By Ben Cohen: I come from a middle class, multicultural area in south London where I grew up with parents who read left wing newspapers and talked to me about things like social equality and evolutionary science. My brother and I were left to our own devices in terms of beliefs about God and spirituality, and I remember thinking religion seemed like a pretty silly thing at the time. I saw the debate between science and religion as being fairly black and white, and I chose science as the foundation of my understanding of the world rather than religious scripture.
Aged 21 I moved to Corvallis, Oregon for a year abroad during college where I was suddenly immersed in an overwhelmingly evangelical Christian, white, conservative culture where pro war marches on campus were a common occurrence. Most of the students in my 'Intro to Politics' class did not believe in evolution and thought Saddam Hussein caused 9/11. I literally thought I was living on Mars. To compound my confusion, I began dating a Christian girl whose father was a pastor and held completely opposing views to pretty much everything I believed in.
It was an eye opening experience that totally changed my views on religion, religious people and how to come to terms with those whose beliefs do not square with my own. I'm still liberal, I'm still pro-choice and I believe in evolution. But I count myself as an agnostic and I do not think that Christians are crazy, stupid or evil for believing otherwise. The people I met in Corvallis were wonderful, warm and intelligent and they had much to teach me about the world that I thought I understood so well.
Being forced to confront a culture totally alien to my own was one of the best things that ever happened to me and I will forever remember my time there when it comes to the way I treat people with different views to my own.
When I heard the story of Timothy Kurek, a hardcore, gay hating evangelical Christian from Nashville Tennessee who was so shaken by his friend's admission that she was a lesbian that he decided to go under cover as a gay man for a year so that he could understand what had happened to her, I couldn't help but draw a parallel between his experience and mine. I had never pretended to be an evangelical Christian, but I was deeply immersed in Christian conservative culture and had to do my best not to stick out like a sore thumb. Kurek's experience was obviously a lot more extreme than mine, and the bravery he showed in not only engaging with the gay community but becoming a part of it was something I couldn't even begin to fathom.
Kurek came out to his own family and church, became deeply involved gay life in Nashville, and even talked a friend into becoming his for show boyfriend. His book - 'The Cross in the Close' is an extraordinary account of that year where he experienced severe rejection, outright hatred and deep personal confusion. The experience changed his and his family's lives forever, and while a strong advocate for gay right, Kurek is still a committed Christian - a paradox he feels his religious community needs to get comfortable with.
I reached out to Kurek to try and get some insight into what drove him to write the book, how it had affected him and his beliefs, and what he thinks about the Presidential race in relation to gay rights in America.
"I was raised in a hyper conservative home, we weren't even just evangelicals, we thought that Jerry Falwell was liberal," Kurek told me when I asked him about his former beliefs on homosexuality. "That's kinda how conservative we were. It was definitely looked at as a sin, an abominable sin."
"We didn't believe that you could be gay and be a Christian at the same time," he continued. "It was definitely the capital S sin in our church and kinda like the scarlet letter. Pretty traditional view point actually for the conservative Christian bible belt."
I asked Kurek about the experience he had when comforting a friend who came out to him as a lesbian - the turning point that inspired him to come out himself.
"Well she was crying on my shoulder and I was thinking about how to convert her," he said, chuckling a little. "So thank God she didn't give me a chance to open my big mouth! But as soon as she left I felt like I had this spiritual epiphany and I realized that the voice inside my head telling me to try and convert her wasn't God, it was 20 plus years in a hyper conservative Christian Church and this religious programming.
"So as soon as she left I had that kind of epiphany and I felt that the only way that I could find out whether that was God or whether it was religious programming......was to understand as closely as I could as a straight man what my friend had gone through - what many people go through so I decided I was going to come out as a gay man."
The experiment is echoes that of John Howard Griffen's ground breaking book 'Black like Me' where Griffen spent 6 weeks disguised as a black man and traveled through the segregated South in the 1960's. Kurek's experience was in many ways was a braver endeavor given he did it for whole year in his own community where homosexuality is viewed as being a mortal sin. I asked him whether he had been inspired by Griffen's tale.
"I hadn't read black like me until a few months into the experiment," he replied. "I had heard about it but I didn't remember it. I just kind of came to me, and it was just like 'I need to come out to my family and my friends and my church - oh crap!'
What was the biggest challenge he faced living as a gay man in a fundamentalist Christian community?
"I think the fact that when you come out of the closet you don't know how people are going to react," said Kurek. "I've got friends who have liberal progressive, non religious parents who have treated them like crap and practically disowned them and I've got friends who are conservative Christians who have been fully loved and embraced by their parents. So there's no way of knowing exactly how your family is going to respond, or your friends or anyone for that matter. So it really is a terrifying thing when you get into the mindset of all these 'what ifs', what if this happens, what if that happens, what if they kick me out, what if they try to send me to gay therapy, what if they completely accept me, all these different ideas pop into your head and I think that's the scariest part about coming out for a lot of people. You are risking your life as you know it and you don't know how people are going to take that and respond."
One of the hardest parts about coming out was obviously telling his family, particularly his mother who was so affected by it that she wrote in her diary that she would have rather found out she had terminal cancer than have a gay son.
"My mom wrote that the day I came out in my journal and I found it I think the next day," said Kurek.
"It was difficult. Because when your family is conservative and what they believe is that you are going to hell because of your orientation you can see that pain in them when you are around," he continued. "And even if they don't express it, or pressure you into anything you can still tell they are upset. And my family was upset. They were still of the mindset that you couldn't be Christian and be gay. Since the experiment, we've all kind of figured things out a little bit better. But it was tough, because no one likes to hurt their family, but it the only way possible that I could understand or been willing to engage this kind of line of thought, to question myself."
Amazingly, Kurek's mother also decided to question the traditions she had been raised in, and had a dramatic change of heart after believing her son was gay.
"Of everyone in my family, my friends or anybody, she has had the most radical change during that year and the time afterwards and she's now an advocate of the LGBT community," said Kurek proudly.
For Kurek, the year long experience taught him to look beyond the confines of the traditions he had grown up in, seeing much of religion and belief in God as a human construct rather than genuine spirituality.
"This God of the bible that is so huge and so vast and so powerful, and in certain situations he's a total dick and in other situations he's the most loving caring being," he told me. "Christianity has almost type cast him and put him in this tiny little box where they can control everything about him, and that simply isn't the way it works and I think that's one of the major problems with conservative evangelicals right now."
Kurek believes that conservative evangelical Christianity has completely distorted the issue of homosexuality to serve its own homophobic culture.
"There's six verses on homosexuality, then of course they take the whole Adam an Eve story and say 'Adam and Eve' not 'Adam and Steve'. I would love to smack whoever came up with that because it's so cheesy," he laughed.
"They take those verses and they wield this empowerment over gay individuals, they have this idea that they are dealing with the absolute truth and it's the absolute truth, these six verses. And in reality every single one of those verses can be explained in context, historically speaking, anthropologically speaking, it's really easy to show that those verses aren't even really talking about homosexuality as we know it - they are talking about gang rape, orgies, pedophilia and adultery, that kind of thing."
For Kurek, Christianity - or belief in the teachings of Christ come down to what Jesus was actually saying rather than the stories surrounding him.
"Jesus never said anything about being gay," he continued. "He talked on loving your neighbor as yourself and feeding the poor and blessed are the merciful and peacemakers.....He gave you a way of life and thinking and I think that's where evangelical culture has gone wrong."
Finally, I asked Kurek about politics and what he thinks about President Obama and Mitt Romney's stance on gay rights mean for the gay community.
"First of all I wonder if Obama would have come out in favor of gay marriage, or vocalized his support of that had Biden not opened his mouth about it first," answered Kurek. "You always have to question these things. And at this point those that are for LGBT equality, whether they are allies or gay themselves will take whatever they can get. And now that the sitting President has come out and said, yeah, I'm for equal rights, it's huge, and that's part of the party platform for the Democratic Party."
And Romney - a politician who has campaigned on restoring 'traditional family values'?
"The really funny thing is, and I was on Alan Colmes show, from Hannity and Colmes from Fox News, and we were talking about Mitt Romney and I said that the really funny thing is that when Mitt Romney went to give the commencement speech at Liberty University, where I spent my freshman year at college, Jerry Falwell's college, and said that marriage was between a man and a woman and get a standing ovation from these people, I thought it was amazing. Oh my gosh, yes! The fact of the matter is that I know those people and 99.999% of that audience and the faculty believe that Mitt Romney is a cult member - part of a Satanic cult and he's going to go to hell, yet they were ecstatically applauding him and working towards trying to get him elected because they hate Obama so much. So its' definitely a very - I've never seen an election that was this polarized. I mean we'll see what happens. I think it will be really sad if Mitt Romney wins."
For more information on Timothy Kurek, visit his site here.
The Cross in the Closet can be purchased from Amazon here.