For over half my life – over 20 years, a religion ruled it.
I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness so, I spent three nights a week at some meeting at the Kingdom Hall, the place of worship, and my weekends were spent in the ministry – going door to door spreading the message.
My family was the “Cosby” family of a local Kingdom Hall in a small congregation in Mississippi. My father was an elder, one of the leaders in the congregation. He gave Bible-based talks at other Kingdom Halls in the area. But, I was hiding a secret – the real me – the lesbian me.
You see at a young age, I knew that I felt different. I was a tomboy and as a preteen, it was girls and adult women that caught my attention. I’d later come to realize that I was “gay” but growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness and having these feelings there was no one I felt comfortable talking to about my feelings. I knew that what I was feeling went against all the teaching and scriptures I’d heard throughout my life. You know the famous Leviticus 18:22 scripture, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination…” So, I kept my secret trying to forget my attractions and figured it was a typical young adult phase I’d outgrow.
So, I did what was expected. I got baptized at 14-years-old despite having questions. I went on to graduate high school, pushed aside my desire to go to college and suppressed the lesbian that I knew I was – although it took me a while to accept this fact myself. I continued on the expected course to be the good witness, I became a regular pioneer, which means I spent 90 hours a month in the ministry going door to door. Also, because I was in good standing, I also worked on kingdom hall quick builds – traveling across the state of Mississippi building new kingdom halls.
However, my thoughts and questions about my sexuality was not a phase. I couldn’t outgrow it or suppress it. I wanted more for my life. First, I wanted so much to be free to be “ME” and to go to college so that I could have a career. No longer able to fight my ambitions, I went against the wishes of the organization – I went to college. This was seen as some blatant act to go against the Jehovah’s Witness belief that seeking higher education leads to spiritual danger. Colleges and universities are seen not as an avenue to expand one’s mind or to learn the skills of a desired career but as centers that can cause great moral and spiritual dangers.
My simple decision to get a college education led to me and my family coming under great scrutiny from leaders in our small congregation. I was no longer seen as an example to other young people. After all, I was now spending too much time with the people of the “world.” During this time, I began living a double life. Trying to prove that I could go to college and not be swayed by the ways of the people of the world as the Witnesses expected. But, all the while I was also trying to fit in with the students on campus. As would be the case, I attracted the very types of people I was trying to deny within myself – openly gay students.
They became my friends. I wanted so much to be open and free to live my life as openly and proudly as they were, but I knew my doing so would come at a cost – losing my close-knit family and countless Jehovah’s Witness friends. It wouldn’t matter that I had begun preparing myself mentally for this to happen years ago as a teenager. No amount of mental preparation can prepare you for this type of heartbreak.
It all came closing in a few months after graduating college and landing my first job as a news writer at a daily newspaper. My mom interrupted my workday with a phone call asking if I was gay. My world as I knew it ended that day. I left home and never attended another meeting at the Kingdome Hall – left anything Jehovah’s Witness related and went to stay a short distance away with my biological father, who was not a Jehovah’s Witness.
It would be years before I finally answered my mother’s question. A few years later, while with my first girlfriend I was forced to come out. My father and sister had long ago suspected that I was gay and was simply waiting for me to speak out about it. My mother, my best friend, took it the hardest and while I suspect she had the mother’s intuition and knew it too she was not happy. Despite my coming out and this being a disfellowshipping – ex-communication offense, which meant they should no longer communicate with me – we continued to communicate. My mom and I spoke daily. But, unexpectedly many years later – it was a phone call the day after Thanksgiving in 2013 that would upset my sense of normalcy.
I knew by the sound of her voice that something was off. My body tensed as she said she could no longer be a hypocrite and continue to talk to me. So, while the rest of the conversation is a blur. She said she loved me and wanted me to return to Jehovah and by continuing communication, she felt I would have no reason to return to Jehovah. You see, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that by shunning and stopping communication that you will miss them so much that you return to the organization.
Some do return because the loneliness is too much for them to bear. There are several cases of ex Jehovah’s Witnesses committing suicide or becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol to cope. Fortunately, this was not my fate. I had close friends who I was able to rely on. It took a while to adjust to not communicating with my mother every day.
But, just as I suspected she struggled not communicating with me. So after a few months or so, we picked up where we left off. It was short-lived. Later that summer, after attending one of their summer conventions, my mother called again with the news that she was going to have to stop talking to me again. My heart was shattered once again.
It was once again radio silence with an occasional text from her to check on me. Sometime later, we began communicating again. It lasted for a while – a year or two, I believe. Then, for the third time, she called me while I was on a short vacation to tell me that she was not going to be talking to me. I was devastated once again but resolved that boundaries would be set because I could not allow my heart to be broken again. Despite these instances, my sister has always been there for me and supported me through each of the shunnings by my mother. Even though my little sister is a Jehovah’s Witness, she decided not to cut me out of her and my nephew’s life.
After this third realization by my mother three years ago, I realized that I could no longer suppress my anger and the pain from what I now realize was a form of emotional/religious trauma. I sought therapy. It was difficult at times to allow myself to be vulnerable but to open up to talk about my feelings and the effects it has not only had on me but my other friendships and relationships. With the help of therapy, I was finally able to release over 20 years of suppressed pain, anger and guilt and learn tools to help me to continue to make progress from the effects of religious trauma.