Timothy Kurek and the Problem of the ‘Straight Savior’: Thoughts on an Unredeeming Social Experiment

This piece originally appeared on 10/25/12 at The Huffington Post.

As a gay Christian who grew up internalizing anti-gay theology, I can do without Timothy Kurek attempting to describe any aspect of what I endured. It’s unacceptable for him and his book to appropriate and distort gay identity, even for the sake of reaching out to homophobic audiences. Despite attempts to position the book as a story of triumph over homophobia, The Cross and the Closet creates an illusory interpretation of how many gays experience Christian communities and everyday life.

The most troubling aspect of this project is that it’s being hailed by various media outlets and reviewers as an intriguing and even revolutionary social experiment — one that will earn Kurek a profit from book sales. Per his statements, a percentage of the proceeds are going to charities that help homeless LGBT youth. For many, this is a redeeming aspect of Kurek’s experiment and subsequent book deal.

Kurek claims that after witnessing the anguish of a friend who tearfully revealed her lesbian identity and told him that she’d just been disowned by her parents, he felt troubled by his desire to “convert” her with scriptures typically used to admonish gays. And so he embarked on a yearlong quest to walk a mile in a gay person’s shoes. While Kurek may have been earnest in his efforts to understand and even help, the implications matter as much as, if not more than, the deed itself. First and foremost, any experiment or intervention should be operated according to the principle of “do no harm.” Amid all the praise and acclaim, what’s not being examined is how actions like these have potentially large consequences, both for LGBT communities and potential allies.

It’s problematic to enter into this type of experimental undertaking without full awareness or consideration of the tensions between groups that are often at odds. Not only is Christianity a privileged religion in American society, but it has enshrined its institutionalized homophobia and transphobia in our legal system via political leaders who legislate with botched interpretations of scripture. And more often than not, those leaders are straight men. So for one such man to conduct spiritual espionage under a “gay” disguise means that he operated with the privilege of sexual and religious identifications often implicated in committing injustices against LGBT people. And that very privilege is the lens through which he examines the experiences of gay people and then publishes his thoughts for the world to consume.

After his participation in anti-gay church communities and his brief attendance at Liberty University, he should have already known what to expect after “coming out” to family and friends. While he experienced social isolation and a number of other marginalizing experiences, these were attacks on the false label he wore, not on who Kurek really is. Plenty of gay people yearn for the day when they can share a story that’s five, 10 or 20 years in the making, but they can’t, because they fear losing their families, friends and even their homes and livelihoods — for more than just one year. Kurek also bypassed the years of mental anguish and internalized homophobia that many gays suffer through. He was exempt from nights spent crying about a God who doesn’t love him for who he is. Instead, he could sleep assured of the “rightness” of his sexual identity, without praying a single prayer that God would change him to be straight and save him from eternal damnation. He didn’t face the prospect, let alone the detrimental effects, of reparative therapy. Gay identity cannot and should not be reduced to a mere label that one can wear and take off at one’s own convenience, yet this is afforded to Kurek in his privileged status as a straight, Christian man.

This book may encourage homophobic readers to reconsider their prejudices, which I truly hope may happen. For many, it will be the first encounter with a narrative of gay experiences, but that narrative is told from the perspective of a straight man’s yearlong experiment, not from a firsthand account. Not only does this oversimplify gay identity, but it may perpetuate stereotypes that community outsiders may otherwise not examine because the storyteller is straight. Conservative Christian readers, without an alternate frame of reference (other than their own homophobic beliefs), may take Kurek’s observations and conclusions at face value, thus validating them, because his voice is perceived as one of their own, not one of the many gay voices already offering constructive commentary and firsthand experiences. After reading this book, people who otherwise might have been helpful new allies could emerge viewing LGBT people as helpless victims who lack the agency and empowerment for self-advocacy and change from within. To do so would be to ignore the rich legacy and impact of the LGBT movement, especially within faith communities.

Kurek may have exercised a degree of caution by having gay people with whom he could process his field observations, but many voices were already available to Kurek in books written by LGBT Christians and others who have become allies, people who penned their stories without needing to appropriate assumptions and stereotypes about gay life in order to draw poignant conclusions. But rather than defer to voices of expertise in the subject matter he was approaching, Kurek apparently felt that this experiment was his best recourse to understanding what gays experience. I’m heartened that he emerged as an ally, but I feel that it is arrogant for him or any other straight person to somehow believe that all it takes is living under a label to understand gay experiences.

Probably not coincidentally, the book’s release coincided with National Coming Out Day. On an occasion when many LGBT people reflect on their own journeys and others share who they are with loved ones, Kurek offered his story of “coming out” only to return to his comfortable position of privilege. In the end, The Cross and The Closet is a botched social experiment that operates on myths about gay identity in order to sort through the prejudices of an unlikely straight protagonist. One can only hope that, in some way, Kurek’s story changes minds. But will it have all been a waste if readers come away with distorted ideas about gay experiences, or even if they have their privilege validated?

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

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