Timothy Kurek grew up in the kind of environment I fear most: a deeply evangelical household where kids are taught from an early age to hate and fear difference, learning from almost before they can walk that queer people are abominations responsible for horrible things.
He has a vivid memory of being taught about Sodom and Gomorrah as a very young child, and talks about how “years of instruction furthered this ideology [homophobia] in me,” how his hatred of the gay community was ingrained and reinforced from childhood.
These extreme evangelical iterations of Christianity scare the pants off me, I am not going to lie.
And then a gay friend came out to him after being violently rejected by her family, and he reacted like a lot of people in his position would: with hatred. Kurek rejected her, but then he started thinking, wondering if perhaps his ideology was the problem, not his friend. What happened next is what really fascinates me about his story; instead of feeling smug in his hatred and superiority, he started to question his beliefs, and he wondered if perhaps he had “a Pharisee inside of [himself].”
He started wondering how to confront that, and realized he’d need to do something pretty radical. Like a lot of evangelicals, he turned to the words and deeds of Jesus as a model.
The thing that impresses me the most about Jesus is that he was the most impressive example of empathy. He became something he wasn’t and walked in our shoes.
So he decided to live as gay for a year, walking in the shoes of the people he hated to come to a deeper understanding of what it’s like to be gay in US society. He came out to his family, worked in a gay cafe, played on a gay softball team, got called a faggot, and even had a fake boyfriend. And at the end of the year, he “came out” all over again as a straight evangelical Christian.
He wrote about his experiences in a book, “The Cross in the Closet,” chronicling his journey over the course of the year and what he learned. Unsurprisingly (to me, anyway), he learned that gay people are not evil, and he found wonderful, excellent, amazing people in the gay community. Including evangelical Christians who were extremely devout and committed to their religious faith, along with supportive people of all religious stripes.
His mother went from hating and fearing her son to being an ally of the gay community, and his life definitely changed forever.
What Kurek’s story illustrates is that so much of the fear, hatred and bigotry in this world comes from a place of lack of knowledge and exposure, paired with bigoted teachings to reinforce divides between social groups. Rather than meeting members of the gay community, worshiping in fellowship with them, and treating them as equals, the anti-gay corners of the evangelical community actively work to keep apart, to ensure that members of the church retain the idea that queer people are “abominations” who need to be converted, or punished, but certainly not loved.
We fear what we don’t know, and our instinctive reaction to being exposed to something we don't understand or feel commonality with is to lash out, to suppress it, to try to make it go away. It happens not just with evangelical Christians who hate gays, but with any number of groups determined to maintain a superior social position, and it has lasting, damaging effects that tend to compound over generations.
And yet, I still have mixed feelings over this whole “walking in their shoes” idea. While I think Kurek’s journey was obviously important and moving for him, and I’m excited that he’s talking about it and coming back to the evangelical community to, pardon the pun, evangelize –- to spread the word that gay people are not evil, to challenge homophobic views, I still wonder about his project.
Does playing gay really give you an insight into what it’s like to be gay? Kurek endured the surface experience of being gay, both the good and the bad. He was welcomed into the gay community, and he was taunted and discriminated against. But not actually being gay means that he didn’t experience the parts of being gay that are purely internal, the things that you wrestle with on your own in the middle of the night. He took a fieldtrip to gayland and it may have been informative and interesting, but I’m hesitant to say that he truly knows what it’s like to be gay, and that’s often how his story is being told.
I view his journey as more of an anthropological one; he lived among members of a community he wanted to understand more deeply and tried to closely mirror their experience and that was valuable. And important. But he didn’t quite “walk a mile in their shoes,” as they like to say; he lived for a year as something he wasn’t, and got a glimpse of life on the other side, but he’ll never truly know what it’s like.
Are these distinctions important? I don’t want to sound like I’m down on Kurek or his social experiment; I’m reminded of Kevin Roose, a secular liberal who went undercover for a year at Liberty University to understand the evangelical community and was surprised by what he found there. (Spoiler: Being evangelical doesn’t automatically mean you’re a bigoted hatewad.)
Both experiments were similar in nature and turned out to be valuable for their participants, who learned a lot about a community they didn’t understand and took their knowledge back to their own communities in an attempt to educate them and expand their minds.
But is this the only way to get people to stop being assholes to each other? To pretend to be somebody else for a year and write a book about it? How many people interact with Kurek or Roose and change their minds about communities they previously loathed and didn’t want to take the time to get to know? Or are they just reaching people who were already open-minded or at least on the fence?
I don’t know, and both of these cases also make me wonder about the people they deceived while embarking on their research. I know I would feel deeply betrayed to know that someone deep in my inner circle of friends was pretending to be someone else, was viewing me as a research project or tool for self-actualization. How do you balance the desire to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes with the need to respect the actual human beings you’ll be interacting with, to protect them from harm while undergoing your learning experience?
There's no human subject review board or ethics committee for experiments like this, like there is (or should be) in anthropology, and that worries me.