The irony of reading this book is that back in November, when I first heard of Tim Kurek, the writer of The Cross in the Closet, my brother, a staunch conservative Christian, removed me from his facebook friends. This was prompted by my posting of a video about Tim’s book, and later criticizing a website my brother promoting ‘family values’—an anti-gay marriage organization. I objected to posting the organisation’s website to my newsfeed, and his defence was ‘I have to see all the pro-gay ones you post.’
The book tells the story of one year in Tim’s life. Raised strictly Baptist, in the American Midwest, he starts off as a belligerent scripture-spouting bigot who commences the first chapter tangling with a gay rites activist on his theological college campus. Later that week, a friend of his comes out to him as a lesbian—and rather than support her, he rejects her. So far so expected, but the aftermath of this convicts him in his own ways, and he decides to embark on an experiment to truly understand being part of the LGBT company. He comes out to his family and friends, and lives his life for a year as a gay man, experiencing the trials and difficulties of coming out, the conflicts with faith and family and the surprising moments of support and epiphany amongst the troubles.
I’ll tackle one of the major objections straight out of the gate. Plenty of critics took offense at this. Does pretending to be gay for a year translate as understanding being in the closet for most of your life and the terror of rejection or the subtle ways the difficulties can manifest even after a smooth transition? No, but everyone’s experience is completely different anyway, and I would argue that many of the people I’ve talked to about those years in their lives probably don’t fully understand the individual experience it was for me in my particular brand of upbringing, and I probably don’t understand theirs either. If you read the book you’ll recognize a great deal of truth in the emotions he experiences when it comes to coming out to his family, with just as much to hang on the line. As far as I’m concerned, he’s incredibly brave, and his story is pretty damn inspiring.
Other critics also seemed to have some sort of ideological objection, as if the process is intrinsically insulting. I suppose you can take the point—imagine someone blacking up and writing a book about experiencing racism? That kind of issue is more for the gender theory student; more than anything else this is a book about taking everyone on their own basis without any overriding dogma or agenda or assumed beliefs.
There are moments of complete beauty in the book—that slightly nervous recognition of feelings and experiences, and taking a delight in watching the slow unraveling of his preconceptions and bigotry. His experiences with his family I find the most fascinating; his mother struggles with his coming out, but is overjoyed to welcome him back when she rumbles his game halfway through. His brother, meanwhile, is supportive until he discovers the experiment where he feels betrayed by the lies. The pain Tim feels at negotiating his relationships whilst staying true to his cause and his conviction is sometimes difficult to read. The mother especially struck a chord—in many ways she is reminiscent of my own; they moved from initial rejection and condemnation to a begrudging acceptance rooted in motherly love. What Cross in the Closet highlights is the myriad ways that even in the small things can be painful reminders of a life viewed as invalid and wrong, which is probably difficult for a huge amount of readers to ever understand.
And then there’s the sense of community and acceptance Tim feels when he ventures onto Church Street, Nashville’s gay area. Almost, crazily, to the point where I was annoyed at how many inspirational LGBT people he met. They cannot all be saints! Church Street gives us the whole gamut of new-to-the-scene experience—couples trawling for threesomes, a hilariously awkward dancefloor grope, the meeting of beautiful and amazing strangers, one tentative experimental kiss with a boy, and a beautifully written transcendental moment with Drag Jesus (read the book, you’ll understand.)
As for religion, he manages to strike the right balance. The book is neither dogmatic, nor so tepidly shorn of Biblical reference that it could be read as avoiding the issue. He’s well-versed, and part of the fascination is watching his approach soften from using scripture to do battle and into using it to love others and embrace variety. The over-riding message is really summed up by a quote from Billy Graham that is used in the book: God’s job to judge, the Spirit’s to convict, and mine is only to love. That’s Tim’s closing message (and it’s opening, and constantly reiterated throughout, to be fair.)
Which brings me back to the irony of timing. A good portion of the book is concerned with Tim’s estrangement from his brother over their opposing views. I was pretty incensed at the time at the insensitivity of posting anti-gay marriage videos to a news feed that included me. I likened it to posting support of the BNP when your friends list includes your adopted black brother. I hadn’t really thought about posting my own views to his—such as Tim’s video that openly criticized the Christian church for their attitude to LGBT people. At the end of the book Tim returns to a church only to realise he’s simply switched his prejudices the other way; he find himself predisposed to mock and criticize the people because he disagrees overall with their behavior.
And then he remembers that any group is just people—it’s always about that person, their fears, their joys, their journeys and experiences. And when you look at things like that, what choice do you have but to love them? The whole book is a lesson most of the human race could really use.