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I Posed as a Gay Man for a Year to Learn Empathy

I had a fake boyfriend and everything.
October 19, 2012, 7:00am

Evangelical Christian churches in Bible Belt America don’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to gay rights. The majority of worshippers seem to believe that (presumably with the help of that queer commie, Obama) gay people are going to bring around the end of society as we know it. But the thing that seems to frustrate them the most is that it could all be so easily stopped, because your sexuality is completely your own choice, right?

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That's what Timothy Kurek had been taught to believe throughout his childhood, until one of his best friends came out as a lesbian, casting doubt over his entire belief system. Instead of just Googling the topic, like I'm guessing the rest of us would if we were all bigoted homophobes going through a slow enlightenment, Timothy went whole hog and pretended to be gay for a year. An effort to understand what it's like to come out as homosexual in a conservative community.

Kurek turned that experience into a book, The Cross in the Closet, which has drawn fire for apparently being reductive and potentially offensive, but surely if it can tap into even a tiny chunk of that mass of xenophobic psyches and begin to change minds, that's a good thing. I spoke to Timothy about living a lie for a year and what it feels like to be ostracised by everyone you know for something you have absolutely no control over.

A slightly blurry Timothy with some of his new friends.

VICE: Before this whole experience, what was your perception of homosexuality?
Timothy Kurek: I was taught that gays and lesbians were sinners, that homosexuality was abominable and that gay people couldn’t be Christians. And I was led to believe that gay people had an agenda. I tried to convert any gay people I met. In fact, I had a childhood friend who came out of the closet and his mother phoned me, asking me to save him by preaching at him. He ended up becoming one of my best friends when I eventually realised the error of my ways.

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So, where you grew up, there was a sense that it’s not a choice – that it’s something that you can be cured of, like an illness?
Well, there are a lot of schools of thought about it. Sure, a lot of people do believe it’s a choice – I definitely did. Either that or a mental disorder. If you’re born gay, it was like people being born with a proclivity to lie, steal or become an alcoholic.

Considering those views were so ingrained in you, what was your catalyst for change?
I had a friend who came out as gay, which was greeted with disdain from a lot of the community. To be honest, I didn’t respond much better initially, but I had this kind of spiritual epiphany after she left. The voice in my head telling me to preach at her and attempt to convert her wasn’t God, it was this religious programming inside of me. I realised I needed to get rid of this programming and the only way to do that was to do something drastic. I needed to understand for myself what it was like to come out and have that label attached to you.

Sure, because I’ve read one article suggesting that pretending to be gay was maybe a bit unnecessary, when you could have just spoken to members of the gay community about their own experiences. 
I think that’s just a classic example of people reading half the story, so I’d love for them to actually read the book. I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but it’s easy to make judgements without knowing the whole story, just like I did. The fact is, in my previous state, there was no way I was going to listen to gay people. If I hadn’t have done what I did, there was no way I would have changed. I don’t know what other people’s upbringings were like, but I daresay mine was a little more conservative than most. I needed that radical element for it to work for me.

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I guess the radical nature of your approach must have alienated you from your whole community. Am I right in saying that only three people knew that you weren’t actually gay?
I got an email from a pastor when I 'came out', who used to be a friend of mine, saying that it was a choice, not a gene, and that I needed to go to church. I was told I was free to worship at his church with other "sinners", but I wasn’t allowed to serve it in any capacity. Not only did he rebuke me in the name of Jesus, he told me I was hanging out with the wrong crowd. The people from the church didn’t reach out and talk to me; it was like I just disappeared. I only had a few friends who were vocally against me, the rest just ignored me altogether. That hurt worse.

So it was a case of complete rejection without validation or closure?
I ceased to exist.

What about your close family?
I read in my mother’s diary that she would rather be diagnosed with terminal cancer than have a gay son. That obviously sounds like a terrible thing to say, but here’s the thing: part of the reason she said that is that she knows that we live in an intolerant culture and she knew that I was going to go through pain. She would rather experience pain herself than see her baby get hurt. I don’t want to demonise someone who I know, at the heart of it, loves me.

Am I right in thinking you managed to get her around to your new way of thinking?
I wouldn’t say that I did it myself, no. She had the most profound change of heart out of anyone I know and it wasn’t because I told her. I didn’t have to convince her of anything, she figured it out on her own.

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So do you think that anyone has the ability to overcome prejudice?
The thing about people is they want to become masters of their own existence and, by extension, want to control other people's existences. I realised that our impact on other people’s lives is a privilege, not a right. None of us have the right to attempt to form how other people live.

With your initial foray into the experiment, it must have been difficult to silence the programming you mentioned earlier?
I was so ignorant of gay culture. I didn’t really realise that the first time I went out in the gay community I shouldn’t have gone to an 18+ gay dance club.

That’s jumping in at the deep end a bit.
Exactly. Because of the prejudice I had hammered into me, it literally made me feel like I was going to throw up when I saw these men acting sexually towards each other. There was a bar next to the club called Tribe that I ended up adopting as my base. That was a much classier establishment for professionals to enjoy a cocktail after work, it wasn’t just somewhere for people to hook up and get their groove on to the latest Beyoncé track. Tribe was where I met my eventual pretend ‘boyfriend’, Shawn. Shawn was so helpful as a guide to teach me more about gay culture. I don’t think I could have done it alone.

Did you feel guilty at all for lying to all these people? Or worry that you were going to caught?
Well, the paranoia of wondering whether my secret was going to get out is the same thing that LGBT folks feel when they’re in the closet. I felt that paranoia, but, for the most part, they believed me. But when a hot girl walked past? I had to look down at my feet. I love women. Imagine a situation where you have to suppress your most basic emotions for fear of giving yourself away.

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So, in pretending to be gay in a gay community, you're somehow getting closer to experiencing what it’s like to be a homosexual in the closet?
Yeah, I always used to think about being a gay man in a locker room after football practice, or whatever. I used to think that lesbians and gays are really lucky because they just get to go and hang out and watch people they’re attracted to get naked. Then I realised that's a really hellish situation. If you’re in the closet in high school and you get an erection while you’re in a shower after gym, you’re going to get bullied or beaten up. I just didn’t really see it from that perspective and that was ignorance.

Conservative Christians get a lot of bad press and it's become acceptable to look down on religious people, do you think you book might help combat that?
I make a point in the book that conservative Christians are automatically viewed as hateful figures. Just because you interpret the Bible in a certain way, it doesn’t mean you’re a hateful bigot. Some of the kindest, most loving people I’ve ever met – who are kind to the gay community and would do anything for them – believe that being gay is a sin.

It’s a bit of a strange situation; people are torn between their love for Jesus and their own emotions. But, of course, if one gay guy has a negative experience with a Christian, it’s going to foster hatred, which is directed back at Christianity and also directed inwards towards other gay people. It’s a pretty messed up situation that can’t be handled in a simple way.

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So what’s your relationship with the Christian church now?
I don’t go to church any more, but I’ve still got friends who are believers and they’re still there for me in a heartbeat. I feel like the whole thing with organised religion is that it’s inherently flawed – it’s hard not to be a little jaded. I know I don’t have the means to influence some sort of massive overhaul, but I’d rather disassociate myself from it. I’m looked at negatively by a lot of people for my new direction, but that’s their own decision. Then again, this isn’t meant to be some massive criticism of the church; it’s more an exposé of myself. I just feel that if you focus on your own life rather than someone else’s, you’re going to be a lot better off for it.

Too right. Thanks, Timothy.

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