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Visibility is Life: A Conversation with Elena Joy

allyship drag pride May 09, 2023

We are one week away from our biggest Pride and Joy Parent yet, Prepping your Family for Pride. This zoom event is a panel of distinguished guests that includes a trans activist, educator, and drag performer, Junior Mintt; a licensed therapist and author of Gender Magic, Rae McDaniel; public speaker and queer coach, Kalyela Josephs; and public speaker and inclusive educator, Elena Joy Thurston. It will be moderated by Sara Dean of the Shameless Mom Podcast.   

As the Director of Operations for the Pride and Joy Foundation, I had a preliminary conversation with our Founder and Volunteer Executive Director, Elena Joy Thurston, about pride, allyship, parenting, drag and the importance of visibility. We got into truthful and transformational conversations about it all and even how important her Aunt Nöel was (read on for more!) Elena is making waves in the LGBTQ+ community and her work with parents and allies is empowering. She has dedicated her life's work to creating safe and affirming spaces for LGBTQ+ youth, providing platforms and professional development opportunity for LGBTQ+ professionals like the Pride and Joy flagship program Keynote Queers and partnership with Suzette Mullen's OUTWrite Authors to grant funded ALP Suicide Prevention Workshops and Leaders for Inclusive Change.   

We hope you will join us Tuesday, May 16 at 4pm PT / 7pm ET for an intentional and empowering conversation with our incredible panelists about all things pride and beyond. 


"That’s Pride to me.  Being unapologetically visible so that people (children) who had never seen themselves as part of the community before, can truly belong."     -Elena Joy Thurston                                                                                               


C: What does Pride mean to you?

Elena: My kids and I came from a very conservative, religious background.  I was driving through the “gay neighborhood” of Phoenix with my LGBTQ+ kiddo a few months after they came out.  She was slack-jawed at all the Pride flags just hanging out on houses and businesses, not in June.  She had never seen that before.  And then we passed a non-denominational church with Pride flags displayed outside.  She asked if it was real, if there was really a church that welcomed LGBTQ+ people??  That’s when the tears started.  She had no idea that there were people who believed in God and believed in her right to exist.

C: What do you feel is one of the biggest myths centered around the LGBTQ+ community and how do you think we can change people’s misconceptions?

Elena: Okay not to bring down the vibe but I’m getting pretty sick of being accused of being a child groomer or pedophile.  I’m a pretty chill person, there’s not a lot that will get me ready to throw hands.  But as a mom of four kids, those are fighting words.  Since I experienced my first miscarriage at 21 while trying to start my family, I have been a mother.  I have gone through hell to bring life and love to my children, all children.  I know exactly what it feels like when your home and your culture are trying to tear you apart.  No child deserves to go through that and when I protect them instead of attacking them, evil people accuse me of evil things.  

To change that misconception, the biggest thing we can do is not to allow it to be said about others.  With whatever power, privilege, and safety we have, we need to shut down those ideas immediately.  I think Junior Mintt said it best in her interview, every single misconception is rooted in the goal of dehumanizing LGBTQ+ children, adults, their parents, and their allies.  Good humans don’t let other good humans be reduced to stereotypes by hateful propaganda. Step up and speak out, every time.  

C: What are three things you need/want from an ally?

Elena: I think of allyship in concentric circles, with my heart at the center.  Starting from the outside, so allies that are total strangers to me I need them to vote for my rights, to make their allyship known to others, but I don’t need them to change other people’s minds because that’s nearly impossible.  But when they hear the bigotry, I need them to say “I don’t agree.” Every single time.  Bigots will assume the people around them agree unless told otherwise.  And they need to know that people they respect, completely disagree with them. 

Allies that I do know but aren’t close to my heart - I need them to do the same things plus, think of me when there’s something to celebrate or something to mourn in the community.  Maybe reach out once in a while but it’s not always needed.  

Allies that are close to my heart, my family, friends, and co-workers that I see on a regular basis - I need them to do the above plus just be invested.  Take some time to understand my day-to-day life and what’s exhausting about my identity, and just validate my experience.  And maybe, once in a while, shoulder some of the load.  Educate others when the opportunity arises, correct your friend when they misgender someone, follow some of the social media accounts so you’re aware of the stuff that mainstream media ignores.  And Celebrate the beautiful queer people in your life. 

C: What makes you feel most seen and validated in your everyday life?

Elena: Not gonna lie, getting to chat queer community stuff with my LGBTQ+ kid means the world to me.  They see this identity from a very different perspective than I do.  They never disconnected from their body the way I did at such a young age.  They’re going through high school with queer crushes and dates and drama, nothing that I experienced.  It feels like a gift, to watch my child live the teenage life I never had access to.  I wish every late-blooming LGBTQ+ person had this experience.  

C: What drag performer inspires you?  

Elena: Dusty Ray Bottoms is a dear friend so of course, I adore them. Their drag performances are beyond inspirational.  We’re both in the documentary CONVERSION.  With a common background of conversion therapy, and how that affects our mental health on a daily basis, their performances are just phenomenal to me.  And they sing, Lordy do they sing!!  They sew and design their own costumes, they are just amazing.  


C: What does drag mean to you?

Elena: To me, Drag is a beautiful expression of gender outside the binary.  It’s an explosion of confidence and joy that you really can’t access in another art form.  It’s also incredibly inspirational.  If Dusty can go through alllllll that (to get into costume, makeup, hair, etc) and then absolutely kill it on stage in an art form that is literally on the brink of being illegal, yeah I can testify in my state legislature that they’re being douche bags while they should be protecting my kid.  

But I didn’t always feel this way.  In the first year after I came out, I tried to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race.  Everyone in the community on social media (I didn’t know any queers IRL) loved the show so I figured it was a good place to start.  But quickly I realized Drag made me “uncomfortable” and I didn’t make it through the first episode.  Luckily at the time, I was deep into developing my self-awareness.  I had developed a hack that told me deconstructing this would be important for my growth so I sat with it.  

After I removed the blanket of shame, that something my community celebrated made me uncomfortable, I was able to realize I wasn’t “uncomfortable”, I was mad.  Like, really angry.  Only then was I able to ask myself why?  

At that time, the honest, raw answer was that it felt like drag queens were trying to take power and money and influence from women.  It felt like an extension of the patriarchy and that pissed me off.  My emotion was valid.  But was it true?

I challenged myself to go get to know some drag queens.  I even went to a drag conference in Boston, and went out to dinner with a huge group of drag performers that I met.  I was the only cis woman in a sea of drag.  I came home and kept asking questions, staying in curiosity and not assumption or judgment.  And I came to deeply understand that no human went through the time, expense, and discomfort of performing in drag to take anything away from cis women. It had nothing to do with me. 

Drag is an expression outside of the gender binary, all about the revolutionary celebration, it is the ultimate way to give the finger to the patriarchy.  And I fell in love with it.  

For any parent, who feels uncomfortable with drag, I totally get it.  That’s why the Pride & Joy Parent event is so important.  Getting to know the humans behind all the labels is absolutely vital to developing allyship.  And it’s just not every day you get to chat with someone like Junior Mintt. Yes, she’s a celebrity but just wait until you hear about her relationship with her mom. So good. Also did you read her interview with PJF

C: If you could go back to your younger self and give that younger self advice, what would it be?

Elena: Ha!  This is one of my favorite questions to ask our guests on our podcast, Out of Queeriosity.  And honestly, if you asked me five years ago, totally different answer.  And it’s likely that five years from now, it’ll be different again.  But for today, I’d tell the earlier version of myself: Sweet Elena Joy, coming out and living authentically isn’t just about you babe.  Playing small is not serving you, not serving your children, and not serving the many families that need you. You have a whole new life to live, all you have to do is take the first step. 

C: How important was a safe affirming adult in your life?

Elena: I will never forget the few days I spent with a distant relative in my early 20’s.  Aunt Noël was one of the few lesbians I was exposed to before I came out.  She lived with her wife in New Mexico, and their home was filled with a palpable peace I had never experienced before.  I remembered that feeling every time I was repeatedly told at church that “wickedness never was happiness”, that the homosexual lifestyle was sad, lonely, dysfunctional, etc.  Every single time, my mind would play the memory of Aunt Noël dancing barefoot in her kitchen with her wife, the wooden floors creaking as sun filtered in through the NM dust. That felt a whole lot like happiness. 

That visibility gave me a sliver of hope when I was declared “unworthy” by my faith leader. Visibility is life.


About the Author

Featured in the award-winning documentary, CONVERSION, Elena Joy Thurston is an inspirational Diversity & Allyship speaker, trainer, and author through a lens of LGBTQ+ inclusion. Elena Joy inspires her audiences to learn how Inclusive Leadership can improve company morale and productivity, changing members' lives in a practical way.  A Mormon mom of four who lost her marriage, her church, and her community when she came out as a lesbian, her viral TEDx talk on surviving conversion therapy has been viewed more than 45,000 times and landed her media and speaking opportunities with ABC, CBS, FOX, Penn State, University of North Texas, Michael’s, Logitech, and more. 


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