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What would Nathan

What would Nathan


The mysterious death of rural gay activist Nathan Christoffersen has had an unexpected effect: bridging the gap between gay and antigay. Could Nathan's life and death offer gay activists a path to reaching religious fundamentalists? Part 2 of a special Advocate investigation

At dawn on December 16, 28-year-old gay activist Nathan Christoffersen died mysteriously on the stoop of his parents' house in rural Madera, Calif. In Nathan's obituary, his family requested donations to an "ex-gay" group; at his funeral, a parade of speakers talked about Nathan's "struggles" and "conflicts" but never mentioned that he was gay.

Molly McKay, one of Nathan's several gay and lesbian friends who attended the funeral, complained, "It felt like people were mourning a life that had been led the wrong way." Nathan's fundamentalist Christian dad, Al, offered a different perspective. "Look," he told The Advocate, "I don't have a problem with gay people. I believe in my heart that God loves everybody." He added, "I'm sorry that people were upset by the funeral. Nobody knows the pain that we feel. We wanted to honor our son for whom we knew him to be."

Al Christoffersen is now exploring new ways to honor his son's life--in all respects. He's talking about helping young gay people overcome stigma. He's hoping to meet with Nathan's gay friends. Al has become part of what some gay religious advocates call "the movable middle": Christians who are somewhere along the bridge to full acceptance.

Nathan Christoffersen grew up immersed in his family's Christian fundamentalism. His rural California community differed from small towns in the South or Midwest chiefly in its particular crops and the accent of its population; the bedrock of faith was no different. Christoffersen was born in Fresno, a city of about half a million people and the metropolitan center of California's San Joaquin Valley, the state's agricultural heart. But he grew up in Madera, a farming community of around 50,000 people 20 miles north of Fresno where thick early-morning fog blankets seemingly endless stretches of almond orchards and dairy farms. Pockets of new and old housing developments carve out space along streets with names like Avenue 12 and Road 39. Neighborhoods have no curbs or sidewalks, and long rows of tall power poles parse the landscape.

An intelligent and inquisitive boy who began speaking early and developed a love for animals--including a snake that once escaped its cage and terrified his mother, Barbara--Nathan had trouble fitting in at a young age. "People would call him a fag in the second grade," his father, Al Christoffersen, recalls. "He would come home in tears. There was nothing athletic about him at all. He was an artist."

Nathan taught himself to play the guitar when he was 10 years old and the keyboard at 12. By age 14 he was the worship leader in the church where his father served as pastor. "He was very mature for his age," Al says. "Everybody respected him." As a teenager Nathan began listening to both Christian and pop music. "Cher was his dream," his father says. "He went to 13 of her concerts. I told him he could have bought a car."

Nathan also began to realize he was gay. But in Madera in the mid 1990s--before Internet access was widespread--a son of fundamentalist heritage had few tools or role models to deal with that awakening. When Nathan was 16, Al found a file on the family computer containing the words gay man, and he and Barbara confronted their son. "He started to debate it, and then he just said, 'I need some help,' " Al explains. So they hooked him up with New Creation Ministries, run by ministry friend Russell Willingham and affiliated with the "ex-gay" group Exodus International. Al sought counseling there as well, to "learn how to relate to my son."

Father and son had begun separate journeys together.

David Coleman's journey began at a completely different place than Nathan's. Coleman was raised by "hippie" parents in Delano, Minn., a town of about 4,000 people 30 miles west of Minneapolis. By the time he was ready for college he felt "called by God." So he enrolled at North Central University, a Pentecostal school in Minneapolis.

"I came out to myself during that time," he says. "Everybody believed that homosexuality was a sin. So I made a Web site for gay people on campus to talk anonymously." When school officials found out about the site, they confronted him, then suspended him in May of last year for violating a school ban on gay students. He could regain admission, he was told, only if he could prove he is not participating in the so-called homosexual lifestyle. He has since come out to his parents, who supported him, but still hasn't decided where he will continue his education.

During his several years at North Central, Coleman befriended a student who held deep religious objections to homosexuality--until Coleman came out. "What needed to happen was for him to watch me go through all the pain and struggle in coming out in that environment," says Coleman. "We had long conversations. I'd tell him that I did try to change and it was very destructive."

North Central is affiliated with the Assemblies of God church, which Coleman says contributes more to the "ex-gay" movement than any other denomination. "It's just so esoteric for these people," he says. "Gay people are 'out there.' The only way to convince people in this age is to share your life with them. If a gay person who is completely out were to encounter a born-again Christian, I don't know if they could communicate. But if it is a gay person who is within Christianity and they are struggling, it would really help others understand."

Coleman is now volunteering for Soulforce, a national gay advocacy group working to counter the efforts of antigay religious forces worldwide. Cofounded by the Reverend Mel White, who before coming out was a ghostwriter for antigay televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, the group organizes campaigns, rallies, and educational programs to "end homophobia at the source," including a national bus tour to antigay colleges this year and a protest outside the Colorado headquarters of the antigay organization Focus on the Family in 2005. "Most of the antigay rhetoric in this country starts with the church and the religious right," says Jeff Lutes, Soulforce's executive director.

Lutes agrees with Coleman that gay people who come out and share their lives within a religious environment are playing an important role in ending homophobia. "Soulforce has always been there to try and help people who are the victims of misinformation," says Lutes.

By age 21, Nathan Christoffersen had walked away from the evangelical life he had grown up in. He had left home and had all but stopped attending the evangelical University Vineyard Christian Fellowship church in Fresno with his parents. By age 24 he was working as a manager for a snack food manufacturer and living with a friend in the Fresno suburb of Clovis. He spent a lot of time in the nearby Tower District, which has several gay clubs, a gay and lesbian bookstore with a rainbow flag out front, and a pride parade that runs the length of the district's modest central boulevard every year.

But Fresno sits in the middle of California's San Joaquin Valley, a vast rural landscape that some locals call "the Bible Belt of the West." Fresno has no gay community center. Some lawmakers and residents have tried to stop the pride parade, and the city's evangelical Christian mayor, Alan Autry, once held a rally against same-sex marriage. Casual conversations usually include talk of church, and "Jesus Saves" stickers adorn the bumpers of many cars. "It's a really religious place," says Jason Scott, sitting at the kitchen table of the small farmhouse he owns with his partner in Clovis at the end of a long dirt driveway bordered by goat pens. "There's more churches than there are mini-marts."

Chris Jarvis--former DJ for the North Tower Circle, a recently burned gay nightclub in Fresno--lives in a small bungalow on the edge of the Tower District with his partner of 10 years, James Hensley, the Circle's former bartender. They're both 44 and have no illusions about where they have chosen to live.

"I've lived in Los Angeles," says Hensley. "It's not as open here. Our neighbors next door are homophobic."

But Hensley's not afraid to be out in public, and neither was Christoffersen when he first met him at the club about seven years ago.

"He was the typical young kid coming out," Hensley says. "He was always enjoying himself. He never seemed depressed, never looked upset, and he had great friends."

Love first took hold of Christoffersen when he met Charles Romero, then 19, at a bar called Bam Bam's in Fresno five years ago. "It still amazes me how much you can love somebody," Romero says today. "We had a really deep relationship. We had a lot in common. I come from a very religious family. We were both Christians. We both had to struggle with what we really believed in."

Romero, now 25, ended his relationship with Christoffersen about two years ago and moved to San Francisco. But he grew up in Hanford, a farming town south of Fresno that is much like Madera. Even though Romero's family is Pentecostal and opposed to homosexuality, Christoffersen pressured him to come out to his parents, something Romero still hasn't found the courage to do. Romero says he wasn't encouraged by Christoffersen's own experience. "After about a year Nathan told his parents about me, and they weren't happy," Romero says. "They never wanted to meet me. The first time I met them was at [Nathan's] funeral. I forced myself to do it. It was kind of a shock for them, but it was always very important to Nathan."

Romero's not buying Al Christoffersen's recent expressions of tolerance. "I don't believe Al when he says God accepts homosexuals," Romero argues. "[Nathan's parents] think you can change it." As for Nathan's funeral, which angered his gay friends when it contained no mention of his homosexuality or his gay rights activism and was preceded by an obituary requesting that donations be made to New Creation Ministries, "that might happen with my family [if I died]," Romero says. "I know what they believe. I would understand that they weren't doing it to hurt me."

Still, Romero insists the Christoffersens are good people. "I heard a lot of bad talk about Nathan's parents, but they were always there for him," he says. "He went through a lot of bad things, and they let him come home."

Nathan's journey out of the nest was fraught with difficulties. He had to take an apartment in Fresno when his housemate left town. He got into a car accident, started taking prescription painkillers for an injured back, and got hooked, losing his job as a result. He was later cited for driving drunk. By the time he moved back in with his parents about 21/2 years before his death, he was unemployed, had no valid driver's license, and was addicted to pain medication and sleep aids.

One night Al found Nathan passed out on the couch with a bottle of sleeping pills in his hand. He had taken 12. "He wasn't trying to kill himself," Al says. "That was common. He had taken so many that he had to take a lot to make them work." About a year before Nathan's death Al and Barbara rushed their son to the hospital, where two complete detoxes were performed. "He wasn't so much abusing Vicodin, but he'd been on it for so long that his organs were shutting down," Al says. "That scared him. We saw some [improvement] for a while."

By the summer of 2005, Nathan was more focused and had found a new purpose. Equality California field director Molly McKay first met Nathan after he signed up to help out with the gay rights group last summer. "I was enchanted," McKay says. "He was so friendly and open and inquisitive. He was a delight. I thought, This is a person that has a lot of potential. This person is a leader."

Soon Christoffersen was the Equality California chapter leader for Madera County and was talking about his activism in terms of a career. But it wasn't easy for him, McKay says. "I mailed a banner and some [Equality California] T-shirts to his home, and he got in trouble with his family," she says. "He said his parents were really upset. It was clearly very painful for him. He loved his family."

Al Christoffersen says he didn't agree with the work his son was doing for Equality California but insists he didn't try to stop him. "To be honest, we don't know too much about his involvement in this," he says. "Nathan didn't share it with us. But we support our kids in whatever they do. We went around and around about the marriage issue, but more joking than anything. We really didn't fight with each other."

Nathan's friends, however, say his parents were still giving him grief over his sexuality. He threatened to skip the family Christmas because his parents wouldn't let him "be who he really was," says Scott, who, as the Equality California chapter leader for Fresno County, worked a lot with Nathan.

But Nathan didn't live until Christmas. And that, Al Christoffersen says, was God's will. "Nathan could have gone on and have been a real asset to their community," Al says, referring to gays and lesbians. "But you know what? God had a different idea, a different plan."

Candace Chellew-Hodge, assistant pastor at Garden of Grace United Church in Columbia, S.C., talks about people like Al as members of the "movable middle." They've seen God's grace in their gay family members or friends, says Chellew-Hodge, 40, who lives with her partner of five years, Wanda. "What you have to do is keep showing [people like Al] that grace."

Chellew-Hodge is the youngest of five kids born to a Southern Baptist preacher. Her parents divorced when she was 9, and she grew up with her mother. "I came out to her when I was 16, and she said, 'It might be a phase, don't do anything about it,' " Chellew-Hodge remembers. "I didn't--until I fell in love with my first girlfriend when I was 18. I told her, 'Mom, it's not a phase.' She and I had the 'Bible talk.' She said, 'I think it's wrong, but you're my daughter and I love you. You'll always be welcome in my house.' "

But family reunions still aren't easy for Chellew-Hodge. She has two sisters and two brothers, and three of the siblings are conservative Republicans and fundamentalist Christians who speak openly against LGBT equality. "We simply don't talk politics anymore because it became too stressful," she says. "[But] they all are very accepting, and they all think Wanda is wonderful. So the family is cool, within its limits."

Political or not, "what needs to happen to the movable middle is dialogue," adds Chellew-Hodge. "Let them speak their language and calmly defend yourself."

To help others with that religion-based dialogue--among family or friends, or just in their own mind--Chellew-Hodge founded, an online magazine for gay and lesbian Christians celebrating its 10-year anniversary this summer. "There's fear on both sides, especially for us," she says. "How many times have you been run into the ground? You don't want to walk into a situation where that is going to happen again."

It's Sunday morning at the University Vineyard church about a month after Christoffersen's funeral. A Christian pop group churns out song after song about the greatness and the glory of God's love. About 200 congregants of all ages, most dressed in jeans and flannel, sway side to side with arms outstretched while standing among neat rows of blue upholstered stacking chairs.

Pastor Ray Duran takes the stage wearing a colorful sweater and a small headset microphone. He sermonizes about the importance of serving God in everyday life. "If you are doing something you feel you were created to do, then you are serving the Lord," Duran says, gesturing toward the heavens. "Offer that up as worship to God."

In the months before his death--and in some ways, in the months after--Nathan Christoffersen may have finally found what he was created to do. Most congregants at University Vineyard probably wouldn't see it as God's work, but his father might. Because now God is calling to Al Christoffersen, has given him an idea. God is telling him to help young people who are taunted and bullied, like his own son was in school.

"I might start a thing called the Nathan Foundation," he says. "I'm really sick of the way people treat people because they are different. I know a number of kids who are into the arts, and they are constantly picked on. These kids need to know that it's OK to be who they are." He carefully avoids saying the word "gay" until prompted: Doesn't he mean gay kids? Yes, he says, "probably the biggest share of the people who would come to us would be gay."

Al Christoffersen is not only hoping to speak to McKay and Scott about their upset over the funeral, he seems ready to accept the work that they are doing. "If they get their agenda done, great," he says. "I'm glad."

Says McKay: "If there's nothing more than you have a common love for a human being, that's where hope lives. It terrifies me to think of picking up the phone and calling Al. But maybe I owe it him. Maybe I owe it to Nathan. We've got to be willing to take that leap of faith and reach out and say, 'I loved Nathan too.' "

McKay too sees her work in religious terms. "My job is convincing people that supporting gay people is the right thing to do," she says. "It's what Nathan was doing. It's what Jesus would do."

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