Northampton, Massachusetts. Where I live and work, where I drink and eat, where I walk and gab and play and read. I’m really starting to like this town. Folks are friendly, kind, peaceful. Not quick to judge you at face value. People seem much less obsessed with their appearance here compared to back home. Folks are very comfortable with who they are. They don’t feel the need to hide behind make-up, the right clothes and that bright I’m-always-this-happy smile.
Of late, my reading selections have changed to reflect the demographics of our little city. Smith College and other nearby universities add a lot of younger faces to a mix of aging hippies and working class Western Massers. Piercings and tattoos are nearly the norm in our fair city. Did I mention how Amelia and I initially felt naked for not having any ink when we first visited? Perhaps there is a uniform, just one with which we’re not very familiar. Our friend Sam once reflected on her own choices and the similarity to the Noho standard: “Oh, you’re a vegetarian? How original.”
Northampton is also the unofficial lesbian capital of America, a fact that even Wikipedia deigns to mention, and it’s readily apparent everywhere in the city. It’s something we noticed when we moved, if only because it wasn’t the norm back home, and it’s a fact that is proudly announced in bookshops and cafés and on many bumper stickers: Northampton, where the coffee is strong, and so are the women. Young and older couples alike can be seen holding hands or arm and arm, walking down the street from shop to shop.
Some would describe the way of life in Northampton as counter-culture (that sounds condescending and… stupid) or subculture (that’s just insulting). There isn’t a word I like that fits what I’m describing. This book review concerns rejecting labels, and though that’s putting the cart ahead of the horse, we’ll have a go at it from the beginning. The book in question is The Cross in the Closet by Timothy Kurek. The premise is straightforward, though that’s where the simplicity ends: Tim, who was raised Baptist in Nashville, Tennessee and studied at Liberty University, came out to his family, his friends and his church to experience firsthand the label of being gay. Though straight, Tim recognized that he treated people differently based on their orientation, and his response was to spend a year in the shoes of a openly gay man, fresh out of the closet. His book documents a year of both pain and healing, of love and hate, of understanding and rejection.
I first heard of Tim’s book through a tweet from Derek Webb, a songwriter and artist that I’ve admired for a number of years. Derek’s music has consistently challenged my conception of music, message and story. In one of my favorite albums (Stockholm Syndrome, a very personal and beautiful work), he directly addresses the failure of the Church in regards to the treatment of the LGBTQ members of our communities. His song, What Matters Most, strikes at the heart of this crisis. One of the lines of the song refers to the quiet, unassuming danger of silence. This, in essence, was the breaking point for Tim, as he was unable to give any comfort to a friend in the pangs of separation and isolation from her family. Thus begins the journey described in his book.
Institutionalized animosity towards the “different” and the “not like us” is nothing new. It is nearly as old as the hills we walk on. The problem addressed in this book is the source – a group of people who claim grace and yet withhold it, who claim truth and yet ignore it, who claim unconditional love for those who look and act like themselves. For a few years now, I’ve thought it my place to refrain from judging someone in favor of appearing sympathetic and kind. Silence is deafening. When I read Tim’s story, I immediately identified with his response and thought back to the many friends for whom I offered no comfort because I could not get past my own misgivings. It is the epitome of selfishness; it is the anathema to Christ.
Tim’s story swings from describing the new distance between himself and friends and family and the new relationships that spring up from his queer connections. He spends free time at a gay bar and lands a job in a café adjoining a bookstore in Nashville’s gay district. He chats with couples, with high schoolers, he plays catcher in a gay softball league and frequents karaoke night. His stories are often funny, though more often heartbreaking. The account of his first AIDS charity walk and the absence of the Church strikes a unnerving chord. “Why aren’t they here?” Tim asks himself. It is a travesty that we feel the need to ignore the pain of our fellows – many of whom are our own brothers and sisters – in favor of self-serving moral superiority.
This book is a beautiful story about leaving labels behind. It’s how Tim ends the book, as himself, stripped of the need to identify as straight. He shows that as we peel back our prejudice, we are finally able to look our gay friends in the eye for who they are – people who have the same desires for love and acceptance that we do. While reading this book, I was briefly able to share in the joy of two mothers whose adoption paperwork finally cleared. Their elation and love for each other and their new child was no different from other couples I know who have gone through the same process. I stepped out of my shell, out of my prison, and saw them for who they are – new parents equally high on the thrill and fear of a new member in their family. It was a beautiful moment, a memory that I’ve now tucked away for remembrance, an Ebenezer for my own life.
The Cross in the Closet, by Timothy Kurek (2012)
Pages: 352 / 8,162 (Total pages reported upon by the Friends of Atticus)