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
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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. Meteorite

    I think his research is worthwhile. The discrimination faced by the LGBT community must be exposed and dealt with on a societal level. Mr. Kurek's efforts will be another beam of light shed on this issue. The more light the more we expose the intransigent bigots among us that will readily trample on our human rights. Thank you Mr. Kurek!

    December 2, 2012 at 8:09 am |
  2. @ Tippers

    Maybe the big miff comes from the realization that the only thing that defined this man as g.ay were his actions & his words. There is no litmus test for ga.yness. No one can produce results from a blood test or brain MRI & say "here's proof I was born like this". Maybe the anger is about the community no being able to identify whether or not he's "really" g.ay...because if a straight guy is able to "become" ga.y by ACTING that way, the reverse is true & also applies to women.

    December 2, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • TomN

      Correction–he wasn't actually 'gay' in reality, just pretending. There's a difference. No one could have forced him to become gay in actuality, not even himself.

      December 2, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • sockpuppet1984

      you're right, the reverse is true. Gay people can pretend to be straight too, without actually BEING straight. That's what they had to do for years, and many still do. What's your point? It no more makes them actually straight than this experiment made him actually gay.

      December 2, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  3. Andrew

    I think a lot of you "people" got lost...go back to www. foxnews.com to post your hate-filled rants.

    December 2, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • I know I know

      I second that

      December 2, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  4. dogmandg

    Here's the issue: Some people believe being gay is a lifestyle choice, and they belive this is the wrong choice. They think they're actually helping people by trying to correct a bad choice.

    I think being gay is like being left-handed. People don't choose to be left-handed. Are people born left-handed? Who knows? Who cares? The point is that left-handed people can't change who they are. It's not a lifestyle choice.

    If you try to punish someone for something they can't change, that's called persecution. Once evangelicals understand that they're actually persecuting gays instead of trying to help them, they'll change their tune.

    So that's what really need to happen. Everyone needs to understand that being gay is not a choice.

    December 2, 2012 at 8:04 am |
  5. notsurewhatthebigdealis

    ICongratulations to the snake-oil salesman for finding a new angle! This one's so easy I don't even need to read the previous comments: since the occupation of "religious guy" is a carnival ride anyway, his "pretend-to-be-gay" year is the perfect premise for a book and a great way to get his phat-phuking face on tv (unless he's stupid enough to believe in religion). In that case, have fun with your paddle ball Skeeter!

    December 2, 2012 at 8:04 am |

    So did he pretend to take it up the butt? Did he pretend to man handle as many men as possible for a year? Did he pretend to be naked with all his male friends?

    December 2, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • Observer

      Why is that so important to you?

      December 2, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • JD

      Sounds like Ronald has secret desires.

      December 2, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • Steve_PA

      I think Ronald is bitter because he is straight and can't figure out how to get a woman to get naked with him

      December 3, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  7. I know I know

    The amount of ignorance from all the comments on this article is outstanding. Way to make me proud humanity!

    December 2, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  8. caitlinsallen

    It stuns me how angry and upset the LGBT community is with this guy. I'm a lesbian, came out in my 20s and live "out" in a very straight community in rural Maine. I have nothing but admiration for Timothy's courage to refute such a rigid belief system. Isn't that what we ALL want "the other guy" to do? Try to step outside of their own narrow views of how the world "should" be and understand how the world actually IS?

    December 2, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  9. ken

    How is this different from the book "Black Like Me.?"

    December 2, 2012 at 8:01 am |
    • eastcoast Mike

      I'm pretty sure John Howard Griffin's parents didn't think he was really black.....

      December 2, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  10. cmc

    I don't understand why people feel used... its seems odd for gay people to criticize lying about who you are? I know many gay people who engage in varying degrees of "untruth" for various reasons – job security, family, etc. At least his reasons for being dishonest were good and in the end not self-serving in any way. Destroying your own life willingly to understand and gain empathy for the involuntary destruction of a friend's life is commendable. I think gay people need to be careful about criticizing someone for using dishonesty to their own personal ends. Very few gay people walk around under a banner of truth 100% of the time. We all have our own inconvenient truths....

    December 2, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • RA

      Probably that's exactly why it touched a rather yet raw nerve within the LGBT community, because most of the know or remember why it is like to have to pretend you're something (ie straight) when you're not, due to rather significant social pressures, which DO still exist in many areas of the US, not to mention the whole wide world, with very few exceptions...there is another comment later on of a guy who says he is gay but he's not the kind to wave a flag about it and is sort of out just to close family and friends, (plus he was mixing this "waving of the flag" with not being the flashy flamboyant or drag queen type, which is NOT the same thing, but it is a sign he has made a conscious choice not to be politically active within the LGBT community, which is OK, I guess, not everyone has to be politically active in anything...this is exactly how I also felt for a long while, (especially since I am originally from an Eastern European country and there is still a lot of social ignorance, intolerance and prejudice about LGBT persons over there, and I admit I was/am also a coward and am not at all a "disident type" + am rather socially conformist anyway), but now, on second thought, reflecting on a larger social good, I think it is a rather selfish way to act if one lives in a country which really values tolerance and the ideals of democracy and free speech...and although I wouldn't impose political action on anybody, I really think now that LGBT primary political goals, on an ideal level, of course, about tolerance + education are worthy of active support.

      December 2, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  11. 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

    Excellent that he now thinks being gay is completely acceptable. Too bad the experience didn't cause him to believe all religion is bullsh!t.

    December 2, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  12. rare_earth

    Acceptance is half of the battle.

    December 2, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  13. Guy

    Next will be Chad, My Year of Pretending to be the Omnipotent Poster on this blog.

    December 2, 2012 at 7:56 am |
  14. DMG2FUN

    Pretending? BS!

    December 2, 2012 at 7:54 am |
    • Observer

      No Christian follows all the Bible.All are pretenders.

      December 2, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  15. Gregg

    I saw this story on fox a year ago.....

    December 2, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  16. shoos

    Sorry, I can't believe this drivel. What a mixed up human being to believe he was trying to prove something. What a child.

    December 2, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • rose

      I don't see anything wrong with this. On the contrary, he was trying to see how the "other side" feels, and by the way, I am not gay. I respect every human being.

      December 2, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  17. Tom O

    I did something similar where i pretended to be unemployed for a year.

    December 2, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • rr

      lol good one

      December 2, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  18. saggyroy

    Hey wait – wasn't this a Sasha Cohen movie already? Bruno?

    December 2, 2012 at 7:49 am |
  19. rr

    Another example of a fake christian. Liars go to hell too dear boy or didn't your mama teach you that when you were a child?

    December 2, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • Observer

      If following everything the Bible says makes you a true Chistian, they ALL are fakes.

      December 2, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • Commonsense

      For all the CHRISTIANS...I guess you forgot the most important part of your "book"- Judge not, lest ye be judged. I'm just sayin.....

      December 2, 2012 at 8:10 am |
  20. Hmmm

    All this person did was to do undercover investigative journalism to the best of their ability. Going undercover is something that cops do all the time and that 'legitimate reporters and newscasters' also do. I've seen nationally broadcasted segments of reporters who lived as homeless people for example. I haven't read this book, and likely won't, but certainly don't believe that the method of research was unacceptable.

    December 2, 2012 at 7:46 am |
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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.