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Trafficking in Stories – Tom Christofferson

“A SPIRITUAL HOME: BUILDING BRIDGES FOR SEXUAL AND GENDER MINORITIES IN THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS”

University of Utah Tanner Humanities Center/Mormons Building BridgesSeptember 28, 2019

As I was writing my book, I had the rather naïve idea that I was writing about lessons learned, by one family, and by one congregation, which could serve as a springboard for others to come up with their own best solutions to the challenge of loving, accepting and supporting LDS LGBTQ individuals.  Not quite a self-help book, but certainly not a memoir or autobiography. It quickly became apparent, though, that I was the story. Although that wasn’t what I had hoped, I want to acknowledge that those who have interviewed me for television, radio or podcasts have been extraordinarily fair in their conversations, and resisted the kind of coverage that generates good clickbait!

I tried very hard in the book and in every interview and speech to clearly state that my experience is only that: selected moments, ideas and actions of one individual.  But our culture seems to require turning storytellers into role models. Maybe that’s why the website of one of the LDS LGBTQ organizations only seems to use stock images of beautiful young people!

My first observation from my experience is that a community that worships Jesus Christ should understand better than others that there is only one role model for perfection.  If we want to draw lessons from how another person is navigating their life journey, our expectation should only be that we are watching someone who is doing the best they can under their circumstances.  From my perspective, one of the most empowering doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is our belief in the primacy of personal revelation. So rather than looking at a human role model for answers to life questions, we have an infinitely better, and far more reliable source available.

If someone wants to see me as a role model, they are setting me up for certain failure – I am not perfect and have never claimed to be – as well as ensuring their own disappointment.

My second observation is that trying to reduce one another’s stories to simplistic fairy tales (pun intended, in this case) eliminates any real understanding and empathy.  The simplistic story of my journey is that I left the church because I was gay, and I had a long-term relationship with another man that I abandoned in order to rejoin the Church.  That simplicity renders my story “safe” for many (and makes it unsafe and triggering for many), and it isn’t true. My real story is about the ambiguity of living two conflicting truths: that I am gay and that I am a believing Latter-day Saint.  My beliefs don’t perfectly align with either identity, and neither group is wholly comfortable claiming me.

My third observation is really a plea: as mature adults, can we listen to points of view and experiences and evaluate their worth and applicability to us on their own merits, rather than the credentials of the speaker?  It seems to me we could gain much more valuable insight if we would open our minds to all good ideas regardless of the source. To be more specific, one audience demands the credential of a currently valid temple recommend before listening, the other audience would prefer the credential of being in a current same-sex relationship.  One of my hopes in writing the book for the LDS community was that my story could be the beginning of greater understanding of the LGBTQ community, and after opening their hearts to my parents and to my ward family, their hearts could then be available for the stories of those currently married to a same-sex partner trying to raise a family in or out of the church, or the stories of my trans brothers and sisters in their efforts create a holistic and congruent life for themselves, or the stories of young people who see no hopeful answer in their desire to integrate their faith and their aspirations for a healthy life.  As Elder Robert C. Gay said in a recent General Conference address, “During that final evening with my sister, I believe God was asking me, “Can’t you see that everyone around you is a sacred being?”  (Elder Robert C. Gay, “Taking Upon Ourselves the Name of Jesus Christ”, October 2018 General Conference) By refusing to open our minds to untidy but honest portrayals of the lives of those around us, I believe Church members are missing the chance to truly love all of their neighbors, and I believe members of my LGTBQ community are missing the chance to truly love all of those who the Lord their God.

The most worthwhile things are seldom easy, and sometimes the most loving thing to do in a given circumstance is the hardest.  The experiences of our lives teach us to see the world in a particular way. And yet, in order to truly be of one heart with those around us, to love our neighbors deeply – especially the ones who see and understand the world very differently from us – and regardless of any unkindness or contempt they may have shown us, we have to be willing to think in new ways, to open our minds and our hearts, and finally our arms.

My final observation is really a summation of the points I’ve already raised: because we want to turn story-sharers into role models, because we prefer parables to real and messy life, and because we focus on credentials rather than ideas, in order to gain credibility one who shares their story with a broader audience may be confronted with a requirement to sacrifice all personal privacy.   It might be easier to understand my point if I share an example. The first month after release of the book was an especially hectic time of doing interviews for broadcast outlets and podcasts. It seemed to me at the time that in all of those conversations the topic interviewers most wanted to explore was why my relationship with my longtime partner had ended. Can I ask you to just think about that for a moment?  Would you ask someone you were beginning to know to tell you all the ins and outs of their break-up? What I had hoped would be the message – my parents’, my family’s, and my ward family’s willingness to open their minds, hearts and arms to someone whose life was different than theirs – instead turned into the broken-heart tour, where I felt like I had to expose my private heartache every day in order to have credibility to share a message.  I’m willing to believe that I could have refused to answer those questions, but my sense is it would have seemed I was trying to hide something inconvenient. And having said all that, I hear the words in my head of Saint Brené Brown, that courageous vulnerability is the key to an authentic, purposeful and happy life. So, I recognize that, at least at some level, doing the broken heart tour was my gift to those who wanted to gain greater understanding, and it was my gift to myself to be able to let go of some of the fear about not being enough.

In summary, I am grateful to have had this experience.  I believe good has come from sharing my family’s story. I recognize that there are some people in both communities who are unwilling to hear such a story, and that’s fine.  I realize that there is a constant cost/benefit tradeoff: does the benefit to other families of hearing a way to love outweigh the cost of being the messenger; and more importantly, does the benefit to opening some hearts and minds within the Church outweigh the potential deepening in the hearts of my LDS LGBTQ brothers and sisters the feeling that they are not enough because their journey does not look like mine.  I am appreciative for those who have been willing to hear a message of perfect love from an imperfect messenger, and I am especially grateful to my gay and trans and queer brothers and sisters who have been willing to allow and even support a story unlike their own simply because all stories matter and have value.