When ultra-conservative Christian Timothy Kurek came out as a gay man to his friends and family, the reaction was swift: confusion and silence.
What they didn't know was that Kurek wasn't really gay. He was beginning a yearlong experiment to see what life was like as a gay man in the Bible Belt.
Now living in Tacoma, Kurek, 26, has just released a book detailing the experience.
“The Cross in the Closet” came out Oct. 11 and has caused a media storm. He’s appeared on Barbara Walters’ “The View,” CNN, MSNBC, ABC, the BBC and dozens of other media outlets around the nation and the world.
“I didn’t have any idea it would take off like this,” Kurek said on Tuesday.
Four years ago, Kurek was working in his hometown of Nashville as a door-to-door pest control salesman and attending an independent Baptist church.
“I grew up as a hyper-conservative Christian. We thought Jerry Falwell was liberal,” he said.
One night outside a Nashville karaoke bar, a friend confided to Kurek that she was a lesbian and had been disowned by her family.
Kurek wasn’t sympathetic.
“She’s sitting there crying on my shoulder and I totally zone out and start thinking about all the ways I could explain Bible verses to her (and tell her) that she was an abomination.”
But Kurek said nothing to her that day.
As the days passed, Kurek began to examine his reaction to his friend’s coming out and, in turn, the belief system he was taught around homosexuality.
Kurek calls that time in his life “a spiritual kick in the gut. That was when the gears started turning.”
What Kurek had long thought to be true about gays and lesbians didn’t come from God’s teachings, he decided. Instead “that was two decades of programming,” he said.
Kurek decided the only way he could truly understand what it was like to be a sexual minority in a predominantly straight world was to actually live as a gay man. There was a hitch, however.
“I’m straight. I never once in my life questioned my sexuality,” he said.
In January 2009, Kurek came out as gay to everyone in his life: friends, family and church.
Kurek’s experiment was similar to one taken by white journalist John Howard Griffin for his 1961 book, “Black Like Me.” That book chronicles Griffin’s six-week experience traveling through the racially segregated South while posing as a black man. Griffin artificially darkened his skin in order to pass.
“It was about learning how the label of gay would impact my life,” Kurek said of his own experiment.
Only three people were in on Kurek’s secret. The first was his aunt “who monitored my mom to make sure she didn’t have a mental breakdown. Thankfully, she didn’t.”
The second was his best friend. “He was able to give me intel on what was being said about me behind my back.”
The third person was a gay man who pretended to be Kurek’s boyfriend and served both as a guide and an excuse to turn down romantic interests. “I had a ‘beard’ who taught me the ropes.”
While Kurek’s coming out was a feint, the closet he simultaneously entered wasn’t.
“I was in the closet (as a straight man) for a year. I couldn’t flirt with or date women. That was the worst part.”
Kurek spent the next year learning what it was like to live with a gay label. But he also learned what it was like to be someone he wasn’t.
“I learned how crushing and debilitating it is to be in the closet.” At the same time, “You have the potential to lose everything just by coming out and telling people who you are.”
His family had a rough reaction, Kurek said. His mother, he found out later, would have preferred terminal cancer over a gay son. But it was the reaction of his friends that hurt most.
“The vast majority of my friends just never spoke to me again. Like I never existed. That was the hardest part.”
The pastor of his church told Kurek that he had made a choice to be gay, “and I was free to come worship in his church – with the other sinners.”
During his year-long experiment Kurek was a barista at a gay café, competed on a gay softball team, and involved himself with pride events and AIDS walks.
“I tried to immerse myself. It was about listening to stories ... to see if what I was taught in the church was accurate or not.”
Eventually, Kurek realized he had been misled by his church.
“What they teach are a bunch of brutal stereotypes: sex fiends, child molesters, the evil gay agenda. It’s really sad.”
What struck Kurek the most during his time living in Nashville’s small “gayborhood” was how normal lesbians and gays were, he said.
About four months into the experiment, Kurek looked over a journal he was keeping and realized it read like a book. He insists a book was not his motivation for his experiment.
“I didn’t do this to capitalize off of people’s pain. My motive was to examine and question my religious training. In the end, it saved my faith. I’m still a Christian. I’m just more progressive,” Kurek said.
When Kurek finally revealed to both his gay friends and his family what he had been doing, the reaction was mostly supportive, including his mother’s.
“She was able to correlate it to ‘Black Like Me.’ That gave her a level of grace and understanding,” Kurek said. Most importantly, he said, she’s learned that Christianity and homosexuality are not mutually exclusive.
Kurek has been living in Tacoma for about six months. His publisher, BlueHead Publishing, is located here. He spent months holed up at Satellite Coffee near Wright Park, working on his manuscript for eight or nine hours a day.
No longer hindered by masculine stereotypes, Kurek says he now has a mix of straight and gay, Christian and non-Christian friends.
Kurek has taken praise and heat over his experiment. Some commentators in the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender community have welcomed him as an ally. Others say he’s simply trying to commodify a grand deceit and that there are plenty of LGBT authors who have a better insight into their own world.
Kurke doesn’t dispute some of that criticism. But, he says, the foundation of his story is its starting place in a heterosexual, Christian world.
“Everybody has a different angle and speaks to a different audience. This is my journey.”