I remember the first time I met Nathan Belyeu at a coffee house in High Point, N.C. Belyeu was just coming to terms with being gay. The man I met was tall and slender, with blond hair and blue eyes; he had an infectious laugh that disarmed me immediately.
Nathan was in the process of getting his master's degree at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He could respectfully debate a variety of issues without insulting the person across from him. Nathan was eloquent in his delivery. In short, he seemed to have his stuff together.
On the surface, Nathan did not seem like a person about to be accosted by his family and alienated from his church. This young man, only 24 at the time, did not seem like the kind of guy who would be denied medication, by having his family cut him from their insurance plan. Losing his insurance meant that a rare medical condition Nathan suffered from could turn into a life-threatening illness. I have a hard time concentrating on a final paper when I have heartburn, and I can only imagine the kind of distraction this would cause someone trying to complete his graduate-level education. But this is what Nathan coped with, because his family felt it was their duty to God, because Nathan is gay. No, he had become a survivor early on, and one had to look below the surface to see Nathan's pain.
Belyeu was raised as a Jehovah's Witnesses (JW) in a rural town in the South. Jehovah's Witnesses have about 7 million practicing members worldwide, and a million in the United States. Most of us have encountered these people at least once. They are the folks who ring our doorbells on Saturday mornings wanting to have conversations about the Bible.
"Being raised as one of Jehovah's Witnesses has had, and continues to have, a profound impact on my life. It's more than just a few seemingly odd habits and activities such as not recognizing Christmas," Nathan said. "It is really a worldview and a lifestyle."
From the time he was a child, Nathan was taught that Jehovah's Witness was the one true religion.
"I was raised to believe that all other religions and people who weren't religious at all were under the control of Satan. I was taught from the time I was very small to identify which things were from 'Satan' and which things were 'godly,'" Belyeu said.
"For a JW everything in the world from people themselves to organizations, to music, movie, clothes, everything is divided between good and bad, godly or worldly."
That kind of teaching left Nathan feeling separated from everything else in the world.
"It also creates an isolation. When you are raised as a JW all of your close friends are JWs too. Having friends who aren't JWs, or who are 'worldly' is frowned upon. You also grow up from an early age learning that love is conditional, always conditional, upon following the church's norms," Nathan says.
JW's practice a type of shunning they used to call "Disfellowshipping." What that means is that if you violate any number of church teachings, including having sex before marriage, smoking a cigarette, being gay, etc., and you aren't repentant, or the supposed sin seems premeditated, you can be expelled from the church.
They officially state that it's not a bad practice, since one has to have made the decision to become a church member in order to be held accountable and subsequently shunned for any behavior they see as a gross sin. But that is a very tall order for someone to accept as a pre-pubescent teenager.
"In any case, I was baptized at age 13, long before I could understand who I was, who I would become as an adult, and all the risks I was taking by saying I would live my life by the rules they set forth," Nathan confided.
"I did understand very clearly though, that if I ever went against the way I was raised, if I ever did anything that I wasn't supposed to do, I would lose everything and everyone, my family, my community, all my friends."
In other words, Nathan saw the writing on the wall.
"Being loved, and being shown love, was conditional upon my being who they expected me to be," he says.
For a long time, Nathan fulfilled his end of the bargain and did everything by the book.
"Starting at age 18 I gave sermons, both in my home church and in churches in my region. I visited the elderly and the sick in my church, taking them to doctor's appointments, mowing their lawns and running errands for them. Not really the typical life of a teenager, but in many ways a very fulfilling life," Nathan says.
He had the reputation of being a good kid, at least from the outside looking in. Most of what Nathan describes may not have been bad for him, if it were not for the fact Nathan is gay. From a young age, Nathan knew he was different. He was often bullied at school and church. He was not sure what this meant until he was about 12 years old. At that point, he turned to the higher power to change him.
"I remember getting down on my knees and begging God not to be gay. I prayed that same prayer for many years. The older I got the harder it became," Nathan says.
By the time he reached his 20s, Nathan knew he had a choice to make. He could either live a closeted life within the church, or come out. There was no doubt in his mind that he would be rejected for the latter.
"This is just the way it worked. For me, a lot of my worry wasn't even related to how bad this was going to be for me, but that it was going to be so upsetting to my parents," he says. "All that worry, anguish and fear led me to a really bad place, a very dark and hopeless place."
Nathan took a leap of faith and came out to his family. At first they thought he could change, and they wanted him to talk to a psychologist, to do things to make him manlier. His mother flatly denied his homosexuality, which anyone who comes to know Nathan would scoff at immediately. When his family realized he was not going to change, things escalated rapidly.
Besides telling The Church and holding Judicial Committee meetings on Nathan's sexuality, his family began saying horrible things.
"They told me they were ashamed of me, that I was a disgrace, and my father told me he wished I didn't have his last name, something that hurts me to this day," Nathan says.
"My parents removed any financial support and actively tried to take away my car since they co-signed on the loan."
At age 23, Nathan was ill prepared for life on his own. Up until that point, all he had known was the very insulated religious community he had been raised in. Losing all emotional and financial support, and hundreds of miles from home, he focused on keeping from completely losing it. Nathan racked up a considerable amount of debt and was unable at times to afford the bare necessities. However, he pushed on.
Only a few classes shy of graduating from The University of North Carolina with his master's degree, Nathan took another leap of faith. Unable to afford the remaining courses, he decided he would do the next best thing, and help others.
In 2011 Nathan started working for The Trevor Project, a leading national organization that provides suicide prevention and crisis intervention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth and young adults.
"I have worn a lot of different hats since coming to Trevor almost three years ago, and I currently am the Senior Education Manager, overseeing the organization's education programs, curriculum, and partnerships at the state and national level," Nathan says. "Sometimes young people might feel alone, or might be truly alone, and Trevor is always just a phone call, a text, or chat away. That's really profound, and as someone who has been through what I have, I know that it's not just important. It's literally life-saving."
Now at age 28, Nathan is still feeling the crippling effects of being thrust out on his own in the midst of graduate school. He also misses his family. Several efforts to reconnect have been fruitless. He knows first hand that our community does very little for those who share his position. Although the "it gets better" videos are profound, so is the silence behind stories like Nathan's.
Being rejected by one's family has lifelong consequences, especially if it is because one is gay. Many in Nathan's position feel that their voices do not carry far. There are many different ways that we face the issue of equality and gay rights. Nathan says it is the community's job to make it better for those, like himself, who lost everything because of who they are.
"Queer folks have a responsibility to helping the minority in their community. We can be doing better. We must do better," Nathan says.
Although I do not pretend to have a solution, I think sharing the stories of being shut out and abandoned is a good start. These stories remind us that equality for some is not something only denied by strangers. Some, like Nathan, may never know his family again because of his choice to live honestly. For every advance the gay community makes that receives its due credit, we must remember the struggle, for some, carries on.