fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,

how two words changed everything (a review of Tim Kurek's "The Cross in the Closet")

What do you do if you're in your early twenties, living in Nashville, TN, a fundamentalist Christian, and hating the fact that you hate gays? Tim Kurek's answer was simple: come out of the closet. Even if you were never really in it.

In his upcoming book The Cross in the Closet, Tim tells the story of how a friend came out to him as a lesbian, one night at a karaoke bar. Actually, Lizzy wasn't so much coming out to him as looking for a little support. As Tim describes that night:

[Lizzy] reached up to wipe her eyes, allowing the sleeves of her sweater to slide down her wrists, and I could see that the silky white skin of her hands had already been stained by what I could only guess was smeared eyeliner. She had been crying a lot, apparently.

"My dad told me to get my stuff out of the house, and that he wouldn't pay another dime for the education of a 'faggot daughter'! And my mom told me to come back when I was fixed…" Her face found my shoulder, and my arms wrapped around her comparatively tiny body. She felt delicate, like papier-mache that had not fully dried and was still soft to the touch.

I betrayed her, then. I betrayed the soft creature crying endlessly on my shoulder.

It was a subtle betrayal, but a cruel one. I was silent.

She did her best to compose herself. "Now I have to leave. I'm moving to a friend's. She's my only friend that my dad doesn't have any control over. I'm going to Texas tomorrow…" Her voice trailed off.

Tell her what Leviticus says about homosexuality. Read her Romans 1! Go on, Tim, it is your responsibility as a follower of Christ to help her see the error of this choice. The voice inside me had a distinct tone. It didn't sound like me. It didn't even sound like it knew me, yet it was powerful and opportunistic. It was a voice of rejection, telling me to reject Elizabeth. I realized that I hated Lizzy. Not because she was a bad person, but because she liked other women. That one facet to her being was enough to spark remarkable animosity toward her, animosity I could not comprehend.

The Bible tells us to love one another as ourselves. How could this be the voice of Jesus? And if this voice wasn't Jesus, what voice was it? Whatever it was speaking to me, I knew it wasn't guiding me in love, and that could mean one thing. The voice had to die.

And so a project was born. Tim decided that in order to "kill" this voice, he had to learn to love gay people as himself. He decides, for a variety of reasons, that this can't just be about an intellectual affirmation. He needed to unlearn something that was a very deep part of his upbringing and learn to see these people as human first and as gay second. And for several reasons (I'll let him explain in his book), he decided empathy was the best path to getting to that point.

If you want to hear more about the book in Tim's own words, check out the "trailer" he filmed for the book. He does describes his project and its affect on him much better than I could. Beautiful.

Christians are often accused of being homophobic – afraid, or more properly put hateful, of homosexual individuals and homosexuality full-stop. I know that in my own Christian upbringing (as a UMC Methodist in the Carolinas, in the 1980s and 90s) I don't remember being told I had to hate homosexuals. Certainly I knew of other Christians who did, but that wasn't my experience. I was taught that the Bible condemned homosexual sex much as he condemned heterosexual sex outside of marriage. Gay marriage wasn't an option, to be sure (at least not religious gay marriage; opinions differed on civil gay marriage), and most people I knew would have encouraged gay people to live celibate lives. But were they evil? An abomination? Any worse than any other Christian who sinned (read: all of us)? Certainly not. I'm not going into whether my experience was authentic Christianity, or whether this added up to truly loving gay people – those are rabbit-holes too deep for this particular post. :-) My point here is, for me, it was enough to struggle with the issue of homosexuality as an issue. I could read my Bible, wrestle with commentaries and Greek roots and work out whether I thought the Bible actually said what I had been told it did on an abstract level. I did not need to unlearn my hatred or fear of gay people, simply because I never had that problem to begin with.

But I don't think my experience of Christianity is the version Tim lived. Reading the scene I quoted above and several other ones in the book, I can see why this year living with the label "gay" is a journey Tim needed to make. It's certainly courageous. Confronting your biases and misperceptions is hard, scary work – particularly when you think of those biases as part of who you are. Anyone can become an "ally" by accepting homosexual people as deserving the same rights the rest of us get without asking (and more people should take this step!). Tim, however, seems to be after something deeper here. He's trying to get beyond simply agreeing intellectually with those ideals, to having that sense of equality and worth deep in his soul. As I said, I think I always had that sense within me, at least when it came to homosexual people. But a lot of people don't, and I think the world would be better off if more people tried to develop it.

Ethics and deeper philosophy aside, it makes for one heck of a compelling story. It's deeply human. I laughed. I cried. I sat up reading late into the night. And as I read on I felt this deep sense of peace at the sight of another human reaching for a better, more aware kind of life.

Tim has said, emphatically and repeatedly, that he's not writing about the gay experience (if there even is such a thing). He repeats this once more in his book's introduction. He's not gay, and he only lived with the label for a year. But there are elements of his year as a gay man that mirror that experience. (Or seem to; I'm heterosexual myself so every bit as clueless as he is.) In order to really live this experience, Tim gives up dating and flirting with women for a year. Effectively, by pretending to come out of the closet, he closets himself for real. His experience of coming out to his family was also real in a gut-wrenching way. Tim knows at the time that, even once the year is over and he tells his family that he's not really gay, this "coming out" will change his relationship with them forever. And he has to deal with the rejection (and silence!) of friends, neighbors, and in particular a long-time pastor. There are some things we can't un-learn, and I think the realization that our place in our world depends on being straight is one of them. How do you go back to fitting in, after being so easily cast aside?

Of course, Tim's year as a gay man has a darker side to it, and in many ways it's the nine hundred pound gorilla in the room: he lied. Tim presented himself as a gay man to the LGBT community in Nashville, and he "came out" to his family and friends. He didn't lie to everyone (one friend in particular helped him figure out how to go about setting up his year), and I personally believe his dishonesty is far outweighed by the good consequences his year accomplished, for them and those around him (to say nothing of those who will read his book). But he did lie to a good number of people – relatively vulnerable people, either because they were close to him or because they'd already been rejected by their own families not accepting them. And I can see how a lot of people would be bothered by that fact.

In fact, I think your reaction to this basic premise is a good test of whether you should read this book or not. If you're skeptical but convincible, then I'd say give it a shot. Tim really does throw himself into this year as a gay man, going further outside his comfort zone than I think I'd have the guts to do, and he's unflinching in the way he portrays his own reactions. He's genuine, and he's brutally honest with himself and his readers. This makes for a compelling glimpse into a situation I'm not likely to experience any other way. But if this is an experiment you really can't imagine yourself approving of, then I probably wouldn't bother with this particular book. It's a visceral read for those with eyes to see it, but some people – for whatever reason, and I'm really not passing judgment here – simply aren't in that position. There are other books out there that can speak to those audiences better than this one. But for people in the first group (myself included), it was a book well worth the read.

One other caveat worth mentioning: I'm not kidding or exaggerating when I describe Tim's book as visceral. It's intense. Some people may find the writing style a bit too intense, even verging on over-the-top. I think this really depends on your personality type. I'm reserved enough that some scenes made me a little uncomfortable, almost like someone was standing too close to me at a party and telling me stories in a little-too-loud of a voice. But that very much depended on my mood when reading (at other times, the tone seemed like one of the book's greatest asset. I suspect this will hit different people different ways, and many of you will love this aspect of The Cross in the Closet. But this aspect did seem worth mentioning.

In the interest of full disclosure, I met Tim some time ago on FaceBook through a mutual friend. I've been following him over the last several months, discussing the book with him, and feel like I know him as a friend by this point. But as people from the Tolkien fandom will tell you, friendship is no guarantee of a soft review. (Quite the opposite – if I care about you I'm more likely to give your book more attention, which typically means a more detailed, critical review.) I'm recommending this book not because I like Tim but because I liked the book, and because I think it's a story worth getting out there.

You can order the book through the publisher, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or (as they say) wherever else books are sold. Btw, Tim's made the eBook version dirt cheap ($3 on Amazon) to help people who like to buy both electronic and paper versions.

If it sounds like the kind of journey you'd be interested in reading more about, do give it a chance. I'm glad I did.
Tags: psa, religion, sexuality
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