Editor's note: This commentary by Michael Erickson is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of Faith and Thought.
The celebration of Christmas brings together family in ways that no other holiday does. Yet it can also uniquely bring to the forefront family tensions and challenges. This might be particularly so for families who adhere to traditional religious teachings about marriage and family and who also have children that have chosen to enter same-sex relationships.
Earlier this year, Deseret Book published, “That We May Be One: A Gay Mormon’s Perspective on Faith & Family,” chronicling Tom Christofferson’s experience coming out to his family, pursuing a long-term same-sex relationship, and eventually returning to his faith and its teachings. Tom’s story provides insights for families and individuals in similar circumstances and for anyone seeking more understanding about the complex and sensitive intersection between religious teaching on homosexuality and the lived experience of gays and lesbians, or more broadly those who experience same-gender attraction.
Of all the lessons we might take from Tom’s book, perhaps the one that would mean the most to Tom is how to love our LGBT family, friends and neighbors. Deseret Book’s “Publisher’s Preface” describes Tom’s story as a “love story.” And it is. It is a story about the love of Tom’s parents for their son. It is a story about the love and loyalty that Tom and his brothers have for one another. It is a story about Latter-day Saint leaders and members’ loving welcome of Tom and his gay partner into their congregation. It is a story about Tom’s partner’s selfless love when Tom chose to return to his faith despite the consequences for their relationship. It is a story about Tom’s love for his former partner when his partner chose to pursue another relationship. And it is a story preeminently about Tom’s love for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
For families considering how to balance accepting their children while affirming their religious faith, two stories from Tom’s experience stand out.
First, two years after Tom first openly identified as gay, his parents planned a weeklong family reunion at a cabin. Tom was dating a man at the time and insisted that his partner be welcome. Some of Tom’s brothers with young children felt uncomfortable, and their parents asked Tom to come by himself so the family could hold a family council together. At that meeting, Tom’s father spoke of the “importance of unity and loyalty to one another.” Tom’s mother confessed to having once thought they were “the perfect Mormon family,” only to realize “there is no perfect Mormon family.” To her sons and their wives, she said, “The most important lesson your children will learn from how our family treats their Uncle Tom is that nothing they can ever do will take them outside the circle of our family’s love.”
Second, when Tom’s parents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, they asked their five sons and their spouses to have dinner with them together, including Tom and his partner. Afterwards, they took a family photograph, which Tom’s parents blew up to a large size and hung prominently in their home for the remainder of their lives. A family friend “learned an important lesson about a loving, loyal family just by seeing that photo displayed in such a prominent place.”
Tom is quick to point out that he does not offer his and his family’s decision-making as “a prescription for others” but rather as his “appreciation” for his own experience. Because of the love that Tom felt from his family, he “had no feelings of anger, bitterness, or pride to keep me from acting on the desire to return to some kind of participation in church.” When that desire came, Tom was also greeted by a loving and kind congregation that warmly accepted Tom and his partner.
Some will question Tom’s decision to return to his faith, doubting such a path could bring him true happiness when it appears to conflict with his sexual orientation. To such concerns, Tom writes, “I want to be sure that those who read this book understand this point clearly: while not assuming that any other LGBTQ individual will see or follow exactly the way I have traveled, I am more grateful than words can express for the path that has been made available to me.”
In a season of inclusion and reaching out with love, Tom’s story also offers understanding to those who might be uncomfortable with his decision to forgo a same-sex relationship in pursuit of his religious faith. Tom does not deny his sexual orientation. For him, the intense “desire” to love and be loved by a “unique other,” as Tom describes his orientation, “felt like it was encoded in my DNA.” As strong as these feelings are, Tom ultimately chose his course because of a spiritual hunger. To a friend, he explained why he would not change his present path: “Because the way I feel now, the way I experience the influence of the Holy Ghost, is powerful and delicious to me, and I don’t ever want to live without it again.”
For anyone concerned about the complex and sensitive issues raised by same-sex relationships and religious teachings on marriage and family, Tom’s experience has valuable insights to help those with diverse perspectives to love and understand one another, at this season and throughout the year.