Tom Christofferson has a message for Mormon parents of gay children: You don’t have to choose between your offspring and your church.
You can love both.
Because the LDS Church teaches that being gay is not a sin, but acting on it is, some Mormon parents decide that, to be faithful, they have to reject their kids in same-sex relationships. You know, stick to their standards. Don’t condone sin.
Other families feel that, to support their gay children, they must abandon their cherished church, which has labeled LGBTQ members in gay sexual relationships — married or otherwise — as “apostates.”
Christofferson, the 60-year-old gay brother of LDS apostle D. Todd Christofferson, says his parents followed neither course.
Faith and family closeness were entwined, each incomplete without the other, he says in an interview. “I was never in doubt about what my parents believed, but I also knew they loved me.”
Which is how he argues all Christians should respond.
The choice for gay Mormons themselves, however, is more stark and inescapably painful: Either pursue an intimate same-sex relationship and possibly be cast out of the church or live as a celibate within it.
Christofferson tried both, but ultimately made an agonizing decision. He picked the church.
It has been an unpredictable odyssey, full of twists and turns, to arrive at this place of peace, he says in his just-published book, “That We May Be One: A Gay Mormon’s Perspective on Faith & Family.”
The lifelong Latter-day Saint knows, though, that his choice won’t work for everyone — and he’s OK with that.
An altered view
In early childhood, young Tom had a profound sense he was “different from [his] four older brothers in an important-but-not-to-be-talked-about way.”
It wasn’t until he was in junior high and called a “homo” that he looked up the word “homosexual” in a dictionary and found a definition for what he was feeling. That realization also, however, convinced him that his secret would somehow disconnect him from the God he was discovering in his Mormon life.
At 19, Christofferson served a two-year Mormon mission, returned and wed a young woman in an LDS temple. The marriage was annulled after a short while, and he broke the news to his parents.
Their son was gay.
Believing that his attraction to men meant he no longer could be a participating Mormon, Christofferson asked to be excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
For more than two decades, he lived as a gay man, eventually settling into a monogamous relationship with an idealistic doctor he met in San Francisco.
Though some in the LDS hierarchy back then cautioned against it, the Christofferson clan welcomed his partner into the family, including him as a spouse in all activities and even allowing the couple to share a bed during visits.
Theirs was a joy-filled and satisfying relationship for 19 years, Tom Christofferson recalls, but something was missing. The spirituality he had found in his faith.
When the couple moved to New Canaan, Conn., in 2007, Christofferson was drawn to the Mormon meetinghouse in town. He would quietly come in late, sit on the back bench, and leave during the final strains of the closing hymn.
Finally, the gay former missionary approached the congregation’s bishop to introduce himself and ask if he would be welcome.
Of course, replied then-Bishop Bruce Larson without hesitation, and bring your partner.
“I didn’t need instructions on how to respond to anyone who sincerely and humbly wanted to join with us to worship,” Larson writes in an email from Hong Kong, where he now lives. It was “pretty much a spiritually prompted no-brainer.”
Thus began Christofferson’s nearly seven-year sojourn in that East Coast ward, where little by little he became enmeshed in its community of believers — sharing his faith, teaching an occasional lesson, praying at service projects, taking on the role of a beloved uncle to the ward’s children.
“The wonderful Saints who made [a] place in their hearts and on their pews year after year never demanded that my progress or repentance be visible to them,” he writes. “They simply made space.”
As the former Mormon continued to attend, he sensed a spiritual awakening he hadn’t known for a long time.
“I wanted to be in a place and with a group of people where I could explore the meaning and purpose of life,” he continues in the book, “where I could investigate and consider the answers to the quandaries of my experiences.”
On occasion, Christofferson’s partner tagged along. He was raised an Episcopalian, who felt Christmas and Easter appearances were enough. Then came 2008, when the LDS Church helped lead the push for California’s divisive Proposition 8, defining marriage as only between a man and a woman.
Christofferson had a brother in California who voted for it, the partner complained. “They know us. I thought they loved me.”
It broke his partner’s heart and created some distance between the partner and the church.
David Checketts, the pro sports mogul and then an LDS stake president overseeing a group of congregations in Connecticut, met with the partner to explain why returning to the Mormon fold meant so much to Christofferson.
The partner responded by saying, the writer recalls in the interview, “Your church should be supporting our family of two, not splitting us up.”
Ultimately, that is precisely what happened.
Christofferson’s partner — whom Tom still loves — freed the Latter-day Saint from their mutual commitment, saying he should do what was best for him.
Even some Mormons lamented the breakup.
“His partner was/is a wonderful, talented and kind man,” Larson writes. “My heart breaks for anyone who experiences heartache or loss in a genuinely loving relationship.”
It was Larson who performed Christofferson’s rebaptism in October 2014, leaning him down until he was fully immersed in water, then gently guiding him back up — a new man.
All the Christoffersons were there, including his apostle-brother, who performed the ritual laying on of hands to confer the Holy Spirit.
For Checketts, it was a touching moment.
“This is a story of love for him and his partner and love between those two men, whom I respect and understand,” the former stake president says now. “But it’s also about hard choices.”
Six months after his baptism, Christofferson retired early from his job as an investment banker and moved West, while his partner bought another house in Connecticut.
Still, the ever-optimistic Mormon hoped he and his partner could continue their “emotional relationship,” after giving up a physical one.
It proved impossible.
Brotherly love and a hard-edged policy
The most difficult chapter to write, Christofferson says, was the one about the LDS Church’s November 2015 policy, which spelled out new rules about gay Mormon couples — dubbing them apostates and generally barring the blessings and baptisms of their children until they are 18.
“I was stunned,” the gay Mormon writes. “I think many people are.”
Todd Christofferson was tapped to speak in a hastily called video interview to explain the move to confused members and a puzzled public.
“If you feel you need to distance yourself from me, I will understand,” the apostle texted his brother, who replied immediately, “You have never distanced yourself from me, and... I am not going to back away from you in any way.”
The closeness between brothers persists, but so do the gay man’s questions about the policy.
“So many friends have left the church over it — whole families,” Tom Christofferson says. “It hurts, but I’m still trying to understand.”
Maybe it will prompt more Latter-day Saints to ask for more knowledge, he says, and prophets to ask more questions.
In the meantime, he advises Mormon parents and families to accept the reality of their gay children’s lives and choices. Go to their weddings. Bring their partners into the family. Be happy for their happiness. Hold them close.
“What an important opportunity [a wedding] can be to increase family unity, to show pure love, and to solidify relationships,” he writes. “Just as your children will not be in doubt about your personal discipleship, neither will they doubt the importance you place on being a lovingly engaged part of their lives.”
Will the book help, or hurt, LGBT Mormons?
All Christofferson’s brothers read the manuscript before it was published, including the one in the Quorum of the Twelve.
“I love Tom,” Todd Christofferson says in a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune, “and I’m pleased to see him tell his personal story as only he can.”
No matter how much Tom Christofferson protests that the book covers only his experience, the author’s connection to a top LDS leader and the volume’s publisher, church-owned Deseret Book, make it, to some, quasi-official and give it more weight than other works.
And that concerns some readers.
The book is “very moving...and affirmed my faith,” Salt Lake City attorney Steve Evans writes in a forthcoming review for the Mormon blog By Common Consent. “I worry that straight members will use this book to comfort themselves that the church is just fine with respect to LGBTQ people, and that we thereby [can] avoid reflection about our own actions and policies.”
Some Mormons will “misuse this book,” Evans fears, “as some sort of weapon against gay members.”
They may point to the apostle’s brother and say, “See? Why can’t you be happy like he is?”
For many LGBTQ individuals, the blogger says, “the church is not a hospitable place, and things will not work out for them the way they did for Christofferson.”
For his part, the author hopes his book has value beyond the message about gays.
Christofferson describes two kinds of Mormons — temple participants and chapel attendees.
Not everyone will meet the belief and behavior standards to enter a Mormon temple, he explains, but “we do want everyone in the chapel.”
That certainly was Christofferson’s experience in the New Canaan ward, and it is Larson’s view as well.
The book is much broader than one man’s journey, the former bishop writes. “It is a message about how to genuinely and lovingly make someone feel welcome in the gospel who may have had a different life’s path than you did — or who just might be different than you.”
No matter what road a gay Mormon may take, says Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, family, friends and fellow believers should start with “compassion and understanding.”
That, says McAdams, one of Christofferson’s closest friends, is what Tom is all about.