(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."
And if that wasn't clear enough, she emphasized again, "I think civil rights are for blacks."
That's a bold statement of linguistics and sentiment. By definition civil rights are very simply the rights of citizens to political and social equality. The civil rights movement — which began with civil resistance in the mid-'50s, had a watershed moment in the 1963 March on Washington and was bookended by the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts — was led by African Americans. But they fought to end discrimination against all minorities, not only African Americans.
When Griffin wrote Black Like Me, the problems were obvious. He wanted to answer the question, "What is it like to experience discrimination based on skin color, something over which one has no control?" For Kurek, author of The Cross in the Closet, the question he wanted to answer seems almost pat, "What would Jesus do?"
"I knew it wasn't enough to have sympathy; I had to have empathy. To understand what [his friend who came out] went through, I would have to do what Jesus did and become something I wasn't, and walk a mile in her shoes," Kurek told the GA Voice, an LGBT media outlet.
At the heart of the question as to whether gay rights can be called civil rights is the crux of what Griffin was trying to uncover by going undercover as "something over which one has no control." For his part Kurek has made clear that he could only pretend. He can never know what it's like to be a gay man because he is straight. Those are his facts. The same goes for Griffin, who had a dermatologist friend darken his skin.
Neither man could do more than tour, whether the journey was about race or sexual orientation. This is where the singular trips Griffin and Kurek took take on new meaning, not just for them but for the audiences of their comparable books. Both believe that those who inhabit the worlds into which they peeked aren't there by choice; they're there because of something over which they have no control.