Her Own Words: Niki Massey, 1980-2016

Finally—I’m going to let Niki speak in her own words.

Audio sources are an interview on Trav Mamone’s Bi Any Means podcast and her talk at Skepticon 8.

Transcript below the fold.

Continue reading “Her Own Words: Niki Massey, 1980-2016”

Her Own Words: Niki Massey, 1980-2016
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Remembering Niki Massey

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Josiah Mannion/Biblename Photo

‘The art of losing’s not too hard to master
Though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.’
—Elizabeth Bishop, ‘One Art’

‘It’s not just unqualified will, as Schopenhauer
would have it, that makes us what we are; nor
is it the will to power, […] but something deeper,
of which the will to power is merely a manifestation.
We want power because we want to matter.’

—Rebecca Goldstein, ‘The Mattering Map’

Most of a year ago, half a dozen of us decided to set up this site. When the time came to discuss who we wanted here, Niki Massey’s name came up immediately. I didn’t know Niki that well, but we’d tweeted, and I was one of the people who spoke to her about blogging with us. If I had any doubts about the need for a network like ours, that conversation changed my mind. Like many of the godless people you don’t hear about, Niki, who had multiple disabilities and was cut off from family, lived without much social support. As she put it: ‘I’m poor, I’m black, I’m an atheist. I exist.’

In her spare time, Niki escorted patients outside abortion clinics, where the religious right did their best to obstruct access. Last November, a man in Colorado killed three people at a Planned Parenthood branch: a day later, Niki went back to work. In a talk at Skepticon the same month, she’d spoken about volunteering and how others could get into it. ‘People say thank you,’ she said at the end. ‘They say “You’re super brave for doing this.” But to me it doesn’t feel that way. It just feels like something a decent person does.’

Niki died yesterday. None of us know quite how or why—several conditions she had could have been life-threatening, and her circumstances left her at risk in other ways. What I know is that the friend I last spoke to on Thursday is silent now, and that someone here yesterday is gone today.

Elizabeth Bishop wrote that the art of losing wasn’t hard. Before last night, I never quite got her last line, ‘Write it’ intruding suddenly on the sentence. Today I’m trying to write, and the violent grammar of death is all too real. In her life and her work, Niki fought cruelty in all its guises: without her every fight feels harder, and the art of losing is much too hard.

Next time someone calls atheists small minded Philistines, tell them who Niki Massey was. Niki didn’t expect an afterlife, nor do I think we’ll meet again—to my relief, I realise I don’t wish I did—but I suppose she’d like the thought of resting in power. After the deaths of Jamar Clark and Tamir Rice, she posted about black lives mattering. It’s safe to say part of what cut hers short was that Niki was many things deemed insignificant—not only black, but fat, disabled, queer and proudly, unabashedly unchurched.

If the will to matter is at the centre of what humans do, Niki devoted her own life to making other people’s mean something. She’ll be remembered for that fight, and for the work—write it—she leaves the rest of us.

Bye, Niki. You mattered.

Remembering Niki Massey

Mum

When the council finally housed my mum, she got a place where every room had woodchip wallpaper. I was too young when we moved in to remember it now, but I’m not convinced the building was fit for residence. Scraping together the money and tools to redecorate took her years, but when I was seven Andy from church steamed the stuff off, only to find an inch of yellow mildew underneath, coating the walls like custard coloured phlegm. The two of them spent a weekend ridding the bathroom, living room and downstairs loo of it. Elsewhere, the woodchip stayed.

Mum did the house up anyway, painting over it when necessary. For an amateur armed only with half-empty paint tins from fellow churchgoers’ attics, she worked wonders. The living room became sunshine yellow, with crystals that covered it in rainbows on bright mornings. The toilet was tattooed with trompe l’œil ivy, and upstairs she sponged white paint onto blue to make our bathroom wall look like the sky. My sister’s room was styled after the Arabian Nights, wine coloured walls and wicker rocking chair, glow-in-the-dark stars on a dark ceiling. Then there was my room.

For one reason or another, no one ever photographed my bedroom. Woodchip or not, I wish I could convey how brilliant it was. Knowing full well that Aslan was Jesus, I’d powered through the Narnia series, and Mum covered the walls with scenery from their fictional world, painstakingly recreating the Pauline Baynes illustrations. Next to my bed were a broken stone table and Cair Paravel, and behind the headboard white cliffs sloped into a sea that circled the room, a tiny Dawntreader in the distance. Strangely, of all of it, my most vivid memory is of the texture of a shelf.

There wasn’t much space in that room—clothes went in drawers under the bed, board games into spare crevices in the bookcase, toys into a giant wicker toy chest of my sister’s. Once the walls were painted, Andy from church added a wall shelf a couple of feet above the bed, which Mum and I varnished with only enough oil for one side. Underneath, the wood stayed sandpapery: I still remember its roughness, running my fingers across it at night, and how it grazed my scalp when Mum lifted me off the bed throat first. I’m not going to kill myself. I’m going to kill you. Continue reading “Mum”

Mum

David Bowie, 1947-2016.

David Bowie was wonderful. He was also an abuser. How do we handle that?

* * *

I dreamt about David Bowie last night. I forget the details, but I woke up thinking I’d write a post about how he seemed to regenerate rather than age. (The first Bowie was Cockney and a mod, the second was Byronesque, et cetera.) The first thing I saw on starting my computer was a friend’s Facebook post: ‘I don’t think I ever really believed it was possible.’ The headline underneath took me a moment to digest: ‘David Bowie, the Legendary Musician, Has Died at 69.Oh no. Don’t say it’s true.

While there was me, I’d always assumed, there would Bowie. At eight, a clip of Ziggy’s arm round Mick Ronson was a queer wake-up call, and later ‘Life on Mars’ would help keep suicide at bay. Having died three short days after a new album’s release, it seems music sustained him too, and it hurts to have been denied the songs the twelfth or thirteenth Bowie would have made. After ten years away, The Next Day and Blackstar were considered two of his best records, and it would be a fair statement that he meant far more to me than any other singer.

It would also be fair to call him a child rapist. (Details ahead.)

Bowie did bad things alright. In the seventies he fixated on Nazis, calling Hitler one of the first rock stars and himself a believer in fascism—a phase which, to be fair, he grew out of and came to call ghastly. More disturbing are the stories of hotel room threesomes with fourteen year old girls. Former groupie Lori Mattix describes Bowie disrobing and having her wash him in the bath before ‘devirginising’ her. Both Mattix and the friend of hers who joined them later had been plied with drugs.

It’s hard to know what to do with this knowledge except rehearse it. I know the above to be true, according to Mattix’s nostalgic account, and that it deserves to be remembered. I also know without Bowie, my own obit would have been written long ago, and I can’t help but remember that too. How do you find room in one eulogy for both those facts? Just for today, I’ll mourn the hero I saw in Bowie, thankful on behalf of the kid who needed all those songs; tomorrow and the next day I’ll let one more hero go. That’s the best I can manage—sorry if it’s not enough.

It’s the legend more than the man I’m grieving in the end, the performances that have stayed with me. ‘Starman’, aforementioned, on Top of the Pops, a Technicolor explosion in a monochrome world. ‘Footstompin’’ on Dick Cavett’s programme, Bowie’s mic trained on joyous, gyrating Ava Cherry. ‘Under Pressure’, where Annie Lennox stares undiluted lust at him after that last breathy note. ‘Heroes’ live in Berlin, where Bowie’s voice rises over six minutes from a mumble to a shout. And then, of course, this week, the video to ‘Lazarus’.

You wouldn’t call it a live act, but surely that’s the point. How much sense it makes now, that song that was so inscrutable days ago, the deathbed pose, title and lines about release, even the rush to productivity between this album and the last, the decision not to tour or perform. Unmissable as it is in hindsight—how visible the cancer’s impact is, quite suddenly—no one took ‘Lazarus’ literally because no one imagined Bowie could die. How unlike anybody else, how entirely like him, to stage his own death as performance art. Now ain’t that just like me?

Hard to think someone who did that could have much faith in any afterlife. (Bowie, for his part, called himself ‘not quite an atheist’.) I don’t often wish I believed in one, and it’s hard to wish heaven on a man with his history, but at eight I longed to travel to Ziggy’s world. It hurts to know for the first time that where he is, I can’t follow. But I do live in David Bowie’s world—the world where everyone followed his tune, where he was sometimes a hero, sometimes a monster, always singular. I don’t feel good about all of that. All the same, I’m glad it was my world too.

David Bowie, 1947-2016.

* * *

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David Bowie, 1947-2016.

‘Shut Up, I’m Talking’: Why I Refuse To Educate Bigoted People

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‘I don’t really understand what biphobia is,’ a partner told me once. It was, he felt, a useless word. ‘If you’re a male bisexual, you’re normal except attracted to guys. The only people who object are homophobes.’ Like so many gay men, he thought the bi label was a way of clinging to a comfortable life, one foot in the straight camp for appearances’ sake. ‘You seriously think it’s harder to come out as bi?’ he asked when I said it had been for me. ‘Then you have no idea what you’re talking about.’ (‘To say it’s worse for bi people,’ he added later on, ‘I just found ignorant.’)

In the US, a quarter more bi men than gay men live in poverty, while fifty percent more abuse alcohol and contemplate suicide. Three times as many bi women as lesbians are raped, a third more abused by partners, two thirds more severely beaten by them. (Their numbers are also far worse than straight women’s.) Bi men are sexually assaulted more than gay men are and abused by their partners fifty percent more. Police attack three times as many bisexuals as monosexuals, and health workers place bi patients at risk of undiagnosed STIs by asking about their activities with one sex and not the other.

I could have offered statistics like those about our comfier, more normal lives. Instead I talked about my own. When the other guy informed people he was gay, how many told him he was lying or in denial? How many other gay men said he was untrustworthy and spread diseases? How many people said he should make up his mind, or wasn’t really gay? That he was misleading partners and making things more difficult for real gay people? How many kept calling him bi, despite him saying he wasn’t? ‘Wait,’ he replied. ‘Your point is that people don’t believe you’re bisexual? Why do they have to?’

If he wanted to understand biphobia, I said, he only had to listen to himself—but he insisted people not understanding something didn’t mean they were bigoted. ‘Instead of blaming them and calling them biphobic, it’s important to educate them. When the reaction is aggressive and defensive, of course people start to form their own weird opinions. You think every time someone makes a stupid comment about gays, I should just freak out? How is that supposed to help? It won’t change their mind. I’d rather stay put and explain. If you don’t have any patience, don’t moan about people not getting it!’

It’s conceivable people who disparage bisexuals should be able to reason for themselves, but cis gay men regularly tell LBTs to pipe down and be more polite, that they didn’t get where they are today with confrontation, anger or entitlement; that we won’t make strides of our own till we accept we owe people an education who demean and degrade us nonstop. Forget Stonewall and who was there, that bi people threw bricks at police while homophiles told them and poor, black, brown, Jewish and trans queers to be quiet: abandoning self-respect was what Pride was all about.

Anger has changed my mind plenty of times, and I know mine has changed other people’s—alienating those you care about, it transpires, is a good incentive to adjust how you act—but when at-risk groups are told we need to school people who treat us badly, it’s always as if there’s no overlap. Bi people need to educate gay and straight people, not to scream at them. Trans people need to educate cis people, not to bully them. Black people need to educate white people, not to frighten them. People with disabilities need to educate people without, not throw a fit. It’s always one or the other.

I told the other bloke what people like me tell people like him, that it isn’t marginalised people’s duty to be teachers—but I think there’s another issue here. Lots of us want to be educators, and we know the difference between being listened to and being talked over, between salient, responsive questions and irrelevant ones—between privileged people who know where their knowledge ends and those who speak like they know more than us. We know the ones who value our input are the ones who know we don’t owe it to them. We know the ones who order us to school them are never the ones who want to learn.

Here’s my experience: when someone I’ve called ignorant demands I educate them, they don’t want me to be patient—they want me to have infinite patience, to listen to them affably, without anger, however they behave, and to treat anything they say as valuable. They want me to teach them what I know, but not to act like I know more than them. They don’t want me to assert any control of the discussion, to set limits on what I’m willing to explain, on where and when and for how long, or to impose any kind of boundaries. When they tell me to educate them, what they mean is ‘Shut up, I’m talking.’

Professional educators—teachers, lecturers, instructors, sports coaches, health experts—are authorities in their field who expect to be listened to, not talked over. Good educators expect students to learn on their own instead of being spoonfed; they reward some contributions more than others and impose boundaries on how their students act. Bad educators display infinite patience; good ones are patient but know where to draw the line, as well as how and when to get angry. Good ones nurture relationships with their students but allow bad attitudes to harm them.

When I request input from someone with a background I don’t share—legal advice, tech help, perspective from a black or trans colleague—that’s the kind of relationship I want. When people ask for my input, I sense it’s what they want as well. When I needed an education in the past, getting kicked round the room for being ignorant was a pretty effective one—but when people who’ve just insulted me tell me I’m obliged to educate them, I don’t think an educator is what they want at all. I think what they want is an enabler and a doormat, and I have better things to do than supply one.

And that partner of mine? We didn’t last.

‘Shut Up, I’m Talking’: Why I Refuse To Educate Bigoted People

Stop Saying Homophobes Aren’t Real Christians

It’s common to be told that people who make religions look bad aren’t really part of them, and in particular that homophobes aren’t ‘real’ Christians—as well as that their views are a perversion of faith fuelled by denial of their own sexuality. At the moment, I’m working on a much longer piece than usual, so I’m going to do something unusual and post an extract from it about the problem I have with this.

Think about it for a second, and Christian homophobia being fuelled by queer shame is a shitty idea. It means believing not only that an inexplicable swell of queer people are born into Catholic, Baptist and Presbyterian churches, loathing themselves for no particular reason, but that Quakers and Unitarians are progressive because so many more of them are straight, and that our problems would be solved if straight people could just teach queer people not to be so homophobic. Historically and politically, it blames us for our own murder.

It also means thinking that by sheer coincidence, cultures in northern Europe, Africa and India where bisexuality was the norm developed a sudden angst about it, ex nihilo, at the exact moment Christian missionaries arrived. It means thinking that Rome’s upper classes became squicked out by their previously open sex lives the moment Constantine became emperor; that in the generation gap between the first Christians and their parents, condemning same sex acts went from being a wholly religious act to being nothing to do with religion.

Were the church fathers Christian in name only? Was Constantine less than a ‘real’ Christian? Were Paul, Peter and all popes since, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and Martin Luther King? Were the missionaries whose schools and hospitals are points of pride? Or is ‘real’ Christianity a drawbridge that goes up and down, alternately admitting and excluding these people, raised and lowered for the comfort of people who denounce some homophobes then venerate others, only denying their membership of the faith when it’s expedient?

I don’t say this as an atheist with an agenda, or somebody opposed to progressive religious tendencies. I say it as a queer person to whom it doesn’t feel progressive to care about homophobia only when it makes being a Christian uncomfortable, or to be more concerned about the threat it poses to your faith’s PR than to my life and the lives of my friends. All Christians are real Christians; all Muslims are real Muslims; all atheists are real atheists. Deal with it.

* * *

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At the moment, I’m also holding a fundraiser.
You can read more about that here.

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Stop Saying Homophobes Aren’t Real Christians

Stop Saying Homophobes Aren't Real Christians

It’s common to be told that people who make religions look bad aren’t really part of them, and in particular that homophobes aren’t ‘real’ Christians—as well as that their views are a perversion of faith fuelled by denial of their own sexuality. At the moment, I’m working on a much longer piece than usual, so I’m going to do something unusual and post an extract from it about the problem I have with this.

Think about it for a second, and Christian homophobia being fuelled by queer shame is a shitty idea. It means believing not only that an inexplicable swell of queer people are born into Catholic, Baptist and Presbyterian churches, loathing themselves for no particular reason, but that Quakers and Unitarians are progressive because so many more of them are straight, and that our problems would be solved if straight people could just teach queer people not to be so homophobic. Historically and politically, it blames us for our own murder.

It also means thinking that by sheer coincidence, cultures in northern Europe, Africa and India where bisexuality was the norm developed a sudden angst about it, ex nihilo, at the exact moment Christian missionaries arrived. It means thinking that Rome’s upper classes became squicked out by their previously open sex lives the moment Constantine became emperor; that in the generation gap between the first Christians and their parents, condemning same sex acts went from being a wholly religious act to being nothing to do with religion.

Were the church fathers Christian in name only? Was Constantine less than a ‘real’ Christian? Were Paul, Peter and all popes since, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and Martin Luther King? Were the missionaries whose schools and hospitals are points of pride? Or is ‘real’ Christianity a drawbridge that goes up and down, alternately admitting and excluding these people, raised and lowered for the comfort of people who denounce some homophobes then venerate others, only denying their membership of the faith when it’s expedient?

I don’t say this as an atheist with an agenda, or somebody opposed to progressive religious tendencies. I say it as a queer person to whom it doesn’t feel progressive to care about homophobia only when it makes being a Christian uncomfortable, or to be more concerned about the threat it poses to your faith’s PR than to my life and the lives of my friends. All Christians are real Christians; all Muslims are real Muslims; all atheists are real atheists. Deal with it.

* * *

I tell stories and write a blog. If you enjoy my work,
consider
becoming a patron or leaving a tip.

At the moment, I’m also holding a fundraiser.
You can read more about that here.

Follow my tweets at @AlexGabriel,
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Stop Saying Homophobes Aren't Real Christians

What Happened On The Back Channel When Ophelia Benson Left Freethought Blogs

Greta has a post from last week on social media and the risks of reading-in — how it’s possible to conclude too much from who someone else adds or blocks, or what they like or share; why guessing their motives is a bad idea.

I mostly agree with the thrust of it. On being unfriended, I’ve learnt not to assume the worst — I also have closeted friends whose parents monitor their feeds, and I’ve had my online presence dissected creepily. I doubt I’d go as far as Greta does — I check my mutual friends with strangers who add me, gauge who people on Twitter are by who else they follow, delete contacts who share posts from Breitbart uncritically. (There are things there’s no good reason to Like.) Reading the Facebook leaves is like reading body language — not bunk, but only reliable if you know someone, or when there isn’t room for doubt.

At Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson complains people made assumptions about her motives on Facebook before she left this site. (‘Greta herself blocked me’, she writes, followed by the words ‘presumably’ and ‘because’.) To quote one preoccupied-sounding commenter,

Alex Gabriel spent an entire blog post of several hundred words to say, basically, ‘I can’t point to anything wrong that Ophelia has said or done, but I really think she’s up to something . . . the entire thing was composed of exactly what [Greta] is now lamenting.

That post — the one post, hitherto, in which I ever criticised Ophelia — seems to provoke similar thoughts in her. It was, she wrote in late August, ‘not a matter of disagreeing with me, [but] of sniffing out my heresy and denouncing it.’

I pointed, it turns out, to a long list of things she did that readers were interpreting — not, I thought, irrationally — as trans-antagonistic. Namely:

  • Treating requests she acknowledge Julie Bindel’s public, well documented, continuing anti-trans history as demands for cultish, unquestioning belief.
  • Writing ‘I’m not all that interested in the exact quantity of transphobia contained in Julie Bindel’ when commenters brought it up.
  • Uncritically citing anti-trans activists ‘quite a lot’.
  • Uncritically sharing an anti-trans author’s attack on the word ‘TERF’.
  • Displaying more hostility to trans commenters than transphobic ones.
  • Displaying no regret on misgendering a trans commenter.
  • Responding to Vanity Fair’s ‘Call me Cait’ story solely by objecting to Caitlyn Jenner being told ‘You look great’ by staff at Jezebel.

Anyway.

Between the post and her comment section Ophelia says this (dashes added for readability):

Greta was vocally and explicitly happy to see the way our colleagues were trashing me on their blogs, partly on the basis of that creepy intrusive secret-police-like trawling through my Facebook. On the back channel — I think I blogged about it shortly before I left the network — Lilandra had the bright idea of starting a thread with my name in the subject line suggesting we all discuss me, so several people jumped at the opportunity to rip me to shreds. Ed said let’s not do this this is a really bad idea, but they ignored him. I said using our blogs to shred each other wasn’t a fabulous idea and I’d assumed we all knew not to do that. That’s when Greta made her brave stand for the importance of using our blogs to shred each other.

I have a few things to say about this. Continue reading “What Happened On The Back Channel When Ophelia Benson Left Freethought Blogs”

What Happened On The Back Channel When Ophelia Benson Left Freethought Blogs

What If James Bond Fucked Men? Sex, Violence And Genre In London Spy

Moderate spoilers for episodes one and two.

Twenty-five minutes into London Spy’s first episode, two men have sex. The Daily Mail wasn’t pleased about this, tutting that ‘a viewer complained of a graphic gay sex scene which included nudity’, only to be ignored. (The fact the series airs post-watershed, when naughty things are known to be broadcast, is treated as a technicality.) You’d think most sex scenes featured nudity, indeed that fucking with clothes on might have more power to scandalise, but then is this is gay sex—depraved and disordered, in the Mail’s eyes, unless it’s a brown person saying so.

Today’s conservatives have nothing, heavens no, against the gays—they’d just prefer not to be reminded they’re anatomically correct. The novelty of lifelike queer characters is such that realism feels unrealistic: it must be due to a quota, the Telegraph suggests, that in all of spy fiction, one queer lead role now exists. Whether despite or because of the number of gay historical spies, espionage is a fiercely heterosexual genre, and after half a century of straight secret agents in dinner jackets getting laid, the fury London Spy’s premiere drew with one sex scene shows just how overdue it is. This never happened to the other guy. Continue reading “What If James Bond Fucked Men? Sex, Violence And Genre In London Spy”

What If James Bond Fucked Men? Sex, Violence And Genre In London Spy

Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement

It’s Halloween, and I’ve come as myself. Fifteen, perhaps even ten years ago, this was the worst night of the year — the night I hid in the living room while Mum was at work, curled up out of sight below the window, praying on a loop. When I was younger, I believed Satan was everywhere — believed he whispered to me in the night, haunted our house and worked via my dad; believed he possessed me when I was eight; believed that on this night, his unknowing unservants came to our door. Today, as an atheist, Halloween is my Christmas, rite of all once-forbidden things.

We’ve got our monsters, atheists. In the media our public faces are racists, warmongsters and men to whom sexual harassment allegations cling like a stench. Online, our community is riddled with sexism, right wing politics and abuse. I’m sorry that’s the case, and as a result of saying so, I’ve been called any number of slurs and four letter words, been threatened and had my address published. (Female, trans and non-white friends’ harassment is much worse.) And yet I’d take this community over my former religious one in a heartbeat. I make that choice on a constant basis.

Every so often, some friend or other from the atheist SJ scene will post that they can no longer stand it round here — that movement atheism now is simply too toxic, that belief matters less than politics, and that they’d rather work with progressive believers than vile atheists. I can’t say I blame them — I’ve seen too many good people driven from this community — and yet I can’t help noticing: the trend, consistently, is that the friends who say this didn’t grow up religious. For them, inhabiting atheist space has always been a choice. For apostates like me, it’s frequently a need.

I need an atheist community — need space to speak frankly about my own abuse, find others who went through similar things and give voice to what I experienced. Like many apostates, I need a movement that affirms my anger as valid and doesn’t confuse it with the pubescent bile of the Dawkbros. I need a community that doesn’t respond to depression with prayer, to kink and queerness with polite non-acknowledgement at best, hostility at worst, to sex and poverty with vain moralism — and for me, that means a secular one. I can’t leave atheism: I have nowhere else to go.

Continue reading “Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement”

Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement