LDS Living recently had an article with excerpts from Tom Christofferson’s book “That We May Be One, A Gay Mormon’s Perspective on Faith and Family.”1 Within LGBTQ+ Mormon circles, Tom’s book is controversial in that he tells his story of leaving the LDS Church to live as a gay man and subsequently returning decades later to be welcomed back in full fellowship including baptism and temple blessings.
The narratives that are constructed around Tom’s story are where the points of controversy lie. From the LDS perspective, this is a story of a falling away and then redemption. It tells family members to not lose hope. It confirms that celibacy is the Lord’s way and can be done. It is a narrative that wickedness never was happiness. This is what many LDS members take away from Tom’s story.
The controversy on the other side looks like Tom is selling out. He ended his same-sex relationship of 18 years to return to the LDS Church. He returned to a church that accepts him on very limited terms (celibacy). He is embracing a church that politically attacks LGBTQ+ rights at every opportunity (marriage equality, trans rights). He is returning to a church that brands same-sex marriages as apostasy and forbids their children all ordinances including baptism.
What is lost in attacking or embracing Tom’s choices, is that his story is not just about his choices. It is also about the choices of his family. Tom relates, “I wish my mother were still here to deliver this message. Unbeknownst to me at the time, apparently when some of my nephews were young teenagers at a family reunion and had just learned that I would shortly be arriving with my partner, they were sharing some laughter about gays coming to the reunion when my mother came around the corner. She was a little less than average height, on the thin side, and a rather mild person. My brother Wade was witness, though, to her righteous and powerful indignation on that occasion, which left a few boys quaking in her wake: “You will never speak like that again about my son!”
I have heard Tom speak on several occasions about his parents, especially his mother. Tom relayed a story of when he was with his partner. His brother’s families were having real conflicts regarding having a same-sex couple attend family events. His mother sat the entire family down and said, “We are not a perfect family, but we can love perfectly.” From that time forward, Tom and his partner were welcome at all family events.
I remember seeing a picture of Tom’s family up on the wall. It is one of those studio types with the parents at the center and each of the children and their spouses surrounding them. There was Tom and his partner standing with an equal place in the family landscape.
As a parent of a gay son raised in Mormonism, I find that the choices of Tom’s parents are very significant. Research has demonstrated conclusively that high levels of family rejection are directly linked to exponentially high rates of suicidality, depression, drug-use, and homelessness among LGBTQ+ youth2. Our LGBTQ+ Mormon youth are at risk being raised in Mormon households today.
When straight people (especially those within a religion with gender roles that are strictly defined and eternal in scope) look at this situation, they truly do not comprehend that our youth are confronted with a theology in which they do not exist. Their whole future both in life and eternity is based on whether they can endure going against their inborn sexual orientation (or gender identity) for the rest of their life. They must choose as children to forgo marriage (celibacy). And in Mormonism, a temple marriage is taught as the pinnacle of their religion and the key to eternal life and happiness.
The burden of a child’s health and happiness is placed on their ability to make these choices. They are forced to make these choices when they are barely even discovering who they are and what that means. In the Mormon context, these choices impact their whole lives as well as their eternal welfare. With such high stakes, it is no wonder they are faced with an identity crisis, being misunderstood by virtually everyone, and risk of losing everything; most importantly their families.
Tom Christofferson’s parents modeled a Safe Way for their son. What a child needs when facing these choices is unconditional love and acceptance. They need space and time to discover who they are. The instinct of LDS parents is to micro-manage and fix their child. Many times, this involves demands and expectations that they conform or face consequences. Everything regarding their relationship with their child is based on controlling the choices of their child.
As the parent of an LGBTQ+ child, I see three significant keys to creating a Safe Way for our children. First, your unconditional love for your child needs to be expressed directly and emphatically. It isn’t good enough to hope your love is assumed. Express your love without reservation and without strings attached. “Love the sinner but hate the sin” is just not good enough. That means that when there are conflicts and questions between choosing your child and anything else, your child takes precedent. Those other things could be parents, siblings, extended family, church members, church leaders, or even current religious policies or doctrine. The foundation of a Safe Way for your child needs to be your unquestionable love.
Second, you need to free your child from your own expectations. Especially in Mormonism, the first 20 years of life are designed to follow a script. For boys, there is deacon, teacher, priest, various scouting achievements, and a mission. For girls there are divine virtues that prepare you to be a wife and a mother. All of these build up to a temple marriage complete with very traditional gender roles. Then, all the sudden, there is a large empty hole as all those expectations disappear. As a parent, you will feel the great loss of what “could have been”. It was the plan that was known and comfortable. In its place is a wide-open future that is unknown and uncomfortable.
The weight of your expectations needs to be lifted off your child through a very specific conversation. Trust me, they already know what your expectations are. They need to know that the future they discover and create for themselves will be one you are excited to be a part of and celebrate with them. Your fear needs to take a back seat to the wonder of who your child will become. Your discomfort needs to be replaced by curiosity and a hunger to learn right beside your child. By doing so, instead of pushing your child away, you will be part of their journey. You will be on the Safe Way with your child.
Third, you need to demonstrably fight for and choose your child. Tom Christofferson’s mother on multiple occasions fought for Tom’s place in the family. They were at moments when he wasn’t even there. They weren’t conditional on a return to Mormonism, even if that was ultimately what she hoped. She chose him over and over and over again, even when he brought a same-sex partner home to the family. As a parent, you can make the Safe Way for your child by talking the talk and walking the walk.
Sometimes you will have to battle to make the Safe Way safe. You may have to place boundaries around the Safe Way that protect your child from those that would disrespect or seek to harm them. Sometimes you can lead by example. Other times you will have to take the barbs that are aimed at your child. That is part of the price of making a Safe Way for your LGBTQ+ child.
You are the single most significant factor in creating a Safe Way for your LGBTQ+ child. Your choices can create, protect and celebrate a whole new future for your rainbow child. None of this is conditional on the choices your LGBTQ+ child makes. They may make good choices. They may make poor choices. They may make decisions that are 180 degrees from where you thought they should be. But they will be safe. And you will be able to experience a whole new future that is greater than anything you could have imagined.
There is truly nothing more exceptional than having an LGBTQ+ child. You will see the world through different eyes and a new heart. You will learn to be a better parent. Nothing will bring you closer to a truly Christlike, unconditional love. Your LGBTQ+ child will be safe; and ultimately, love will become your religion, in ways it never was before.