As soon as I heard about Timothy Kurek’s Cross in the Closet, I knew I had to read it. Kurek, a straight evangelical from Nashville, Tennessee, spent a year pretending to be gay, “coming out” to friends and family to better understand how people are treated in America who bear the label of “gay.” His experience turned him from a bigot into an active ally of the LGBT community. I could immediately identify. I also grew up as a Southern evangelical and had to change my opinions and attitudes about gays based on my experiences.
I wasn’t exactly a bigot toward gays growing up. I certainly wasn’t toward other races – my family was unusually progressive in that regard. I was simply ignorant. I believed the stereotypes and misinformation you get from most evangelical churches. Gays were perverts who purposely defied God. They were all promiscuous and would recruit little boys if they could. They were probably molested as children. And other such drivel. I just didn’t have any information to the contrary.
Most gay people in our small town were in the closet. Any socially awkward (like me, for instance – no girlfriend in high school) or effeminate boys were accused of being gay and if any of them were, they didn’t dare admit it. A gay person who came out in a place like that had a very strong chance of being disowned by his or her family. I wasn’t particularly down on gays, but I definitely told gay jokes and spread the occasional rumor. I’m sure I must have hurt a few people without realizing it.
If someone I liked was reputed to be gay, I would defend them by denying it. “Surely not? You can’t know that…” I was so ignorant and naive that I once tried to convince someone that Queen weren’t gay, based on the picture on the cover of The Game. “They can’t be gay, they’re wearing leather just like Fonzie!” Plus they rocked. Surely gay people couldn’t rock?
Once I got out in the world, went to college and got to know a lot of people who were different from myself, I wound up rethinking much of what I had been taught. I’m so glad I did, because it prepared me for the day that my own brother came out as gay. When the day came, I really didn’t care. He was the same awesome guy as ever, and relieved to get it out of the way. Mom was the same – her reaction was to ask if he wanted to go out to eat. It was basically a non-event.
So, what did I think of Cross in the Closet? In short: I loved it.
Kurek’s book isn’t perfect. I wasn’t sure what to think of his literary device of the “inner Pharisee” (though it makes an important point) and there were some typos that I understand will be corrected for the second edition. But Kurek is a good storyteller and I found his book genuine and moving. Kurek became a part of the Nashville “gayborhood” and got to know firsthand what it’s like to be part of a group he himself once helped persecute. He got to know the people as human beings who could be decent, loyal, and even in some cases deeply religious. He also learned about the frustration and pain of “the closet.” It was a brave thing to do and he emerged a better person.
There has been a bit of controversy about the book, particularly in the gay community. Deception is the main sticking point for some. He misled his family and his gay friends. Was it justifiable? A few have dug even deeper and questioned whether he has told the truth about his motivations. Did he REALLY conduct this experiment because he wanted to learn what it felt like to live as a second class citizen and become more empathetic, or was he just looking for a way to write a book that would sell?
I will cut him some slack for a couple of reasons 1) He was an evangelical Christian and as a former evangelical Christian myself I remember how complicated the concept of motivation could be. When you feel like you should do something, is it God telling you to do that thing or are you just listening to your own thoughts? It is also possible to want more than one thing at the same time. He was already an aspiring writer when he started this, so of course he was going to think of turning this into a book. 2) He’s young. He’s changing, trying to figure out what’s true and where he fits in the world. His religion wasn’t satisfying him and he decided a shock to the system was in order. He wanted to deprogram himself. And I think he has, at least to a large degree. He figured out the impulse to judge people was his indoctrination talking and not God talking. He did it one year, which is pretty impressive. It took me until well into my 30s to realize it. Some never figure it out.
And face it. If Kurek had written this book in some “more ethical way” as a lot of his critics suggest — interviewing LGBT people for example — none of us ever would have heard about it. Like it or not, the one-year experiment and reverse “coming out” gave Kurek a compelling story to tell, one that had bestseller potential. It’s hard to predict when something will become viral, why people go crazy over one idea or book or song while ignoring another that might be just as worthy. But when it happens, it happens. If it has a good outcome and I think this does, be thankful for it.
I see Kurek as part of a movement made up of former evangelicals who remain passionate about their faith, but are standing up and calling attention to some of the grievous damage the Religious Right has caused. Others include Jay Bakker (son of Jim Bakker), Frank Schaefer (son of Francis Schaefer), and David Blankenhorn (founder and president of the Institute for American Values and former gay marriage opponent).
I think Kurek is a natural rebel, something I can identify with. I went through a stage where I wanted to cure Christianity, make it a more tolerant, kinder and gentler religion. I took pride in the label of heretic and thought of myself as a reformer. Eventually I came to the conclusion that it just wasn’t true at all and couldn’t really be fixed, but I didn’t get there overnight and it wasn’t easy. Maybe Tim will get to that point in his life one day, maybe he won’t. (If he does become an atheist, he’ll have yet another lesson about closets.)
Despite my feelings about religion, I’m realistic. I know America will probably always be largely Christian. That being the case, I think it’s great that there are people like Kurek who see tolerance and kindness as a Christian duty. The more Christians like him, the better. And hopefully Cross in the Closet will give us a lot more of them.
And since this is a music blog, let me add the following reminder: