Is it possible to love and hate a book at the same time?
That’s what I’ve been struggling with for the past week, after reading Timothy Kurek’s book The Cross in the Closet. As a gay man I find the premise of the book — Tim, a straight man from a fundamentalist Christian background, “going undercover” as a gay man for a year — deeply offensive. Candace Chellew has written a great article at Religion Dispatches that echoes my own uneasiness about Tim’s “experiment” and the publicity he is receiving for his book. I would add another factor, the one that troubles me the most: the fact that the book is fundamentally rooted in dishonesty.
As those of us know who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, the coming-out process is a journey from dishonesty (a closet of isolation that is imposed upon us, either by our own fears or by a surrounding culture or religious subculture that tells us it’s unsafe to come out of that closet) to honesty (the life-giving freedom to accept ourselves as we are, as God created us). Many of us who have made that journey end up with a radical commitment to honesty in all areas of our lives. That means we sometimes come across as loud or even obnoxious in proclaiming our truth — sometimes to the chagrin of family members or others who tell us we’re “hung up on being gay.” No, what we’re hung up on is honesty, because we know honesty is the one thing that has given us our freedom. We know the truth of John 8:32 (“the truth will set you free”) in a very real way. One of Tim’s supporters during the course of his year-long experiment was Mel White, a gay man who, like Tim, also came from a fundamentalist background. When Tim tells Mel about the experiment and says “I’m just hesitant about lying to the people I’ll meet,” he quotes Mel as saying, “Well, in this case, I think it might be safe to say that the ends could justify the means.” I have a lot of respect for Mel White and the important work he has done through SoulForce, but I have to admit, I was disturbed by his “blessing” on Tim’s experiment.
Yes, many in the LGBT community have embraced Tim’s book, but many of us are viscerally offended by the dishonesty inherent in his experiment, and we do not believe the ends justify the means. Tim is fully aware of his dishonesty, acknowledging throughout the book that he lied to people. One of the most gut-wrenching parts of the book is when his brother and sister-in-law find out about the lies and are deeply hurt by Tim’s dishonesty. Tim’s response to his brother, “I can’t apologize for my experiment, but I am truly sorry you were hurt,” comes across as the kind of semi-apology we have come to expect from politicians.
Some of Tim’s attempts at humor throughout the book also come across, I’m sure unintentionally, as offensive: like his chapter title “I Kissed a Boy and I Didn’t Like It,” or the passage about a Gay Pride parade in which he wishes the lesbians would join the gay men in taking off their shirts.
But there are parts of Tim’s book that I truly loved. Early in the book he describes his reaction to a friend who comes out to him as a lesbian. The description of how her family rejected her, and the honesty with which Tim described his own homophobia and how deeply disturbed it made him feel, moved me to tears.
I also appreciate how Tim writes about his activism with SoulForce, going into detail about the principles of non-violent activism (in the chapter “Living in the Tension”). I hope all who read this book will be moved to learn more about SoulForce and other organizations that teach and practice Kingian non-violence.
I also loved the way Tim imagined his homophobia as a character in its own right, “The Pharisee” who argues with Tim throughout the book. It reminded me of Dexter Morgan’s relationship with his “Dark Passenger” in the “Dexter” novels. In his conversations with The Pharisee, Tim rises to a level of honesty that prevents me from dismissing his book as a whole. If Tim had immersed himself in gay culture in a more honest and open way, without deception the way Emily Timbol did I think Tim could have used his conversations with The Pharisee to write a book that was even more compelling than the one he did write.
One of the things I’ve learned during my own activism with the Occupy movement is that there is a huge difference between unity and solidarity. Unity involves agreement; solidarity involves acknowledging disagreements while working together for a common good. For example, I can never have unity with the Tea Party movement because I disagree with much of what they stand for, but I can march alongside Tea Party members in rallies protesting specific injustices — and I have done so, along with others in Occupy Atlanta. We did so not in unity but in solidarity, as we worked together toward specific goals we have in common.
How does that apply to Tim Kurek’s experiment and his book? While I can never stand in unity with Tim or his deceptions, I can (and do) stand in solidarity with him as an ally of the LGBT community and as a fellow brother in Christ. I believe Tim has a wide and embracing heart, and I am grateful for any hearts that might be opened as a result of reading Tim’s book. I only wish he had chosen a different course, one that did not involve dishonesty and deception. Many of us in the LGBT community feel we do not have the luxury of using dishonesty as a means to any ends, no matter how noble those ends may appear.