whom he would spend nearly 20 years. But in 2007, Christofferson began to feel that something was missing in his life. “My partner and I had a wonderful life, and we had been together about 12 years at that point. But there was a deeper element and a spirituality that I wanted to have in my life that I didn’t feel, and so after we moved [to New Canaan, Connecticut], I felt like I wanted to attend church. That was where I had felt the Spirit in the past, and it was where I felt I would be able to have those feelings again.”
So Christofferson found the local ward and began attending sacrament meeting, sitting in the back and then quietly slipping away as soon as it was over. And even though he was no longer a member, he began paying fast offerings. “One month with my donation, I included a little note that said, ‘Bishop, you don’t know me, but can I come and visit with you?’ And I got a call from him asking me to come to his house. A few nights later, I went over to his house and had that first conversation. I said, ‘Look, I’m gay. I have a partner, and we’re committed to each other. But I want to know if I could come to church and be welcome there.’ He immediately answered, ‘Absolutely. And bring your partner with you. We want to know you.’”
Christofferson and his partner became a welcome addition to the ward. “They were willing to extend their hearts and minds and open their arms to anybody who wanted to be there and worship with them,” he says. But as the events of the Proposition 8 campaign played out in California, where Christofferson had family members, his partner began to wonder if people he thought had accepted and loved them were really just being well-mannered and kind. “He came to feel less trusting of the genuine advances of friendship from members of the ward and [became] less willing to attend,” Christofferson says.
A New Beginning
After years of attending church and working with local Church leaders, Christofferson was baptized for the second time in October 2014. This marked a new beginning for him in the Church but also a heartbreaking end to a 19-year relationship.
“When the time came that I was worthy and wanted to again become a member of the Church, after months of conversation, my partner’s generous desire was that I should follow whatever path I felt would be the one of greatest happiness for me,” Christofferson recalls. “He had reason to feel that I had chosen the Church over him, and yet he was willing to support my decision despite its cost in his life. I can think of no higher tribute to pay to his selflessness and love.”
The following year, in December 2015, Christofferson received a restoration of priesthood and temple blessings, and the next Sunday he had a temple recommend in his hand.
“I had invited my brothers and their wives, the Church leaders who had played such a key role in the process, and a few very close friends to join me in the Salt Lake Temple for my first session the following Thursday. But having a valid temple recommend in my wallet proved to be too great a temptation,” he admits with a smile. “I went through a session on Tuesday and on Wednesday, too.”
Since the end of his relationship, Christofferson has relied on the Spirit to get him through the lonely times. “The Comforter is literal,” he says. “In those darkest hours of night, I have been sustained. I have the love of family and friends, but at the same time, that powerful root desire to have someone to love and to be loved never goes away.”
An Apostle for a Brother
Tom Christofferson and his partner first began their romance in the 1990s, and from the beginning, Christofferson says that they attended church and general conference as a couple. In the early years of the relationship, when Christofferson’s brother, Elder D. Todd Christofferson, was a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy and later served in the Presidency of the Seventy, the couple would fly to Utah to be in the Conference Center when he spoke. It was their way of showing support.
Elder Christofferson likewise showed love for the couple. “Perhaps the most public example of [my brother’s] graciousness was in the general conference address he gave in April 2008, after having been called as an apostle, when he said, ‘In acknowledging blessings, I include my dear brothers and their spouses, who, as it happens, are present today.’ My partner and I were not married, but we felt included and accepted.”
The two brothers continued to love and respect each other throughout Christofferson’s journey back to the Church and his rebaptism in 2014. But it didn’t stop there. That love and respect continued even when, on November 5, 2015, the Church’s policy regarding same-sex couples and their children was made public.
The next evening, Christofferson was attending the symphony when, during the intermission, he noticed that Elder Christofferson was trying to reach him. From the symphony hall, Christofferson returned his brother’s call. Elder Christofferson informed him that he had just taped an interview regarding the policy with then-head of Church Public Affairs, Michael Otterson.
“My brother told me, ‘If you feel you need to distance yourself from me, I will understand,’” Christofferson recalls. “I replied, ‘You have never distanced yourself from me, and I’m sure it hasn’t always been comfortable for you. I’m not going to back away from you in any way.’”
Advice for Families
Having watched his family members go through the process of accepting his homosexuality, Christofferson offers the following advice for those who are coming out: “Give your parents permission to grieve the loss of the child they thought they were going to have. By the time we come out, we’ve struggled with it for years. We can’t drop it in our family’s laps and expect them to be where we are.”
To the families of LGBTQ members, he says that even one family kicking their child out is one too many. He explains, “Sometimes we worry that if we are accepting, then that means we’re condoning. To me, accepting really means just recognizing and respecting the realities of someone else’s life. It’s an essential part of how we build relationships—being willing to accept people for who they are and where they are in their journey. Our understanding of our Heavenly Father’s relationship with His children, of the Savior’s relationship with us, doesn’t involve being kicked out. It involves patience and tenderness, compassion, and clarity of commandments. There is a willingness to be there and to be available. At a certain point, parents may need to say, ‘We are here to love and support and allow the child to make the decisions they’re going to make.’”
He adds, “The metric of success for parents is not whether their kid is active or went on a mission or got married in the temple. It’s that our family is unified in love— that we can walk together with everyone, wherever the journey is going to take each one. We don’t do it so that they will come back to church. We do it because we wholly love them and want to be a part of all the joys and sorrows of their lives.”
Advice for Ward Members
How should ward members treat LGBTQ friends in their neighborhoods and wards? Christofferson cites the New Canaan Saints as a wonderful example.
“The first five years I was going to church, I was in a full relationship with my partner. The ward members may have easily figured out that I wasn’t living all the commandments, and yet I never felt like anyone else was putting a requirement on me that they needed to see my progress,” he says. “They welcomed both me and my partner to worship with them and partake of the Spirit without condition. Our responsibility is to create a loving, welcoming environment for the Spirit to work—everything else is up to the Lord. Our love shouldn’t be qualified based on someone else’s repentance.”
Mormon and Gay
Christofferson has a sure knowledge of God’s love for him and encourages LGBTQ members to seek the same knowledge for themselves. “There is nothing intrinsically about who I am that is offensive to God,” he says. “Being gay is not simply an attraction, nor does it necessarily refer to sexual behavior. It is a way of being itself, an existence, an identity. Being Mormon is also a way of being and relating to the world and expressing identity, so being gay and Mormon is a doubly rich existence for me—a unique way of being, relating to the world, and sharing light, love, intelligence, and truth of God and my relationship to God.”
In fact, Christofferson has come to believe that being gay is one of the greatest blessings of his life. “Had my life been different, it may have been easy for me to go along in the Church with the testimony I had. But because I am gay, there came a time when I had to know, not merely believe, that Jesus Christ lives, that I will be resurrected as He was, and through the power of the Atonement I can gain strength and power to become His worthy disciple.”
Christofferson has undoubtedly had an incredible spiritual journey, yet he acknowledges, and insists, that it is uniquely his.
“I want to be sure people understand that this is the answer to my prayers, and it’s for my life. My purpose is not to suggest to others what their answers will be or how they need to lead their lives,” he says. “The happy ending is not that I came back to church. The happy ending is that a family learned to draw a circle of love that would include everyone throughout their lives, wherever they were in their journey, and that a ward learned how to expand their circle of love to include anyone who came through the doors of the chapel.”
In his new book, That We May Be One: A Gay Mormon's Perspective on Faith & Family,Tom Christofferson shares lessons that he, his family, and his fellow Saints learned while trying to love as God loves. It is about the scope and strength of this circle of love and about how learning the truth of our relationship with God draws us to Him.
For anyone who has wondered how to keep moving forward in the face of difficult decisions and feelings of ambiguity; for anyone who needs to better understand the redeeming power of our Savior, Jesus Christ; for anyone who seeks to love more fully; this book offers reassurance and testimony of God's love for all of His children.