David and Goliath
Apostles of Denial
Awake! And open your wallets
Go Forth and Tell All Nations
Suffer the Children
Bethel boys will be boys
Come here, little girl
The Bible according to WTB&TS
Follow or perish
So different and yet so alike
Five more people--five similar stories
And more mail
Those who beg to disagree
Many of the former Jehovah's Witnesses interviewed for this article gave permission to use their last names. Some asked us not to. To protect all those who shared their stories, and to spare their families further difficulties, we have used first names only for most participants.
What began as a simple news article about a religion's attempt to shut down a gay Web site, turned into a months-long investigation that uncovered physical and emotional abuse, spies and enforcers, and scores of broken families.
It isn't an easy read. This shouldn't happen in the United States. But it does- and in every other nation that has been infiltrated by the secretive and manipulative religion known as Jehovah's Witnesses.
A panel of gay former Jehovah's Witnesses, invited by Echo to a round table discussion, testified they grew up knowing two things for certain: Some day they would be discovered. And when they were, they would lose their religion and probably all contact with loved ones. Fear and the anticipation of punishment is what their faith bestowed upon them from birth.
Like many religions, Jehovah's Witnesses doctrine does not permit sexual activity outside of marriage. But the members of the panel believe this religion seeks out sexual sinners-especially gays-and when it finds them, it sets out to discredit them and to cut off family ties.
Experts disagree on whether Jehovah's Witnesses is a cult or merely a strange sect.
Rick Ross is an internationally known cult expert and intervention specialist. He states, "I do not regard the Witnesses as a cult-although many do. Instead, my view of the group is that they are a totalitarian and destructive group that employs coercive thought reform techniques."
Ross acknowledges he has not had specific experience with gay former Jehovah's Witnesses, but he understands well what they have suffered.
Panel member Scott M. calls Jehovah's Witnesses a cult. He shakes with emotion when he talks about how narrowly he escaped its clutches. Scott keeps a large vegetable crate filled with books, magazine articles, and Internet downloads about Jehovah's Witnesses and cults. He offers the material as proof of the abuse he endured growing up a Jehovah's Witness.
Brainwashing is a word the young gay man uses when he talks about his childhood. He has a list called "Eight Marks of a Mind-Control Cult" from the book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, by Robert J. Lifton. Scott ticks off the areas in which he believes the Jehovah's Witnesses earn an "A."
Isolation-Members are separated from society, forbidden educational media that might provoke critical thinking. Information is kept on each recruit by the mother organization. All are watched.
Mystical manipulation - God will punish "bad" members with accidents, ill will, loss of material goods, etc. "Good" members will be rewarded.
Demand for purity-World is black or white, good or evil. Guilt and shame are used to control individuals. All things "evil" must be avoided.
Confession-Serious sins (as defined by the group) are to be confessed immediately. Members are encouraged to spy and report on one another.
Sacred "truth"-The cult holds the only truth. Its ideology is too "sacred" to call into question. Cult leaders must be treated with absolute reverence.
Thought-terminating cliches-These are expressions or words designed to end conversation or controversy.
People vs. doctrine-Human experience and knowledge are subordinated to doctrine. Members are valuable only if they conform to doctrine.
The right to live-The group decides who has the right to exist and who does not. Outsiders can be "sinned" against in the form of lying, deception, separation from families, etc., because "outsiders are not fit to exist."
"I think being gay actually saved me," Scott said. He knew his sexual orientation at an early age. He also knew the Jehovah's Witnesses would not tolerate it. So he refused to be baptized and walked away at 18.
But Scott believes he still is recovering from those first 18 years.
Jim Moon joined the Jehovah's Witnesses at about the same age Scott was when he left. Like Scott, Moon knew his sexual orientation. He said the Jehovah's Witnesses elder who recruited him in 1975 also knew. The elder told Moon it didn't matter, because Armageddon was imminent, and after that it would be okay to be gay.
"They offered me immortality, " Moon said. "Who could refuse?"
When the end of the world did not happen on schedule-a problem that has plagued Jehovah's Witnesses throughout their history-Moon was left to deal with the incompatibility of his sexuality and his religion.
Eventually, he was pressured out of the sect. The resulting trauma led him to become webmaster of A Common Bond, an Internet gay Jehovah's Witnesses support group.
The San Francisco-based site Moon operates was blocked after his Internet server received a complaint from the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, Inc., the Jehovah's Witnesses' controlling corporation.
When his site went down, Moon sent out a distress call on the Internet.
"On July 24, 1998, our group's Web site was blocked access by GeoCities, where this site was formerly located," Moon wrote. He acknowledged that he was not surprised by the action.
A Common Bond "had been the target for some time of hate mail from current cult members, and explicit threats that they would attempt to close the site down somehow," Moon said.
GeoCities told Moon the block was because of an alleged "copyright infringement." A Common Bond had posted an illustration from a Watchtower book, Knowledge That Leads to Everlasting Light.
Moon wrote, "The illustration is supposed to be a depiction of the resurrection ... but it depicts same-sex couples embracing. The subliminal message is profound, to say the least."
GeoCities told Moon to work things out with Richard Moake of the Watchtower, who lodged the original complaint.
Moon wrote to Moake that although the Watchtower might perceive A Common Bond as "a threat to your religious organization," the site had a constitutional right to free speech. He maintained since the illustration was used "expressly for the purpose of education and information" its use was not in violation of copyright laws.
Based on years of experience with the cult, Moon didn't expect the Watchtower to budge. However, after flooding the Internet with the story, and after GeoCities received "thousands of complaints worldwide," the Web site was restored within four days, sans the offending graphic.
The unpleasant experience caused A Common Bond to obtain its own URL. When you log on to www.gayxjw.org, you see the infamous illustration, middle blanked out.
"Hey!!" text in the blank part reads, "What happened to the picture?? Click here to find out how the Watchtower tried to shut us down."
Moake was unavailable for comment. But a spokesperson for the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society did speak to Echo. The Society's director of public affairs James Pellechia declined to comment on the legalities of Moon's use of the photo, saying he is not a lawyer.
He added, however, "We are not in the business of shutting down Web sites."
Pellechia also said the Society would not "target" groups comprising former JWs.
"We would ask any Web site using copyrighted material to remove that material," Pellechia said.
Through Moon and A Common Bond, Echo located dozens of gay former JWs eager to tell their stories. The tales were frightening and sadly similar. But to understand the extent to which Jehovah's Witnesses are able to control and alter people's lives, it is necessary to understand the organization itself.
In 1970, Edmond Charles Gruss, a religious history professor at the Los Angeles Baptist College and Theological Seminary, wrote a scholarly expose and history of the Jehovah's Witnesses titled, Apostles of Denial.
Gruss described the defining characteristic of the sect: If any facts in the long history of Christianity did not suit what the Witnesses chose to believe, they would merely deny the existence of those facts. He also wrote that the group went so far as to translate and publish its own version of the Bible, which conveniently changed key words to make scripture fit JW theology.
Charles Taze Russell is generally considered to have founded the religion now known as Jehovah's Witnesses in the late 19th century. But according to Gruss, "The Jehovah's Witnesses claim the first of their number was Abel, and that they are the modern-day representatives of the line of Bible witnesses mentioned in the Old and New Testaments."
Gruss calls the lineage claim preposterous.
In 1870, at age 18, the charismatic Russell started a Bible study class. It soon became wildly popular, and the students' adoration went to Russell's head. In 1879, he founded The Herald of the Morning, which later became The Watchtower. The newsletter showcased Russell's religious theories and scriptural interpretations.
As more people flocked to him, and as the sect's coffers filled, Russell went commercial. In 1884 he established the Zion's Watchtower Tract Society (now the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, Inc.). It was then the sect entered into its present-day area of publishing its own versions of "The Truth."
Once Russell discovered the power of the printed word, his ambition could not be contained. He spent the rest of his ministry stumping from town to town, church to church, selling his slick tracts, books and magazines. Russell convinced his target market that it needed to purchase his publications, because the Bible could be properly understood only through his interpretations.
A showman as well as a preacher, Russell realized the best way to get people's attention was to hit them between the eyes-with The End of the World.
He dramatically predicted specific dates for the long-awaited occurrence. Alas, time and again the big day came and went with no End in sight.
This was but a minor problem for Russell. He lost followers whenever the Apocalypse failed to materialize, but like P.T. Barnum, Russell knew a sucker is born every minute. There always were new lambs to join the fold.
In his book Saleskids, Duane Magnani, wrote, "From a simple bible class in the 1870s has sprung one of the world's fastest growing and most influential cults of the 20th century ... because many billions of books, magazines and other publications have been sold to the public in the name of the Watchtower Society."
The January 1986 Watchtower revealed that in 1985, at the height of its publishing prowess, "Jehovah's Witnesses placed nearly 39 million Bibles, books, and booklets in the field, as well as more than 300 million magazines."
The Watchtower, considered by the sect to be the official word of Jehovah, and Awake!, which many experts tag a superior example of propaganda, along with the Bible are the flagships of the JW publication fleet.
For years, Jehovah's Witnesses raked in the converts and the money, Magnani claims. It was easy to make a profit on the publications. The salespeople were herds of JW offspring, trained from early childhood to peddle the magazines door to door. The money was turned over to the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, which supposedly used it only to produce more books and magazines.
However, Randall Watters, author of Free Minds Journal, has done extensive investigation into the Watchtower's publishing business. He once was a printer for the organization. In Watters' opinion, publishing has been a moneymaker for Jehovah's Witnesses since the beginning.
"The most expensive cost in printing is usually the labor," Watters explains. "The Watchtower has solved that problem by having all their work done by volunteers-none are paid. Second, there is no middleman to be paid-the Watchtower does all the advertising, marketing and shipping. Third, the more copies of a book printed, the lower its cost."
The Watchtower also has its own printing presses, binderies, and other necessities of the trade.
Watters also said, "The Watchtower has created an instant market for its publications. To release just one new book at a yearly District Assembly brings automatic sales of at least five million books."
As a tax-exempt religion, the U.S. branch of Jehovah's Witnesses is very secretive about how it is financed. Watters writes, "They fail to disclose their primary source of income. Rather, they seek to convey the impression that their income comes strictly through free will contributions, with a few estates denoted as well. No mention is made of the major source of their income, which is the distribution of books and magazines."
Since 1990, the U.S. government has forbidden Jehovah's Witnesses to sell publications without paying taxes on the income, because the sect claims nonprofit status, Watters said.
However, the children and their parents still ring doorbells. Now, they ask for "donations." The Society gives its solicitors "instructions on how to suggest the old prices for Watchtower and Awake! subscriptions," Watters says.
In many countries, laws governing religious moneymaking are not as strict as in the U.S. Perhaps that is one reason for the phenomenal growth of the Jehovah's Witnesses in other nations.
In 1997, official Watchtower figures claimed nearly 5.6 million members (1) in 232 "lands." Nearly 1 million of those members live in the U.S.
More interesting than the numbers is the ratio of Witnesses to the population. In the U.S., for instance, the Watchtower lists one Witness for every 274 non-Witnesses. In Curacao, it is 1 to 97. In Guadeloupe, 1 to 52.
The religion is growing rapidly in many African nations, especially those where fundamentalist Christianity already has a toehold.
In Zimbabwe, where anti-gay sentiment is nearly out of control and religious fervor is high, the ratio is 1 to 475.
But in non-Christian countries, such as India, few inroads have been made. There the ratio is 1 to 56,919.
It is difficult to determine what the Watchtower means by "lands." Its statistics list membership numbers for Alaska and Hawaii separately from the U.S.
Perhaps Jehovah's Witnesses are not yet aware the 49th and 50th states have joined the Union.
As an intervention expert, Ross has seen results of JW parenting, and he does not paint a pretty picture.
"JW children generally are somewhat isolated, insulated and withdrawn through their family involvement with the organization," Ross said. "They also often are forced to sit through long meetings and conferences and also [are] taken door to door to promote the organization/literature.
"The children for some time have been discouraged from advancing to higher education, or being involved in sports and extracurricular activities. This can be seen as a form of 'restrictive abuse."'
One could infer by reading Watchtower Society publications that physical abuse of youngsters is encouraged.
For example, here are quotes from some of the publications:
"The lessons learned at mother's knee do not make as lasting an impression as those learned while stretched across daddy's."
"All children of Adam need correction, and at times firm discipline requires the rod, in the administration of pain…At times, a parent will need to speak to the child by the administration of pain."
Perhaps the most telling is a chapter from Disciplining Children for Life, a "parenting guide" for Jehovah's Witnesses. The section is meant to instruct children on why it is okay for mommy and daddy to beat them.
It describes how animal mothers discipline their young. For example: A mother tiger "took the youngster's whole head in her mouth, squeezed and shook it, while the startled baby whimpered."
A concealed fawn, if it dares move, will "get a spanking from sharp mother hooves."
A bear gave her cub "a good wallop with her paw and sent it rolling."
Abusive animal mother of the year awards must go to a mother koala, who turns her babies over her knee "and spanks them on their bottoms for minutes on end with the flat of her hand, during which time their screams are soul-rending. "
Sexual abuse is common in societies that are almost completely sexually repressed. Married JW adults are forbidden certain erotic activities, such as oral sex.
While sex education is discouraged, children grow up hearing horror stories about sexual sin-especially homosexuality.
Many of the former JW members shared stories of sexual abuse, by family and other church members. Scott M said his older sister sexually abused him.
When he reported the abuse to parents and elders, nothing was done. Talking about sexual matters is an uncomfortable thing in the Kingdom Halls where members gather to worship. Topics such as incest, adultery and homosexuality are swept under the rug.
But while official doctrine says homosexuality is a terrible sin, several former gay JWs reported common homosexuality among the ranks.
A panel comprising former Jehovah's Witnesses meeting with Echo observed that the sect at times seems obsessed with sexual sin. The gathering of men and women agreed that at times, the organization seems willing to forgive its members of anything, but sexual sin.
At the same time, the group's long history is spotted with plenty of stories about some of the sect's elite involved in inappropriate sexual behavior. These stories have included elders who controlled individual congregations and the Governing Body of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (WTB&TS), which controls the entire membership.
At Brooklyn Bethel, the Governing Body holds sway over the 5.6 million members of Jehovah's Witnesses. It cannot handle such a task alone, however. Help comes from Pioneers, Jehovah's Witnesses who volunteer to distribute literature, teach Bible classes, build Kingdom Halls, or do what is necessary to keep the sect operational.
Select Pioneers are privileged to go to Bethel* to serve God--and the GB.
In his book Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah's Witnesses, M. James Penton described the strange life within what he calls the publishing houses or "factories" of Brooklyn Bethel.
"Besides two huge factory buildings, the complex includes several residence buildings for the many hundreds of workers who produce literature for Witnesses throughout the world and, additionally, for the administrative, clerical, and support staffs which are necessary for the governance of a highly centralized religious movement."
Originally, only young men were granted entrance to Bethel. In more recent years, after a number of scandals hinting at homosexual activity in the dorms, women have been allowed.
Because marriage between Bethelites was forbidden, admitting women did little to relieve the young men's sexual tension. The rumors of homosexuality continued.
Today, married couples are permitted to toil together for the organization. However, several correspondents told Echo that gay pairings still are common at Bethel. The conditions are ripe for what psychologists call "institutionalized homosexuality."
Until the mid-1970s, Bethel pioneers stayed and worked at least four years, Penton wrote. Now, one year is expected, although workers who maintain a good record can stay longer.
The workers are not paid a living wage. They receive a stipend for personal items. The factories would be considered sweatshops by today's standards, but Penton explains that workers "accept the regimen of life at Brooklyn .... They are both ideologically committed and highly disciplined individuals who have been taught to accept authority, usually without question."
However, Penton continues, "This does not mean that there are no serious problems brought about by the severity of lifestyle; there are."
Promiscuity became a problem once women were admitted to Bethel. But "heterosexual offenses have never been the serious problem that homosexual ones have been," Penton states. "In fact, [former Watch Tower leader Nathan] Knorr, who seems to have had a fixation on sexual sins, kept the matter of homosexuality and masturbation so constantly before workers at the Watch Tower headquarters that one is forced to wonder if he did not have homosexual tendencies himself."
If so, it might explain why he seemed to protect Percy Chapman, the alleged one-time lover of GB member Leo Greenlees. In 1959, under hint of homosexual scandal, Knorr went to Canada to replace Chapman, who was the Canadian Branch overseer.
Knorr demoted Chapman to janitor, but let him remain at Toronto Bethel--on condition he marry.
According to Larry D., a gay Toronto former JW, "Percy ... was totally anti-marriage and he made sure that none of the "Bethel boys" even contemplated the subject ...."
Larry described the Bethel boys of the 1950s. "They were all young and handsome, hand-picked by Percy Chapman; there was even an elite group known as 'Percy's boys' who would accompany him to expensive restaurants and bars ... at the time, Bethel was on Irwin Avenue in the center of the gay district of Toronto. There was even a Kingdom Hall above 'The Parkside,' one of Toronto's few gay bars in the fifties and sixties."
After Chapman's disgrace, Larry, who personally knew Greenlees, wrote, "Poor Leo Greenlees, Percy's close companion for three decades ... had to find himself a new roommate. ... He was very open about his homosexuality to those few good-looking young brothers .... He would bring along another Bethel boy, Lorne Bridle, who was very good looking and charming."
Regardless of his dubious relationship with Chapman, Greenlees became Treasurer of WTB&TS and one of the Governing Body. According to Larry, "He managed to escape the witch hunt at Brooklyn Bethel in the early seventies when dozens of Bethel boys were disfellowshipped after learning of their midnight trysts in the sauna in Brooklyn Bethel."
Other Bethel stalwarts also became grist for the rumor mill.
The heterosexual indiscretions of Jehovah's Witnesses founder Charles Taze Russell are more shocking and easier to document than JW gay activity.
When Russell's wife Maria sued for divorce, court records show she testified that Russell had engaged in an "improper relationship" with Rose, an orphan who was about 10 years old when the Russells took her into their home.
Maria told the court that not only had she caught Russell at night in Rose's bedroom, but in the servant girl's room as well. In fact, "I found him locked in the servant girl's room," Maria said.
According to Maria and other witnesses, Russell fondled Rose, kissed her, held her on his knee, and called her "his little wife." When the girl responded, "I'm not your wife," Russell answered, "I will call you daughter, and a daughter has nearly all the privileges of a wife."
The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society denies any impropriety took place. In fact, it denies Russell, who lived apart from Maria for the next 50 years, ever was married.
"No one was ever produced who gave testimony against the moral character of Pastor Russell," WTB&TS Secretary/Treasurer W.E. Van Amburgh wrote. "To his dying day, he was able to say ... that he lived a life of absolute celibacy."
To hear something other than the WTB&TS party line, Echo contacted active Jehovah's Witnesses through a bulletin board service on a JW Web site. We e-mailed 25 BBS visitors--male and female, from the U.S. and several foreign countries--and asked, "How do you feel about the presence of gay members within your congregation?"
Only two U.S. women answered. One said, "I would rather not comment on that one. I feel the best people to ask on that subject are Jehovah's Witness elders. You will find them in any one of our many congregations worldwide ... all I can say is that Jehovah loves everyone that follows what the Bible says."
The other woman was a gold mine of information. For several weeks, she carried on an e-mail dialogue with this reporter. The woman, who identified herself as Kathy A., a Jehovah's Witness for 37 years, opened up a Pandora's box of child molestation, homosexuality, and anger--hers.
In her initial letter, Kathy wrote, "Since I try very hard to live by what the Bible says, I must let [God's Word] speak on this subject." She listed every familiar Biblical injunction against homosexuality, concluding, "So as you can read for yourself, God condemns homosexuality, including lesbians."
We answered that for the purpose of this article, we wanted to know how she personally felt about gay people, and whether she knew any.
"I hate immorality ... whether it be homosexuality, adultery, bestiality, etc. And yes, I do know some homosexuals. One died from aids (sic) one has it, the other I don't know," Kathy wrote. After more religious instruction, she ended the letter with an intriguing tease: "I do have a personal experience on homosexuality you may not want to hear."
But we did. It took several more exchanges to coax it out of her.
Although she denies he is gay, it appears she may have a gay son. She wrote that her son was "raped and ruined" as a child by his cousin.
"When my son was born there was obviously a difference ... no one wanted to play with him because he was a hard child to get along with .... When he was almost eight, a family member, 16 at the time, said he would baby-sit him."
According to Kathy, the older boy babysat her son for the next several years. During that time, the cousin sexually molested the younger boy.
"My son was 12 when he told me what happened to him .... The police got involved but this 16- (now 20-) year-old denied it. But in his room there was found behind a picture on the wall some women's clothing."
A doctor told Kathy her son's sphincter muscle was "destroyed." Emotionally, she also was destroyed, as she was left to deal with the uncomfortable reality that her child had engaged in homosexual activity for four years with another boy, and never told her.
"My son went to the mental hospital for six weeks as his behavior was out of control," Kathy continued her story. "There we were told that when this kind of sexual behavior happens to a young child, this is what they come to expect as normal and that when he got out of the hospital he would need to be closely monitored for years and he shouldn't be around young children unattended.
"This was a nightmare for us. When my son turned 16, we had to have him committed ... my son was confused for a long time about his sexual identity .... My son (now 22) is not normal today. He is scarred for life, and so is the other young man (the son's cousin). My son is not a homosexual, but neither does he have any female relationship ... my son is still in therapy."
Kathy said she believes homosexuality is caused by child molestation. She said the victims become sinners who molest other children and destroy families. Her experience is all the proof she needs.
"I don't hate homosexuals. If they want to experiment, then let them experiment on people their own age, not on young children."
Professional counselors have trouble helping JWs deal with sexual problems, because to them, all sexual behavior is determined by biblical interpretation. There is no room for understanding, forgiveness, medical science or alternative viewpoints.
JWs hold the Bible before them like a shield. The Bible they use is the WTB&TS' own translation, which it publishes as the New World Translation.
According to Edmond Gruss, who wrote Apostles of Denial, Watchtower representatives claimed that when New World Translation was released in the 1950s, it had been translated and approved by competent scholars.
In the foreword, the translators wrote, "Religious traditions, hoary with age, have been taken for granted and gone unchallenged and uninvestigated. These have been interwoven into the translations to color the thought."
In his book, Gruss countered, "With the arrogant statement, the Watchtower committee waves aside hundreds of the greatest linguists of all time and substitutes the Committee of Seven ... a committee composed of unknowns who hold little in the way of degrees or scholarly recognition."
In his definitive study, In Search of Christian Freedom, Raymond Franz, a former member of the Governing Body, points out the convenience of creative Bible translation.
"Who really is the faithful and discreet slave whom his Master appointed over his domestics, to give them their food at the proper time? Happy is that slave if his master on arriving finds him doing so. Truly I say to you, he will appoint him over all his belongings."--Matt: 24:45-47, New World Translation.
"In their calls for loyalty and submission, no other portion of Scripture is so frequently appealed to by the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses ... it is employed primarily to support the concept of a centralized administrative authority," Franz writes.
"There is not the slightest question that in the minds of Jehovah's Witnesses ... the "food at the due time" provided by the "slave" is the information supplied by the Brooklyn-centered Watch Tower Organization," Franz says.
The Jehovah's Witnesses' hold on members is so tight, most find it difficult to leave the sect. Some escape intact. Others, unable to cope with the dichotomy of JW beliefs and the real world, opt for suicide.
In April 1997, Air Force Capt. Craig Button, on an Arizona training flight, broke formation from his unit, flew to Colorado, and crashed his plane into the side of a mountain.
The story made national headlines. People speculated about reasons for what happened. One newspaper report suggested Button committed suicide over a gay love affair with another officer.
In a Dec. 25 New York Times article, James Brooke wrote, "The pilot's parents ... angrily reject the conclusion that he committed suicide." Brooke revealed that Button "raised as the only child of elderly parents, broke as a teenager with the faith of his parents, who are Jehovah's Witnesses."
"My mother is a Jehovah's Witness, raised me to think that joining the military is wrong," Button once wrote.
The Air Force claims Button committed suicide over unrequited love for a woman. "It was a dramatic example of a man who seems to have everything going for him in his life, yet cannot have the woman he loves passionately," the official report concludes.
At the time of the original investigation, however, the woman in question denied she and Button were ever more than friends.
Even more damning is the story of Kelly Blake, a Phoenix woman who poured gasoline over herself and her three children, then set the family ablaze in March 1998.
TV reporters said the woman had become very religious and that she was obsessed with the "sinfulness" of herself and the children she had out of wedlock.
The woman's daughter died at the scene of the fire. The rest of the family was rushed to the hospital. The mother and one son were in critical condition.
A neighborhood boy told Arizona Republic reporters that Blake refused to allow her children attend school for "religious reasons." He said the family was Jehovah's Witnesses, the Republic reported.
Jim Moon, webmaster of Internet support group site A Common Bond, flew in from San Francisco to share his story. Also at that initial meeting was Mark Miller.
Later, five more Phoenix-area residents participated in a round-table discussion of their experiences. We interviewed other gay former JWs from all parts of the country, via telephone and e-mail.
Those contributing to this final segment are male and female, in their early 20s to late 50s. They are white, Hispanic, and African-American. Some were born into the Jehovah's Witnesses; some joined later in life.
All share a common experience. They were rejected by their religion, and often by their families, because they are gay.
Moon left his birth religion "because of its condemnation of gays." While a teenager, he met some Jehovah's Witnesses who persuaded him to sit in on weekly Bible studies. "The elder was a master salesman, and he knew all the right things to say and the right scriptures to read," Moon said.
"Armageddon was right around the corner." It was supposed to occur in September 1975, the elder said. That religious man counseled Moon "that in order to guarantee my immortality, all I had to do was to 'stop being gay' for a few months, and after I survived Armageddon, I would be 'perfect.' So my sexuality wouldn't matter any more. I was sold!"
When Armageddon didn't happen, Moon struggled for the next few years to be a good JW and suppress his same-sex desires. Inevitably, Moon met a man and began spending time with his new "best friend."
"In order for the JWs not to accuse him of being a 'bad association,' I started a Bible study with him. ... One night, both of us had too much beer and we found ourselves in bed," Moon said. "I woke up the next morning in absolute terror."
As the religion dictates, Moon confessed his sin to the elders. Because he was "repentant," he was given a "Private Reproof." It turned out not to be so private.
"Word spread through the congregation like wildfire, and I was treated like a leper," Moon said.
Moon tried for several more years to get things right, but finally he was disfellowshipped. "I was told Jehovah no longer loved me," Moon said.
Miller was raised a Jehovah's Witness. When he became aware of his sexuality, he tried to keep it a secret to protect his family. He knew practicing gays were disfellowshipped. That means family members can not associate with the banned member.
But congregations deliberately are kept small, Miller explained, so that members can watch one another. Once sexual indiscretion is suspected, the suspect often is followed or spied upon, he alleged.
Miller moved to another town to escape watchful eyes. He claimed the church's elders "stalked" him.
"I had to say, if you don't stay away from me, I will slap a restraining order against you," Miller said. That legal maneuver worked for about two years. But eventually, everyone from his former life knew about Miller's homosexuality. The elders had to do something.
The worst part of being disfellowshipped was, "I bought into that I had really done something wrong ... that God had turned his back on me," Miller said.
He admitted that at the time he didn't know what to expect from his family and friends. He said JWs treat disfellowshipped members with anything from "you don't even look at them" to "well, it's family, you be courteous."
Miller said his mother wasn't exactly courteous. He got "scathing" letters from her. When she learned he had his ear pierced, she "went through the whole thing about what homosexuals did and I was filthy."
Miller said his mother believed the earring was to advertise that he wanted to have anal sex with men at any given time. Miller reacted to her suggestion with, "Really? Well, it hasn't worked yet!"
Miller said the JWs "are palming themselves off as being loving, gracious people ... and look at the hate they teach."
He and his mother have reunited and made their peace--but not until after years of suffering for each.
The five panel members shared the impact revealing their sexual orientation had on them and their families.
Silvana S. grew up in Spanish-speaking JW congregations. She said they have a different attitude about sexual matters.
"You didn't talk about stuff like that," Silvana said.
When she began attending English-speaking congregations, Silvana discovered gays are considered "okay as long as you are not 'practicing.'" She said English-speaking congregations are obsessed with homosexuality.
Silvana laughs a little about her "coming out." She was married and lived far from home. She said she realized she is a lesbian when she bought a pair of cowboy boots. "My husband said I looked like a dyke. I knew what I was doing was a lie. I had a moment of clarity with those boots!"
Silvana kissed her hubby goodbye and found herself some lesbian friends. "They became my family."
When Shanon A. was "maybe 17," his mother figured out he is gay. "She told me to go talk to a [JW] brother. She said it would be confidential."
Within days, "everyone knew. I was asked to leave people's homes and functions. Typical shunning." He was held up to ridicule in front of his congregation when an elder warned, "There is a homosexual wolf coming in to get our children."
Shanon ran away. As a teenager living on the streets, he said he was asked to testify in a court cases against his former religion regarding his opinion regarding JW children running away from their family and church situation.
Melissa R., whose father is a JW elder, said as she grew up, she attended three Kingdom Hall meetings a week. There she heard that homosexuality is "not just a sin, but a gross sin."
It was difficult to hear about lesbians "being the laughingstock of the congregation," Melissa said.
When she couldn't stand it any longer, "I just walked away." She has been free of the JWs for the shortest period of time of all the panel members. She can't get through her story without crying. Melissa misses her family greatly, but worries if she contacts them, they will be disfellowshipped.
"And my brother won't even talk to me," she added tearfully.
Everett I. also confessed his first gay experience to a JW "brother," who immediately told the elders.
"The emotional scars are still there," Everett says of the resultant furor. Everett loved his religion deeply. "I wanted to stay."
The psychological stress of following the church's dictates and to suppress his homosexuality eventually caused him to be hospitalized. When he finally was disfellowshipped, "My mom kicked me out. She said, 'we aren't supposed to talk to you.'"
Scott M, chastised as a child "not to act like that or people will think you are queer," knew he had no choice about who he was or how he acted. So rather than suffer the indignity of being found out and then disfellowshipped, Scott refused to be baptized into the sect and left at age 18.
He recalled how he had been mocked, shunned and even sexually abused by the people who were supposed to love and care for him. "How can this be God's organization?" he asked.
We heard from others.
Austen M, in San Diego, said that six months into marriage he realized he is gay but didn't want to tell his wife. But it wasn't long before she and his congregation suspected. His wife and elders followed him.
"It was like a witch hunt," he said. "Like the CIA looking over my shoulder."
Austen wanted a separation from his wife and to leave the religion, but he didn't want to be disfellowshipped because of his relatives. Instead, he avoided meetings and his pioneer duties, in order to be declared "inactive."
But the elders "were not going to let that happen," he said. They "stalked" him until "they broke me down. I was almost suicidal. I lost 35 pounds."
The sect's persistence paid off. JW elders caught Austen in the act, so to speak, and he was disfellowshipped. Sure enough, when this happened, he was cut off from his family.
The thing Austen remembers most about growing up a JW is not having a normal childhood. He said children of JWs do not celebrate birthdays, Christmas or other holidays. Because of this, JW children often are teased and taunted in school.
We still are receiving stories from gay former Jehovah's Witnesses explaining the reason for their anger and pain and why they tried so hard not to be found out.
Shanon summed it up. "It's your family's duty to excommunicate you. Well, I could do without the religion. It was my family I wanted to keep."
But there are those who disagree with how the panel characterized their life as JWs.
Gary e-mailed his response.
"I am a very gay, very ex-Jehovah's Witness. I am a very active member of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of 'A Common Bond,'" he wrote.
He said the original article (Echo No. 242) contained glaring "bogus statements and misrepresentations."
Gary wrote, "I am not here to defend Jehovah's Witnesses. However, it is a great disservice to our support group (A Common Bond) when such clearly twisted and false information is represented in the media, especially by bitter former members (and most of us are not bitter)."
Gary said he is saddened to think a gay/lesbian JW who has seen the stories may not seek out help from A Common Bond.
On the other hand, in his last sentence Gary recognized how tough it is to be a gay JW, when he concluded: "Your article will unfortunately force many tormented individuals to stay silent and continue in their torment!"
Another e-mail response came from Don S., who said that in his experience, Jehovah's Witnesses taught that God gave us a freedom of choice.
"They understand that there are many viewpoints on religious belief," Don wrote. "Jehovah's Witnesses try to give a different and, in their view, 'true' viewpoint. It is up to the individual to decide."
Don acknowledged that he was worried that he would be discovered as gay, but asked, "Isn't that what someone does when they are doing something their belief denies?"
At the same time, because his father accepted his sexual orientation with love, Don said he never felt that he was "marked as a sinner."
Don left the religion "for my own reasons" several years ago, but wrote, "I still believe many of the things that the Witnesses teach. I have just chosen another path."
1. "Members" denotes Jehovah's Witnesses in good standing. There are far more people involved in, and contributing to, the religion who are not recognized nor counted as members.
*Each JW branch has its own Bethel: London Bethel, Toronto Bethel, etc. For the purpose of this article, unless otherwise noted, Bethel will refer to Brooklyn Bethel, the international seat of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.