Story of Kelly Hofer, gay Manitoba Hutterite, explored in new documentary

Kelly Hofer always felt different, but realizing you're gay while growing up on a Hutterite colony in rural Manitoba isn't just unusual — it's almost unheard of.

Hofer, 23, is a Calgary-based gay-rights activist and photographer from southwest Manitoba

Kelly Hofer always felt different, but realizing you're gay while growing up on a Hutterite colony in rural Manitoba isn't just unusual — it's almost unheard of.

The 23-year-old photographer's story has been recorded in a short documentary film "Queer Hutterite" which is available on Telus Optik TV on Demand and Telus Optik Local online.
Kelly Hofer is a photographer and gay-rights activist based in Calgary. He was born and raised in a Hutterite colony near Wawanesa, southeast of Brandon. (Kelly Hofer/Twitter)

Hutterites, also known as Hutterian Brethren, live on farming colonies mostly in Western Canada and the northwestern United States. They are a communal branch of Anabaptists who, like the Amish and Mennonites, trace their roots to the Reformation of the 16th century.

There are no personal belongings. Members follow the teachings of Christ and the Apostles, and although some are open to technology, they live a solitary life and few things change, including their style of dress.

Hofer was about 16 when he realized that he was gay, but even before that he says he always knew he didn't fit in with the other boys on his colony near Wawanesa southeast of Brandon.

"I was always the artist. They were always the boys. I was always the creative one. I didn't really play a lot of sports," Hofer said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"They would always play hockey and I would be at home either on the computer, playing Legos, creating art or shooting photos."

Hofer said it was lonely.

"There was nobody to tell because you don't know how anyone will react. I didn't know who to trust. There were no other guys that I thought were gay. There was no one to reach out to.

"I saw all my other peers in relationships or being attracted to women and I just never felt that. And because on the colony there's such a strong push to get married — there's always that kind of expectation — it never felt right to me," Hofer said.

"There was a really long period where I was somewhat depressed."

He left the colony when he was 19.

"I realized being at home and being gay were not compatible. I was shunned in that I couldn't come home because I was gay for three years. But in the grand scheme of things I wasn't banned from the culture entirely," he continued.

"They want less to do with me, and by 'they,' I mean the leaders of the colony."

Hofer said his family appears to be OK with his decision, although he has never discussed it with his parents.

He isn't expecting acceptance, but is hoping for tolerance.

"I'm not going to give up on that. But I also know the culture and it doesn't change in less than 50 years.

"It'll take forever. The reason I have hope is it's such a compassionate culture. I think it should translate in the long run into acceptance for queer culture on the colony."

Hofer said there are other gay Hutterites who have reached out to him for support. He has nothing bad to say about his previous life and calls it a "warm and caring" society where everyone was honest.

Laura O'Grady, the Calgary filmmaker responsible for the 15-minute documentary, convinced Hofer to allow her to do the film.

"He's an incredibly articulate young man and I thought it was a unique perspective that I don't think has been heard a lot in the past," she said.

"He's very respectful of the community he came from and I could see the internal conflict for him in terms of other things in his life.

"He's incredibly brave for standing up for who he is."