Life after shunning: what I faced after coming out as a queer Jehovah’s witness

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The night the world ended, I was at a bowling alley in a strip mall in the suburbs of Montreal, throwing strikes with other Jehovah’s Witness friends. Wholesome activities were the only way we could cool our hot teenage blood. If we weren’t bowling, we were at chaperoned, alcohol-free basement parties or outings to the cinema to watch movies that didn’t contravene God’s laws.

This one summer night at the lanes, I made the mistake of calling another young man handsome. My friends heard me but didn’t say anything. For the Witnesses, to be queer is an abomination. I had hidden my queerness successfully for years, suffocating my desires and my identity so that I could have a chance to live forever on a paradise Earth.

But word travels quickly in a closed religious community. A few weeks later, our congregation’s presiding elder called me on the phone and asked if I was “a homosexual” and planning to live as one, as if the two can be separated. Was I planning to turn my back on Jehovah and disappoint my family, my community, my creator? I didn’t have much of a choice. I composed my letter of disassociation and dropped it into the mailbox. It was filled with grief, uncertainty, and a kind of power, but I don’t remember much of what I wrote and I didn’t keep a copy.

As per the rules, the Witness community quickly shunned me, and did it in the name of love. This included most of my family. They reasoned that the expulsion would encourage me to return to the congregation, but I never magically became straight, and I never put on a meeting suit again. From a Witness standpoint, the terms of my exile were unproductive. From my standpoint, it was simply cruel punishment. For most of the two decades that followed my dissociation, I assumed that the experience was safely in my past, based on a commonly accepted narrative around leaving a high-control group: once you’re out, you’re out. But I would later learn that this view was too simplistic to explain the effects of falling out of Jehovah’s grace.

or years, friends heard bits of my story, and were struck by the surreal aspects of life as a Jehovah’s Witness. What do you mean your Smurf toys were demonic and you had to destroy them? What do you mean you could accept a birthday gift as long as it wasn’t on your actual birthday? Did you really believe that all your classmates would die a fiery death at Armageddon, but because you were no part of the world, you’d survive and have to bury the bodies? These things didn’t sound strange to me when I was growing up.

Those same friends asked when I was going to write about all this. I was too intimidated by the prospect of starting a memoir, so I worked some of the story into novels. Meanwhile, I continued to witness the harms that JW policies did, whether around shunning, education, blood transfusions, the treatment of women (abysmal, in case you’re wondering), or failing to protect children from sexual abuse. It remains impossible to be an out queer or trans Witness.

The aftermath of leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses is a confusing in-between state that can last for years. It can be especially difficult to figure out life on the outside if you don’t have a career, or the education that makes one possible. Most JWs don’t have a degree, since the group discourages pursuing them. Why would you need university when you have Bible study? Why try for a career when the world’s about to end? I’m a writer and teacher whose highest academic accolade is a high school diploma, and I’ve only recently become comfortable admitting that.

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