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.”
Wow! This young man was so courageous and brave, for starters, to take on such a scary journey. Yes, courageous and brave, and extremely risky. An evangelical young man, telling his parents, siblings, relatives, friends, and church 'family' that he is gay..... been there, done that.
As gay man, I admire Tim Kurek. He chose to do something akin to mortal 'sin' to the evangelical community, and something most hetero people wouldn't want to try: Tim chose to challenge all he knew and believed in, as well as challenge the love of all who claimed to love him.
My real life coming out, which began as a result of the movie Making Love, didn't go so well. Today, relationships between most of my relatives have been reformed, but not as close or trusting as I imagine they might be if I were a hetero man. For some lost relationships... time ran out because the people involved left their human journey without ever reacing past their religious convictions.
Try as ernestly as I did to be a model Christian until I was about 38, finally allowed myself to stop trying to make myself live a believe system my 'gut' could never accept because of the huge number of inconsistencies and excpetions. And coming out of the Assemblies of God church, that was not an easy thing to allow myself to do. But I did. And my point is that for Tim Kurek to risk losing his world so he could try to gain some understanding of himself, his lesbian friend, and a whole bunch of people he was trained to pity and abhor.... I dig this guy.
Thank you Tim for giving hope and light to more people than you'll ever know. Thanks Tim for being more of a man, and spirit, than most on the Earth would ever dare to try being.
Did you miss the part where he was lying the entire time and took his family and friends through his BS.......He's not gay!
I can relate... as time goes on.. more and more people will begin to see the real light.
If is using ones own brain, leveraging the knowledge and intelligence about the real world and realizing the dogma brainwashing from the religious fundamentalist is just hog wash
I always say there are two awakenings. First the gay person deals with their inner core – then their loved ones go through it themselves.
Good for you for traveling your journey.
He's gay as hell.
"If you enter a house and it doesn't receive your message, knock the dust off your feet and go to one that does". The legal system has already dismissed Christianity (see SCOTUS rulings) from its realm which places Christians outside that system. Therefore I refuse to serve on any jury of that system. I'm a veteran (Purple Heart) of eight deployments to war zones and a tax payer who refuses to go into the night as though my trust in Christ or the ethic He enforces is now wrong for America.
I have some bad news for you, pop.
You know the 1st Amendment? And the bit in it about religion? How about the Establishment Clause?
America has never been a Christian nation. Quit indulging your ridiculous martyr complex.
Say CNN, where's the like\dislike for this report's comment section? Aand how do you arbitrarily decide when to include it with a story? Same question as to when you do and do not require some sort of registration to post.
Also, and it may or may not be a coincidence, but it seems odd that your "Quick Vote" for the last couple days has been about HIV testing. Where did you come up with that one?
Maybe it is because of World AIDS day when many organizations have free HIV testing.. Or the Canadian suggestion of routine HIV testing that came out last week?
World AIDS Day, observed on 1 December every year, is dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic caused by the spread of HIV infection.
All the HIV polls are for World AIDS day, which was Dec. 1.
. Thanks for the explanation as to the "Quick Vote" question, AIDS day being Dec. 1.
I'm surprised by all the negative responses. A lot of folks saying he can't possibly feel the victim-hood that they do because he wasn't truly walking in their shoes. Here's someone willing to give up a year of his life to really understand and change his thinking. Seriously how many pious *Christians* will this book help? Excellent participant research. Before you post your negative comment What exactly are you doing to change the LGBT narrative in this country?
"Pretending" to be gay,LOL! Just like Rush Limbaugh is pretending to be fat!
How can he pretend to be gay and know what a gay person goes through.....PHYSICALLY, MENTALLY, AND SPIRITUALLY, when he knows he isn't gay? If I pretend to be a drug addict, and yet don't take drugs, I can't rely to what a drug addict goes through.
Good point. But Tim said that wasn't his goal because he knows he couldn't understand that without being gay. His goal was to immerse himself in the life of someone who everyone else thinks is gay so he experience how others reacted to him.
The important thing here is that here is someone who had enough nerve to question the dogma
Here is someone who made an effort to understand
If more people came to understand and assess – I am sure we would all be better off
Maybe the evangelicals will someday open their eyes and realize that for LGBT's orientation is NOT a choice. It's the way we were created. We're human beings with feelings, with the ability to honestly love, to raise children, to contribute to society. We're doctors, lawyers, teachers, policemen, chefs, truck drivers, laborers, etc. We're usually religious, good people who care for others. The evangelicals don't understand that in a group of 20, there's probably one gay person that's indistinguishable from everyone else. And yes, life-style is a choice, like the straight, married church-goers who have secret lovers on the side.
Well said. Good luck in educating the ignorant.
I'd say he just spent a year proving you wrong.....but that's another subject!
Great read! I don't agree with Amy Lieberman nor The Huffington Post. Yea he was pretending, but every gay person he talked to was honest with him about everything, opening at least one religious man's eyes about what they have to deal with on a daily basis. Yes they feel betrayed that he's not gay, but should feel good that a religious man took a chance to understand the difficulties they go through, to make a change
I completely agree with this. I would also think that the people that interacted with him, got to know him as a person, not just as a gay man. He didn't say he completely made up everything else about himself. I would definitely be taken aback, but then after reflecting, I know I would have a new found appreciation for what he did.
Remember "Black like me " it the same thing same premise. Religion is about anti democratic system of brain washing for the benefit of the preachers, mullahs, priest etc. oh it's just like a corporation that only produces BS.
"Black Like Me" was the first thing that went through my mind. The first incident, about getting into a truck with a white driver and a rifle in the gun rack, has never been far from my thoughts. It profoundly affected my understanding of prejudice, and I still have my original copy. Hopefully, this book will do the same thing for people who are LGBT.
This is akin to the novel/movie "Gentleman's Agreement" where a man posed as Jewish to determine the extent of Antisemitism in America. While I wish he had chosen a different phrase than "“I want to ...humanize the people who Christians always want to look at as labels." (If someone's a person, they're already humanized!) at least his work lends another voice to the chorus of treating all people fairly. I am curious about one thing: if Kurek is no longer friends with almost all of the people he grew up with, what about the people he met during his year "out of the closet." Has he maintained any friendships there?
Man-made religions are the work of the Devil. God did not create religions.
How do you know there's a devil? Or a god?
Someone in Hollywood decided that there is a certain way gays act.
So now the insecure people who are seeking acceptance in that community all try to act that way. I bet that the sober and sincere gays are not any more impressed by the act than I am.
I bet he stopped right before being intimate. How could he experience it all with going all the way? This is only half the story.... What about AIDs?
But God wants me to hate, judge, and smite gays. It's my moral duty. It says so in the bible. ...I think. I haven't really read it yet.
CNN is making people chose between practicing their religion or joining a public debate. Not a nice choice for them to offer.
They're doing no such thing. These boards are open 24/7. You can comment whenever it is convenient for you.
Yes, CNN is MAKING you choose. Forcing you, against your will. If you do not choose, armed thugs from the security division of CNN will arrive at your door and beat the crap out of you until you choose a side.
Choosing between Religion and Debate??
Isn't your posting on a Sunday? I guess you made your choice pretty clear.
For some reason I think Kurek is gay & realized it was to hard staying out of the closet & went back in !
His book was written for crazy christians who would never believe anything said by a gay or non crazy christian person. Since he is a crazy christian fake gay, they may at least read his book and maybe learn something about gays being people.
That is an extreme comment. II have never heard a Christian referred to a gay person as not a person. I am guessing that if you were honest, you have not either.
I was thinking of dressing up as a evangelical right wing christian, but I don't think I can pull off being so blind.
Your pink tutu might give you away.
What do you mean? You are already blind, you can't possible get blinder then what you already are, since SOME non-denominational Christian's eyes are OPEN through the power and wisdom of GOD.
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.