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

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

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

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

* * *

‘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.




Kasterborous calls me a ‘heavy-duty blogger’

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

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

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

‘Heavy-duty blogger’? I’ll take that.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Read Lomond’s piece.





On being “factually incorrect” and “abusive”

This happened; documenting it seemed worthwhile in case it continues and people wish to catch up. Judging by other participants’ tweets after the exchange posted here, I sense too that it was only the latest chapter of some older disagreements.




Dear Pat Condell… why this homo-Islamic masochist rejects your anti-Muslim crusade

Dear Pat Condell:

I was recently linked to your ‘How gay is Islam?’ video by a fan of yours quite desperate to persuade me (as a queer left wing atheist blogger) that I need to spend more time attacking Muslims, intent as you say they are on killing me.

The reason you haven’t heard from me till now is not that I was stumped; it’s that the sheer amount of wrong in what you say is so extreme that it’s taken me a week to lay it out.

I’ve even divided my response in two: an extended, detailed examination of what polls on British Muslims actually say, contrary to your assertions, can be found here. (It grew long in the tooth, again, because there’s so much in your statements to correct.) For this post, I thought I’d go through your transcript point by point.

As you know, I don’t like to criticise anyone, but surely the most comically deluded people on this planet, outside creationists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientologists, are idealistic left-wing gay people who think they share a common cause with Muslims as two oppressed minorities when opinion polls tell us that most Muslims are disgusted by homosexuality and think it’s completely unacceptable.

No, opinion polls don’t tell us that, and the single poll you cite contradicts several key claims you make. You’d know this if, in fact, you’d read it.

What is true is that according to the BBC, the ‘Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks’ hotline recorded 632 incidents of harassment between last February and this March (more than a baker’s dozen a week on average), and a further 212 including 17 violent attacks between Lee Rigby’s murder in Woolwich and the start of June; that Woolwich was followed by attacks on mosques with bombs and knives in Essex, Kent and Lincolnshire, and the burning down of a Muslim community centre in north London; that by May 28, ten mosques had been attacked; that others were vandalised with racist and far-right slogans; that women’s headscarves were reportedly torn off by strangers as they walked the streets, a disturbingly familiar phenomenon today.

I have no idea what it’s like to live through this as a Muslim, and I wouldn’t presume to guess, but I do know what it’s like to feel unsafe in public – to fear going outside for homophobic catcalls from across the road, having objects thrown at me, being spat on, hit and kicked, having possessions grabbed, stolen or destroyed. I know what it’s like to be afraid all the time, and that no one – no onewhoever they are, whatever they think of me – should ever live in fear. I won’t be complicit in that.

What do you know about being queer, or about being a Muslim? (Not about Islam, in principle – about being a Muslim?) And what, in particular, about being a queer Muslim, doubly trodden on and ignored, including by you?

I expect this understanding to be returned, and that other people stepped on, pushed to the margins, know not to do this to me or other queer people. That they sometimes – often – don’t know this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t . Yes, negative views of people who aren’t straight are widespread in the so-called Muslim community; no, this doesn’t legitimise attacking, harassing or demonising Muslims, and it doesn’t free people who know what that treatment feels like from needing to resist it. I’m keeping my end of the bargain.

Among UK Muslims, disapproval is 100%. Admittedly, that’s from a sample of only 500 people who all happened to agree unanimously, but that’s hardly representative. After all, not all Muslims were included, so we can’t reasonably extrapolate anything from it without being racist. That’s a relief. I thought we might have to face an unpleasant truth there for a second, didn’t you?

Note the downsizing on several fronts: from disgust to disapproval, ‘most Muslims’ to 500 in Britain. Note too the treatment of British Muslims as archetypes of opinion in Islam, while citing a poll which shows them as far more conservative than those in Germany or France.

Gay people who look for common ground with Islam are a bit like left-wing Jews who want to boycott Israel. They’ve let their twisted “progressive” politics trump their common sense.

Excuse me: how did we get from ‘a common cause with Muslims as two oppressed minorities’ to ‘look[ing] for common ground with Islam’?

If you want to make comparisons, and your views on Israel speak volumes, I needn’t believe in God, the validity of zionism or the prudence of building a fence around the Torah to think synagogues shouldn’t be smashed, Jews targeted with ethnic slurs or societies and legal systems segregated – I certainly needn’t support the slicing of infants’ genitals, or the herding of children into proselytising schools. I needn’t think any of the above are even remotely good ideas – I don’t. I need only think people have rights.

From your claim – again, against the polls – that Muslims think otherwise and therefore should be shunned, I gather you agree. I can find Islam absurd, while also thinking mosques shouldn’t be banned or bombed, as easily as finding UKIP laughable, deranged and incoherent while not wishing to assault or expatriate its voters. (Come to think of it, I’ve met some sensible Muslims…)

It’s hard to know if they really believe in their fantasy gay/Islamic alliance, or if their “look-at-me-how-tolerant-I-am” Guardianista political correctness hasn’t just mutated into a kind of homo-Islamic masochism.

Independent if you don’t mind. Tribune on the side.

How else do you explain the willingness of otherwise intelligent people to indulge a religion that wants them dead?

Islam doesn’t want me dead. Islam doesn’t want anything. Saying religions want things is like saying homeopathy feels sad or Thatcherism likes watching Countdown.

Almost no British Muslims – one or two percent – support execution for homosexuality. The only other measure of what Islam ‘wants’, it having no single catechism or analogue to the Holy See, is what its texts say, and scripture on its own is a remarkably bad predictor of beliefs or practices within religions. (The cutting of more than one human in ten’s penis, unlike the female version a near-universal practice, would surely rank among Islam’s most undesirable manifestations, but is demanded next to nowhere – indeed, very arguably proscribed – in the Qur’an. Every religion’s texts, conversely, bear long-forgotten commandments.) I’m not interested in what scripture mandates, most of the time, but in what believers in the real world think and do, and British Muslims don’t think what you say.

And not dead in a symbolic or theoretical way, but in an actual string-them-up-in-public sort of way, as they do in the Islamic Republic of Iran where they regard death as too good for homosexuals.

Post-revolutionary, theocratic Iran and its governments being, of course, an oasis of democratic transparency and rule by popular consent, whose public have no history at all of protest or dissent. (This sentence isn’t even coherent. One either regards death as too good for someone or kills them. Both are not possible.)

If they could find a way to kill them twice over they know it would please Allah more than a Tel Aviv school bus suicide bomb, but what can they do? They’ll just have to wait for Islamic science to find a way, and pick up that long overdue Nobel Prize.

There is absolutely no reason – except to make Muslims sound particularly foreign – to refer to the god of Islam as Allah. ‘Allah’ is the Arabic word for God, and nothing more specific; it’s what Arabic-speaking Muslims, Christians, Jews and members of other faiths all call their god. (Among Muslims, heavy use of Arabic is often an Islamist strategy to frame Islam as un-Western and culturally distinct. This kind of racialising discourse, including when non-Muslims adopt it, makes leaving Islam harder for atheists.)

Surely it’s obvious even to the most PC-crippled among us that if any one group of people on this earth should be opposing the spread of Islam with everything they’ve got, it’s gay people. Nothing is a more serious threat to them.

Please don’t use words like ‘crippled’.

Please don’t assume you’ve thought at greater length about the consequences of my sexuality and other people’s beliefs than I, a queer atheist blogger, have.

And once again, the data contradicts this.

Islam will never be remotely gay-friendly. There will never be a pink crescent moon, unless you count gay bloodstains, and good luck finding an Islamic “scholar” who’s prepared to deny that.

Daayiee Abdullah; Junaid Bin Jahangir; Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle; Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed; Ziauddin Sardar.

That’s five, as many minutes after a Google search. Oh yes – and about what the data says

It’s true that not all “scholars” feel the same way about gays. Some think they should be stoned to death. Others favour throwing them off a mountain. Maybe on a good day you could even get to choose. In Iran they’ve settled the matter by hanging them from cranes in public. In Mauritania they use the more traditional method, stoning to death. In Saudi Arabia they prefer beheading, as they do for many things in that country, including witchcraft.

British Muslims are overwhelmingly opposed to punishments like these. If you’re determined to homogenise Islam, whose stance is the ‘official’ one: theirs, or the current Iranian, Saudi or Mauritanian governments’? (Mauritania, on a point of fact, hasn’t actually executed anyone since 1990.)

In countries that don’t impose the death penalty for being gay it’s still punishable by flogging and imprisonment.

States whose official religion is Islam (generically or one particular denomination), and/or with a Muslim majority…

…with laws against homosexuality: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Brunei, Comoros, Gambia, Guinea, Iran, Kuwait (men only), Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Palestinian territories (Gaza – men only), Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sierra Leone (men only), Somalia, Somaliland, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan (men only), United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan (men only), Western Sahara, Yemen. (Total: 26.5 28.5)

…without laws against homosexuality: Albania, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Burkina Faso, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Indonesia, Jordan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait (women only), Lebanon, Mali, Mayotte, Niger, Palestinian territories (Gaza – women only), Palestinian territories (West Bank), Sierra Leone (women only), Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan (women only), Uzbekistan (women only). (Total: 21.5)

Other countries with laws against homosexuality: Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize (men only), Bhutan, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Cook Islands (men only), Dominica, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Grenada (men only), Guyana, Jamaica (men only), Kenya, Kiribati (men only), Lesotho (men only), Liberia, Malawi, Mauritius (men only), Myanmar, Namibia, Nauru (men only), Nigeria, Palau (men only), Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis (men only), Saint Lucia (men only), Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Seychelles (men only), Singapore, Solomon Islands, Somaliland, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Swaziland (men only), Tanzania, Togo, Tonga (men only), Trinidad and Tobago, TR North Cyprus (men only), Tuvalu (men only), Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe (men only). (Total: 40.5 38.5)

(All data: Wikipedia)

And it was announced recently that several Islamic countries are trying to find a medical test to detect gay people and stop them at the border, so disgusted are they by homosexuality.

Not just gay people, actually, but LGBT (including transgender) people. This is alarming and a major human rights concern – much like refusing people entry to Britain, in fact, for being Muslims or coming from a ‘Muslim country’. (If you lived in the ones above, wouldn’t you want to leave?)

If you care so much about human rights abuses, by the way, you should probably stop voting for a party that wants to scrap the Human Rights Act.

They even forced the United Nations to remove sexual orientation from a resolution condemning arbitrary execution, because Islamic countries want the right to arbitrarily execute gay people without being condemned for it, and the United Nations went along with that, which tells us something about the United Nations, but nothing we didn’t already know.

Yes, the six nations of the GCC and 73 other member states of the UN voted for this amendment. Of those 79, less than half (38) were ‘Islamic countries’ by the criteria above.

The concept of human rights is alien to Islam, as we know. The concept of gay rights is an insulting and vile obscenity to Islam, without putting too fine a point on it. Islam does not regard homosexuality as a different lifestyle, but as a disgusting form of sexual perversion on a par with paedophilia or bestiality, that should be severely punished.

Islam doesn’t regard anything as anything. Islam doesn’t have opinions independent of its followers’. (It has holy texts of course, but texts mean nothing without a reader, and again, they’re terrible predictors of what religious groups will think or do.)

While it’s certainly true the kind of Islamist states that have tended to develop in the last 50 years have notoriously poor human rights records, they’re far from unique in this, including among religious states more broadly. Of the non-Islamic countries above that criminalise homosexuality, almost all (41) are majority-Christian.

Further, polling of British Muslims shows high levels of support for secular legal infrastructure, human and LGBT rights and the respectful treatment of gay people.

Islamic preachers often conflate homosexuality and paedophilia, and are not challenged on it because the people they’re talking to generally agree with them.

Yes, it’s generally true that people who go to see people preach agree with them. (Hence the expression ‘preaching to the choir’.) How often do your regular viewers challenge you?

We know that the more Islam there is in a society the more physically dangerous it’s likely to be for gay people.

We don’t. You might, but you need a citation for this if you do.

There’s very little data available about correlation between religion and violent attacks on gay people, or about religious support specifically for these. (Anecdotally, speaking from experience among queer and human rights activists, the countries most infamous for this are generally Jamaica, Russia and Brazil.)

What we do know – from the survey, actually, which you cite to smear Muslims – is that those in Britain, Germany and France overwhelmingly oppose all forms of violence; that homosexuality is legal in almost as many ‘Muslim countries’ as it is against the law, and that substantially fewer states criminalising it are Muslim countries as defined above than are predominantly Christian.

In parts of Europe with high Muslim immigrant populations we know that openly gay men are far more likely to be attacked and beaten up on the street for being gay.

Citation desperately needed, once again.

I found none in the description to your video. I’m also impressed you seem so confident of this, since having been out as queer for the past ten years and a writer, researcher and activist on various queer issues (violence included) as well as religion for a good many of those, I’ve never been able to find a comprehensive study of homophobic assault levels by country. If you know more than I do about this, which you might (but I’d be surprised), why not share your data?

It’s a non-sequitur in any case that if homophobic violence occurs in places with high Muslim migrant populations, Muslims must be the perpetrators – rather like your claim that since 5 percent of Sweden’s populace are Muslims, they must be responsible for its rape statistics.

And there’s a good reason why they don’t hold gay pride marches down Brick Lane.

Actually, assuming by Brick Lane you mean Tower Hamlets and London’s East End, they do.

The march you mean was postponed and reorganised over concerns it would be used as an EDL front – concerns which came not from Muslim groups, but local LGBT ones, and certainly weren’t accompanied by threats of violence.

In a nutshell, gay people, Islam wants your blood, and if you’re ever stupid enough to go to an Islamic country and let them know you’re gay you’ll find that out the hard way.

I have – several times, in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Turkish Cyprus (if the latter counts). My pulse persists.

It doesn’t give a damn how tolerant or inclusive you are. It just wants you dead for being who and what you are, and it’s no more open to persuasion on the matter than you would be open to persuasion about letting sewer rats run around your house.

Stop saying abstract philosophies want or give a damn about things; stop calling my sexual identity ‘who and what I am’; start reading the data, which indicates decisively that queer-positive versions of Islam can and do exist, and that Muslims by and large (in Britain at least) are unsupportive of violence or oppression targeting LGBT people, whatever their moral view. (Yes, those views themselves do matter; no, not because they’re a threat to the way of life of gay or straight non-Muslims.)

You’ve got more chance of celebrating Christmas in a pub in Saudi Arabia than you have of finding common ground between Islam and homosexuality, and you’ve got absolutely no excuse for pretending otherwise because there’s nothing nuanced about the Islamic position. There is no ambiguity. There is no grey area. There is no common ground. There is no shared struggle. There are no bridges to be built, and there won’t be any until you stop being gay.

Again, what ‘common ground between Islam and homosexuality’ do I advocate by saying people shouldn’t be expatriated, attacked, harassed or slandered for their religion? (Or indeed perceived religion.) This as far as I’m concerned is elementary secularism.

Moreover: attitudes to queer sexuality within Islam are demonstrably varied, often sympathetic and at times explicitly affirmative. Of course gay imams are a fringe, but so were Islamists in 1960. Islam has shown itself to be as malleable and susceptible to evolutionary change as any other religion – there is no reason to assume queer-positive versions are somehow innately unsellable.

Would that option be on the table at all? For the sake of, you know, community cohesion? After all, by being gay you’re being culturally insensitive, disrespectful, divisive, provocative, offensive, Islamophobic and racist. What can I say, people? The bottom line is if you don’t want to be a filthy racist you’re going to have to stop being gay. And when you think about it, it’s really not that much to ask. After all, if you’re not willing to compromise on your sick and sinful gayness, how can you reasonably expect Islam to compromise on wanting you dead? Peace.

Oh, Pat. Stop.

Winter is coming: forget Christmas and fall in love with it

Warning: contains spoilers for C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series.

Each season has a scent to herald and define it. Summer’s belongs to sizzling car roofs and sweating rubber tyres, the static residue of thunderstorms following heatwaves, autumn’s to low-hanging mist and rotting leaves, then toffee apples, fireworks and chip fat running into drains. Winter’s at its height is fresh, the icy clean of morning frosts and condensation-covered windows, but its first approach has an anflug of its own – the oily, faint metallic wash of pipes grinding back into use, radiators moaning once more while cold hangs in the air outside. This was the smell that filled my house this morning.

Till January I’m resident again in my home town, a draughty, church-filled thorp near the Scottish border, twenty miles of mountains, lakes and woods to either side. Not since 2008 have I seen winter in here: for the five years in between, I spent those months either in Oxford or Berlin, returning Christmastime to a place transformed without viewing the transformation. Before that, winter was a misery, dark days and long nights holed up, blocked up and fed up, craving sunlight and release. As a teen I loathed this town, longed to escape its smothering isolation – the day my A-levels reached an end, also the day I turned eighteen, I packed a bag and left by train, staying on the road till university – and the darkest, coldest time of year when venturing outside was foolish made it feel more cut off still. Our calendar’s last months, the dying embers of the year, seemed lifeless, desolate, as bare emotionally as nearby forests.

I wonder looking back how much of this reflects the religion of my childhood. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis’ Christian allegory for children after which my whole bedroom aged eight was styled, the titular witch Jadis – having corrupted it on its creation – curses all Narnia with a winter that never ends, though Christmas never comes. (Why Narnians ever celebrated Christmas, God’s avatar in their world being Aslan, I still haven’t quite fathomed.) The bleak midwinter makes a familiar metaphor, as in Rossetti’s poem and its hymnal setting, for a world short of salvation: Christmas arrives, both first time round and for believers since, a light in the darkness, imbuing creation once more with life and hope.

The trope isn’t unique to Christianity, whose major rites are at once its most syncretic. Those festivals which fall around midwinter, as festivals are prone to do, have often stood for redemption in some sense or other: feasting after a year’s hard labour, remembering past struggles’ fruits, festooning evergreens and keeping fires lit, reminders the cold season’s atrophy will give way in its turn to spring. Summon your fondest images of winter – aren’t they, in fact, ones of its mitigation? Music and merriment to counteract bleak weather, time with loved ones to stop icy roads and storms cutting us off; fires to beat discomfort back, roast feasts and sweet things to quell emptiness psychic as well as bodily. We console ourselves, in Steven Moffat’s words, that we’re half way out of the dark, toasting our own resilience and emergence soon from the the cold more than we toast the cold itself.

My godless life rather enacts Lewis and Rosetti’s spiritual winter – an atheist, my world has yet to thaw in their terms (or rather, has succumbed to deconversion’s heat death), and my secularity of late runs deeper still. Partially as an introvert, partially tending despite myself toward the ascetic, I’ve little time nowdays for festivity, Christmas included: its trappings and traditions leave me jangled, stressed and out of sorts – longing, if I might half-inch a term from Christian liturgy, for ordinary time. The best December of my life so far, I spent alone two years back in Berlin, 2011’s last weeks pursued in solitude except online, nothing at all of Christmas or much else timetabled in. If this sounds glum, it was the perfect converse: nothing can be a hugely profitable thing to do, and ducking pomp and circumstance made me aware I generally dislike them – on birthdays, solstices or other dates. Berlin’s long freeze, in fact, prompted me to review my thoughts on colder seasons: I now find Narnia’s Christmasless winter quite ideal.

Like atheists, winter requires no redemption. My instinct is if we accepted it – if we focused in simply on feeling winter, instead of self-distracting with egg nog and tinselled trees, trying not to feel it – we just might fall for Jack Frost on his own terms. As the scent of winter’s nearness greeted me, sweeping between the house’s walls, I thought of its barren beauty, like that of deserts and ghost towns: exhalations thick and opaque, vanishing seconds after forming, empty skies clear and crystalline. The shortness of the days is precious, not oppressive, enough to give us pause and make us catch them while we can; being stuck inside, an invitation to focus on what counts. And what wakes slumbering neurons like a brisk morning’s cold snap, kicking the senses into gear, the mind into the present moment?

This is what winter’s bleakness really offers: a chance to re-enter the here and now, less busy and finer-tuned. Instead of seeking ways around it, let’s learn to learn to love that.

Winter is coming. I welcome it.

‘Trans people are real people. We are not an agenda’ – Zinnia Jones on CNN

Following Chelsea Manning’s coming out, Zinnia’s been all over the media. See below her appearance on CNN, under her meatspace name Lauren McNamara – noting in particular how host Jake Tapper persistently refers to Manning by her previous, male, name and pronouns.

As it turns out, much went on behind the scenes between Tapper, Zinnia and partner Heather. Over on her page, they’ve a jointly-written post about the follow-up.

After my appearance, I tweeted to Tapper to express my appreciation that I was able to be on the show and discuss this case. Several of my followers took note of this, and rightly criticized Tapper for persistently misgendering Chelsea. Tapper responded that this was not his decision, and that it was a matter of CNN’s policy.

Later that day, my fiancee, Heather, made a post on my blog explaining how stressful her day had been due to dealing with people’s attitudes toward my segment on CNN. While she had been sitting at the doctor’s office with our two sons, my segment was airing on the TV in the waiting room. Some older people waiting there seemed to be laughing at the very idea of trans people, and she confronted them about this. She also found it awkward and unnecessary that, as our children were watching, Tapper referred to me as previously being a “gay man”.


I explained that I can’t stop people’s anger – that people get angry and vent, but what I’m trying to do right now is to get productive about the language that’s used on television so that we can avoid inciting that anger in the future. I told him that I’m older than Lauren and remember the time whenrespectful treatment of a person such as myself, a lesbian, would have meant discussing me as somebody with a problem that couldn’t be helped, or as being a product of some sort of childhood sexual abuse – but that has changed, and this is how that change happens.

Jake replied that he spoke with a trans activist who said there were 250,000 trans people in America. He said that’s not that many, and that even the LGB community, “of which you are a part,” has trouble accepting trans people and that I should know that. I told him that yes, I was aware of this problem, and that if media sources like CNN could be guided toward resources for respectful language like the GLAAD style guide, then the common narrative might change.

In what I felt was a very condescending tone, Jake responded that he was sure the higher-ups were quite aware of the style guide, thank-you-very-much – but that, and he didn’t want to offend anyone by saying so, he thinks we can all agree that groups like GLAAD had (here, he struggled to think of an inoffensive word) an agenda.


This may have begun innocently enough as a group of people failing to understand an underrepresented and largely invisible minority group. Though Tapper and CNN’s higher-ups believe that excuses and summarizes the whole of the problem, that’s not the case. By now, several mainstream news outlets such as MSNBC, NPR, and The Guardian have already chosen to recognize and respect Chelsea’s gender. The continuation of this neglect no longer indicates innocent ignorance. Since Chelsea’s coming out, CNN and its partners in this neglect have actively made several distinct decisions to dismiss the voices and identities of transgender people.

Such news agencies have demanded that trans people meet an unusually high standard of proof simply to have their names and genders respected. When reporting on someone like Lady Gaga orVanilla Ice, use of their names is not contingent on court orders showing their legal name or medical records providing evidence of their gender. Yet trans people’s very existence receives much greater doubt and scrutiny. Chelsea is first expected to pursue HRT and surgery even as the same news segment is reporting on her current lack of access to any of these medical resources. They’re clearly aware of the situation she faces, and their use of it as an excuse rings hollow – yet they choose to use it anyway.

Whether CNN chooses to acknowledge it or not, trans people are a part of their audience. We are taxpayers, viewers, consumers, citizens, soldiers, and sometimes prisoners. We are not political debates. We are not an agenda.

Read the whole thing.

How I learned to celebrate Hallowe’en

This time two years ago, I wished someone at university a happy Hallowe’en. Then I realised I’d never done that before.

Alom Shaha, an ex-Muslim, writes in his memoir The Young Atheist’s Handbook about not being allowed to celebrate Christmas as a child. For me, the forbidden festival was October 31st. ‘As Christians’, a woman named Doreen told us in school, who also ran the Operation Christmas Child collections, ‘we don’t celebrate Hallowe’en.’

Of course not: it was a celebration of witchcraft, demonic creatures and evil spirits, and thus verboten, as the Harry Potter series is to thousands of children. Oddly, I was never one of them, reading the books without any parental resistance and introducing one teacher to them – though that teacher, Mrs. Walker, did still issue me with a spiritual warning against Warhammer, when I mentioned aged ten that players could cast soul-rending spells. (She needn’t have worried: I was, and am, a Dungeons & Dragons purist.)

One irony of banning Hallowe’en, a festival of fear, was that I always spent it terrified. At school, I would join in the collective prayers with extra vigour. In the evenings, I would stay in my room, inwardly chanting ‘Jesus is Lord’. If my mother was at work and I was home alone, I would chant it out loud in the sitting room, with curtains shut and all the lights on that I could reach. All this, in a foetal huddle below the front window, so as not to be seen by trick-or-treaters peering through the curtain gaps.

Only once or twice do I remember ever opening the door. Perhaps I was absent-minded or determined to face down whoever was outside. In fact, all I managed was to meet the mask-clad pairs of eyes and retreat inside again, slamming the door after telling them ‘No!’ with all possible force.

You have to understand: to the ten-year-old me, these were not children in white bedsheets and Frankenstein masks. It wasn’t those which scared me. I honestly believed they were the devil’s unknowing servants, engaged unwittingly in his hellish schemes, glorifying the powers of night.

A part of my current self, especially whilst writing about it, still hates the people who raised me this way: rarely, if ever, have I since felt the abject terror that I did on Hallowe’en into my early teenage years.

I know that my upbringing was far more extreme than many believing children’s, and I generally stop short of calling religious upbringings child abuse, but when I make myself recall my own, few other phrases seem sufficient.

At the same time, I don’t doubt my parents and teachers believed what they preached, which means their victimisation, unlike mine, continued into adulthood.

Fittingly for today’s date, what I’ve just told you is a kind of horror story. (A scarier kind than most, in fact, since its central monster – faith – really exists.) There is, however, a happy ending: at 21, I love Hallowe’en, just as I’ve always loved Bonfire Night. These celebrations are my favourite of the year: the collective appeal of hot food on cold nights, fireworks and flames satisfies me on a very primal level. Moreover, since that first ‘Happy Hallowe’en’, I’ve learnt to love this carnival of monsters.

The sight of children dressing up as their greatest fears is, I think, an encouraging one. Put on the clothes of your nightmares, and you become them; take their power to petrify, claim it for yourself, and suddenly you’ll realise that being frightening is just as easy as being afraid. Confronted with our fears, that lends us hope.

Also, of course, Hallowe’en teaches skeptical inquiry as an antidote to terror.

In my post-religious years, my rebellion has stretched to becoming a seasoned horror fan – not so much of contemporary horror films, but very much of classics from the seventies and eighties. In Aliens, the hero Ripley finds a petrified girl, her parents violently killed by the titular creatures, about which both characters have bad dreams.

The girl, Newt, is played by the then ten-year-old Carrie Henn. During the picture’s filming, which includes a slew of gruesome and highly graphic deaths in a dimly-lit abandoned structure, rumour has it that Henn was guided through the puppets and special effects used by producers. The finished movie, as a result, wasn’t frightening for her.

Show child actors the mundane fakery behind chest-bursting aliens, and suddenly their wellbeing is at much less risk. Teach five-year-olds to dress as Dracula, and the sinister powers of the Count are much less imposing. Teach my teenage self the baselessness of Christianity, and the demons at the door are no longer such a threat.

We can use Hallowe’en to teach valuable lessons about fear – namely, that scrutiny rather than panic is the best response to ghouls, including the emotional kind: it was skepticism that stopped Hallowe’en from traumatising me.

At the end of Aliens, monsters vanquished and planet escaped, Ripley and Newt are settling into their cryochambers for the journey back to Earth.

‘Are we going to sleep, now?’ Newt asks Ripley.

‘That’s right’, she replies.

‘Can we dream?’ tries Newt, still wary of nightmares.

‘Yes honey,’ Ripley says. ‘I think we both can.’