What Happened On The Back Channel When Ophelia Benson Left Freethought Blogs

Greta has a post from last week on social media and the risks of reading-in — how it’s possible to conclude too much from who someone else adds or blocks, or what they like or share; why guessing their motives is a bad idea.

I mostly agree with the thrust of it. On being unfriended, I’ve learnt not to assume the worst — I also have closeted friends whose parents monitor their feeds, and I’ve had my online presence dissected creepily. I doubt I’d go as far as Greta does — I check my mutual friends with strangers who add me, gauge who people on Twitter are by who else they follow, delete contacts who share posts from Breitbart uncritically. (There are things there’s no good reason to Like.) Reading the Facebook leaves is like reading body language — not bunk, but only reliable if you know someone, or when there isn’t room for doubt.

At Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson complains people made assumptions about her motives on Facebook before she left this site. (‘Greta herself blocked me’, she writes, followed by the words ‘presumably’ and ‘because’.) To quote one preoccupied-sounding commenter,

Alex Gabriel spent an entire blog post of several hundred words to say, basically, ‘I can’t point to anything wrong that Ophelia has said or done, but I really think she’s up to something . . . the entire thing was composed of exactly what [Greta] is now lamenting.

That post — the one post, hitherto, in which I ever criticised Ophelia — seems to provoke similar thoughts in her. It was, she wrote in late August, ‘not a matter of disagreeing with me, [but] of sniffing out my heresy and denouncing it.’

I pointed, it turns out, to a long list of things she did that readers were interpreting — not, I thought, irrationally — as trans-antagonistic. Namely:

  • Treating requests she acknowledge Julie Bindel’s public, well documented, continuing anti-trans history as demands for cultish, unquestioning belief.
  • Writing ‘I’m not all that interested in the exact quantity of transphobia contained in Julie Bindel’ when commenters brought it up.
  • Uncritically citing anti-trans activists ‘quite a lot’.
  • Uncritically sharing an anti-trans author’s attack on the word ‘TERF’.
  • Displaying more hostility to trans commenters than transphobic ones.
  • Displaying no regret on misgendering a trans commenter.
  • Responding to Vanity Fair’s ‘Call me Cait’ story solely by objecting to Caitlyn Jenner being told ‘You look great’ by staff at Jezebel.


Between the post and her comment section Ophelia says this (dashes added for readability):

Greta was vocally and explicitly happy to see the way our colleagues were trashing me on their blogs, partly on the basis of that creepy intrusive secret-police-like trawling through my Facebook. On the back channel — I think I blogged about it shortly before I left the network — Lilandra had the bright idea of starting a thread with my name in the subject line suggesting we all discuss me, so several people jumped at the opportunity to rip me to shreds. Ed said let’s not do this this is a really bad idea, but they ignored him. I said using our blogs to shred each other wasn’t a fabulous idea and I’d assumed we all knew not to do that. That’s when Greta made her brave stand for the importance of using our blogs to shred each other.

I have a few things to say about this. [Read more…]

What If James Bond Fucked Men? Sex, Violence And Genre In London Spy

Moderate spoilers for episodes one and two.

Twenty-five minutes into London Spy’s first episode, two men have sex. The Daily Mail wasn’t pleased about this, tutting that ‘a viewer complained of a graphic gay sex scene which included nudity’, only to be ignored. (The fact the series airs post-watershed, when naughty things are known to be broadcast, is treated as a technicality.) You’d think most sex scenes featured nudity, indeed that fucking with clothes on might have more power to scandalise, but then is this is gay sex—depraved and disordered, in the Mail’s eyes, unless it’s a brown person saying so.

Today’s conservatives have nothing, heavens no, against the gays—they’d just prefer not to be reminded they’re anatomically correct. The novelty of lifelike queer characters is such that realism feels unrealistic: it must be due to a quota, the Telegraph suggests, that in all of spy fiction, one queer lead role now exists. Whether despite or because of the number of gay historical spies, espionage is a fiercely heterosexual genre, and after half a century of straight secret agents in dinner jackets getting laid, the fury London Spy’s premiere drew with one sex scene shows just how overdue it is. This never happened to the other guy. [Read more…]

The Rights Of Muslims Don’t Rest On Islam Being Sacrosanct

Based on a Facebook status.

After this week’s attacks, it seems some people do know what to say. First there are those who say the right response to massacres in Paris, Baghdad and Beirut is to shoot Muslims in their nearest towns, who are no doubt discussing how and when to attack mosques; some declare their intent to rejoin the armed forces where they are, while politicians say the same words their predecessors did last time round, which fed paranoid, racist fears and helped give birth to the Islamic State now bombing them. How much has changed these fourteen years, and how little.

Then there are those who see Muslims threatened and step in to defend Islam’s honour, claiming its true teachings could never inspire violence. We hear a lot about the true versions of religions — true Christianity, it’s said, never breeds homophobia — though they rarely seem to have had historical traction. The argument goes that no faith causes problems, only its corruption by people, politics and power — as if religions would be harmless if only they weren’t part of human societies. There it goes again, the True Faith being corrupted by a realistic social context.

It’s got a lot of slogans, this approach. There’s the statement bombings reflect extremism, not religion, as if can’t be both; the statement fighters for ISIL aren’t ‘real’ Muslims, whatever a real Muslim is; that since most aren’t killers, religion can’t be relevant; that those claiming responsibility for Paris and Baghdad aren’t motivated by their faith despite saying so, and would only ‘find another excuse’ if they didn’t believe in God. For many progressives, the only response to attacks on Muslims is that ISIL has ‘nothing to do with’ Islam, fundamentalism nothing to do with religion. [Read more…]

Paris/Baghdad/Beirut, November 2015

When guns go off, people fall silent. Some fall silently.

Silence takes many forms. There is the silence of the dead, that of the living who see death, and in between, that silent half-second when gunshots are first heard.

There is the numbness that comes after shock, the turning-off of news and silencing of radios. There is being at a loss for words, the silence of all speech sounding too loud.

There is the silence of commemoration and the silence of censure; sometimes these are the same. There is the silence that falls over streets where demonstrations have been banned.

There are the enforced silences of a war on terror, unspoken thoughts and words that render them unspeakable: heroes, hatred, extremist, PATRIOT. There is the indescribable nausea of a new one.

There is that silent, tired thirst in me for no more gods, governments or guns. There is the silence of knowing now is no time for certainties. There is my silent longing for them back.

There is the silence I wish for with every new atrocity mentioned, the relative silence of media about those further from my door, my silence on the ones I couldn’t stand to hear of. There is the silent shame of realising that was a choice, the silent listening I should have done.

More guns are going to go off. I hope by then, I will know what to say.


I tell stories and write a blog. If you enjoy my work, consider becoming a patron or leaving a tip.

Follow my tweets at @AlexGabriel, keep up with my writing, or get in touch.

Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement

It’s Halloween, and I’ve come as myself. Fifteen, perhaps even ten years ago, this was the worst night of the year — the night I hid in the living room while Mum was at work, curled up out of sight below the window, praying on a loop. When I was younger, I believed Satan was everywhere — believed he whispered to me in the night, haunted our house and worked via my dad; believed he possessed me when I was eight; believed that on this night, his unknowing unservants came to our door. Today, as an atheist, Halloween is my Christmas, rite of all once-forbidden things.

We’ve got our monsters, atheists. In the media our public faces are racists, warmongsters and men to whom sexual harassment allegations cling like a stench. Online, our community is riddled with sexism, right wing politics and abuse. I’m sorry that’s the case, and as a result of saying so, I’ve been called any number of slurs and four letter words, been threatened and had my address published. (Female, trans and non-white friends’ harassment is much worse.) And yet I’d take this community over my former religious one in a heartbeat. I make that choice on a constant basis.

Every so often, some friend or other from the atheist SJ scene will post that they can no longer stand it round here — that movement atheism now is simply too toxic, that belief matters less than politics, and that they’d rather work with progressive believers than vile atheists. I can’t say I blame them — I’ve seen too many good people driven from this community — and yet I can’t help noticing: the trend, consistently, is that the friends who say this didn’t grow up religious. For them, inhabiting atheist space has always been a choice. For apostates like me, it’s frequently a need.

I need an atheist community — need space to speak frankly about my own abuse, find others who went through similar things and give voice to what I experienced. Like many apostates, I need a movement that affirms my anger as valid and doesn’t confuse it with the pubescent bile of the Dawkbros. I need a community that doesn’t respond to depression with prayer, to kink and queerness with polite non-acknowledgement at best, hostility at worst, to sex and poverty with vain moralism — and for me, that means a secular one. I can’t leave atheism: I have nowhere else to go.

[Read more…]

Why I’m homeless and how you can help

So I’m kind of in a fix.

If you follow this blog, you’ll know I haven’t been as productive as planned over the last few months. In June I wrote about atheism and depression—some nights, as I say there, ‘I fight the urge to smash myself to bits’, but my brain has more effective ways of tripping me up. The worst, despondency, has immobilised me all summer long, and I’ve struggled to get much done.

A few factors fed into it. The last bout of drama on this network took the toll I assumed it would—I’m just starting to post regularly again—but more importantly, it was the latest in a series of things that have made 2015 rough so far. Until July I was dealing with a flatmate who made it hard to work from home, and since late last year I’ve been estranged from most members of my family. Although the latter’s done me good, it’s been a constant distraction from work and stripped me of any other source of support. Political despair, widespread among my friends in the UK, hasn’t helped—in short, I’ve been in a rut.

It turns out knowing you’re in a rut is the first part of climbing out. What my mental health needs, I’ve come to realise, is a change of scene—so a couple of weeks back, it struck me the time’s come for me to move back to England. I’ve written this blog from Berlin most of the last two years, and will never tire of the place, but for now, well, I’m tired of the place, and it’s clear to me I need to go elsewhere before I can fully knuckle back down again. On top of that, I’m long overdue for a health checkup in a country where I have access to medicine.

A writer-friend and I are looking at renting somewhere in the New Year, as grown-ups seem to do, and before then I’ll need to sort various things—accounts, application forms and so on—which can only be taken care of while in the country. With that in mind, having sold off what furniture I owned and reduced my possessions to a rucksack’s worth, my plan is to fly into Gatwick in the next week or two. From September 24 through to November, I have friends’ floors and sofas to sleep on, and I’ll find temporary places for December during that time.

I’m getting back to work as is, and drawing plans to finance the next few months. Now that I’m Patreon-equipped and no longer being strangled by Weltschmerz, I’m going to start writing the two posts a week my page on there pledges. (Thanks to assorted patrons’ generosity, I already make $30 per post, more than I earn from adverts in a month.) In addition, I’m going to seek more paid writing elsewhere, and have one publishing house listening to book ideas. Other projects are in the works: I’m currently editing one book, am likely to edit another before year’s end and am looking to take more on. Similarly, I’m finishing work now on redesigned graphics for Miri’s blog Brute Reason, and am in search of other gigs.

There’s a plan in place here—the trouble is, I can’t start executing it until I’ve left Berlin, and right now I can’t afford to do that. A year ago, when I was in monetary meltdown below the bottom of my overdraft, people who read this blog came to my aid, and as a result of projects they hired me to carry out—as a translator, editor, graphic designer—I haven’t been in the red since. I’m pretty proud of that, for the same reason I’m proud to have reached 24 without having had a credit card, and the aim is to reach December 31 having stayed in the black all year. Debt is a trap, and I’m determined to remain responsible with finances—so I’m going to do the responsible thing and ask for help.

If I fly into London next weekend, several friends’ sofas are waiting for me, but for now I’m stuck floating around Berlin, temporary-homeless, on my last £80 following a depressed couple of months. Making that one way trip is much less pricey than finding a new place here, and will enable me to get back to work properly, but without taking my bank account subzero and facing the resultant fees, not something I can do right now.

If you enjoy the things I write—about queer issues, atheism, pop culture, mental health, geekery—or if you’ve never followed what I do, but have been sent this post and want to help, there are four things you can do for me if you feel like it.

1) Tip me

Now that this blog’s Patreon-supported, I rely less on one-off donations from readers leaving me tips. On the whole this an enormous help, and one of the reasons I’m in the black right now—but since I only get paid that way on the fifth of each month, it’s not going to do me any good till October.

If you’re a patron, I can’t say how much your support means, and I won’t ask anything more of you. For everybody else—and in case any patrons actively want to leave a one-off donation too, I’m going to declare my tip jar open. Here it is.


I’m not going to turn down anything I get or set a target amount—every bit helps, and by definition, I don’t know what surprise costs might attack me in the coming month—but if ten people each give me ten pounds, I’ll likely be able to leave Berlin without sinking into the red, and of twenty people do, I’ll have room left for food and public transport.

Here, again, is my donation page—everyone who leaves any amount has my thanks.

2) House me

If you’re in London, or in Berlin during the next week, and have a free sofa or (somewhat long) stretch of floor, and you want to help in some other way, I’m looking for places to sleep before the 24th. (Several friends have already offered theirs, but not such that the whole period is covered, and having a plan B always reassures me.) In return for your hospitality, I’ll be more than happy to cook and wash up for you. Here are some of the things I like to make.

3) Patronise me

As I said, Patreon is of limited immediate help—but I’ll still be getting back to writing regularly over the next few weeks, and will still have things I need to pay for during October, November and December—as well as after that. Renting somewhere new in England incurs all kinds of costs, and in the medium-to-long-term future, I’ll still need earn a living. If you like how and what I write and want to support it—examples on my page there—becoming a patron is the most effective way, and as you’ll see, all kinds of perks are on offer.


4) Hire me

And if you want to help me get paid for something else—consider this an advertisement—there are other strings to my bow.

For one thing, I design visuals, including but not limited to ones for bloggers and activists. Here are some of the things I’ve made.

For another, I edit books and writing of all other kinds, and I’m pretty good at it. If you’re a writer or communicator and want to clean up your copy, I’m all yours. In Greta Christina’s words:

If Alex is offering you his services, TAKE HIM UP ON IT. Alex did two extensive rounds of copy editing on [my book] Coming Out Atheist, and he is one of the best copy editors I’ve ever worked with. I can’t recommend him highly enough. Seriously. Hire him.

I also translate into and (especially) from German: the secularist book I spent last winter translating for its US edition goes to print early next year, and was a Spiegel.de bestseller in Germany.

My rates for all these things are negotiable, and I like being employed by friends and strangers equally. If you feel like hiring me or might be interested in doing so, drop me an email.

And if you can’t do any of those things, but want to be of assistance, share this post.

A I said, I’m no longer in a rut—but I am in a fix. If you can help me fix my fix and feel like doing so, this is your chance. With any luck, it’ll be another year before I need help again.

The Doubt: What I Learned From Rape Jokes, And When I Wonder If It’s Foolish To Assume The Best

I used to think I understood rape jokes—then I moved in with someone who laughed at his own. F was young, white and angry at the world, and I met him after he advertised a room. The two of us talked for an hour or two, during which time he spoke more than I did, with the eagerness of a child desperate to make friends but unsure how. Like me F was addicted to TV: the fourth season of Game of Thrones had been the best, I said, except one character being raped despite her pleas and attempts to break free. ‘Come on,’ he said, all jocular. ‘She deserves it.’

It didn’t take my flatmate’s views long to become clear. His favourite authors included Charles Bukowski, who he told me ‘treated women like shit’ (there was no ‘but’), and I once spied Russell Brand’s Booky Wook on his table. My last landlady, he declared, had been a ‘nasty fucking dry old cunt’, and our female flatmate (a ‘silly little girl’) was acting ‘like a total bitch’ when they fell out. He hadn’t had a problem coming onto her—‘I only let girls move in because I want to fuck them,’ F told me once. He was a misogynist, he agreed, but felt he treated his women well.

I took the room looking on the bright side. The flat was comfy, the location neat, the prospect of searching elsewhere uninviting, and F’s response hadn’t been bad when I mentioned I blogged on a feminist site. Living with him wouldn’t, I thought, be the end of the world, and for me it wasn’t. Still, there were doubts. F laughed about his excitement when women online had rape fantasies, not quite sounding as if he knew where fantasy ended. Was rape so bad, he asked another time, quickly assuring me he was kidding. I’m not certain he’d have said so had I shaken my head.

I don’t know if I lived with a rapist, or someone who’d have liked to be. None of these incidents proves anything, but what if that was the idea? Was F, I wonder now, scoping me out the way queer kids scope out their mum and dad, as I’d scoped him out with mention of feminists? Did he laugh about rape because it amused him, or because what might be a joke is always plausibly deniable, like a sexual advance veiled as an invitation for coffee? One’s instinct is to award the benefit of the doubt, but maybe that’s the point.

[Read more…]

Food was my grandmother’s favourite form of abuse

Since the god I believed in died, it’s my mum’s stories I’ve turned to. Her grandmother, one of the last Victorians, schooled her in Roma tradition while she was a child, and although Mum had swapped card readings for hymnbooks by the time I arrived, her touch for oral history remained. Numerous relatives, having wed and bred later than usual, died before I was born, but I met them all in bedtime stories: her father Bill, whose hair turned white when he abandoned ship in the North Sea and swam ashore; my other grandfather Silvestras, who lost a homeland to Stalin and countless shirt buttons to British beef; and my great grandmother herself, whose real name must have been Catherine but whom Mum always called Kitty. Lately, I’m remembering meals with my own grandmothers.

To understand my gran, you have to understand how she used food. Like many children born after the war, Mum spent her first holidays in the north, including in Blackpool. In my twenties, I heard about the aftermath of one such trip: on coming home, her mother approached a small boy who lived across the road, offering him a stick of Blackpool rock with a smile. On unwrapping the gift, the boy found only a long and thin stone disguised with left over wrappers, and so began to cry. Loath as she was to acknowledge her older sister’s birth in a vardo, Gran was a storyteller too: even in her nineties, fifty or sixty years later, serving the greedy boy over the street his just dessert was a favourite of hers. ‘That boy,’ Mum once replied with laser eyes, ‘was four years old.’

I wrote about my family at Medium. This is how the post starts. Read the whole thing.



How to enjoy Terminator Genisys in 5 spoiler-free steps

Taking a break from atheism, insanity and the joke of a postracial America, let’s discuss the new Terminator film, which I finished watching an hour ago.

Some months back at the Daily Dot, I wrote that I think reboots are over: that fresh starts for meandering franchises like Bond and Batman had their day in the mid-to-late 2000s, and that retcons and new timelines – see Star Trek XI and X-Men: Days of Future Past are the new thing. In the same piece, I looked forward to Terminator Genisys – and in the intervening months, I kept the faith. What do I think about it, then?

Straight up, it isn’t all it might have been, but had I actually paid to see it, I don’t think I would feel shortchanged: as it goes, there’s a solid chance I’ll now pay to see it again on a proper size screen. Should you be thinking of doing the same, it strikes me the best way to rate the film is to explain how (after the postcredits scene) you can leave similarly satisfied. [Read more…]

This blog has Patreon – support independent content and help it go ad-free

A click or two ago when you opened this page, there’s a good chance my entire blog got shunted to the right, jolted across to make room for an advert on the other side. Depending how long you’ve been reading, you may have known immediately how to get rid of it – or had to faff longer, clicking the wrong ‘Close’ sign and getting a white box instead of a readable post. By the time you nixxed it, or just refreshed, you could have been half way through this intro.

Maybe you were less lucky still and got landed with a pop-up or pop-under advert – or one of the bastards that pops up and then pops under, making you switch windows to defeat it. (Did it have sound? The worst have sound.) It’s only thanks to FTB’s tech guys, who found a way for us to outwit our own ads, that you don’t normally see one of these mid-post:

Look at it – look at its horrendousness, great orange baboonarse sticking obscenely out. Unlike a real anus, there’s no way to avoid seeing it, centred, unclosable, without the text so much as wrapping tastefully around. Normally, through html magic, I can banish it to the end, but even then, it appears in all my old posts from the last two years, flotsam in an absurdly wide text field. Don’t think it doesn’t madden me.

You hate the ads, and so you should. To be honest, we hate them too – in fact we hate them more than anyone, because we are their hostages. Bloggers must eat, and adverts have long been our only hope of doing so off the back of our posts. They are the burly kid at school with trigger-happy fists, the big, obnoxious bully with whom you had no choice but to be friends.

This is why I’ve set up a Patreon. [Read more…]