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

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

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

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

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‘Is there a place for sexuality in religion?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How (not) to act in my comment section

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

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

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

Welcome Jamila Bey to Freethought Blogs!

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

A preview:

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

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

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

In the mean time, go and say hello!

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

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

Listen (and subscribe) on iTunes here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New posts soon and a thank you

Last week’s fundraiser reached its goal a few days ago – thanks to all who took part. A related reminder: people in London can see me at this event on February 27.

I haven’t posted much of late, and for once there’s a good reason – I’ve been busy these last couple of months working on something you’ll hear about soon. This week it’s all getting wrapped up, so I’ll be more active on this blog from the final third of January on.

See you all soon. Tata, AG.

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Snow in Berlin 26.12.14

It’s very nearly been a year
Since snow fell and I landed here
Citing at yours that night my lack
Of a coat for the journey back.
Next morning I face the outdoors
To lumber home in one of yours,
The mark left by its owner’s face
Proving a challenge to erase
Even as a fresh fall fills in
The trail where my feet’ve been.
Outside my window now the snow
Has come back for another go.
Almost a year on I can tell
This snow’ll bury you as well.

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‘Grow up and stop spouting such utter crap': when I told my ‘supportive’ mum she wasn’t a queer ally

Someone I know via social media posted the following update three days ago.

A friend and I went to the gym tonight. After our workout we tried to relax in the hot tub, when a random lady in an American flag bikini approached me.

The lady: ‘What does your tattoo mean?’

Me: ‘Oh, that’s my angry-feminist-bi-pride tattoo.’

‘What?’

‘Angry, feminist, bisexual pride. This is a feminist symbol, and it’s on top of the bisexual pride flag.’

The lady compliments my friend’s nails. An awkward silence.

‘Why are you bisexual?’

‘I don’t know how to answer that. I just am.’

‘But why?’

‘Because I’m attracted to more than one gender.’

‘She’s attracted to all the genders’, my friend adds. We high five.

‘When I was little I was molested. Then I was told I was a lesbian.’

‘Well, that has nothing to do with me. I’m just bisexual.’

Banter ensues between me and my friend about how shitty men are and how glad I am that I never have to date one. The lady says something about how I should learn to tolerate men’s crap, then: ‘Have you heard about your personal lord and saviour, Jesus Christ?’

‘I don’t want to talk about Jesus at the gym.’

The lady continues talking about Jesus.

‘This makes me really uncomfortable. Please stop.’

The lady continues talking about Jesus, mentioning something about hellfire.

‘I don’t appreciate being told I’m going to hell for who I love.’

‘I didn’t say that. I didn’t say you’re going to hell. You’re the one who said that.’ (She tells me this in a ‘Gotcha now, queer! You know you’re gross’ tone.)

‘Don’t lie. You literally just quoted scripture to me about hellfire. Go away now.’

‘I didn’t say that. I’m not your judge. I don’t judge.’

‘Well, I judge – and you’re gross. Go away.’

‘Have you heard’, my friend asks me loudly, ‘about your lord and personal saviour, Satan?!’ We proceed to discuss the the black altar and orgasms. The lady walks away.

We reported her to the front desk for harassing us. They seemed to take the matter very seriously.

When I shared it with my followers, the exchange below happened between me and my Christian mum. (Her comments are in regular text, mine in bold.) It makes me want to write about a multitude of things – ally culture, the realities of queerness and Christianity, the fact I’ve lost offline relationships as a result – but for now I haven’t much left in me to say. [Read more…]

Designing Greta Christina’s new book cover

Greta Christina has a new book. (Doesn’t she always?) Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God is a guide for atheists, agnostics and believers whose faith isn’t helping them deal with mortality. In place of wishful thinking it offers… well, the clue is in the name.

Since her regular collaborator Casimir Fornalski was unavailable, Greta asked me to design the cover art. I bit her hand off said I’d be delighted.

ComfortingThoughtsAboutDeathThatHaveNothingToDoWithGod

Certainly I had reservations. Fornalski and I have never interacted, but I’ve admired his work with her for two and a half years: the angry woman who looks suspiciously like Greta on the covers of her prior atheist books has become an unmistakeable part of her brand. Ending such an effective partnership is risky even when you have no choice, and I worried I’d be unable to create something as memorable or iconic.

The project became about creating something unlike Fornalski’s covers – in particular, I decided it should look illustrated more than designed, have a coloured background instead of a white one and be uncartoonish. (A further design constraint when Audible required square covers for audiobooks. So the image could be broadened just by adding a strip each side, the background had to be one flat, replicable colour.)

Greta and I discussed ideas. ‘A stylised tree with roots as well as branches, but with the roots being made of DNA double helix coils’ got vetoed: ‘As a many-times-over designer for atheists,’ I told her, ‘no more effing double helixes. They’ve been done so many times the concept’s over.’ (Movement: take note.) The tree motif I did like, so the next suggestion – ‘a person sitting or standing at a gravestone’ – became someone under its boughs.

I started doodling.

000Negative space designs are my weakness, and initially the figure beneath the tree was to be the same colour as the background, appearing as a ‘gap’ in the tree’s trunk. (I wanted a cypress tree – symbol of mourning in the classical era – but gave up on it when the shape was wrong.) Given the book’s sombre theme to differentiate it further from Greta’s other covers, pastel tones drew my eye and the soft grey-green I chose – softer than the final one – survived till late in the design process.

I won’t lie – this design intimidated me. The moment I knew how the tree should look, I knew I had to ‘paint’ it with digital sponges, creating foliage and paint blots from shapes in two different colours, green defining white – over eighty layers and over four hundred individual ‘spongeprints’ went into the end product above. For a while I was unsure I should attempt something so different from my previous work and toyed with the idea of a cover consisting solely of the title in narrowly-spaced Georgia, perhaps referencing Faber’s minimalist poetry collections.

It didn’t take – I suspect because I knew my first thought was my best and that I ought to persevere. When I did, I ended up with the following halfway house.

000Since I’m terrible at drawing representational forms – I studied graphic art, alright? – creating the sitting figure was tough. I tried suggesting someone crosslegged with the abstract shaped I’d used in that first doodle, which turned out to be easier to draw by hand than with a mouse – then at the other extreme, with jagged polygons whose proportions were tricky to get right. Neither worked harmoniously with the tree, and in the end it occurred to me the only way to make the sitting person work would be to use an actual human outline.

This terrified me. I’ve always hidden behind symbols and logo-ish abstractions, and human bodies are some of the hardest things to draw convincingly. (Nonetheless, easier than horses. Try it if you doubt me.) In the end I based the figure on a man’s outline in a stock photo, adjusting the shoulders, midsection and hair to make them appear gender-nonspecific.

It’s obvious to me the background colour to the left was wrong, but making it an apple green was Greta’s suggestion. She also mentioned the typeface – Bebas Neue, also present in my blog banner – may be too stark, asking whether a handwriting-style font could be used instead. It couldn’t, I said, because only chunky all-caps sans serif had the impact not to get lost. (Chinese Rocks was briefly a contender, but Hemant Mehta had shotgunned it with his own book.)

The actual problem, I realised, was the black. Changing the background and making it a soft grey fixed that problem, though it created more. The final alterations were the addition of Greta’s name, deciding whether or not to centre it and experimenting with text in different colour schemes.

000

Since we both liked the second image from the right best, that one became the cover.

Want to buy Greta’s book? Head over to her blog for details.

Want to hire me? That also works.

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Some updates (and thank you for funding the new Token Skeptic book!)

What do you mean I didn’t post in October? I’ve been busy. I had a book to edit. I had hair to dry.

Actually I have been busy – among other things, on Kylie Sturgess’ forthcoming book. Her Indiegogo page, which I shared with you a month back, crept sluggishly towards its target till a week ago, when a sudden spike raised half my whole editor’s fee during the last few days. Thanks to all 39 of the book’s funders, a couple of whom – Karen Stollznow and Daniel Loxton – Kylie interviews in it.

I can’t tell you much yet about the book, whose first draft I finished work on today. It lacks a title and – early days – is a while from being done, so the contents may morph in weeks to come, but here’s what I will say: this is a book of skeptical voices, some well known, and if you liked Kylie’s first release, The Scope of Skepticism, its sequel won’t suck. (Terminator 2, not Highlander II. Promise.)

There’s another book project I’m working on – no, not my own – about which there’s even less I can say. It’s a translation, however, and an exciting one. I’ll let you know more the moment I’m able. Between these two bits of work I’ve been able to paint and furnish the room I’ve lived in since summer, meaning I finally have somewhere comfortable to sit and work. I’m typing this at a desk – my desk – after four months working on a mattress, and expect to type many more posts where I now sit. Things are looking up.

As a side effect of being suddenly in demand – advertising, it turns out, works – I’ve been letting projects from September slip. Half a dozen of you have scheduled projects of different sorts with me, so if you’re wondering where I am and what Peter Boghossian is for, I can answer half your questions here and now. Hang in there while I get on top of things – I haven’t forgotten you, honest.

How and what I’ll post this month while the diary’s still full, I’m not certain, but certainly I’ll post.

Back soon. Ta-ta, A.

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