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Christian’s year of living 'gay' leads to dramatic change, sparks controversy
December 2nd, 2012
06:45 AM ET

Christian’s year of living 'gay' leads to dramatic change, sparks controversy

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.

The response

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.

The change

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.”

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Belief • Faith • Homosexuality • Sexuality • Uncategorized

soundoff (3,659 Responses)
  1. palintwit

    My work here is nearly done. Thanks to me Obama has been re-elected, the teabaggers are on the run and Sarah Palin is no longer a household word, but rather a footnote on that dung heap known as Fox News. I have accomplished much and hope someday to retire and write my memoirs. Sharing my political prowess with the rest of the world is the least I can do.

    December 3, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  2. Anomic Office Drone

    “They were all HIV positive, perverts and liberal pedophiles.”

    If Jesus walked in to a church that was preaching that message, I think we would see some temple style table flipping.

    December 3, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  3. John

    You put a person in a group of people an watch out! The individual becomes a sheep in a herd of sheep led by the head sheep. Sheep following sheep.

    December 3, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Kenny

      Sheep also have shepherds. You know, they people who only keep the sheep around to fleece them?

      December 3, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Rachel

      Absolutely, problem is that most get caught-up and brainwashed by religion at a very young age and it does take a drastic move to free oneself from those hateful, intolerant, self-righteous ways. I am glad to say I am a recovered Evangelist as well. Now, I just focus on doing good deeds, donating money and time to good causes. Trying to make a difference in this world even if it's a small gesture. I see people for who they are, not which building they enter nor which book they read.

      December 3, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  4. John

    Yes, a betrayal, but in the end for a good cause. People are so full of themselves.

    December 3, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • kenny

      for someone to do something like this and be critizied by BOTH sides highlights the problem. NEITHER side understands where the other is coming from. ONLY through understanding can a conflict be resolved which will end suffering on BOTH sides. He tried to bridge the gap and end suffering... ANYONE critical of his actions is an ignant fool and part of the problem.

      December 3, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Huebert

      Kenny

      Criticizing this man's actions does not make anyone a fool. While he may have had good intentions, his actions caused pain to his family, and he was deceptive to the LGBT community. This is not to say that what he did was bad, or that I disapprove, I don't. But to say his choice is beyond criticism, shows that you are incapable of seeing both sides.

      December 3, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  5. KDK

    Is this any different than a gay person pretending to be straight? If he had moved to the gay section and said "Hey, I'm straight, but I'm just here to observe and make some new friends." do you think he would have been accepted, or would it be like "What the heck are you doing here?"

    December 3, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • CanisLupis

      For being evangelical, he is hypocritical. Not disclosing you are straight to the gay community is lieing which is against the word and intention of God. God wants you to be who you are. I have many friends that live the gay lifestyle. And what they choose to do with their life is their choice, just don't try to push it on me or make me accept it.

      However, choosing to involve yourself in a sin is performing the sin. Being a devote worshipper, makes it even worse in God's eyes. I do not aplaud and disdain his actions entirely. The fact that he has a book that millions are ready confirms that it is aligned with the immoral activities that polute our great nation of America today.

      December 3, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  6. Thebe

    This brought tears to my eyes that someone of such deep faith and conviction actually stopped to stare at his own soul in the mirror and do something about it. I am not gay and I have stopped classifying myself as Christian, yet I felt so moved by this man and his experiment. It is Christians like him, that bring me at least back to reverence of Christ and Christianity. One can always make the adage of "walking in another person's shoes" but how many have actually tried to wear another's burden. And I don't mean that gay is the burden ... the burden is society and being an outcast to one's only family and so-called friends.

    December 3, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  7. JGN

    Rocket, just by refusing to surrender the use of the word 'hate' when referring to total strangers about whom you know nothing shows that fear, rather than concern for humanity, is guiding your steps. You have no right at all to speak for others and their choices.

    December 3, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  8. arachne bleu

    I keep thinking about the people with whom he interacted in the LGBT community for that year. How must they have felt when they were told that Timothy is actually straight, doing an experiment about which he was writing a book. Did they feel like lab rats?

    I think Timothy had good intentions and discovered many important things about himself and other people, but (and boy that can be a mighty big word) the people on whom he experimented must have felt very betrayed when they found out.

    Regardless of what the Bible says, and what everyone who believes or doesn't believe in it says, I truly believe we should treat others in the same way we would like to be treated.

    Timothy didn't quite do that, did he?

    As far as his family goes, I wonder how they felt when they found out that Timothy had put them through all that trauma so he could learn what it was like to be different. They must also have felt betrayed.

    As I said, I think Timothy's motives were good, but his actions were detrimental to all he encountered during that year and not just for that year, but perhaps for their lifetimes.

    December 3, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Thebe

      Have to disagree. It would be something else if he just hung around the gay community saying he was one of them ... but he took on their burden of being a label that various communities outcast ... his being one of them. He could have told his family and church friends it was just an experiment ... but he didn't. And in fact, it was not just an experiment, it was really placing himself in someone else's shoes. He turned his life upside down and had the courage to lose those so-called friends that he was soulful enough to recognize as not really being friends let alone "Christian".

      December 3, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Jon

      So, should the show undercover boss be pulled off the air?

      December 3, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  9. Bud

    You called it, I agree. Why would a believer do this?

    December 3, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Jack 3

      I was thinking of acting as a liberal for a while to try and understand them but I just can't be that stupid no matter how hard I try.

      December 3, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • HarryJ

      Depends on what you "believe", doesn't it? This guy suspected that he was being handed a load of propaganda about gays, so he did the brave thing and checked for himself.

      December 3, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Kenny

      Jack 3
      You "try" acting stupid? How can we tell?

      December 3, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Thebe

      Your question is scary. As a "believer" is against the rules to question and look deep within one's own soul. He wasn't brainwashed and wasn't fearful of public opinion in his community. Why would anybody aspiring to spiritually develop and grow as a spiritual being NOT question?

      December 3, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • sam stone

      to challenge his preconceptions?

      to think out of the box?

      to grow spiritually?

      December 3, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  10. dominickevans

    I find it deeply disturbing that this article refers repeatedly to being gay as a "lifestyle".

    December 3, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Jack 3

      Many base their whole life around this perversion thus a lifestyle.

      December 3, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Huebert

      Jack

      Why do call ho.mose.xuality a perversion?

      December 3, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Kenny

      Being left-handed use to be called a "perversion" too.

      December 3, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Jack 3

      Kenny...are you really that brainless?

      December 3, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • YeahRight

      "Many base their whole life around this perversion"

      The experts have proven you wrong. Heterosexual behavior and homosexual behavior are normal aspects of human sexuality. Despite the persistence of stereotypes that portray lesbian, gay, and bisexual people as disturbed, several decades of research and clinical experience have led all mainstream medical and mental health organizations in this country to conclude that these orientations represent normal forms of human experience. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American School Counselor Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, and the National Association of SocialWorkers, together representing more than 480,000 mental health professionals, have all taken the position that homosexuality is not a mental disorder and thus is not something that needs to or can be “cured."

      December 3, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Huebert

      Jack

      Why didn't you answer my question?

      December 3, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Jon

      The conservative media will always call it a lifestyle and choice because that is part of their agenda.

      December 3, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • sam stone

      "Many base their whole life around this perversion thus a lifestyle."

      The same could be said about Christianity

      December 3, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  11. Blue Moon Mom

    Did anyone ever read the famous book Black Like Me? Another author (caucasion) went undercover to live as a black man in the 50s or 60s. I think this was a landmark book which helped open up living as a minority n the US. I think the author chemically treated his skin and actually died as a result of the toxins.

    December 3, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • Robbie

      I am a white girl, born 1962 and raised and still live in the Birmingham AL area. Reading Black Like Me in high school was an eye-opener and a great lesson. And, like the author that book, this author was not what he pretended to be, he still faced the same discrimination. I hope his book can also be an eye opener and great lesson. People are people. Period.

      December 3, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • bugzy88

      I did read that book and I thought of it as I read this article. I believe Timothy Kurek was not being malicious when he "became" gay for a year, I think he was really trying to find out why GLBT people are treated that way. As a lesbian, I'm not sure if I would be concerned about him betraying my confidence but I would hope that he learned from his experience and let other people know we are not an "abomination," we are a lot like anyone else. Everyone should be given equal rights regardless of any pigeonhole people want to put us in, black, white, straight, gay, male, female, religious, non-religious and so on. I hope Timothy can be one of the voices of reason for the future.

      December 3, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  12. midwstrngrl

    This man is trying to show people how to really live and really love and what that means. This does not make him a fake or a mean person. Just the opposite. Someone willing to live through something they dont have to makes them a kind person at heart. This is the way we all need to be...willing to try to understand others lives, issues, problems. That is what love stems from...trying to understand other's needs and to be able to build compassion. Through that comes change.

    December 3, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • midwstrngrl

      he was misguided in his attempt...but it seems his attempt came from an honest place, and was an attempt to understand not hurt anyone.

      December 3, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  13. Rocket

    I seriously would have to question his faith. I'm a Christian and I don't hate gays I hate their sinful ways. Anyone that is living a sinfull life we should not hate them but pray for them to change their sinful ways

    December 3, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • midwstrngrl

      I think perhaps you need to question yours...

      December 3, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • ME II

      Is it not sinful to judge others? or their "ways"?

      December 3, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • midwest rail

      The Big Lie as practiced by contemporary Christians – "love the sinner, hate the sin". Interesting that they stole the concept from Gandhi, and have corrupted it ever since.

      December 3, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • JG

      Rocket: I assure you that whatever you are doing and however pious you are living, you are a sinner by Old Testament standards, and there are many, many actions that were considered sinful by that standard that we under the new covenant do not have a problem with. The list of things that meet these criteria is ridiculously long, why fixate on the few that have to do with what other people are doing instead of concentrating on the ones that apply to what you are doing?

      December 3, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Jon

      Rocket, I pray that you change your heart and horrible thoughts.

      December 3, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • Jon

      It's amazing how many people are both negative or positive things about this without even reading the book. Don't let CNN tell you about something....do the research yourself.

      December 3, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  14. midwstrngrl

    This despite peoples reservations is a good thing. This man is trying to show people how to really live and really love and what that means. This does not make him a fake or a mean person. Just the opposite. Someone willing to live through something they dont have to makes them a kind person at heart. This is the way we all need to be...willing to try to understand others lives, issues, problems. That is what love stems from...trying to understand other's needs and to be able to build compassion. Through that comes change.

    December 3, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  15. Jennifer

    The best way he could have done this experiment was to go around with his Lesbian friend and be a straight man in the community.

    December 3, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  16. Sean

    "Posing" lol The first tip off that he wasn't gay was the terrible shape he was in .... Anyway, as a straight male with gay friends (male & female) I think this was ridiculous. Being gay is no more different that me choosing my race at birth. It's not a lifestyle choice, it's how you are born. You can't catch gay and you can't pray the gay away.

    December 3, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Rocket

      People are not born gay. Being gay is a choice a gay person makes. Every person Is born with a sinful nature, it's how we grow and put that sinful nature behind us is what's important

      December 3, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  17. Lo

    To be honest, I was really disturbed when I first read this. Pretending to be gay definitely devalued all of his interactions and the connections he made with the LGBTQ community. But unlike others I can’t be angry with him. He was an extremely conservative religious man who decided he wanted to learn more about the LGBTQ community and I can totally see how he came to the conclusion of pretending to be gay for a year as the answer to educating himself. He made that decision while he was still someone who believed all gay people are sinners. He made the decision while he was still closed minded and uneducated. It’s not an excuse for what he did and I like how he hasn’t seemed to defend his actions. It even says in the article that the book isn’t about him pretending to be gay but more about the interactions he had with people in both communities and how it affected his point of view. I don’t think what he did was right but I’m glad that he is a bit more educated now and I don’t think its fair for people to say he is a horrible human being for pretending to be gay. Put yourself in his shoes! I think he did the best he could with what he had and its unfortunate that what he had was a lot of hate and misguided feelings that led him to treat the LGBTQ community with such little respect by pretending to be gay. He is obviously a lot more open minded and understanding now and I think that is what’s really important. At the end of the day his book is going to make more conservative religious people (like he was) question their beliefs and hopefully they can change their views just by reading instead of pretending to come out of the closet.

    December 3, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  18. Shannon

    Maybe he should try living as a cancer patient for a year, next.

    December 3, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  19. Jesus

    I don’t believe this BS for one second. I think he came out, and then regretted doing it after losing everything and then came up with this lame-ass story to get back in good with his folks.

    December 3, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  20. roxyj

    If nothing else he gave credit to the idea that being gay is nature, not nurture. He was in the GLBTQ community for a year and is still straight...

    December 3, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Jesus

      He was in the GLBTQ community for a year and is still straight...

      you can't catch 'gay'

      December 3, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
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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.