Title: That We May Be One: A Gay Mormon’s Perspective on Faith and Family
Author: Tom Christofferson
Publisher: Deseret Book Company
Year Published: 2017
Number of Pages: 154
Reviewed by Wade Greenwood for the Association for Mormon Letters
Tom Christofferson’s book takes its title from 3 Nephi 19:23, which describes a Zion community of diverse saints united as one with each other and God. He uses this theme to describe his experience as a gay man in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, exploring a topic that can be unsettling and even scary to some faithful Mormons. He presents his story in a non-threatening way, speaking to the sensibilities of even the most traditional Latter-day Saint. Christofferson is a beautiful narrator, bringing honesty and candor to a writing style that expresses genuine warmth and generosity of spirit. I applaud the Church for providing a platform to explore the sensitive topic of homosexuality through its publishing arm, Deseret Book. The book wastes no time, introducing important questions on the second page of the Publisher’s Preface: “What choices do those who identify as gay or lesbian have if they wish to remain faithful to gospel covenants? What is our Father’s plan for these individuals in the eternities?” (XII) I found myself on more than one occasion flipping to the back cover to confirm that the publisher was indeed Deseret Book. The book feels like an important step in addressing the complexity of homosexuality within Mormonism.
Christofferson acknowledges that his experiences are unique to himself, and even expresses concern for the possibility that faithful Mormons might be tempted to hold him as an example of what LGBTQ Mormons should do: “Please understand that I share this [book] not as a prescription for others.” (xv) On the use of labels, he explains his displeasure with the term same-sex attraction, often used by Mormon leaders, preferring the term gay to describe himself: “To me, the descriptor same-sex attracted fails to convey sufficiently broad understanding. If you are a “straight” person, happily married to your companion, does the word attraction convey the depth of your feeling? Or, more likely, is it just a tiny, albeit happy, portion of the whole of your relationship?” (xvi-xvii)
We learn of Christofferson’s family background: a childhood spent in New Jersey and Illinois, and teen years in Delta, Utah. His parents raised their five sons (Tom is the youngest) to be deeply faithful and committed to the Church, a legacy exemplified in his oldest brother, D. Todd Christofferson, who currently serves in the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He uses the term “love story” to describe a rich family environment, with parents modeling “the meaning of unqualified love.” (24) While ultimately a story of his conversion back to Mormonism, this book is as much a tribute to his parents, brothers, and sisters-in-law as to his own faith journey. “They showed extraordinary compassion, empathy, and open-mindedness toward me, in spite of their own difficulty and struggles to understand me,” (16) He notes, “I hope in your reading you have gained some sense of the superb people they are.” (146) His experiences underscore that empathy and reaching out to others through genuine caring is what Mormons currently do best. He makes the case that Mormons, with this skill-set already in place, are especially prepared to take the next step of better outreach to the LGBTQ community.
Christofferson also brings the reader into the world of the struggling Mormon adolescent, describing the sense of alienation he felt growing up in a culture of masculinity: “I became obsessed over whether I walked like a straight guy or rolled my hips too much, if I talked like a straight guy or had a sibilant ‘s,’ if my voice was deep enough, if I moved my hands the ‘right’ way.” (7)
In a desire to reconcile the tension between his sense of identities, both as a gay teen and as a faithful Latter-day Saint, he put all his energies into trying to overcome his unwanted tendencies. He committed all to his church, serving a mission in Montreal, completing a degree at church-owned Brigham Young University, and marrying a woman in the Los Angeles Temple (shortly thereafter annulled). “And yet, despite hours of prayers, days of fasting, years of service, I was still gay” (xiv) Unable to reconcile this tension and wanting to be honest in his life, he finally asked to be excommunicated from the church of his youth. He later found love and commitment with a cherished partner for 19 years, whom his family took in as one of their own. He illustrates their acceptance of his partner through this simple but profound interaction during a family visit: “When we arrived at their home, Mom opened the door, gave us kisses, and hugs, and said, “why don’t you take your bags to the corner room downstairs- it has the best bed and the best air conditioning.” And that was that, no conversation at all. I was relieved, and my partner was grateful. And another barrier that might have been erected, that might have made us feel not quite at home in their home, vanished.” (56)
Over time, Christofferson began to feel a longing to reconnect to the spiritual life he once had. Gradually he re-entered the community through the New Canaan, Connecticut Ward, where he and his partner were welcomed without judgment. For a time, he referred to himself there as the most active non-member in the ward: “For the first five years I attended, they might have correctly surmised that there were aspects of my life wherein I was not living all commandments, and yet I never had a feeling that anyone there viewed me with anything other than love.” (100) As he interacted with these members and cultivated a reconnection to Jesus, he experienced a strong desire to formally rejoin the community. Baptism into the church would require some difficult decisions, and the reader can feel his anguish over a choice between his faith and a beloved partnership. Christofferson never shares the name of his former partner, but does express his deep appreciation for the sacrifice and generosity of a partner whose life was profoundly impacted in this process.
Christofferson makes a compelling case for the value the Gospel brings to individual lives and beautifully illustrates why the community of saints will become even stronger if our gay brothers and sisters are fully integrated. He reminds us that “Zion is incomplete until each child of God joins us.” (143) He adeptly describes the significant barriers to entry that currently prevent gay Mormons from full participation. Ultimately, he points out Mormons’ potential capacity to reach out with empathy to fellow brothers and sisters, to right some of the hurt that has been done to the LGBTQ community. As the author states, “Many of us are living testimony that there indeed is a place in the church for LGBTQ people.” (45)
I have great respect for Christofferson and his commitment and devotion to his faith; at the same time I mourn for his loss of intimate companionship. I really enjoyed this tribute to the power of unconditional love and the significance of faithful connection to God and community. I felt particularly moved by the frankness with which he juxtaposes the beauty of the Gospel with the hurt and frustration that his beloved faith can bring to his fellow LGBTQ Latter-day Saints.
This book will be a valuable tool for Mormon parents of gay children, but I believe it is a must-read for all Latter-day Saints, especially leaders and those who are not familiar with the struggles a gay Mormon currently feels in the Church. I think this book has the potential to open doors to more inclusion and acceptance. Many Mormons could benefit from following the author’s lead.