The Watchtower organization’s sensational stories of overcoming homosexuality often begin with a pseudonym.
Eugenio* was a young Spanish man who, for two long years, fought a battle against his evil inclinations…“From an early age, I had a tendency to be immoral. As a teenager, I willingly participated in homosexual orgies, and to be frank, I enjoyed that sort of life-style.” What eventually made him want to change?
I wanted to please God, and I learned from the Bible that he did not approve of the way I was living,” Eugenio said. “So I decided to be a different sort of person, to abide by God’s guidelines. Every day, I had to fight against negative, dirty thoughts that still came flooding into my mind. I was determined to win this battle, and I prayed incessantly for God’s help. After two years the worst was over, although I am still strict with myself. But the struggle was worthwhile. I now have self-respect, a good marriage, and, above all, a good relationship with God.
Footnote: * Not his real name.The Watchtower, February 1, 1993 pp. 5-7
As a Jehovah’s Witnesses teen struggling to tamp down my homosexuality, whenever The Watchtower magazine featured articles of someone who had succeeded in that feat, I would read their life experience with rapt attention. Invariably, though, I would finish the article disappointed. More often than not, the outlined tips for success I had already done: I already wanted to please God. I already wanted to be a different sort of person. I was abiding by God’s guidelines. Moreover, I was praying incessantly for God’s help. I hadn’t been doing those things for a mere two years; I’d been doing them since I was six years old.
Towards the end of my teenage year, I finally came to the realization that these feelings were likely never going to go away. Regardless, I continued the fight through my 20’s and 30’s and beyond, all while staying very busy in “service to Jehovah.” On three occasions, while speaking about my struggles to congregation elders, I was urged to get married. Their advice was partially based on their ignorance, but also those glowing, breezy life experiences in Watchtower’s publications. So, it begs the question: is it wise to take those experiences at face value? Also, is it possible that decision-making based on these experiences could lead to disaster?
Human Attraction: A Mysterious Puzzle
The mechanics of human attraction are complex. They involve a person being intrigued by another human’s physical characteristics, their personality, that person’s outlook on life and other intangibles I’ll just call a person’s spirit. At the same time, the factors determining whether a person is attracted to the opposite gender, same gender or both genders are not understood scientifically. But ultimately, the basics of attraction have little to do with the physical act of sexual intercourse.
Aside from human reproduction, sexual intercourse is engaged in
- 1) As a symbol of the depths of one’s affection for another person or
- 2) As a unique physical act that is rivaled by few other experiences in life.
Without question, it’s possible to have sex with someone and not want to spend the rest of one’s life with them. It’s also possible to desire to spend the entirety of one’s life with someone, and at some point in that continuum, no longer have sex.
So, while 1) attraction, 2) the object of one’s attraction and 3) sexual intercourse are interrelated, they are not the same. Unfortunately, Watchtower conflates these concepts. Based on the life experiences they have chosen to publish, a child who dabbles in same-sex experimentation, a teen who goes off the rails in a desire to experience sex in as many ways as possible, a victim of abuse who is drawn to the same sex, a prison inmate who engages in homosexual act while incarcerated, a same-sex pedophile and a person who wants to be in a lifelong relationship with someone of the same sex – they are all the same.
This approach is problematic.
In my experience, by lumping every same-sex encounter into a generic pot of “homosexuality,” the life experiences never quite resonated. After studying the article, it was clear, “This is not me. This is not my experience.” In fact, the bulk of Watchtower’s experiences related to overcoming homosexuality come from people not reared in the JW faith. As a result, the already vague solutions for overcoming same-sex attraction are skewed towards starkly different circumstances.
Consider this excerpt:
[W]ith God’s help, anyone can learn to “abstain from fornication,” which includes homosexual acts.” Awake! April 8, 2005 pp. 26-27
I think it’s easy to see how unhelpful and discouraging statements like this are. At least during the early years, most gay JWs are imploring God for help, abstaining from sex and staying busy in the congregation. The article continues with an anonymous life experience, which enthusiastically states, “I was able to break free from all my unclean practices. After studying for 14 months, I dedicated my life to Jehovah and was baptized.”
Without a more complete picture of this person’s background – without being inside his head – there isn’t a clear inflection point from which the reader can launch his own efforts. Sadly, though, I don’t believe Watchtower’s primary goal is to provide gay JWs with concrete solutions to work through their same-sex attractions. In all honesty, they don’t know what to do with gay members of the congregation short of a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ mentality. In these life experiences, I believe Watchtower’s primary goals is to communicate this basic idea: if a person really wants to, God will help them rid their lives of homosexual desires – possibly in a very short period of time.
I will make an educated guess that there are many gay JWs who desperately wish the transformation to heterosexual would happen as easily, and on the same truncated time frame quoted in the above experience.
Cherry-Picked & Anonymous
Another key issue with life experiences is that they are almost always anonymous. It’s understandable why someone with homosexuality in their past would not want their congregation reading about it on the pages of The Watchtower. However, when life experiences are anonymous, there is no way to confirm the veracity of the person’s statements.
When culling interviews to be used in publications or to be featured at JW annual convention, there is often extensive outreach to the extended network of Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations. Watchtower is not looking for a variety of different experience, but those that fit the narrative they are promoting. Then, just as is the case with secular publications, what that interviewee says is subject to editing. I know this, having been involved with numerous Watchtower publications during my stint at their world headquarters.
Interviewees are also subject to coaching. In other words, yes, they want to hear the person’s experience, but Watchtower is also very clear about what they don’t want to hear. The beginning and middle of the experience can be as tragic as the person wants. But there has to be a happy ending.
There will be a happy ending.
I would offer to gay JWs reading these experiences, realize that they are cherry-picked – often more confection than unadulterated facts. They are exceptions and experiences-at-gunpoint. With that in mind, I do believe interviewees desire to help fellow JWs with their experiences. However, paramount to that is pleasing the Watchtower organization by giving them the quotes they are looking for. However, there is another facet of these life experiences that is even more troubling.
Frozen in Time
Because of the nature of producing published media, as soon as it is released, it’s outdated. In fact, from the time an interview concludes, that person’s history continues to be written – sometimes veering off in a direction contrary to the snapshot featured in Watchtower’s publications.
For example, I know a JW woman who was featured on an annual convention program as an example of what can be accomplished by trusting in God. She was a mother of several young children, spent 60 hours a month preaching the JW message, and was married to a man who was not a Jehovah’s Witness. In her interview, she said all of the right things – I assume with sincerity – and was undoubtedly an encouragement for audience members in similar situations. However, not more than a few years later she had cheated on her husband, multiple times with multiple partners, and was subsequently expelled from the religion.
These things happen. No one is perfect. However, there will never be an epilogue to her experience presented at a future convention. Yet, the positive words she spoke remain frozen in time, and probably have influenced the decision-making of others in her situation. But perhaps being a mother and also a full-time preacher is not a good idea. Maybe the strains of juggling a family and meeting the hourly requirements of a full-time preacher were factors that contributed to her detour onto the path of adultery? This additional information would temper the confection sprinkled onto the original life experience.
When experiences are suspended in amber and then featured in Watchtower publications, they become even more problematic. They can live on for decades, find their way into other JW publications and are used as a source of information by congregation elders. So, what can happen when life experiences imply that it’s possible to “rewire” gender attraction in a matter of months? To answer that question, I’m going to employ a pseudonym.
“Patrick” is a brother I knew during my time at Jehovah’s Witnesses world headquarters. He was a decent brother and something of a boy next door. After leaving world headquarters, he married and shortly afterward welcomed his first baby into the world. Then another one and then another. Patrick seemed to be a good husband and a dedicated father.
At the same time, Patrick became good friends with another of the dads in the congregation. The connection seemed natural as they both had sets of three kids. Without me proceeding much further, it’s probably obvious where this is headed. The two dads became embroiled in a homosexual relationship – eventually being caught by one of their wives.
As I write this, two divorces are being finalized. Two women are struggling to sort out exactly how this happened. Also, two sets of kids – six in total – are trying to figure out why their lives are suddenly being torn apart. Without a doubt, the children still love their fathers. However, in typical JW fashion, their moms are doing everything they can to limit the kid’s contact with their dads.
For the kid’s part, I can’t imagine having to endure the stigma of being in a congregation where everyone knows you’re the child of a homosexual — a person you love dearly, but who you will be forced to cease association with eventually. A person whom you are told will die at Armageddon unless he changes his ways. A person, that if you decide to keep your relationship with him, will result in you losing the relationships of your mom, siblings, friends, and God.
This is a disaster.
Words Really Do Matter
Each person is responsible for the decisions that they make. However, there is complicity that exists when an authoritarian religious organization eggs a person down a specific path.
Michelle Carter is a young woman who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the suicide death of her boyfriend, Conrad Roy. It was known that Roy had a history of depression and had previously attempted suicide. However, when he confided in Carter that he was again contemplating taking his life, instead of seeking help, she egged him on. Even as Roy waivered in going through with the suicide, Carter texted: “I thought you wanted to do this. The time is right and you’re ready, you just need to do it! You can’t keep living this way. You just need to do it like you did last time and not think about it and just do it babe.” The following day she sent more badgering text messages. That night, as Roy slowly suffocated from the carbon monoxide fumes filling the cab of his truck, Carter listened-in over the phone. Even though she was not present, regardless of the fact she did not help in setting up the suicide apparatus, the court determined that her words made her complicit in Roy’s death.CNN, August 3, 2017
Jehovah’s Witnesses struggling with same-sex attraction are desperate for Watchtower’s guidance. I can attest to this fact and acknowledge that there were times during my life when death seemed preferable to continuing as I was. Unfortunately, Watchtower and by extension the congregation elders, offers a pat solution but not a practical one: get married. It’s almost as if they’re saying, “The time is right and you’re ready, you just need to do it! You can’t keep living this way.”
Thinking back to Patrick’s experience, it’s as if Watchtower observed from a distance as these two men methodically ran hoses throughout the rooms of their houses. And then watched silently as they pumped them full of carbon monoxide.
Their families did not die, but certainly, they were destroyed.
I consider myself fortunate as I never believed marriage was the “cure” to my desire to have a relationship with someone of the same sex. I knew that, for me, getting married would be the equivalent of pouring a concrete driveway over a field of grass. Eventually, those pesky blades of grass force their way through. I’m also thankful that during my time at world headquarters, I was able to have a frank conversation with an older brother who’d seen and heard it all. “Keep cultivating the gift of singleness,” he told me. Then looking into the distance, as if calling up memories from the past, he made this final statement: “And whatever you do, don’t get married. Don’t get married.”
An Uncertain Outcome
The experiences featured in Watchtower publications do not portray a complete picture of the potentially devastating consequence for gay JWs attempting to masquerade in heterosexual marriages. Unfortunately, I know of several others who are in these types of sham unions and are just trying to muddle through. Maybe they are happy enough. Perhaps they’re not. Maybe their union will last through old age. Perhaps it won’t. The outcome is uncertain, and the stakes are very high. These are the crucial warning that are missing from Watchtower’s publications.
Imagine how Patrick’s life experience would have been featured in The Watchtower, literally, right up to the moment before he was outed:
Patrick* was a young man who struggled with homosexual desires for his entire youth. However, he was determined not to give up. His desire was to overcome his sinful urges and remain faithful to Jehovah. “There were many nights, where with tears, I begged Jehovah for help,” said Patrick. “And through those prayers, studying the Society’s publications, and immersing myself in service to Jehovah, I was able to overcome my wrong inclinations.”
After graduating from high school Patrick served as a regular Pioneer, was appointed as a Ministerial Servant and eventually was privileged to serve as a member of the Bethel family at the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “It wasn’t easy at the beginning, but it was definitely worth the effort. Jehovah has blessed me with many privileges, a loving wife and three wonderful kids. I truly can’t imagine my life being any happier.”