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.”
While I somewhat understand what he was trying to do, I don't agree that it was the right thing to do. Lying to your friends and family and putting them through emotional turmoil for a year is not admirable. You can argue that it shouldn't BE emotional turmoil for them, but nonetheless, it IS. I'm sure his family aren't in love with him right now, and they have every right to be angry.
Don't you think that some of this turmoil was brought about by his family? Would you stop loving your son or daughter if they told you they were gay?
What, to him should be more important: his challenging and questioning years of indoctrination based on intolerance and hate, or the confusion of those who cling to their ideas of intolerance and hate, and refuse to understand why one of their own is moving away from that intolerance and hate?
I think you hit the nail on the head. It shouldn't have been emotional turmoil for them.
I think it's admirable when anybody aims to look beyond the propaganda and lies they've been told by their "leaders." More people need to question their authorities.
I agree. Many people fake being Christian everyday without using the experience to advocate love for those who are seen as "less than" by society. This man risked losing his family and friends to expose the struggles of the LGBT community and I applaud him for taking this challenge to broaden his view of people who are treated like second class citizens, and to question the absurd beliefs that he had held since childhood. While his life was fake, his experiences while conducting this 'experiment' were not. We could all benefit by walking a mile in the shoes of those that we most criticize.
“If I were in that community, I would feel so betrayed right now.”....I think the LGBT comes off sounding very hypocritical here. How many gays did the same thing to the straight community when they were in the closet? This man put a lot on the line to bring attention to their cause.
I'm gay and I agree.
The first amazing part of the story: "In fact, Kurek was so disgusted by his response to his friend that he decided to do something drastic. " The guy had a conscience and listened to it. His religious beliefs were applied to himself as well as the rest of the world. What a great story!
Interesting to say the least.........but I don't think what he did deserves kudos or this kind of publicity........It's people like him that are part of what is wrong with society today as a whole........
PRETENDING to be something your definitely not is not going to show you what it's really actually like ...........
It may not have shown him exactly what it was like...but it showed him a lot. A million times more than people who never consider what it's like being born someone different than who they are. Some people are just incapable of empathy though.
“I am trying to figure out what place in the body of Christ I fit in,” he said..
Really. He apparently didn't get deeply enough into the community to realize he worships a tribal Bronze Age deity that has absolutely nothing to do with our culture, our time, or our secular life.
CNN Sunday morning hate Christians article alert.........right on schedule
really? Check every Sunday
I do. Please enumerate the reasons why an article like this is :hate".
Wrong. There are plenty of gay Christians and Christian churches that openly welcome and accept LGBTs. The article isn't directing hate towards Christians or Christianity.
You are exactly right Cindy. Gives the liberals and atheists a little spark for their Sunday morning, being they have none to begin with.
got that persecution complex in full gear, do you cindy?
It seems to me that this experience might give some right wing evangelicals pause. I'm an evangelical but I am moderate/left and have always accepted that God loves all of his children every bit as much as he loves me. I believe that all Americans should be afforded all of the same rights under the law. I would hope that the far right evangelicals would read the book, but their minds are pretty closed so expect they won't go there. We should remember that many people do many things in the name of research. This man says this book came out of his response to a friend who came out of the closet. That is the purpose of a belief in Jesus – when your response to your fellow man is less than charitable and loving, it should bother you. I respect Kurek for responding to that call.
He is not a journalist, basically all this proves is that he is a liar. So he is trying to find himself using others. Why can't he just be friends with anyone without faking? It seems to be all about him and not other people. BS. I hope his book is an epic fail.
In a formal sense... nor was John Howard Griffin, who was trained as a musician before seeking education in literature and medicine. But, journalism isn't about having a degree; it's about looking at the world around you and notating the things you observe in a systematic manner. That's what he's (presumably - I haven't read the book) done, so he's a journalist.
That's harsh. There are many ways to find yourself, but it does involve focusing on oneself solely at times. He reached out to what he was taught were sinful people. So he left his comfort zone and attempted to understand other lifestylesand acknowledge his Christian brothers and sisters. Would a straight guy have been let on the inside of some gay circles? Probably not.
The epic fail here is your inability to understand what he was doing. What difference does it make if Mr. Kurek is a journalist or not? Is there something validating about being a journalist that the rest of us don't possess?
As for the "liar" remark, I presume that you are not unfamiliar with that sin–and therefore disqualified from rendering judgement.
Jim5k has a great response. I admire Timothy Kurek for having the open mindedness and courage to question things and beliefs that had been engrained into him all of his life and then actually try to experience the hatred, bigotry and discrimination that gays in this country have to endure on a daily basis from narrow minded people. Hopefully his experience and book will open the minds of so called "Christians" and other closed minded people who show so much hatred towards something they don't understand.
It takes efforts like this to change minds. There comes a point where people are so entrenched in their positions that lobbing arguments across a fence is meaningless. Most of these evangelicals won't be open to argument until it's their brother or sister who's talking to them about it.
The statistics of genetics should provide a way out of this. I think our society in general is finally at a place to allow it to do it's work. In the mean-time it would be better to focus on compassion and tolerance than in changing the core beliefs of a stranger.
He wasn't pretending. He got to be himself for a year.
So all of the closeted gays who pretend to be straight for 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 years really are straight?
Glad his family didnt react more conservatively and disown him, had they done so im sure his thoughts about all this would be different. That said, i like his conviction of exposing the evil that is known as The Church. Shining a light into the dark world organised sanctioned group hate should have been done long ago and im grateful for his fine effort. Hope his new book is even more enlightening.
As a gay/HIV+ man, I think his experiment was admirable. How many of us are willing to immerse ourselves in a lifestyle we do not understand and/or fully support? Were there problems with it, yes – it is never acceptable to lie, but he did face his own prejudices head on.
What I would like to know is who in the gay community is offended, feels betrayed, etc? Are these people random LGBT strangers, groups, etc. or does "betrayed" community actually consist of (or at least include) the LGBT individuals he befriended during his experiment. I would like to hear from them, not from the larger LGBT community who had nothing to do with this experiment.
Well, Timothy Kurek, you've sure earned my respect. I believe in a God who is big enough – and gracious enough – to use what you've done for great good. I hope and pray that so many in the church of Christ will try to emulate your courage and honesty in your quest to know and live "true religion." How honored I would be to know someone like you personally, and call you friend and brother.
Man is born with a gene called 'sinful nature' , there is not one human that did not possess this gene.
The only way I could agree with this assertion is via the ever-changing definition of what "sin" is. Man's nature doesn't change so fast, but change the definition of a single word and the way that we group each other as humans changes in a split second. I would agree with "to err is human", but "sin"? I don't think so. That is for people who believe in Heaven and Hell, and who unknowingly live in Hell because of that belief. God is our greatest fan, not our tormentor.
that is a philisophiical opinion, not a physiological fact
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This dude is obviously gay and used this as an excuse to break it to come out.
Evangelicals are the American equivalent of the Taliban to the GLBT community. They have so much hatred it seems like an oxymoron to call themselves Christian.
It's no oxymoron. They have no idea of what it is to be a Christian. Their hate is proof their church is one of the Antichrist.
Quote: “I am trying to figure out what place in the body of Christ I fit in,” he said.
Hmm, let me think. Could it possibly be his ..... ?
Perhaps he could pose as a liar, thief or slanderer...i mean, hit for the cycle dude. You've made it all a game anyway.
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.