We had the good fortune of connecting with Elena Joy Thurston and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Elena Joy, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
Risk reminds me that I’m alive. When risk takes my breath away, that’s when I know it’s worth it. My entire Life 2.0 is what is it is, because I took a risk. I looked at everything I had: the marriage, the house, the income. And I risked it all by coming out. And yeah, I lost a ton. I lost almost all of my friends, I lost my faith community, I lost most of my children’s community as well (didn’t anticipate that one). And I lost the status of being married. Being a single mom in this country is not easy. So, I risked a lot and I lost a lot. But what I gained was just so much better than I ever thought possible. I gained friends and community who were all there, I just didn’t let myself find them. I gained an authentic relationship with my children. I gained a deep, reverent relationship with myself. I gained an entirely new career, one that I always wanted but had no idea how to achieve. Risk has always been worth it, for me.
Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
In September of 2019, I gave my first TEDx talk. It went live online at the end of November and life took off. The video went viral, racking up over 40,000 views in the first month. By January I was booking live speaking events around the country. What was it about? I took the most deeply personal experience of my life, and I told the world about it. At the age of 38, in the midst of a divorce and parenting four children, I told the world that I was not only a lesbian but I had enrolled myself in Conversion Therapy to rid myself of homosexuality. I did this not knowing there was a 57% suicide rate for people going through conversion therapy. During my healing, I realized how the suicide and homelessness rate in the LGBTQ is extremely high. I knew I couldn’t stay silent. I truly felt that parents and spouses simply didn’t know the risk they were taking when they signed their loved ones up for this “therapy”. I still hold the belief that once they are educated about what they could lose, the demand will go away. I realized quickly that most of America didn’t realize that conversion therapy is still around and people are still making millions off of it, and no, it’s not illegal. So off on the speaking circuit I went. Then Covid hit. Within 24 hours, every single speaking engagement canceled. But what wasn’t canceled was the need for support. In fact, the need for help grew. Suddenly college students were sent home to live with parents who weren’t happy with their “lifestyle”. Marriage partners were suddenly quarantined and trapped with no distractions, wondering how they were going to survive. My inbox was full. My dm’s were full. People needed connection and hope more than ever. And I was trapped at home. While whining about the problem to my business coach one day, she asked me, “What happens right after you speak to an audience?” I replied “I get off stage and usually into a hallway. People just want hugs. Something I said touched them deeply and they just want to be seen and heard.” She said “How can you give them the hug now?” Boom. The nonprofit was born. Our mission is to decrease the rate of suicide and homelessness in the LGBTQ community. We do this by teaching self-awareness principles to them and to the allies that love them. We have a multi-prong attack, which allows for multiple streams of income. First, we do corporate and organizational trainings. We meet people where they are and we teach them how to become strong allies. Not only does this increase inclusion at work, but they continue to be allies at home, at their children’s schools, in their faith communities. It has an awesome ripple effect. Second, we do Suicide Risk Awareness trainings for LGBTQ college students. Just like CPR, we equip them with skills and knowledge so that when a friend is in crisis, they can feel confident stepping in. With suicide being the second most common death in college, we are working tirelessly to change the tide for students. Third, we have an online support network for LGBTQ families. We serve both queer parents who are navigating the very heteronormative world of parenting, as well as straight parents with queer children. We have found those two groups can really support one another when given a safe space. We also welcome the allies that love them to come and ask any questions so they can authentically support their loved ones. I continue to speak, fundraise, teach, and basically do all the things nonprofit Executive Directors do. I average 2-4 interviews a week, plus multiple print and online articles. I’m looking forward to in-person gatherings again, especially when I can continue to testify to local and state governments about the dangers of conversion therapy. Highlights of the last two years include the TEDx talk, being the only woman in a conversion therapy documentary, holding space for countless struggling parents and children, watching eyes and hearts open during corporate trainings, and making an entire audience of straight people laugh with a well-timed lesbian joke. Running the foundation is no joke and many days it just feels daunting. We’re definitely in that place where we need more help in order to expand but we can’t afford more help until we expand, you know? With Covid influencing everything, our volunteer base is stretched thin. The incredible part is when we receive an email that an interview we did with a 15-year-old and his mom, was pivotal in the lives of another parent and child. There’s no feeling like opening up your Instagram messages and you read a note from a mom who had planned to commit suicide as soon as her kids’ graduated because she felt like she could never come out to them. When you realize that she is still here because of your inspiration, it makes any long day more than worth it. We are in the business of saving lives. It sounds incredibly self-righteous but it takes just one 14 year old’s funeral to realize that visibility is life. I’ll say it again, Visibility is Life. If what it takes to keep someone here is to be vulerable about my own crazy life and everything I’ve learned from it, I’ll do it again and again and again…
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
So I grew up in Sedona. Like actually grew up there, playing in the creek and climbing Bell Rock with my Dad every week. And no trip to Arizona is complete without a solid 24 hours in Sedona. We’d also spend some time in Page Springs, old town Cottonwood and Jerome. Another day in Prescott because the foodie scene there is amazing. Then we’d do a day and a night at the Wigwam Resort in Litchfield Park. I have awesome childhood memories there and it’s such a cute area. It’s also very reminiscent of “Old Arizona”. Then over to the East side. We’d do a spa day at the Biltmore but for dinner we would sneak over to Gilbert. Hidden in a strip mall by an old Stein Mart is the best sushi in the valley called Temari. We would spend the night at Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch so that we could get up and kayak down the Salt River as the sun is rising and take gorgeous photos of the wild horses. Then we’d head to Payson for the best steak in the area at Fargo’s and we would hike and fish in Christopher Creek. We’d spend a night or two in Greer and keep hiking and fishing, definitely hitting Hannigan’s Meadow before returning to the valley by way of Safford. Definitely have to stop in Miami at the Burger House, but not to get a burger. Just the best green chili burrito in Arizona. If we still had time, we’d stop for a day or two at the most relaxing backyard on the planet. We’d sip SanTan beers while sitting in the hot tub and counting airplanes like falling stars. Before going home, it’s required that you stop at Caldwell County BBQ. Hmmmm, I think I have my next staycation itinerary all figured out!
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
There are three incredible women who have mentored me, encouraged my voice, and held my vision when I wavered. Amber Lilyestrom was first. She heard my story, still raw and new, and she saw incredible power. She taught me the power of listening to myself when all I had done was ignored every clue my intuition had ever given me. She taught me that I already held all the answers. Jenn Maggiore is an incredible business coach, out of Scottsdale AZ. She heard my story and she knew she could have an impact on me and the world. She taught me the ins and outs of business, what a profit and loss statement is, what brand awareness is and how I needed it. In the midst of everything, she continues to teach me how to create systems, bring on help, and continue to grow even when the growing pains make me want to quit. Finally, Alexia Vernon. Lex is a game-changer. Lex is like AutoTune for women’s success. You give her your voice, your story, and your energy, and she amplifies and makes it sound like a choir. She teaches, inspires, comforts, and energizes. Three truly great women that have changed my life, so that I can do the same for other women. Their ripple effect is huge!
TEDx and Lander Media (who took the photo) has given full permission to use for promotional purposes.