The epiphany came packaged inside an issue of People magazine.
Tyrone Hofer, 16 years old at the time and living in a Hutterite colony in southern Manitoba, knew from a young age that he was different than his peers. He remembers discussing marriage when he was seven and saying "I don't want to marry a girl."
"I just said it, I had no idea why," Hofer, now 26, told VICE.
Then in 2006, Hofer spotted a copy of People in his living room. On the cover, dressed in an embroidered turquoise button-up, former Nsync member Lance Bass proclaimed, "I'm gay."
Hofer turned to his mother, a stay-at-home mom who worked in the colony's community garden and kitchen, and asked, "Mom, what's 'gay?'" to which she replied, "It's evil, it's disgusting. It's not right."
But after reading the article, Hofer said he realized the word described him.
"Hearing that from my mom, it was like, Oh my God, they can never know. I will take this to my grave."
Hofer is part of a tiny but increasingly vocal group of Hutterites who are opening up about being gay in a community that hardly recognizes the concept of homosexuality, and certainly doesn't accept it. Those who are gay are left with a choice of remaining closeted for life or being completely cut off from family, friends, and a way of life that's evolved little in hundreds of years.
Hutterites are Anabaptist Christians—similar to Old Order Amish and Mennonites—with German and Austrian roots. They immigrated to North America during the 19th century, first the US and then to Canada in 1918, seeking a religious exemption from serving in the First World War (they're pacifists). Here, colonies were settled in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Today there are 480 Hutterite colonies in North America, mostly in Canada (Alberta alone has more than 200), with an estimated population of 50,000. Largely cut off from the rest of society, they depend on farming and believe in a "community of goods," so everything earned is shared among 100 to 150 or so residents. Because of how isolated most colonies are, both geographically and in terms of the customs they follow, it is uncommon for people to leave.
"You don't have to worry about anything," said Hofer, speaking softly with a hint of a German accent.
Hutterites adopt traditional gender roles; men wear suspenders and dress shirts, and women wear dresses and black kerchiefs on their heads—they're not allowed to wear pants. A male minister runs the colony, making both spiritual and financial decisions, while men earn money through labor jobs. Women take on roles like sewing, cooking, gardening, and teaching—some colonies forbid them from having driver's licenses or voting.
Typically, Hutterites will attend church every day, and twice on Sundays.
Growing up in a family of four boys and two girls was "really fun," said Hofer. His colony, Starlite, located about 30 miles west of Winnipeg, is 216 acres and has 10,000 acres of farmland.
When he was a teenager, he worked in the hog barn, then in carpentry and mechanics, before eventually assisting the secretary treasurer in organizing the colony's finances. He wanted to go to college to pursue a degree, but that request was rejected numerous times by the Starlite minister. Colonies vary on their stance on education, but some Hutterites who spoke to VICE said education wasn't a priority—high school isn't always guaranteed. In part, that's why Hofer decide to leave, but the bigger issue was how "toxic" it became for him to stay in the closet.
"There was a lot of praying to god to make me change, almost every night," he said. "There were a lot of tears shed."
He explained how, one day, when he was visiting a neighboring colony to hang out with a girl, as was the custom among boys his age, he felt uncomfortable at the pressure to kiss her.
"It was just this hollow empty feeling," he said. "I remember driving home… just being so grossed out."
Hofer left Starlite April 24, 2011, to attend the University of Winnipeg. But it would be another three years before he fully came out of the closet, a move that was emotionally freeing yet resulted in near total excommunication from members of his former colony.
In the days before Hofer delivered a speech at Steinbach, Manitoba's inaugural pride march on July 9 of this year, he received a text from his younger brother. It read, "All I can say is before Hutterites will accept that being gay is Christian they will become extinct."
His little brother is the only one in Hofer's immediate family who still speaks to him.
Stocky in build, Hofer was dressed in a mostly nondescript outfit—maroon T-shirt, beige cargo shorts, and loafers—as he addressed the crowd of about 3,000 on the steps in front of Steinbach City Hall. But around his neck he wore a cross necklace with rainbow beads and a bright purple sequined fedora was perched on his head; all day he carried around a large pride flag, waving it emphatically at times.
He spoke about hating himself in his younger years, choking back tears as he remembered cruel comments he would overhear about gay people.
"The worst part was not being able to speak out and defend myself. I had to absorb those verbal insults and find ways to deal with them on my own."
He told me he came out last summer to his parents in the form of an essay in which he argued it's OK to be gay and Christian. The response? Radio silence.
"I don't even know if they read it to be honest."
He followed up with a Facebook post and was flooded with support from friends—and hate from some Hutterites.
"My extended family tried their hardest to convince me not to post it on Facebook. They were extremely, extremely ashamed of who I am."
Despite telling her he wasn't ready to talk, his mother showed up at his home in Winnipeg and banged on his door demanding entry; Hofer refused to let her in and asked his roommate to tell her to leave. Soon after, he received a letter from her.
"It was one of the worst things I have ever read in my entire life," he told VICE. Hofer won't fully detail the contents of the letter because he hopes to one day reconcile with his mother, but he said she told him that his being gay was "worse than death." Neither one of his parents have spoken to him in a year. His aunt has told him he's not gay but "brainwashed" and said he'll never see his siblings get married or play with their children unless he changes.
Starlite minister Jacob Hofer, 76, who is Hofer's uncle, was infuriated when I called him to talk about the colony's views homosexuality.
"We don't preach gay. We preach man and wife and the other one is lust of the flesh," he said, his voice rising in agitation. "Lust of the flesh is from the devil, and it gets you hell." (He later had a lawyer call me demanding that I never get in touch again.)
Asked if he missed Hofer's presence on the colony, the minister said there's no place for gay people there.
"We raised him, we clothed him, we fed him… And he goes and works for the devil."
Zach Waldner, minister at Maple Grove colony, has told the BBC that Hutterites "want to avoid temptation."
"What the eyes see and what the flesh wants, that is what we want to avoid," Waldner said.
Jacob Hofer told me the only way his nephew would be allowed back on the colony is if he repented and promised to "never to do it again." Hutterites, he added, prefer to live separately from the rest of society in order to maintain Christian values.
"We don't even want to know what's going on in the world because they are totally against our lifestyle and our Christianity," he said.
Save for the lilt in his voice, Garett Wipf comes off like a typical 18-year-old city kid. When I met him at Steinbach City Hall as pride was wrapping up, he was wearing skin-tight jeans, a gray button-up, red Chucks, his hair was knotted into a bun, and he'd applied foundation on his face. Using the word "girl" liberally, he described his debaucherous adventures at Winnipeg Pride, chronicling all the different booze he consumed, as teens love to do.
Wipf is a friend of Hofer's (all the gay Hutterites I spoke to knew one another) who attended Steinbach Pride in a show of solidarity. He ran away from the Hutterite colony he was raised in more than a year and half ago, after his mother confronted him about being gay.
"She said, 'You have to turn straight, this isn't acceptable," he said. "She was genuinely heartbroken."
After a week of silence between them, Wipf had a friend meet him near a styrofoam factory at the edge of the colony.
"I threw a garbage bag of clothing into the car and just took off," he said.
Only 16 at the time, Wipf said he struggled to find work in Winnipeg, but eventually wound up in his current construction gig. He has not been back to the colony since, and said that his immediate family will speak to him, but when he announced that he was gay on Facebook, he almost immediately lost 200 Hutterite friends.
"I'm very much hated right now," he said. "I'm probably not allowed back at the colony at all anymore, I'm basically shunned."
Wipf took VICE on a drive near his former colony close to Oak Bluff, Manitoba. At the beginning of the hour-long ride, past flax and canola fields, he was lip-syncing to Fergie's "M.I.L.F. $" in the back seat and snapchatting his friends, but as the car approached the colony, which he does not want named, he began biting his lip and fidgeting with his hands, folding up a pride sticker in tiny pieces and glancing anxiously out the window.
"I'm really nervous," he said, as we made our way along a dirt road that led to the colony, which is protected by a thick tree line, adding to its mystique. "I just feel like I'm not welcome here at all."
Despite admitting that he got bullied for being "feminine" when he was a kid—he liked playing with strollers and dolls—Wipf told VICE he missed parts of colony life, specifically its "tight-knit" nature. Other Hutterites have praised the way people take care of one another on the colony.
"I got to see my friends and family every day." But as soon as he left, he said years and years of depression "washed away."
"I couldn't be out—I would stay in the closet," he said. "I couldn't help other Hutterites like I do now."
Kelly Hofer (no relation to Tyrone and Jacob) has become the face of gay Hutterites in North America.
Kelly, 23, came out when he was 19, in a Facebook post that was shared widely, scandalizing Hutterites who'd presumably never contemplated one of their own could be gay.
He's since starred in a BBC documentary called How to Get to Heaven With the Hutterites, which chronicles his journey running away from Green Acres, and has been quoted in the Guardian, as well as Canadian media outlets.
Amid the hateful messages Hofer, now a photographer in Calgary, received, were messages of support from closeted Hutterites. Hofer told VICE he's started a secret Facebook group, which has about 19 members—all of them gay Hutterites.
"There are people posting about being proud of being out, people asking one another if they could meet up," he said. "Talking about their struggles."
VICE spoke with half a dozen of them, mostly men as well as one woman, who shared similar stories of either coming out of the closet and leaving or being forced from the colony or staying on the colony with the knowledge that they would never be open about their sexuality.
When it comes to gay rights, Hofer said Hutterites are 40 to 50 years behind the rest of Canada.
"The issue of equality is not even on the table," he said. "At this point, it's recognizing that gay people exist."
That doesn't mean progress isn't possible. Pope Francis recently said the Catholic Church owes the LGBTQ community an apology for discriminating against it, a position that seemed impossible only a few years ago, and just this week Anglican Christians passed a vote allowing same-sex marriage.
In his personal life, Hofer said his mom has completely accepted him being gay. But he's still uneasy talking to her about the guys he's dating.
"It's been kind of really difficult to be dating because there's always this underlying fear of pushing my whole family away through that."
Both Tyrone Hofer and Wipf had heard of Kelly because he came out. They said their aim in going public with their stories is to help other gay Hutterites who are in the closet.
"There are still so many other gay Hutterites who are living their lives in hiding, fearful of who they are, fearful of being 'outed' or disowned by their families, mistreated, and even excommunicated," said Tyrone Hofer. "It needs to be brought to the surface."
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