This is going to be hard to talk about. But it’s been on my mind a lot lately, and I think it’s important to say.
I see a lot of parallels between the atheist community and the queer community. I think that the two movements have a great deal in common — the importance of coming out of the closet, an ongoing family argument between the more diplomatic and the more confrontational activist philosophies, being a scapegoat of the religious right, etc.. In a lot of ways, I think the atheist movement today is very much where the queer movement was in the early ’70s — newly visible, newly vocal, pissed off as hell, still finding its voice, just beginning to gain real strength. I think the two communities could learn an enormous amount from each other, and I think that they’re natural allies.
And yet, I’m having a realization that I’m finding extremely unsettling.
I’ve been an out queer, and an active participant in the queer community, for over 20 years now. I’ve felt for years like the LGBT community was my home base. I’ve only identified as an atheist for less than two years.
And yet I’m finding that I feel more at home — more welcomed, more valued, more truly understood — as a queer in the atheist community than I do as an atheist in the queer community.
Like, a lot more.
In the last year or two, after a stretch of being more focused on other issues and movements (sex radicalism, mostly, plus of course the atheism), I’ve been getting more involved again with the LGBT movement. I’ve been reading LGBT blogs; I’ve been participating in an email list of LGBT political people; I’ve been donating money to LGBT causes; I went to the recent LGBT bloggers’ conference.
And here are some of the things I’ve experienced.
I’ve been exhorted to pray. I’ve been told about “our Creator.” I’ve seen comments in LGBT blogs, listing bigoted and wildly inaccurate anti-atheist canards that could have come straight out of the religious right’s playbook. I’ve heard inaccurate statistics bandied about regarding how many believers and non-believers there are in the U.S…. statistics that diminish atheists’ numbers and our strength. (For the record: We’re more than five percent, people.) I’ve heard the inaccurate and insulting canard about “fundamentalist” atheists… and, when I’ve pointed out that this term is both inaccurate and insulting, had the language firmly defended.
I’ve heard the LGBT movement described as divided into two distinct groups: the reasonable ones who want to work with religious groups, and the unreasonable ones who think that religion is a delusion. (As if it were impossible to think that religion is a mistaken hypothesis about the world, and at the same time still think we need to work with religious groups.) I’ve heard the atheist movement described as divided into two distinct groups: the good ones, the “live and let live” ones who don’t criticize religion, and the bad ones, the intolerant “fundamentalist” ones who think they’re right and say so. (Where have we heard that kind of language before?) I’ve heard LGBT leaders talk about how important it is to reach out to people of different religious faiths… with no mention whatsoever made of reaching out to people with no religious faith. Not even in lip service.
Have you ever been the out LGBT person that other LGBT people came to, privately or semi-privately, to tell you that they’re L, G, B, or T? That’s how I’m beginning to feel as an atheist in the queer community.
I’m not going to pretend to speak for these folks. I don’t know exactly how they feel about their lack of religious belief, or why they’re choosing to stay quiet about it for the moment. It could be any number of reasons: from not wanting to be alienated from the community, to not having the time or energy or inclination to do Godlessness 101 education, to not wanting to raise potentially divisive issues at a time when we’ve already had a lot of infighting, to just not thinking that it’s that big a deal, to other reasons that probably haven’t occurred to me. I don’t pretend to speak for them, and I’m certainly not going to be anything but supportive of them. Like LGBT people, non-believers need to come out of the closet on their own timetable, and for their own reasons.
But I think we all know that, when you make yourself visible as an LGBT person in a non- specifically- LGBT group, and a whole bunch of people come up to you privately to tell you that they’re LGBT… you know that there’s a problem. You know that something’s going on in that group that’s making LGBT people feel like they can’t be completely out.
It seems like that’s happening for atheists and other non-believers in the LGBT community.
And the whole thing is making me really sad.
It’s ticking me off, too. But mostly, it’s making me sad. It’s reminding me of my earlier days in the community, when we were fighting for the B to be included in LGBT, and people who I thought were my family were telling me that I didn’t belong. It’s making me feel like I have to fight for my place at the table. It’s making me feel like I have to choose between being welcomed, and speaking my mind about things that are deeply important to me. It’s making me feel like my home is not my home anymore.
Being a queer in the atheist community, on the other hand…
Being a queer in the atheist community is almost a complete non-issue.
I write a lot about the parallels between the LGBT movement and the atheist movement… and atheists, of all sexual orientations, are always interested. When I talk about sexual orientation and queer politics and history — or just about my own personal experiences in my own queer relationship — atheists want to hear what I have to say about it. And when I don’t — when I just want to talk about creationism or Pascal’s Wager or the problem of evil or the meaning of life — then they want to hear what I have to say about that, too. Not as an LGBT representative, either; not as What The LGBT Community Has to Say About Pascal’s Wager. Just as Greta.
And the atheist community has been fierce and outspoken in defense of LGBT rights. To give just one example: The atheist blogosphere needed no prodding to blog about Prop 8. They were all over the issue like a cheap suit. Almost every atheist blog I read had something to say about it; many of them blogged about it multiple times. And they were all over the issue from very early on. Hell, I know straight atheist bloggers who were blogging about Prop 8 before I was.
This isn’t just true for Prop 8 or same-sex marriage, either. The atheist blogosphere talks about homophobia a fair amount. They see it, among other things, as one of the main examples of how traditional organized religion is stubbornly adhering to unsupported dogma at the expense of real human lives. And that makes it a big issue for them. Apart from just, you know, being appalled by it because it hurts their friends and loved ones. Apart from it just being the right thing to do.
I’m not saying that I’ve never encountered homophobia or homo-stupidity in the atheist community. I have. But I’ve found it to be very rare, very much the exception. And maybe more to the point: When it does show up, it gets smacked down like a bug, by a dozen different hands or more. I don’t always have to be the one to do the smacking. I don’t even usually have to be the one to do the smacking. When a homophobic or homo-stupid commenter shows up, the atheist blogosphere — straight and queer — promptly tears them about sixteen new assholes. I have never before been in a community where I felt so strongly that straight people had my back.
On the whole, the atheist community has been just about the most LGBT- positive community I’ve been in that wasn’t, specifically, an LGBT community itself. I’ve had to do almost no Queer 101 education in it. I’ve been able to just relax and be myself.
Now. I do understand that this comparison isn’t entirely fair. For one thing, the modern queer movement has been active and loud, visible and vocal, for a good 40 years now. The rest of the world has had time to, as the chant goes, get used to it.
The atheist community? Not so much. The atheist movement has been around for a while; but it’s only been active and loud, visible and vocal, making itself an un-ignorable presence in the world at large, for maybe the last five years or so. Straight people — including atheists — have had a long time to get educated about LGBT issues. Religious believers — including LGBT folks — haven’t had as long to get familiar with atheism. So it’s not terribly surprising that there should be troubling attitudes about atheists and atheism in the LGBT community. Disappointing, but not surprising.
And it’s not like this situation is universally terrible. It’s not. There are queer believers who are saying and doing lovely and supportive things for their non-believing compatriots. There are other queer non-believers who are talking openly about their godlessness — I’m hardly the only one. And it’s not like anyone’s throwing rocks at me or anything. It’s not terrible.
It’s just bad enough to make me feel like I’m not quite at home anymore.
I am both an atheist and a queer. I feel like I’m one of the bridges between the two communities, and that makes me happy: I think the two movements are natural allies, and I think there should be bridges between them. (If only for reasons of pure pragmatism, I damn well think the LGBT community should be working like crazy on that alliance. IMO, the atheist movement is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years and decades: it’s come very far in a very short time, and it’s growing by leaps and bounds every year.)
But lately, I’m feeling like this bridge is a lot more strongly supported on one side than it is on the other. I’m feeling like the people on one side of the bridge are heartily cheering me on and welcoming me with open arms, and the people on the other side of the bridge are a whole lot more conflicted about me, with a fair number of them heartily wishing that I’d just shut up.
And I’m finding — sadly, but not entirely surprisingly — that I’m feeling more strongly identified with my new friends who are cheering me on.
I’m feeling more like an atheist than I am like a queer.
And if this trend in the LGBT community keeps moving in this same direction, then that’s just going to get stronger.
So how do I want this to change?
That’s tomorrow’s post.