I’ll be at Women in Secularism 3. Will you?

Women in Secularism 3 is coming up fast, running from May 16-18 in Alexandria, VA. Among the speakers are Ophelia Benson, Barbara Ehrenreich, Melody Hensley, Susan Jacoby, and many other spectacular secularists you won’t want to miss. Also, I’ll be appearing on the following panels on Friday, May 16:

  • 1:15 pm – 2:45 pm
    Online Activism
    Moderator: Lindsay Beyerstein, Panel: Soraya Chemaly, Amy Davis Roth, Zinnia Jones, Miri Mogilevsky
  • 3:00 pm – 4:30 pm
    Intersectionality and Humanism
    Moderator: Soraya Chemaly, Panel: Miri Mogilevsky, Heina Dadabhoy, Zinnia Jones, Debbie Goddard

This is going to be really awesome and you should totally be there. Register early for discounted rates!

A Secular Argument for Transphobia

trinity-150Guest post by Trinity Pixie

Trigger warnings: Abuse, isolation, transphobia, homophobia, racism.

My previous post, Green, which I presented without comment, was actually a piece of creative nonfiction. It was about my family’s response to my transition: taking advantage of my disability to isolate me.

I lived in a place somewhere between rural and suburban. Many houses, few businesses, no public transit. There was a convenience store about a mile and a half away, a grocery store about ten, and in between were a number of people who would likely recognize me from pre-transition – many of whom were happy to attack me previous to transition, without the excuse of queerness thrown in.

I was explicitly not invited to family functions, and forbidden from telling anyone, even my siblings, of my trans status. I had access to medication and health care used as a bargaining chip, was told that I was faking the severity of my disability. I had my own father threaten me with physical harm and make me fear for my life, all the while being told I was the one harming the family.

My parents are atheists. They have used labels like secular humanist to define themselves. They don’t believe in a god, a savior, or a holy book. The reasons, the arguments they would use to defend what they did, how they treated me, are secular. They are also just as valid as any secular arguments against abortion, so why is it that a leader of the secular movement will acknowledge those arguments, but not acknowledge my parents? Aren’t these the type of people you’re trying to attract to the movement?

Why are you comfortable with violations of the rights of cis women, but not with people like my parents? My parents, who vote Republican, choose to give their money to companies like Chick-fil-A, and likely (I’ve admittedly never discussed it with them) are anti-abortion. Who believe slavery should have been a state-by-state issue, and have a secular argument for that. You need to ask yourself: why are you comfortable drawing the line there?


Trinity Pixie is a member of the Secular Woman advisory board.

There Is Also a Secular Argument For Infanticide

1522095_10152076191576077_222205893_n (1)American Atheists president David Silverman recently attended this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) with the intention of reaching out to non-religious conservatives. CPAC, if you aren’t familiar with it, has featured such illustrious moments as:

All of that, by the way, happened within the past week alone. So, how did Silverman go about sharing the word of atheism at this most respectable of political conferences? Roy Edroso of Raw Story reports on his strategy:

“I came with the message that Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked,” he told me, “and that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives — social conservatism isn’t real conservatism, it’s actually big government, it’s theocracy. I’m talking about gay rights, right to die, abortion rights –”

A simple enough idea: conservatives can continue to uphold (some of) their political values without any need for religious faith. Silverman, understandably, didn’t seem very interested in legitimizing homophobia or the deprivation of terminal patients’ medical autonomy. Anyway, where was he going with that last part?

Hold on, I said, I think the Right to Life guys who have a booth here, and have had every year since CPAC started, would disagree that they’re not real conservatives.

“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,” said Silverman. “You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”

Oh. Okay.

Taken literally, the statement that secular arguments against abortion do exist isn’t a very controversial one. Yes, there are anti-abortion arguments that do not rely on supernatural or theological claims. These arguments can instead rely on concepts like “rights”, “human life”, “personhood”, and so on, without introducing any explicitly religious elements.

Of course, the mere existence of such arguments says nothing about their soundness. Silverman himself stated that he was simply recognizing these arguments even as he disagrees with them:

and please understand this is not support. I’m vehemently pro choice. Just acknowledging they exist. They do.

But whether such arguments exist, and whether they have any merit, is beside the point. What really stands out as notable here is Silverman’s more open-minded approach to this particular issue, even as he dismisses other issues outright.

Silverman is not interested in reaching out to conservative CPAC attendees who oppose marriage equality, oppose end-of-life decisionmaking, or support prayer in schools. However, when it comes to conservatives who oppose the right to abortion, he takes a rather more tolerant stance. While he sees homophobic conservatives as having no place in organized atheism, he’s more willing to recruit anti-abortion conservatives to the secularist cause.

Whether he would actually agree with this or not, that’s how his special exception for abortion opposition comes across. To him, homophobes don’t have a place in our movement – but abortion opponents do?

Is this necessarily a demographic worth reaching out to? JT Eberhard argues:

We must be willing to work with people with whom we disagree on some subjects. …So if you acknowledge that someone need not be right on all subjects for them to be right on the one you’re working on together, this can’t be a reason for you to be upset with Dave Silverman.

But this does nothing to explain why abortion rights should be a subject on which disagreement is acceptable, while LGBT rights, for example, should not. Drawing a line at that particular point seems arbitrary. JT continues:

I don’t think it’s fair to expect someone to avoid telling the truth (that a secular argument exists for being anti-choice, lousy though it is) in order to not give a hat tip to the people Silverman has said multiple times he opposes on that subject. That seems a bit like getting exacerbated at scientists whenever they acknowledge the existence of complexity in the universe because they’ve given a “tip of the hat” to creationists. … If you acknowledge as atheists we shouldn’t shy away from stating facts even though we know there are people out there who will twist them toward an inaccurate or unethical position, then you can’t really be upset with Dave Silverman.

Here is another truth that we, as atheists, need not shy away from stating: there is a secular argument for the elective infanticide of healthy newborn humans. It is not even a very complicated argument, and it is one that is perhaps especially well-suited to atheistic naturalism, scientific empiricism, and the rejection of mainstream Christianity.

Suppose that we abandon the idea that the human species occupies a uniquely privileged or “sacred” place among all organisms. Our ethical considerations in how we treat human life – from blastocyst to infant to elder – should not lean on an assumption that humans are special simply for the mere fact that they are humans. Ethical questions should take into account actual substance rather than just a name: the features that actually constitute an individual human. These features can include the extent to which they can experience pain and pleasure, their level of awareness of the world around them, their ability to possess distinct desires and goals, and their level of awareness of themselves as a sentient being.

When we recognize that questions of ethical treatment should consider such features, two conclusions emerge: First, humans are not the only organisms that merit our ethical concern – various animals are also capable of suffering pain, having desires, and possessing different degrees of awareness and self-awareness. And second, not all humans are identical by these metrics; depending on their degree of development, some may be more or less aware, more or less capable of experiencing pain, and so on.

Therefore, instead of a model wherein all humans occupy a special ethical category meriting unique concern, we can conceive of a spectrum of ethical concern along which all organisms fall – humans and other animals alike. One potentially uncomfortable fact is that some animals may be more well-developed than some humans in their capacity for self-awareness, desires, and so on. As Kate Wong notes in Scientific American:

Human babies enter the world utterly dependent on caregivers to tend to their every need. Although newborns of other primate species rely on caregivers, too, human infants are especially helpless because their brains are comparatively underdeveloped. Indeed, by one estimation a human fetus would have to undergo a gestation period of 18 to 21 months instead of the usual nine to be born at a neurological and cognitive development stage comparable to that of a chimpanzee newborn.

Similarly, MRI scans of dogs suggest that they are capable of experiencing emotions on a level similar to human children:

Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.

The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child.

Dogs may also possess mental capabilities on par with those of 2-year-old humans:

According to several behavioral measures, Coren says dogs’ mental abilities are close to a human child age 2 to 2.5 years. … As for language, the average dog can learn 165 words, including signals, and the “super dogs” (those in the top 20 percent of dog intelligence) can learn 250 words, Coren says. “The upper limit of dogs’ ability to learn language is partly based on a study of a border collie named Rico who showed knowledge of 200 spoken words and demonstrated ‘fast-track learning,’ which scientists believed to be found only in humans and language learning apes,” Coren said. … Dogs can also count up to four or five, said Coren. And they have a basic understanding of arithmetic and will notice errors in simple computations, such as 1+1=1 or 1+1=3. …

Through observation, Coren said, dogs can learn the location of valued items (treats), better routes in the environment (the fastest way to a favorite chair), how to operate mechanisms (such as latches and simple machines) and the meaning of words and symbolic concepts (sometimes by simply listening to people speak and watching their actions). … During play, dogs are capable of deliberately trying to deceive other dogs and people in order to get rewards, said Coren.

So: Humans are not the only organisms capable of emotion or developing accurate mental models of the world, and we’re certainly not the only organisms capable of experiencing pain or a desire to continue to live. Indeed, some animals possess these capabilities to a greater degree than newborn humans.

And yet, despite their possession of these capabilities, there exists a widespread disinterest in recognizing a “right to life” of animals. Instead, people commonly consider it acceptable to kill animals if we simply decide it is necessary. Cows “exhibit behavioral expressions of excitement when they solve a problem”, but all that’s needed to justify killing a cow is our mere preference that it should become several delicious steaks rather than continue existing as a feeling, thinking organism. Dogs exhibit intelligence and emotions similar to toddlers, but people leave healthy dogs to be euthanized at shelters every day.

In a society that accepts such treatment of animals as a norm – and accepts even the most trivial of human desires as a justification for such treatment – it should be similarly acceptable for the custodians of any newborn human to have that infant killed, for no reason other than their simple desire that this baby no longer be alive. Newborns have lesser abilities of thinking, modeling, perceiving, feeling and wanting than animals, and probably an equal capacity to experience pain. Yet the presence of even greater capacities in many of these areas has largely failed to convince us to recognize a “right to life” of animals. So why should the life of a human embryo, fetus, or infant be seen as always worth preserving and protecting?

Scientific findings support the facts underlying this argument for infanticide rights. This argument also has strengths which other common pro-choice arguments lack. For instance, one such argument contends that whatever right to life an unborn fetus may have, it is always outweighed by a person’s right to bodily autonomy – their right not to be compelled to provide sustenance, in the form of their own bodily resources, to another organism.

However, this “competing rights” argument opens the door to debate over just how important these respective rights are, and whether a fetus’s right to life really is small enough to be overridden. It implicitly agrees with abortion opponents in recognizing that a fetus actually does have, to some degree, a right to exist. And it requires proponents of a pro-choice position to maintain that a person’s right to bodily autonomy is, in all circumstances, the more important right in this situation. Abortion opponents, like Kristine Kruszelnicki of Pro-Life Humanists, may in turn contend that the fetus’s rights carry overriding weight.

In contrast, the pro-infanticide argument presented here does not have this vulnerability. It does not recognize an embryo, fetus, or even a newborn human as possessing a “right to life” to any degree whatsoever. And so it is not even necessary to argue that a person has a right to bodily autonomy which overrides a fetus’s supposed rights.

Clearly, there is a secular argument for infanticide. One does not have to support it or agree with it, and one may feel that it is far from decisive or clear-cut, but it does indeed exist. Others might twist this argument to make atheists look bad, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid recognizing this truth.

I’ve met David Silverman before, and he was a really nice guy – I hope we get to meet again. I don’t have any problem with believing that he certainly meant well with his outreach efforts at CPAC, as idiosyncratic as his views on acceptable political differences may be. And a few isolated quotes expressing a nuanced position – albeit a potentially disagreeable one – aren’t necessarily cause to dismiss and ignore a person entirely.

What I would ask is this: What is American Atheists doing to reach out to pro-infanticide atheists and bring them into the cause of organized secularism? Is our conception of the parameters of a “right to life” any less worthy of being courted than that of abortion opponents? If we’re really seeking to expand the tent of atheist activism, why extend it only in their direction, and not ours? I’d contend that if anything, those of us who are pro-infanticide can bring much more of value to the atheist movement than anti-choice conservatives would, such as our evidence-based approach to secular ethics. And if you think it would be distasteful to reach out to us, ask yourself: is it really more distasteful than inviting people who would legally force a person to give birth against their will?

2012: end-of-year review

2012 has been a pretty amazing year. Every year is interesting and full of stuff that happened, but this one was special in a lot of ways. Barack Obama was elected for the second time, we actually won in popular votes on marriage equality for the first time ever, and a bunch of people were voted out of office after saying ignorant things about women and rape. Private Bradley Manning’s trial finally began, and I’m probably going to get dragged into that all over again. There was The Dark Knight Rises, Looper, Paranormal Activity 4, and new music from The Birthday Massacre, Madeon, Ellie Goulding and Kesha. On the other hand, there was also a huge hurricane and a horrific amount of gun violence, but at least we managed to survive another apocalypse. Altogether, it’s been a hell of a year.

More personally, I have a yearly tradition of looking back and seeing how much I’ve improved myself, and in that respect, this has been one of the most significant years of my life in a while. I’ve always figured that if I look at myself a year ago and see that nothing has changed, that’s when I’ll be in real trouble. Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much of a risk of that happening any time soon.

This was the year that I permanently moved to Florida, at least until Heather and I move somewhere else. I got my first apartment with her, and as time has gone by, I’ve become a little better at being a stepmom. I spoke at the Florida Secular Rally, which was my first time giving a speech ever, and people seemed to enjoy it.

But by far the biggest and most wide-ranging change of this year has been transitioning. I know that many of you have been watching where I’ve been headed for over four years now, and it’s probably not surprising that this is where I ended up. It certainly took me long enough, but I finally decided it was time to take this to the next level. After living as a woman for over a year, I came out to my family, most of whom didn’t suspect a thing. I even told my grandfather, despite everyone warning me not to, but it all turned out much better than I could have imagined. It was all absolutely terrifying, yet somehow I did it, and nobody has a problem with it.

I picked a new name and filed for a name change, which should be finalized after the new year. I found a really good therapist and a doctor, and I’ve been on hormones for more than 3 months now. I’d been putting it off for a while because I thought I didn’t need it, and then because I was worried about how it might change me, but I finally decided I at least had to see what it was like.

Make no mistake: the physical and mental effects of removing your testosterone and replacing it with estrogen are significant. And I discovered that this is exactly what was missing in my life. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a tense and irritable person, and even the smallest parts of everyday life never really came easily to me. I assumed that being perpetually stressed was just how I am, and it was my problem to deal with, possibly with weed or something. But I was wrong.

This has improved me more than I ever expected. My body is changing to feel more comfortable than it did before – to put it bluntly, I have breasts now – and my overall mood has become so much calmer and happier. I can find joy in almost anything, instead of frustration. Emotionally, I can feel nuance instead of numbness, and I can finally cry when I feel like it. My life has gotten so much easier because of this one little thing – insofar as a second puberty is just a little thing.

The most incredible part is that if I hadn’t done this, I wouldn’t have known that my body and my mind had this much room for improvement. I thought things were as good as they get, I thought I could be okay with the way it was before – but then I found something that made it all even better. Life doesn’t suck anymore!

I know there’ll never be another year like this, but I do hope the coming year is just as transformative, enlightening, and all-around awesome. And I hope that at the end of it, I can look back and say that it’s surpassed even this one. Happy new year!

On giving my first speech

We just got back from the Florida Secular Rally in Tallahassee, and there’s only one way I can describe it:

Rebecca Watson, Jessica Ahlquist, and me

Awesome.

This was actually my first time attending any atheist event, and in was fantastic in so many ways. While there wasn’t a massive turnout – Aron noted a distinct lack of P.Z. – this also had the advantage of being cozy and comfortable, with a friendly atmosphere all around. Everybody knew everybody, and I got to spend all day hanging out with some of my personal atheist role models.

Dave Silverman, Greydon Square, and me

Just having a place where the values of secularism, tolerance and equality are shared by everyone present was a new experience for me, and that counts for a whole hell of a lot. My family and I were able to feel safe and respected, a rarity anywhere else in Florida.

Aron Ra, Heather, and me

Everyone was incredibly supportive, and it was fun, relaxing, and a perfect setting for another first: my first public speaking engagement.

I hadn’t done any public speaking since I was 12, when my freshman English teacher gave us the simple assignment of memorizing a poem to recite in front of the class. Naturally, I completely forgot it and cried a lot in front of everyone when it was my turn (this sort of thing happened surprisingly often at that age). Since then, public speaking hasn’t really been one of my more significant interests.

But when Mark Palmer of the Humanists of Florida Association invited me to speak at the rally – and I’m beyond grateful to him for giving a first-timer a chance – I figured it was long past time to get over it. This was a big opportunity, and I couldn’t let it pass by just because of a little fear. For better or worse, I committed myself to it and said yes.

I let various ideas for the speech drift around for a couple months until they started to coalesce, and I didn’t actually finish writing it until about a week before the big day. I had little idea of what the event would be like – where I’d be standing, how many people would be in the audience, whether I’d know anybody, how it would generally feel to be there – so I just had to imagine I was addressing a crowd of thousands that I needed to impress accordingly.

I visualized this while standing at the kitchen counter, lecturing our Halloween pumpkins. I only practiced it about 3 or 4 times, when no one else was home but our toddler, who was usually more interested in Sesame Street. Heather didn’t even get to hear it before the real thing, which made her a bit nervous about how I would do. I just figured I wouldn’t know how it would all turn out until I actually did it – but I could still do my best to prepare.

Yet after looking up various recordings of major speeches from all sorts of events, I realized that I just needed to find my own voice and let it come out. There was no big secret, no key to blowing everyone away. Everyone had their own style, and it worked for them. What they had in common was exactly what I expected: to be that good, I’d have to try to connect with the audience, speak from the heart to each and every one of them, be relaxed and natural, yet confident and controlled, but also lively… while not being overly rehearsed. And though it seemed like a tall order to pull all of that off at the same time, I recognized that it would all ultimately come down to one thing: just fucking do it.

So that’s what I did. It was nice that plenty of other speakers went before me, so that I could take it all in and get a sense of the general tone of the event and of other people’s on-stage styles. And by the time it was my turn, I didn’t have to use that trick of imagining myself as a confident and prepared person anymore – because I already was.

As I stood on the stage, the loudspeakers echoing throughout the park, I imagined myself speaking to the entire world. And it felt amazing. The crowd was wonderful, and after I was done, the other speakers assured me that I did a great job. I had done it. Public speaking may have seemed intimidating before, but once I had finished, it wasn’t anymore. It was fun!

While this is supposedly a common source of anxiety, I can say that it really wasn’t all that hard. If someone ever invites you to speak somewhere, and you’re not sure whether you should: go for it! Give it a try, and you might find out it’s actually not too bad.

I’d like to thank all of the organizers, speakers and attendees who helped to make this one of the best days ever, and a pretty life-changing experience too. All of you were great, it was wonderful to meet everyone, and I’m definitely looking forward to doing it again.

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.

Why “religious freedom” arguments about gay marriage fail

This November, Minnesota will vote on an amendment to ban same-sex marriage in the state constitution. Reverend Mark Kuether of the Congregational United Church of Christ recently wrote an opinion piece for the Detroit Lakes Tribune, arguing that religious freedom requires legal recognition of gay marriage. Kuether says:

This amendment would tell clergy who they can and cannot marry in their congregations. Some churches and religious organizations want to recognize the relationships of committed gay and lesbian couples. Some don’t. It should be their choice. However, this amendment does the opposite. It tells religious leaders they are not allowed to marry same-sex couples. Many faiths want to decide for themselves. This amendment represents a one-size fits all government mandate on our state’s churches.

It’s easy to see why this argument is appealing: it takes the usual religious objections to legal gay marriage, and turns them on their head. Instead of claiming that legalizing same-sex marriage would curtail religious freedom, it argues that a ban on same-sex marriage is the real infringement on religious freedom. And it also points out that “religion” is not a monolithic body that’s uniformly opposed to gay marriage, as many religious opponents of gay marriage often like to pretend.

But the religious freedom argument for marriage equality is just as flawed as the religious freedom argument against marriage equality, and for precisely the same reasons. Those who argue against gay marriage on the grounds of religious freedom make the mistake of conflating civil marriage law with religious marital practices. Out of willful or genuine ignorance, they claim that the legalization of same-sex marriage would mean all churches and other religious institutions are now required to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies. This is simply contrary to fact, which is plain to see in every state where same-sex marriage is legal and intolerant religions are still free to conduct only the weddings they want.

Just as with opposite-sex marriage, same-sex marriages under civil law are the kind you get at the city hall or another government office. Its legal aspects are a purely secular matter, and that legal recognition does not oblige any religion to celebrate these marriages. The recognition of opposite-sex marriages in civil law has never meant that a Catholic church is required to let just anyone get married in a cathedral, and same-sex marriage is no different. The people who make this argument don’t seem to understand that you can’t just go to any church, synagogue, mosque or temple, and demand to get married there. In other countries with official state churches whose doctrines are decided by legislators, those churches may be required to solemnize same-sex marriages, but in the United States, the government is entirely unable to tell a religion which marriages and relationships it can and cannot celebrate.

For that reason, the claim that a ban on gay marriage “tells religious leaders they are not allowed to marry same-sex couples” is likewise false. Various religious bodies, including the United Church of Christ, already choose to recognize same-sex marriages and perform same-sex wedding ceremonies as part of their faith. And if they only wanted gay, queer, and otherwise extraordinary couples to get married at their churches, they would be fully within their rights, too. Because civil marriage and religious marriage are completely separate practices, a civil ban on same-sex marriage does not prevent them from doing this.

Conversely, a certain religion’s marital practices are not and should not be used to define the civil marriage laws which apply to everyone. The Catholic church may choose to recognize as valid only those marriages which abide by their specific religious requirements, but that doesn’t mean these are the only marriages that are recognized under civil law. No religion gets to dictate our nation’s civil, secular laws, and they can’t demand that everyone be forced to live under a particular religious doctrine that they may not even believe in. Even if no religion in history approved of same-sex marriages or wanted to perform them, this would be no argument against recognizing same-sex marriages under civil law. And just as we wouldn’t let an anti-gay church define what marriage is for everyone, we also shouldn’t let a pro-gay church define what marriage is for everyone.

Respect for religious freedom does not demand that our civil law must ban all the marriages a religion bans, and allow all the marriages a religion allows. The scope of religious freedom does not extend that far. There are certain faiths that approve of many different kinds of marriages which are not recognized under civil law. Does this mean the state is required to recognize child marriages or multiple marriages just because someone’s religion does? No, just as a racist church that disapproves of interracial marriage cannot impose this rule upon the populace at large. But all of these groups already have the freedom to practice their religious marriages in accordance with their beliefs. And just as the legalization of same-sex marriage does not burden that freedom, neither does banning same-sex marriage.

The claim that legal gay marriage limits religious freedom is a complete non-starter. But so is the idea that its absence poses a similar restriction. There are already plenty of excellent points in favor of same-sex marriage, and no good ones against it so far. We don’t need to rely on arguments that proceed from the same faulty premises, so why pretend religious freedom has anything to do with it?

FACT: Catholics do NOT oppose birth control!

Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services ruled that health insurance plans would be required to provide preventive care services for women, including contraception, at no extra cost and with no co-pays or deductibles. This January, they announced that certain religiously affiliated organizations would have an additional year to comply with this rule, but they would not be exempt from the requirement. It is still possible for a religious employer to be exempted if it meets the following four criteria: it must have “the inculcation of religious values as its purpose”, it must “primarily employ persons who share its religious tenets”, it must “primarily serve persons who share its religious tenets”, and it must be a non-profit organization. Under these standards, a church or synagogue would not be required to provide contraceptive coverage through their employee health care plans. However, religiously affiliated hospitals, universities, and charities would still have to cover contraception.

In the wake of this directive, over a hundred Catholic bishops have spoken out and claimed that this requirement is an attack on their religious liberty and a violation of their conscience. Officially, the Catholic Church’s doctrine on birth control holds that separating the procreative element from heterosexual intercourse is a sin. This includes the use of condoms, birth control pills, injections, IUDs, and other artificial methods. Instead, the church approves of “natural family planning”, which involves reserving sex for the phases of the menstrual cycle when a woman cannot become pregnant. So, according to the church, it’s okay to choose to prevent pregnancy by intentionally having sex during a time of known infertility, but it’s not okay to choose to prevent pregnancy by medically or mechanically precluding the possibility of fertilization. It’s not entirely clear to me how that doesn’t encompass the technique of ensuring that an egg won’t be present to be fertilized when you’re having sex, but I’m sure they’ve justified it one way or another.

In any case, whether the requirement to cover contraception is against the beliefs of Catholics is largely irrelevant. The hospitals and colleges which would have to provide this coverage employ people from every walk of life and every belief system. These Catholic-affiliated organizations do not exclusively hire Catholics. We’re talking about hospitals and schools that all kinds of people go to, and all kinds of people work at. With this objection, Catholic bishops are demanding that employees of the University of Notre Dame, St. Joseph’s Hospital of Phoenix, and practically any religiously affiliated business, should not have the same access to contraception that any other employees would. Why should non-Catholics and non-believers be denied that coverage simply because they work for a business that’s associated with a certain church?

Further, does this requirement actually conflict with the conscience of Catholics? Their doctrine considers contraception to be sinful, and their leaders have condemned this directive, but what do everyday Catholics think? Do they, too, have a problem with birth control? No! A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 49% of Americans overall agree that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should be required to provide health care plans that cover birth control at no cost. How many Catholics agreed with this? 52%, dropping to 45% among Catholics who vote. The difference in support for this requirement between Catholics and all Americans is negligible. A survey by Public Policy Polling confirmed this, finding that 57% of voters believe women employed by Catholic hospitals and universities should have the same rights to contraceptive coverage, and 53% of Catholics agree with this.

But how do Catholics themselves feel about the use of birth control? A 2011 report by the Guttmacher Institute found that out of all Catholic women who have had sex, 98% used contraception other than the church-endorsed “natural family planning” method, which only 2% of them rely on – “even among Catholic women who attend church once a month or more”. 68% use IUDs, hormonal methods, or male or female sterilization. Another 15% use condoms. The statistics are largely the same for Catholic women who are married: only 3% use “natural family planning”, and 72% use IUDs, sterilization or hormonal methods.

If that’s the case, then why are these Catholic bishops claiming it would violate their conscience if Catholic-affiliated businesses are required to provide access to birth control methods which a strong majority of Catholic women have already chosen to use? Why are they depicting this as an attack on Catholic values, when most Catholics don’t share those values at all? When Catholic views on this policy hardly differ from those of Americans altogether, there is no way this can be honestly characterized as something that has a disproportionate impact on Catholics.

So why are the media uncritically parroting and validating this plainly inaccurate narrative? Why is Reuters running a story titled “Obama risks Catholic vote with birth-control mandate”, when surveys indicate he isn’t risking the Catholic vote any more than the average American vote? Why is USA Today letting Archbishop Timothy Dolan use their opinion page to allege that this policy is “un-American” – a claim which, in light of recent polls, doesn’t even make sense? Why does the archbishop of Atlanta get coverage for saying that “The Church is going to fight this regulation with all the available resources we have”, when a majority of church members don’t consider this worth fighting against, and many of them are actually using the very birth control methods at issue here?

If this is supposed to be about respecting the conscience of Catholics, then why has everyone been focusing on the bloviations of a handful of bishops, while ignoring the millions of Catholics who disagree with them? How does that possibly respect their values?