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  • Writer's pictureBen Finzel

The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Elena Joy Thurston of Pride & Joy Foundation

Pride Month is a great time to introduce you to another inspiring LGBTQ leader. Elena Joy Thurston is the CEO of the Pride & Joy Foundation. In this role, her mission is, “to prevent suicide and homelessness in the LGBTQ+ community by fostering allyship, empowering advocates, and creating opportunities for LGBTQ+ visibility.”

The Pride & Joy Foundation is small (for now), but mighty. They provide virtual programming focused on preparing LGBTQ+ people for leadership and engagement with youth and other communities. They also support parents and educators of LGBTQ+ youth through quarterly events where all awkward questions are encouraged. It’s all the brainchild of Elena Joy and she’s the force behind this emerging body of work.

But Elena Joy is more than “just” a foundation leader. She’s a former Mormon who lost her family, her job, her community and her sense of wellbeing when she came out as a lesbian. She rebuilt her life and is now a motivational speaker, connector and counselor who shares her story and helps others to share theirs all while building community (check out her Ted Talk if you really want to be inspired!).

I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of hearing Elena Joy speak twice in the past year: both times at the PRSA Counselors Academy Spring Conference (last year and this year). Elena Joy speaks with honesty, candor and clarity. There were times during both of her presentations when you could have heard a pin drop as her audiences were hanging on her every word.

It only made sense to include Elena Joy in the Common Sense Colloquy series given her forthright approach and the high quotient of common sense advice in everything she says. I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to share her insights with our audience.

My thanks to Elena Joy for sharing her wisdom with me and with you.

Q: It’s Pride Month 2023. You’re the CEO of the Pride and Joy Foundation. I think that name was intentional. Tell us what we need to know about “pride” and “joy.”

A: Aw! Not too many people pick up on how intentional that name is, so thank you! So my middle name is “Joy” and since I came out, I have focused on reclaiming my joy. Then I came across the idea that being visible in queer joy is a revolutionary act.

As the years have gone by, I have become more and more convinced of that truth. So much of the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric is meant to tear down happiness and joy through the idea that “wickedness never was happiness”. Many of us have been fed the narrative that if you live life as a queer person, you will only be miserable (or dead from suicide or AIDS in the extreme propaganda moments). Every time LGBTQ+ people and families are able to revel in their joy, it pushes back on that idea and proves that living your life authentically is the fast track to joy.

And of course, Pride. Our nonprofit needed a name that gives a hint of queerness without knocking our audience over the head with it. This is because many times we have parents in our Pride and Joy Parents program who really want to attend our events but their spouse or partner is not supportive of their child’s identity. When it’s on the family calendar as an event with “Pride and Joy Foundation” it doesn’t set off alarm bells. People in the community immediately see it and those not immersed in our world, don’t even blink. It’s the best of both worlds.

Q: So much of the work around LGBTQ equality feels like it’s rooted in communications: what we say, how we say it, who we say it to, etc. How do you view the role of communications in your work?

A: The role of communication is absolutely vital in my equity work. From the heteronormative audience perspective, we have to recognize that they were fed the same level of BS that every Western culture dishes out regarding our community. I have found that the majority of people really want to learn and feel safe asking awkward questions. When I can communicate clearly that they won’t be judged, no matter the question, that’s when true learning can happen. That is when we can increase allyship. If our audience feels judged for their lack of knowledge or default perspective, they can’t learn and nothing will change.

This is my secret sauce as a speaker. I can’t judge my audiences because I was them. There is nothing they can say to me that I haven’t said at some point in my life, given my ultra-conservative background. At my presentations and trainings, you’re not going to hear “You should say this and not say this, and how could you even think of asking that???”

It’s definitely more, “Let me share how I used to think and why, and what I’ve gained from evolving that perspective. This is how my world has grown, my relationships have deepened, and even how I’ve strengthened my own identity and sense of self. Now, what questions do you have?”

Allyship is a spectrum. On one end you have all-out hate, and then tolerance, and then neutrality, and then allyship. Finally, you have advocacy at the other end of the spectrum. I meet my audiences where they are and communicate accordingly.

The other part of my work is in developing LGBTQ+ leaders in the vocal empowerment needed for advocacy work. Being visible in your career as an LGBTQ+ professional necessitates having communication skills in strategic vulnerability and inclusive leadership. Emerging LGBTQ+ leaders will hire me as an executive coach to support their visibility, leadership, and specifically, speaking or presentation opportunities.

When we take the microphone as LGBTQ+ professionals, our audience already has a filter in place. When we speak up in team meetings, same thing. And then Pride Month rolls around, and we’re asked to speak to our co-workers about what life is like being queer. It’s a huge communication demand fraught with triggers and potholes. Effective communication is at the heart of it.

Q: Your life story is the foundation for the work you do. How have your experiences shaped what you do and how you do it? What lessons can you share from the perspective of someone who came by her truth the hard way?

A: You know, it’s funny but in some ways, it was kind of inevitable that I ended up a public speaker. I’ve always craved an audience and went to college to study theater. By my sophomore year, it was clear that I did NOT have a future as an actress. I’m great on stage but I can’t act worth a darn! You can always read my face, especially when I think the script is terrible or I think my cast mate is an idiot. Confidence on stage cannot make up for a face that says “Are you freaking kidding me?!” LOL

Add to that, in the Mormon church children start their public speaking life at 3 years old. Not even joking! Sunday sermons are taught by members of the congregation, usually 1-3 adults and a teen. Children will begin speaking in front of their peers at age 3 and by the time they’re 12, they’re expected to give talks to the entire congregation. The idea is that by the time you leave for a mission in early adulthood, speaking to strangers about your faith is no big deal.

Because of this, I can teach an object lesson like nobody’s business. When you spend years teaching 4-year-olds the “Plan of Salvation” and its many layers in a way they can understand, you learn the skills to teach anybody, anything! When your audience is a congregation of 300 Mormon families where the children outnumber the adults 4-to-1 (not an exaggeration), you learn real quick how to be incredibly engaging. Talk about communication skills!

But let’s be real. Once I realized my sexuality, I also realized how much I had at stake. I fully believed that if I came out, I wouldn’t have my kids in this life but also the next. Everything I had worked so hard for, to be worthy of an eternal family, could disappear. I needed to be “fixed” and I enrolled myself in conversion therapy. I didn’t know it doesn’t work and that 92% of participants end up with lifetime suicidal ideation.

In September 2017, I planned my last day. I am incredibly lucky to have ended up in Emergency Services with real doctors and support. I began the healing process, starting with deciding it was better for my kids to have a gay mom than a dead mom. Quickly I realized something that changed everything.

Every time I said the words “I’m gay.” or “I’m a lesbian.” or “I’m queer.”, I felt more here. Literally, I felt more alive, more connected to the earth.

Our words are so powerful. My words, my communication, literally kept me tethered to this life at times. And now I get it. Using my words, using my voice, is a luxury that I almost lost. When the demons come and try to tell me that I don’t deserve to be here, my kids deserve someone better, God doesn’t love me, etc. I have learned how to shut them up. I use my voice.

Like many women, I used to believe that my silence was my power. My coming out journey has been built on deconstructing that belief. The result is words I live by; My voice is my power.

Q: What is the best common sense communications advice you’ve ever received?

A: My TEDx speaking coach, Jill Davis, taught me something that I teach every single one of my coaching and leadership clients: “Teach from the scar, not the wound.”

I’m sure she heard it from someone else, it’s been around a long time because it’s powerful advice. Every single one of us takes the stage, the mic, the keyboard, with baggage. We have triggers and trauma. If we teach from the wound, we are using our audience as therapists and that’s not fair to them. Or to our actual therapist. LOL. Teach from the scar, not the wound.

Q: What is the best common sense communications advice you give to others?

A: In my Inclusive Leadership framework, one of the pillars is “Non-Binary Thinking”. This is the idea that there is no one right way to pursue inclusive leadership or allyship. All perspectives and realities are valid. We can let go of the “shoulds” and use that energy to focus solely on impact.

When we start hearing ourselves or our teams say things like “I think the right way to do this event or launch or campaign, is this…” or “Should we position it like this?”, we know we’re steeped in Binary Thinking and it’s not sustainable.

When we instead get very clear on our impact, we can release the shoulds through Non-Binary Thinking and pursue our desired impact with unrelenting focus. So in a nutshell, my best common sense communications advice would be “When we let go of all the shoulds, what becomes available?”



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