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Apr 19 2014

Sexual identity, secularity and politics: Alex Gabriel and Greta Christina in conversation

Greta Christina’s latest book hit shelves this week. She and I sat down to talk atheism, (bi)sexuality and politics. Here, in full, is what we said.

I think the first thing to say is that this is probably not going to be at all interviewy, as far as I can see, because I’ve written about your forthcoming book already and I’m not sure how formal or interviewy or detached I could be.

Okay!

So the first thing to say is, when did you… first of all, tell me about your book.

It’s kind of funny you ask me that, because you know so much about the book. For those who are playing along at home, Alex was very involved in the creation of this book – he did two rounds of very detailed copy editing on it. And so he knows a lot about this book. Probably more than almost anybody, except me and my editor and Ingrid.

The book is called Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, and that’s pretty much exactly what it is. It’s a guidebook for coming out as an atheist, if you’re not already out; for coming out more, if you’re out to a few people and not out to others. And writing it was really interesting, because when I first set out to do the book – when I was first imagining it – I kind of pictured it as a set of directions, a very specific set of directions.

You know what guidebooks are like, right? ‘If A then B, if C then D.’ Like a set of directions on Google Whatever. ‘Turn left at Main St.’ Then when I was starting to collect material for the book, I realised there’s no way to do that. The experiences are so different for different people. The experiences are so… what works for one person isn’t going to work for another person. And some of that’s different circumstances, and some is just different personalities.

So I had to recast, more or less, a lot of the book from being a set of directions to giving people a map and letting them figure out their own directions. Letting people know, ‘Here’s some of the things we’re likely to expect.’ ‘Here’s some of the things that can come up when we come out as a nonbeliever. And you get to decide for yourself how to proceed with that.’

When did you start writing this book? Because your previous book was Why Are You Atheists So Angry?

Right. That came out in 2012. I mean, to some extent I’ve been writing this book… oh sorry, we’re talking over each other aren’t we?

Go ahead. I mean, when was the decision made to write this book?

Honestly, I’ve been thinking about writing this book almost ever since I came out as an atheist myself – that was back in 2005 – and certainly since I started participating in organised atheism: in the atheist communities and in the atheist movement.

It’s been just, you know, really clear to me that we needed this book. Lots of people were talking about it. So many people were talking about [how] ‘Coming out is the most powerful thing we can do!’ ‘It makes our own lives better!’ ‘It makes it easier for other atheists to do what we need to do to be a coherent movement!’ And I was saying the same thing. I was saying, ‘Yeah. Coming out is awesome. So there’s a guidebook, right? There must be some sort of coming out?’ And it didn’t- it wasn’t there. And it wasn’t there, and it wasn’t there, and it wasn’t there.

And as I got more involved in the community and the movement, and also just had, you know, more name recognition and got people familiar with my writing, I just realised, ‘Nobody’s going to write this book.’

And it was a hard book to write – you know, I can see. It was a difficult book to write…

I know!

…there was a large amount of research, it was a very difficult book to write. So I just decided, ‘You know what? I need to step up. I need to do this, ‘cause nobody else is doing it.

So from that point, you sent out an email I think last October (maybe slightly earlier, maybe slightly later) to me and a variety of other people asking for copy editing, feedback and all of that. And from that point, as you said, I did a lot of copy editing – I think I ultimately read and commented on two drafts of this book, although it was probably more than that suggests, because there were some fairly big cuts that ended up happening in this book as I remember. (One of which I take credit for.)

Absolutely. Haha.

The amount that we went through could almost be a large fraction of the book again, I think, that it became. So this is, more than an interview with a journalist or whatever, kind of a DVD extra conversation between people who worked behind the scenes on this book before it came out. You could even call it an Easter egg. That’d be topical.

With that in mind, this is very unrehearsed, very unscheduled. The first thing that I think… I wouldn’t say an elephant in the room, but I think a lot of people were actually talking about this on social media, blogs and other platforms while you were writing this book: there was a spate of stories, I think from the US blogosphere, talking about some of the ways that parallels that parallels between LGBTQ and atheist experiences, especially the words ‘coming out’, were something to be criticised.

I think there was a piece on Religion Dispatches about that; I think there was a degree of argument about something that was said by people at American Atheists. I think you’re familiar with this – there’s some tension between people who have different views over the amount of similarity that can be drawn between queer and atheist experience.

Mhmm.

Both of us straddle those two communities, as bloggers and otherwise. And I want to ask you: did you have any anxiety about writing a book called Coming Out Atheist?

No, honestly I didn’t. I mean, I’m familiar with [the fact] there are some LGBTQ people who don’t love it that atheists are using the term ‘coming out’ to describe our own process of telling people who we are and what we think. I think there’s a sense of ownership of that phrase. ‘We came up with that phrase!’ ‘That’s ours!’

But the thing is that the phrase ‘coming out’? We don’t own that phrase any more. It’s started to be used to describe so many different ways of revealing or telling people something that they didn’t know about who you are. Especially telling people something about yourself that they didn’t know, that you think they might have a problem with.

People talk about coming out as poly. People talk about coming out as kinky. People talk about coming out as, y’know, Red Socks fans. I don’t know! That phrase has just entered the language at this point. And I don’t think LGBTQ people can own it any more.

Are there differences between coming out LGBTQ and coming out atheist? Absolutely, there are lot of important differences – as well as similarities, of course. And I think the differences are almost as instructive as the similarities. But that’s true with any coming out experience. Coming out poly is different from coming out LGBTQ; coming out kinky is different from coming out LGBTQ.

Almost any different experiences have similarities and differences. It’s like the classic high school term paper: ‘Compare and contrast these two experiences.’ Or, you know, ‘Compare and contrast the works of William Blake with…’

Of course there’s differences as well as similarities, but you know… I’m repeating myself here. I don’t think we own that language. And you know what? I can’t think of any other language that describes it. I understand concerns about it, but I had to just let that go.

I guess that I was actually surprised at points, or even taken aback by the amount of similarity that I saw. Because your book is… we should mention, it’s full of other people’s narratives and their own descriptions of what they went through. Sometimes, page-long-or-more descriptions from people who’ve sent stories in to you.

Mhmm.

From a variety of situations: I think some of them were what happened in their workplace, some of them were what happened with their family and so on.

Mm.

And I remember being struck that it was actually much harder than I thought it was going to be to find a definitive difference between secular coming-out and queer coming-out.

There’s a part of me that has a lot of sympathy with the whole ‘Don’t appropriate our language’ agenda. But I found that the more that I read in this book, the more difficult it was to pin down the way in which atheists did not ‘come out’, or whatever, in the same way that queer people did.

It was almost easier at times to categorise coming-out experiences across those two groups of people than it was to split them into columns in a definitive categorical way.

I do think that there are differences. But yes, the similarities are much more pronounced than the differences. I think I would say that the differences between the two experiences are…

The number one, most important one – and this is one I hammer on about (I hammer on about it in the book as well as, you know, when I’m speaking and almost any time anybody will let me natter) – is that when you’re coming out as LGBTQ, you’re not telling straight that they’re wrong, or cisgendered people, that they’re wrong to be straight or cisgender.

When we come out as atheists, we are telling believers that they’re wrong: that they’re mistaken. We’re not telling them they’re bad people, necessarily, but we’re telling them… you know, there’s no way to say ‘I don’t believe in God’ without entailing ‘If you do believe in God, you’re mistaken.’

When I came out as bisexual, I wasn’t telling people ‘You should also be bisexual. You’re mistaken to be heterosexual or homosexual.’ So that’s, I think, an important difference, and I do think that that creates a tension, a conflict, between atheists and believers that isn’t necessarily there.

Now, there’s a parallel – there’s an instructive parallel – which is that while coming out, LGBTQ people don’t tell straight people they’re wrong to be straight, but we are telling them they’re wrong to be homophobic or biphobic or transphobic. We are telling them ‘You need to change. If you have problems with me, you need to change.’

So there is that parallel. The difference points to another parallel. But I do think that that difference is instructive.

I also think that there’s a difference just in terms of where we are in our history. The LGBTQ community has been very visible, very vocal, activist, organised, mobilised… for decades now. Since, you know… some people pin it at the Stonewall riots in ’69, some people pin it even a little bit earlier than that, ‘cause there’s certain proto-Stonewall stuff that was going on. So we’ve had decades to do this work. We’ve been doing coming out work, organising political activism, social change activism, activism in the media and so on – and just changing people’s minds about us.

We’ve had a long time. And atheists are a little behind the times. A lot behind the times. There’s been organised atheism for decades, but we haven’t really had our super-visible, vocal, mobilised phase. I would say we’re about… maybe ten years into that. So we’re a little behind. We have the Internet, which the early LGBTQ community didn’t have in the seventies. So we have that advantage.

And I think there’s one other difference, which relates to [the fact] when you come out as atheist you’re telling people they’re mistaken to be believers. When you come out LGBTQ, you’re not going to make anybody be gay. Or bi, or trans. You might encourage people to come out who might not otherwise be out, but coming out as atheist actually changes people’s minds about religion. Coming out as atheists is partly why, when we ask atheists ‘Why are you an atheist?’, a lot of the time they say a big part of the process of questioning religion and leaving it was seeing that other atheists exist.

So that’s another difference: that coming out is… we are evangelising, to some degree. I don’t like the word ‘evangelising’, ‘cause it has religious connotations, but the simple act of coming out as a nonbeliever does help try to persuade people out of religion even if that’s not your intent.

Could I ask you – are you able to turn up your microphone?

Oh, I have a microphone. Hang on a second.

Don’t worry if…

I can go get a plug-in microphone, but that would mean stopping again.

I will plug earphones in. Ahh, this is such a podcast. I’m so completely unprofessional. I feel like we should be asking each other what we’re drinking.

Hahahahaha. It’s ten thirty in the morning my time, so I’m drinking coffee.

You’re in San Francisco! Drink something stronger.

Haha.

Mind you, I live in Berlin now and this is probably the only city in the world where San Franciscans are thought of as a touch straight-laced, I think. I think you’d be considered really a bit restrained in San Francisco. Berlin is much further out.

So I think it’s interesting you talk about the question of invisibility and the question of erasure specifically – the idea that atheists have not really been visible in public discourse, and moreover the fact that because atheism and criticism of religion have not really been something politely voiceable much of the time, there’s been a kind of active, slightly repressive feeling that it’s not something you say. To an extent, anyway.

And I wonder if actually there’s a point about the way that for some people, and some groups under the queer umbrella, there’s a similar experience. Both of us swim in bisexual waters, and actually, it seems worth passing on an anecdote about this:

I have a member of my family, actually one of my parents. While I was growing up, certainly from the age of about eleven and further on, at least once a year there would be an awkward ‘Are you gay?’ moment.

And I don’t think I was ever particularly oblique. I remember at about fourteen or fifteen, I would explicitly say things like ‘Mm, I don’t really have a gender preference.’ Then it got to eighteen, and I was saying things like ‘Mm, I like being with men and I like being with women.’ By the time I was twenty-one, I was still getting this ‘Are you gay?’ thing going on, because bisexuality was just not a concept that registered there.

It reached the point where we had a conversation where they said to me – this is a paraphrase, but – ‘From what I understand, there are heterosexuals and there are homosexuals. And there are some people, though I don’t know very much about them, who like both.’ And that was about as far as the knowledge of bisexuality got.

And I think that there are some people, particularly in more conservative religious communities, for whom being an atheist is a little bit like that. I mean, I’m from godless, secular England, but there have been times when I have actually met– I met people at university, actually, to whom I had to explain what an atheist was.

That was something that I learnt when I was eleven. And I think that it may be the case that for some people who’ve grown up in those very ensconced, very tight-knit religious communities, the idea of being or calling oneself an atheist, having that as a stated identity, is something that has to be explained. Which is why it’s not really viable in the first place, why it’s difficult with family members, colleagues, whatever.

Did you think that’s true to any extent? Do you think there are people under the queer community’s umbrella for whom it’s like that, when there’s this kind of blind spot in people’s awareness, and is that something atheists can relate to?

Absolutely. And certainly I had similar experiences as somebody who identifies as bisexual. It’s funny, I’m actually having a… I don’t know if ‘parallel’ is the right word, but I’m starting to question whether ‘bisexual’ is the right word, because ‘bisexual’ plays into a gender binary that I don’t agree with. The word ‘bisexual’ assumes that I’m attracted to men and women: what about people who don’t identify as male or female? I’m attracted to them too.

And I considered whether I should start using the word ‘pansexual’ instead… except that nobody knows what that means. When you say you’re pansexual you have to have this whole conversation about what it means, and if you don’t want to have that conversation, it’s easier to just say that you’re bi. And at least in the circles that I move in, most people sort of know more or less what that word means, although they might have some assumptions about it that are mistaken.

But yes, absolutely – one of the [themes] in this book is people who didn’t know believe in God, or they were having doubt, and they didn’t start calling themselves an atheist until they saw other people start coming out as atheist because they literally didn’t know it was an option. ‘There are people who don’t believe in God? You can do that?!’

They had either never heard the word, or they’d heard the word but they thought it meant… you know, ‘cause there’s a lot of ridiculous ideas about what it means: that it means you worship Satan, that it means you’re angry at God and so on.

And so for some people, obviously, there was this thing of ‘Well, I think atheists are bad people, and I’m not a bad person, so I can’t be an atheist.’ But there’s even more than that. There’s the ‘I just didn’t know it was an option.’ ‘I just didn’t know that that was a thing.’

So again, it’s about visibility. Some of what we’re doing when we do things about visibility is just letting people know that this is a possibility. And it is one of the things that’s a little bit annoying about being in a marginalised group, and particularly in a marginalised group that’s invisible, that being out or coming out means doing some 101 education. And that’s annoying.

We shouldn’t have to do that, and I think that it’s not necessary to do it if you want to just say, ‘You know what? I don’t feel like doing bisexuality 101.’ ‘I don’t feel like doing atheism 101. Go look it up on the Internet.’ I think that’s legitimate. But as a collective reality, as a community reality, I think it is unfortunate that being out does mean – at the minimum, it means you’re going to be asked all these ridiculous questions. ‘Do you eat babies?’ and so on.

But there’s a flipside to that, which is that simply by being out we’re doing 101 education. Even if we don’t want to sit down and answer all the irritating questions – and sometimes I’m in a mood for it and sometimes I’m not – but simply by being out, our very lives are doing education. There’s times when I just want to live my damn life, and not be… you know, I don’t know if you have this, but do you ever sort of feel the need to be, you know, a paragon?

No. No, I’ve never been a paragon in my life! Well, not of goodness anyway.

Yeah, I know what you mean. I think it’s interesting though, because as you say, it’s difficult having to be that person who’ll explain and educate and be compulsorily not-pissed-off about it. But I did that, and here’s something that I wanted actually, ‘cause I find it interesting:

That member of my family who had all that stuff going on for years and years, is I think at the point now of just about getting it. I think it was a year or two ago, and I just had to sort of… I actually don’t know that I was any clearer than I’d ever been before, but I was more empathetic, and just said something to the effect of ‘Look: it doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t matter to lots of people whether you’re a man or a woman, or anybody in between or beyond the two.’

That same person, who was giving me the ‘So are you gay?’ talk for years and years – since that point, comparatively recently – has actually expressed queer attractions: attractions to people of the same gender that they never had before.

And so I’m wondering if that idea that just by coming out, you’re not going to convert anybody or anything like that… maybe is there room to be… if not to be critical, then to question some element of that?

We were talking before about erasure, and the fact that what you’re able to identify as and what you’re able to feel that you are kind of depends on what you think is an option. It depends on the concepts and the identities that you know of and that you’ve been exposed to, and that you ‘get’.

So I’m wondering: does the act of coming out and being more visible and doing that education sometimes actually make other people rethink their own identities, in a way that is not exactly the same as just coming out?

Well, I think that it certainly can make people ‘come out to themselves’. It can certainly make people question their own identity and accept things about themselves that they might not have accepted, or consider options – as you say, consider options about themselves that they might not have considered.

I think there probably were, for centuries, for millennia, people who were what we would now call transgender – who because they never had that word, because they never had that concept, would never have called themselves that.

Now when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity I’m reluctant to say, [and] I don’t think, people ‘become’ bisexual or ‘become’ gay or lesbian or ‘become’ transgender because they see that it’s an option. I do think (and it seems to be where the scientific consensus is coming in) that to some extent, either we’re born this way or we’re formed this way very very early on in life.

But certainly, to the extent that you accept it about yourself and are willing to embrace it – and even (we’re starting to get off-theme here, but) is there a degree to which having the word lets you be the thing? Does having the word’ bisexual’, does having the word ‘transgender’, let you be it in a way that if you never had that word, if the word didn’t exist and if the concept didn’t exist, you [wouldn’t]?

What makes me go back on that is, people have been behaving bisexually, people have been behaving homosexually, for centuries. There’s lots of history of that. And that behaviour has existed for a long time. I don’t know as much about the history of transgender people, so I don’t know about that, but my guess would be that it’s the same.

So I don’t know. I’m repeating myself. It’s an interesting question: to what degree does seeing other people as models not only… obviously it helps you come out and be public, but to what degree does it let you not only accept things about yourself that you’re having a hard time accepting, but actually just identity that way at all?

And I don’t know. I think that’s a good question.

Just, perhaps, to notice things about yourself that you haven’t noticed before?

I don’t know if this is a thing that you’ve experienced – I don’t even know if this is a broad bisexual phenomenon – but was there was ever a point for you where you had that moment of thinking ‘Hang on, this is attraction? This counts as attraction? I can say that?’ I don’t know, was that a thing that you had?

‘Cause for a while, I – sorry, I’ll keep talking! – there was a reasonably extensive time when I identified as gay while I was a teenager. But I think there was a point, which was kind of a tipping point, when I actually had that moment and realised that what I felt towards women could be considered attraction.

I hadn’t had that moment before. I never considered what I was experiencing to be sexual attraction, but it was, and that kind of dawned on me. It never actually seemed to ‘count’ before, right? I felt primed to be dismissive of that. And I think a lot of people are wedded to a straight identity in a similar way.

I think there are people who identify as straight because they always have and they’ve been told that that was the default, and will have queer attractions or experiences that don’t really occur to them – they just kind of fly under the radar. It’s a huge thing with straight men, particularly adolescent and twentysomething – the whole ‘male bonding’ thing, falling into something that really should be considered erotic and yet is not.

Well, I think that certainly, when it comes to… I don’t know, there’s not much that’s certain about this. I’ll take back the ‘certainly’ part!

I think that bisexual identity is a little unusual in some ways, in that it’s… I’m not going to say ‘easier’, exactly, because it’s not necessarily emotionally easier, but it’s easier externally to fly under the radar.

Actually, I’ll give you an example here: I found out some years after my mother died (she died when I was very young and when she was 45), [when] my father told me some years later, that when she was in college she had had sexual experiences with other women.

I don’t know how far those experiences went, and of course by the time I found out about it my mother was gone, so I couldn’t ask her about it, but she’d had some sexual experiences with women – but because this was the fifties, and it was horribly homophobic, way worse than we are now, she felt guilty about it, she felt like this was something wrong with her.

But I don’t think her attraction to men was false. I don’t think she was a lesbian. I think that if anything, she probably was bisexual, or would have identified as bisexual if she had lived in another time. And so it’s kind of this thing where, if you’re attracted to both genders (or all genders – let’s get rid of the binary there for a minute), if you’re attracted to people of lots of genders, you can still be reasonably happy with just one.

If I’d been born in the fifties, and just said ‘I don’t want to explore women, ‘cause either I think that’s sick and wrong or I just am afraid of it’ – ‘cause all of us do that, and so on – I could have been happy, being involved with a man. I’ve been involved with men and have been happy. Well, reasonably happy. (It was in my youth when I was, you know, pretty fucked up.) ‘Reasonably happy.’

So that’s kind of an interesting question. I don’t want to make people call themselves what they don’t call themselves – I hate the whole thing of ‘Oh, everybody’s basically bisexual and they have to call themselves that.’ That’s ridiculous. But I do think that more people would probably both identify as bisexual and behave bisexually if bisexuality weren’t stigmatised, both from the straight world and from the gay world.

So I don’t know, does that answer your question?

Yeah. No, I think it does. It was Lady Gaga, and before her and after it’s been a whole lot of other people, but that whole argument from having no choice – ‘We were born gay!’, ‘Stop picking on us, we are the way we are!’, ‘It’s in our DNA!’, all of that stuff: as someone who is a Kinsey… 3 or 5? I always forget which way the scale goes.

6 is totally gay and 0 is totally straight.

Yeah – four and a half, sort of thing? I find that argument is fairly insulting, on some level, because I have the same thing as you: I’ve found heterosexual relationships to be perfectly enjoyable, perfectly fulfilling and all of that stuff.

I don’t want to be in them right now; might want to be in them again at some point; but I kind of am the worst nightmare of the religious right and the tabloids, because for me right now, just being in gay relationships is actually a choice.

If I felt that I wanted to identify as gay, I could without any problems – so I feel sidelined by that whole thing, ‘We don’t have a choice! Leave us alone!’ If it were a choice, it would probably be the best choice in the world.

Haha. No, I know what you mean. I think there’s a couple of problems with ‘Born this way’. One is that it doesn’t have much of a good ethical foundation. I don’t know if you know John Corvino? He’s a gay philosopher, atheist…

I think so. Has he done Skepticon?

He’s done Skepticon, he’s done debates with Maggie Gallagher of the National Organisation for Marriage and so on, and he makes the case he doesn’t like the ‘Born this way’ argument because he thinks that it doesn’t have an ethical foundation. And the analogy he makes is, it’s quite possible that some people are born with a greater tendency to be violent – to be physically violent – than others.

That doesn’t make being physically violent ethical. That’s not what answers the question of whether it’s okay to physically hurt people. If you ask the question, the answer isn’t ‘Well, some people are born with a likelihood to do that, so therefore it’s okay.’

So when you’re looking at the question of ‘Is it ethical to be gay, to be lesbian or bisexual?’ – that’s not the question we should be looking at. The question is… is it ethical? Does it hurt anybody? Does it do harm to society? Is there any way in which it’s unfair? Those are the questions we should be looking at.

And I think for anybody who’s not already committed to the proposition that being gay is bad, the answer is pretty clear that no, there’s nothing ethically wrong with it. And I agree with you that certainly from a political standpoint, focusing on the ‘Born this way’ argument – when the LGBT political movement is focusing on, you know, ‘We’re born this way’, ‘We can’t help it’ – it does throw bisexuals into the gutter.

Because we do have a choice. I’m the same way as you are: I could have been happy in relationships, I could have been happy in relationships with women. I could have been happy in relationships with people who don’t identify on a gender binary. But at a time in my life when I was starting to go ‘Okay, I don’t want to be single any more. I’ve been single for a long time; that was good. I now want to be open to being in a serious relationship’, I was loading the dice towards women.

And that’s not because I’m more sexually attracted to women than I am to men. (I am a little bit, but not enough to have that be the determining factor.) It’s that I like women better. You know, the personality traits that women tend on average, as an overall bell curve kind of thing to have more than men are traits that I like, and that I think are useful and valuable in a relationship and that I cherish in a relationship.

So when I was dating, and dating with an eye toward maybe getting seriously involved, I was definitely mostly dating women, because not as a sexual thing but just as a personal thing, I tend to like women better than men. And when the LGBT movement emphasises ‘Born this way!’, it does kind of cast us into the shade.

And I also do think that it does ignore the degree to which sexual identity, or at least sexual orientation – not necessarily self-proclaimed identity, although that too actually – can change over time.

The scientific consensus does seem to be leaning to some degree toward who we’re just attracted to; you know, who our genitals get throbby for or at least have the potential to be throbby for. That does seem to be set pretty early on in life, but as you say, it kind of ignores that those of us for whom the setting that we got very early on in life is malleability; is something that might change over time.

So yeah, I’m repeating myself here: I do think there’s seems to be some degree of scientific consensus that just the physical lustiness seems to be set. But that ignores the degree to which where we’re set [can be] flexibility or malleability. And also, it’s so complicated. There’s so much more than just who our bits get throbby for. There is all the cultural identity and political identity that’s as much as part of the picture as the throbby bits.

Interesting picture.

No, that’s my response to ‘Are you born this way or are you not?’ I find that whole question to be a little bit oversimplistic. It’s the same with food, it’s the same with music taste, it’s the same with most things, I would guess. I think genetics is probably very influential, but all of those factory settings are always going to be filtered through the way we think about ourselves, the way we’re taught to think about ourselves, what we’re invited to see as valid, what we’re invited to see as something that doesn’t count…

The idea that it’s as simple and as binary as ‘Either it’s born-that-way, or you just choose that’ – well, I would imagine that most philosophers would be fairly critical of the idea you’re either born with a state, a predisposition or whatever, or it’s completely your choice. That’s a very overneat way of thinking about it.

So yeah, there’s that. To go back to something you said, I have read criticism of the idea the bisexual label invokes a gender binary. I’ve heard the argument that the word was coined to refer to both homosexual and non-homosexual’ relationships. So there’s that argument for the permissibility of it.

‘Pansexual’ does just not work for me. I know this is probably very politically incorrect, but it just sounds pretentious. Sorry – I know I’m going to get lots of people being really angry with me after saying that, but personally, it just wouldn’t really feel intuitive to me to call myself pansexual. Even though the idea is probably actually closer to how I see things, it doesn’t quite sit right.

Is it that you just don’t like the language? Is it that you think it’s awkward neologism? Or it just not how you identify – are you, in fact, attracted to men and women but not to people who aren’t on the gender binary? Because I think there may be people like that, who aren’t attracted to people who aren’t on the gender binary.

There are certainly people who feel an attraction specifically toward nonbinary people, so presumably, perhaps the opposite exists as well. No: men, women and everyone between and beyond is all good as far as I’m concerned, but it just feels a little too… unfamiliar? ‘Pansexual’? It feels a bit too much like a neologism for me.

Everyone can use the language that they prefer – it just doesn’t quite chime with me, for some reason. I think if you asked me, ‘queer’ would be how I identified, because I like its vagueness.

Of course, that was also a strategy that I used to piss people off. And I continue to use it to piss people off. Perhaps it’s ethically questionable, because I don’t like being asked to do the education and the explanations and that kind of thing, but I do deliberately employ an identifier that makes people confused.

I suppose I’m just manipulative. There’s something very welcoming about being able to be nonspecific.

To some extent it’s concept-dependent. I use a whole panoply of words to describe myself. I use the word ‘queer’, and I like the word ‘queer’ for many situations – for no other reason but that it does, in a single syllable, without having to say LGBTQII et cetera, get across the sense of ‘all of us together’: all of us who identify [other than as] heterosexual and cisgender.

And it also gets across that sense of deliberate, self-defined differentness. That’s not true for all LGBTQ people. There’s a lot of LGBTQ people who don’t feel this great sense of differentness because of their sexual or gender orientation. But some of us do, and that’s a reason I use the word.

But there are times when I actually do want to specifically convey that I’m attracted to people of both or all genders. There are times when I want to get that cross, and when you say ‘queer’, that doesn’t do that. People who are totally, 100 percent lesbian still use that word; people who are totally, 100 percent gay still use that word.

And there are times when I call myself a lesbian. I don’t use that often – but I do use that if what I’m trying to get across is that I’m in a same-sex relationship, I’ve been in a same-sex relationship for sixteen years, and I have a cultural identification with the LGBTQ community, but I also have a specific cultural identification with the lesbian community.

Mm.

And there’s times when I want to be conveying that. And also when I’m trying to get guys to not hit on me. It’s that shorthand. That’s my own sort of dishonest thing, where if I don’t feel like having the whole conversation and saying ‘I’m bisexual – I just want you to piss off’, sometimes saying ‘I’m a lesbian’ stops the conversation. So.

Yeah. I think it’s interesting the extent to which identifying oneself as bisexual often feels a little rude, or a little combative, or as if you’re being difficult.

I don’t know if this is your experience as well, but I think because there’s such a level of erasure about bisexuality, very often the point where you express that about yourself is when someone has asked you if you’re gay. That’s how it was with me; that’s how it was, I think, with a lot of people. And therefore it’s often slightly difficult to identify oneself as bisexual in conversation without telling someone they’re wrong and without sounding slightly irritated.

And I think there can be a feeling that… you’re just ruining everybody’s fun, and why can’t you just be a little more simplistic, and not along and say that you’re gay?

Hahahaha.

‘Stop making everything so complicated!’ Which is why I think a lot of people have that very flexible thing. I think there are a lot of generally bisexual people, or in broad terms bisexual people, who’ll go with ‘gay’ and nod along when they feel socially pressured or expected to, just because it’s easier, and they don’t feel they have to do the explanations.

Personally I’m much more difficult than that. I have no interest in being polite, and being nice, and making it really easy for the straight people to get everything. I will simultaneously insist that you use the terms, which confuse you, that I want you to use, and insist on not explaining them. That’s how irritating I am.

Hahaha. There is some of this. People keep talking about ‘Oh, the language keeps changing! How do you expect me to keep up with all these new rules?’ Well, actually, you know what? There is a really old rule.

I got this from, of all places, Miss Manners, who I adore – I have some issues with her, but mostly I adore her – and she wasn’t even talking about this, she was talking about something else. But she said ‘It’s polite to address people in the way that they have clearly indicated that they want to be addressed.’

That cuts across a lot of things. How do people of different racial or ethnic identities want to be addressed? How do people of different sexual or gender identities want to be addressed? How do people of different nationalities want to be addressed?

It’s polite to address the way they’ve clearly indicated they want to be addressed – and they don’t owe you an explanation. They don’t need to have the whole history of why the word you just used is an ethnic slur and they’d really rather you used this other word instead. You don’t owe that to people.

I do think that if somebody uses the wrong word by mistake and they just didn’t know, then it’s legitimate to cut them slack – I cut people slack for ignorance. But if it’s the tenth time we’ve had that conversation and you’re still using the wrong word, then that to me speaks of a deliberate, wilful ignorance and a deliberate resistance – not just to that language, but to let go of the privilege of getting to pick the language.

That’s the thing: the power to name ourselves is really important. And I think there are a lot of people from whatever axis of privilege you’re talking about, whether it’s race, or gender orientation, class, whatever, who want to pick the language ‘cause they always have. And being asked to ‘try to remember as best you can what it is that I prefer to be called…’

Being asked to spend five minutes on Wikipedia! Five whole minutes doing your research – it’s just unacceptable.

Yes. Exactly. Yes. And having to remember things?! People tell you things, and you have to remember?! You have to stop and think for a second? It’s like, what’s that about?

There’s actually a point in your book – maybe it was cut – where you talk about the fact you use the word ‘atheist’ and not the word ‘freethinker’, ‘secularist’, ‘skeptic’, whatever. Because secularism – or atheism, or freethought or whatever – has that argument as well: that tension and variety about names.

I don’t know. Do you think that in a way, because it’s seen to be less of a… no, I’ll let you talk. How do you think that those compare – the variety of names in queer identity and atheism?

I think there’s a lot of parallels. I think there’s a lot of similarities. I think that, certainly, again there’s this whole thing of the power to name ourselves, and when people have been marginalised and have been stigmatised – especially when we’re still in those first few years of coalescing as a community and as a movement – that power to name ourselves becomes really important.

But also, because we’re coming together and coalescing as a movement, we’re not just struggling with believers about what to call us, we’re struggling with ourselves and what we should call ourselves. But of course, we all have that issue of wanting to name ourselves, and we don’t want to be called by other nonbelievers what to call ourselves any more than we want to be told by believers. So I tend to try to not get involved in the squabbles. I try to say, ‘Each of us gets to call ourselves what we want, and if you want to call yourself a humanist or a freethinker, ‘nonbeliever’, ‘agnostic’, ‘materialist’, whatever – I don’t really care that much.’

I have a little bit of an issue with ‘agnostic’, ‘cause I want to ask people who call themselves agnostic, ‘Are you just as agnostic about unicorns or leprechauns or whatever as you are about God? And if you’re not, why is God the one thing that you insist on claiming your lack of knowledge about?’ But ultimately, as long as they’re not telling me that I shouldn’t call myself an atheist and that I’m ‘really’, in air-quotes, an agnostic, I don’t want to tell them that they’re ‘really’ (air-quotes) an atheist, ‘cause that power to name myself is to important. And if for them that not-knowing matters, I think for them that’s fine.

And I do suspect that eventually, maybe in a decade or two, we’ll probably coalesce on a word that most of us use. You know, the way we coalesced on ‘LGBT’. It’s not what I would have picked…

Ha!

…cause it’s too many syllables and it’s awkward and it’s a mouthful, but it’s not a bad term. It includes everybody, and it gets it across and it’s short (short enough, anyway), and it’s kind of how language works: neologisms are awkward until they’re not new any more. To some extent, you can try to advocate for whatever word you like best, but ultimately language develops organically and we’re going to coalesce on whatever word we coalesce on.

Maybe we don’t coalesce on a word, because there are differences between atheists and humanists for instances – just like there’s differences between ‘LGBT’ and ‘queer’. Subtle differences, and again we might use different words in different situations. There are times when I call myself a humanist, because I’m trying to identify more with the assorted positive philosophies and not just with the lack of belief in God.

But really, I don’t care what other people call themselves. It’s an issue when we’re trying to name groups or organisations or whatever. But I don’t want to take away that power-of-naming. It’s too important.

It’s interesting: some of those names can sometimes be more than just interchangeable names. There’s a certain series of associations that I have with the label of ‘humanist’ – there’s a way in which I associate the label ‘humanist’ with the 1960s, and a consequence perhaps with people who were around in the 1960s and are still around… and are still in those organisations, if you know what I’m saying.

It seems to me that ‘atheist’ has caught the vogue in the last ten years (maybe a little more) in the same way that ‘humanist’ did then. There seems to be a vogue for that at the moment.

I agree with you that ‘atheist’ has more of an appeal to younger people – people who are… high school, college, early twenties and so on. And that’s not universally true, but I would also add to that that I think the word ‘atheist’ tends to draw people who are more confrontational, who are more actually-opposition to religion, or just whose manner of activism and being in the world about their nonbelief is more confrontational and less let’s-get-along-to-get-along.

It’s not universally true – I know some people who identify as humanists who are very badass – but that’s another thing about language: it develops organically and it changes organically. When my parents were nonbelievers, and this was in the fifties and sixties, they very adamantly called themselves agnostics, because at the time, the word ‘atheist’ tended to mean somebody who’s absolutely certain that there is no god. And people who had even the tiny, tiny .001 percent of doubt called themselves agnostic.

That’s changed, and I think the language will probably continue to change. I agree with you that ‘humanist’ has different associations; I’m not sure I would necessarily agree that it necessarily means people who are of an older generation, but to some extent it has that association. But again, those associations change.

It’s one of the issues I have with (quote-unquote) ‘dictionary atheists’, who insist atheism only means not believing in God, and we can’t organise or build communities around any other thing. It’s like, no: atheism is beginning to mean both people who don’t believe in God and a set of implications that we draw from that conclusion.

I’ve noticed as well that there’s a certain political gulf, that I have a very vague impression of, between humanists and humanist-identified secularists in the US and Britain as well.

I’ve tended to observe that people who march under the banner of humanism in the states lean somewhat more strongly to the left than humanists in Britain. I’m not sure why that is, but – in my experience, anyway – it’s more of a countercultural identity, [with] more immediate openness to class concerns in politics, feminism and that kind of thing.

I’ve found that humanists in the UK are first of all a little less well defined. You find people under the humanist banner everywhere politically, but as far as major organisations, I think that the British Humanist Association – the people that run it, and I’ve met quite a few of them, I would place more in the political centre than people I know at African Americans for Humanism or the American Humanist Association.

I’m not sure why that is, but it’s interesting.

That’s a good question. Because this is me, and this is what I do, I’m going to speculate and pull speculative conclusions totally out of my ass – so, therefore, this is a provisional guess – but I think that to some extent [it’s] because being a nonbeliever in Britain is more normal, it’s more ordinary, it’s more common anyway.

Being a nonbeliever in the states is oppositional, and there’s no way around that. It’s a little different if you live in New York City or some place like that, but even then you have to contend with the rest of the country. And so I wonder if because of that, right now at least in the United States, we have a situation where in order to reject religion you have to be willing to question the religious right, for one thing.

Certainly in the United States, religion and conservative politics are very much welded together. One of the reasons why I’m engaged in atheist activism is that I do see it as a crowbar: when people become atheists, they do tend to become more liberal, more progressive. I think that may not always be true. I think that if atheism does become more common in the United States, then in a few decades that tendency of atheists, humanists, just any nonbeliever…

So I don’t think that humanists are more progressive: just ‘nonbelievers’ in the States tend to be more progressive, because the kind of personality that gets you questioning religion is also perhaps the kind of personality that gets you questioning other conventions about politics and society and so on. I think it’s possible that in a few decades that won’t be true.

You hear it a lot from the religious right, that insistence that religious populations tend to be very charitable, very invested in helping the homeless and things like that – and I think that issue has manifested itself sometimes in humanist or atheist groups doing things like running soup kitchens or helping the poor, because things like charity and social help are associated with religious organisations.

Part of me thinks that has been somewhat less the case in Britain in the last fifty or more years, because I think Britain has a slightly more developed set of secular institutions for things like that. We’ve historically had, I think, somewhat better welfare provision.

No argument there, yeah.

Well, it’s changing…

Much, much, much better. It sucks: the social safety net in the United States sucks.

Yeah, but also trade unions and things like that, I think, have been much more enshrined – at least until recently (well, relatively recently) – in Britain than sometimes they have been in the US.

And from that perspective, it’s difficult to be a secularist in the US, at least if you have a very well conceived and thoroughly organised political vision, without wanting public provision to replace what churches have had. It’s hard to want churches to go away, and not think we should have some kind of public or communally provision of things like housing and so on.

Maybe that would account for more self-consciously left-leaning humanism in the US than what I sometimes see in the UK, which I think I would call more ‘liberal’, or ‘progressive’, or somewhere in the middle.

Well certainly. It’s sad, it’s depressing that this should be true, but in the United States, wanting a safety net at all is a liberal position.

I know.

Wanting decent public education; wanting there to be some sort of decent public healthcare safety net; wanting, you know, there to not be poor people dying in the streets: that’s a liberal position. It’s pathetic that it should be true, but that’s the case.

And I do think that there’s a couple of things going on. One is that a lot of the safety nets in the US are done through religion. I don’t know how true that is outside the States, but a lot of the safety nets are done through religion, so, therefore when we leave religion we have to recognise, ‘Gosh – if we’re not going to do soup kitchens and daycare centres through churches, how are we going to do them? What else are we going to do, then?’

And so there’s that. There’s also… I don’t know, have you read Phil Zuckerman’s book Society Without Faith?

So Phil Zuckerman is a sociologist. He studies atheism and secularism and did this years-long analysis of countries that are more religious and countries that are less religious, and what he found was that countries that are less religious tend to be… they tend to be happier countries. They have more of a safety net, they’re doing better economically, there’s more equality, more egalitarianism, more gender equality, less of a disparity between rich and poor, better education, better healthcare and so on, which is the same as what progressives are advocates for.

Now the question there becomes: what’s the cause and what’s the effect? Does leaving religion make people go, ‘Hey, there’s no heaven. There’s no afterlife. If we’re going to make people’s lives better we have to do it now, because this is all we get’? Does questioning religion make people want to build this better society? Or does having the better society more likely to be secular, because they don’t have as much of a need to believe in an afterlife ‘cause this life is okay – and also because they have the time and the security to ask questions like ‘Is there a god?’

So I think the reality does seem to be that more atheist societies do tend to be more progressive societies (at least if you define ‘progressive’ as meaning you don’t want people to die in the streets). But then there’s this question of what’s the cause and what’s the effect, and I don’t have a good answer for that. I’m not sure even how we would answer that.

We might actually have an interesting [situation] in the states, because rates of nonbelief are going up even though there’s no better social safety net, healthcare still sucks, public education still sucks and so on. There’s a huge disparity between rich and poor, and yet rates of atheism are still going up. (As a result of a lot of things, the Internet being probably one reason.)

So it’ll be interesting to see: if rates of secularism continue to rise in the States to the point where a significant minority, or a majority even, of Americans are nonbelievers, does our country become more progressive?

But again, correlation isn’t causation, and so… blah blah blah.

Well that’ll be an interesting thing to note if you get to the point where you’re releasing Coming Out Atheist (Seventeenth Edition).

Ha! Definitely.

Apr 18 2014

Secularism is not PC. Britain’s government should know

Gordon Brown never managed to live down his tongue-tied boast he’d saved the world. If that came to be his defining gaffe, David Cameron’s claim last week to be continuing God’s work surely has similar potential. ‘Jesus invented the Big Society’, he told Christian authorities at Downing Street a week ago. ‘I just want to see more of it.’

Mockery, lasting several days, broke out on social media. Brown at least had the excuse of a verbal slip-up; his successor’s remarks, in a speech shared on the government’s website, were surely drafted by advisers who thought them a good idea.

More followed. ‘I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country,’ Cameron writes in this week’s Church Times, ‘more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical’. In a YouTube video, he says much of the same.

One can’t fault the PM for being on-message. Easter provides an annual basketful of reactionary religious soundbites: in 2011, as Cardinal Keith O’Brien attacked ‘aggressive secularism’, Cameron lauded ‘the enormous contribution Christianity has made to our country’; the next year, after Sayeeda Warsi’s ‘militant secularisation’ speech, his Easter message praised an alleged ‘Christian fightback’. ‘This government does care about faith’, he told church leaders in 2013, ‘and it does want to stand up and oppose aggressive secularisation’. (George Carey, ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, accused him of just such aggression the same week, calling Christians a persecuted minority.)

Ministers show no sign of changing the hymn sheet. Eric Pickles, secretary in all but name for tabloid-baiting, attacked yet more ‘militant atheists’ at this month’s Conservative Spring Forum, insisting ‘We’re a Christian nation. We have an established church. Get over it, and don’t impose your politically correct intolerant on others.’ This was the same man who in 2010, during the annual war-on-Christmas panic, complained about ‘politically correct Grinches.

The question lurks: if separating church and state is PC orthodoxy, why haven’t we done it?

It’s hard to be a pariah when national leaders heap praise on you. The test of political correctness is establishment support, which means at least the government’s. You’d think the cabinet could only fawn so much before calling Christianity marginalised became untenable. Seemingly, you’d be wrong. The Cameron government, besotted with the church, claims both to be a rebel force besieged by secularist powers-that-be and to run Britain as it’s always been run. Both can’t be true. Its ministers are the powers-that-be, their view the prevailing one by definition.

Not that they will admit it. Pickles, according to the Guardian, ‘accused the last Labour government of “diminishing Christianity” by suggesting that religion and politics could not mix’. To those of us who regularly say the same, this comes as a surprise. Likely, he has in mind Alistair Campbell’s interjection, ‘We don’t do God’, when a journalist sought details of Tony Blair’s beliefs; the sentence was a guideline in an interview and means of ending it, not a policy statement, but is trotted out ad nauseam by Tories keen to prove themselves more faith-obsessed than Labour was.

Their thirst to do so is an achievement of Blair’s governments, whose ministers fell over themselves as Cameron’s do today to say nice-sounding things involving ‘faith’. Religion, a much plainer-sounding thing, is rarely mentioned. Its followers are now ‘people of faith’, as in ‘of colour’; its hierarchs, especially the established church’s which Pickles admires, have been rebranded ‘faith leaders’. With seats in parliament, legal exemptions and a stranglehold on British education, but barely one percent of the populace in its pews, the C of E is a sick dog spoilt by owners all too aware its time is short.

If saying so is politically correct, it doesn’t feel it. Indeed, ‘faith schools’, the media-friendly name for where governments have herded record numbers of children according to parents’ beliefs, is a very PC term for segregation.

A year from now, we’ll no doubt hear again of an intolerant, aggressive secularism with a grip on Britain. Once they’ve warned us, organised religion’s friends will stretch in their seats of power, pour millions more in public funds toward it and go back to work. Secularists like me will ask ourselves, meanwhile: if we never had it so good, why didn’t we notice?

Apr 14 2014

A media that paints puritans and fanatics as mainstream forfeits its right to condemn them

Asif Quraishi, better known as drag queen Asifa Lahore, sits unassumingly in a TV studio. ‘One question I’d like to ask’, he says, ‘is when will it be all right to be Muslim and gay?

The programme is Twitter-powered BBC Three debate series Free Speech, whose host Rick Edwards (of Tool Academy and, unexpectedly, Cambridge) makes Nicky Campbell seem subdued, and where no thought is too complex for 140 characters. Producers, show name notwithstanding, spiked the question from a previous edition when officials at Birmingham Central Mosque, where Free Speech filmed on March 13, ‘expressed deep concerns’ about gay Muslims being discussed. The speed at which showrunners acquiesced, postponing the segment, speaks to a wider trend.

So begins my column this week at Index on Censorship – read the rest there.

Apr 04 2014

No, Tom Daley didn’t just call himself a gay man

Five months after insisting he still fancied girls, Tom Daley, who came out as bisexual last December in an emotional YouTube video, has made a new announcement: last night, the 19-year-old admitted he only wants to be with men and says he is no longer attracted to women, confirming that he is actually gay. ‘I am a gay man now. I’m definitely gay, not bisexual’, he said, attempting to explain his change-of-heart for Keith Lemon on Celebrity Juice.

This paragraph is a collage of statements from news sources within the last two days. The story, invariably headlined something like ‘Tom Daley: I’m a gay man now’, is all over the web. (I noticed it as a trend on Facebook. At the time of writing, it’s the top one.) With any luck, the patchwork above distills the overarching narrative the press has spun.

Articles show similar patterns. Typically, they open with reminders Daley’s coming-out, in which he ‘insisted’ he liked women while dating a man, was barely five minutes ago; they pointedly note his being 19 (bisexuality, of course, is something teenage); they declare him now to have ‘admitted’ to being simply gay, as the glitterati – Andrew Sullivan, Dan Savage, Richard Lawson – said he would, adding a hundred words or more of gossip-column extraneity.

I’ve felt obliged to write about Daley before, but never quite been able to. As subjects for writing go, he’s always seemed an uninteresting figure – less interesting by far, at least, than a once-bullied, now-adored bilingual queer Olympian should be who lost a parent, was an A-student and photographed Kate Moss and who’s dating an Oscar-winner. I seem to be the only one not attracted to him: the public Daley feels sexless as a Ken doll.

Nonetheless, media’s treatment of him is unsettling – not least its creepy, invasive monitoring of his relationship, an indignity saved usually for royals. This latest headline, clearly, was one the press had ached for months to write in ‘told you so’ self-satisfaction, so nonspecific are the articles below it. Almost none quote what Daley actually said; almost all distort it.

Here is the clip that spurred reports. The entire exchange occurs within the first five seconds.

‘Let’s get right to the crunch here,’ says host Keith Lemon – persona of Leigh Francis, one more straight comic in the David Walliams mould who thinks ‘act queer’ is the fastest route to funny. ‘You’re a gay man now.’ (This is, as has thus far been largely overlooked, a reference to a popular Catherine Tate sketch.)

I, ah…’ Daley replies, sounding a bit uncomfortable.

That’s it.

Admittedly, his diction isn’t clear. A proper journalist’s transcription, and well-known journalists have hired me to give them, would render it simply as ‘[indistinct]’: the second word could equally be ‘agh’, ‘ugh’, ‘yeah’, ‘know’ or something else. Outlets desperate for a bi-now-gay-later scoop seem to have rounded it up to ‘am’ – then delved into wild, opportunistic paraphrase of what they hoped he’d said.

Even if Daley had answered ‘I am’, low-brow comedy quiz programmes on ITV aren’t quite the forum for Q&A on nuanced identities. Plenty who sail like me in vaguely bisexual waters would, I think, have shrugged along rather than correct Francis. We’re encouraged to bow to the binary of ‘gays’ and ‘normal people’, to be unfussy about what we’re called: erasure makes stating bisexuality awkward when it comes as a reprimand.

No, Tom Daley didn’t say he’s a gay man. Nor did he ever use the word bisexual, for that matter – but it’s obvious which one the press prefers.

Edit: For those saying Daley’s reply sounded to them like a clear ‘I am’, hear the isolated audio here.

Mar 29 2014

On the marvellously pathetic death of Fred Phelps, 1929-2014

Fred Phelps, who for decades railed against fags like me, isn’t in Kansas any more. The pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, whose followers (blood kin or not) knew him as Gramps, was declared dead just over a week ago; no funeral was organised. ‘We do not worship the dead’, his daughter Shirley told the press – fingering absent-mindedly, one can but hope, her crucifix.

Phelps picketed hundreds of burials. Those who planned vengefully to picket his, or dreamt of it (and many did), divided views: the civility police railed against the notion, citing taste, decency and compassion as they had when street parties marked Margaret Thatcher’s death. At Westboro’s first post-mortem demonstration, a counterprotest’s banner read SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS – a sign, perhaps, that moral heroism has won out.

I’m not a hero at the best of times. I’m unlikely to grow into one at times like this.

In the face of the Phelps children’s suffering, I’m not stonehearted. Those who escaped and were cut off, among them now-atheist Nate (who broke the news his father was near death), were allowed no final goodbye; while they mourn a lost parent as best they can, thousands dance on his grave. The thought stays my schadenfreude more than most, but ultimately it seems Fred’s doing too. At such an infamous life’s end, could the world be asked to hold its tongue, even for their sake?

Nate Phelps and I have a few mutual friends. Though we’ve never met or spoken, he’s always seemed his father’s opposite, warm-hearted, soft-spoken and kind, graceful in what Louis Theroux, writing on social media of his brothers in the Church, calls the air of an abusive upbringing. That I feel his pain and check my urge to cheer his father’s death challenges my every vindictive instinct – nor do I feel, though, that in the calculus of how we answer Fred’s last gasps, his feelings or his siblings’ are the only ones that count.

Fred Phelps, though mercifully distant and in nothing like as harrowing a way, was part of my childhood too. Unlike Nate or Louis Theroux, I’m queer: his signs, in whose fluorescent shadow I grew up, referred to me.

This May will mark ten years since I came out, if I’d even call it that. (‘Because you’re gay?’, Stephen Hodgson asked after biology, wondering why I didn’t leer over the girl I was meant to. ‘Yeah’, I shrugged. That was it.) Earlier, a decade ago almost exactly, I’d sat online for hours Googling; one queer teen forum in particular was of great use to me, and was where I first discovered Fred.

Imagery shared and mocked there is still fresh: a squadron of girls no older than ten in ‘God hates fags’ shirts; a Flash-based noughts-and-crosses style game, ‘Fags vs. Kids’, on Westboro’s site, where five sodomites (‘represented by a pink swastika’) and three infants (‘represented by a baby bottle’) had to be placed correctly on a grid; footage from Michael Moore’s programme The Awful Truth, where Moore and a dozen gay men and lesbians confronted Fred across the Bible belt. He was 69 in the segment, but looked like he was pushing 90.

Skeletal, stiff as boards and with skin, appropriately, like an old Bible, it was clear he wasn’t a man in good health. Phelps’ appearance meant, conversely, that he never seemed to age, forever at death’s door without quite dying. His was the kind of twilight state the word ‘undead’ must have been coined to describe – you almost suspected, in fact, that some hideous otherworldly force must be sustaining him.

For that reason, he never seemed weak to me or the forum’s other members. Sickliness in a man of such extraordinary evil meant not frailty, for boys like us, but a horrible invulnerability – the same way that, whereas if you or I turned green we’d be rushed to a hospital, a witch’s green skin shows she’s to be feared. Fred was the Wicked Witch of the Midwest: he never seemed human enough to us to pass away like anybody else.

His death, we assumed, would therefore be spectacular. If no tornado dropped a house on him, or water-based attacks failed to melt his flesh, then earthlier routes must be taken. Friends and I fantasised at length about how Fred Phelps, the monster, might be slain: Chris from Toronto picturing putting gun skills to good use; Matt from New Zealand, prompting cardiac arrest through wandering hands; Logan from Alabama and I, blowing the Westboro compound up with high explosives. (A funeral picket afterward seemed only logical.)

If this seems extreme, consider that the straight boys in our classes played at machine-gunning Nazis – Fred was, for us, a spectre in his own lifetime of the kind the Waffen-SS has become in pop culture. It’s also true, of course, that such vicious thoughts came to provide an outlet for a swell of righteous rage.

Westboro did little that harmed me personally; despicably as the Phelpses behaved, they were loathed for what they signified as much as their actions. Fred gave the fear a face that made me scrub my browser history like an infected wound, was the emblem of the way it felt to me when Robbie, a boy in my 13-year-old art class, drove a pair of compasses into my forearm and drew blood; when Jack and Jonathan, sat behind me in maths, took turns spitting on me; when my brother, in the adjoining room one Christmas, unknowingly called me ‘an offence against nature and God’.

I took most of this and more by staying on what I deemed the moral high road, doing what childhood’s moral heroes told me was the Christian thing: loving my enemies, praying for my persecutors, forgiving them because they knew not what they did; turning the other cheek, rising above and being the better soul. When deaths like Phelps’ occur, we hear this too from preachers of civility.

It’s a sick philosophy, I’ve come to think, that tells victims to prove themselves better than their oppressors. Being wronged by somebody I haven’t wronged makes me better than them. Fred was a man who bludgeoned children with farm tools – no quantity of vitriol or disrespect will make us equals, just as no act of self-defence would have sunk me to my assailants’ level. Had I only been less loving toward them, I’d have invested less in hating him, since part of me did long to return fire: lashing out in lurid, violent fantasies at the thought of him became a form of reprisal-by-proxy.

Kids like me needed a witch our rage could melt. PC civility’s expansive plains, like Aunt Em’s ranch, are grey and lonely for us – abiding by its delicate constraints can feel like living in a world made out of cardboard. Fred’s cruelty made him a fair-enough target, someone as vicious as harassment had made us; his pain, an opportunity for justified sadism; his someday demise, a glorious event. Pickets aside, I longed for a good seat – a chance to savour his death throes’ exquisite spasms, watch his spirit break before his choking flesh. I’ll get you, my pretty, and your brittle god too.

After the fact, I’m unsatisfied. Phelps’ death was, in every sense, pathetic.

Westboro, Nate’s statements and implicitly its own have made clear, burnt bridges with its founder some months earlier. Male congregants (fearing, perhaps, a woman’s assumption of church leadership) pushed daughter Shirley to one side, and Fred – seeking, of all things, a ‘kinder approach’ – was excommunicated. Family, concerned that he might harm himself, moved him seemingly against his will to living quarters where ‘stopped eating and drinking’. Hospice care, at some point, followed. It only ends one way.

Not with a bang but a whimper, indeed. His death reads like a man’s who outright lost the will to live, if not a calculated suicide – Fred would no doubt have spurned that option – then a gradual, half-conscious disintegration. I’ve been through that partially because of views like his; gone further and more knowingly, in fact, down the same path of self-destruction. Try as I might, I can’t gloat over it. What’s there to gloat about?

My queer teenage friends and I thought Fred would go out fighting, defeated finally, crying ‘Oh, what a world’ – a spectacular undoing. Not for a second did we see him fading miserably from life, vulnerable and pitiful. The boom-voiced wizard’s fire-and-brimstone face is gone: behind the curtain fallen to one side, only a shrivelled old man’s form remains, Professor Marvel mangled in his own machinery – a lowly, foolish Kansan crystal-gazer.

It might well be that the end of Phelps’ life came as a mercy. He never inspired mercy in me. What lingers is the sense of being thwarted – shock that the inhumane could die such a manifestly human death; grievance at being robbed of a bête noire. Fred perished like a man beneath contempt, too small and weak to hate, but hating him sustained me. There is no monster now, no slaying to look forward to, and I feel lost without it.

Mar 06 2014

How filesharing in Germany cost me $3000

At my new address, the scientist – passive-aggressively polite – told me I had to sign a retroactive rental contract. This could easily have been done by email — when he asked to meet, I should have smelled a rat, but obliged outside a supermarket in November, not stopping to wonder why both ex-flatmates turned up. ‘While you were here,’ he said once papers were filled out, ‘you used BitTorrent?’

I had, I said, like almost all my friends. Filesharing was in my eyes like speeding on the motorway, an illegality most practised and few cared about. ‘We all do it’, the Barcelonian said, who seemed to have come reluctantly.

The scientist produced a further wad of fine-print forms. ‘We got sued’, he told me, ‘by the music industry.’

* * *

Above is an extract from my piece today at Index on Censorship. Read the rest there.

Mar 03 2014

Hunger games: food, money and how I grew up feeling fat

Twice in my life, I’ve been a bit rotund. Both times, it was a common enough experience. At eleven I gorged on pizza, chocolate bars and caramel ice creams, more available at secondary school than in our previously welfare-dependent house, and stayed a slightly tubby teenager till added height changed my proportions, though it may be that having never quite eaten enough before, I was only gaining puppy fat I already should have. A decade on, I snacked my way through Oxford finals, spurning regular meals and comfort-eating. I’ve never been what you’d call fat, but nor during these periods was I slim.

My exam weight has now mostly been shed, more through abstinence than effort: since June, I’ve had no student loan to blow on cake. (No one expects a sweet tooth in someone as sour as me. You’d be surprised.) The poverty diet, as I’ve fondly come to call it, reached its logical extreme this week.

In January I moved back to Berlin, the place I started blogging, and managed to lose my debit card in transit – my bank, amusingly, has since located it in the Philippines. After ringing up immediately to cancel it, I had to change my address with them for a replacement to be sent out, and phoned again when this was done to order one. Presumably since I reported losing my card twice, the bank managed to cancel both the old and new ones. The latter’s last days of use ran out this weekend, and until another has arrived on Friday, I can make no withdrawals, either to pay the rent or to buy food.

Crash diets are a bad way to lose weight: the body responds to starvation by stockpiling fat. That said, and while these fasts have always been involuntary for me, I’ve found that I can make some use of them. As I wrote in December, I can go days without meals since as a child I had to now and again, but for this exact reason I’m prone to binges. I crave food for the joy of eating more than the benefit of being full, and forced restraint takes my mind off using it as a diversion. I’d be lying, too, if I said some part of me doesn’t enjoy the thinner-than-usual body in the mirror when food is off the menu. I’ve no doubt this is unhealthy.

‘Now that I have begun to celebrate lost inches,’ Ben Blanchard of the Pathfinders Project writes, ‘I am fearful that I might develop an eating disorder when left to my own devices as a busy academic back in the states. Until then, I am focusing on not focusing on it, and refuse to give my mind footholds to climb on to an obsession.’ Ben documents a weight loss far more dramatic than any I’ve undergone or needed, but the thought still resonates. What if I cared about this too much?

From the time my eleven year old self became conscious of his slight tubbiness, I’ve never felt quite thin enough – while my body’s undeniably changed shape at several points, I’ve yet entirely to throw off the sense of being overweight.

Hindsight and data tell me this instinct is ludicrous. In television footage from 2012, when I was 20 and the thinnest I remember being, I look like a string bean. In the next year, I didn’t just get fatter for exams but had a late and quite unnecessary growth spurt – between that October and last June, I went from 6’2” to 6’4” and developed relative breadth for the first time. (Before that, I’d had shoulders drag queens would kill for.) If you’d hugged me while the relevant footage was being shot, you’d have sustained a paper cut. So why, at the time, did I feel fat?

I go back further, through pictures of me at eighteen and sixteen. None exist between about twelve and fifteen, because I wouldn’t allow them; school photographs were lost on the way home. Even after my height first rocketed, I didn’t think of myself as slim, but seemingly I was. I’d always been tall for my age anyway, particularly in the leg, and like Ben (if for different reasons) struggled to buy trousers – for adequate length, I’ve often had to wear ones for much bigger waists than mine, and wonder now if it affected how I saw myself. I’m more given to blame parents and P.E. teachers in the end.

Losing my finals weight, combined with the broader frame I got concurrently, has given me a body I quite like. I’m no more toned or skinny than I was two years ago – less so, in fact – but the casing seems for the first time to tie up with the software. The issue, I conclude, is interior: the way I felt about my shape had little to do with what it actually was. Perhaps my mind matured just as my body did. It seems a question of framing either way.

Nowadays I prepare most of my own meals, kept slightly on the paunchy side by love of starchy foods (pasta, pizza, potatoes) and baking. This has provoked in me a strange desire to become healthy – to exercise, eat better and get out more. I’m not sure exactly what will happen here, but whatever does will be gradual, done because want to do it rather than feel a need. I never had impulses like this when I felt overweight. They’ve come to me as I’ve found satisfaction with how I look, and I don’t think that’s by chance.

Mar 02 2014

Dawkins, Grayling and the New College of the Humanities: secularists should know the dangers of private education

‘It’s high time that the atheist left asserted itself against the atheist right
– an Occupy Skepticism, if you will.’ (Jeff Sparrow)

Three years ago, A.C. Grayling – till shortly thereafter, the British Humanist Association’s president elect – announced plans for a private university. New College of the Humanities, whose doors have opened since, was thought up in 2010 when David Cameron’s government cut eight tenths of higher education funding, including all state support for arts degrees, raising tuition fees from £3465 a year to £9000. These had only existed, at the time, for a few years, and fiery arguments broke out over free market education policies. Grayling founded NCH in their backwash, annual fees set at £18,000.

Results weren’t pretty. Only one or two private campuses existed at the time – to open one where degrees would cost the same as a small house was viewed with justified anger. Grayling’s public talks were picketed, a condemnatory public letter signed by dozens of his previous colleagues, and angry letters forced him to give up his BHA role before even assuming it. His presence in the secular scene dried up, societies no longer willing to promote him, and is only just recovering.

I raise this now because I never managed to weigh in on it back then, and more importantly because it illustrates the tensions of class politics in secular circles. NCH’s makeup was and remains distinctly humanist, its staff including Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss, Simon Blackburn, Peter Singer and Stephen Pinker, as well as Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s partner Niall Ferguson, but its most indignant critics (if not the loudest) were from the same scene – BHA members, New Humanist writers, left wing atheists like me online and committee members who refused to book the New College’s founder.

In a 2012 interview with Caspar Melville, Grayling tried to portray the project as benign, a last-ditch effort to save humanities teaching from ministers desperate to kill it off. In reality, his actions validated the Cameroons’ education cuts: the way to fight the privatisation of campuses in line with a U.S. style system is not to set up a private, U.S. style campus. ‘A mature civilised society ought to be funding universities properly through tax,’ he told Melville. ‘Students should go to university for nothing.’ If this principle mattered so much to him, why let it go at the first sign of trouble? Why not champion the students who then turned on him, and the cause of existing universities?

It’s tempting to think Grayling, Dawkins and the project’s other faces saw accessibility as optional, keen to preserve humanities teaching at any cost, no matter how exclusive it had to be. The former acknowledged NCH would cater to the privileged, drawing in students mainly from private schools. ‘That’s bad news,’ he commented, ‘but it would be worse news if a high-quality education system were to be compromised by the struggle to do what should already have been done’ – as if the academy’s survival for its own sake was the goal, its reduction in the process to a bastion of privilege a mere unfortunate side effect.

‘I would be delighted to support free education’, Dawkins said when challenged at a BHA event with PZ Myers, detailing his desire to protect Oxbridge-style teaching. ‘however, we live in a world where that isn’t happening.’ Keeping the ivory towers standing was the main thing, and if it meant raising the drawbridge, tough. ‘Like it or not,’ he added, ‘some people are richer than others . . . if you want to picket Anthony Grayling’s new university, you might as well picket anybody who owns a car that’s above average price.

The BHA has chosen to edit this moment out of its official event footage. Such squirming is understandable: the comparison is risible. Education isn’t simply a product, as a shiny sports car is. It helps determine the whole course of one’s life. That not many people can buy Jaguars is ultimately trivial – cheap cars get drivers just as easily from A to B – but access to education affects who can become an employee, public thinker, politician, judge. The shape of our society rests on who goes to college and who can’t. Only old boys like Grayling and Dawkins could equate Oxbridge so readily with something as shallow as a luxury car.

But Ant and Dick aren’t just old boys. They’re secularists. And secularists should know the dangers of a free market in education.

NCH coheres to the Cameron-Gove philosophy of schools and campuses – decentralised, deregulated and detached in general terms from government. The same philosophy led their administration to introduce ‘free schools’, tax-funded but with no duty to hire qualified teachers or stick to the national curriculum, which almost anyone can start. In practice, this means religious groups, who’ve filed almost all applications since 2010. Several have been discovered carrying out extreme proselytism or abuse.

The problem is multifaceted and longstanding. In his deconversion memoir, blogger Hassan Radwan recalls years spent teaching at Islamia School, a private religious school in London which relied on Saudi donors and was subsequently subject to prolonged ‘Islamicisation’ – including the banning of pictures and music and use of school property for Mujahideen fundraisers. As comparatively recently as 2010, Dawkins himself has visited somewhat similar Islamic schools where scriptural creation myths are taught as science. Some of these are state schools, others not, but Radwan describes Islamia’s extremism as being tamed when it gained public sector funding. (This is, I think, the one thought-provoking argument for state-maintained religious schools, though I’d rather no private sector existed at all.)

Jonny Scaramanga, author of Leaving Fundamentalism, was sent to one of England’s forty-or-so ‘Accelerated Christian Education’ schools, where parents pay for children to be kept in walled-off cubicles, forbidden from interacting and taught outright racism, misogyny and creationism via biblical syllabus. Many, many more schools like this exist in the U.S., where the programme originates. Katie Halper details at AlterNet the broader effects of right wing education cuts and ‘school choice’ policy in the U.S., including boys and girls at private Christian schools (where government vouchers allow children from poor families to be sent) being forbidden to make eye contact.

America’s university culture, which both Britain’s current policies and NCH’s opening evoke, is dominated by the private sphere, with state universities a small side dish. Founding one there is, for fundamentalists, at least as easy as it was for Grayling, hence the U.S. is home to Liberty and Brigham Young Universities, founded respectively by Jerry Falwell and the Mormon church. Only two private campuses in Britain predate NCH, and one of them is the Oxford campus of the Islamic Azad University of Iran.

Is this the higher education system Dawkins and Grayling want? Their project opens the door to it. When the free market of ideas operates as a real free market, abuse ensues. Teaching is one sphere where ideas should be regulated, because not all are fit for the classroom. The solution, and secularists must recognise it as the left already does, is free and secular public education, both at school at campus level. If they were as high-minded as they claimed to be, they should have fought for that.

* * *

If you liked this post, consider joining the Occupy Skepticism Facebook group, a forum founded recently by David Hoelscher to unite atheists on the left, concerned with fostering a class-conscious secularism. Here is a selection of posts, some by members, representing our areas of interest:

Mar 01 2014

Weird and wonderful: why Matt Smith’s Doctor was better than David Tennant’s

Doctors

At Christmas, in a sudden, violent lurch, Peter Capaldi’s face became the Doctor’s. His announcement in the role pleased critics and excited fans as David Tennant’s had in 2005, fresh off the smash-hit set of Casanova – both actors, loved by the public as it was, were hotly tipped for the part. Capaldi, pictured last month in his incarnation’s costume, was by all means a great choice, but I couldn’t avoid mild disappointment. I didn’t want another David Tennant. I wanted a Matt Smith.

‘Who’s he?’, family members asked indignantly when Smith’s casting went public. Headlines were similar. However the Doctor looked, he didn’t look like that. The Doctor’s face was famous – it had eyebrows, not a six inch quiff or polystyrene-block chin. And he didn’t wear turnups, hipster tweed or dicky bows. Whovians winced when on-set photos first emerged, Smith hands-behind-back in dad jacket and charity shop shirt. Where now the gravitas and style of Tennant’s greatcoat, his pinstripe suit’s effortless chic?

Then ‘The Eleventh Hour’ aired in 2010. Bow ties were cool, the new lead said… and suddenly, near magically, they were.

Tennant’s Doctor owed his popularity to populism, handsome, charming and more human than Christopher Eccleston’s had been. Pundits urged his casting when they sensed he’d play a version people liked – like Jon Pertwee’s and Peter Davison’s, Ten was dashing, spry and classically heroic, the handsome head boy with top grades and track prizes. Of all the Doctors, he could most easily be from a different franchise, Buffy or Harry Potter say; at Hogwarts he’d have been a Gryffindor. Russell T Davies envisioned a mainstream, commercial Who, primetime hit rather than fan indulgence, which meant a mainstream and commercial hero. Ten’s character, like his costume, was pitched to be crowdpleasing, a matey, likeable leading man giving noughties viewers what they wanted. They fell for him, and so did his companions.

Smith’s Doctor was, by contrast, weird. He ate fish custard, danced terribly and couldn’t say no to a fez, looked twelve but acted eighty, moralised then all but murdered. In costume, character and casting, he was leftfield where his predecessor was a shoe-in TV lead – less instantly accessible a take, but finished all the more impressively for it. Tennant, though a formidable actor, played a character fangirls and -boys would always have swooned over – he never had to work that hard for their affection. That Smith’s Doctor, like his bow tie, was a harder sell is what makes his success remarkable, the product of a singular, tirelessly layered performance.

‘I don’t even have an aunt’, Eleven tells Amelia Pond minutes after his birth, who lives with hers without a mum or dad. He’s lucky, she says. ‘I know’, he answers – the slightest bit too fast, voice tinged with satisfaction, even pleasure. Blink (don’t) between Scottish jokes and nonsense meals, and you’ll miss the ruthlessness Smith sneaks into the line, infusing grief with disturbing new bravado. If Ten was a lionheart like Three and Five, Eleven was a dark-sided eccentric of the Troughton-McCoy school, bumbling to all appearances but stone-hearted, sinister even, when need be. It’s a more complex and interesting portrayal, at least to me. ‘Look Solomon’, he tells David Bradley’s villain later on, targeting his craft with its own deadly weapons. ‘The missiles. See how they shine.’

Tennant played a similar moment in ‘The Family of Blood’ (2007), but never quite found Smith’s brooding subtlety. Who could forget ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, four years later? ‘Fear me,’ sentient asteroid House threatens Eleven, ‘I’ve killed hundreds of Time Lords.’ ‘Fear me,’ he replies with a nod, part haunted, part self-satisfied. ‘I’ve killed all of them.’

In his fair and relevant critique of Steven Moffat’s writing, ‘The Captain Kirk Problem: How Doctor Who Betrayed Matt Smith’, Ted B. Kissell attacks this incarnation’s habits of ‘telling people how awesome he is’ and scheming deviously, damning Eleven as ‘a swaggering bully – who also withholds vital information from the people about whom he supposedly cares’. This was what made him work. Deceiving Martha was the most manipulative Ten ever got, but Smith’s Doctor (as River Song was fond of pointing out) lied constantly and to everyone – Amy, Rory and Clara for a start. The Doctor’s more interesting when he’s less of a white knight, but more than that, it’s what made this one’s playful whimsy meaningful. Eleven indulged his eccentricities to hide his heart of darkness. His childish side mattered because often, it was a front.

Who’d never had such an intricately woven lead. It may not again. Yes, Ten went off the rails in ‘The Waters of Mars’ (2009), but only because hubris was the obvious flaw to script such an unreconstructed hero. Tennant is a script-led actor, hence his success in Shakespeare, but one always sensed Smith, who studied Creative Writing and devised his character by making up short stories, knew more about him than anyone. His Doctor was seldom if ever obvious – instead of giving viewers what we wanted, he gave us what we’d never seen before, then made us fall in love with it.

Feb 23 2014

Making atheism less middle class: Alex Gabriel speaking in London, March 23

Doubts costs nothing; voicing them can cost a lot. A piece I wrote for AlterNet last month, on the need for an economically inclusive secular scene, was well received. Readers from half a dozen groups said they’d implement ideas there, the Sunday Assembly asked my advice on reaching poorer congregants, and Conway Hall Ethical Society asked me to give a talk.

Conway Hall, beside boasting one of London’s most pleasant libraries, is the unspiritual home of British freethought; most major godless groups in the UK can be traced there, and the management is thought to be the world’s oldest surviving Ethical Society. Historically, it’s been a meeting spot for leftists, and the nineteenth century secularist movement it survives was frequently socialist itself. Harriet Law, one of its figureheads and the original Skepchick, was a farmer’s daughter and close colleague of Karl Marx; another, Edward Aveling, married his daughter and helped translate Das Kapital. Atheists nowadays think too little about class – there’s precedent.

My talk, ‘Godless and broke: making secular groups less middle class’, takes place on Sunday 23 March as a morning lecture, starting at 11am. To quote the blurb, ‘Secularists are broadening their image, but their cause remains seen, not totally unfairly, as middle class. We have to take action to reach hard up atheists and skeptics, or risk being a community for the well off.’ I’ll be discussing how.

Booking is online at £5 a head, unless you’re unwaged, a student or hard up, in which case it’s whatever sum you choose. Thanks to Sid Rodrigues at Conway Hall for introducing this – it’s great to see these things put into use – and for inviting me. See you there!

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