“I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness. Growing up a Jehovah’s Witness was hard. You don’t celebrate Christmas. You don’t celebrate birthdays. And if you’re a girl, you DON’T kiss other girls. Being gay wasn’t really a frequent subject of talks at the Kingdom Hall (church). And the few times the topic came up, it certainly didn’t seem to apply to me! Growing up, I was taught the bible hates homosexuality. I was taught you should hate the sin but love the sinner. But the way to love the sinner was TOUGH LOVE and a punishment I couldn’t imagine facing. Knowing this, I kept lying to myself.
In high school I lied to myself about Dana. I loved my best friend Dana, and sure I wanted to kiss her…but that didn’t make me gay! She was just a good friend! A good friend who happened to be really pretty…who also just happened to like a good make-out.
My freshman year in college, I lied to myself about my friend Ashley. She lived down the hall in my dorm and if my boyfriend thought us making out was hot, it really didn’t bother me much! But Ashley was the tipping point. We were drunk (and moderately stoned) and we were making out, a usual Friday night activity. But that night I distinctly remember thinking, ‘I want to do more than just kiss her.’ The other voice in my head whispered, horrified, ‘What do you want to do with her?! You’re such a lesbian!!!’ Needless to say, I freaked out. I rushed out of my boyfriend’s dorm room, muttering about needing to study for midterms. I broke up with him. I avoided her. I even changed dorms. And at the end of the year, I moved home.
A year later, I went to the first gay bar with the only lesbian friend I had. After all, what am I if not a supportive friend? Predictably, she later became my first girlfriend. Although I was done lying to myself, I wasn’t done lying to my parents. How do you prepare to turn your whole world upside down? Answer: When you’re not ready, you don’t. I told my parents my first girlfriend was my friend. When they were suspicious of how much time we spent together, I made up her fictional boyfriend who was in the army. I told them she was lonely. I told them she wore boy’s shirts, because they were comfy! I was drowning in lies. And not even convincing ones.
The last time my mom asked the question, ‘Are you living an alternative lifestyle?’ the answer was a tear-filled, ‘YES!’ I cried because I was scared. I cried because I was relieved to finally tell the truth! And I cried because I knew what my answer would cost me. My parents reported me to the elders (the judicial committee for Jehovah’s Witnesses). When the committee asked me about my ‘alternative lifestyle,’ I finally told the truth.
Looking back, I was tired. I was tired of trying to pray the gay away (unsuccessfully). I was tired of hiding my joy. I was tired of pretending to be someone I’m not. I knew the risk. I was well aware of everything I would lose. The elders told me they could help me find the path to righteousness if I was willing to repent. I told them I wasn’t sorry. I told them, ‘When I meet God, if the worst thing I did was love someone, then I’ll sort that out when I get there.’ They told me they would announce my disfellowshipping publicly the following Thursday. I had five days.
I frantically started secretly preparing for life on my own. I bought dishes, silverware, a mop, broom and dustpan. Things I thought I would need if my parents kicked me out. Looking back, I’m laughing at what I thought were ‘necessities,’ as I’m sure you’re laughing now. I kept hiding my purchases in the basement, knowing they would be there if/when the time came.
I was disfellowshipped (think Amish shunning) from being a Jehovah’s Witness. The night the announcement was made was the last night I’d ever live at home. I was PHYSICALLY thrown out of my house at 2 in the morning by my mom. I sat outside on the curb, holding only my cell phone. I couldn’t get into my car to drive anywhere. I couldn’t get back into my house to get my keys. I phoned the police for help. While I waited, a locksmith arrived and changed the locks on my house. I didn’t even know this was a possibility at that hour! I was technically homeless for a week. My mom called me a few days later to tell me to come get my things, which were all in the driveway. This was the last time I spoke to my mother for years.
I would be lying if I told you coming out is easy. I would be lying if I said I handled it well. Those first few years were hard. I missed the safety of my religion, I missed my family, and more than anything, I missed that sense of belonging. I struggled with depression and anxiety, but I was lucky to get the help I needed. One night at my lowest point, during a fight with my girlfriend, I drove my car off the road with my girlfriend in the car. We narrowly missed a tree and when she threw the car in park, I jumped out of the car and took off running through a wooded area, crying. I cried for my mom, I cried for a version of myself I was losing, and I cried because I thought God had abandoned me. My girlfriend and the police found me on the steps of a nearby church, praying for forgiveness. Luckily I wasn’t arrested, but I started seeing a therapist the next day. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and it quite literally saved my life.
I have told my coming out story a thousand times and spoken at GSA groups, trying to help others to better navigate coming to terms with who they are. My message is always one of positivity, self-love, and hope. I tell them it took ‘losing everything,’ my religion and my family, to gain the life I have now. I have been an out and proud lesbian since 2003. I learned to accept and love myself, find my relationship with God again and to finally be at peace. I like to tell people the world opens up to you when you face it with bravery, authenticity and truth. The best experiences in life lie just on the other side of fear. Because the truth is, if we aren’t living an authentic life, then we aren’t really LIVING at all.
I wish I could tell you family always comes around in the end. Sometimes they don’t. You can love someone with all your heart and still have to make choices that break it. Sometimes, you must stop fighting to hold on to others and fight for your own happiness. I know I made the choice best for me. I am so very blessed in life to have great friends, a strong support system and to have created my ‘chosen family.’
When I look at pictures of my wife and I, I am reminded how lucky I really am. You see, Kim and I had seen one another on Bumble, but Kim didn’t swipe right. We met in person a few weeks later at a LGBTQ+ social mixer for Stonewall Sports Cleveland. Kim was new to Cleveland, having recently moved from Philadelphia. She missed the deadline for kickball and decided to still come to the mixer to meet new people. I’m on the board of the nonprofit and was there with my team.
The more we got to know one another, the more I realized all the things I struggled with growing up were things we had in common. We are both women of color who grew up in a religious household. We both know what it’s like to have unsupportive parents. We both know what it’s like to struggle with coming out at the cost of losing family. But as Harry Potter fans who grew up reading about a boy who lived in a closet, we both believe in magic. We found that magic in one other. Kim proposed to me on Christmas 2019.
In January, Kim and I were flying home from a short business trip to Vegas. While we were waiting to board our flight, I scrolled across something on my Facebook timeline that said, ‘Ohio Wedding Giveaway.’ I thought for sure
it had to be fake or spam, but on the off chance it wasn’t, I saved it. The post had been made by a nonprofit called Rai of Love that was donating an entire wedding to a couple in need. That evening back home, I noticed among the other photos, their page also had an engagement photograph of two women and thought to myself, ‘So there’s a chance!’
On January 16th, I sent in a video submission, telling our story. I poured my heart into describing our unsupportive families who won’t come to the wedding, Kim having gone back to nursing school to save lives, and how if we were chosen, I’d like to orchestrate a big surprise proposal back to Kim. On February 9, 2020, we found out we’d won.
The nonprofit Rai of Love partnered with a team of vendors to give us our dream wedding. We are so blessed to have worked with a team of vendors for whom color, gender, and sexual orientation didn’t matter. They all chose to donate their talent and time to recognize and promote love. On September 25th, I married the greatest woman I have ever met, surrounded by so much love.
When I look back at my life, I imagine how differently it could’ve ended up. Christine D’Ercole said it best, ‘The thing that fills you with shame could be the thing that makes you most proud.’ Choosing to live my truth was worth all the pain it took to get here. Every day I am reminded that love wins, time and time again. Love won in Loving v Virginia in 1967. Love won in Obergefell v Hodges in 2015. Love won when my wife and I said our vows. Every time I hold my wife’s hand, I remind myself love will keep on winning.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Melissa Connelly of Cleveland, OH. You can follow her on Instagram, Facebook, and her blog. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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