Timothy Kurek used to think being gay was the ultimate sin. Raised in Tennessee, he attended a Southern Baptist church, was home schooled most of his childhood and went to a private Christian school where his fellow church members were teachers or administrators. He was taught that gay was like the scarlet “S” — the sin of all sins.
“After all, God destroyed two cities over it,” he said.
Kurek was a self-proclaimed bully. The same kind of bully, he said, you read about in the news when a kid commits suicide for being gay.
Then, a friend came out to him one night during karaoke.
“My response to her coming out was totally not spirit lead or of the spirit, it was totally something else,” Kurek said about his friend who had been kicked out of her home, stripped of a college fund and told by her mother to come back when she was fixed.
“When you come into somebody’s life, you’re playing a role in their life and their story,” Kurek said. “I thought I was doing the loving thing by trying to convert my gay friends … but I didn’t realize with all the other crap that they’ve had to face, I was pushing them away from God in that process.”
Kurek was acquaintances with a woman named Connie Waters of Memphis, a straight woman who parted from the United Methodist Church when they upheld their decision to exclude gay people from their congregation.
She watched Kurek struggle with his stance on homosexuality.
“I saw the jokes he made at the beginning that he didn’t see as hurtful, but that he saw as observations. He’d laugh about it. It’d bothered me, but I knew that he was trying,” Waters said.
Kurek eventually had a change of mind.
“I watched him realize the damage that he had done,” Waters said. “And work to be more aware of other people that are different than him.”
He began to question the voice inside his head that told him gay people were the enemy and decided to try an experiment.
For one year, Kurek, a straight man, came out as a gay man. He told all his friends and family he was gay, leaving only his best friend and a few people, including Waters, with the knowledge that this was only a test.
And now, he’s written a book about it called “The Cross in the Closet.”
The gay year
“(My family) acted as loving as they knew how, but they didn’t know how to process how to have a gay brother or a gay son,” Kurek said. “All being very conservative people, we were all kind of held captive to this mindset that you can’t be gay and be a Christian.”
He wanted to do as much as he could as a straight man to understand what LGBT folks go through when they come out. To experience that fear as tangibly as possible, Kurek said he had to “come out” to his family.
“(My mom) said she would rather have been told she had terminal cancer and have two months to live than have a gay son,” Kurek said about one of his mother’s journal entries.
Kurek worked as a barista at Revive — a gay cafe in what he called a local “gayborhood.”
Being at a cafe, Kurek got to meet families with two dads or two moms and gay Christians, clubs and groups — what Kurek said an average Christian would not think of when they hear the word “gay.”
He also experienced the bar scene.
Kurek had a pretend boyfriend — his only acquaintance at that time that was actually gay.
“I went from the pew to a dance floor — having a guy basically dry humping me on the dance floor without his shirt on with glitter all over to a Beyonce song,” he said. “I didn’t want to turn everyone down and I needed an excuse (for turning people down) … I needed someone to teach me how to flirt.”
While he was openly “gay,” his experience was temporary, feeding him with a sense of relief at the end of the day.
“Everything I experienced, I filtered through the lens that this is temporary,” he said.
Kurek said that made it even more eye opening, that for gay people, this feeling was not temporary.
“If I’m experiencing this much heartache and angst … how much worse would it have to be (to be gay),” he said. “My experiment gave me more perspective in any other way than a straight man, but it still didn’t give me the big picture.”
Marj Johnston of Dayton’s First Congregational Church, the church’s first gay pastor, learned of Kurek’s experiment.
“I thought one, what is he nuts?,” she said. “Why would you intentionally do that? The other thought was a bit more frustration. What value could he see lying about being a gay person, when most of us gay people have to lie about being straight?”
But Kurek did find a value in his facade.
Coming out Christian
“The main thrust of my journey was to reconcile homosexuality and Christianity,” Kurek said. “Can somebody be gay and be a Christian? Do I believe that’s possible? The scales fell off my eyes and I figured it out.”
Kurek discovered what he had been looking for.
“I don’t believe that being gay is a sin anymore,” Kurek said. “I think that sexuality is like a gun, you can use it for good or you can use it for bad.”
After his experiment Kurek “came out” again, this time as a straight man to his family and friends.
“I was in the closet wholeheartedly as a straight man,” he said. “That’s why we chose the name ‘The Cross in the Closet’ for the book. God gives everyone their cross to bear, and I never thought I’d find mine in the closet.”
His mom experienced relief when he came out straight and as for some of his old friends, he left them behind.
“It’s (not a temporary thing) when you’re losing a lot of friends because they think you’re gay, because they can’t endorse your decisions,” he said. “They’d say, ‘When you repent of your homosexuality and come back to Christ, we’ll be back here waiting for you. Until then we can’t be in community with you.’ … People I thought loved me, were able to kick me to the curb and it hurt a lot. Not a single person from my church reached out to me. I was kind of dead to the church.”
Kurek also had to “come out” straight to the people he had met along the way. While most of the reactions were positive, he wondered if his new gay friends would have been as open with him, if they had known he was straight. Especially if he was writing a book about them.
“I had to be delicate and thoughtful to what I said and how I behaved, but … also the content that I put in there,” he said. “There are a lot of things I could have written about, but didn’t because I wanted to protect the trust they had given me without knowing it … I don’t want anyone to feel like I was capitalizing on their pain.”
Reflecting on the past
Now 26-years-old, Kurek’s home is in Portland, a drastic change from his Tennessee home. His book was released today, which is National Coming Out Day.
“In the Pacific Northwest, even the conservative churches … are very, very community minded and they don’t preach a bunch of anti-gay rhetoric,” he said. “They just want to be in community with everyone.”
Kurek said the mindset is different in the south as Waters, who formed her own Tennessee church dubbed New Bridge Faith Community, agreed.
“In the south, you don’t have to have any education to say you want to go up and preach — they’ll go up and ordain you,” Waters said. “Whatever they heard preached, is what you preach. It’s generation after generation of not thinking.”
Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane Rev. Todd Eklof took a stand back in Kentucky, after the state became one of the first to ban same sex marriage.
“As an individual minister, I have not performed a wedding since 2003, because I won’t perform weddings until I’m free to do weddings for everyone,” Eklof said.
But banning homosexuals from marriage and church isn’t just a southern thing.
“It’s human nature, maybe even animal nature … to intensify hate that is filled by fear for anything that is different … and it is our behavior that generally keeps us safe,” Eklof said. “We have a fear of the strange.”
While Waters calls it ignorance as opposed to fear, Johnston attributes the ban of homosexuals to the lack of questioning the bible.
“However, that really is a path of traditionalism and literalism that one, isn’t healthy and two, isn’t accurate” Johnston said. “And we’re not the first people to question it. The more we learn through scholars and the more we learn about cultures, the more we realize that people were telling the stories in narrative and oral traditions that we still try to dream about and they made sense of in their time, the best way they could.”
Waters said there needs to be an opportunity for people to incorporate their own reasoning.
“Let us be the ones that interpret our scripture,” Waters said. “Scripture is a living scripture and it progresses with our society as our society progresses.”
Johnston understands that there are biblical literalists though.
“God said it, I believe it, that says it … I can believe it literally and accept it literally, we don’t have the obligation to live by the law,” she said.
But Kurek said the bible should be taken from a historical context.
“Don’t ever let your interpretation of scripture hinder your ability to be in a genuine community with anyone who’s different from you,” Kurek said. “And you can’t just isolate yourself and only participate in things and socialize with people who agree with everything you believe.”
And into the future
Johnston feels pretty skeptical about Kurek’s change of heart.
“I doubt somebody’s ability from being that much of a bully to being a changed person,” … But if he can translate that experience into something that lessens the people that bully that faith, I give him great kudos for having given the effort … He can go places that I can’t go, or other people that are part of the tradition can’t go and have conversation.”
And Waters said he has.
“In Portland, he was the only straight man at his church … He was the only straight one there and he was completely comfortable with it,” she said. “That is so beautiful that he had come that far.”
“When you recognize that gay is a label, there is a lot more to a person than their orientation, it is more conducive to community and you’ll learn a lot more than you ever thought,” Kurek said. “No gay person was ever more sex driven than the average man. Then you realize that the vast majority are living quiet personal respectable lives in the suburbs.”
He added that he wanted to be realistic about his experience though. In his book, he doesn’t want to label all Christians as being a certain way, because otherwise it would be the same as he did before with gay people.
“I’m not trying to tell people what to believe, I’m just trying to share my stories and this is how these people changed my life and my beliefs,” Kurek said. “The book is a platform for this continued mission that I feel that God has called me to, that is to bridge between the conservative community and the LGBT community. The ultimate message for me is love: Love thy neighbor as yourself. Believe what you want, but if you can believe those things and not be a jerk, then you’ve successfully accomplished what a lot of people haven’t been able to in the last 20 years.”
*Marj Johnston and Tod Ekloff are contributors for SpokaneFAVS
Lindsey Treffry is a journalism student at the University of Idaho.