The closet is a dangerous place.
For LGBT folk who have kept their sexual orientation a secret, the effects are myriad, and most people who come out remember the process vividly. It can be a time of turmoil, liberation and sometimes alienation, but it is a rite of passage that is essential to many LGBT people’s life stories. That is why the title “The Cross in the Closet” intrigued me and more importantly, the subtitle “One Man’s Abominable Quest to find Jesus in the Margins.”
Provocative stuff? Yes, but not as provocative as the premise of the book. The author, a straight man, lived for a year as a gay man, coming out to his family, friends and colleagues. He wanted to see what it was like to be identified as gay. That got my attention.
When I found the author, Timothy Kurek, was a student at Liberty University, the notorious hard-line fundamentalist college founded by Jerry Falwell, I was more intrigued. Kurek realized that his characterizations of LGBT people were troubling and he wanted to know the truth.
The story might seem familiar to those of us who grew up during the Civil Rights struggle. White journalist John Howard Griffin sought a greater understanding of the realities of being black in America, so he underwent treatments to turn his skin dark and he immersed himself in the African American community. His landmark book, Black Like Me is still in circulation and is a unique window into the times.
Kurek in his own way immerses himself in the LGBT community, starting in his home town of Nashville, Tennessee, where he comes out to his family and friends with predictable results. Fireworks.
His life is turned upside down as he finds out the reality of living as a self-identified gay man. Only a close friend and a gay man he befriended while hanging out at a Karaoke Bar know his secret. The gay friend agrees to act as his boyfriend to both tutor him in “how to be gay” and to act as a foil for any unwanted sexual advances.
Now for the reader who is looking for dirt, you won’t find any in this book. What you will find is a very interesting perspective of a man who is a “closet straight” for a year. What you will also find is a touching and deeply personal story of how a fundamentalist Christian deals with a crisis of faith.
Kurek finds that the demonized image of the LGBT community was as much a myth as the idea that all Christians are closed-minded and judgmental. He makes his way into the LGBT community in Nashville and finds that there are a good number of LGBT Christians there, something he never expected to find.
Not surprising is the abundance of “church speak” Kurek uses. Remember he comes from a deep background of Bible quoting education, so there are lots of references to Biblical passages and principals, but don’t let that put you off. During his year Kurek gains insights into not just the LGBT community, but to his own faith and what it means to follow Jesus.
By the end of the book, he has not only had a change of heart regarding what it means to be gay, but he finds a deeper understanding of what it means to be straight as well.
Overall, this is destined to be a book that will be quoted for years to come. Kurek’s journey of discovery resonates in ways that are unexpected and profound. It is an epic tale as he meets some amazing and wonderful characters including Christian activist Dr. Mel White and the far-right firebrand, Shirley Phelps, (yes that Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church).
Kurek eventually comes back out of his self-imposed closet, and again the results are profound, but this time in ways he never imagined. The Cross in the Closet changed how I looked at fundamentalist Christians perhaps as much as they way Kurek might have once looked at gay men.