LGBTQ+ rights

[OPINION] Celebrating Pride Month as a former Jehovah’s Witness

Dianne Rico

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[OPINION] Celebrating Pride Month as a former Jehovah’s Witness

Guia Abogado/Rappler

'For me, Pride Month also means celebrating my freedom from a high-control doomsday group who made me feel that I was detestable and worthy of mistreatment...'

I vividly remember sitting alone with three middle-aged men as I confessed my sexual experience with a same-sex member. My hands grew colder as the minutes passed, with nothing but the fluorescent lights and the familiar stink of the old vinyl floor to divert my attention to. As if being a woman discussing these things almost forcibly was not intrusive enough, they were shamelessly asking for details of the “sin” I committed. As I tried to dissect those private moments, I felt exposed, humiliated, and chastised in front of these men, who had watched me grow up and were fathers of my friends then.

This is the standard protocol for handling cases of “sexual immorality” inside the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses – and this is just the beginning. After the “hearing,” this group of men, who call themselves the “judicial committee,” will decide if someone needs to be expelled – or “disfellowshipped,” as they call it – from the religion. The consequences of disfellowshipping are designed to make the life of an ex-Jehovah’s Witness turn completely upside down.

The darkest days of my life were what followed after being forced to leave the organization just because I was gay. First, when the public verbal announcement was made, all the friends I had from childhood until college started shunning me. ALL OF THEM – even my best friends whom I treated like my own siblings. All connections were cut, even on Facebook. Blood relations also did not matter to my Jehovah’s Witness brothers and cousins – they also ceased all communications with me. 

Shunning, as one of their basic teachings, is enforced to “protect the congregation and discipline unrepentant wrongdoers.” According to them, those who will not obey “would interfere with Jehovah’s (God’s name, according to the group) discipline if [they] associate with a disfellowshipped person.” Who could have known that an organization with a very kind and loving façade could treat me this inhumanely? The grief of losing the people I love was inexplicable. But my story is not unique.

A growing number of stories are published worldwide about the damage of leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization. While the organization teaches shunning as a form of “loving discipline” needed to make the “sinners” return to the organization, I find it the farthest opposite of loving – it is cruel and purely punitive not only for those who leave the community, but also for the families who are painfully forced to shun their daughters, sons, parents, and friends. Up to this day, the guilt is still fresh when I recall the image of my parents weeping over my disfellowship – I wish to never know the pain of parents who were forced to undergo this. They are held hostage: forced to obey, or otherwise they too would lose all family and friends they had inside.

The other consequence dwells more internally. Being indoctrinated my whole life that homosexuality was a sin, I instinctively felt I was displeasing God and that I deserved all the pain and the shunning. This internalized homophobia meant that I also hated myself for loving another woman. Predictably, all these took a toll on my mental health and I was obliged to go through a series of psychotherapy and medication treatments to manage my post-traumatic stress disorder, recurring nightmares, overwhelming anxiety, and immobilizing depression. 

Jehovah’s Witnesses’ teachings on homosexuality

The Jehovah’s Witnesses, also known legally as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, have a strong and damaging hostility to homosexuality. Merely typing the word “homosexual” in their official website’s search tab generates 26 pages of results – hundreds of articles published across their magazines, books, and brochures turn up. One of these articles, entitled “An Epidemic of Homosexuals,” says, “Like other unclean appetites and hurtful desires, homosexual tendencies can be controlled and even overcome.”

Children are not spared from this indoctrination. The organization even crafted a worksheet intended to train teenagers how to assert this belief on other people, and video material about what a grade school child may say if someone they know has same-sex parents.

But these are only their published materials. During their twice-a-week meetings they conduct at their churches called “Kingdom Halls,” the topic of homosexuality would often be included in the discourse. In bigger meetings they call conventions or assemblies (3,000 to 8,000 in attendance), on the rare occasion they would conduct thoroughly-rehearsed interviews of individuals who previously had homosexual tendencies or led lifestyles as gays, but were able to be “rehabilitated” by the Bible and the religion. They paraded them like show ponies, prime examples that homosexuality can be “cured” with enough will and prayers. Repeatedly hearing terms like “karima-rimarim” (extremely disgusting) from fellow members pertaining to the topic still lingers fresh in my memory. 

Not only does the systematic indoctrination against homosexuality strengthens its members’ belief against it, but it also intensifies fear in its members that thinking about, feeling, and acting on homosexual tendencies would eventually mean being exterminated in Armageddon – a belief that very soon, all those who are outside of the doomsday religion will be annihilated. 

Long-term impacts of religious homophobia

To date, there are more than 3,500 Jehovah’s Witness’ congregations in the Philippines catering to 238,609 individual members. These congregations meet at least twice a week for indoctrination, and as parallel work, they also attempt to indoctrinate others through house-to-house visits or programmed Bible studies. This widespread propagandism poses dangers. According to a study, religious beliefs and affiliations are still powerful predictors of attitudes against homosexuality – mainly because of fear of divine punishment.

Attesting to this, I can still recall the extreme repugnance of the Witnesses against homosexuality when the members speculate and gossip about other members who become inactive in the group’s activities. Being gay would also often be used as an insult or a demeaning joke within families, often met with laughter and more jokes. Is discriminating and shaming others for different preferences and beliefs the value they want to instill in young ones who are born and raised in the religion? Is this the mindset of the future generation we would like to bring into our already hateful society?

The damage of religion-fueled disdain on the LGBTQ+ community is heavily observed in a country like the Philippines, where traditional Christianity holds power over public policies and even basic rights, and where protection of the gay community is denied even when such protection does not infringe on anyone else’s rights.

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Moving forward

This 2023, I am planning to join a Pride March for the first time. Pride Month may be about being proud of who you are and celebrating the beautiful diversity in gender and sex, but for me, it also means celebrating my freedom from a high-control doomsday group who made me feel that I was detestable and worthy of mistreatment and punishment my entire life. 

However, this does not mean my pain and sorrow are gone. I am still grieving over friends and family members who’ve renounced me just because I was being true to myself. I am also heartbroken for Jehovah’s Witnesses who are out there unable to be honest to themselves, and for former members who suffer similarly or even worse than I do. This also does not mean I am no longer enraged. I am furious at how the religion – a group claiming to be a reflection of the loving God – destroys family relationships, friendships, and individual lives, while letting the members believe it is all on the “sinner.”

But I am also hopeful – that my family will one day accept me as I am. That a lot more church members will eventually see the outright manipulation within the group. That more members can find a safe space outside the religion who will accept them for who they are and what they want to be, unconditionally. In the meantime, I will continue reaching out to those like me who were cast out by their own families and friends for leading honest lives. 

Most importantly, this June, I am hopeful that everyone takes time to internalize the unique essence of Pride Month and become our most authentic selves. Being honest with myself might have started out painful, but living my authentic life has been the most rewarding and liberating experience – pushing me to grow and discover my strengths. I have also learned more about unconditional love than I ever would have inside the organization, and I’m now confident that I am indeed on the path to the “best life ever.”*  –

Dianne Rico grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness, became an official member of the religion in 2010, and was disfellowshipped in 2019. Currently, she is an environmental planner, a development worker, and an MA Communication student at the UP Diliman College of Mass Communication.

*”Best life ever” is a common phrase used inside the organization to convince its members that only they can have the best life ever.

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