This is the text of the talk I gave on Saturday at the Secular Student Alliance Northern California Regional Leadership Summit.
I want to talk today about what the atheist movement can learn from the gay/ lesbian/ bi/ trans movement. The atheist movement is already modeling ourselves in many ways on the LGBT movement. And we should. The parallels between the two movements are sometimes eerie. And since the LGBT movement is roughly 35 years ahead of the atheist movement — I think the atheist movement right now is about where the LGBT movement was in the early ’70s right after the Stonewall riots — we have a unique chance to learn from that movement… both from its successes and its failures.
Probably the single most important thing atheists can learn from the LGBT movement is to encourage visibility and coming out — and to work harder on making the atheist movement a safer place to come out into.
Very early in the LGBT movement, it became clear that coming out is the most powerful political act gay people can take. Consistently, polls show that the single factor most likely to make people support gay rights is whether they know a gay person personally. (Or, to be more accurate — whether they know that they know a gay person.) And this is a lesson the atheist movement has been taking to heart: with the Out campaign, the atheist bus ads and billboards, and so on. We’re doing an excellent job with visibility — we’ve gone from being on pretty much nobody’s radar to being a major topic at water-coolers and op-ed columns, in a remarkably short time. And more atheists are coming out every day.
But I think we’re doing a less consistent job of making the atheist movement a safe place to land once people do come out. In the post-Stonewall days of the LGBT movement, there was a massive blossoming of LGBT community centers, bookstores, coffeehouses, political groups, bars, bowling leagues, etc. Coming out as queer often meant leaving behind your friends and family — so queers formed our own social support networks, to take the place of the ones that rejected us.
The atheist movement hasn’t been as strong about this. Online we have — we’ve done an excellent job of providing online communities for atheists. But we haven’t done as good a job at providing in- the- flesh support networks to replace the churches/ synagogues/ mosques/ covens/ etc., and the sense of belonging and common purpose they provide. And I’ll include myself in that: I’m much better at participating in the online atheist movement than I am at actually showing up to local meetings. I think one of the things we can learn from the LGBT movement is to remember how difficult coming out is. We need to remember that when we encourage people to re-think religion and consider atheism, we’re asking a lot. We’re not just asking people to reshape the entire philosophical foundation of their lives and to let go of a major source of comfort they’ve relied on for years. We’re asking them, in many cases, to alienate their friends, family, community. I’d like to see us do a better job of providing something to replace it with.
I will say, since this is a conference for the Secular Student Alliance, that the college and university groups have, to a great extent, been an exception to this rule. The student groups have been providing a lot of in- the- flesh support and community for fledgling atheists. So I’d like to encourage the leaders of those groups to continue that kind of community work — even after you leave school. I’d like to encourage you to carry that work into the non- college- and- university world. And from what I’ve been hearing, even student groups often have continuity problems: they tend to fold if the driving force behind them has been a strong leader who then has the temerity to graduate. I’d like to encourage student groups to be aware of that phenomenon: to make plans for smooth transitions, and to create strong structures that will last even when the individuals in them move on.
So. Speaking of moving on: There’s another lesson that I think atheists can learn from the LGBT movement; one that the LGBT movement took a little while to learn. And that’s to let firebrands be firebrands, and to let diplomats be diplomats. We need to recognize that not all activists pursue activism in the same say; we need to recognize that using both more confrontational and more diplomatic approaches makes us a stronger movement, and that both these approaches used together, synergistically, are more powerful than either approach alone.
To some extent the LGBT movement is still learning this lesson, but we’ve become much better about it, and our movement has become stronger as a result. Here’s an example: In the queer activist movement of the ’80s and ’90s, loud, angry street activist groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation often accused more mild-mannered lobbying groups of assimilationism, excessive compromise, generally selling out. And the mild-mannered groups often accused the street activists of being overly idealistic, alienating potential allies, and making their own job harder.
But when we look at those years in retrospect, it becomes clear that both methods together were far more effective than either method would have been alone. And the LGBT movement has learned — to some extent — to recognize this fact, and to deliberately strategize around it. Part of this is simply that different methods of activism speak to different people. Some folks are better able to hear a quiet, sympathetic voice. Others are better able to hear a passionate cry for justice. And the “good cop/ bad cop” dynamic can be very effective. Again, in the queer movement of the ’80s and ’90s, the street activists got attention, got on the news, raised general visibility and awareness. The polite negotiators could then raise a more polite, nuanced form of hell, knowing that the people they were working with had at least a baseline awareness of our issues. And when the street activists presented more hard-line demands, that made the polite negotiators seem more reasonable in comparison. The line between an extremist position and a moderate one kept getting moved in our direction. We see this working today: the same-sex marriage debate has made supporting civil unions seem like the moderate position, even the conservative one — which wasn’t true ten years ago.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t debate our tactical differences. On any given issue, it’s sometimes worth debating whether diplomacy or confrontation (or a combination) will be a more effective tactic in that particular case. But I’d like to us stop treating these debates as if they were larger questions of morality or character that have to be resolved in one direction or the other once and for all. We do what we’re inspired to do, and what we’re good at. Some of us are good at passionate, confrontational idealism; some of us are good at sympathy with our opponents. (And some of us are good at a mix of these approaches.) The diplomatic atheists need to stop trying to shut up the firebrands, stop accusing them of alienating people. And the firebrand atheists need to stop accusing the diplomats of being wusses. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and energy.
Oh, and speaking of wasting everyone’s time and energy: There’s a third, very important lesson that the godless movement can learn from the LGBT movement. And that’s to not waste our time squabbling about language. We need to let godless people use whatever language they want to define themselves.
There is, again, an eerie parallel between the non-theist movement and the LGBT movement. It’s a similarity between two relationships: the relationship between homosexuals and bisexuals on the one hand, and the relationship between atheists and agnostics on the other.
I identify as bisexual, and in the past, I’ve had to put up with a fair amount of crap from gays and lesbians telling me that I’m, quote, “really” lesbian and just won’t admit it. It’s not helpful, to say the least. The question of how to name your sexual identity is extremely personal, and different factors have different weight for different people. I’m about a Kinsey 5 — that’s on the Kinsey sexual orientation scale of 0 to 6, 0 being entirely heterosexual, 6 being entirely homosexual. I’m about a Kinsey 5 — mainly oriented towards women, but with some interest in men. I call myself bisexual — because to me, that interest in men isn’t trivial. It’s included important relationships, it’s an important part of how I view the world, etc. But for some other Kinsey 5, that “some interest” in the opposite sex might not be that important, so they might call themselves gay or lesbian. Which is totally their right — just like it’s my right to call myself bisexual. These terms don’t have clear definitions everyone agrees on — it’s not like there’s a perfect bisexual in a vacuum in the Smithsonian for us to all measure ourselves against.– and, within reason, we have the right to use them in a way that makes sense for us.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
Let’s look at the Richard Dawkins Belief Scale, which goes from 1 to 7: 1 being absolute certainty that there is a God, 7 being absolute certainty that there isn’t. (Brief tangent: I desperately wish he’d made his scale from 0 to 6, to line up with the Kinsey scale, since I make these analogies all the time.) I’m about a 6 on the Dawkins scale, maybe 6 and a half, and I call myself an atheist — because that glimmer of uncertainty isn’t very important to me. It’s hypothetically possible that I’m wrong — just like it’s hypothetically possible that I’m wrong about unicorns not existing — but it’s not keeping me up at night.
But for someone else who’s a 6 on the Dawkins scale, that glimmer of uncertainty might be important. Even if they have exactly the same amount of doubt that I do, the fact of that doubt might really matter to them. So even though we’re in the same place on the Dawkins Scale, it’s totally reasonable for them to call themselves agnostic while I call myself atheist. Again — there’s no perfect atheist in a vacuum in the Smithsonian. This language is imprecise. And the power to name ourselves is too important for us to try to take it away from each other.
So in the same way that gays and lesbians have (for the most part) learned to quit telling bisexuals that they’re “really” gay or lesbian and are just afraid to admit it, I think atheists need to quit telling agnostics that they’re “really” atheist and are just afraid to admit it. (By the same token, just like bisexuals have to quit saying “Everyone’s basically bisexual,” agnostics have to shut up about how most atheists are really agnostic, how, quote, “true” atheism is a belief system as much as religion, and how agnosticism is more consistent and honorable.) Atheists and agnostics are natural allies — along with humanists, skeptics, materialists, naturalists, freethinkers, brights, etc. Much like gays and lesbians and bisexuals and transgendered people are all natural allies. We shouldn’t waste our time and energy squabbling because you say tomayto and I say tomahto.
And I want to close with one more lesson that the atheist movement can learn from the LGBT movement. (There are more — I could discuss this all day — but I only have 20 minutes.) This is a lesson that atheists can learn, not from the successes of the LGBT movement, but from one of our biggest failures — a failure that has come back to bite us in the ass time and again.
Atheists need to work — now — on making our movement more diverse, and making it more welcoming and inclusive of women and people of color.
And by now, I mean now. We need to start on this now, so we don’t get set into patterns and vicious circles and self-fulfilling prophecies that in ten or twenty years will be damn near impossible to fix.
What can we learn here from the LGBT movement? The early LGBT movement screwed this up. Badly.
The early LGBT movement was very much dominated by gay white men. The public representatives of the movement were mostly gay white men; most organizations were led by gay white men. And the gay white male leaders had some seriously bad race and gender stuff: treating gay men of color as fetishistic Others, objects of sexual desire rather than members of the community… and treating lesbians as alien Others, inscrutable and trivial.
And we’re paying for it today. Relations between lesbians and gay men, between white queers and queers of color, are often strained at best. Conversations in our movement about race and gender take place in a decades-old minefield of rancor and bitterness, where nothing anybody says is right. And we still, after decades, have a strong tendency to put gay white men front and center as the most visible, iconic representatives of our community.
That makes it hard on everyone in the LGBT movement — women and men, of all races. It creates rifts that make our community weaker. And it has a seriously bad impact on our ability to make effective social change. For instance, the LGBT movement has a profoundly impaired ability to shift homophobic attitudes in the black communities… since those communities can claim, entirely fairly, that the gay community doesn’t care about black people, and hasn’t made an effort to deal with our racism.
We screwed this up. We still screw this up. We are paying for our screwups.
Atheists have a chance to not do that.
The atheist movement is currently largely dominated by white men… especially in positions of visibility and leadership. And many atheists resist seeing this as a problem that we need to take action on. They’re not overtly racist or sexist, they’re not saying, “We don’t want women or people of color in our movement”… but they don’t see this as their responsibility, and they don’t see it as particularly important.
I could give an entire talk on why this is important. I could give an entire talk on how racism and sexism aren’t always conscious, how we perpetuate them without even thinking about them, and why we therefore need to pay conscious attention to countering them. I could give an entire talk on how people tend to focus on issues that personally affect them… so an atheist movement dominated by white men will focus on issues that largely affect white men — at the expense of issues that largely concern women and people of color. I could talk about self-fulfilling prophecies: how even if the predominant whiteness and maleness of the atheist movement were purely accidental, this pattern would still get perpetuated and ingrained… because women and people of color feel less welcome in a movement that’s largely white and male — and the less welcome they/ we feel, the longer the movement goes on being largely white and male.
But I’m running out of time, so I mainly want to say this: Look at every other movement for social change in recent history. Every single one that I know about has been bitten on the ass by this issue. Every one now wishes they’d taken action on it in the early days, before bad habits and self-fulfilling prophecies got set in a deep groove that’s hard to break out of. And that includes the LGBT movement.
There are lots of good reasons for atheists to work on this. There are idealistic reasons: because religion hurts women and people of color as much as it hurts white men; because female atheists, and atheists of color, matter just as much as white male atheists, etc. And there are practical reasons — it’ll make our movement stronger, larger, better at reaching more people.
But if you’re still wondering why this is important, talk to anyone who’s seriously involved in LGBT politics. Ask them, “If you could go back to 1970 and get the early leaders of the post-Stonewall movement to deal with race and sex — would you do it?” I can guarantee you that just about every one would fervently respond, “Yes, for the sweet love of Loki — if we could go back in time and not screw that up, we would.”
We have a chance in the atheist movement to not screw this up. We have a chance to start dealing with this now, so it’s less of a problem in ten or twenty years, and we’re not wasting our time and energy trying to fix what we could be fixing now.
Let’s learn from the mistakes of the LGBT movement, as well as its successes — and let’s take advantage of that chance.