Smoke, fire and recognising transphobia

It’s not the case that where there’s smoke there’s fire – nonetheless, the two correlate strongly. The more people smell smoke, the wiser it is to investigate; the more you spot, the likelier you are to find something alight, and anyone so fire-agnostic they refuse to make enquiries till presented with a room in flames can reasonably be suspected of anything from ambivalence on fire safety to being a furtive arsonist.

Misogyny has been the great fire of atheism. 2012 saw a pitched fight for smoke detectors to be used at cons, in which, as thick plumes billowed from every window, DJ Grothe said TAM was totally fire-free, no one having caught so much as a whiff of smoke, and women shouldn’t assume too much from the sky high column of it over the building. Later, Reinhardt et al decided piles of soot and ash wherever some male skeptics went didn’t conclusively prove fire damage, and so there was no reason at all to check for any.

People who defend sexism tend to think there are only two ways to handle complaints: either with absolute credulity, treating women’s claims as infallible, or with absolute agnosticism, throwing out anything short of airtight legal proof. Women who file reports are said to want their word taken as law, but complaints are supposed to prompt investigations, not foreclose them. In the first instance, all most plaintiffs want is for their claims to be looked into – something an all-or-nothing epistemology prevents.

The agnostic response to bigotry says we can never know enough to act. If we don’t have all the facts, we have none; if not everything has been proved, nothing can be, and if the curtains haven’t yet caught fire, no amount of smoke is cause for action. Claims with mountains of evidence are dismissed before any can be sought, responsible parties painting requests for them to find things out as demands for unquestioning belief.

I bring this up because of late, I’ve seen Ophelia say similar things. [Read more…]

Caitlyn Jenner is a mathlete at prom

When Lindsay Lohan is declared homecoming queen in Tina Fey’s Mean Girls – a film about how beauty standards, inter alia, tear women down – she uses her speech to tell all her classmates they look nice. Jessica Lopez, who uses a wheelchair, has an amazing dress; plus-size Emma Gerber must have spent hours on her hair; Regina George, queen bee before a bus hit her, is wearing her neck brace like a rock star.

If complimenting women’s looks on dressed-up occasions is sexism, a patronising well done for being acceptable, Fey suggests it can also be a gesture of solidarity, acknowledging the girls’ efforts to navigate beauty-policing’s impossible demands. (The ‘plastics’, it turns out, are more afraid than anyone.) When Lohan tells her peers they all look like royalty, breaking her tiara and dividing the pieces equally, it’s a statement of affirmation and sorority. I see you, big girls, butch girls, girls on meds. I see the best-and-worst-dressed culture and the pressure and the fear and how you’ve handled them. Here’s to us all for surviving.

000Not unlike Lohan’s character, Caitlyn Jenner is a mathlete at prom, negotiating for the first time the fraught terrain of acceptable public femaleness. Prior to her profile in Vanity Fair, featuring Annie Leibovitz’s photographs, Jenner was called an unconvincing imitation of womanhood. Post-bustier, having presumably sped through the goldilocks region of femininity sometime during hair and makeup, she will almost certainly be called an offensive parody of it. And so my guess would be that when someone at Jezebel wrote ‘You look great, Caitlyn! Can’t wait to see more,’ this – not the adequacy of her attractiveness – was the context.

With all the surgery, beauty treatments and airbrushing her millions can buy, Jenner certainly meets standards of gendered beauty few trans women can; it’s also true that lauding her for being pretty rather than brave displays a wide array of bigotries, and that trans activists may just have better goals than inroads with the GOP. Meeting an expectation, though, doesn’t make it less smothering. If feminist media is complimenting Jenner, my guess is that the aim might be to put someone agonisingly self-aware at ease, letting the anxious nerd at the spring fling know she looks nice when she arrives: not ‘You look great’ as in ‘Well done’, but as in ‘Don’t let them say otherwise.’ [Read more…]

“I didn’t come here to defend myself” – Mads Ananda Lodahl gives the world the queer 101 it needs

I don’t enjoy many gay YouTube videos – most ‘coming out’ clips seem to show vulnerable queer kids tearfully accepting what scraps straight parents throw their way who spew patronising bullshit. I don’t enjoy that many gay TED talks either – Mads Ananda Lodahl’s TEDx talk from Copenhagen two years ago, which I stumbled across the other day, is a refreshing exception.

Some highlights (see a full transcript here):

For the last ten years, I have been writing articles and giving lectures to young people about queer theory and politics. You might think that makes me an expert at being gay, but if anything, it makes me an expert at understanding ‘normal’. ‘Queer’ means a lot of different things, but something that is central to the queer perspective is to turn the focus away from the people who deviate from the straight norm onto the straight norm itself – to stop asking questions like ‘Why do people become gay?’ and ‘Why do gays have to act like that?’ and start asking the big question: how did normal become normal? That is, how did the straight norm become so strong – so integrated into every part of our lives, our societies and our selves – that for us to even begin to understand what the straight world order is… is like asking a fish to describe water?

I don’t want to be normal. I didn’t come here today to defend myself – I didn’t come to defend homosexuals or women or transgender people. I came today to attack. I came to declare a war, today, on the straight world order. I came to strike matches and to throw rocks, and I came with a toothpick for you if you’ve got the straight world order stuck between your teeth, and with a pair of pliers to pull it out of your foot if you’ve stepped on it. I may be at war with the straight world order, but I am at peace with myself – and the first thing I do every morning when I wake up is to thank the universe and the stars that I am a faggot. I am disgusted – not by heterosexuals, but by the straight world order, and I want no part of it. No thank you. The Gay Liberation Front had it right in 1971, when they said ‘We don’t want a piece of that pie. That pie is rotten.’

Be aware of it when you have certain expectations of people’s sex, gender and sexuality – and realise that they might not live up to your expectations, and that that’s not a problem. That is not a threat to you. It is not a mistake or a failure that you need to fix – it’s not something that people do to get your attention or to provoke you. It is the way they live their lives – and you don’t need to ask about it, stare at it, comment on it or try to correct it. What you need to do is, you need to respect it.

At last a queer 101 I can get behind.

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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.

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TEF-LON and transmisogyny: about that Terry MacDonald piece in the New Statesman

In case you haven’t paid attention for the last two years, a clique of UK writers connected via skeptic groups and the New Statesman – Suzanne Moore, Sarah Ditum, Gia Milinovich, Helen Lewis, Caroline Criado-Perez, Martin Robbins and Julies Bindel and Burchill – periodically say unhelpful things on trans women’s issues. Some have recent histories of mealy-mouthed transphobia, while others object indignantly to the word ‘cis’, argue ‘TERF’ is a slur, defend trans women’s exclusion from abuse shelters and insistently misgender them. It’s a matter of great sadness to me that this London-based group of trans-exclusionary feminists has yet to form as an official club, partly because it would make keeping up with them easier, but mostly because I like imagining a shadowy collective called TEF-LON.

The newest member is pseudonymous, hitherto unknown columnist Terry MacDonald, whose guest article at the New StatesmanAre you now or have you ever been a TERF?’ has been circulating online this week. Both the title and MacDonald’s use of a pen name seem geared to suggest suppression, a lone voice typing truth to power with the Gestapo of the trans cabal outside the door, so fisking the post’s non-stick arguments seems only game.

[Read more…]

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

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

Listen (and subscribe) on iTunes here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cucumber’s “radical approach to sexuality”, and its normalisation of rape and relationship abuse

I hoped Cucumber and its partner shows would be as good as Queer as Folk. I feared they’d be nothing like as good. As it turns out, Cucumber is a show you need to watch – at least, that is, if you thought Looking‘s characters were unlikeable, Vicious was the nadir of queer TV or having your molars slowly drilled without anaesthesia was excruciating.

For its entire 45-minute running time, I cringed. Episode one of Cucumber was so non-stop wince-inducing that by the time its credits rolled, I found myself feeling the weight of my own face. I knew there and then that I’d pay a considerable sum never to see another episode – yet also that I’d rewatch it this morning, cataloguing every last thing I hated about it.

Because Cucumber isn’t merely crap. It’s a well written, well-produced, well-executed show that achieves its apparent aims. The trouble is, its aims are fucking regressive – at times even outright dangerous. [Read more…]

Help this queer apostate speak at LGBT History Month

A month back I published a post – one I’d been trying to write for years – about uncritical celebration of queer-affirming religion and why I think it’s harming us. ‘My fear’, I wrote, ‘is that my community’s response to religious persecution is increasingly to try and prove itself godly, ignoring that religious respectability is a double-edged sword – and that as a result, a steady religionisation of queer spaces is afoot.’

The post was widely shared on social media – Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit – and most responses were highly positive. It’s now my second most read post of all time (this one’s the first, if you were wondering). I think what I say in it’s important, and my sense is that many of those who shared it had wanted to say the same for a long time but hadn’t had the words. (I hadn’t either.)

Toward the start, I list several events I’ve attended and heard queer believers say dangerously uncritical, onesided or outright incorrect things, with the challenges faced by queer apostates and abuse survivors going completely unacknowledged. At one of them,

a pfarrer from Germany’s main Protestant church declared that yes, of course one could be gay and Christian, echoing gay evangelical Vicky Beeching’s words that ‘what Jesus taught was a radical message of welcome and inclusion and love’. Why, he asked, did people always discuss Christian homophobes instead of Martin Luther King or Desmond Tutu?

For one thing, Kingdistanced himself from gay men in the civil rights movement, cancelling a march where Bayard Rustin was scheduled to speak when a former pastor in the US Congress threatened rumours of an affair between the two. For another, King endorsed conversion therapy. [The practice drove Leelah Alcorn to suicide.]

Yesterday, having read the post above, the Rainbow Intersection – the group that put on this event and holds discussions about religion, queer identity and race regularly – asked me to be on their next panel. I said yes. For those still doubtful, drama-blogging works. [Read more…]