Checking Out of Privilege: Timothy Kurek’s “The Cross in the Closet” and What it Means to Change Your Identity

What do John Howard Griffin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Timothy Kurek and Rachel Held Evans have in common? What do they have in common with Natalie Reed and “Thomas,” an anonymous subject of Kristin Schilt’s research on gender inequality in the experiences of transgender men in the workplace? What about with ex-fundamentalists like Libby Anne and me? They’ve all lived outside the privilege markers assigned to them at birth: some intentionally, for the sake of research or activism, and some in the course of living their ordinary lives. What interests me today is why these experiences have provoked such markedly different reactions.

First, here are some of the similarities that seem to run across the board:

  1. All of the people I’ve mentioned have expected a difference in the way they are treated, but have been surprised by the magnitude of the shift.
  2. All of them have decided to speak out about the inequality they’ve experienced, whether that was planned in advance or was a natural extension of their writing lives.
  3. Several of them experienced real or perceived danger of bodily harm as a result of living outside their assigned group.
  4. All of them have remarked especially on the changes in their relationships with loved ones and close acquaintances.
  5. All of them have required some kind of help (emotional, financial, medical, etc.) to cross the boundary and/or return to their original identities.

Living outside one’s assigned group is complicated, emotional, often dangerous, and controversial. As a daughter of the Christian patriarchy movement, I can relate to all of the five points above in my transition away from the fundamentalist life. But there are questions that aren’t asked of me when I write about my journey but are asked of some of the others, especially questions about legitimacy. Here are some examples of the ambivalence of living and writing outside the group one is born into.

This week, the story broke of a straight, evangelical Christian who spent a year living publicly as a gay man. His name is Timothy Kurek, and the result of his quest is a memoir titled The Cross in the Closet. “Being gay for a year saved my faith,” Kurek says. As for his fundamentalist upbringing? Not so much. Kurek broadcasts the fact that he’s left those prejudices behind to become an LGBTQ ally.

Suspicion. That’s an immediate and common reaction to Kurek’s project, one that I felt instantly when I read the first news report this week. “Why do we need a straight guy to tell us what it’s like to be gay? Shouldn’t we be listening to gay men themselves?” I thought.

It wasn’t just me. Amy Lieberman writes on Feministing,

Kurek totally admits that he only experienced a tiny portion of the discrimination that gay people face every day of their lives, and I appreciate that he realizes that. How much harder is it to face discrimination when you actually identify as a gay person? Instead of being an attack on who you’re pretending to be (like in Kurek’s case), it’s an attack on who you actually are. … I feel for the gay community of Nashville, and for every person who trusted Kurek enough to flirt with him, hang out with him, and confide in him about their lives. If I were in that community, I would feel so betrayed right now.

Pamela Hogeweide, who reviews Kurek’s book on Amazon, shared a similar feeling of initial unease:

I have held the concept of this book at a distance since I first heard about it. Lying about being gay as a social experiment? I wasn’t sure I could endure reading a book that retells the tale of lying about sexuality in order to make a point.But then I read the book. And I discovered that Timothy Kurek was not conducting a social experiment, but was on a quest, a deeply personal quest to identify with a community of people he once abhorred and condemned. Perhaps in some ways it was also a quest of penance to redeem himself from his past homophobia. The stories he tells certainly thread together into a tapestry of renewed thinking and changed perspective. Even though I had my qualms about Tim concealing who he really was even to family and friends in his quest of discovering “the other,” his storytelling reveals that he was experiencing what many gay citizens around us already know : that concealing who you are is detrimental to your soul.

Crossing a privilege boundary is paradoxical: at once intensely solitary and hopelessly embedded in community. You might lose all your friends and make new ones. Your family might abandon you or embrace you in your new identity. The common thread that seems to run through the critical responses to Kurek is this: What gives you the right to cross a boundary like that, deceive and betray the trust of people around you, when you aren’t serious about your professed identity? In other words, if you’re going to put your community through the hell of figuring out what to do with you, you’d better really mean it.

But there’s more to it than that. People who deliberately give up privileges for the sake of understanding their absence incur suspicion because, well, they had privileges to give up. Their difficulties are voluntarily assumed. They can pretty easily be discarded again. People who don’t start out with those privileges can’t just pack up and leave if they don’t like their place in society. And then there’s the privilege inherent in book-writing: why should the privileged classes need one of their own to translate the lives of the underprivileged before they start listening? Who authorized that impersonator to speak for the truly underprivileged? Doesn’t the fact that the author isn’t “one of us” only reinforce the tendency of power to dehumanize those with less of it? Nobody wants to feel like a National Geographic “poverty porn” special.

I felt this way when I read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich as a working-class teenager paying the bills as a verbal abuse sponge at Wal-Mart. Why was I reading a book by a privileged adult white woman with a bank account and a writing job, when that book was about my life?! Could a woman who periodically tapped into her emergency fund really understand the peril of never having had one? Could a woman who had previously had top-notch health insurance understand the pain and shame of decades of never seeing a dentist? How could she understand the accumulated heaps of debt that put cracks in our family relationships and layered callouses on our hearts from loss after loss of home, pets and property? How could she understand the point where worry stops and an indifferent numbness sets in? When apology breaks down and a primal rage takes its place? She might be able to crunch the same numbers we did, but she was never really living in our world. So how dare she be our spokesperson!

It’s been years since I’ve read that book. Although my thinking has become more complex, it’s hard to shake that gut reaction. It’s tough to accept that books like these have a role to play but that I am not their target audience. At least not when they’re about experiences I’ve had. Books like Ehrenreich’s and Kurek’s aren’t for poor people or gay people. They’re for everybody who doesn’t understand poor people or gay people. And, well, it’s a bitter pill to swallow when you realize that “everybody” might never listen to you without a mediator from their own midst.

Timothy Kurek’s saving grace, according to Ms. Hogeweide, is his humility. In this case, humility means knowing that the book you write isn’t objectively “about” the people you encounter, but about your reaction to them. Kurek writes about his own change of heart, the eradication of his prejudice – in the same way that I tried to do in my homophobia series. Neither he nor I deserve gold stars for learning to overcome our prejudiced programming (come on, where’s my “congratulations on being a decent human being!” card?!). Both of us hoped, though, that talking about the opening of our minds would help other people learn to open theirs, or at least offer some handy tips to people on the front lines who are trying to open the minds of others.

Interestingly, John Howard Griffin’s book Black Like Me (1961) deals with the issue of spokesmanship directly. A reviewer on Amazon writes:

Taking to heart the axiom about “walking a mile” in the other guy’s shoes, the caucasian Griffin altered his appearance in the late 1950′s by the use of skin dye and hair treatment, so that he could spend a few weeks on the other side of the curtain of segregation that was an undisputed fact of life in the South. What he learned was not only profoundly eye-opening for him, but can be so as well for anyone who reads him sensitively today. As a light-skinned African-American who has spent much of my life among whites, I have often observed that perhaps only their becoming black could convince most whites of the reality, the pervasiveness and the persistence of racism in America. Short of that, I would heartily recommend this venerable classic by Griffin.Especially valuable is the Epilogue, in which the author recounts the experiences he had following the book’s initial publication, when he was invited numerous places to expound his insights into America’s “race problem.” Time and again, he is exasperated to find that those seeking solutions to racial unrest and animosity ignore the perspective of knowledgable blacks, preferring the views of a white man who has briefly experienced blackness over those derived from decades of such experience.

Will Kurek’s book ever become classic reading on 21st century civil rights activism? Perhaps. I have a few doubts, though. Kurek’s book is branded for an evangelical Christian audience. As evangelical culture changes, what it perceives as relevant or groundbreaking literature may acquire the tarnish of “well, duh!” In addition, how far can the Jim Crow South be compared to present-day homophobia? As an expert in neither, I’ll leave that question wide open.

Until now, I’ve been talking about people who transgress the privilege boundary temporarily, voluntarily. For transgendered people like Natalie Reed and “Thomas,” for former fundamentalists like Libby Anne and me, crossing the boundary meant leaving behind lives that might have felt false in search of something more permanent and true. We don’t have to work as hard to assert our legitimacy. Our transitions are more easily understood as need-driven. In my case, fundamentalist religion had driven me to anorexia and suicidal impulses.

Our stories seem to have very different meanings. The morals taken away from them tend to be about the necessity of being true to yourself, the shock of discrimination (or its absence), the injustice of being told to be someone else. Though it’s worth noting that the anger directed at people like Kurek for deceiving their families is still applied to people who transition permanently: “Why do you have to break your family’s hearts by leaving the faith?” and “Don’t ask, don’t tell” are ideas made out of the same stuff: accusations of selfishness.

There are some big questions here, and I’m not going to try to pursue all the answers. But here are just a few of them, if you want to chew on them alongside me:

  • How much of ourselves do we “owe” to our family and friends? When is our identity their business and when isn’t it?
  • How do we, as a society, decide which transitions are legitimate ones? When is it selfish or narcissistic, and when is it necessary and courageous?
  • What are the responsibilities of an author who takes on another identity and writes about the experience? How do fame and fortune affect the way we morally judge that author?
  •  Are books like Kurek’s valuable, and what makes them different from books like Griffin’s? Where does Ehrenreich fit in?

The Fistfight Fallacy: rape culture’s ahistorical premise
Blogging update
Activism fatigue and the work of changing minds
We are not the enemies of our best selves
  • Lina

    I actually just got this yesterday, and started reading it earlier today. While I think there is definitely a correlation between his actions and the sort of boundary-crossing you’ve experienced, I think the two main distinctions really change things. First, as you mention, he can go back. Even though I haven’t read very far, what keeps striking me is how aware he is of this fact. He knows going into this that it’s only a year, and he continually is amazed by people who, in essence, give up everything they know, permanently. Second, and following from that, is his humility. And like the reviews you quote mention, he isn’t writing for a gay audience. He’s writing for my parents, for my in-laws. He’s writing for the cousin who sent me a facebook message full of doctrine. He’s writing for the people for whom knowing me and knowing my wife isn’t enough – and I think he just might work, in some ways.

    Long story short, he’s not perfect, but his intentions seem pure, and he seems to be aware of the potential criticisms. If things change as I keep reading, I’ll report back!

  • Lee

    I think part of the reason that people find insights of people like Kurek, etc, valuable, is that people like Kurek (and Ehrenreich, etc) have experienced, however incompletely, both sides of the privilege curtain. They also go into this with the intent to think about it and understand it– which makes them especially good at communicating it to others.

    Another thing I’ve noticed, as a queer person whose closest friends are primarily from the queer community, is that often, marginalized people don’t WANT to be spokespeople for their group. They don’t want it assumed that they will be, just because they belong to that group. I don’t mind being a spokesperson, but a lot of my friends will not even bother explaining things to ignorant and privileged people. I think that’s their right– no one has to explain anything about themselves. But what I’m getting at is that people who do these ‘experiments’ (or personal journeys, as well) and write about it are volunteering themselves as a spokesperson, however imperfect. They do certainly know more about it than the average person of privilege. And they have a point of view that may be more relate-able for the majority, and may be able to communicate things better since they have shared parts of both points of views.

    I think they’re certainly valuable experiences. No one is saying that they’re the SAME as being gay or poor or black or whatever. It’s an entirely different experience, and it’s valuable in its own way, I think, because of what Kurek, etc, can now communicate. For example, I also read Ehrenreich as a poor-ass teenager, but I went to a relatively wealthy school, and I realized that she was communicating things to my friends that they had not understood before. They were things that I may myself not have been able to communicate, had my friends asked– because I had a completely different point of view and completely different basic assumptions about life. Things that were elementary to me were foreign to them (and vice versa). Can Ehrenreich explain the pain of watching your family fall apart because there’s no money and your father feels emasculated without an adequate income? No. But she can explain to privileged people, in their own terms (as befits someone coming from their own world, so to speak) what some things are like. And just because it isn’t the same doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. The danger, I think, comes from assuming that these people are actually speaking FOR the people they are pretending to be, rather than acting as sort of translators.

    This is really long and rambling, so I hope you get my point. (Another valuable point you brought up, Sierra, was that being an impostor is kind of dehumanizing and wrong to these people– I always feel awkward when straight people show up at explicitly queer events–What are you doing here?! This is my space! You have the rest of the world. But I think they are definitely things to weigh, because there is value in what Kurek can now communicate. The people he lied to have the right to be angry, but he also may have done something good, and he wasn’t actually threatening to those people. But I have no idea what the hell the answer is, and this is a long enough comment already.)

  • Neal

    I thought this was very interesting. I’m a little confused about “identity” though – is it what’s described in this Wikipedia article?