When religion is the bully

By Joel P. Engardio The news of gay teen suicides this fall made me think of my college friend Jeff. … Continued

By Joel P. Engardio

The news of gay teen suicides this fall made me think of my college friend Jeff. When I heard he was depressed and struggling with being gay, I wanted to say it gets better. But I didn’t know if it would. I was also gay and too afraid to tell him. Nothing I saw in 1992 gave me any hope. There was no “Glee,” no “Ellen” on TV to counter the politicians and religious leaders who demonized me in prime time. Even the Brady Bunch dad had died of AIDS.

We both liked playing tennis, so that’s what we did instead of talking about our pain. Then one night Jeff jumped off a parking garage. He was 19.

Gay kids are made to feel worthless from a variety of sources: religion, the culture, bullies at school. I don’t know which of these Jeff internalized. For me, it was religious-based shame.

My mom is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and when I told her I was gay, she mourned as if I had died. Not being able to see her son in God’s Kingdom was a devastating thought. Many religions share the same belief about homosexuality: a human imperfection that is sinful to act on. I remember at age four or five hearing a Bible scripture about “men who lie with men.” I knew the elder was describing what I would be when I grew up. By the tone of his voice, I knew it was something very bad.

It isn’t easy growing up gay in any religion that deems gays unworthy, but how can we make gay kids feel better about themselves when they hear anti-gay religious speech that is protected by the First Amendment? Restricting speech isn’t the answer because banning the phrase “gay is sin” only makes it easier to ban “gay is OK.” The solution is more speech telling gay kids they are good and beautiful people, to counter the negative messages they hear in church, school and in the media.

I recently made a video for the “It Gets Better” campaign, which asks gay adults living open and happy lives to tell gay kids to hang in there. I thought about how this kind of speech would have been impossible when gays were criminalized and shamed into silence. I also thought about how my mom’s religion was once denied the ability to speak freely. But in fighting for their own right to live and worship as they choose, Jehovah’s Witnesses won 50 U.S. Supreme Court cases that expanded individual liberties for all Americans. The irony only starts there.

When a federal judge ruled this summer that a ban on gay marriage in California was unconstitutional, his key legal precedent was a Jehovah’s Witness case from 1943 that said the fundamental rights of a group – no matter how unpopular or marginalized — can’t be taken away by majority vote. A coalition of religions had supported the gay marriage ban, but Jehovah’s Witnesses remained politically neutral. They demonstrated the Bill of Rights at its best: exercising religious freedom without the need to legislate beliefs that force everyone to live their way. Yet the irony ends here.

The fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t block gay couples outside their religion from getting married is little consolation for a gay kid who is told he is a product of Adam’s sin to his core. It is especially tough when the religion shuns.

A religion that says gays must remain single and celibate will have a hard time recruiting gay members. But what happens when the religion has gay kids? Among Jehovah’s Witnesses there is no easy exit for the adolescent who skillfully parrots theology at age 10 or 12 and decides in his late teens or early twenties that the religion isn’t for him. Anyone who officially joins through baptism is subject to shunning if they don’t follow the agreed upon rules.

I was never baptized and it saved my relationship with my mom. Gay kids who got baptized before they could come to terms with their sexuality are not so fortunate. In the most extreme cases, parents cut all contact with their shunned adult children.

Freedom in America is complex: gays seek equality from a Constitution that gives religions the right to say gays are sinners. That’s why the “It Gets Better” campaign is so important. It provides the hope a gay kid needs when he is being raised in an anti-gay religion. No kid should be so overwhelmed with who he is expected to be that killing himself is the only way to deal with who he is.

I wonder if parents with religious objections to homosexuality have fully considered the consequences of insisting their gay child follow a faith that works for them but not their child. Can the religious parents who lost a gay child to suicide or shunning ever find peace with the outcome? Or would they rather have a relationship with their child, alive, separate from their religion? I think that’s why my mom cried so much when I told her I was gay. I know she won’t come to my wedding if I’m ever allowed to get married, but I also know she is glad I’m still around.

Joel Engardio is a 2011 MPA candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. His essays have appeared in USA Today, Washington Post.com and on NPR. Engardio directed KNOCKING, an award-winning PBS documentary on Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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  • areyousaying

    I think being left handed is evil. It is a choice – not something someone is born with. The Devil baptized his followers with his left hand and in France, witches greeted each other with left handed handshakes. Left handed people should not be allowed to marry or enter heaven.

  • Sajanas

    It always surprises me that some religious people are so willing to shrug of their children because of what a cleric says. There are a great many, of many different sorts saying many things, and yet people still trust their priest to be right, and to give them rules that exile their children. I don’t think this is going to change until people start holding their religions accountable for their wider actions. Religion’s are not democracies, and as such, the only thing they are going to notice is loss of contributions and loss of membership. If you believe in gay rights, and your church actively shuns gays or encourages their re-education, you are accountable for that. Your contributes fund that, and they need to know that it is wrong.

  • DogpatchMB

    When you meet the friendliest people you have ever known, who introduce you to the most loving group of people you’ve ever encountered, and you find the leader to be the most inspired, caring, compassionate and understanding person you’ve ever met, and then you learn the cause of the group is something you never dared hope could be accomplished, and all of this sounds too good to be true — it probably is too good to be true! Don’t give up your education, your hopes and ambitions to follow a rainbow. * Jeannie Mills (aka Deanna Mertle), early defector from the People’s Temple and co-founder of the Concerned Relatives and the Human Freedom CenterKudos to you Joel for spilling your guts on this. I would like to do a documentary with you on part 2 of the Witnesses and the abuse of human dignity. –

  • FarnazMansouri2

    I’m still waiting for a convincing argument on the good that religion does for the world. Why do I think that a single Joel is more a force for decency than all the world’s religions combined?

  • megthepearl

    Judge the integrity of a tree by its ‘own’ leaves. Examine the pages of ‘our own’ publications. Regards to all.

  • magriebel

    Joel,Finally, you have it. I have read your columns and ranted after each one. I have commented after many of them and hoped you would finally be true to yourself over your need (desire, obligation??) to be true to your mother’s religion. Finally you have come through. Finally, you are finally getting it. Thank you. Thank you.I’d like to invite you and any of your gay ex (or current) JW readers to consider joining an online community for exjw’s who are gay at acbgroup@yahoogroups.com. It is where we find healing. Please stop by and say hello.And did I mention Thank you?Melissa

  • ZZim

    Why do I think that a single Joel is more a force for decency than all the world’s religions combined?Posted by: FarnazMansouri2 = = = = = = = = Because you’re a hate-filled bigot.Good article, Joel, thanks for writing it. Sorry you have to have your plea for tolerance besmirched by bigots like Farnaz, but what can you do?.

  • ScottJW1

    Joel, I am one of the many JWs who watched your documentary on us. I appreciate your un-biased approach to it. There were a couple of “iffy” parts but overall was well done.Loyalty to Jehovah God is paramount. Our hope is that our family and friends would all come to know the Truth and make the needed changes in their lives to conform to God’s will. For some, that may be very difficult. But it can be done. 1 Corinthians 6, “9 What! Do YOU not know that unrighteous persons will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be misled. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men kept for unnatural purposes, nor men who lie with men, 10 nor thieves, nor greedy persons, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit God’s kingdom. 11 And yet that is what some of YOU were. But YOU have been washed clean, but YOU have been sanctified, but YOU have been declared righteous in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the spirit of our God.”This comment is for those that are humkble, peaceable people that have an open mind and would like to know the Truth about Jehovah’s Witnesses. As for the rest…

  • zeke00

    What a despicable cult. Keep believing the earth is 6,000 years old.

  • FarnazMansouri2

    Why do I think that a single Joel is more a force for decency than all the world’s religions combined?Posted by: FarnazMansouri2= = = = = = = =Because you’re a hate-filled bigot.Good article, Joel, thanks for writing it. Sorry you have to have your plea for tolerance besmirched by bigots like Farnaz, but what can you do?.Posted by: ZZimIt’s rather obvious that I support Joel.Sorry Joel. Mentally challenged readers like Zzim are allowed to post here.

  • ZZim

    Zzim, you moron racist, WTF are you talking about?It’s rather obvious that I support Joel.Posted by: FarnazMansouri2 = = = = = = = = = =I know you support Joel, but you expressed you support for him in terms of how much you hate and loathe religious people.Joel’s trying to express support for gay people without needing to vilify religious people. You took that as your cue to simply vilify religious people.Personally, I think the Joel does a really good job of striking a supportive-but-conciliatory tone that respects the dignity of others, which really impressed me. You, on the other hand, absolutely insist on degrading others. I decided not to pass up the opportunity to call you out on that..

  • WmarkW

    I know you support Joel, but you expressed you support for him in terms of how much you hate and loathe religious people. by ZZIMThe Jehovah’s Witness faith is an extremely primitive interpretation of scripture, that recruits members using comic book presentations of bible stories. And it encourages shunning of family members who no longer accept its doctrines.I’m only glad it’s too idiotic to be more popular.

  • ZZim

    I know you support Joel, but you expressed you support for him in terms of how much you hate and loathe religious people. by ZZIMPosted by: WmarkW = = = = = = = = = = =Heh, fail.Your argument is no different than “I don’t hate homosexuals, I love gay people, I just hate their evil sexual habits”, or, better yet, “I don’t hate black, people, some of my best friends are black people, I just hate all the drugs and crime they do.”So yeah, Fanaz absolutely LOVES religious people, she’s acknowledging that they have never done anything “good in the world.”.

  • jobandon

    Try the experiment of pleasing God rather than man. Joan Irvine, “just as her grandfather enjoyed a fight. She really should of been a man.” You find a woman and she’s more of man than you thought. I’m a fighter, so I’d rather fight with a woman. It depends what you are fighting for, who you are fighting with is your business. This sweet torture of waiting? Send him/her flowers. Then the glad overcoming joy of the meeting. The old bright fashion never goes out of style. Be bear minded and avoid bull. We’ll cheerfully take your money gaily daily.

  • petertaylor