We Need To Talk About How We Talk About Religion

000

There’s been a dialogue between atheist writers over the past week, started by Martin Hughes of the blog barrierbreaker. In a post published last Tuesday, Hughes talks about his evolving feelings on religion, declaring himself not an antitheist any more. ‘Recently I’ve been a lot less harsh on religion and much more focused on social justice issues,’ he reports, going on to describe his mother’s ill health and religious faith.

Several responses and critiques were published in the next few days. One, from Stephanie Zvan, notes that social justice includes helping people leave religion; another, from Kaveh Mousavi of On the Margin of Error, replies directly. In a follow-up post, Hughes talks about dealing with stress by praying to a nonexistent god. Stephanie and Kaveh both replied again, writing that comfort found in faith still doesn’t get religion off the hook.

Since publication last Thursday, my contribution has been doing well. It isn’t a direct response to either of Hughes’ posts, or any author’s in particular, but talks about patterns I see when this subject comes up.

When I read posts in the non-antitheism genre, it often strikes me that most of the wordcount is about other issues. I see other writers assert that the death of religion won’t solve all the world’s problems, and that in a world without it, people who currently hurt others in the name of God would just find other excuses. I hear them say deconverting believers isn’t their priority, and that they no longer feel an urge to pick fights with them. I listen to people say they care more about social justice than bashing religion, and that there are some awful atheists, and that they have more in common with plenty of progressive believers, and that they’d rather work with them. I see them point out that being an atheist doesn’t make them more intelligent than believers are, and that religious people don’t deserve to be hated. None of these statements are to do with whether religion is a good thing.

Near the end, in a passage that’s getting a lot of appreciation, I talk about defences of religion I do hear: that private beliefs people draw comfort from are harmless, that the problem is fundamentalism and not religion at large, that not all believers are the ones we see on the news, that harm caused by religion would still happen without it. Each gets dissected individually, but I close by discussing all these ideas collectively.

When I hear people saying why they’re not antitheists — when I read tweets and Facebook statuses and blog posts and op-eds — these are the statements I’m used to hearing. None of them are useful statements. All of them are either irrelevant or wrong. I don’t think anyone who says these things is being insincere, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they became things atheists said because they’re things believers like to hear, or feel like they might be. They’re delicate, diplomatic, sayable and politically correct. They’re not things I’m interested in saying.

I want to talk more about why I wrote that post, where I’d like the discussion to go next, and some of what I have to add to it.

***

Writing at his blog Across Rivers Wide, Galen Broaddus calls himself agnostic about antitheism. ‘Do I think the world would be better or worse if everyone were an atheist? … Alex says that his answer is quick, and that’s fine. The honest answer for me, though, is simply I don’t know.’

I do understand that other people … think that we have enough information to at least tentatively conclude that the world would be better off without religion. I know at least a good number of the arguments [and] I get that the kinds of counterarguments Alex mentions (like the fact that getting rid of religion wouldn’t be a panacea because, well, duh) don’t give him pause. I just disagree on those evaluations. YMMV.

Here’s the thing—I’m basically fine with that. Being an antitheist isn’t something I care much about. I don’t feel a need to change believers’ minds, and I don’t need friends or colleagues to feel the way I do: given a shot at a world without God, I’d take it, but I get why not everyone would. That’s not an argument I need to have, and it wasn’t the point of Thursday’s post. What I do want to pursue is a metadiscussion.

I don’t object to either of Hughes’ posts, and I share the complex feelings he talks about—they’re just not reasons to adopt his stance. I’m reluctant to single him or anyone else out because I find this typical. When people make a show of not being antitheists, the reasons they provide aren’t usually ones like Galen’s: they’re the bad arguments or beside-the-point platitudes I fisked, and I think our community should have a conversation about where they’re coming from.

When I say I want this whole debate to cut to the chase—that the only question that matters is if a world without religion would be better—it’s not because I’m desperate to tell people it would, but because I want to point out what’s going on. When people are so keen to separate themselves from antitheists that they give transparently bad grounds for doing so, it’s hard for me not to feel that it’s performative. When their posts acknowledge handwavily that they’d prefer a less religious world—as if this is somehow a tangent and not the whole point—I get the sense that there’s something more complex going on. These dynamics point to assumptions about how religion gets discussed, and since those affect all nonbelievers, there are good reasons to examine them whichever side you come down on.

***

Toward the start of Thursday’s post, I talk about being approached by believers—often Christians, but not only—who tell me why they think God is on queer people’s side and want me to say I’m impressed.

I find that conversation hard, mainly because it never feels like it’s meant to be a conversation. I get the sense I’m expected to nod and sympathise, that my role in the discussion is to validate their feelings, not say what I actually think. It’s as if only part of me gets invited to speak: I’m allowed to oppose religious homophobia as a queer person, but not to critique religion in other forms as a queer atheist. I’m not being asked to participate in a dialogue — just to tell [religious people] what they want to hear.

Some of the places I’ve had this problem have been LGBT events about religious faith. These happen often in the queer community, especially at conferences and during outreach weeks, and have become somewhat notorious: I know I’m not the only with this experience both because I’m told so and because when I speak at them, it goes down well. The rest of the time, this is what happens: a handful of speakers, each from a different religion, spend ten minutes telling their life stories and saying why being a queer ‘person of faith’ is perfectly easy; a Q&A session follows where difficult questions are parried or ignored and nonbelievers feel unable to say what they think. There’s a lot of nodding and agreeing, but no one leaves with any sense tensions have been dispelled, because they haven’t been addressed. (If you’re planning one of these—seriously, invite me.)

Too often these events are emotional workhouses: places the audience, and nonbelievers in particular, are asked to make believers feel comfortable, even at the expect of what they want to say. (While some are atheists looking for fights, many have needs that end up being ignored, and queer people whose experiences of religion have been traumatic often feel invisible.) The same thing happens in interfaith work. In the forum I was part of for years, a constant struggle was the way conversations became about mutual affirmation, making it harder to bring up uncomfortable topics. Meetings where believers get told what they want to hear are fine—major religions hold them once a week—but if the point of dialogue is to air tensions and difficult truths, you need to hold it somewhere else.

‘When people say in [blog] posts that they aren’t antitheists,’ I wrote last week, ‘I get the sense what they mean is that they aren’t jerks.’ Here’s my hypothesis: I think that as atheists grow to want good relations with believers, our instincts about what that means can be the same ones that show up in queer and interfaith circles. When I read posts about why people aren’t antitheists, I’m often reminded of those events, and of experiences with religious relatives, when not being a jerk meant always making believers feel comfortable — even with platitudes that weren’t quite true; even when your nuance wasn’t really all that nuanced; even if you had to be indirect. Like I said at the end of the last post — there are better ways to build bridges than dishonest arguments. Atheists need to start talking about how we find them.

We Need To Talk About How We Talk About Religion
{advertisement}

My Atheism Will Not Be Politically Correct

000

Here’s a problem I have. In various contexts—online, with family, during public events—I keep hearing from believers who take great pains to convince me they don’t hate gay people. Jesus never said anything about it, they tell me, and scripture has been misinterpreted, and the real sinners are homophobes, so for heaven’s sake let that be the end of it. I find that conversation hard, mainly because it never feels like it’s meant to be a conversation. I get the sense I’m expected to nod and sympathise, that my role in the discussion is to validate their feelings, not say what I actually think. It’s as if only part of me gets invited to speak: I’m allowed to oppose religious homophobia as a queer person, but not to critique religion in other forms as a queer atheist. I’m not being asked to participate in a dialogue—just to tell Christians what they want to hear.

There are a lot of atheists who don’t like me. To them I represent ‘politically correct atheism’, a movement that includes minorities and cares about more than just feeling smug. But political correctness was never meant to be a byword for progressive goals. Being politically correct is about saying the permissible thing—the delicate, diplomatic, convenient, feasible, strategic, sayable thing—when provocation isn’t an option. Before it was an alt-right dogwhistle, it meant being insincere to avoid starting fights: meant politicians saying ‘There are differences between us’ instead of ‘We are enemies’ and ‘economical with the truth’ instead of ‘lying’; meant telling people what they wanted but not what they needed to hear. When Christians explain their pro-gay theology to me, I sense that what they want isn’t an answer but a string of platitudes. (Not all Christians are the Westboro Baptist Church. There are good and bad people of all religions and none. Yes, I hate Richard Dawkins too.) If anything feels PC, that does.

***

Every now and again, someone in my vicinity—often at Patheos, but not just there—publishes a long piece about why they’re not an antitheist. Most recently that’s been Martin Hughes in a post at barrierbreaker; in the past it’s been Neil Carter of Godless in Dixie, and further back it’s been a range of other folk. Those posts spur complicated thoughts in me, and I’ve often felt the urge to response but not had world enough or time, so I want to share some of my misgivings here. (Stephanie Zvan has already done the same at Almost Diamonds.) Carter and Hughes are both bloggers I like, and this post isn’t about them specifically—please don’t read it as a straight reply to either of theirs. What I want to discuss are the patterns I see in these conversations, how they make me feel, and why this branch of the secular community is one I can’t join. I wish my atheism were PC: it’s not.

I don’t market myself as an antitheist, but I feel strongly that I’m not not one. Explaining why is difficult without a certain amount of meta. When I read posts in the non-antitheism genre, it often strikes me that most of the wordcount is about other issues. I see other writers assert that the death of religion won’t solve all the world’s problems, and that in a world without it, people who currently hurt others in the name of God would just find other excuses. I hear them say deconverting believers isn’t their priority, and that they no longer feel an urge to pick fights with them. I listen to people say they care more about social justice than bashing religion, and that there are some awful atheists, and that they have more in common with plenty of progressive believers, and that they’d rather work with them. I see them point out that being an atheist doesn’t make them more intelligent than believers are, and that religious people don’t deserve to be hated.

None of these statements are to do with whether religion is a good thing. I do see people talking about that—in particular, by saying their problem is with fundamentalism, not with religion itself, and by asking what the harm is if people who aren’t out to take over the world believe whatever comforts them—but those discussions are peripheral. In the process of declaring they aren’t antitheists, some authors make concessions that sound nothing but. (Mass belief in a moralising god ‘does more harm than good’, argues Hughes. ‘Would I like to see the human race leave all religion behind…? Absolutely, yes’ adds Carter.) When people say in these posts that they aren’t antitheists, I get the sense what they mean is that they aren’t jerks.

I have a lot of sympathy with that. Like most people whose discarded beliefs shaped their whole lives, I spent years in atheist puberty, a ball of anger, resentment, self-satisfaction and self-righteousness. It took a long time to direct that anger properly—first by acknowledging my childhood in the church was abusive, then by locating it in a broader history of abuse—and I understand not wanting to be that kind of atheist. I don’t view religion in general with the contempt I used to, and I have plenty of reasons to remain on good terms with believers. I come from a religious family, some of whom I’m closer to than ever, and still connect with the aesthetics of my former faith; I speak on panels where it’s my job to get on with religious people, and I spent several years as part of an interfaith group; there’s also a small, dedicated group of churchgoers who like my work. A part of me still wants to be, be like or be liked by religious believers, and I could do well as a faitheist, rehearsing the platitudes from paragraph four—just as I could tell Christians what they want to hear on queer issues.

I’m more interested in saying what I think.

Yes, there are awful atheists; yes, plenty of believers are lovely: I’m intimately acquainted with both those facts, and I don’t spend my life fighting with them over beliefs. Being religious isn’t wicked on its own, and secular people aren’t necessarily better. Ditching faith wouldn’t solve all our problems—I doubt that ditching any one thing would, and there would be better candidates if I had to choose. But I don’t think any of this conflicts with the idea that overall, religious movements do more harm than good. If antitheism is the word we’re using for that, the only question that matters is this: if everyone on earth woke up an atheist, would the world be a better or worse place? For me the answer is better, and it doesn’t take me long to reach it. I don’t know how to say that in a palatable way—I don’t say it to be cruel or unkind—but there it is. It’s what seems true to me.

And I want to talk about things we say because they feel palatable.

I’m not okay with people believing whatever comforts them—not whose beliefs have consequences for other people, at any rate. (I don’t mean anyone on their deathbed.) I grew up with a single mum who’d careened through abusive marriages, who was homeless and penniless as soon as she got away from my dad. My mum became someone who sensed demons in her front room because when she had a breakdown, her only source of comfort was the church—and because every church has one or two people someone like that shouldn’t befriend. Even after her charismatic phase, she was emotionally unstable, and I spent most of my life hostage to her moods. The same was true of her theology: in twenty-three years, I never saw any system to what Mum believed—only that she believed things that felt good, whatever impact they had on my life. Give me a hardened literalist over a Christian like that any day. A fundamentalist’s ideas are always logical on some level, and anything with an inner logic can be controlled; believers whose faith changes shape depending how they feel are the most dangerous, and often the ones looking for comfort.

I’m also not just opposed to fundamentalism. For one thing, that word meant something before it was made synonymous with extremism. (There are Muslims whose beliefs mirror one version of protestantism. That’s not what IS are.) For another, any religion with enough followers is going to have extremists: those people are a feature, not a bug. And extremist styles of religion aren’t the only ones that hurt people. I was suicidal ten years ago, when my faith was an inoffensive, mainstream, traditional one—not because I thought queers went to hell, but because I thought letting people spit on me what was Jesus would do, and because I thought prayer was a good treatment for mental illness. Most damage done by religious beliefs doesn’t involve clinic shootings or suicide bombings: it happens in small, unremarked-on ways, in people’s health and finances and schools and sex lives and relationships, but if you could collect all the tears cried over it, you could put out every burning building on earth. Only critiquing fundamentalists might make for smoother relations with believers. It’s still a cop out, and an insult to people who went through what I did.

Having grown up inside the church, in a town with a dozen denominations and a family of many, I am in fact aware Christians differ, and that not all of them are Westboro. (Like most LGBT people who leave, I knew perfectly well that there were ‘affirming’ churches.) Here’s what believers don’t want to hear: the Westboro Baptist Church is one of the least pleasant Christian sects, but not one of the more dangerous ones. I’m willing to bet fewer queer youth killed themselves because of Fred Phelps than still do in strait-laced and respectable churches—churches like Leelah Alcorn’s, like Lizzie Lowe’s and like mine. We don’t die when cartoonish people hate on us: we die when churches say they welcome and love us, get us to entrust our wellbeing to them, then tell us to choose Jesus over sin, or that God loves trans people too much to let them be trans. Wie die in churches where queer topics are taboo—not out of vitriol, but out of uptight middle class anxiety. I’d love to critique evangelicals who kill us without being an antitheist, but if I believed in their god, I’d think the same as them.

And I’d love to agree that without religion, people who do harm in its name would act the same with other rationales. It’s just that it’s bullshit. Not everything believers do could be done in any other context—in a world without God, what does a child exorcism look like? We can’t travel to that world to run tests, so nobody who makes this claim has a receipt for it, but even then, this isn’t just counterfactual: it runs against the information we do have. We know that even when other factors are controlled for, religious change across generations prompts social change; we know new religious movements cause historical changes on their own; we know that in electorates worldwide, religion is a strong predictor of how people vote; we know religious conversions change people’s lives, and that when people leave religion, their lifestyles change dramatically. For people who claim it does the world good, religion’s whole value is predicated on its power to change behaviour. Why wouldn’t it be to blame for harmful changes?

When I hear people saying why they’re not antitheists—when I read tweets and Facebook statuses and blog posts and op-eds—these are the statements I’m used to hearing. None of them are useful statements. All of them are either irrelevant or wrong. I don’t think anyone who says these things is being insincere, but it wouldn’t surprise if they became things atheists said because they’re things believers like to hear, or feel like they might be. They’re delicate, diplomatic, sayable and politically correct. They’re not things I’m interested in saying. I understand—and, nowadays, share—desire for dialogue, but when believers decide they like me it’s because I don’t bullshit them. There are better ways to build bridges than dishonest arguments.

My Atheism Will Not Be Politically Correct

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

Remembering Niki Massey

000
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.

* * *

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

Follow my tweets at @AlexGabriel,
keep up with 
my writing, or get in touch.

David Bowie, 1947-2016.

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

000

‘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.

* * *

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,
keep up with
my writing, or get in touch.

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,
keep up with
my writing, or get in touch.

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