Trapped in the Closet

Using the iconic Black Like Me as a model, an author goes undercover as a gay man.

Timothy Kurek (Courtesy of Timothy Kurek)
Timothy Kurek (Courtesy of Timothy Kurek)

(The Root) — It’s a story we’ve all heard before. Person with a membership to the privileged class goes incognito for a time as someone without an all-access pass to life. Lessons are learned. People are changed. But does social slumming change the rules or just mark them in bold?

John Howard Griffin did it in 1959 when he darkened his white skin and traveled through the American South as a black man. His resulting diary was the groundbreaking nonfiction book Black Like Me. Nearly 30 years later, C. Thomas Howell twisted the tale for laughs in the movie Soul Man by playing the character Mark Watson, a white man who darkens his skin to get a scholarship for college reserved for black students. In both cases — the real and the fictional — in the end someone always learns something.

The same formula gets applied over and over to pretty people in fat suits or humans in blue alien skin. And with his new book, The Cross in the Closet, Timothy Kurek does the same for straight people and gay people.

Quoting Dr. Martin Luther during an interview on The View earlier this month, Kurek claimed the hardest part about the year he spent masquerading as a gay man (or a closeted straight man) was feeling invisible and being ignored by those closest to him: “It’s not the words of our enemies we’ll remember but the silence of our friends.”

A Bible Belt Christian who was raised to believe homosexuality was a sin, Kurek’s worldview shifted when a friend came out to him. Prior to that, he was taught the right thing to do in that situation was to pray for her, but as she poured her heart out to him, Kurek couldn’t bring himself to call her an abomination. “I feel God really kicked me in the gut,” he told ABC News in an interview. “She was crying in my arms, and instead of being there for her, I was thinking about all the arguments to convert her.”

Kurek hasn’t shied away from comparisons to Griffin’s Black Like Me. He has repeatedly pointed to the book as his research model, calling it “transformative.” What’s more, Kurek explained that he “was trying to understand and empathize” by posing as gay, and much like Griffin, his journey was singular and personal. The larger repercussions of that journey speak truth directly to the national conversation on civil rights. That is, unless you, like Ann Coulter, believe that very term –“civil rights” — can only be applied to the African-American struggle for equality.

When asked if she seriously believed that various groups have commandeered the black civil rights experience, Coulter answered clearly, “Yes.”

“We don’t owe the homeless. We don’t owe feminists. We don’t owe women who are desirous of having abortions or gays who want to get married to one another,” Coulter said on ABC’s This Week in September. “That’s what civil rights have become for much of the left.”