Queer people’s discomfort around religion is not bigotry: my comments to the Rainbow Intersection

I got home from London last night after being on a panel with the Rainbow Intersection, a forum for discussions of queer identity, religion and race. The topic was religion and LGBT people – something I’ve already posted about at length – and the other panellists were Jide Macaulay, who runs the Christian House of Rainbow Fellowship; Surat-Shaan Knan of Twilight People, a project for trans and nonbinary believers, and interfaith minister Razia Aziz. I had a blast – all three are top-tier folk, and I’d be thrilled to appear with any of them again.

Jide founded an LGBT church in Nigeria to stop queer believers facing the threats and harassment apostates face – the fact I don’t buy the theology doesn’t mean I’m not glad of that – and works to stop LGBTs being deported today. (He also took my trolling remarkably well.) Surat-Shaan blogs about being trans and a practising Jew for Jewish News – in some ways his background felt like a mirror image of mine, and he speaks at a borderline-absurd number of events. Razia, who made me think I’d been quite cynical, was the surprise: feelgood interfaith rhetoric can cover a multitude of sins, awkward facts obscured in a haze of abstract nouns – mystery-journey-spirit-calling-truth – but there’s a refreshing core of steely realism to her outlook.

Both the Intersection’s organisers, Bisi Alimi and Ade Adeniji, are worth a follow, and Jumoke Fashola, who works in radio and music, was an exceptional moderator. I’m told the discussion was recorded, and that there are plans to release it in audio form – in the mean time, since all the speakers were restricted to a five minute introduction, I’m publishing my uncut opening remarks below.

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‘Is there a place for sexuality in religion?’

I think we can’t stress enough how triggering overt religiosity can be and is to many LGBT people. If I knew an event was taking place in a church, I would avoid it – I don’t feel safe in churches, I don’t feel comfortable in churches. Churches scare me, they make me uncomfortable and they make me [feel] unsafe. In our desire to let [supportive] religious groups play the ‘we’re not all like that’ game, we’re frequently required to pretend they’re mainstream, rather than exceptions, and that so many of us are somehow not legitimately and severely frightened by overt religiosity. That is not an unreasonable or unfair fear, nor one that isn’t based on experience.

These aren’t my words – they’re from a comment left under a post on my blog last December – I’ll come back to it later, because it captures many of my feelings perfectly.

I come to this discussion as a queer person (a bisexual specifically), an atheist, an apostate, an abuse survivor and an ex-Christian, so the question for me is less about sexuality’s place in religion and more about religion’s place in queer communities. I also come to this as a white atheist and a white Englishman – a cisgender man at that – so it’s fair to say I know something about belonging to a populace (several, in fact) with an uncomfortable track record. Equally, as an atheist blogger today, I often find myself at odds with how my community acts.

I’m sorry so many atheists harass and dehumanise believers. (The recent Chapel Hill killings in North Carolina were a chilling example.) I’m sorry I often see racism from atheists toward religious communities of colour, both African-American and Muslim, and in particular, that there are atheists trying to pit LGBT people against them. (In the former case, atheists like Dan Savage did this in the wake of Proposition 8; in the case of Islam, I now see atheists joining UKIP and the far-right to do the same.) Most recently, I’m sorry about skeptic groups that promote transphobia and atheists who tell people they’re wrong about their gender BECAUSE SCIENCE.

All that being said, I’ve wondered if the religious panellists here are as willing to own up to their communities’ failings.

I grew up moving between several Christian churches and forms of belief, some fundamentalist, some very much not. You might guess I left religion because I was queer, but that wasn’t the case at all – in my teens, I settled into a gentle, traditionalist but liberal Christianity, and I never felt any internal struggle around not being straight, whether religious or otherwise. At the time, I told myself all the things queer believers tend to say about context, (mis)translation, (mis)interpretation and how Jesus preached acceptance.

But I did suffer religious abuse – vivid, nightmarish threats of hell, claims of demonic possession and countless other things. And I encountered homophobia from other believers that made religious communities feel hostile. And when secular homophobia – which is, in fact, widespread – led me to entrust my faith with my mental health, I ended up trying to kill myself. (I don’t think blaming religion for any of these things is unfair – nor do I think placing the blame on ‘fundamentalism’ is enough. The faith that endangered my life was tolerant, mainstream, entirely non-fundamentalist Christianity.)

In hindsight, I find I cringe more over what I believed as a queer-affirming Christian than over my belief in virgin births and resurrections. It seems such motivated reasoning and contrived circle-squaring, a search less for truth than for something affirming to convince myself I believed, and in the end, wanting to be honest about what I thought instead of lying to myself was part of what led me to leave the church.

However much we ‘queer the text’, finding homoeroticism in scripture and talking about interpretation and context, the fact is that if Jesus existed, the religion he founded has spent most of the last two thousand years marginalising, brutalising, criminalising and killing queer people – by now, on every continent on earth except Antarctica. (Apply and adjust as appropriate for other faiths.) I doubt theres a single queer person here who hasn’t faced queerphobia in Christian or other religious contexts, and some of us have been profoundly harmed by it.

If Jesus meant to preach acceptance of LGBT people, he didn’t do a very good job. A god who can’t get his own message across for most of his followers’ history doesn’t seem plausible to me. Given a global platform and with sincere intent, most children could now tell the world to be nice to queer people without prompting millennia of violence – really, those five words would be enough – and I struggle to believe in a god who lacks the communication skills of a ten-year-old.

Yet I’ve often seen religion promoted in queer spaces. I’ve seen LGBT student groups where clergy came to deliver sermons, where religious flyers were handed out on the door and meetings were moved so as not to clash with church. I’ve seen LGBT discussion events held in churches. I’ve been told to pray and about how God created me. I know I’m not alone in this.

As an atheist and an apostate in the queer community, I feel profoundly uncomfortable with this – not least because LGBT believers often seem set on dismissing realities of religious queerphobia, both historically and today. Many queer people, I think, have sat uncomfortably through public events held to stress the compatibility of queerness and faith sensing precisely this, yet feeling that to voice their ambivalence would be an appalling act of rudeness, bigotry or ‘hate’.

A colleague of mine, Heina Dadabhoy – a bisexual, nonbinary ex-Muslim – wrote this about one such incident:

The worst experience I had was at a local conference about mental health and LGBT issues. Fully half the panels were about religion, and every panel had a representative of what was euphemistically referred to as ‘the faith community’. It is bizarre, to say the last, to sit in a room filled with LGBT folks and hear nothing but praise for religion and disdain for criticism of religion. Any mention of the homophobia in Christianity or any other religion was treated as if it were taboo, or at least unnecessarily hostile.

My guess is that many in this room can relate to that – I know I can.

Unequivocally, I support the work (and existence) of queer religious people like the other panellists here, and of everyone working toward positive religious reform. In many religions, being queer has traditionally meant being viewed as an apostate: in many religions, it’s still regularly assumed that if your sexuality and/or gender is incorrect, you’ve abandoned the faith. Putting an end to that can only be a good thing, because being treated like an apostate is hard: it can mean losing your community or family and having to face social stigma and threats, even violence.

But I know this because many of us, and many LGBT people, really are apostates – whether because of religious queerphobia, religious abuse or other bad experiences, because we can’t believe in a god who has our back or simply because religious beliefs don’t make sense to us. Attempts to be ‘inclusive’ of religious queer people by godding-up our communities with sermons, prayers, clergy and promotion of religious groups often mean excluding us. To that effect, let me share the comment I started with (by a user called Paul) in full.

I think we can’t stress enough how triggering overt religiosity can be and is to many LGBT people. If I knew an event was taking place in a church, I would avoid it – I don’t feel safe in churches, I don’t feel comfortable in churches. Churches scare me, they make me uncomfortable and they make me [feel] unsafe. In our desire to let [supportive] religious groups play the ‘we’re not all like that’ game, we’re frequently required to pretend they’re mainstream, rather than exceptions, and that so many of us are somehow not legitimately and severely frightened by overt religiosity. That is not an unreasonable or unfair fear, nor one that isn’t based on experience, nor one that isn’t based on experience – yet I am expected to treat it as such. No matter how neutral the event is intended [to be], if it is held in church property it is something that will push me out.

And that ‘we’re not all like that’ game is destructive. For me to even remotely consider that a religious ‘ally’ is an ally, I need to know they realise their faith has a bigotry problem – because at the moment our desire to make religious groups comfortable and play PR for them is giving them a pass for bigotry and denying the scale of it in organised religion. How do we counter that if we’re all pretending it doesn’t exist or is ‘fringe’?

So here’s my take-home message: if you’re a secular queer person and you feel uncomfortable around religion, that is absolutely valid. It is not hatred; it is not bigotry. And if you’re a queer believer, that’s just as valid (even if it doesn’t make sense to me) – but please let’s remember there are times when toning down the God-talk is considerate, and please let’s face facts, because atonement starts with contrition.

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How (not) to act in my comment section

I’ve now been writing this blog for just over eighteen months. Because I started it when I joined Freethought Blogs, one of the first things I meant to do was devise a comment policy. I never got round to it, and in some ways that’s to the good – it’s taken me a while to gain a clear sense of how I want comment threads to work. Recently I’ve felt I should finally publish one, and that I know roughly what kind.

I haven’t had to do this previously because most of the time, I’m not a terribly hands-on admin: over the past three years I’ve banned an average of something like one user per month, mostly in bunches when individual posts attracted lots of flies. (My last ban was in January, the last-but-one many months earlier.) Generally this blog’s threads aren’t that lively – most discussions it sparks tend to be on forums like Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit and Twitter – and how I’ve managed comments has varied over time and according to my mood, so the de facto rule has always been don’t piss me off.

That’s not about to change: while some are more absolute than others, the points that follow here are guidelines rather than rules for commenting here. I’m not saying I’ll apply them consistently, or what violating them will bring about, or that they’re an exhaustive list of unwelcome actions – I couldn’t possibly write one, and if I did, creative arseholes would just find exploitable loopholes. The golden rule is still don’t piss me off – but here’s some practical advice on how (not) to do that. [Read more…]

TEF-LON and transmisogyny: about that Terry MacDonald piece in the New Statesman

In case you haven’t paid attention for the last two years, a clique of UK writers connected via skeptic groups and the New Statesman – Suzanne Moore, Sarah Ditum, Gia Milinovich, Helen Lewis, Caroline Criado-Perez, Martin Robbins and Julies Bindel and Burchill – periodically say unhelpful things on trans women’s issues. Some have recent histories of mealy-mouthed transphobia, while others object indignantly to the word ‘cis’, argue ‘TERF’ is a slur, defend trans women’s exclusion from abuse shelters and insistently misgender them. It’s a matter of great sadness to me that this London-based group of trans-exclusionary feminists has yet to form as an official club, partly because it would make keeping up with them easier, but mostly because I like imagining a shadowy collective called TEF-LON.

The newest member is pseudonymous, hitherto unknown columnist Terry MacDonald, whose guest article at the New StatesmanAre you now or have you ever been a TERF?’ has been circulating online this week. Both the title and MacDonald’s use of a pen name seem geared to suggest suppression, a lone voice typing truth to power with the Gestapo of the trans cabal outside the door, so fisking the post’s non-stick arguments seems only game.

[Read more…]

No, a Romany man’s body is not being exhumed to placate Muslims

I ought not to be posting this today. I’m up against a deadline on Sunday, so should still be in blog-hibernation, but it can’t wait.

In case you haven’t read this blog before, which you may not have, some things about me:

Most of the time, the Daily Telegraph is far from keen on any of these things. Most of the time, it likes to have a go at various groups I’m part of (and other vulnerable ones). Every so often though, when a chance comes to pit Romanies, atheists, foreigners, queers or poor people against Muslims, the Telegraph falls in love with us all, deeming us at least marginally less subhuman than it does them. [Read more…]

Welcome Jamila Bey to Freethought Blogs!

In case you hadn’t heard, Jamila Bey is joined Freethought Blogs’ newest bully – read her first post, on atheism and Black History Month, at the Sex Politics and Religion blog, a tie-in with her long-running radio show.

A preview:

February, the shortest and coldest month on this part of the planet, is the time in which schoolchildren learn that Black Americans did far more than just suffer enslavement in these United States.  Children all over learn (just short weeks after MLK’s dream-filled celebrations) that George Washington Carver was a peanut genius, Rosa Parks got tired and wouldn’t give up her bus seat to a white man, and that ​Black people are all God-fearing and without the reverends and churches of the post-WWII era, the Civil Rights movement wouldn’t have been a success.

I’m skipping over my (minor) quibbles with the month for this post, as I genuinely wish to make it clear that Atheists really need to support Black History Month for the simple fact that one of our own invented it!

Jamila – as in tequila, not vanilla – is one a small handful of new members we’ll be rolling out in the near future. Some of them you probably know, some you probably don’t, but they all exceptional additions.

In the mean time, go and say hello!

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Godlessness and theory: Trav Mamone interviews me for the Bi Any Means podcast

Trav Mamone, author of the blog Bi Any Means (‘musings of a queer humanist’ – we get along) asked recently to interview me for their new podcast.

Listen (and subscribe) on iTunes here.

In spite of Skype’s attempts at sabotage, I had a good time – one or two cathartic rants may even have been delivered. If you’ve ever wondered what this blog’s name’s about, here’s your chance to find out.

You can follow Trav on Twitter at @tmamone or Like Bi Any Means on Facebook to stay updated with their blog and future podcasts.

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Kasterborous calls me a ‘heavy-duty blogger’

If you like Doctor Who and use the Internet, there’s a fair chance you know of Kasterborous, the fanzine for Whovian news and discussion. Writer James Lomond cites a post from this blog in a piece from Wednesday.

Someone’s dropped the S-Bomb on the Moff. Again. In fact it’s the third accusation of sexism from this particular chap… Heavy-duty blogger, Alex Gabriel, has given a rather damning appraisal of women in Moffat’s writing – and not just in Doctor Who. This will be familiar ground for most Kasterborites.

Showrunner and BAFTA award winning writer, Steven Moffat has been charged with portraying women in an inherently sexist, or even misogynist, manner before. Previous attacks have pointed out how many of his female characters seem to deliver one witty one-liner after another following a sassy-feisty-sexy format. In short they’re not real women.

‘Heavy-duty blogger’? I’ll take that.

Lomond goes on to discuss in depth a post of mine from November – it seems to’ve become my third most-read blog entry – where I talk about the interchangeability of Steven Moffat’s female tropes characters.

In particular, I argue Michelle Gomez’s Missy – as she appears in ‘Dark Water’, then the most recent episode – is ‘a feisty, morally ambiguous adventuress and femme fatale with a murky past who flirts with everything and controls men through sexuality, boasting a hands-on relationship with the [hero]’, the same woman Moffat has written again and again.

It’s worth pointing out that a week later, on reviewing follow-up episode ‘Death in Heaven’, I was impressed with how Missy and other female characters were developed. My problems with her in ‘Dark Water’ haven’t changed, but the character’s since grown more distinct.

Gabriel does also imply, though doesn’t state outright, that there is something pervasively negative about Moffat’s take on the female sex.

Yesssssssssssss.

One way to assess Gabriel’s claim would be to see if we can produce a similar list of male tropes and repeating collections of character traits. It’s certainly interesting that both Sherlock and the Doctor are ultimately isolated super-intelligent men who have difficulty maintaining non-hazardous relationships with women and their male side-kicks (Watson and Rory) both get mistaken for being gay.

Not just that. Rory, John and Danny Pink are all long-suffering ex-soldiers devoted to more adventurous women.

do think Moffat’s men are tropey too, and that he’s a tropey writer in general – it’s something I thought about while writing the post on his female characters, wondering if I was being fair. I think I was: there’s still much more distance between, say, Rory Williams and John Watson than River Song and Tasha Lem, largely because Moffat’s stories are about their men. Rory and John both get a great deal more exploration than River and Tasha, whose entire lives the Doctor defines.

Read Lomond’s piece.

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What happened when I wrote about the rape scene in Russell T Davies’ gay drama Cucumber

In the first episode of Russell T Davies’ new drama Cucumber, middle aged Lance finds a much younger man in a nightclub who has no money and nowhere to spend the night. ‘You can stay at ours if you want to fuck,’ Lance tells him. ‘No hassle. Just sex with the both of us. And then you can stay the night.’

‘Yeah,’ the younger man replies, ‘that’s cool’ – but it’s clear, including to Lance’s uncomfortable partner Henry, that he’s ‘off his head’ on some substance or other, wide-eyed and slurring out fantastic images of kings and cowboy-men and nodding in and out of consciousness during their taxi ride. At their house, he appears not to register most of what Lance and Henry say; he walks off-balance and seems to have trouble standing up, sitting down at the first opportunity and collapsing half-asleep minutes later onto Lance’s bed. By the time Lance performs out-of-shot what looks and sounds like oral sex, he can no longer speak coherently. Five to ten onscreen minutes later, presumably once Lance has had anal sex with him as he says he means to (‘[He’s] gonna fuck my arse’), Henry brings police officers to the scene. The younger man, now fully naked and seemingly unaware of it, is no more lucid when they confront him, gripped in a haze of drug-induced visions with no idea what’s going on.

The above scenes, if anyone contests this description, can be viewed here.

There are two ways to argue what they show isn’t (at minimum attempted) rape. The first is to say the man Lance has sex with is lucid enough to consent to it – in which case, you’ve the narrative above to explain. The second is to say consent doesn’t require lucidity – in which case, the Sexual Offences Act disagrees, deeming consent impossible if ‘by reason of drink, drugs, sleep, age or mental disability [someone is] unaware of what [is] occurring’. The Crown Prosecution Service further acknowledges meaningful consent to ‘evaporate well before [someone] becomes unconscious‘ if mind-altering substances make them incapable. [Read more…]

Cucumber’s “radical approach to sexuality”, and its normalisation of rape and relationship abuse

I hoped Cucumber and its partner shows would be as good as Queer as Folk. I feared they’d be nothing like as good. As it turns out, Cucumber is a show you need to watch – at least, that is, if you thought Looking‘s characters were unlikeable, Vicious was the nadir of queer TV or having your molars slowly drilled without anaesthesia was excruciating.

For its entire 45-minute running time, I cringed. Episode one of Cucumber was so non-stop wince-inducing that by the time its credits rolled, I found myself feeling the weight of my own face. I knew there and then that I’d pay a considerable sum never to see another episode – yet also that I’d rewatch it this morning, cataloguing every last thing I hated about it.

Because Cucumber isn’t merely crap. It’s a well written, well-produced, well-executed show that achieves its apparent aims. The trouble is, its aims are fucking regressive – at times even outright dangerous. [Read more…]