‘The Cross in the Closet’: Religious man goes ‘undercover’ as gay for one year to learn empathy

Jordana Divon
Shine On

"Walk a mile in someone else's shoes" is a phrase often said to those who show prejudice toward an individual or a group. And empathy is seen as the first step toward abolishing those very same hatreds and stereotypes.

In Timothy Kurek's case, however, the analogy would be closer to running an entire marathon in the shoes of the gay community he had been taught to hate by his conservative Christian upbringing.

"You learned to be very afraid of God," Kurek tells ABC News of his church. "The loving thing to do is to tell my friend who is gay, 'Hey, listen, you are an abomination and you need to repent to go to heaven.' I absolutely believed in that lock, stock and barrel."

Also see: Social media is more tempting than sex and cigarettes

As he documents in his book, The Cross in the Closet, the 26-year-old man decided to go "undercover" for one year as a gay man living in Nashville, Tenn. — part of the American South known as the "Bible Belt" for its strong evangelical demographic.

He says he was spurred to action after a church friend confided that her family had kicked her out when she revealed she was a lesbian.

"I feel God really kicked me in the gut," he continues. "She was crying in my arms and instead of being there for her, I was thinking about all the arguments to convert her."

This time, Kurek decided to go on a spiritual quest to learn empathy and understanding.

"In order to walk in their shoes, I had to have the experience of being gay. I had to come out to my friends and family and the world as a gay man," he tells the Observer.

Kurek, who studied at Virginia's Christian Liberty College, let three people in on his plan: his liberal-minded aunt and two friends.

One of those friends, a gay man named Shawn, pretended to be Kurek's boyfriend in order to shield him from unwanted advances from other men.

During his acclimation, Kurek went to gay bars, took a job in a gay café and joined gay sports teams.

Though he struggled — particularly through the loss of "95 per cent" of his friends and the disdain of his mother — Kurek persevered and stuck to his task.

Also see: 'International Day of the Girl' U.N. campaign aims to promote girls' rights

In the process, he made tons of new gay friends, overcame an initial "revulsion" to the lifestyle and even attended gay rights protests against the Vatican.

But he also saw the ugly side of humanity, the side that routinely hurtled derogatory and abusive slurs at him and made him feel excluded.

"When I was first called [faggot] for real, I lost it. I saw red. I felt so violated by that word," he tells the paper.

By the end of his project, Kurek's views had completely changed.

"I want this seen as a people issue," he writes in his book. "When we are shunning people, we are shunning Fred and John and Liz and Mary. These are human people."

Just as importantly, his mother, who initially wrote in her journal that she would rather have "terminal cancer" than a gay son, is now a fervent supporter of LGBT rights.