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Nov 04 2012

My speech at the Florida Secular Rally: “The Dogma of Gender”

Remarks as prepared for delivery:

Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you very much for having me. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Zinnia Jones. I’ve been a voice of atheism for the past four years, on YouTube and on Freethought Blogs.

I was invited here to talk about transgender issues and how they relate to the atheist movement. And really, what better topic for us to explore as skeptics and freethinkers? I’m sure most people don’t think they would have much in common with men who used to be women, and women who used to be men. But I think you’d be surprised.

Every year, more and more of us around the world are coming out and standing up for who we are. But this didn’t happen overnight. There was a time when most of us had hardly any exposure to ideas from beyond the little communities we happened to be born into. When you had doubts about who you are or what you believe, there might not have been a single person you could talk to, especially about issues that are so sensitive and personal – and in some places, unthinkable. And where would you find any information about it, when no one was willing to talk about it?

When you’re that isolated, you might start to think you’re the only one in the world who feels this way, or that there must be something wrong with you because you’ve never met anyone else like you. At most, you might see yourself represented as little more than a crude and hateful caricature in the popular imagination. And it seems impossible to believe that you could ever be true to yourself and live the life you want.

But then, slowly, the world opened up. We reached out across the globe, we got online, and we discovered who we were. We found all the knowledge we could ever need, and most importantly, we found each other. Yes, there were more of us out there, and we got together. We got organized. And we became the critical mass we needed to change our world for the better.

So, am I talking about being atheist, or being transgender? Both!

We’re all freethinkers here. Really, you have to be willing to think pretty freely just to consider the possibility that you might be another gender. All of us value reality, and the unfettered critical scrutiny of any claim, and the desire to know what’s really true, so that we can change our beliefs when the evidence demands it. This is how we’re working to dismantle the unexamined dogmas that permeate society.

And one of those is a dogma of gender, one that’s just as pervasive as any religion, and so often unquestioned that we hardly ever notice it – except when someone like me comes along and throws a wrench in the works. I’m talking about the idea that sex and gender are fixed and complete categories, that the two boxes of male and female with all of their associated features are big enough to contain everyone, and that no one can leave the box they’ve been placed in.

This is the idea that everyone with certain genes and certain anatomy must be a man or a woman. That means being expected to identify ourselves as the sex that’s dictated by our bodies, to look the way we’re “supposed” to look and act the way we’re “supposed” to act.

At first glance, this notion of gender might seem undeniable. After all, people with certain genes and body parts must be men or women – how could they be anything else? Of course, if you don’t bother looking too closely, it might seem just as obvious that the earth is flat or that nothing is evolving. But as it turns out, there’s much more to the human phenomenon of gender, and this common but naive view is empirically false.

Since most of the world only became aware of transgender people relatively recently, it’s tempting to think that this is just a kind of modern trend that’s only become possible because of advances in medical treatment. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

From Africa to Asia to the Americas, there were numerous ancient cultures that believed there were not two genders, but three – or more! And this has persisted to the present day. There are millions of people living in South Asia who were born and raised as men, but feel more comfortable living as women, or a blend of both. Their cultures have distinct roles for them, and India, Pakistan and Nepal all legally recognize a third category of gender. Living as the gender of your choice rather than the gender of your birth is just not a new thing.

So, what do the experts have to say about this? Is it real, or just some kind of delusion that we’re a different sex? Well, every major psychological, psychiatric and medical association has agreed on one thing: you don’t fix this by denying people their identity. You don’t try to convince someone that they must be another gender. When has that ever worked? Would that work on any of you? No.

The answer is to live as who you are. That’s the cure, and it’s the only thing that actually works – because it’s what’s up here that counts, not what’s down there. We don’t consider it acceptable to try and “fix” gay people anymore. They’re not the ones who need to change. And if someone is a man or a woman, you don’t fix who they are. You fix whatever’s getting in their way.

I trust the atheist community to recognize sound science, and I trust you to stand up for everyone’s equality and civil rights. If all we stood for was mere unbelief, we wouldn’t be here right now! Wherever religious values are interfering with people’s lives, there is a place for the secular movement to set things right.

Out of every demographic, every religious group, every age group, every party and every education level, do you know who’s consistently the most supportive of legalizing gay marriage? It’s not Democrats. It’s not young people. It’s atheists! I consider the atheist movement to be one of the strongest allies of LGBT people. It’s not surprising, because we face a common enemy: religious bigotry.

The so-called “family values” groups that want government endorsement of Christianity, that want prayer in public schools, that want to take the science out of science class and the sex out of sex ed, these are the same groups that campaign against nondiscrimination laws by claiming that trans women like me are going to rape people in public restrooms. And as usual, these people are nowhere to be seen when their destruction of our civil rights fails to prevent a single violent crime.

I don’t think any of you like being seen as immoral baby-eating perverts, and neither do I. This is where atheists stand alongside LGBT people: none of us can afford to let the forces of religious ignorance prevail. And while the queer community may not be recruiting, I know atheists are!

But at the same time, it’s important to realize that just like anyone else, we’re not perfect. Greta Christina, whom I greatly admire, once said: “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.” And while I’m sure that’s true for many people, there have often been times when I did not feel welcome, valued, or understood as a trans woman in the atheist community.

I’m a big fan of the atheist forum on Reddit.com, which has over a million readers. It may be the single largest online group of atheists. Unfortunately, I just can’t post my videos there anymore. Why? Well, I’ll let Reddit tell you in their own words. Quote:

“Is it a man or a woman?”

“I did not know she was a dude.”

“It’s a trap!”

“It is literally nauseating to look at.”

“Why are you dressed like a girl?”

“The grossest looking chick I’ve ever seen.”

“Denying your own gender is called being delusional.”

“Stop lying to yourself and admit you’re a man.”

“He will never, ever, remotely look or sound like a woman.”

Now, I realize that lots of people may just be curious or uninformed about this sort of thing. It took me a while to understand it, too. But it’s not always easy to be charitable and patient when someone calls you an “it”.

And in case you think this is limited to just a few internet trolls, consider this: One fifth of trans people have been homeless. How many of you can say that one out of five of your friends have had to live on the streets? 19% of trans people have been denied housing, and one in ten have been evicted because of who they are. Trans people face double the national unemployment rate – up to quadruple for trans people of color – and 47% have been fired, or never hired in the first place, because they’re trans. And almost one in five have been refused medical care when they needed it. All of this is because of the ignorance and prejudice against trans people that permeates our society and tells the world that it’s okay to treat us as less than fully human.

I know there are many people out there with good hearts who want to support the LGBT community – I see them doing their best every day. But they also need to understand that being trans is more than just another letter tacked on to the end. We’re people trying to go about our lives, just like everyone else.

As a nonbeliever, I want it to be acceptable to be an atheist at all levels of society, in the personal, professional and political sphere. I want this to be something that does not call into question our morality, our mental fitness, or our suitability for any occupation. And as a trans woman, I want the same thing: to be free from legal and social discrimination against who I am.

At the end of the day, being transgender is about having the determination and the courage to live as the person you really are inside, even when the world stands against us. This is how we make a fulfilled and meaningful life for ourselves, a life of love and happiness and the unbridled exuberance of our personal truth. This is something all of us can understand, and it’s what each and every one of us deserves.

Thank you very much.

10 comments

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  1. 1
    vaiyt

    I’d like to say that this post made you a new fan.

  2. 2
    Jenni

    <3 Good speech! Had to read the transcript for this so I'm not sure how the crowd reacted, but well done.

    As for being transsexual among atheists. I've been in the situation where otherwise reasonable atheists told me things in the vein of the comments you quoted. It's sad, really, that some people can't seem to be as open minded about gender/sex issues as they are about other things.

  3. 3
    (e)m

    That was a great speech. I love how you kept the part about the internet ambiguous and then said that you were talking about both the atheist and transgender communities. I think that reddit.com/r/atheism is a complete shithole. I mean, there are many good atheist forums on the net, but /r/atheism is not one of them. I’ve seen tons of misogyny and transphobia there. Most of it is just internet memes or facebook screenshots. It seems almost totally devoid of any type of valuable content. So I guess you could say that I’m not a fan of /r/atheism.

  4. 4
    Vitreous Humour

    Fantastic speech!

  5. 5
    rq

    *clap clap clap clap*

  6. 6
    mandasauce

    I actually got to see this in person, and thought it was very well done. Your voice and perspective are definitely appreciated in the secular movement.

  7. 7
    Psychopomp Gecko

    I wanted to say hi, but you spent a lot of time in the tent there. Rightly so, given that frosty November afternoon that tanned me up some. Probably wouldn’t have talked to you if you were out though, since I’m horrible at talking to women. No clue what to say. I would have been guaranteed to come across as creepy, and I’d rather not do so to someone having to put up with Redditor morons.

    ..yeah, so a comment on your blog under an assumed name is SO much more personable.

    A lot of those Reddit and 4chan places don’t seem to be hospitable to decent people. Don’t let the haters get you down.

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