The worldwide organization of Jehovah's Witnesses, also known as the Watch Tower and Bible Tract Society, is a truly unique Christian denomination; its members do not vote, they do not accept blood transfusions and they do not recognize or celebrate holidays. But when a member of the congregation comes out as LGBT, the international network A Common Bond is there to provide support.
"The more my eyes have opened and seen the broader picture, the more I have come to the conclusion that ACB serves a huge need," said Larry Kirkwood, a Houston asset liquidator who is the president of A Common Bond. "When we are outed or come out, we are forced out of and away from everything we know. We are taught to fear 'the world' and everyone in it, and are scared from being told how cold and cruel it is. ACB bridges that gap...[and shows us that] the world is not as cold, cunning and cruel as the picture was painted."
A remarkable attribute of Jehovah's Witnesses is their claim of political neutrality and their disassociation from "the world," meaning any person or aspect of society that is not adherent to "the truth," that being the word of God according to their New World Translation and interpretation of the Bible.
But like so many other religious groups, Jehovah's Witnesses condemn homosexuality. More specifically, the issue of marriage equality has been raised in one of their independent publications, "Awake!," which is personally distributed door-to-door in countries and localities that allow such solicitation.
With the presence of Jehovah's Witnesses in hundreds of nations, including those in which LGBTQ persons are denied equal rights or even persecuted (such as Zimbabwe), one might wonder to what extent the organization encourages or even creates anti-gay sentiment that influences such political climates. This also warrants consideration of the unique experiences of LGBTQ individuals who either are or have been affiliated with the Jehovah's Witnesses.
Kirkwood said that a Common Bond, established in 1980, is an international network of LGBTQ ex-Jehovah's Witnesses and those who are still connected to the organization. He said he joined the organization more than a decade ago. Three years ago, he formed a board and organized ACB into a non-profit. Later that year, he was elected as president.
Since the establishment of ACB, the organization has remained somewhat elusive and uninvolved in the political struggle for LGBTQ equality. And according to the group's website, their mission is not to retaliate against the Watchtower organization, "although we do recognize that we are called such things as 'an abomination,' 'abhorrent,' etc. in their literature, and we know that many of you are now shunned by your families and Witness friends." The group said that their basic purpose was to help guide members to a life of happiness and self-acceptance.
"ACB is not a politically motivated organization with any agenda. We strictly provide support and friendship to anyone who is or once was affiliated with the Jehovah's Witness organization," said Kirkwood. "We aren't here to tell people what to think or to guide them. We merely provide that support and friendship, nothing more. We do our best to keep in contact through an online Yahoo Group, Facebook, private emails, and connect people with others closest to them."
But the Jehovah's Witnesses don't appear to be as neutral as their tenets assert. On the official website of The Watchtower Society, the most prominently displayed article is "Does God Approve of Same-Sex Marriage," from the April 8, 2005 issue of "Awake!" This raises the question of why a religious organization that claims political neutrality would choose to highlight an article from seven years ago that has such relevance in today's political climate.
"Lets be honest; they are anything but neutral," said Kirkwood, whose memoir, "What Lies Within," chronicles his difficult coming-out process. "They take stands against other religions. They stand against families, and loved ones, if they feel they might be undermined...they can claim to be neutral, but that's a lie. They are told kings and priests walk amongst them with a heavenly hope, that they are God's warriors and when called upon will die for him if needed. That doesn't sound so neutral to me."
Another belief and practice of the Jehovah's Witnesses is called disfellowshipping, which the official media site clarifies, noting that, "If someone unrepentantly practices serious sins...he will be disfellowshipped and such an individual is avoided by former fellow worshippers."
"This is permanent psychological damage to anyone [who is] cast aside like a piece of trash," said Kirwood. "When you are forced out of religion, losing not only your religious convictions, but your family and friends, this causes extreme abandonment issues."
When asked what he feels is the most important work of ACB, he said, "The greatest thing we can give to anyone who feels abandoned or alone, fresh out of the organization, is friendship, maybe a shoulder to cry on, an earful of advice on how to move on with their life, connect them to others, and make sure they know they are not alone."
A Common Bond also provides support through annual conferences; this year's will be held in New Orleans. Previous conferences have featured lawyers who provided advice about legal protections for LGBTQ individuals and couples, plus licensed therapists and counselors. Kirkwood said that this year, in New Orleans, the focus would be on developing friendships, connecting with others who think and talk just like we do, adding "It's a horrible thing to think you're all alone. ACB is here to let those with commonality know....you're not alone. We are everywhere."
"I have heard their stories and it's exactly like mine. Different place, different face but the story is always the same," said Kirkwood. "I cry with them, laugh with them, sometimes they listen to me, sometimes I listen to them. But there has not been one face that I have not connected with when I met them. There's something special about an ex-JW. I feel their losses, the hurt inside, even when it's masked with a smiling face."