Finally, lesbian and gay Christians get called out

Occasionally I like something I read by a believer. Shannon TL Kearns at the Anarchist Reverend blog: ‘LGBT Christian Respectability Politics Have Got To Go‘.

The lesbian and gay Christian conversation (with occasional comments about bisexual and transgender folks) seems to finally be hitting its peak. Everywhere you turn these days there are new books and conferences and denominational statements. I’m observing some troubling trends within this LG(BT) Christian movement.

If you begin to follow the conversations online you notice a couple of things: The gay and lesbian people who are held up as the ones to listen to are polite, soft-spoken, center the feelings of allies, and rarely (if ever) get angry. They focus on the ‘clobber passages’ and don’t talk about liberation in broader terms. They are content to stay in their evangelical churches. They don’t unpack how other theology is harmful, not just to queer people but to straight and cis folks as well. Their entire conversation can be boiled down to ‘I’m just like you, only gay.’

Here’s the thing about respectability politics; they don’t work. They are based on a false notion that says if only you behave, if only you play by the rules, if only you are good enough, then the church will love and accept you. But it’s not true. Because even when you tell them you are celibate they still think you are having sex. And even when you quote the Bible at them they still distrust your reading of it. Even when you dress like them and talk like them and marry like them they are still waiting for you to mess up so they can discredit you.

And as you play into respectability politics you are not actually working for liberation. You are saying, ‘I’m not like those other queers. I’m one of the good ones.’ And by saying that you allow straight and cisgender people to say it as well and suddenly the ‘bad queers’ are pushed to the side, or worse, pushed out entirely.

When the people who hate us come for us (and they will) they won’t care that you are celibate. Or that you are married with a picket fence and 2.5 kids. They won’t care that you are white and dress nice and toe the line. They will look at you as if you are just like all of the other queer and trans people, the ones that you have said you aren’t like. They won’t see the differences between us. They will lump us all together. In that moment your respectability will not save you.

I don’t agree with every word, of course, but the whole thing’s worth a read – it’s nice to see the gay and lesbian Christian lobby get the slap in the face it deserves.

More coming soon, in my own words.

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Q&A: What’s ‘queer’, why is ‘homosexual’ a slur and what’s being bisexual like?

A reader writes in:

I’d be grateful if you could clear some things up for me.

By all means.

What is ‘queer’? I’ve only ever been aware of it for the most part as a slur.

Queer‘ is a complex term with a complex set of related ideas – that’s what makes it a useful and powerful term – but suffice to say it refers to everything non-heteronormative: everyone not cisgender-and-heterosexual, everyone excluded from straight society and everything that belongs to our communities and culture. Queer people are bisexual, pansexual, transgender, genderqueer, agender, a rainbow of other things – and, yes, gay.

Some of us also identify purely as queer, whether on political grounds, because we aren’t sure how else to identify or because we feel the details of what we are matter less than the fact of what we aren’t (that is, straight). That ‘queer’ a negative term allows it to be all-inclusive in this way: the difference between ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ is somewhat analogous to the difference between ‘African American’ (a specific identity) and ‘person of colour‘ (anyone non-white).

Other queer members of this blog network identify as bisexual, trans(female), demisexual, gender-questioning and (sometimes) lesbian – as well as simply or primarily ‘queer’. Personally, I identify as ‘queer’ foremost and ‘bisexual’ when relevant, because I don’t want to define myself by how much I’m interested in each gender.

Why is ‘homosexual’ considered a slur?

‘Homosexual’ was coined in the 1880s by psychiatrists and popularised by a text called Psychopathia Sexualis, which as the name suggests didn’t propose a positive view of non-heterosexuality. (It was similarly negative about kink and asexuality.) Organised medicine referred to ‘homosexuals’ from then on as perverted and mentally ill, often subjecting to them to unethical, abusive, traumatising ‘treatment‘. It was only in 1990, the year before I was born, that the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses.

A lot of contemporary ideas on sexuality take root in this pathologising history, I think – the idea of orientation as a fixed natural state, the idea of gay bodies and straight bodies, gay brains and straight brains; the idea we’re born with predetermined sexualities. That’s another discussion, though.

Today’s conservatives use ‘homosexual’ to conceal their queerphobia with the respectability of ‘neutral’ language, instead of using words and phrases we’ve adopted like ‘gay’, ‘queer’ and ‘LGBT’. It’s noteworthy the the first two of these were both originally straight slurs as well: queer people have been able to reclaim them, but never really attempted to do so with ‘homosexual’. That should tell you something about how powerful its history of violence is and why we use it so rarely.

Why is pronouncing it to rhyme with ‘promo’ particularly bad?

The best way to explain this is probably to demonstrate, so here’s an audio file. You have to understand even speaking this word makes me shudder.

Some people use Greek pronunciation and say /hɒməʊsɛkʃuːəl/ (which is more accurate); some people use Latin pronunciation and say /hōməʊˈsɛkʃuːəl/ (as in Homer Simpson). My mum does the latter, but she pronounces it /hōmōsɛkʃuːəl/ so the second ‘o’ is as long as the first. If you use the prefix on its own – if you call someone a homo – it sounds like that (it rhymes with ‘promo’), but saying /hōmōsɛkʃuːəl/ has always been particular to her.

It’s a especially strained pronunciation: it sounds like you’re forcing your mouth around something so strange and unpalatable that even saying it is unpleasant. Combined with the background of the word, I always found that extremely othering.

Do you find acceptance as a bisexual with people who are not bisexual?

Generally, no. (I’m not that keen on the concept of ‘acceptance’, actually – usually I prefer ‘respect’.)

I’ve written before about the challenges bisexual identity tends to entail – here’s a post you might find useful – and being constantly perceived (even described) as gay is one of them. This is especially the case with straight people, but gay people – gay men in particular – do it too, and damaging myths about bisexuality are rife in gay communities. For that reason, most of the queer people I know are bisexual: we’ve had to build our own communities because we’re excluded.

A more subtle form of this is how terms like ‘gay and bi’, ‘LGB’ and ‘LGBT’ are used in reference to queer people but bisexuals aren’t included in reality – when ‘LGB’ charities, for example, don’t give us any representation or when ‘LGBTQ+ community’ events are dominated by cisgender gay men. The same problem affects trans people and to an extent lesbians and queer women, and a pragmatic feature of the word ‘queer’ is that it’s often used by people from these groups. Search for gay bloggers, columnists and groups and predominantly, you’ll find cis gay men; search for queer ones and you’ll find far more queer women (including queer feminists), bisexuals and trans people, as well as activists with other identities.

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I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse. Are you sorry your religion has?

I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse.

Specifically, I’m sorry some of its ideas inspire abuse. To name a few things:

I don’t feel personally responsible for these things – I’m not sorry in the same way as when I step on someone’s foot or guess a Canadian’s from the US – but I’m sorry it’s the case today’s atheist movement has inspired them. Simply being atheists isn’t these people’s motivation – atheism by itself prompts no more action than theism by itself – but the particular atheist school of thought we share, which came to prominence roughly in the last ten years, produced the ideas that inspire this abuse just as particular religions produce their own.

Beyond the absence of a god, it has plenty of distinctive ideas – ideas about the education, childrearing, the workings of a nation state, science’s primacy, faith’s undesirability, matter’s relationship with consciousness, the absence of an afterlife, the world’s explicability in naturalistic terms, the injustice of religious practises, the treatment of women and LGBT people – the list goes on. And the beliefs above that make some atheists abusive – about believers’ mental or moral status, the barbarity of the ‘Islamic world’, the invalidity of all religious claims to victimhood, the all-explaining role of evolution and biology as pure unconstructed truth? These are distinctly New Atheist ideas, identifiable in that movement’s rhetoric from the late 2000s to now.

Not all New Atheists accept these particular ideas – not even most. I don’t. I’d argue they’re not just nonessential to New Atheism but complete misapplications of its main values – complete failures at reason, inquiry, vigour, skepticism, scrutiny and fairness. But my view of how New Atheism’s philosophy is best applied holds no more authority than anyone else’s, and in any case: even if nonessential, even if the ideas of a minority, the thoughts that inspire the actions above emerge from the perpetrators’ engagement with ‘movement atheism’ in its current form. Quite often they say so themselves, and without it we’ve no reason to think they’d act as they do, whatever other factors are in play.

Again then: I’m sorry this is the case. Beside a multitude of things I celebrate, today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse – and while I hope those parts of it come to be marginal, they remain black marks on its record.

Having acknowledged this, then.

Next time religious aggression or abuse comes up – like oh say, I don’t know, religiously motivated Christian harassment of queer people to give a completely random example – there are a few things I don’t want to hear.

I don’t want to hear not all Christians are queerphobic. That changes nothing: those who are still cite identifiably Christian beliefs as motivation, just as New Atheism’s abusive minority cite recognisably New Atheist ideas.

I don’t want to hear queerphobic Christians have strayed from ‘true’ Christianity, which loves and defends queer people. Unless you’re the Pope – actually, even if you’re the Pope – you’re no more an authority on what ‘true’ Christianity entails than I am on the ‘true’ way to practise skepticism. Queerphobia may, in your view, be un-Christian in a theological sense (just as anti-Muslim racism is unskeptical in mine), but forms of it are recognisably Christian in anthropological terms (just as a clash-of-civilisations narrative is recognisably New Atheist).

And I don’t want to hear alternative, counterfactual explanations for Christian queerphobia that ignore the perpetrators’ self-ascribed motives and their distinctive Christian provenance – any more than I’d tell you abusive New Atheists aren’t really motivated by the ideas about science, religion and secularism they say they are. We can speculate all day about how people might behave if worldviews didn’t exist and what else in life may have influenced them, but there’s no reason to assume they’d do the same without the religion or atheist school of thought in whose name they act. As a given motive, either is usually sufficiently explanatory.

When Christian queerphobia comes up, I don’t want to hear you defend Christianity – I want to hear you defend me, just as when New Atheist abuse comes up, I’ll tell you I’m sorry it goes on instead of rush to clear my movement’s name. (Rinse and repeat for other transgressions.)

‘I’m sorry it’s the case my religion/atheist school of thought inspires this behaviour. It’s wholly counter to my interpretation, but that changes nothing in the real world, and I hope it can be combatted.’

Notice this acknowledgement doesn’t imply your worldview is a) false or b) a net ill. It’s possible to think Christianity (or any religion) is true while also acknowledging it inspires bad things – and also to think it inspires enough good ones to outweigh them. (This is, quite possibly, where we part ways.) It’s possible to think New Atheism’s core ideas are right, acknowledging nonetheless that it inspires abuse – and also think it inspires more good than harm. (Hmm hmm.) With history, we do this as it is: we acknowledge the Enlightenment produced a freer, more secular public sphere while also legitimising racism – or that churches broadened access to education while also entrenching regressive sexual morals.

Time now to do so with our own worldviews. The fruits of religions and atheist schools of thought in the real world include aggression and abuse as much as whatever happy achievements they claim – if we want to get on or improve how our teams play, we have to own up to this instead of sidestepping it.

I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse. Are you sorry your religion has?

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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.

* * *

People who are abused as children are easy prey for the kind of hellfire-and-damnation preachers who misuse scripture and totally misrepresent Jesus for their own power trip. This woman has probably believed herself to be gross all her life.

‘Preachers who misuse scripture and totally misrepresent Jesus’ – that would be most Christians for most of Christianity’s history, then, on this issue? If your personal form of Christianity’s nicer than theirs, that’s fine, but you’re not more an authority than they are on what the ‘true’ version is.

Also: what makes you bring child abuse up? Why is it so hard to accept that ordinary, noncoercive, nonabusive Christian beliefs could inspire the behaviour my friend describes? That’s a perfectly sufficient (and uncontroversial) explanation – we don’t need to invent a different one to get religion off the hook.

I hope that your friend and this woman meet again. She was clearly drawn to the tattoo and I wonder if she is denying her own sexuality. There are many homosexual Christians, but those are often the ones who are most aggressively phobic before they accept who they are. But you’re right… I’m only guessing.

‘She was clearly drawn to the tattoo and I wonder if she is denying her own sexuality’ – stop it. Stop finding ulterior explanations. Bigotry exists and sometimes religious beliefs are the cause. Stop denying that: we don’t need a buried psychological explanation for why straight people (Christians included) attack queer people any more than we need one for why men attack women. (For your information, ‘homosexual’ is a slur and being queer is not ‘who I am’.)

If you’re a Christian and you want to be an ally, here is what you can say:

‘I’m sorry my religion inspires behaviour like this so often. Victimising LGBT people is totally contrary to my own interpretation, which I hope becomes more influential.’

At the moment, what I’m hearing is this:

‘Because I can’t stand acknowledging that in the real world, rightly or not, my religion often inspires queerphobia, I feel I’m the victim here. I’m inventing alternative motives for homophobes out of thin air so I don’t have to face up to my religion’s role in their behaviour, because I actually care more about defending Christianity’s image than defending queer people.’

Okay. I will, if I may, reply to this in full.

I first stood up in church and argued the case for homosexuals when I was 16 years old. I was swiftly silenced and pointed to scripture. That was half a century ago, and I have had ample time to look at this in depth. It was important to me as I had, through my work in the theatre, a great many gay friends before that term had been coined and at a time when things were very different.

What I see is that there are two groups of Christians who believe that homosexuality is a sin: those are stridently homophobic for their own gain and those who are sincerely confused. I have spoken to a great many groups of the latter and have told them that scripture must be seen in context.

Old Testament law was for an ancient, nomadic, desert-dwelling people who had very little access to water. It was probably based on hygiene and was shown by Jesus himself to be questionable. Saint Paul, in the New Testament, would almost certainly have been referring to practices in the Roman/Greek world that were in effect paedophilia. Jesus certainly did not say that homosexuality was a sin. He didn’t even mention it!

What he did say was that his followers were to love one another, especially the ‘Samaritans’ (outcasts) and that we should spread the good news that God loves us all. Those ‘Christians’ who declare war on the gay community are going directly against his teaching. They are the sinners!

This is what I have shared with many individuals and groups over a lot of years. It may not mean anything to folk reading this, but I believe with all my heart that it is important and next year I intend to take it further. I have the loving support of many gay/lesbian Christian people and I would hope that I would be supported by those who don’t necessarily share my faith.

That’s not a response to anything I’ve said. You are still responding to a report of religiously motivated homophobia with ‘Yes, but’. You are still making this about you – you’re defending your own religious identity instead of defending us, which would involve acknowledging Christian beliefs often cause us harm. Why is ‘I’m sorry my religion inspires behaviour like this’ so difficult to say?

I repeat: when you describe homophobes as ‘Christians’ in speech marks only, you are saying most Christians for most of Christianity’s history – including, for example, every Pope for the last two thousand years – weren’t really Christians, and that most Christians around the world today still aren’t. Aside from this not being a very useful definition (and being, in my opinion, extraordinarily arrogant), you are still refusing to acknowledge that in the real world, rightly or wrongly, regardless of theological soundness, Christian beliefs commonly inspire homophobia.

When you read a queer person’s description of religiously motivated harassment, your first response was to say the aggressor’s Christian beliefs weren’t to blame because they were molested as a child. Your second response was to say the aggressor’s Christian beliefs weren’t to blame because they were repressing their own queerness. Your third response, just now, has been to say the aggressor’s Christian beliefs weren’t to blame because they can’t have been a real Christian. (According to your personal, entirely subjective, non-authoritative definition.)

Your behaviour suggests you’re actually far less concerned about Christians attacking queer people than you are about Christianity – in the real world, in one of the multitude of ways it plays out there – being blamed for something. You’re defending your own religious identity: you’re not defending us.

Christian organisations around the world overwhelmingly lobby against the rights of queer people. Hundreds of thousands of queer people are physically assaulted or harassed (as above) because of their assailants’ Christian beliefs. Thousands of queer children and young people are made homeless because of their parents’ Christian beliefs or self-harm because of their own. Personally, I had Christian teachers – some of whom you knew – who felt it was part of their job to declare in my lessons that God hated my sin. Your other son said when I was sixteen, in front of you, that I was ‘an offence against nature and God.’ Street preachers in towns where I’ve lived have publicly shouted as I walked past that I was an abomination. I get semiregular emails from believers to that effect. When I find out someone’s a Christian – especially one of your generation and especially, to be frank, one of your friends – I have to do a risk assessment in my head.

What do you do in response? You don’t say ‘I’m sorry my religion inspires behaviour like this.’ You politely tell us, as we suffocate under a mountain of Christian shit, that your religion didn’t really inspire it, so we should all stop being so mean as to blame Christianity for what its followers do explicitly in its name.

‘I’m sorry my religion inspires behaviour like this.’ That’s all you need to say. Why can’t you? You are defending your own religious identity. You are not defending us.

‘I believe with all my heart that it is important and next year I intend to take it further’ – seriously, sincerely, from the bottom of my heart: please don’tThe last thing queer people need is allies like you, who tell us how we should and shouldn’t understand violence against us. As long as I can remember, every conversation you and I have had about queer issues has consisted of you doing most of the talking to make yourself feel good and ally-like instead of listening to me.

You’re doing it now. I told you above that ‘homosexual’ was a slur – like I have, again and again, for the last two years or more – and now you’ve used the word again, repeatedly. I’m telling you now, because it’s all I have left: If you ever call me a homosexual again, or allow other people to call me that, we are done talking, online or offline, indefinitely.

You refer to ‘gay friends’, ‘the gay community’ and ‘gay/lesbian Christian people’. You’re erasing me, as well as my friend whose update this was and most if not all the other queer people in this thread.

I’m not gay. I’m bisexual. I’ve told you this over and over for the last five years, and I don’t you the first time riding in your car when I was fourteen. The reason you likely don’t recall any of this – the reason I don’t think you’ve ever perceived me as anything but gay – is  that you don’t listen. The reason I’m writing you such an angry note is that it is the only way I have left of making you listen. If you want to be my ally, that’s what you have to do.

P.S. It would also be great if before congratulating yourself on being a wonderful ally and telling me you ‘support’ me, you could apologise for:

  • assuming I was straight for the entirety of my childhood, labelling me that way and telling me I’d grow up to marry a woman and have children. (When we talk about the closet, that’s what it is.)
  • introducing the concept of sex as something a man and woman did to reproduce.
  • using the word ‘homosexual’ to refer to queer people.
  • using it to refer to all queer people, including bisexuals (like me).
  • pronouncing it as disgustedly as possible, so the first half rhymes with ‘promo’. (You might not think you sound disgusted. You do to me.)
  • making me explain to you at the age of 21 that bisexuality existed.
  • telling me when I was 7 that it worried you ‘when [I started] fancying men’.
  • telling me ‘the easiest way to get AIDS’ (for a woman) was ‘sex with a bisexual man’.
  • telling me AIDS ‘came from the gay community’.
  • telling me how not to walk when I was 9, because it was ‘how some men who are homosexual walk’ and they might molest me.
  • telling me to stay away from the cashier at a local shop because he was gay and had consequently molested children.
  • describing the character in the blurb for the novel you wrote as ‘a sadistic homosexual’ who molested young boys.
  • using words like ‘bent’, ‘poof’, ‘queer’ (in an unreclaimed sense) and ‘pervert’ throughout my childhood.
  • consistently misgendering trans people and using transphobic slurs like ‘shemale’ (or allowing others to use them).
  • responding ‘I’m glad!’ when I was 17 and said I didn’t understand the appeal of beards.
  • telling me when I was 14, ‘It’s pretty disgusting when guys fancy each other’.
  • telling me you ‘didn’t know [you were] homophobic until [you] discovered Graham Norton’ –  telling me simply, ‘I don’t like gays’ – when I was in my early teens.

I could go on a long, long time.

‘Sorry’ is all you have to say. Don’t bother responding (or talking to me again) till you can, and don’t even think of calling yourself an ally. Your behaviour frankly disgusts me.

Alex… for God’s sake grow up and stop spouting such utter crap.

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What NBC’s Constantine got wrong on Romanies and religion

Legend has it that before Christ was crucified, his executioners found a blacksmith to forge the nails. There are two accounts of what happened next, the first telling how God cursed the blacksmith and his kin the Romanies to wander the earth, forever denied shelter. The second – the one I was told as a child – says that the blacksmith forged four nails but only gave the Romans three, absconding with the one meant for the heart. For sparing his son that pain, the story goes, God blessed the Romanies, permitting them to steal from those who persecuted them trying to reclaim the lost nail.

Which version you tell reveals your views about people known to their enemies as gypsies. Which one is a revision of the other I don’t know, but the two competing myths offer a clue about my ancestors’ relationship with Christianity – in some ways a historical yardstick of their status in Europe.

A couple of weeks ago – on Hallowe’en, no less – Constantine‘s second episode aired. The series, despite its comic book source, feels like a far less inspired crossbreed of Doctor Who and Apparitions (Google it), and its race issues are doing it no favours: this episode in particular featured (spoilers ahead) a greedy, dishonest, sexually aggressive Romany woman as its villain, whose husband’s violence toward her seemed not to make her killing him by supernatural means any more morally complex. At one point the series lead, a white exorcist fighting demons through Catholic prayer, even remarked disgustedly: ‘There’s nothing blacker than gypsy magic.’

Pale skinned Christianity, virtuous and pure, versus Romany witchcraft’s exotic evil – this is an opposition I know well. [Read more…]

Giving the Block Bot a new look

BlockBotIf you’re on Twitter and you read my blog, you’ve probably heard of the Block Bot – perhaps you use it to keep your own feed free of ‘cyberbullies, bigots, MRAs, antifeminists, TERFs and SWERFs’.

Webmaster James Billingham, known here and elsewhere as Oolon, maintains the technical side while a large group of blockers, mainly female or nonbinary, screen out tweets from people deemed unpleasant. He asked me recently to give the Bot’s Twitter page a makeover, which in practice meant replacing the generic clipart being used as its logo. [Read more…]

Recommended reading: Captain America, autistic adults, white privilege in Islam, good cops, bad cops and the prisons system

Shut up, sometimes a normal-length title won’t do.

Five things to read if you missed them the first time round:

  • ‘Captain Dark Thirty?’, by Jonathan Lindsell (Haywire Thought)
    Steve Rogers is never asked to get his hands or morals dirty. He can just swan around judging Fury and Widow while he remains an emblem for an ideal of American moral integrity that, if it ever existed, is now very much mythological.
  • ‘Fourteen Things Not to Say to an Autistic Adult’, by the Purple Aspie
    Last night somebody shared an article on Facebook. The article was called ‘Things never to say to parents of a child with autism.’ A comment on the article asked why there wasn’t one about things not to say to an autistic adult. I decided to write that article.
  • ‘Anger, Tone Policing, and Some Thoughts on Good Cop, Bad Cop’, by Greta Christina (Greta Christina’s Blog)
    In that hot, flushed moment when we’re doing the Cognitive Dissonance Tango, we respond more positively to the good cop. But that doesn’t mean the bad cop isn’t having an effect.
  • ‘I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail’, by Charlie Gilmour (The Independent)
    A man had been screaming for help all night, pushing the alarm bell and, when that elicited no response, banging a chair against the door. When, after a significant period of time, the officer on duty came to see what the problem was, the inmate told him he was suffering from severe chest pains and thought he might have had a heart attack. He needed a doctor. The officer’s response was to slide a couple of painkillers under the door and ignore his pleas for the rest of his shift. ‘The most terrifying thing,’ said a friend in the cell opposite his, ‘was when his cries finally stopped. We knew he wasn’t sleeping.’ In the morning, he was dead.
  • ‘Muslim Converts, Atheist Accommodationism, & White Privilege’, by Heina Dadabhoy (Heinous Dealings)
    White privilege is being able to visit Muslim communities as an openly gay person with a same-sex partner and being welcomed into them while queer Muslims and ex-Muslims continue to deal with fear, rejection, and marginalization.

Guten Appetit.

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To the atheist tone police: stop telling me how to discuss my abuse

This post is currently getting a lot of traffic. If you like it, here are some of the other things I write.

As an undergraduate I chaired a group for student atheists — at least, that’s what I assumed it was. The finalist who’d stopped being in charge officially a year before I got elected, but who most people still answered to in private, disagreed. When we ran a stall at freshers’ fair together, he insisted I not tell punters Oxford Atheist Society was for people who didn’t believe in God, in case this stopped religious people joining.

It turned out what the ex-president wanted was a humanist discussion group welcoming believers and working with them for church-state separation, so once he’d done a lot of talking, we became the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society. Supposedly this made us all-inclusive, but anything deemed antitheist was discouraged lest it put believers off — things I had to say, for instance, about being taught I was satanically possessed or trying to kill myself because of the things I believed.

* * *

I hear a lot about constructiveness, especially from fellow atheists convinced people like me should pipe down and behave. Calling religion harmful, they’ve told me, is immature and stops us ‘breaking down walls’. What, they’ve asked me, does it achieve?

Since I started talking publicly (mainly in print) about it, I’ve been informed I’m inflammatory; that I need to keep things civil; that I’m hateful, encourage stereotypes and impede mutual understanding; that atheists like me are a liability, holding the movement back; that I need to smile more.

I’ve noticed that often, atheists saying these things have no real religious past.

* * *

‘If you’re arguing that confrontationalism — arguing with believers about religion, or making fun of it, or insulting it — is hurting our cause,’ Greta Christina wrote in 2011, ‘which cause, exactly, are you talking about?’ In the same post she proposes two competing atheist agendas: working against sectarianism and for secularism with believers on the one hand, opposing religion qua religion on the other. How polite or fiery we should be, Greta suggests, depends which of the two our mission is.

Chris Stedman, constable of the atheist tone police, responded at the Huffington Post: ‘If your “top priority” is working to eliminate religion, you are not simply an atheist activist — you are an anti-religious activist. . . . I do not wish to be associated with narrow-minded, dehumanising generalisations about religious people’. Several combative bloggers, he pointed out, had said blinkered things about Muslims and Islam, therefore all attacks on religion were dehumanising.

* * *

American Atheists has launched a television channel. At Salon, Daniel D’addario calls the four hours he spent watching it horrific.

‘Despite my own lack of religious belief’, he writes, ‘I find it hard to imagine that even a casual nonbeliever would tune in . . . AtheistTV adheres to nasty stereotypes about atheism — smugness, gleeful disregard for others’ beliefs — to a degree that’s close to unwatchable.’

Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience is skewered in particular for ‘feed[ing] viewers a diet of scorn’. This translates to wearing a flame-patterned shirt, calling a Bible story ‘absolutely horrible’ and using the word ‘stupid’ about God. (No context is given.)

Fair enough if D’addario dislikes the channel, but by suggesting its tone does nonbelievers actual harm — that is, none will tune in because it hurts their movement’s image — he goes beyond writing a bad review.

AA has thousands of fee-paying members. The Atheist Experience has over twenty thousand fans and Dillahunty over thirty thousand Twitter followers. Whatever stereotypes their tone fits weren’t concocted by conservatives: obviously, it speaks for many real atheists. Smug or not, aren’t they allowed a voice?

* * *

Last month a column of mine went up at the new site of the Freethinker. I talk there about how as a queer teenager I tried to kill myself, and how I hold responsible the mainstream, nonfundamentalist Christianity I practised at the time: about letting go and letting God, convinced he never gave me more than I could handle while I was assaulted and harassed into self-harm; about declining to defend myself because the turning the other cheek was Christlike.

There’s a lot I don’t talk about there.

I don’t talk about how when I overdosed, I lost consciousness afraid suicide would land me in Hell, where aged six I’d been told relatives burned and where aged nine I’d been told I would go for lying.

I don’t talk about wondering what I’d done wrong to make that cycle of harassment and self-harm God’s plan for me and what I should learn from it.

I don’t talk about being pressured to pray in tongues once I was convinced aged eight the devil had possessed me, nor being aged seven to perform ‘faith healing’.

I don’t talk about the demons I believed entered our home, the one I believed was my father or the Hallowe’ens when year on year I hid from trick-or-treaters chanting prayers in abject terror.

I don’t talk about fasting till it hurt.

I don’t talk about the children who couldn’t visit on my birthday since they went to different churches, my childhood belief Hinduism was Satan’s work or result fear of anything Asian — yoga, Indian art, a woman in a sari.

I don’t talk about being told all Muslims practised FGM and ‘want[ed] to die for Allah’, or that Muslim men were instructed to rape Christian women.

I don’t talk about the schoolteachers I had who, sermonising, told me God ‘deplore[d] homosexuality’.

I don’t talk about the preacher in the streets of my hometown who called me an abomination, or how when I mentioned it online I was accused of ‘having a go at Christians’.

I don’t talk about my brother calling me an offence against nature and God.

I don’t talk about the magazine cutting my mother kept that said I was an atheist because I had a stubborn heart.

I don’t talk about being preached at by guests at my friends’ church wedding or glared at by the vicar when my friend’s body was buried because I hadn’t joined in with the hymns.

I don’t talk about being threatened with hell for being an atheist.

I don’t talk about being told I’d have my head cut off.

When I do talk about these things, people don’t usually suggest I smile more.

It’s other times I talk about religion I’m called bitter, hateful, counterproductive, told I need to quieten down. But when I talk about religion, I always have the above in mind.

When you tell me to speak more respectfully, this is what you’re telling me how to discuss.

Remembering it I return to Greta Christina and Chris Stedman, and want to say that after what it did to me, talking as rudely as I like about religion is my goal, not just a means to it. I return to every time I’ve heard atheists like me aren’t constructive, and want to say that after years holding my tongue, speaking freely is a huge achievement. If it hampers outreach by faitheists with no inkling of my experience*, I don’t give a fuck.

* * *

*A clarification: it’s in no way my intention to suggest no ‘faitheist’ has a history of this sort. Especially in Britain, where secular upbringings are much more common, I maintain they often accompany the silencing of confrontationalists – but I don’t mean to erase the trauma of people who challenge me. 

I will say this: if you’re telling me to shut up for no reason except finding my tone unpalatable – if it’s not (see below) about consequences or factual errors – it’s a charitable assumption that you’re doing it because you don’t know better. If you survived what I survived or worse, you have no more right than anyone to shush me, and (I’d have thought) more reason not to.

* * *

I return to Daniel D’addario at Salon. I want to ask: what’s it to him if other atheists are more barbed than he is? Isn’t switching off his TV enough?

I return to my atheist group’s ex-president. I wnt to ask: if a secularist mission means atheists can’t speak freely about religion, what is the point of it?

Others I know are called hateful.

Beth Presswood has family who refuse to acknowledge her long-term partner — Matt Dillahunty. Some have declared him, if memory serves, to be the devil. Except because ‘he thinks it’s nuts to rely on a book for wisdom and guidance’, D’addario can’t see why he’s ‘bothered’ by US Christianity. Could this not be at least a factor?

Jonny Scaramanga writes, occasionally snarkily, of the ultra-extreme Christian upbringing that left him alone, depressed, uneducated, socially unequipped and with wildly skewed attitudes to gender, race, sexuality and politics. Those he criticises label him bitter and his work a hate campaign.

Sue Cox has spoken publicly about the Catholic priest who raped her when she was a minor and her family’s decision to tell her this was part of God’s plan for her. When a television clip was posted on the Internet, some commenters called her an anti-Catholic bigot preaching hate.

Shaheen Hashmat lives with mental illness resulting from ‘honour’ abuse in her Scottish-Pakistani Muslim family. Because she sees Islam as central to her family’s actions, she is accused of ‘fuelling Islamophobia’ (demonisation of Muslims) and being a puppet of white racism.

These are extreme cases, but extreme manifestations of religion aren’t the only abusive ones. Many in religious communities…

…fall victim to genital mutilation. (About one human in seven or eight, specifically.)

…suffer violence, physical or sexual, in other contexts — by parents, clergy, organisations or states.

…are taught not to defend themselves from violence, as I was.

…are told traumatic experiences are punishments from a higher power.

…are terrorised with lurid images of damnation and hell.

…suffering ‘knowing’ those they care about are damned.

…have no chance to mourn loved ones properly due to religious differences.

…are seriously maleducated, including facing abusive learning environments, being fed fundamental scientific mistruths or being denied facts about sex and their bodies.

…are shunned or isolated for leaving religion or not following it as expected.

…are harassed in the workplace or at school for being skeptical.

…are denied child custody explicitly for being atheists.

…are rejected by family members or have to endure painful relationships with them.

…are forced into unwanted relationships or to end desired ones.

…are taught to submit to their male partners.

…are taught sex and sexuality are sinful and a source of shame.

…are taught their bodies, when menstruating for example, are sinful and a source of shame.

…are taught their bodies are a cause of sexual violence — including violence toward them — and must be concealed to prevent it.

…are taught their minds, because they live with mental illness, are gripped by cosmic evil.

…are medically or socially mistreated in hands-on ways while mentally ill.

…are told they’re sinful, disordered or an abomination because they’re queer.

…are told skepticism makes them a traitor to their race or culture.

…are denied medical care they need urgently — birth control, condoms, HIV medication, hormone therapy, transitional surgery, abortion, blood transfusions.

…give up much-needed medicine voluntarily due to religious teachings and suffer severe ill health.

…perform rituals voluntarily — fasting for instance — that seriously endanger their health.

…are manipulated for financial gain by clergy, sometimes coerced out of what little they have.

…are manipulated for social gain, often too reliant on their congregation to leave when they have doubts.

If this is true in religious communities, it’s also a reality for those who’ve fled them. Atheists who were believers have frequently been profoundly harmed; I suspect movement atheists are especially likely to have been; confrontational atheists, even likelier.

When you tell us how to talk about religion, you are telling us how to discuss our abuse.

* * *

There are times when rhetoric should be policed or at least regulated through criticism. It’s true many attacks made on religion, especially by those still forming atheist identities, are ill-informed, sectarian or oversimplistic — and that such attacks often punch down, reaching for racism, classism or mental health stigma as antitheist ammunition. (There are many other examples.)

It needn’t be so. I’ve challenged this because I think we can and should go after God without harming the downtrodden through splash damage. Doing so on everyone’s behalf who’s been downtrodden by religion is itself, I adamantly believe, a mission of social justice. Failing at it by making substantive errors or throwing the marginalised under the bus invites and deserves criticism; a rhetoric powered by justified anger needs to be carefully controlled.

But that is not a question of tone.

And it does not discredit the mission.

Bigotry and imprecision in antitheism have often been treated as intrinsic to it, conflated with the very notion of (counter)attacks on faith. Stedman, who states in his book Faitheist that he once ‘actually cried — hot, angry tears’ because of atheist vitriol, is especially guilty of this, treating racist comments on Islam like they invalidate all opposition to religion. D’addario’s attack on AtheistTV as smug and scornful has, similarly, covered my feed where secular ‘social justice warriors’ congregate.

If this is you — if you’re an atheist progressive who wants barbed, confrontational atheists to shut up — we’re likely on the same side most of the time… but there’s something I need to say.

People like us are infamous for words like ‘privilege’, ‘splaining’, ‘problematic’; part of the power of concepts like these is that when transferred between activist contexts they expose parallels. I’m deeply aware there can be only limited analogy between atheism and the concerns of more marginalised groups, and would hate to devalue their language. But I’m convinced of the following:

It is a form of privilege to be an atheist who’s never experienced religious abuse, as many of us have who are antagonistic.

It is privilege blindness to expect — without a clue what we’ve experienced or what it means to us — that we give up our self-expression so that you can form alliances with faith communities that deeply injured us.

It is tone-policing if when you’re not telling us to shut up about it, you’re telling us how to talk about it. How dare you tell us to be more respectful.

It is splaining if your answer when we detail histories of religious abuse is ‘Yes, but’ — or if you tell us we can’t blame religion for it since not all believers do the same. We know the details. You don’t.

It is gaslighting dismissing justified anger about widespread, structural religious abuse by telling us we’re bitter or hateful.

It’s civility politics implying our anger, bitterness or hatred is just as unacceptable, siding with the aggressor by prioritising believers’ feelings over ours on the false pretence of neutrality.

It’s respectability politics implying we need to earn an end to bigotry we face by getting on politely with believers, throwing those of us under the bus who can’t or won’t sing kumbaya.

It’s internalised bigotry shaming atheists for being stereotypical — smug, scornful and the rest — for letting the side down, instead of asserting our collective rights however we express ourselves.

It is victim-blaming to treat atheists who are stereotypical as a legitimate cause of anti-atheist bigotry or hatred.

It is tokenisation to impose on any individual the burden of representing atheists so our collective status can be judged by how they act.

And it is deeply, deeply problematic to cheer for snarky, confrontational firebrands of social justice who take on mass structures or beliefs that ruined their lives… then boo snarky, confrontational atheist firebrands off the stage who’ve survived religious abuse.

* * *

I must talk about religion and the things it did to me, and must do so however I like. This is my goal, not just a means to it — it’s my hill to die on and matters enough that nothing can compete. I don’t care if it sets back my career, hampers others’ work or hurts religious feelings.

Actually, hang on — yes I do.

If you feel your texts, traditions, doctrines, revelations, fantasies, imaginary friends or inaudible voices are licence to ride roughshod over other people’s lives, I want to hurt your feelings.

If your god, in whom billions believe, tells you to terrorise or mutilate children, deny them basic knowledge of their bodies or their world, jeopardise their health, inflict physical violence on them or assault them sexually;

If he tells you to inform them their trauma is deserved, that their own bodies were to blame or that their flesh and broken minds are sinful; if he tells you to instruct them against defending themselves or if their thoughts of him drive them to suicide;

If he tells you to preach racism, queerphobia or misogny; if he tells you what consensual sex you can and can’t have and with whom, or to destroy loving relationships and force nonconsensual ones on others;

If he tells you to threaten and harass others, subject them to violence or deny them medical aid;

If your god, in whom billions believe, inspires the fear, abuse and cruelty I and countless others lived through:

Fuck your god.

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Gay mainstreaming and the Oxford comma: Greta Christina and Alex Gabriel in conversation

A week ago Greta and I held a Google+ hangout to yak about things we like – BuffyProject Runway, queer politics. Technology, which we’re still trying to believe is our friend, let us down and she ended up being cut off mid rant.

Last night we got back on track and talked gay marriage, atheist tone wars, Oxford commas and So You Think You Can Dance.

We’ll be doing more of these in the near future.

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