In a country that doesn't (officially) recognize state-sponsored religion, whose Constitution says "all men are created equal," where bigotry and bias are abhorred — why do otherwise intelligent and sensitive people feel they can engage in hate speech against gay people?

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Monday, January 30, 2006

With Christians Like These, Who Needs Nazis?

Do they give an award for the most evil parents in America? I think we have our winner. These people didn't deserve to have any children — much less someone as altruistic and generous of spirit as their son.

By Molly McKay, EQCA Field Director

Written for the Bay Area Reporter

January 12, 2006 — When Becki Jones, our Tulare County chapter leader called me on December 15, I couldn't believe the news. Nathan Christoffersen, the 28-year-old, sunny, bright volunteer who ran our Madera County chapter, had been found by his father that morning, dead on their front porch. According to a handout from his father entitled "What happened," Christoffersen was found "down on his knees with his head on his knees and his butt on his heels, facing away from the house."I had spoken with Christoffersen just the day before; he was happy, excited about a job interview with Planned Parenthood. He asked me for a letter of reference and a copy of the latest handout on fighting the proposed constitutional amendments aiming to eliminate domestic partnerships and marriage equality. He and I talked weekly about the challenge of getting people in the Central Valley active for LGBT rights. He told me that it was hard for him to live at home with what he described as his "homophobic parents," without a car in the outskirts of a tiny farming town. He joked about how his house was the
central organizing headquarters for those both for and against the constitutional amendments. He told me his parents were leaders of a local church and how they refused to accept that he was an out, proud gay man. According to Christoffersen, his parents repeatedly threatened to throw him out if he was ever interviewed or photographed by the media.

But Christoffersen was a positive, brave, upbeat person. He was a fantastic journalist for the online LGBT community newspaper called www.GayFresno.com, which was owned and run by our Fresno County chapter leader, Jason Scott. Christoffersen's death was shocking and didn't make any sense. Scott told me that according to Christoffersen's father, he had complained of not feeling well, having switched medications that day, but went Christmas shopping with a friend for an hour or so anyway. Scott explained that Christoffersen had been taking a variety of
antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. Scott forwarded an e-mail from Christoffersen's sister stating that the coroner had found no cause of death. She simply concluded that "Nathan had been called home by God" and reported that he had already been cremated. She invited Scott to Christoffersen's funeral.

How could a 28-year-old die of "nothing" – Christoffersen's legacy deserved better than that. An inquiry to the coroner confirmed that
indeed there was no "medical finding for Nathan's death" no signs of trauma, healthy heart and vital organs. The coroner was waiting on toxicology reports. The day before the funeral, Christoffersen's obituary was published. There was no mention of his gay rights leadership, just a notation that "he played in the school band." In a total outrage, the family asked for donations in Christoffersen's name to the New Creation Ministry, a church linked with the ex-gay movement and an active proponent of the debunked "conversion therapy." This wasn't the church the family attended, this wasn't some coincidence or mistake, they were soliciting donations to an antigay organization in Christoffersen's memory.

Though we knew we'd be wading in unwelcome waters, Scott, Jones, and I committed to attending Christoffersen's funeral on December 21 to honor our colleague and friend. At the chapel, we reviewed the memorial table, which was white-washed of any mention of his civil rights leadership – nothing but a mention that "Nathan was fortunate enough to attend several Cher performances" and how he loved the musical Annie. Speaker after speaker came to the microphone to lament Christoffersen's "struggles," "demons," "conflicts" – how they "continued to pray for him and never gave up on him." Once the minister rose to give his message, the gloves came off, the words became less guarded and more explicit about just exactly what that "demon" was that Christoffersen was fighting. The minister
acknowledged Christoffersen's sensitive nature, his extraordinary singing and songwriting talents, but instead of acknowledging his gayness as part of that rare gift, he characterized his gayness as "an affliction." The minister explained how Satan was jealous of the "vulnerable, the sensitive" with talents, and how Satan "harassed" Christoffersen from an early age. He explained that Christoffersen's death was God calling him home before Satan could cause anymore torment in his life – in the air was a collective sigh of relief. I bit my lip mercilessly trying to keep myself from standing and shouting "Nathan was a proud gay man – this isn't a memorial service, this is twisting Nathan's memory to reaffirm your agenda at Nathan's expense" – the hypocrisy of their "love for Jesus" and the hatred of Christoffersen's true being was killing me.

The service finally over, Jones and I expressed our disbelief at this being "Nathan's service." I had pictured us staying and trying to have "equality" conversations with the attendees, but the knot in my stomach threatened to explode and my tears would not stop. We wanted to get the hell out of there – and we resolved to immediately go to meet with the coroner and find out what really caused Christoffersen's death.We tracked down the Madera County coroner's office down a long desolate road. The coroner had received preliminary toxicology reports that confirmed no alcohol, no street drugs, but an alarmingly high level of antidepressants and anti-anxiety prescription medications – all within the recommended dosage levels for each drug, but the coroner reported, combined and cumulatively, enough to cause his system to shut down. We blinked in disbelief. I asked him to reconfirm there were no other substances. He shook his head. We thanked him for his time and stood out in the parking lot trying to make sense of it all.

Christoffersen was one of the few people courageous and committed enough to reach out and make a difference – we don't have many people like that. He had so many plans, he had never been in love, he had just started to find his voice, he had just started on his journey to
be a great civil rights leader – how could antidepressants taken to help him survive the homophobia be the cause of his death? Searching for a way to counteract his parent's request for donations to the ex-gay movement in Christoffersen's memory, we discussed asking for donations in his name for pro-equality causes – but which one? We concluded that the best thing we could do was to share Christoffersen's story – to ask people to double their contribution of time and/or money to whatever LGBT cause they were already involved in, in his memory.

I can't end the story like this. I can't walk away from this all with me having such negative feelings about his church and his family. There has to be something that comes of Christoffersen's death. Ironically, I found the answer from Christoffersen's own words –
sifting through his articles after the funeral I found one titled "Leaving your Legacy," written on June 30, 2005:
"I've been doing a lot of reflecting on my life the past several weeks. It's been a time of soul searching for me ... thinking about the present, trying not to dwell too much on the past, but mainly looking toward the future. ... I'm eternally grateful to those older gentlemen that I met in my early years as a young gay man. I believe it was those men that instilled in me the importance of fighting for what I believe is right. Today, I'm an activist for HIV prevention as well as marriage equality. I'm not afraid to protest when we need to, and to speak out against discrimination when appropriate. If you are a member of the LGBT community and you're reading this, you may feel beaten down, you may feel like your country has turned against you, you may feel a sense of hopelessness ... that we're never going to be treated like 'them' (heterosexuals). There is hope, though. Hope and action are all we have. Many have come before us ... they have fought hard for equality, have battled prejudice and continue to promote tolerance ... all of this so that our community can have such things as gay pride, gay clubs, antidiscrimination laws, and the ongoing fight for our civil rights. They have left their legacy, and I plan to leave mine."

You did, Nathan. Thank you for your tremendous spirit, your tenacity and your sense of humor. Where there is hope and action there are limitless possibilities.

Thanks Nathan, that lesson is the best legacy of all – you will be missed in body and riding with us in the wind in spirit.


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