Many have been wondering, after watching Elder D. Todd Christofferson’s video statement explaining the handbook policy change, how his brother Tom (who is gay) feels about this. Brian Dillman and Jerilyn Pool posted a podcast today at Rational Faiths that included an interview with Tom. The whole podcast is great, please click over to hear the words themselves. For those who want to read it rather than listen, here’s what he had to say. We hope this perspective will bring some needed peace and understanding.
RF: Tom (Christofferson), you and I were talking about this online yesterday, and you described the news as dreary. What are your feelings now that you’ve had 24 hours to think about it?
Tom: It always helps to have a night’s sleep. This too shall pass; we’ll get through this like we’ve gotten through everything else. I think my biggest reaction to it is that my experience both with my family and my ward family as I was coming back to church . . . seemingly would be more difficult to pull off under the setting that’s coming out here, I fear. My concern would be that this puts more pressure on families, too, and the ability to deal with dissonance and ambiguity may be even more of a challenge than it has been before.
So just to back up and give background, when I came out to my parents 30 years ago I decided that I had done everything I could to be Mormon, and it wasn’t working, and I was still gay. So I had to try to figure out what it meant to be gay, and I asked to be excommunicated so I could feel like I was somewhat acting in integrity to go out and live my life and figure out what that meant. It was not an easy conversation with my parents so it took all of us a while to find our footing and be in a good place. But over time they really… it became apparent that they were going to hold on to both their faith and their family; so their approach to all of this, when my partner and I met and got together many years ago, their approach was that they included the two of us in everything. The family always included us and we enjoyed time in their home and them in our home.
Because of their approach to us, eight or nine years ago when I started feeling a prompting to return to church; that something was missing in an otherwise happy life . . . I didn’t have to overcome any feelings of anger or feel that my parents had treated me badly in some sense because of the church. So it was easy for me to come back and find the spiritual things I felt I was missing and they were as welcome of that as they were of having Clark and me at an activity with them. When I went back to church and met with the bishop, my partner and I were still living together; at that point I wasn’t expecting that we wouldn’t be living together. I said, “Look, I’d really like to be able to come back to church and learn and feel the spirit and discover the path of a disciple.” His welcome was immediate without saying “If you’re living in this kind of relationship that creates problems.” I was already excommunicated, mind you, so I was a nonmember at the time, but the welcome and acceptance I felt in my family and my ward were both important in my own process of being able to move toward something I really needed in my life. And to feel the Spirit and to want to keep drawing toward that.
That’s all a very long way to say I worry for people who come after me. Will they have the same opportunity? Will they be able to go to church even though they are in a committed monogamous same-sex relationship and feel welcome? To make both of them feel welcome and to make a place in the congregation for both of them? Or are we sort of now saying that the Scarlet Letter has been attached, and we can’t do that, let alone how it affects the children?
RF: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking, some of the defenses being given is they are protecting the children. To some degree I think it has some coherence that they don’t want to create division and strife between the parents and children, and if they go to church they would hear things about their parents that are very negative, and and when they are at home they might hear things about the church that would create dissonance. So there’s a little bit of coherence. But like you said at the beginning that’s not training people to live with or tolerate ambiguity. It seems to me that it’s making this division between the LDS church and the LGBT community. And that there shouldn’t be overlap between the two; that’s what seems to be implied or an undesired effect.
Tom: It also seems to me that it continues to treat people as groups instead of as individuals. I feel like my relationship with the Savior is an individual one. If there is a concern about a family, then let’s deal with that family. Is there a way we can make the kids in Primary feel more welcome? Can we make sure the bishop knows the moms or the dads well and that the home teachers are helping if there are difficulties? It seems to me that if the concern is that if we feel that there is sexual sin there in an ongoing basis, then I think the policy should be that in ANY family where sexual sin in there in an ongoing basis there may be an extra interview or process required for ordination of children. That’s great, and by the way if that were the case the bishop would be dealing with a lot more straight families than gay ones.
RF: The bishop would be pretty busy.
Tom: So let’s define what we really trying to go after with concern with and then minister to individuals and not lump everyone together as a group.
RF: And then the issue of the children where it just seems to fly in the face of basic Mormon thought. AoF 2: Men punished for own sins not Adam’s transgression. We should be accountable for what we do and not for what we inherit. That was the whole problem with race in the church. African Americans were viewed as tainted in some way from the land of Cain or Ham or because of that they weren’t given the same status in the church until 1978. That’s really problematic.
Tom: If you think about what a kid knows at age 8, we certainly don’t expect them to understand every sin. What would make us think that we need these kids to know any more than any other kid does?
RF: It seems to me there are a lot of stories about divorced parents with a lot of them that went into the relationship with mixed orientations, had children, marriage failed, and they have joint custody. Then that child, who is spending time with that gay parent, suffers these consequences and is effectively ostracized from their peers in this community because they have “different” parents. So it’s not making sense to me. Like I get the protectionist argument a little bit, but it just seems incoherent.
Tom: To me it’s the problem of treating people as groups instead of individuals. In those cases where you have parents who are doing their best to keep it amicable and keep a healthy situation for the children when parents divorce I don’t think we want to have the Church be something that makes that harder. We want the church to be something that makes that easier. So if the children are spending some portion of their time with the dad who has a new partner and they have a mom, let’s say she’s now got a new husband, it’s not obvious the way it’s written whether they fall under this policy or not? Is it meant to only apply to children who live full time with two moms or two dads? It just doesn’t seem to be very clear. The way you would deal with this is to treat every situation individually. That’s why local leaders have the power of inspiration.
RF: Right what I’m hoping for is an amendment to the amendment. Either remove the whole thing as a mistake or it gets altered in some way to be more detailed or more vague. At this point it seems overly harsh. I’m hoping in the next few days or weeks it’s clarified or some things change. Because online the reaction has been . . .
RF: Some people have said this is the last straw, and they’ve written their resignation letters and others are preparing to do the same thing. They just feel like this is a dividing line and the church doesn’t want people like me and I don’t want to be part of church that is like this.
Tom: I’ve also been thinking: where is the way forward for me? I was in CA on business and flying back to SLC last night and my phone blew up, and I was trying to sort it through. On the plane when I had a few moments to myself I turned to the scriptures and I turned to John 6. I love that chapter: the Savior feeds 5000, the storm on the Sea of Gallilee and Jesus walking on water, people who knew him in his hometown couldn’t get him being the Savior because he’s the brother of their friends, and at the synagogue in Capernaum people said, “These are hard things and who can hear them?” And He turns to His apostle and says, “Will ye also go away?”
The next line is so Peter, he responds, a ringing declaration and testimony, “Lord to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life,” and when I was reading it last night on the plane it came to me so differently. Peter could also be saying, “Yes, Lord, these are hard things, and I don’t understand them; but I know what I feel and thou hast the words of eternal life.” And that’s where I am. I know what I have felt about the Book of Mormons and Joseph Smith, and I particularly know how I feel about the Savior and the prayers and inspiration I’ve had. So for me these are hard things that I don’t understand, but I know where the words of eternal life are. So all I can do is try to walk in the path of faith and hope that someday I will better understand or that all of us will have a different understanding and move forward to a different place.
RF: Yeah, I think that’s a good perspective. It’s a hopeful perspective. That things will be made more clear and improve in the future.
Tom: I worry about the families who are involved in this in the meantime. At the same time of walking this path in faith and hope it is also incumbent on me and all of us who have had our hearts broken over this to reach out much more in love and acceptance to those who are affected by this and whatever they think the best path is for themselves at this moment. That they know we love them, we know they are hurting, and that we know the Savior loves them as well.
RF: Absolutely. Great advice for all of us. Thanks for talking to us Tom. Hopefully this will help other people too.