The following interview with Tina Richerson was first published by the Mormon Women Project in May 2013.
Tina knew from a young age that music was her life’s calling and she is a professional saxophonist in New York. It took longer for Tina to realize that she is gay, but a period of inactivity from the Church didn’t stop her from paying her tithing every month. It was appreciation and practice of Buddhism that led Tina back to the Church in her remarkable journey back into activity.
When I was in third grade I had a babysitter, who was in the high school jazz band. Her band played at my elementary school. I saw her stand up and play tenor saxophone and she was just killing it. She stood up and took a solo. I was like, that’s amazing! Then in fifth grade, I had a choice in public school to be in choir or in band. I wanted to be in band. I wanted to play tenor saxophone. I really feel like saxophone picked me. It was that thing I just knew I had to do. There was just no question.
I grew up in a very musical home although no one was trained. I got some really good negative pushback from my father which made me just want to prove to him even more that I would practice every day. So, I did. I practiced every day. Nobody told me to practice, but it was like a refuge for me. You know, all families are crazy and disruptive, no one is immune to that, and I just found it to be a sanctuary.
I didn’t take private lessons, just what I got in school. But I would fall asleep dreaming of orchestrations in my head. I could hear music in my head. And I dreamt of me being in a Jazz combo, just five people. I didn’t know what that was. I just knew that I was on stage performing with a bass player, drummer, piano and a trumpet player. I decided then that that’s how I was going to spend the rest of my life.
What was it like to get your first saxophone?
Oh, it was magic! Man, I got this instrument, I didn’t know how it worked but I put the reed on and I just started playing the one with the record – like immediately. I didn’t know how to finger anything.
It was my big passion. It’s all I wanted to do in high school. I actually hated high school because I couldn’t do enough music. I was in music zero hour, 3rd period, 6th period and then after school. So, it was four times a day and it wasn’t enough. I didn’t want to learn history, I didn’t want learn biology. I just wanted to know more about music.
When I was a sophomore in High School I went to a competition for band and small ensembles held at the University of Idaho (Moscow, Idaho). The saxophone professor at the University of Idaho approached me and asked if I was taking lessons and I said, “No, my parents can’t afford it.” And he said, “Well, look, if you drive over here (which was 200 miles away) I’ll give you saxophone lessons for free.” I said, “Okay, you’ve got a deal.” So, I took his telephone number, I went back home. I was 16 at the time. I said, “Dad, I need a car. This saxophone professor wants to give me lessons for free.” He said, “Well, there are 2 engines in the garage. See what you can do with them.” My dad was a mechanic. So, I had to rebuild my first car engine. With my dad’s help, we rebuilt the car engine so I could drive 200 miles one way to be at saxophone lesson at 8:30 on Saturday mornings. I did this every other Saturday for my junior and senior years of high school. Get up at 3:30AM to be in my car by 4:00AM and drive for 4 hours. Have my saxophone lesson at 8:30AM until 10:00AM. I’d make it home by 2:30PM or 3:00PM with just enough time to be at work at 4:00PM.
University of Idaho gave me a scholarship and I went to college there in saxophone performance. Then I went to the University of Washington and got my graduate degree in saxophone performance as well. There’s never been a plan B because if you have a plan B that’s what you’re going to end up doing. So, I’ve always just decided that music is number one. And I’ve always had odd jobs here and there but I’ve always had students and I’ve always been able to perform. I’ve been lucky enough to perform with lots of big bands and small bands alike, especially in Seattle.
Where were you raised?
In southern Washington, in the Columbia Gorge. When I was in high school, my family moved to Wenatchee, Washington. I lived in Seattle for my graduate work. I was there for ten years before I moved to New York City. Music’s been the thing, man. It’s been the driving force. It’s been the safe haven in my life. The constant. The router.
Were you raised in the Church?
My mother was a convert to the church at age 18. My father wasn’t a member but we went to church every Sunday. And she taught us to pray, follow the commandments and she taught us to follow the Lord. When I was 9, my father finally converted. When I was 11, we went to the temple which was really neat and we were all sealed together. So, I grew up being very active in church and I loved it. I love the gospel. I knew it was true. I’m a true believing Mormon. I’ve always had a strong testimony of my Savior and have just loved having a relationship with the Lord.
Let’s switch gears for a minute and talk to you about being queer.
Well, when I was 11 or so my Uncle Michael, my dad’s brother, came to my parents and said, “I have found the person of my dreams. We are going to have a commitment ceremony. His name is Tom. I love him very much.” And my parents said, “No, we can’t come to your commitment ceremony because we can’t support you in that. We love you no matter what you do but we can’t support your life style.” Later, my mom expressed that homosexuality was just bad and evil and against God, a very grievous sin – only second that to killing someone, I remember her saying. Then, when I was 12, I was taught in Mia Maids to pray, to stay on your knees to feel the Spirit and that’s how you receive answers to prayers. So, that night I went home and prayed. I didn’t have anything special I was praying for. I just stayed on my knees to feel the Spirit and the awareness welled up within side of me that I was homosexual. I was so afraid and so shocked, dismayed. It was the worst thing that could happen and I was just like, no! no! no! no! no! no! I shoved it into the deeps recesses of my body and there it stayed hidden until I was in college. A few people tried to bring it up with me in college, but I just couldn’t handle it.
So, other people were seeing this?
Oh, yeah. A lot of my classmates saw it. I just kept a lid on it as tight as I could. I had no interest in dating boys. I was just a baby bull-dyke. I really was. I wore these giant combat boots. I had a leather jacket. I had camouflage pants and always wore men’s T-shirts. No, I was just full on a small dyke. I just couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see it at all. I just couldn’t or wouldn’t see it.
I went on one double date when I was 16. I was like, “Oh, I’m 16. I can go on a date now.” So, I went on a double date. It was just lame. I even ended up making out with the other girl’s date who put the moves on me and I was like, “Oh, sure, this is just something that people do.” The kiss…it was gross, disgusting, yuck. I didn’t like it at all. I wasn’t intrigued. I didn’t have any romantic interest in any boy ever. To this day I haven’t had romantic interest with any boy. I’m almost 40. I’m a lesbian. Yeah, it’s true.
It was in college that I really began to realize that I was falling in love with women. And the first woman that I fell in love with really, she was Catholic and she wouldn’t have it. I went and saw my bishop at home and said, “I think I’m gay.” And he said, “No, it’s not possible. In order for you to be gay one of your parents has to by gay. Obviously neither of your parents is gay because they had you and God would never do that to anyone. He wouldn’t create someone homosexual. No, not possible.” So, I was even more confused. I went back to college and fell in love with another girl. Then began the crazy wicked battle back and forth: gay or straight, active in the church or not active in the church. So, I did the pray the gay away thing. I worked so hard. I went to the temple. I thought that would make me straight. I thought I could just have enough faith that the Lord would just take it away and that I could will myself into being what everyone else told me I needed to be. I just put myself through the ringer to the point I made myself sick. I had done everything I could think of to do. I convinced myself that I was going to marry a guy. I fasted. I prayed. I went to the temple. I received my endowment. Did everything I could think to do, and at a certain point I just realized that I was unhappy and broken from the struggle to make myself straight. As hard as I tried my homosexuality just wasn’t going to go away.
I realized that at a New Year’s Eve dance at a Mormon church. It was just so pathetic. I was looking out at the dance floor at the guy that I had convinced myself that I was going to marry. And he was dancing with someone else and I realized he had zero interested in me. And I thought to myself, “What am I doing here?” So, I prayed in that very moment and said, “Take this away from me.” The next day I went to my friends’ house where all of my lesbian friends from college were gathered. I knew they would all be hung over so I took over some eggs and potatoes to make everyone breakfast. That was the day I met the woman I would marry and spend the next seven years of my life. We held a beautiful commitment ceremony two years after we started dating.
It was an incredible seven years with her, even though I missed the church, the community, the spiritual nourishment. But eventually, I could no longer live in Seattle and be happy. The jazz scene of New York City was calling my soul. So we moved to NYC and she lasted 4 months till she was completely depressed and distressed. We both realized that she had no place in New York City and needed to return to Seattle. I could no longer live in Seattle. We had a long distance relationship for one year which completely unraveled in that time. We tried to keep it together, but we needed such different things. She needed to have children in Seattle and I needed to make music in New York, so we set each other free. This was about five and a half years ago.
That relationship must have been a great loss. How did you handle that?
At the time, I was living with a Buddhist here in New York and he had this incredible library of Buddhist books. He practiced zazen or meditation every day; he taught me how to practice zazen too. We talked a lot about Zen and Buddhist precepts. I began to read these books and the Zen Buddhist approached really helped me embrace the suffering. My mom was also really sick with cancer at that time too. So, I started to redevelop my spiritual side through Zen Buddhism and through music. So, I just sunk deeper into music and my spirituality which was really powerful and wonderful. Buddhism is actually what brought me back to the church.
I was reading a book by Thích Nh?t H?nh, who is one of my favorites Zen Buddhist authors, called Living Buddha, Living Christ. In the book, he talks about the jewels of our traditions and how important it is to accept our own tradition. He says, “When we respect our blood ancestors and spiritual ancestors, we feel rooted. If we can find ways to cherish and develop our spiritual heritage we will avoid the kind of alienation that is destroying society and we will become whole again. We must encourage others, especially young people, to go back to their traditions and rediscover the jewels that are there. Learning to touch deeply the jewels of our own tradition will allow us to understand and appreciate the values of other traditions and this will benefit everyone.” And when I read this I was so struck knowing that I had to go back to my tradition, to my Mormon tradition. I was like, oh, crap! Really? This information sat inside of me for about six months before I had the courage to go back to church, to be whole again, but I knew I had to do it.
So, what were some of the first steps you took?
I was always a tithing payer because as a musician you always need support. I’ve always had a firm foundation, a total testimony of tithing. I’ve paid my tithing since I declared myself a professional musician in 2003.
You paid your tithing the entire time you weren’t going to church? To whatever ward you technically would have been in?
Yeah, and I always had my files transferred to whatever ward I was supposed to be in. I would write the bishop a letter and say, “Hey look, I’m in your ward. You have my records. Do not contact me. Do not send the Relief Society after me. Do not send the missionaries after me but here’s my tithing.” And I’d tell the bishop I was gay and in a relationship.
So, you actually meet with the Bishop and say, “Look I’m queer, I’m in your ward. You’re going to get tithing but that’s all you are going to get from me”?
Yeah, exactly. When I first got to New York, I had a bishop who tried to tell me I’d be happier if I was a wife and mother and I said, “You are not listening to my words. I am queer. I’m homo. I’m as homo as they get.” But then a couple of years later a new bishop was called. I just knew that cause the name on the tithing envelopes changed. I stopped by the church on Sundays and slipped my tithing envelopes under the bishop’s door.
You go to the church house, fill out the slip and put it under the bishop’s door…
I didn’t fill out the slips there. I would go in, grab some envelopes and some slips, slide my tithing under the door and get out of there as quickly as possible. Just like, in and out, boom. But, this particular Sunday I slipped it under the door and the bishop, the new bishop, pops his head out and is like, “You! Who are you? What are you doing? Where do you come from?” He was just so earnest, so curious. He wanted to talk: “I’m just really curious. Nobody pays their tithing who doesn’t come to church.” He was so befuddled and he was just so earnest. So, I make an appointment to meet with him and it also happens to be tithing settlement time. It turns out that this bishop is a saxophone player himself! So, we talked about music. We talked about me growing up in the church and being homosexual. And he said, “Well, look the door is open to you any time. Feel free to come to church and you can bring your girlfriend too.” Yeah, I was so shocked. I was like, What??? You just said I could bring my girlfriend to church? Did they change the Bishop’s Handbook? What’s going on? What happened? It’s been 9 years since I’ve attended church and this guy is inviting me to bring my girlfriend to church.
I knew at that point it was time to go back to church. I was going to honor my tradition. I went back to church. The very first Sunday back was fast and testimony, the very first Sunday of the new year (2011). I got up and bore my testimony to my congregation. I said I hadn’t attended the church for nine years but I’ve always known it was true. I just bore testimony that I know that Jesus is the Christ and that this is the restored gospel. I didn’t announce that I was homosexual. I think it was pretty obvious though. You know, I showed up with a tie and a button down shirt and nice slacks on. I bore my testimony and everyone was so kind and loving and I was like, okay this is cool. And I just began to work with my Bishop. I continued to practice zazen and I continued to read Buddhist books. I continued to practice mediation and mindful living but I slowly incorporated reading the scriptures, starting with the New Testament because I felt like I needed to get to know my Savior more. I began to pray more to Heavenly Father as opposed to just mediating or chanting. It only took about five or six months before the Lord showed me that I could totally incorporate my zazen and scripture reading. I still chant. I think it’s something really important that our culture doesn’t teach but it is a very strong tool and I chant what people would praise in church like: “Praise God,” “Thank you, Jesus,” “Thank you, Father in Heaven.” Just chant like that because it is very powerful. So, I still keep that in my personal practice.
What benefits does chanting give you?
It just opens up my chakras. It opens up all of my channels to feel the Spirit. It gives me groundedness and rootedness in a way that I’m able to feel the Spirit…in Buddhism they talk about “the mirror”. There is a mirror in our minds that reflects life and sometimes the mirror gets really dirty and we need to clean the mirror to see clearly. To be spirit-led, you have to constantly clean that mirror.
This is a significant shift, from Buddhism to Christianity. What has that been like for you?
Well my return to the Church came at the same time I was ending a relationship. My new freedom allowed me so much space to feel the Spirit, which is the awesome filler of everything, right? It just gave me more mental space, more spiritual space to be calm. It felt so good and the Lord just filled me with his spirit all the time. I was so happy. There were definitely hard, hard days. But I didn’t try and solve it. I didn’t try and fix it. I said – great, I’m just going to love whatever is going through me right now because that’s what the Lord would do and that’s what I’ve been practicing the past several years living my life. Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a philosophy. It’s a practice of life. I just put all of my Buddhist practice to work by going back to church.
So, during this time that you are getting to know yourself what did you learn? What did you discover? Who’s Tina?
I discovered that I really love more than anything to wake up alone and pray first thing. I don’t want to talk to anybody. I learned that I need a lot of alone time. I learned that I’ll put myself way on the back burner for the happiness of someone else and that can be really extreme for me. I don’t take care of myself. It just shows how horrible I am in relationships. I really don’t need to be in a relationship to be happy is what I discovered and that actually I prefer to be single. That’s what I learned.
It’s a happy coincidence that my preferring to be single lines up really with what the Church expects of me as homosexual, and perhaps a more faithful way of saying that is that God blesses me to feel this way. That’s what I think. The Great Creator can make us into whatever he wants of us. If we move ourselves in slightest right direction he will take it and he’ll magnify it for our good. I feel like I’ve been blessed to be at such peace about this. I have this incredible relationship with the Lord and with the Spirit. I’m just so peaceful. Peaceful! Joyful! I will take the gifts of the Spirit over the gifts of the flesh any day of the week. I’m all about it.
What do you think got you to that point?
The Lord, I really do, without question. And also my desire to feel the Spirit got me to this point. My desire to know the truth. My desire to align myself with the Lord’s will. My desire to not be afraid and say – hey, I’m a homosexual. I’m the big bad word. I was created this way. It’s not an affliction. I was created this way. And I was given the ability not to be afraid of that any more.
I reached out to my Stake President and told him I’m a homosexual and if he needs any help or advice on how to help other homosexuals I’m a resource. I’ve spoken to the Relief Society in my ward to share my mother’s faithful experience of how she came to accept me as a homosexual, my faith journey as a homosexual in the gospel, and how much that hurt and how much I had to get over to come back to church. If someone has a question, let’s talk about it and to use the word homosexual. I’ve also joined Affirmation which is the gay and lesbian bisexual transgender organization that’s not affiliated through the Church, but it is member organized and run. So, now I’m deeply involved the outreach and membership of that work.
What have been the challenges for you in this work?
I think the biggest challenge is when people question why I’m celibate and they act as if it’s a just phase. Or that I’m hiding behind the Church in a way that makes me less authentic. Or when my gay friends are like, “What are you doing hanging with the Mormons?” So, that’s hard. That’s actually lessening up now. I think the hardest part is when my gay friends question my happiness. When they can’t believe that I’m happy and joyful. Even though they meet me and see that I’m a happy person, they can’t believe that God would ever support a person being happy in being celibate. Everyone just assumes that you can’t be happy unless you are in a relationship and that maybe that is true for some people, I just feel better not being in a relationship.
What have been the blessings as you returned to the Church?
My mind is more sharp and more clear about what I want to do. It is evident to me that in the past two years God has been directing and guiding my footsteps. I’m blessed with a peace. When I read the scriptures, I’m given revelation on what the Lord wants me to do. I am given the courage and the confidence and the strength to live my life. The Lord has also changed me physically and mentally to be able to do this. I can go to the temple now. I can go to the temple and do the work for my ancestors, which is just such an amazing blessing and get help from the other side. I have full access to all the mysteries of the kingdom of God. If that isn’t a blessing, there isn’t one. I have the reassurance given through the Holy Ghost. I live an abundant life. The blessing of knowing that at any moment I have access to divine energy is just awesome. I know who I am now. I know who I am. I’ll tell you what – one of the biggest blessings is saying, “I’m a homosexual and I’m a daughter of God. The Lord loves me and there’s a work to be done, brother and sisters. There’s a mighty, mighty work to be done and it’s called building up Zion.” To be able to build up Zion like this and strengthen other people who have had such pain caused from being homosexual is joy and fulfillment in my life. Sometimes it’s very stressful and I get bombarded with emails or things I need to do but it’s such a blessing to know what to do with my life. To have meaning in my life. To know where to put my time and my energy and to be directed in every step is the best blessing that anybody could ever want.
Is there anything else that you would want the women reading your story to know?
If we try to live up to some ridiculous idea of perfection we totally miss grace, we completely miss grace. Grace is something we need to embrace; the Lord knows us, and He doesn’t want us to be like everyone else. He didn’t make us to be like everyone else. We’re all individuals and he needs us to do his work to build up Zion to strengthen and edify each other. We are all part of the same body but if the body is walking around with the knee thinking it’s supposed to be the nose or the head thinking it’s supposed to be the shoulder… You can’t do your job if you think you are supposed to be something else. Just find out who you are in the Lord and make your space in the Church.
I do want to close with saying that I know that the church is true and I know that Jesus Christ is the son of God. And that the restoration of the gospel is the truth and if we seek the truth it will be made known. If we ask, we’ll have the answers. All the answers are available. Even though they aren’t always clear we will get the answer. I say these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.