When Kelly Hofer came out as a gay Hutterite seven years ago, he was pretty much the only person in his religion to do so—and he was ostracized for it. That’s because Hutterites don’t acknowledge being gay as a reality, and if they do do, they view it as a sinful lifestyle choice.
Members of an Anabaptist Christian sect that originated in Germany and Austria, Hutterites live on colonies that are communally owned; property and personal possessions are shared. Their customs and laws have evolved little since their conception in the 16th century and they enforce strict gender roles, condemning any “alternative lifestyle” including homosexuality. Hutterites, of which there are an estimated 50,000 living in Canada, aren’t taught about sex other than pragmatic baby-making stuff (and barely even that). If you are growing up LGBTQ in the colony you're doing it alone and in secret.
Over the past few years a small group of vocal LGBTQ Hutterites have left their colonies in order to raise awareness for other LGBTQ Hutterites that are still living in fear at home. Kelly was one of the first Hutterites to make his coming out and leaving the colony a public affair, posting about his journey all over Facebook. Kelly has since set up an anonymous Facebook support group for queer Hutterites on and off the colony, which is growing by the day and transforming the lives of the queer Hutterites that have joined it.
VICE visited this community back in 2016, and spoke to a few LGBTQ Hutterites who had recently left their colonies. Three years later, their journeys off the colony have inspired others to follow suit. But leaving the colony is only the first step towards self-acceptance, as many of those who are exiled have had very little exposure to the outside world or western values. I wanted to follow up with these queer Hutterites to see what life off the colony looks like now, how their gay glow ups are going, and to ask about the things never afforded to them on the colony—the joys (and tribulations) of queer dating.
“I was introduced to a big gaggle of gays.”
Finding your LGBTQ community and people who can normalize your experiences, judgement free, is part of what makes coming out possible. Which is why when Kelly, Joel and Garrett all left their Hutterite colonies to come out, they sought out new communities, ones that would be accepting of their LGBTQ lifestyle.
When Kelly left the colony he found his queer community in a gay men’s choir, for Garrett it was a “big gaggle of gays [he met] through friends of friends,” whilst Joel was taken under the wings of a lesbian couple who responded to an ad he put out on Kijiji (which might be the most wonderfully lesbian thing I have ever heard).
Through the nurturing lesbians, the men’s choir, or the gaggle of gays, Joel, Kelly and Garrett found what they had been missing all along from colony life: family, support, acceptance and the chance to finally be themselves. And with their new queer families in tow, their gay glow ups could begin.
“I was amazed at how casually everyone talked about sex, especially strangers.”
After finding community, finding out which flavour of gay you want to be is the next necessary step to be able to confidently navigate the world of queer dating. For gay men the categories of gay range extensively from bear to otter to pup, to anything else that is measurable by ratio of hair to muscle. For queer women those categories are usually based on what flavour of chapstick you go for and where the stars were positioned on your’s, your mum’s and your best friend’s dog’s birthdays. It’s complicated stuff.
Finding your personal flavour of gay and adapting to queer dating culture is a challenge for any queer person (even when we have things like the LGBTQ corner of YouTube and six seasons of the L Word to help us out). For Hutterites on the colony it’s near impossible. Gay culture isn't touched upon, other than to be aggressively condemned. There is no dialogue or space on the colony to ever talk about the intricacies of queer dating, because the only part of homosexuality the Church acknowledges is the sexual side of things where “the emotion of disgust just takes over,” Kelly explained.
This lack of willingness to acknowledge queer culture in a positive light means that queer ex-Hutterites leaving the colony have no way to prepare themselves for the world of queer dating. Those who spoke to VICE say they emerged into the outside world with a very skewed idea of what gay relationships looked like.
While Garrett and Joel both dated women on the colony, something they did out of duty and to avoid raising suspicion the world of dating men was entirely different. “I never experienced gay love around me or even knew a gay person growing up so I sort of had to reprogram parts of my brain,” Joel said.
Whilst sexual frivolity is condemned by the Hutterite church, it is commonplace in the gay community, which Joel noted he “still struggles with,” perhaps because he feels he is “naturally monogamous.”
“I was amazed at how casually everyone talked about sex, especially strangers,” he said. “I should probably stop looking for dates on Grindr.”
“I adapted quite easily!” Garrett told me of getting used to the hookup culture of modern dating, describing his first time using a dating app as “like a kid in a candy shop.” For Garrett, sex was something that he wanted to explore as soon as he left the colony. He described his first sexual encounter as “very sexually freeing”, and an antidote to the sexually stifling environment he grew up with. “What’s the best part about dating off the colony?” I asked him, to which he responded“dating guys!” Fair enough.
“I still don't do PDA.”
The Hutterite church is so scared to talk about sex, health isn't taught beyond grade nine in Hutterite schools (which are publicly funded FYI). But not being taught about sexuality doesn’t make those feelings go away. And the shame and guilt associated with normal sexual urges can last a long time.
“Hate the sin, love the sinner” is a phrase Kelly said he always comes back to, one that he still finds triggering. He said it roughly translates to “I'm OK with you being gay, just don't act on it.” The insidious nature of this kind of dogma is that it masks itself as acceptance, but it denies gay people from actually living their true identity. For Kelly, it meant that while he might have felt less ostracised by his old community as he was able to return home for visits, he was still ashamed to acknowledge the more active sides of his LGBTQ identity, including ever telling his family about romantic relationship he was in. “I know I should be more out there with it but I still keep that part hidden,” he said, noting he has never introduced his family to someone he has dated.
The separation of gay people and gay “actions” gets under the skins of all the Hutterites I talked to, who described their previous and present struggles with the physical side of queer dating as being more prominent than accepting their identity. “I felt guilty for a long time afterwards and kept thinking that I was definitely going to hell” Joel told me of his first sexual encounter. “Obviously I know I'm not going to hell now but it’s so hard to escape that religion that is so ingrained in you from such a young age.”
Even ten years after leaving the colony, Joel said he still self sabotages his relationships because part of him “deep down still feels guilty about being with a guy.” Garrett said that guilt can manifest on dates. “I was taught being gay was a sin so I still don't do PDA, just because of how that was drilled into me as a younger person.”
“I am a proud feminine queer Hutterite.”
When he lived on the colony, Garett said he would sometimes wear a Hutterite dress with his sister. After he left at age 17, he started performing drag—his drag persona is Luna Thiq. He described it as “freeing” and considers himself “a proud feminine queer Hutterite.” Drag did for Garrett what the nose ring, crop top, or half-shaved head does for all of us; it was an outward expression of an inward state, and it was a big step towards acceptance for him.
“What about your first Pride?” I asked Garrett and I could hear him smile through the phone: “Everyone under the rainbow was there and for once I felt like I fit in,” he replied.
All three told me of their painful excommunications with the reassurance that life was good now and that they were happy and enjoyed dating. They weren't angry for the community they had come from, rather treated it as a fait accompli—a sad and destructive one, but one that probably wouldn't change.
“Do you think Hutterite communities will ever become fully accepting to the wider LGBTQ community?” I had asked, and the resounding answer from all of them was sadly, but undoubtedly, “no.”
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