By Abigail Gilson
For young LGBTQ men and women, coming out takes courage and without the immediate support from a community of friends and family can be extremely challenging.
Despite the increasing number of laws introduced each year accepting same-sex marriage there are still communities who are strongly against homosexuality. Much of the negative commentary stems from conservative religious groups who consider identifying as anything other than a heterosexual to be unnatural.
So what must it be like to be LGBTQ in a community where homosexuality is forbidden?
Rheanna Berryman, aged 20, was born into a Jehovah’s Witness family. She was also born gay. Her mother and father were both baptised 25 years ago. They first became curious about the religious group after her father received brochures from somebody at the ministry during a door-to-door, prompting him to start Bible studies. From then until aged 14, Rhea was raised to commit to the disciplined way of the Witnesses.
The JW are one of the most conservative Christianity congregations. Although they are not considered to be fundamentalists, they follow a regimented lifestyle with a literal interpretation of the Bible, and so, any kind of self expression (including sexual orientation, tattoos and piercings) that is not stated in their scriptures is strictly prohibited and must be suppressed.
From a young age Rhea had been taught by her elders that any same-sex thoughts, feeling and actions were unacceptable and an abomination. “I always knew from when I was a child that I was gay. It’s just something I had known since primary school,” she explained. “I actually used to think about what I was feeling and thinking how wrong it was for me to be feeling like that because of what they [JW’s] had taught me to think.”
Rhea explained that in 1998 her mother chose to leave the group because she did not feel the ‘special connection’ any longer. However due to her father’s heavy devotion to the faith Rhea remained a Witness spending over four hours per week at Bible studies and then an additional day per week going around with the ministry handing out leaflets and knocking on doors.
“I knew how wrong they felt towards it [homosexuality] and I would be sat thinking in my Bible studies knowing that this is so wrong,” Rhea said. By the time she had reached her teens she had long realised that being gay was not something that she would just grow out of but felt like she could never speak to anybody about it, especially her father as he had recently been promoted to an elder of the congregation*.
The process of coming-out within the Jehovah Witness community was not something she wished to put neither her father nor herself through; if you confide in somebody within the community that you are LGBTQ then they will send you to an elder. There, Rhea said, they will launch an inquiry and possibly discommunicate you which means that you could be ostracised by your inner social network of friends and family.
“Basically my feelings are my feelings and they’re natural to me but they [JW] believe that you cannot act upon them. You cannot be with the person who you want to be with…that life was all that my father knew so how could I have told him?” Rhea explained.
It was at aged 14 that she decided to no longer to be a part of the JW community, a community that not only disapproved of being LGBTQ but also reprimanded their members for it. Her mother, who had already left the religion, supported Rhea’s choice to leave but it was her dad who was devastated; “I had so much anxiety that had built up in me…I eventually told him but he didn’t speak to me for weeks,” she explained. “It was a time where I was completely lost…like I’d even had a three year relationship with a boy but the entire time I knew I was gay, I knew I was and I even told him [the boyfriend]…Couldn’t tell my dad though as that was frowned upon too.”
Making the step to remove herself from the congregation caused a huge rift in her relationship with her father and his side of the family. But by this point Rhea had gotten only half of it off of her chest. Yes, she was strong enough to leave, in her eyes, a repressive lifestyle but she was still unable to tell her parents about being gay.
Part of the reason was that there was a lot more on the line than just her freedom of expression: maintaining contact with her little half brother who was raised a Witness. “I think if I ever came-out to my dad then I literally think it would be the final straw, definitely…he wouldn’t want anything to do with me. I have been holding out for the sake of my brother but I keep telling everybody that I can’t wait another ten years to tell him. It’ll just eat me up,” Rhea, who has been secretly dating her girlfriend Bec under her father’s nose since 2015, explained.
“There had been times that I have been so close to telling my dad about it. When I met Bec I told my mum after a year. She was completely chilled about it though- and apparently already knew which was funny. I have written so many letters- couldn’t send them. There have been times where I have even called him to tell him- but I couldn’t do it…I could never do it in person I don’t think.”
Rhea is now studying in her final year of university and out of all of her family members, her father is the only person who isn’t in the know about the double life she lives for him. “He has met Bec once when she dropped me off home and I had to say that she was a friend…we had to make up so much and now the lies have gotten so deep now.” Bec is the first relationship where she can actually be happy without the guilt and anxiety besieging her. Luckily she has such a strong support group of friends and family who could not care less if she was dating a girl or a guy. The only uncertainty for Bec and Rhea is nailing down their plans after uni but all they know is that they do not want to keep their romance hidden any longer.
Looking back, Rhea has struggled to find balance between the colliding worlds of sexuality, and religion in a modern day society that is increasingly becoming celebratory of self expression. In a way she has sacrificed her own identity for the protection of her family but she maintains: “just don’t lie to yourself, do not suppress yourself because believe me, it is self destructive. It’s not healthy. Once you are able to be open about it then you will find happiness within yourself.”
*The Jehovah’s Witnesses operate world wide and are organised hierarchically with a Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses in charge of leading six committees to carry out the administrative functions of the group. Within these committees are geographically based congregations. ‘Elders’ are specially appointed the head of congregations and are responsible for governance, pastoral work, selecting speakers, conducting meetings, directing the public preaching work and creating “judicial committees” to investigate and decide judicial action against those who breach scriptures.