Although he grew up believing that homosexuality was a sin, in 2010 Timothy Kurek, of Nashville, Tennessee, spent the entire year pretending to be gay in an attempt to truly understand and empathize with what homosexual people go through.
Kurek’s social experiment is extraordinary, given the kind of upbringing he had as a conservative Christian deep in America’s Bible belt. “You learned to be very afraid of God,” he said. “The loving thing to do is to tell my friend who is gay, ‘Hey, listen, you are an abomination and you need to repent to go to heaven.’ I absolutely believed in that lock, stock, and barrel.”
In fact, Kurek was so devout as a teenager that his parents’ friends would routinely ask him to set their kids straight for misbehaving. “I would be on the phone until four in the morning, asking them to repent for their sins,” he said.
But all that changed about seven years ago, when a friend he knew from karaoke night confided to Kurek that she was a lesbian. She told him about how her parents had disowned her when she came out, and that’s when Kurek felt like he had failed his friend. “I felt like God really kicked me in the gut,” he said. “She was crying in my arms and instead of being there for her, I was thinking about all the arguments to convert her.”
“Maybe that voice inside my head that told me to do anything other than be there for her in her pain… maybe that voice wasn’t God,” he recently said during a TED talk. “Maybe that voice was the result of two decades spent in a hyper-conservative religious bubble.”
His own reaction stunned him, and for the first time Kurek began to wonder what it really felt like to be gay and to feel so isolated. So in spite of being straight, he decided to live as a gay man for a year. “I needed to empathize and understand,” he said. “In order to walk in their shoes, I had to have the experience of being gay. I had to come out to my friends and family and the world as a gay man.”
Kurek spent six months plotting and planning his ‘coming out’, but it happened unexpectedly one day when he was sitting in a cafe in Nashville. He happened to be engrossed in a gay-themed book, when he realized that people were snickering at him. “A guy came up to me when he saw the cover and said, ‘You know that is fundamentally false. You can’t be gay and Christian.” To which, Kurek responded, “I am gay, and I love God.”
He then told his friends, family, and church that he was gay. Only two of his friends and an aunt were in on his secret, to handle things if they got out of hand. He got a job in a gay cafe, hung out at gay bars, joined a gay softball league, and even got his friend Shawn – a gay man – to pretend to be his boyfriend. And as expected, his news was not well-received. Friends wrote him emails asking him to repent for his sins and warning him of damnation.
It wasn’t easy for Kurek either, having been homophobic all his life. His first visit to a gay nightclub in Nashville had left him horrified. He went alone, and was soon accosted by a shirtless man covered in baby oil. The man, being much bigger than Kurek, dragged him on to the dance floor and pretended to ride him like a horse to the disco music. “I want to vomit,” Kurek later wrote. “I feel like beating the hell out of him.”
But Kurek kept up the disguise and things soon started to get better. Shawn – playing the part of protective boyfriend – helped him avoid unwanted passes from other men. As he explored gay culture, he realized how diverse and interesting it was. And he was stunned to discover gay Christians more devout than himself. Kurek became so active in a gay rights group that he even joined a protest outside the Vatican’s embassy to the United Nations in New York.
The most heartbreaking point in Kurek’s journey was learning his mother’s true reaction to the news. He read her journal, in which she had written: “I’d rather have found out from a doctor that I had terminal cancer than I have a gay son.” Thankfully, over time, she was won over by Kurek’s persistence and was able to change her views. “My mom went from being a very conservative Christian to being an ally to the gay community,” Kurek said. “I am very proud of her.”
Kurek also had to endure abusive names – he still remembers the first time he was called ‘faggot’ during a softball practice session in Nashville. “When I was first called that for real, I lost it,” he said. “I saw red. I felt so violated by that word.” By the end of the year, he had lost “95 percent” of his old friends, but he’d made lots of new ones in exchange.
Kurek ended his journey by revealing his secret and ‘coming out’ all over again. The 29-year-old went on to write a memoir based on his experiences during that year, titled The Cross in the Closet. He says that his journey, surprisingly, renewed his religious faith instead of diminishing it. “Being gay for a year saved my faith,” he revealed. He also learned that a vast majority of Christians aren’t homophobic. “It’s just a vocal minority that gets noticed and attracts all the attention.”
But in his book, Kurek has stayed away from theology. “I want this seen as a people issue,” he said. “When we are shunning people, we are shunning Fred and John and Liz and Mary. These are human people.”
“In the end, this is a book about prejudice, not about being gay.”
Photos: Timothy Kurek/Facebook