Timothy Kurek's motivation to spend a year pretending to be gay can be boiled down to a simple conviction: it takes drastic change to alter deeply held religious beliefs.
The experiment began after a lesbian friend opened up to Kurek about being excommunicated by her family. All Kurek, an avowed evangelical Christian, could think about, he says, "was trying to convert her."
He was quickly disgusted by his own feelings, more pious than humane.
In fact, Kurek was so disgusted by his response to his friend that he decided to do something drastic. Living in Nashville, Tennessee, he would pretend to be gay for a year. The experiment began on the first day of 2009; Kurek came out to his family, got a job as a barista at a gay café and enlisted the help of a friend to act as his boyfriend in public.
The experience -- which stopped short of Kurek getting physically intimate with other men - is documented in Kurek's recent book "The Cross in the Closet," which has received international attention, landed him on ABC's "The View" and elicited some biting criticism.
The book is the latest entry on a growing list of experiential tomes revolving around religion. They include Rachel Held Evans' recent "A Year of Biblical Womanhood," in which the author follows the Bible's instructions on women's behavior and Ed Dobson's "The Year of Living Like Jesus," which had the author "eat as Jesus ate. Pray as Jesus prayed. Observe the Sabbath as Jesus observed."
For Kurek, his year as a gay man radically changed his view of faith and religion, while also teaching him "what it meant to be a second-class citizen in this country."
A yearlong lie
For years, Kurek says, the only life he had was "his church life." Being an evangelical Christian was his identity.
He was home-schooled until seventh grade, almost all of his friends were from church and his social life was a nightly string of faith-based events, from church sports to a Christian Cub Scout troop. "It was the only thing I was used to doing," said Kurek, who attended Liberty University, the largest evangelical university in the world, before dropping out after freshman year.
Kurek grew up in an "independent Baptist church." "We were evangelical," he said, "but we were more conservative than evangelical, too."
His churchy lifestyle led to some deeply held views about homosexuality. Most evangelical churches condemn homosexuality as sinful. Many rail against certain gay rights, like gay marriage.
"I had been taught to be wary of gays," Kurek writes of his beliefs pre-experiment. "They were all HIV positive, perverts and liberal pedophiles."
Those views began to be challenged in 2004, when he first encountered Soulforce, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights group, on Liberty's campus. The group made the school an important stop on its cross-country tour targeting colleges that they alleged treated LGBT people unfairly.
Kurek was struck by what he had in common with the protesters at Liberty. "It really impressed me that people who were coming to push their agenda were able to do it and be so nice about it," he said.
His doubt about Christianity's condemnation of homosexuality, Kurek writes, was "perfected" in 2008, when a close friend recounted the story of coming out to her family and being disowned.
"I betrayed her, then," writes Kurek. "It was a subtle betrayal, but a cruel one: I was silent."
His recognition of that betrayal, he writes, led him to believe that "I needed to come out of the closet as a gay man."
"I believe in total immersion," Kurek says in an interview. "If you are going to walk in other people's shoes, then you are going to need to walk in your shoes."
To ensure the purity of his project, Kurek says, he had to lie to his deeply religious family about being gay, something that troubled him throughout the year.
"I felt like they loved me but they didn't know how to deal with me," he says. "They didn't understand how to handle having a gay brother or sibling."
In the book, Kurek recounts learning that his mother wrote in her journal that she would rather have been diagnosed with cancer than have a gay son. That experience and others left Kurek feeling outcast by people he loved, confused about his new life and conflicted about past religious beliefs.
Kurek was living a lie. And even though he was conflicted by his family's reaction to his new lifestyle, he was longing to be honest with them.
It's no surprise that the "The Cross in the Closet," has spurred strong reaction, especially from the LGBT community.