On Being A Feminist, A Trans/Queer-Rights Advocate And An Atheist/Skeptic At The Same Time, Or: How To Be Hated By All Your Friends & Allies

On Friday, Russell over at The Atheist Experience, aware of how nervous I was about the potential backlash my God Does Not Love Trans People post could receive (due to the hostile reaction I received on Twitter just for mentioning the possibility of writing it), put up a little post asking his readers to help support me in the event that I did get trolled or attacked by religious believers or apologists.

That’s not quite what happened.

Apart from a very few counter-arguments by religious people who were reacting defensively rather than acting offensively, there wasn’t really much of a problem in the comment thread at my post. In the comment thread for Russell’s post, however, there were several extremely offensive remarks made by atheists with hang-ups about gender and sexuality. Initially, the two main remarks were that homosexuality and transgenderism are “disgusting”, some straw-feminist pounding, and someone defending the “disgusting” remark by saying he can understand being creeped out by “men who play hide the salami with other men, and men who don’t want to BE men”. In response to the various statements of outrage, and “that’s not okay” stuff, the -phobes in question doubled down, engaged in some amazingly offensive trivialization of queer identities, experiences and the discrimination we face, and started playing the “you’re all just people to me!” / “reverse discrimination!” / “stop making such a big deal out of nothing!” / “acting like this is important is only making your oppression worse” / “well, now you’re just alienating your allies” tactics. Plenty of “shut up, that’s why“, too.  And one even decided to call Pride Parades an act of “trolling” his delicate straight/cis sensibilities.

It was appalling. And depressing. But worst of all? I realized that comparatively, the transphobic/homophobic/sexist atheists were proving themselves much more hostile, intolerant, ignorant, bigoted and quick to bludgeon others with their ill-informed, irrational opinions and preconceptions than were the queer theists. What’s more, I realized this isn’t new. This is what I’ve been seeing all along.

I ended up needing people from my blog to come support me in the thread on the post asking people to come support me on my blog.

And if atheists routinely treat me worse than my allies in the other movements I belong to, including the ones who disagree with me, if I continuously find being an atheist, and other atheists, so much more frustrating than being a trans-rights advocate, or a feminist, why am I prioritizing it? Why am I putting the most of my energy into a community that rewards me with the most bigotry, hostility and mistreatment? Maybe I only notice it in atheism because I spend more time there, and prioritize it. Maybe. But still… this kind of thing does lead to reappraising one’s priorities.

The really depressing part was realizing how much hostility I inevitably face in each of the activist movements I identity myself with. It’s not just having to deal with things like sexism, misogyny, anti-feminism and transphobia in atheism and skepticism. There’s also the vast and disturbing undercurrent of transphobia within feminism, which I’ve talked about before, particularly in radical feminism and cultural feminism, and of which you can find a pretty disturbing example in this comment thread at Jezebel I noticed via pingback (when someone starts citing Butler in terms of why they “don’t get” transgenderism, watch out!) but also the presence in feminism (mostly second wave variants) of not-so-skeptical thinking, alt med, goddess-woo, “female energy”, “women’s ways of knowing”, and so on (which often goes hand in hand with the transphobia, as it happens).

And within the trans community I end up having to deal with a lot of hate for those-other-things-I-also-am once again. Many trans women have surprisingly anti-feminist attitudes. I find this really, really hard to wrap my head around, because I honestly can’t quite understand how someone can transition from living and being treated as male to living and being treated as female and not notice the enormous loss of social privilege that accompanies that, and how limited (and limiting) socio-cultural concepts of womanhood and femininity are. But nonetheless… yep, lots of negative feelings towards feminism amongst trans women. Partly motivated by fear and resentment due to feminist attacks against trans women, partly motivated by lingering resentment towards cis women from pre-transition (“I want what they have so badly. How can they be complaining about it?!”), partly motivated by just the plain old biases and assumptions and sexist attitudes woven into our culture And how when most people think “feminism” they immediately think of angry, misandrist, bra-burning straw-feminism. Amongst trans men you don’t tend to get as much anti-feminist attitudes, but you can find plenty of misogyny, sexism, and outdated binary and essentialist attitudes towards gender (take Chaz Bono, for instance). Suffice it to say, I’ve gotten a lot of hate in the trans community for my vocal support of feminism, and it’s gotten me into more fights with more trans folk than any other single issue. And does it really need saying that there’s an anti-atheist sentiment there as well? Even amongst the radical and feminist trans folk, you”ll find the attitude that religion should not be questioned, and that critiqueing it is disrespectful of other cultural vantage points, as I discussed on Friday.

So where does this leave me? If there are trends within feminism that hate trans women and atheists, and trends within the trans community that hate atheists and feminists, and trends within the atheist community that hate feminists and trans women? No matter where I’m locating myself at a given moment, I have to push uphill against some kind of problematic set of biases and viewpoints or another.

I can’t win.

It reminds me of the problem of intersectionality; how difficult it becomes when an individual is being persecuted along multiple axes of discrimination, and how social justice movements will typically allow the narrative of a given group to be dominated by individuals who are normative in all other senses. Feminism, for instance, initially being dominated by white, middle-class, straight, cisgender women. The black civil rights movement being dominated by straight, cisgender men. The LGBTQ community being overwhelmingly represented and embodied in the image of middle-class white gay men with normative bodies and ambitions. Unless you’ve been lucky enough to only be disadvantaged in one particular way, in any given community, one aspect of who you are may be permitted a voice, but you will be erased in another capacity.  You don’t get much chances to be all of you. To take someone like Monica Roberts, for instance, when she’s not being discriminated against on the basis of her gender, she will be discriminated against on the basis of her race (when people think “trans woman” they tend to only initially think of people who look like me, talk like me, have my kind of binary gender, my kind of transition narrative, and my kind of sexual orientation), and when she is not being discriminated against on the basis of her race, she will be discriminated against on the basis of her gender.

To pull this back around to whining about my own little problems, in all three of those primary movements I described belonging to (feminism, trans/queer-rights, and atheism/skepticism), I’ve encountered considerable privilege and entitlement, and attitudes of scorn, dehumanization, trivialization, and contempt in regards to issues of addiction (and poverty). I have yet to locate a single place in my life in which this particular aspect of my experiences and who I am are not subject to ignorance and intolerance. Yesterday, at a trans forum, in a discussion on the issue of the California state legislature trying to cut off medical coverage to prisoners for SRS, someone stated, to paraphrase: “Shouldn’t SRS only be offered to people who are mentally stable anyway? I can’t imagine any therapist giving a letter of recommendation to a murderer, rapist or druggie.”

*ahem*

Hello, there!

It’s sad that it seems we’re unable to be able to treat human rights, dignity and understanding as a universal value, and in most situations only seem to extend it conditionally, for those who share our immediate interests or some kind of easily identified commonality. A friend of mine once made the grim but terribly accurate observation (in the context of talking about trans women who dismiss the rights or genders of other trans women who are, say, non-op or lesbian) that people only tend to be exactly as tolerant as it takes to accept themselves, and maybe their immediate friends and family, but have a whole lot of trouble extending that principle beyond that circle, to people who they don’t understand, with whom they don’t share the same experiences or identities or priorities.

For me, I’ve been thinking it over, and it’s starting to seem like the solution, in terms of not letting this kind of thing depress me to the point of paralysis or wanting to just give up the fight, is to just cut my identification with movements entirely. Not be a feminist, trans-rights advocate or atheist at all, just a human being with particular values, from which extend particular views and goals. And really, that’s sort of true. I didn’t individually pick and choose to be a feminist, a supporter of queer rights, an atheist, or a skeptic. Each of these is simply derived from a basic position of trying to think things through, to understand others, to understand the world around me, to extend extend empathy and compassion as much as I’m able, to allow my perspectives to shift and grow, to try to be a decent person, live a decent life, and stand up for my rights and the rights of others.

I can have my own values, goals and views. And I can engage with others, and work together with them, absolutely. But as conditional alliances based on mutual values, not as a binding, shared, absolute identity. For the sake of survival, those identifications need to be fluid:

When the fight takes me to defending the rights of women, I will first be a feminist. When the fight takes me to defending the rights of trans people, I will first be a trans-rights advocate. When the fight takes me to opposing dogma and faith and religious power or privilege, I will be an atheist. When the fight takes me to encouraging questioning and critical thought and challenging assumptions, I will be a skeptic.

So when I find myself in a thread on an atheist blog where an atheist is being a transphobic asshole? In that moment, we don’t share a movement, we aren’t on the same team, I don’t need to be ashamed of your actions, I don’t need to give you special deference as an ally, and I don’t need to feel like giving up on it. In that moment, I am a trans woman. And I am pissed off.