by Mel Mendoza
Would You Like to Hear a Story?
It’s my story.
A rather personal story.
It’s the story behind some of the most important decisions I’ve ever made… will make… have yet to make.
In order to understand my coming out story, it is crucial for you to understand where I come from. So bear with me as I try to articulate an abridged history.
Part I: Living the Lifestyle
I was born and raised as a Jehovah’s Witness [JW]. The important thing to know about Jehovah’s Witnesses is that religion, for them, isn’t just about going to church on Sunday every once in a while. Being a JW is not just being in a religion, it is the taking up of a lifestyle. Usually, all your friends are from the congregation and your entire family are JW’s. Your entire social network and support system are tied to your religious beliefs. You are taught that there is nothing of true value outside of the Organization [aka Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses]. This is where I came from.
One of my first girl crushes was Kimberly from the Power Rangers. I fawned over the Olsen Twins; and while all my friends started dating boys all I could think about was how good Eden looked in her PE uniform. Still, coming from a very religious and sheltered life it was hard to come to terms with my sexuality. Though I couldn’t pin point what it was, deep down I knew that what I was feeling was wrong. The Society’s (aka Church/Organization’s) view on homosexuality was clear: anyone who partakes in any sort of homosexual behavior is sinning and can expect to face disciplinary action from God and the Congregation.
I tried my best to overcome my feelings once I recognized them for what they were. I did everything in my power to work against it. In the meantime, I fell into depression and self-harm. I could not confide in anyone, or hope that they would understand how I felt. When I was at my worst, I tried to confide in one of my sisters who was not a JW at the time. I ended up not telling her because my mother had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and I didn’t want to put another weight on their shoulders. If I were to tell anybody else, I would end up in the elders room where I would be facing an inquiry and possibly even charges against me.
My brother had just been excommunicated from the Organization because of charges of immorality. I was afraid of being ostracized and ignored like he was. You see, when you’re a baptized and active JW and you commit a sin or an accusation of you having committed a sin occurs, you face certain consequences. There is a judicial committee, they bring the charges against you to your attention, and then you prove yourself innocent or not. If they still think you are guilty of that which you have been accused, then you are either censored or excommunicated. Censorship entails the loss of any privileges that you may have in the congregation such as roles of responsibilities, preaching privileges, etc. Excommunication, however, means you lose everything in most cases. Any active Jehovah’s Witnesses are not allowed to speak to you or associate with you. For most JW’s this means losing most if not all of their family and friends. As was my brothers case, but I cheated; I still spoke to my brother and we became very close during this time. I was there when he had no one else and he has always thanked me for that. Although I stood by him, he was still very alone.
So, I prayed to God and tried to bargain with Him. I didn’t want to go through what my brother was going through. The biggest promise/sacrifice I could make to Him was my baptism. For Jehovah Witness’s, baptism is a sincere dedication to God and the Organization. It’s a pretty big deal. When I turned fifteen, I was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. When I realized that the feelings didn’t go away, I became a full-time pioneer (evangelizer) working hard in spreading the message of God. If anything, to keep me too busy to worry about how I was feeling. For a year I spent over 60 hours in the ministry per month going door to door and giving bible studies.
Instead of trying to get healthier emotionally, I simply worked harder and harder to suppress my feelings. My first priority was God and my family. Then, I met my match.
Part II: The Most Important Exception
My first kiss was when I was 17. We had grown up together in the Congregation. We met when I was six. My family had just moved halls and she was my age, so naturally we gravitated toward each other. My older sister babysat her and her little brother for a few years while we were in elementary and middle school.
When I turned 16, she and I had just gotten back in touch and she was spending the summer with me in the midst of her parents’ divorce. Over the summer we became the best of friends. I fell in love with her, and she with me. One night that summer, she kissed me and I kissed her back. She was my first everything and we were in a secret relationship for over a year. During this time my spirituality obviously suffered. I stopped paying attention and showing interest at the meetings
(sermons). I stopped preaching. How could I teach about God’s laws when I was breaking them every day just by being with the girl I loved?
My parents grew worried and rumors started circulating. My girlfriend and I were constantly fighting because I was still trying to keep my family close to me and I worked hard to keep us in the closet. She was just as afraid of the consequences as I was, but she had more courage than I did and came out to her mother and brother when the rumors started. Not too long after, I received a call from the governing body of elders in my congregation. (They are like the ministers in charge of the local church.) They said they needed to talk to me. My girlfriend begged me not to go. She knew that all I would get out of it was excommunication.
By this point in time, my brother had already returned to the church, but I still feared the shunning. I didn’t want to lose everything. So I told my father and mother that I would not be attending the meeting with the elders. My dad knew of the rumors and he had defended me as best he could, in saying that there was no truth to it. But, as an ex elder, he told me that if I didn’t go I would be expelled. I figured that if I was going to go down, I wouldn’t do it without taking a stand for myself and what I believed in. I thought I could handle it. I was mostly wrong.
Part III: The Confession
The day of the first meeting was in the spring of 2010. I arrived at the Kingdom Hall (physical Church) at 4 in the afternoon. The elders escorted me to the back conference room. There were 9 chairs in the room, all cluttered around a long conference table. Three older men sat across from me. We started with a prayer and then they asked me what was wrong. They had noticed that things were different in my behavior, like that I had stopped going out preaching and commenting during the congregation book study. “Your spiritual health has been deteriorating,” they said. I let them know that things in my life were good. That I was healthy and well, but that I disagreed with some of their teachings. After building up the courage, I told them that when I get married in the future, I do not see myself marrying a man, but a woman.
These men had seen me grow up. They had known me from the time that I was 6 years old. They were there for my baptism. My brothers and sisters weddings. These were my friends’ fathers and my brother-in-law’s best friends. Yet I had never felt like such a stranger than when I saw the way they looked at me at that moment. They were shocked. They said that they were not expecting this; drugs, smoking, or porn, maybe, but not a full-out confession of homosexuality.
Suddenly, these men detached themselves from every bit of modesty they might have possessed. They read scriptures to show me what they believed God thought of homosexuals. They told me that I could get help, and that I could work to fix this. They asked me if I masturbated. They asked me if I watched porn. They asked me if I had ever been with a girl. Knowing that they had my girlfriend in mind, I said no. I lied and said that I had only felt these feelings and that I was actively working on keeping them to myself. They were not satisfied. But it was 11 o’clock at night and we were all spent. They let me know that because of my confession and unwillingness to change my sexuality there would have to be a trial.
Part IV: The Trial
One week later, I was summoned back to meet with the elders. The committee consisted of the same three men plus two additional elders. So there I was: on trial. The charges: Homosexuality and Apostasy. The judge and jury: five men. (Women are not allowed to be elders or speakers in the congregation.) In this court, you are guilty until you prove yourself innocent. And so the trial process began. For three long weeks I was asked questions about my sexual activity, my ideology, my job, and my schoolwork. There were deeply personal and probing questions. It was humiliating. Still, I never confessed to actual homosexual activity. Anytime they asked about my girlfriend, I would direct the answer in a different direction. I argued for my side. I cried. Skeletons were brought out of my closet. My past, including my self-harm and depression, were used against me.
After the second week of the trial, my girlfriend and I broke up. She said she didn’t want to be the reason that I left the Organization. What she didn’t understand was that she was one of the only support systems I had outside of the JW world. I was not angry because she broke it off with me, I was angry because I lost the one friend I needed the most. That was the week my parents were brought into the trial. The elders had asked me if it was okay if my parents attended one of the trial meetings. They said that because I still lived under their roof, they should know the situation. I agreed. I had to come out to my mother and father somehow.
About an hour before we all drove to the meeting, I walked into my mother’s room. My father was in the shower so I knew I had some time alone with her. I wanted to be the one to tell her that I was gay. I sat down on the bed and told her that the reason we were meeting with the elders was because I was on trial. I said that I had told them that when I get married, I see myself creating a family with a woman, not a man. My mother looked at me. Her eyes were red and glossy. Her voice cracked as she told me that I disgust her and that I was no longer her daughter. That I could not possibly be her daughter.
The trial that day is still a bit of a blur. I remember the guilt I felt pouring over me when my father found out. I remember the way my mother wouldn’t look me in the eye, but I could still hear her crying. I remember being alone on one side of the table feeling small and broken before these righteous men of God and the two people who spent their lives raising and protecting me.
After that, my five brothers and sisters who were Jehovah’s Witnesses would call me and leave me messages. I am the youngest of eight and all but three of us are JW’s. All my siblings had already moved away and started their own families. Some begged me to reconsider what I was doing to the family, to them, and to their children. Some told me to stop being selfish, and that I needed to give God a chance to help me and make me better.
But I now I know I wasn’t sick. I wasn’t a disgrace. I was the same me they knew and loved one month prior. I was simply a little more honest about the whole me. But the trial took a profound mental and physical toll on me. I was still the same me on the outside, but inside I was breaking. I stopped attending college that month, and I would not return for another year. I thought I had the strength to go through with it, but I didn’t.
Part V: Today
The rest of my story can be summed up easily. On what was supposed to be the last day of the trial, I retracted what I had been saying. I told the elders that I had changed my mind. I said that I had prayed and decided to give God a chance to help me. I told them that I would accept their help if they would just let me stay in the church. I was afraid of losing my family and friends, and now that I had nothing in the outside world, I was in no shape to be out there on my own. They said they would consider it, but two days later, I was called in so they could tell me the verdict: guilty. Almost a month from the day I confessed, I was publicly announced as an excommunicated Jehovah’s Witness. I never confessed to anything implicating my now ex-girlfriend, so she remains an inactive, but not excommunicated, JW.
To this day, so many years later, I am still excommunicated. I visit my parents often, but I rarely get a word out of my mom. My dad has always been civil and sweet and I am very grateful for that. We never speak of my life outside of business or school. Since then, I have been shunned at my brother’s wedding, missed my niece and nephew’s baptisms, and other rites of passage. My brothers and sisters have not spoken to me in over three years. I lost almost every friend I had growing up. Coming out was a choice in my life that I was forced to make. But, looking back, I am glad it happened.
Over the last few years, I have built support systems among my friends and some of my family outside of the Organization, and I’m still working on becoming someone I am proud to be. I reconciled with my ex and we are still very good friends. I sought help and attended therapy to better my mental health. I went back to school and ended up interning for an assembly woman and working on several committees. I quit my job and began a business. I am in a healthy, committed relationship with a wonderful and amazing woman. She has given me the gift of her love and support as well as an amazing family: a husky named Roxy and a beta fish named Olaf, oh and her parents and siblings who I love to death. I keep myself busy and surround myself with positive things and passionate people. I am a business owner, a writer, a cyclist, a musician, a voter, an artist, a teacher, a photographer, and a reader. I am so many things, and I just so happen to be gay. Someday I hope my family sees that. And even if they never do, I know it—and for me, that is enough.
Mel Mendoza is an excommunicated Jehovah’s Witness who decided to turn her experience into an opportunity to help others in her situation. She now lives in LA. She started a Tumblr blog for people who come from a conservative religious households and are LGBTQ to ask questions or seek advice and community, and she spends her time running a business, writing, exercising, dancing awkwardly, telling bad jokes, going to concerts, biking, and exploring Los Angeles all while spending time with her lovely girlfriend.