By Dan Merica, CNN
Washington (CNN) - Timothy Kurek’s motivation to spend a year pretending to be gay can be boiled down to a simple conviction: it takes drastic change to alter deeply held religious beliefs.
The experiment began after a lesbian friend opened up to Kurek about being excommunicated by her family. All Kurek, an avowed evangelical Christian, could think about, he says, “was trying to convert her.”
He was quickly disgusted by his own feelings, more pious than humane.
In fact, Kurek was so disgusted by his response to his friend that he decided to do something drastic. Living in Nashville, Tennessee, he would pretend to be gay for a year. The experiment began on the first day of 2009; Kurek came out to his family, got a job as a barista at a gay café and enlisted the help of a friend to act as his boyfriend in public.
The experience – which stopped short of Kurek getting physically intimate with other men - is documented in Kurek’s recent book “The Cross in the Closet,” which has received international attention, landed him on ABC’s "The View" and elicited some biting criticism.
The book is the latest entry on a growing list of experiential tomes revolving around religion. They include Rachel Held Evans’ recent “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” in which the author follows the Bible’s instructions on women’s behavior and Ed Dobson’s “The Year of Living Like Jesus,” which had the author “eat as Jesus ate. Pray as Jesus prayed. Observe the Sabbath as Jesus observed.”
For Kurek, his year as a gay man radically changed his view of faith and religion, while also teaching him “what it meant to be a second class citizen in this country.”
A yearlong lie
For years, Kurek says, the only life he had was “his church life.” Being an evangelical Christian was his identity.
He was home-schooled until seventh grade, almost all of his friends were from church and his social life was a nightly string of faith-based events, from church sports to a Christian Cub Scout troop. “It was the only thing I was used to doing,” said Kurek, who attended Liberty University, the largest evangelical university in the world, before dropping out after freshman year.
Kurek grew up in an “independent Baptist church.” “We were evangelical,” he said, “but we were more conservative than evangelical, too.”
His churchy lifestyle led to some deeply held views about homosexuality. Most evangelical churches condemn homosexuality as sinful. Many rail against certain gay rights, like gay marriage.
“I had been taught to be wary of gays,” Kurek writes of his beliefs pre-experiment. “They were all HIV positive, perverts and liberal pedophiles.”
Those views began to be challenged in 2004, when he first encountered Soulforce, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights group, on Liberty’s campus. The group made the school an important stop on its cross-country tour targeting colleges that they alleged treated LGBT people unfairly.
Kurek was struck by what he had in common with the protesters at Liberty. “It really impressed me that people who were coming to push their agenda were able to do it and be so nice about it,” he said.
His doubt about Christianity’s condemnation of homosexuality, Kurek writes, was “perfected” in 2008, when a close friend recounted the story of coming out to her family and being disowned.
“I betrayed her, then,” writes Kurek. “It was a subtle betrayal, but a cruel one: I was silent.”
His recognition of that betrayal, he writes, led him to believe that “I needed to come out of the closet as a gay man.”
“I believe in total immersion,” Kurek says in an interview. “If you are going to walk in other people’s shoes, then you are going to need to walk in your shoes.”
To ensure the purity of his project, Kurek says, he had to lie to his deeply religious family about being gay, something that troubled him throughout the year.
“I felt like they loved me but they didn’t know how to deal with me,” he says. “They didn’t understand how to handle having a gay brother or sibling.”
In the book, Kurek recounts learning that his mother wrote in her journal that she would rather have been diagnosed with cancer than have a gay son. That experience and others left Kurek feeling outcast by people he loved, confused about his new life and conflicted about past religious beliefs.
Kurek was living a lie. And even though he was conflicted by his family’s reaction to his new lifestyle, he was longing to be honest with them.
It’s no surprise that the “The Cross in the Closet,” has spurred strong reaction, especially from the LGBT community.
“I feel for the gay community of Nashville, and for every person who trusted Kurek enough to flirt with him, hang out with him, and confide in him about their lives,” wrote Amy Lieberman on the blog Feministing. “If I were in that community, I would feel so betrayed right now.”
In a Huffington Post blog post titled “Pretending To Be Gay Isn’t The Answer,” Emily Timbol, a religion blogger, expressed a similar opinion: “What's sad is that every interaction Timothy had during his year pretending was fake.”
“He was welcomed under false pretenses, acting like someone who understood the struggle that his LGBT friends faced,” she wrote. “He did not.”
But Kurek says that that was not his aim. “This isn't a book about being gay, I could not write that book, I am not qualified,” he writes. “What this is about is the label of gay and how that label affected me personally.”
Throughout the book, Kurek emphasizes that distinction. While much of “The Cross in the Closet” is about the struggle to understand the gay community, which he tries to address by enlisting a friend to act as his boyfriend, much of it addresses how his former church’s community – and family – reacted to his new lifestyle.
“I am actually not friends or in contact at all with 99.99% of the people that I grew up with or the churches that I grew up with,” Kurek says.
Kurek says he isn’t opposed to interacting with people from his "former" life. When he has run into members of his old church, he said he generally has quick, cordial conversations and moves on.
But some of the new distance is by choice. When Kurek’s mother told a friend in her church that her son was gay, the person said Kurek’s sexuality could jeopardize his mother's standing in the church.
The evangelical community has remained fairly mum throughout much of the reaction; most responses have come from Christians who are in some way connected to the LGBT community.
Though Kurek goes to church less now, primarily because he has yet to find one that feels like “home,” he says he feels more religious “in the biblical definition of religion.” He still considers himself a Christian, although no longer evangelical, and says he is interested in attending the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in the future.
Kurek quotes James 1:27 from the New Testament: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
There’s no mention of organized religion in passages like that, and Kurek says it’s the institutions of religion that worry him most today. He talks about his once robust church life as a distant memory.
Living as a gay man jaded him to religion, he says, though he has not surrendered all of his former beliefs. Yes, Kurek says, he is struggling with certain points of his theology, but he has been looking for the right church. “I am trying to figure out what place in the body of Christ I fit in,” he said.
As for his original goal, to radically change who he was, Kurek says mission accomplished. He says he has conquered his prejudices of the LGBT community and is happy with the person he has become.
“If anybody had told me back then who I would be or what I would believe now,” Kurek said, “I would have thought they were completely insane.”
For example, Kurek now thinks homosexuality is completely acceptable.
His family is happy to know that he is not gay, says Kurek. He has a new set of friends. And he lives in Portland, Oregon, where he moved shortly after finishing his experimental year.
The author plans to donate part of the proceeds from his book to help LGBT homeless youth who have been rejected by their families.
He is now at work on a book proposal for a follow-up to “The Cross in the Closet.” The book will be about the years after his experiment, transitioning back to honest living while continuing to engage the LGBT community.
“I want to tell more stories,” he says “and humanize the people who Christians always want to look at as labels.”
funny... and I lived my whole like pretending to be straight. This yahoo comes out of nowhere pretends to be gay for a year and he's treated as some sort of hero.
That's the way it's always been. And it's sad.
Tell me how you might be bound.” And he said to her, “If you weave the seven locks of my head with the web and fasten it tight with the pin, then I shall become weak and be like any other man.”
Why not just talk from the heart, why talk scripture? You can decifer that passage yourself and explain what it means to you, correct?
I agree, looks like Halloween freak show.
That's how I feel when I see all those freaks that dress up with colorful wigs, wearing paint on their chests, holding up finger puppets while completely drunk watching football. They're disgusting!
Why is he the only one not wearing leather shorts?
Will he pretend to be black for a year next to get another prospective on that subject? And why is this news?
This was done years ago. Please read the book, "Black Like Me", written by John Howard Griffin and published in 1961. He encountered similar experiences. The book was also made into a movie, starring James Whitmore.
Can C.Thomas Howell play him in the movie?
Well its good that he is not a bigot anymore, but why does CNN have to post pictures of him with the freakiest looking people he could find. Most gay people wouldn't leave the house looking like the people in these pictures.
weird isn't it?? why?? this is so stupid. I didn't read it nor do I plan to, the headlines said enuf. he needs a lot of prayer as well and all the gays.
cnn sure is hard up for news. actually now that i think about it, why am i commenting? gives them fuel for the fire. oh well, i'll post this anyway. i'll make my own news. too bad i'm doing it on cnn. i'm outta here.
Ixnay, thank you for the great phrase, 'uppity moralizers'. I am so using this!
The self righteous bovine scat worn by Christians does not smell any better when donned by gays.
Good thing this dude had the balls and the right mind to "walk in someone else's shoes." Sadly, this is what religion is all about: hate and denying basic rights to those they deem "unworthy."
you are so confused......... i will pray for you today. religion is so NOT about hate. read the Bible and you will find out for yourself.
so norm, why is this an issue if churches do not hate gays?
normattg. I know you're not at church. You will suffer.
this is to in santa we trust and god
The church i belong to does not hate gays, we hate no one nor do we judge anyone. the WORD will judge.
By the way, I just got home from church and i will pray for you two also. you seem to have a lot of hate in your heart, which is unfortunate.
this is an issue because the gays make it an issue. haven't you heard?
All the "experimental" projects discussed in this article, living as woman according to the bible, as Jesus did (or ate or whatever), as a gay man for a year, strike me as disingenuous journeys by aspiring writers looking for a hook. If you're going to be honest as a writer, start by disclosing your real motivation - getting published, getting on The View, getting an article on CNN.com, as well as the opportunity to grandstand with comments like "... and a portion of my proceeds will be going to the LGBT community..." (ha ha ho, aren't I just wonderful).
If I were part of the LGBT community, I would give you your money back.
He says he's not gay so prove it: Rip a great big noisy fart.
Grow up troll.
That won't make him straight. It makes him a slob.
Pretended my As___ LOL I mean his____ and CNN reported on this LOL
You don't need to lie and deceive people in order to have empathy. If you want to meet and talk to gay people to understand how they are often ostracized by family or discriminated against by society – fine. You can do that. Jesus did not lie and deceive. There are no new insights here. This is all about a book deal, and I'm sorry CNN is giving him a pulpit for lying and deceiving that will lead to more book sales.
I don't think that's really the case. A straight person can only understand the gay experience through friends as well as a white person can understand the black experience through his or her friend. This experiment didn't get him the whole way, but it did get him further than he would have otherwise got.
Oh please, He obviously IS gay. It will all come out in time.
OK, let's go with that.
It doesn't invalidate his experience in any way at all.
yup. my thoughts exactly...
Sshhhhhhhh. Your opinion is stupid. Keep it down now.
But.....he IS gay. "Big AL" gay, if you know what I mean.
Let me get this straight. (pun intended) An evangelical Christian spent a year lying to everyone – to see if he might change his views? Hmm. I wonder how that works.
No, he did it because he couldn't understand why he wouldn't stand up for his friend that just came out of the closet. He was brainwashed to believe that being gay was sinful, instead of a norm of a part of our society. As soon as religious people start loving all people, our society will just faulter. This is all so 1950's, everyone needs to get up to speed.
@jmarno: I'll leave the judgement to God. I'm a Christian because I'm a lowly sinner, just like the confused brother in this article. I can know he's confused and being led astray because I'm familiar with the Word. It's not judgement. The man has second-guessed himself into the hands of the devil. So quite the contrary, I say, pray for him.
Second guessed? You do realize that I would rather see individuals second guessing their belief then believing in hatred of a person or group, which has led people astray due to the "Devils" work.
You are right, and I'm glad a Christian made this comment. It is wrong for ANY PERSON to pretend and lie for a year to everyone they know. To make friends under a guise – to deceive people intentionally for their own self gain. It is unChristian, and immoral.
Next he should spend a year pretending to be an atheist.
A gay athiest.
No. Next he should pretend to be a Christian! Oh wait. He's already doing that.
Yeah, right. Pretending. LMAO!
I am sure God does not approve of what he did. He needs to re-read the Bible – if he has ever read it at all.
And your evidence that there is a God would be?
He's a real natural at acting gay. Makes you wonder what was really going on. I'm guessing he was enjoying the sodomy from his "experiment".
@Mary Beth Edgerly
Yes... Mary Beth... please drone on about how ... **you are sure about what God does and does not approve of**
Let's just set aside the little fact that you are starting your argument out "as if" (presupposing) already that there even is a God.
Why bring up that argument here Skytag? Do you think it will really go anywhere? Is that why you came to this article? Not because you cared but so you could troll all the "delusional Christians"?
You must be over 60
Please read the Bible. You will understand many things if you do.
Yet god approves of mass murder and slavery.Did you read about that in your holy book?I guessing you skipped those parts.Mysterious- no?
I would say it's YOU who needs to read the Bible – an excellent place to begin would be John 3:16. Also try the story in the NT of the two men who stood in the temple, one looking up to heaven and saying, in essence, "Thank you for not making me like one of THEM", and the other who couldn't even raise his eyes to heaven, but said, "Have mercy on me, a sinner." Which man does it say God counted as righteous? It's people like you who give Christians a bad name; unfortunately, Christ and God the Father get rejected as a result. Cast the beam out of thine own eye before you attempt to take the mote out of anyone else's.
Yes, so he can learn about polygamy and selling his female offspring into slavery. The bible teaches so much good stuff.
yes yes mary beth....he MUST re-read the bible...which version shall he read this time? I am sure if he waits a couple more years, there will be a new version of lies for him to read and re-read.
mary beth: by what authority do you purport to know the mind of god?
You said, "I am sure God does not approve of what he did."
How can you be so sure? Do you have the audacity to claim God whispers to you, personally, what He believes? The Jesus one reads about in the Bible has more humility than that.
Leave the ho mos alone!
I believe he was trying to show that we are all God's children, straight or gay. Live YOUR life & be happy.
We are all God's children – true
However we are to live to please God if we are to inherit His LIfe. Children are like their parents and we are ALL in His image. However we are told that God creates/can create death as well. See Isaiah 45:7.
In a relationship with God one will know His Will and be led by His inner Peace and Joy because His reign or Kingdom is Peace, Joy and Righteousness (right standing) in Him – Romans 14:17.
Then he could have just sang "Kumbaya" and "Jesus loves me" with the same result.
True Christians do not compromise their faith in this way. Jesus would never have done this. He would have been in their midst, but not as an impostor, aka: deceiver.
Hmmm... thanks for quoting more bible for us.
Always a big help.
@nosurprise: Isaiah 45:7, in the KJV, says that God creates light, darkeness, good, and evil (God creates evil!). In the RSV the word 'evil' is changed to 'calamity'. There is another translation that now changes it to 'death'? These changes really change our perception of the original intent. I wonder what the verse said in the original language that the KJV was translated from.
The amount of intolerance - on both sides - in this discussion thread really says a lot about us.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.