A man has given a TEDx talk of his experiences in pretending to be gay for a year.
Timothy Kurek was raised as a devout Christian in a conservative family in Nashville, Tennessee. He even attended an evangelical university.
He had a very concrete view about homosexuality; it was wrong, sinful and an abomination, and he would happily quote you passages from the Gospels that he believed supported his view.
In his own words, he was a ‘Bible-banging homophobe’.
However, when a friend came out to him as a lesbian, and he saw how upset she was at being rejected by her family, he began to question whether his beliefs – which caused LGBT people so much pain – could truly be considered Christian.
He reflected on how, when he was a little boy, he didn’t hold the same views against people that he now viewed as ‘different’.
As a child, he would fearlessly and happily talk to strangers; he had no concept of the way society labels people.
He wondered if he needed to practice ‘walking in the shoes of the other’, in order to gain, as he puts it, ‘intentional empathy’.
As a result, he decided to take a bold step: to pretend to be gay for a year and to experience what it was like to come out in a conservative community.
Kurek wrote about his experiences and published a book, The Cross in the Closet, in 2012.
Earlier this year, he gave a TEDx talk at the University of the Aegean in Greece. TED talks began in 1984 as a platform for the sharing of ideas around technology, entertainment and design, but have since widened to include every topic under the sun. Video of the talk went up on YouTube last week and you can watch it below.
In the 18-minute presentation, Kurek reflects on the fact that as we age, people have a tendency to only surround themselves with others with whom they feel the same or regard as ‘normal’. He asks whether it possible to re-learn the practice of walking in the shoes of others.
That was the basis of his decision to pretend to be gay: he wanted some idea of what LGBT people go through when they come out to others, or at least as much as a straight man could ever truly experience.
He says what struck him most was not the outright condemnation and religious rebuke that he was expecting, but the sheer silence he was met with. Friends and family literally shrank away, leaving him feeling isolated and lonely.
‘Overnight I ceased to exist. The vast majority of my community closed their doors on me that day, and it felt as though I had died.’
Kurek’s experiment took place in 2009. He went to gay bars, joined a gay and lesbian softball team, volunteered at a gay Pride event, and got himself a job as a barista in coffee shop in a gay bookstore.
He says he received an education in the labels society imposes on people, and the fear those labels can create, ‘and their ruthless effectiveness in separating us from the other.’
Kurek, who married his wife Bethany earlier this year, says that he had something of an epiphany when he found himself standing outside an LGBT community center hosting a karaoke event.
Instead of hearing the music he was expecting to hear (‘Madonna, Cher…’), he found a drag queen singing a ‘praise song’ that he knew well from church.
‘Never in a million years did I think, as a straight Christian under cover in the gay community of Nashville, that I would hear that song, because I was taught to believe that gay people were Godless.
‘Yet there I stood, the “normal” of my past life confronting the same “normal” in a completely different community.’
One praise song was followed by another and Kurek witnessed, ‘one of the most intense worship sessions that I had ever heard.’
He was overcome with a ‘deep and profound sense of shame’, and realized that he had been led to believe a ‘vicious and ignorant stereotype that separated me from my neighbor.
‘My “normal” and other people’s “normal” are not all that different.’
We asked Kurek if anyone had reacted badly when he revealed to them that he had been lying about his sexuality, but he says not.
‘Almost everyone I knew during my year, reacted very positively when I came out as straight. It was much more gracious than the reaction from my evangelical family when they heard that I’d come out,’ he told Gay Star News.
‘Understandably, some people who hear about my year for the first time and have no knowledge of who I am, or my motives, are skeptical, but for the most part the reactions have all still been very positive.’