A Reminder of What We Are Up Against – Our Tragic Loss
When Becki, our Tulare County Chapter leader called me on Friday night, 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,” Nathan 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 Nathan just the day before, he was happy, excited about a job interview with Planned Parenthood, asking me for a letter of reference and a copy of the latest handout on fighting the Constitutional Amendments aiming to eliminate domestic partnerships and marriage equality. Nathan and I talked weekly about the challenge of getting people in the Central Valley active for LGBT rights, we talked about how hard it was for him to live at home with his horribly homophobic parents, without a car in the ‘suburbs’ of a tiny farming town. We joked about how his house was the central organizing headquarters for those both for and against the Constitutional Amendments. His parents were leaders of their local religious right Christian Church and refused to accept that Nathan was an out, proud gay man. They had repeatedly threatened to throw him out if he was ever interviewed or photographed by the media.
But Nathan was a positive, brave upbeat person. He was a fantastic journalist for the online LGBT community web-newspaper called GayFresno.com which was owned and run by our Fresno County Chapter leader, Jason Scott. I affectionately called Nathan, Becki and Jason the Three Musketeers of the Central Valley – together the three of them helped organized the community responses to the anti-marriage equality rallies in Fresno, Madera and Clovis, the Coming Out Day rally on the steps of Fresno City Hall, the Central Valley Power Summit and the investigation and community organizing to investigate two arson fires at gay clubs in Fresno.
I admit I was immediately suspicious upon hearing of Nathan’s death – it didn’t make any sense – his father told Jason that Nathan had complained of not feeling well, having switched medications that day, but went Christmas shopping with a friend for an hour or so anyway. Jason explained to me that Nathan had been taking a variety of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications: coping mechanisms for him to survive a hostile home environment. Jason and I poked around the edges of Nathan’s tight-knit circle of family and friends, trying to pick up scraps of information, stunned that Nathan was really gone.
Jason forwarded an email from Nathan’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 Jason to Nathan’s funeral scheduled for Wednesday. How could a 28-year-old die of “nothing” – I felt I owed it to Nathan’s legacy of inquisitive and persistent investigative work to do better than that. I began a campaign of calling the coroner. I didn’t know if “non-family” members could get information, but the coroner was surprisingly accessible and candid. He explained that indeed there was no “medical finding for Nathan’s death” no signs of trauma, healthy heart and vital organs. He was waiting on toxicology reports.
The day before the funeral, Nathan’s obituary was published – no mention of his gay rights leadership, just a notation that “he played in the school band.” The next revelation was so cruel that we just couldn’t believe our eyes. The family asked for donations in Nathan’s name to the “New Creation Ministry” a church solely devoted to the ex-gay movement and associated with the debunked “conversion therapy.” This wasn’t the church the family attended, this wasn’t some coincidence or mistake, they were purposely profaning Nathan’s memory by soliciting donations to an anti-gay organization. I cried in anger, helplessness and rage. We checked with the newspaper and found out friends can’t publish obituaries, only “family.”
Though we knew we’d be wading in unwelcome waters, Jason, Becki and I committed to attending Nathan’s funeral to be a visibly queer presence and to honor the large part of Nathan’s too short life that was dedicated to ending LGBT discrimination. I met them in the parking lot, donned my perennial ‘We All Deserve the Freedom to Marry” sticker. We took a deep breath and walked into the non-descript looking building marked “The University Vineyard Church.”
We walked into the chapel passing a few men in suits, who glanced at my sticker and gave me a dirty look. We reviewed Nathan’s memorial table – white-washed of any mention of his civil rights leadership, his writings – nothing but a mention that “Nathan was fortunate enough to attend several Cher performances” and how he loved “Annie: the musical.” We surreptitiously dropped a memorial letter Jason had brought from a gay friend describing how Nathan had inspired him to want to get involved in the fight for marriage equality. I felt a little guilty knowing his parents would have a heart-attack when they saw what we’d added, but I felt Nathan smile at our attempt and we took our seats.
Speaker after speaker came to the microphone to lament about Nathan’s “struggles,” “demons,” “conflicts” – how they “continued to pray for him and never gave up on him.” Song after song was sung exalting the greatness of Jesus- the one and only true savior – who promised to save the sinners who knew him. Once the minister rose to give his sermon, the gloves came off, the words became less guarded and more explicit about just exactly what that “demon” was that Nathan was fighting. The minister acknowledged Nathan’s sensitive nature, his extraordinary singing and song writing talents, but instead of acknowledging Nathan’s gayness as part of that rare gift, he characterized his gayness as “an affliction.” He explained how Satan was jealous of the “vulnerable, the sensitive” with talents, and how Satan ‘harassed” Nathan from an early age. He explained that Nathan’s death was God calling Nathan home before Satan could cause any more torment in Nathan’s 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 his tormentors posing as friends and twisting Nathan’s memory to reaffirm your agenda at Nathan’s expense” – the hypocrisy of their “love for Jesus” and the hatred of Nathan’s true being was killing me – I felt punched, outraged, I couldn’t stop the tears – I finally experienced a flavor of the pain that Nathan must have felt everyday – the invisibility, the futility of trying to get blind people to see – I felt sick. The words “gay” or “homosexuality” were never spoken, but it was alluded to as this pervading negative menace throughout the service . What should I do? What would Nathan have wanted me to do? I was torn between respecting the nature of a funeral service and a duty to disrupt the words being spoken against my friend.
The service was finally over. Becki, Jason 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 Nathan’s death – clearly, we were the only ones left with unanswered questions. Nathan’s father wrote a letter explaining that God had given him a vision of “[w]hen Nathan went to unlock [the front] door he heard someone call his name. When he turned around the Lord was standing behind him so he dropped to his knees with his face to the ground in reverence. Then the Lord reached out and said ‘You’re coming home with Me’ as He touched him on the head. Nathan was gone from this world in a second…There is only one answer, Nathan saw the face of God and the Bible says no one can see the face of God and live.”
We tracked down the forlorn Madera County coroner’s office down a long desolate road wedged between the Juvenile Detention Center and the WIC program building. The coroner had received preliminary toxicology reports which confirmed no alcohol, no street drugs, but an alarmingly high level of anti-depressants 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 to re-confirm nothing else, no other substances, nothing? He shook his head. We thanked him for his time and stood out in the coroner’s parking lot trying to make sense of it all.
Nathan 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 – we didn’t have him to spare. 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 – he had deeply moved and inspired each of us – how could anti-depressants taken to help him survive the homophobia be the cause of his death?
In anger, I declared that Nathan had died on his knees because his family had made him crawl – he had been trying to stand and fly and was taken before he’d been able to leave the nest. I cried that his family may not have intentionally killed him, but their torturous judgment and active rejection of who he was had indirectly been the cause of Nathan’s death. Searching for a way to counteract his parent’s request for donations to the ex-gay movement in Nathan’s memory, we discussed asking for donations in Nathan’s name for pro-equality causes – but which one? – for the Madera EQCA chapter? For PFLAG? For Soulforce? We concluded that the best thing we could do was to share Nathan’s story – to ask people to double their contribution of time and/or money to what ever LGBT cause they were already involved in, in Nathan’s memory. It is all important – everything we do – we just have to keep on – if it hasn’t killed us yet, we have to pick up and move forward and realize that we aren’t just fighting for ourselves, but for all of us. Nathan’s spirit lives within all of us, every time we speak out we honor his legacy and the legacy of others like him who died before their time. It is our duty and destiny to end the toxicity of homophobia – we have come so far, we need to keep fighting – though our hearts have been repeatedly broken if it is still beating press on, press on.
I can’t end the story like this. I can’t walk away from this all with me hating and blaming his homophobic church and family and his family walking away hating and blaming Satan – aka the gay community for taking their only son. There has to be something that comes of Nathan’s death other than re-trenched positions. There is no possibility in the ending to date – no movement, no love. Ironically, I found the answer from Nathan’s own words – sifting through Nathan’s 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 towards the future. . . I’m eternally grateful to those older gentlemen that I met it 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, anti-discrimination 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, your sense of humor. I have a renewed appreciation for how strong you really were – at the end of just one day in your community – I feel beaten, drained and spent. Re-reading Nathan’s words, I re-commit to the struggle – I can’t drop his family, if I do, I drop my hope. I will reach out and continue to reach out in love and friendship. Despite all the differences, we have something in common – we loved Nathan. I owe it to him and I pledge to wait for a week or so and then call Nathan’s father giving him my condolences and extending the possibility for us to continue the dialogue together. Where there is hope and action – there are limitless possibilities – thanks Nathan, that lesson is the best Christmas gift of all – you will be missed in body and writing with us in the wind in spirit. To Hope and Action!