How To Be An Ally with Atheists

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post on being an atheist in the queer community. But I think it will be of interest to anyone, individual or organization, who wants to be an ally with atheists and the atheist movement.

Scarlet letter

So what do atheists want from their allies?

And how can progressive non-atheist people and groups be good allies with the atheist movement?

Yesterday, I posted a piece about how difficult I was finding it to be an out atheist in the LGBT community. Since I don’t like to gripe for the sake of griping without offering any solutions, today I’m offering my suggestions for what atheists want: my prescription for how progressive believers can, if they want, be supportive of atheists, and allies with the atheist movement.

A quick disclaimer first: While I suspect that a lot of atheists will more or less agree with much of this list, I really am speaking only for myself here. Atheists are notoriously independent, and they don’t like having other people speak for them. (Any atheists reading this: If you have disagreements with this list or things you’d like to add, please speak up in the comments.)

The-Atheist

1: Familiarize yourself with the common myths and misconceptions about atheists — and don’t perpetuate them.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding and ignorance about who atheists are and what we do and don’t believe. Needless to say, these myths and misconceptions are wrong. Don’t believe them. Don’t perpetuate them. Don’t let them infect the way you speak and act, and please speak out against them when you hear them. Find out what we actually think and believe and do, instead of what anti- atheist propaganda says about what we think and believe and do.

Sam Harris has written a pretty good list of the most common myths about atheists, with short arguments against them. There’s a touch of needless snark in the piece, IMO — Harris can’t quite resist the temptation to get in a few digs against religion when he should probably just be explaining atheism — but overall, it gives a good, concise view of the most common misconceptions about atheism, and why, exactly, they’re mistaken.

I’m just going to add one quick thing to Harris’s list before I move on: The myth that atheists are 100% certain that there is no God, with a dogmatic attachment to that belief.

In reality, I’ve encountered almost no atheists who thought that God’s existence had been definitely disproved. Atheism doesn’t mean being 100% certain that God doesn’t exist. It just means being certain enough. We’re about as certain that Jehovah doesn’t exist (or Yahweh, or Allah, or Ganesh, or the Goddess, or any of the gods that are commonly worshipped today) as we are that Zeus doesn’t exist. If you don’t think you’re close-minded for not believing in Zeus, then please don’t accuse atheists of being close-minded for not believing in your god.

Atheist_sign

2: Familiarize yourself with what it’s like to be an atheist, both in the U.S. and in the rest of the world.

Discrimination against atheists, in the United States, and around the world, is very real. It doesn’t look exactly like other forms of discrimination — no form of discrimination looks exactly like any other — but it is real.

Here are just a few examples.

According to a recent Gallup Poll, asking Americans who they’d be willing to vote for for President, atheists came in at the very bottom of the list: below blacks, below women, below Jews, below gays. Below every other marginalized group on the list. With less than half of Americans saying they’d vote for an atheist. Unless you live in a incredibly progressive district, being an out atheist will effectively kill any chances you have at a political career.

Atheists in the military have been illegally proselytized at, berated, called a disgrace, denied promotion, had meetings broken up, and been threatened with charges… all by superior officers, and all because of their atheism.

Dole atheist flyer
In her recent Senate campaign, Elizabeth Dole issued a series of campaign flyers and videos, centering on the fact that her opponent, Kay Hagan, had attended a fundraiser hosted by two atheist lobbyists… a campaign that openly referred to atheists as “vile,” that treated the very existence of atheists as an abomination, and that used language about atheists that would have raised a tidal wave of shock and denunciation around the country if it had been aimed at any other religious group.

And especially in small rural towns, anti-atheist bigotry can turn truly ugly. Being an out atheist means risking ostracism and worse. Out atheist teenagers have been kicked out of public school programs, and then kicked out of public school. Out atheists have been the targets of vandalism and death threats. Even believers can be targeted with anti- atheist ostracism, threats, and vandalism, if they’re perceived as being atheists because of their stance on separation of church and state (such as the anti- intelligent- design activists in Dover, Pennsylvania).

And I’m just talking about the U.S., where atheists are, at least in theory, guaranteed equal protection and freedom of non-religion under the 1st and 14th amendments. I’m not even talking about overt theocracies, where denying the existence of God will earn you a death sentence.

This stuff is real. And there’s a lot more. These examples have barely scratched the surface. We are pissed off for a reason. Please don’t trivialize it.

Handshake_icon.svg

3: Find common ground.

Religious believers might think there’s no way for them to be allies with atheists. Aren’t atheists trying to do away with religion? How can you be allies with someone who thinks your most cherished beliefs are a myth, and wants to rid the world of them?

Okay. First, not all atheists are trying to do away with religion. Many atheists are fine with religion, as long as it’s respectful of people who don’t share it. They just don’t believe it themselves, and just want to be left alone to give what they have to the world and to practice their lack of faith in peace. If all religions minded their own business, if religions didn’t have the depressingly common habit of demonizing people who don’t agree with them and shoving themselves down everybody else’s throat… most of us wouldn’t care about it very much.

FirstAmendment

Second: Even the atheists who would like to see religion disappear, and who are actively working to make that happen, still passionately support religious freedom. We don’t want to make religion disappear by law, or coercion, or even social disapproval. We want to make religion disappear by persuasion. We want to convince people, in an open marketplace of ideas, that religion is mistaken. Even the most strongly and rudely anti- religion atheists I know are passionate in their defense of religious freedom, and of people’s right to believe whatever crazy bullshit they want as long as they don’t inflict it on other people.

And even though atheists obviously think religion is a mistaken idea about the world, and believers obviously don’t… well, we don’t have to agree about everything to work together. Atheists and progressive believers have a lot of common ground: a passionate support of religious freedom, a fervent belief in the separation of church and state, an intense respect for diversity. The fact that we don’t agree about the existence or non-existence of God doesn’t mean we can’t work together on issues we share.

Bullhorn

4: Speak out against anti-atheist bigotry and other forms of religious intolerance.

If you’re white, it’s important to speak up about racism. If you’re male, it’s important to speak up about sexism. If you’re straight, it’s important to speak up about homophobia. Etc.

And if you’re a religious believer, it’s important to speak up about anti-atheist bigotry and ignorance. Familiarize yourself with the common myths about atheism and the truth about those myths (see above)… and when you hear someone repeat the myths, speak out.

Common ground
5: Be inclusive of atheists.

Remember that not everybody is a religious believer. And I don’t just mean that not everybody belongs to a traditional religious organization. Many people have no religious or spiritual beliefs at all. So if you’re talking to a group, don’t ask people to pray. Don’t talk about “our Creator.” Don’t talk about the spirit that moves within all of us. I don’t have a creator, and I don’t have a spirit, and I don’t pray.

If you want to talk about your own religious beliefs, then please, by all means, go ahead and do so. Say that you’re going to pray. Tell us about your creator. Talk about the spirit that moves within you. But don’t assume that everyone you’re talking to shares your beliefs, or indeed has any religious beliefs at all. Don’t — as a commenter in this blog observed at a No on Prop 8 rally — talk about the wonderful work churches are doing for your movement, and the wonderful work being done by people who don’t go to church but still believe in God, and neglect to mention the people who don’t believe in God but still passionately support your cause. In the same way that (I hope) you try to remember that there are probably people in your audience who aren’t white, or college-educated, or able-bodied, or whatever, please try to remember that there are probably people in your audience who aren’t religious or spiritual.

(And don’t do fake inclusion, either. Saying, “No matter what your religious beliefs or lack thereof are, let’s all pray or meditate,” is like saying, “No matter what your religious beliefs are, let’s all give thanks to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” No matter how good your intentions are, it’s not inclusive. It’s a back-handed slap.)

Cut

6: Don’t divide and conquer, and don’t try to take away our anger.

Don’t divide us into “good atheists” and “bad atheists” based on how vocal or angry we are. Don’t say things like, “Well, you seem reasonable — but that Richard Dawkins and that Christopher Hitchens, they’re just so mean and intolerant!”

I hope I don’t have to tell you about the ugly history of dividing activists for social change into “the good ones” who are polite and soft-spoken and easy for the privileged power structure to get along with, and “the bad ones” who are angry, rabble- rousing trouble- makers. I hope I don’t have to explain about the not- no- subtle message behind it: “We’re fine with you as long as you don’t speak up too loudly, and don’t make us too uncomfortable, and don’t ask for too much.”

Like every other movement for social change I can think of, the atheist movement has its more diplomatic members and its more confrontational ones. And like every other movement for social change I can think of, the atheist movement needs both. It’s more powerful with both. Both methods together work better than either one would work on its own.

Besides, we all know that Hitchens is an asshole. It’s not news to us.

Lack_of_respect

7: If you’re going to accuse an atheist or an atheist group of being intolerant — be careful, and make sure that’s really what they’re being.

Atheists often get accused of being intolerant for saying things like, “I don’t agree with you,” or, “You haven’t made your case,” or, “I think you’re mistaken — and here, exactly, is why.” Atheists often get accused of bigotry when, in fact, they’ve been very careful to criticize specific ideas and actions rather than insult entire classes of people. Atheists often get accused of being close-minded for firmly stating their case and saying that, unless they see some good evidence or arguments to the contrary, they’re going to stand by it. Atheists, as Richard Dawkins recently pointed out, often get accused of being insulting or hateful for discussing religion in the kind of language that is commonly accepted in political opinion pieces or restaurant reviews.

It’s totally fucked up. Please don’t do that.

Here’s the thing. Atheists see religion as (among other things) a hypothesis about the world: an explanation for how the world works and why it is the way it is. We think that, as such, it should be willing to defend itself in the marketplace of ideas, on an even playing field. And we see the “criticism of religion is inherently intolerant” trope as one of the chief ways religion avoids having to do that. It totally gets up our nose.

As someone whose name I can’t remember recently said: Religion has been discussed in hushed tones for so long, that when people talk about it in a normal tone of voice, it sounds like we’re screaming. But most of us are not screaming. Most of us are talking in a normal tone of voice… for the first time in our lives.

Fundamentalism

8: Do not — repeat, DO NOT — talk about “fundamentalist atheists.”

If you think an atheist or an atheist group is being intolerant, or bigoted, or close-minded, then by all means, say that they’re being intolerant or bigoted or close-minded. But please, for the sweet love of all that is beautiful in this world, do not call them “fundamentalist atheists.” The “fundamentalist” canard makes most atheists want to scream and tear our hair out. It’s a problem for three reasons:

1: It’s inaccurate. Atheists do not have a text or a set of basic principles to which they strictly and literally adhere… which is what the word “fundamentalist” means. (See “common myths about atheists” above.)

2: It perpetuates the myth that atheism is just another form of dogmatic religious faith… which it most emphatically is not. (Again, see “common myths about atheists” above.)

3: It divides the atheist movement into the “good” ones and the “bad” ones: the good ones who keep their mouths shut, and the bad ones who speak their opinions loudly and firmly. (See “don’t divide and conquer” above.)

Think of the phrase “fundamentalist atheist” as an epithet. If you insist on using it, you should expect that no atheist will listen to anything else you say.

Finally — and I think this may be the hardest for a lot of people, especially in the LGBT community:

Privilege

9: Be aware of how religious belief gives you a place of mainstream and privilege.

This is a lot less true for believers in minority religions, like Jews and Muslims in the U.S. But even though the specifics of your belief marginalize you, the fact that you have belief at all does give you some privilege that you may not be aware of.

The assumption that everyone believes in some sort of God is so widespread as to be practically invisible. And the assumption that morality must stem from religious faith is incredibly pervasive. Many religious believers — even the more hard-core ones, maybe especially the more hard-core ones — are more trusting of other religious believers whose beliefs they don’t share than they are of atheists. (Look again at “what it’s like to be an atheist” above… and look again the Gallup Poll about how atheists are considered less qualified to be President than any other group that was polled about.)

Mount-royal-cross

And if you are a Christian? Forget about it. If you are a Christian in the United States, then — when it comes to this particular area of the “privilege/ marginalization” palette — your Christianity puts you squarely in the “privileged mainstream” category. Christians are in the clear majority in the United States, and they are in the clear mainstream of politics and culture. You’re not being thrown to the lions anymore. You haven’t been thrown to the lions for almost 2,000 years. You are in the group that is running the show.

And that’s fine. That doesn’t make you a bad person. When it comes to the “privilege/ marginalization” palette, most people have some of both. I am privileged as a white person, a college- educated person, a middle- to- upper- middle class person, a more or less able bodied person, an American. I am marginalized as a woman, a queer, a bisexual, a fat person, an atheist. And my privileges don’t confer wickedness onto me, any more than my marginalizations confer virtue.

But my privileges do confer some responsibilities. They confer the responsibility to educate myself about the experiences of marginalized people, and the myths about them. To speak out against bigotry, even and especially when it isn’t against me. To not assume that everyone is just like me. To remember that passionate anger is as important to a movement as gentle diplomacy. To learn what kind of language people prefer when talking about them, and what kind of language totally sets their teeth on edge. (Which is just good manners anyway.) To tread carefully when I’m criticizing marginalized people, and to make sure I know what the hell I’m talking about.

And to not act like a victim when my privilege is questioned, or indeed simply pointed out.

Hand_shake
I do think progressive movements — the LGBT community, as well as others — should be making alliances with the atheist movement. If for no other reason, I think it’s a smart choice pragmatically. Like I said yesterday, the atheist movement is just beginning to get off the ground, and it’s already come very far in a very short time, both in terms of numbers and in terms of visibility. IMO, in the coming years and decades, it’s going to be a force to be reckoned with. You want to get in on the ground floor here, people.

And it’s also, you know, the right thing to do.

If you want to do that, I think this is a good place to start.

What do you think?


Addendum: I have, alas, had to turn off the comments on this post, as the comment thread has gone both completely off-topic and completely toxic. I’ve opened a new post — How To Be An Ally with Atheists: The Actual Thread — for anyone who wants to discuss the actual topic of this post. (And yes, I am all too aware of the irony of this particular post being the one where the comments went toxic.)

Important note: Please do not use the new comment thread to revive this original shut-down thread. Any attempt to do so will result in being banned from this blog. Thank you.

How To Be An Ally with Atheists

Being an Atheist in the Queer Community

Gay atheist

I want to talk about being an atheist in the queer community.

This is going to be hard to talk about. But it’s been on my mind a lot lately, and I think it’s important to say.

I see a lot of parallels between the atheist community and the queer community. I think that the two movements have a great deal in common — the importance of coming out of the closet, an ongoing family argument between the more diplomatic and the more confrontational activist philosophies, being a scapegoat of the religious right, etc.. In a lot of ways, I think the atheist movement today is very much where the queer movement was in the early ’70s — newly visible, newly vocal, pissed off as hell, still finding its voice, just beginning to gain real strength. I think the two communities could learn an enormous amount from each other, and I think that they’re natural allies.

And yet, I’m having a realization that I’m finding extremely unsettling.

Scarlet letter

I’ve been an out queer, and an active participant in the queer community, for over 20 years now. I’ve felt for years like the LGBT community was my home base. I’ve only identified as an atheist for less than two years.

And yet I’m finding that 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.

Like, a lot more.

In the last year or two, after a stretch of being more focused on other issues and movements (sex radicalism, mostly, plus of course the atheism), I’ve been getting more involved again with the LGBT movement. I’ve been reading LGBT blogs; I’ve been participating in an email list of LGBT political people; I’ve been donating money to LGBT causes; I went to the recent LGBT bloggers’ conference.

And here are some of the things I’ve experienced.

Duerer-Prayer

I’ve been exhorted to pray. I’ve been told about “our Creator.” I’ve seen comments in LGBT blogs, listing bigoted and wildly inaccurate anti-atheist canards that could have come straight out of the religious right’s playbook. I’ve heard inaccurate statistics bandied about regarding how many believers and non-believers there are in the U.S…. statistics that diminish atheists’ numbers and our strength. (For the record: We’re more than five percent, people.) I’ve heard the inaccurate and insulting canard about “fundamentalist” atheists… and, when I’ve pointed out that this term is both inaccurate and insulting, had the language firmly defended.

I’ve heard the LGBT movement described as divided into two distinct groups: the reasonable ones who want to work with religious groups, and the unreasonable ones who think that religion is a delusion. (As if it were impossible to think that religion is a mistaken hypothesis about the world, and at the same time still think we need to work with religious groups.) I’ve heard the atheist movement described as divided into two distinct groups: the good ones, the “live and let live” ones who don’t criticize religion, and the bad ones, the intolerant “fundamentalist” ones who think they’re right and say so. (Where have we heard that kind of language before?) I’ve heard LGBT leaders talk about how important it is to reach out to people of different religious faiths… with no mention whatsoever made of reaching out to people with no religious faith. Not even in lip service.

Whisper

And I’ve been in the unsettling position of being the person that LGBT people come to to tell about their godlessness.

Have you ever been the out LGBT person that other LGBT people came to, privately or semi-privately, to tell you that they’re L, G, B, or T? That’s how I’m beginning to feel as an atheist in the queer community.

I’m not going to pretend to speak for these folks. I don’t know exactly how they feel about their lack of religious belief, or why they’re choosing to stay quiet about it for the moment. It could be any number of reasons: from not wanting to be alienated from the community, to not having the time or energy or inclination to do Godlessness 101 education, to not wanting to raise potentially divisive issues at a time when we’ve already had a lot of infighting, to just not thinking that it’s that big a deal, to other reasons that probably haven’t occurred to me. I don’t pretend to speak for them, and I’m certainly not going to be anything but supportive of them. Like LGBT people, non-believers need to come out of the closet on their own timetable, and for their own reasons.

Coming_out_of_the_closet

But I think we all know that, when you make yourself visible as an LGBT person in a non- specifically- LGBT group, and a whole bunch of people come up to you privately to tell you that they’re LGBT… you know that there’s a problem. You know that something’s going on in that group that’s making LGBT people feel like they can’t be completely out.

It seems like that’s happening for atheists and other non-believers in the LGBT community.

And the whole thing is making me really sad.

It’s ticking me off, too. But mostly, it’s making me sad. It’s reminding me of my earlier days in the community, when we were fighting for the B to be included in LGBT, and people who I thought were my family were telling me that I didn’t belong. It’s making me feel like I have to fight for my place at the table. It’s making me feel like I have to choose between being welcomed, and speaking my mind about things that are deeply important to me. It’s making me feel like my home is not my home anymore.

Being a queer in the atheist community, on the other hand…

Being a queer in the atheist community is almost a complete non-issue.

Welcome_mat

I write a lot about the parallels between the LGBT movement and the atheist movement… and atheists, of all sexual orientations, are always interested. When I talk about sexual orientation and queer politics and history — or just about my own personal experiences in my own queer relationship — atheists want to hear what I have to say about it. And when I don’t — when I just want to talk about creationism or Pascal’s Wager or the problem of evil or the meaning of life — then they want to hear what I have to say about that, too. Not as an LGBT representative, either; not as What The LGBT Community Has to Say About Pascal’s Wager. Just as Greta.

Straight against h8
And the atheist community has been fierce and outspoken in defense of LGBT rights. To give just one example: The atheist blogosphere needed no prodding to blog about Prop 8. They were all over the issue like a cheap suit. Almost every atheist blog I read had something to say about it; many of them blogged about it multiple times. And they were all over the issue from very early on. Hell, I know straight atheist bloggers who were blogging about Prop 8 before I was.

This isn’t just true for Prop 8 or same-sex marriage, either. The atheist blogosphere talks about homophobia a fair amount. They see it, among other things, as one of the main examples of how traditional organized religion is stubbornly adhering to unsupported dogma at the expense of real human lives. And that makes it a big issue for them. Apart from just, you know, being appalled by it because it hurts their friends and loved ones. Apart from it just being the right thing to do.

Fly swatter

I’m not saying that I’ve never encountered homophobia or homo-stupidity in the atheist community. I have. But I’ve found it to be very rare, very much the exception. And maybe more to the point: When it does show up, it gets smacked down like a bug, by a dozen different hands or more. I don’t always have to be the one to do the smacking. I don’t even usually have to be the one to do the smacking. When a homophobic or homo-stupid commenter shows up, the atheist blogosphere — straight and queer — promptly tears them about sixteen new assholes. I have never before been in a community where I felt so strongly that straight people had my back.

On the whole, the atheist community has been just about the most LGBT- positive community I’ve been in that wasn’t, specifically, an LGBT community itself. I’ve had to do almost no Queer 101 education in it. I’ve been able to just relax and be myself.

Now. I do understand that this comparison isn’t entirely fair. For one thing, the modern queer movement has been active and loud, visible and vocal, for a good 40 years now. The rest of the world has had time to, as the chant goes, get used to it.

The.End.of.Faith

The atheist community? Not so much. The atheist movement has been around for a while; but it’s only been active and loud, visible and vocal, making itself an un-ignorable presence in the world at large, for maybe the last five years or so. Straight people — including atheists — have had a long time to get educated about LGBT issues. Religious believers — including LGBT folks — haven’t had as long to get familiar with atheism. So it’s not terribly surprising that there should be troubling attitudes about atheists and atheism in the LGBT community. Disappointing, but not surprising.

And it’s not like this situation is universally terrible. It’s not. There are queer believers who are saying and doing lovely and supportive things for their non-believing compatriots. There are other queer non-believers who are talking openly about their godlessness — I’m hardly the only one. And it’s not like anyone’s throwing rocks at me or anything. It’s not terrible.

It’s just bad enough to make me feel like I’m not quite at home anymore.

Bridge

I am both an atheist and a queer. I feel like I’m one of the bridges between the two communities, and that makes me happy: I think the two movements are natural allies, and I think there should be bridges between them. (If only for reasons of pure pragmatism, I damn well think the LGBT community should be working like crazy on that alliance. IMO, the atheist movement is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years and decades: it’s come very far in a very short time, and it’s growing by leaps and bounds every year.)

But lately, I’m feeling like this bridge is a lot more strongly supported on one side than it is on the other. I’m feeling like the people on one side of the bridge are heartily cheering me on and welcoming me with open arms, and the people on the other side of the bridge are a whole lot more conflicted about me, with a fair number of them heartily wishing that I’d just shut up.

And I’m finding — sadly, but not entirely surprisingly — that I’m feeling more strongly identified with my new friends who are cheering me on.

I’m feeling more like an atheist than I am like a queer.

And if this trend in the LGBT community keeps moving in this same direction, then that’s just going to get stronger.

So how do I want this to change?

That’s tomorrow’s post.

Being an Atheist in the Queer Community

Bettie Page, 1923-2008

Please note: This post discusses my personal sex life, sexual fantasies, and tastes in porn, in some detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read that, please don’t read this one.

I have a confession to make.

Bettie page

From a purely erotic, purely visceral, “what do I watch in porn to get me off?” standpoint, Bettie Page has never been a huge favorite of mine. Of course she was beautiful; of course she was lush; of course her playful manner and big, cheerful grin were irresistibly charming. It’s just that I have a strong preference for authenticity in porn: for porn that looks like the performers are really getting into it. And I never quite got that from Bettie. Whether she was getting spanked or tied up, or spanking or tying up another girl, the playfulness and the grin made it impossible to believe that she was taking any of it seriously. It always looked like a little kid playing Cowboys and Indians. Even when she was scowling or hollering, you could see that she was grinning inside.

But I loved her anyway.

And I loved her for the very things that made it hard for me to genuinely get off on her movies and her photos: her playful manner, and her big, cheerful grin.

Bettie page spank

Bettie Page was doing erotic and fetish modeling during a time — the 1950s — when these activities were not only illegal, but surrounded by a dark cloud of secrecy and intense shame. And yet she posed in her photos and performed in her movies with a shameless joy. Not the wild, defiant, “fuck you and your shame” Jezebel sort of shameless (which I’m also fond of, don’t get me wrong), but the sort of shameless that doesn’t even see what there is to be ashamed of. She was sex-positive before we even had a word for it. She was a role model for fetish pride, for taking pleasure in bodies and in sex, for women proudly and cheerfully claiming their sexuality… way the hell before it was cool.

And even when she became a born-again Christian and left the world of erotic and fetish modeling forever, she never (to my knowledge) disavowed it or spoke of it as anything to be ashamed of. As recently as 1998, she said in an interview with Playboy, “I never thought it was shameful. I felt normal. It’s just that it was much better than pounding a typewriter eight hours a day, which gets monotonous.”

Bettie Page died on Thursday, December 11, at the age of 85. She will be missed.

Video below the fold. (Video not for people under 18.)

Continue reading “Bettie Page, 1923-2008”

Bettie Page, 1923-2008

“Milk” And The Joy Of Sex: The Blowfish Blog

Milk

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s a review of “Milk,” the excellent and much- talked- about new biopic about Harvey Milk… with a focus on how the movie depicts sex.

I’m sure you’re all surprised. And deeply shocked.

It’s titled “Milk” And The Joy Of Sex, and here’s the teaser:

I realize this may come across like the welder’s review of “Flashdance.” But today, this sex writer wants to talk about the depiction of sex in “Milk.”

Because it was so strikingly different from the way sex gets depicted in almost every major Hollywood movie.

Not just different. Better. Way, way better.

You’ve no doubt heard about “Milk,” the new biopic about the history- making San Francisco gay activist and city supervisor Harvey Milk, directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Sean Penn. If you haven’t already seen it, you’ve probably heard that it’s brilliant, that it’s inspiring and moving and tear- jerking and funny, that Penn’s performance is nothing short of astounding. All of which is true.

But today, just for a change, I want to talk about sex.

See, unlike most Hollywood movies about gay people, the sex in “Milk” is not downplayed. It gets a starring role. And unlike most Hollywood movies, period, sex is treated, not as a joke, not as a source of easy fearmongering and/or cheap titillation, not even as a source of dramatic angst and despair a la “Brokeback Mountain,” but as a source of joy and liberation, a central part of a human life, worthy of value and respect.

(Warning: Spoiler alert. Spoilers are all over this review like a cheap suit.)

To find out more about how “Milk” depicts sex — and what that depiction reveals about the movie’s attitude towards it — read the rest of the review. Enjoy!

“Milk” And The Joy Of Sex: The Blowfish Blog

"Milk" And The Joy Of Sex: The Blowfish Blog

Milk

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s a review of “Milk,” the excellent and much- talked- about new biopic about Harvey Milk… with a focus on how the movie depicts sex.

I’m sure you’re all surprised. And deeply shocked.

It’s titled “Milk” And The Joy Of Sex, and here’s the teaser:

I realize this may come across like the welder’s review of “Flashdance.” But today, this sex writer wants to talk about the depiction of sex in “Milk.”

Because it was so strikingly different from the way sex gets depicted in almost every major Hollywood movie.

Not just different. Better. Way, way better.

You’ve no doubt heard about “Milk,” the new biopic about the history- making San Francisco gay activist and city supervisor Harvey Milk, directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Sean Penn. If you haven’t already seen it, you’ve probably heard that it’s brilliant, that it’s inspiring and moving and tear- jerking and funny, that Penn’s performance is nothing short of astounding. All of which is true.

But today, just for a change, I want to talk about sex.

See, unlike most Hollywood movies about gay people, the sex in “Milk” is not downplayed. It gets a starring role. And unlike most Hollywood movies, period, sex is treated, not as a joke, not as a source of easy fearmongering and/or cheap titillation, not even as a source of dramatic angst and despair a la “Brokeback Mountain,” but as a source of joy and liberation, a central part of a human life, worthy of value and respect.

(Warning: Spoiler alert. Spoilers are all over this review like a cheap suit.)

To find out more about how “Milk” depicts sex — and what that depiction reveals about the movie’s attitude towards it — read the rest of the review. Enjoy!

"Milk" And The Joy Of Sex: The Blowfish Blog

Against Simultaneity

Please note: This piece discusses my personal sex life, in a certain amount of detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that stuff, please don’t read this one. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

I’ve written before in this blog against one of our culture’s biggest ideals of sex: the ideal of spontaneity, the ideal that sexual desire should strike both (or all) partners at the same time, and that planning or scheduling sex is a boring, unromantic buzz-kill.

Today, I want to write about another romantic ideal of sex… and how it can fuck sex up.

Simultaneous orgasm

I’m talking about the ideal of simultaneity.

In the standard romantic ideal of sex, sexual desire isn’t the only thing that strikes both partners at the same time. Sexual satisfaction does as well. There isn’t quite the same emphasis on precise simultaneous orgasm as there used to be… but there’s still the idea that both partners should be getting both aroused and satisfied on more or less the same timeline.

And while I have nothing against simultaneity as one sexual option among many, I have huge problems with it as an ideal, a superior model of sexual interaction that somehow promotes intimacy and romance better than any other model.

(I’m going to assume heterosexuality for most of this post, btw. Lesbians and gay men mostly don’t seem to have much of a hang-up about simultaneity, so for this post, I’m not going to worry about them.)

New view of a womans body

My first problem: Women and men tend not to have the same patterns and timetables of arousal and satisfaction. Women generally take longer: to get aroused in the first place, as well as to reach orgasm. We have our compensations, of course, in the form of multiple orgasm — but even that means that we take more time.

So if you’re a hetero couple trying to ride the “arousal and climax” train together, one of two things is likely to happen. The man has to try to rein in his pleasure so he doesn’t arrive before his partner. Or the woman never arrives at all.

Or, in the worst case scenario, both.

And while holding off on climax can certainly increase your own pleasure as well as your partner’s, there’s a point at which it stops being a deliciously prolonged tease that works you up into a frenzy… and starts becoming a chore, a mental exercise that detaches you from your body and your partner and the pleasures of the here and now.

Fuck that noise.

So that’s Problem #1. Problem #2:

Fucking

The ideal of simultaneity is yet another way that penis- in- vagina intercourse is given a privileged, prioritized, “this is what really counts as sex” position in the pantheon of sexual options.

The idealization of simultaneous sexual pleasure is, for the most part, an idealization of intercourse. Sure, variations like sixty-nining are part of the picture. But they’re in the picture as, well, variations. Not as the main attraction.

Ultimate guide to cunnilingus

Look at the way things like oral sex and fingering still get referred to as “foreplay.” As opposed to, oh, say, just for example, “sex.” The idea behind “foreplay” is that the man is supposed to arouse the woman enough for them to engage in “real sex”; enough so that, when they have “real sex,” she’ll be ready, and they can come more or less together.

And I always have a problem with the way that penis- in- vagina intercourse gets treated as The One True Sex. Partly because I’m a dyke in a dyke relationship, who hasn’t had a penis anywhere near her vagina in many years… but largely because it sucks for straight women. (And for bi women involved with men.) Most women can’t come from intercourse alone, and when intercourse gets treated as The One True Sex, women get screwed. And not in a good way. When you prioritize intercourse over all other forms of sex, you’re pretty much automatically making women’s sexual pleasure a lower priority than men’s.

So I’d like to propose a different model. Not to be placed above simultaneity, as a better and superior way to have sex that everyone should follow, but as a totally valid option that counts as Real Sex every bit as much as the simultaneity option.

All i really need to know i learned in kindergarten

It’s a model straight out of the “All I Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten” ouvre:

Taking turns.

Taking turns kicks ass. Taking turns means you don’t have to try to ride the same train at the same time. Taking turns means you each can help other ride your own trains, at the speed that works best for both of you.

And taking turns has other advantages, too. Taking turns means you don’t have to try to rub your belly and pat your head at the same time. When it’s your turn, you can let yourself wallow luxuriously in excitement and sensation and pleasure, without guilt or distraction; when it’s your partner’s turn, you can drink in their pleasure, focusing your full, undistracted attention on what gets them off… and how hot they are when they’re doing it.

Again, I’m not saying that taking turns is an inherently superior form of sex. It does have a few downsides — patience is definitely a virtue in the “taking turns” model — and simultaneity does have some genuine attractions. I’m just saying: If you’re a hetero couple who’s been unsuccessfully trying to ride the simultaneity train — or if you’ve been successfully riding the train and would simply like some more options, purely for variety’s own sweet sake — you really don’t have to treat it as the perfect sexual ideal of romance and passion. Taking turns can be every bit as romantic, every bit as intimate, every bit as passionate… and every bit as hot.

Against Simultaneity

What Do You Want to Ask Believers? What Do You Want to Ask Atheists?

Question marks

If you’re an atheist, or some other flavor of non-believer, what’s the question you most want to ask religious believers?

And if you’re a religious believer, what’s the question you most want to ask atheists?

I don’t generally interrogate religious believers about their beliefs. (Except in this blog, of course.) I just think it’s rude. Not the fake, fucked-up, “the etiquette restrictions on questioning religion are a major part of how religion protects itself from ever being questioned” sort of rude, either. IMO, it’s the genuine, serious, “according to my own morals and standards” sort of rude.

Argue

I mean, if someone comes into my blog, where one of the main points is to question and debate and critique religion, that’s different. People are free to visit my blog as they like, and to participate in the conversation as much or as little as they like, and to leave as they like. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, and all that. But at a party or some other in-person social situation, I think it’s obnoxious to essentially corner people so I can proseletyze at them. Or not even to proseletyze. Even just to ask difficult and intensely personal questions. I wouldn’t do that about politics, I wouldn’t do that about sex, I wouldn’t do that about money, and I’m not going to do it about religion.

But it’s also true that, whenever I meet someone who tells me they’re a Christian, or a Wiccan, or an astrologer, or whatever, I find myself bursting with questions that I don’t feel I can ask. I find myself making idle chit-chat about movies or restaurants… while I’m practically wriggling and jumping up and down with the effort to not ask the one question I most want to ask them.

I have a lot of these questions. But there’s always one big one. For me, whenever I meet someone who tells me they’re a Christian, or a Wiccan, or an astrologer, or whatever, the big question I want to ask is, “Why?”

Why
Why do you believe what you believe?

It’s a hard question to ask without sounding incredulous. It’s hard to ask it in a way that’s genuinely curious, without coming across like you’re trying to pick a fight. (Heck, speaking for myself, it would be hard to ask it without, in fact, trying to pick a fight.) It’s hard to ask it without it coming out like, “Why on earth would anyone believe that?” In other words: It’s a hard question to ask without sounding like a jerk.

(The second- biggest question I want to ask, btw, is, “Do you really believe that?” Mostly with Wiccans and Neo-Pagans and such. I always want to ask them: “Do you really believe that casting spells works, in some supernatural way? Do you really believe in gods and goddesses and the spirits of the four directions? Or is this all just some metaphor, a way of framing your own thoughts that you find beautiful and useful?” But that’s really a question that you can’t ask without sounding like a jerk.)

I’m betting that a lot of the other non-believers in this blog have questions they’d like to ask believers but don’t feel like they can. And I’m betting that the believers who read this blog have questions they’d like to ask atheists.

So I’m curious: What are your questions? If you’re a non-believer, what do you want to ask believers? And if you’re a religious believer, what do you want to ask atheists?

What Do You Want to Ask Believers? What Do You Want to Ask Atheists?

My Trip to the LGBT Bloggers’ Conference

My Trip to the Bloggers’ Conference
by Greta
Mrs. Marx’s Homeroom
Grade 4

Last weekend I went to a bloggers’ conference in Washington D.C. It was a lot of fun. There were a lot of kids there from other schools. We talked about government and computers and how we can make the world better for every body. Washington D.C. is the capital of our country. There is a big Christmas tree there, and a museum with lots of butterfiles butterflies. I hope we can go back soon.

Pink_triangle_repeater.svg

I’ve never done one of these conference reports before. I’m not quite sure how you do it. I was at the National LGBT Blogger and Citizen Journalist Initiative in D.C. last weekend, and some people have said that they want to hear about it; but I’m not sure how to do that in a way that’s not mind-bogglingly tedious. So instead of talking about the high points of what I did, I think I’ll talk about the high points of what I learned.

*

In political discussions, don’t use the generic word “we.” If you’re talking about a group, be specific.

Diversity
It’s important to take on difficult, thorny issues of race, class, gender identity, nationality, etc. — even if you’re not totally comfortable with it. In other words: White people have to talk about race, middle- and upper- class people have to talk about class, non-trans people have to talk about trans issues, etc.

When you’re taking on difficult, thorny issues of race, class, gender identity, nationality, etc., and you fear that you’re going to put your foot in it because it’s not your particular issue and you don’t know enough about it… acknowledge that from the outset. Frame your piece in the form of questions you’re asking rather than opinions you’re asserting, and ask for feedback. People will cut you more slack for mistakes you may make if you make it clear that you’re aware of your limitations.

When other people are taking on difficult, thorny issues of race, class, gender identity, nationality, etc., and they make mistakes, don’t be an asshole about it. If you think they’re perpetuating misinformation or bigotry, call them on it — but the flame-war dogpile of a jillion people screaming “You’re an asshole” does not foster mutual understanding. Cut each other some slack for good intentions already.

How the homosexuls saved civilization

The LGBT community needs to stop defining ourselves as victims, and start defining ourselves as victors. Framing ourselves as victims feeds into our opponents’ narrative (we’re whiny, we’re weak, we want special rights, etc.) Instead of demanding equal rights, we should demand equal responsibilities: demand to be equal participants and contributors in making our country/ world stronger and better. We need to frame our demands not in terms of what we want, but in terms of what we have to offer.

On that topic: The LGBT community should frame our history as part of the narrative of American history: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And when we do that, we should frame it in a positive way — not as part of the American history of bigotry and brutality and oppression, but as part of our historical arc towards equality and justice.

There are different forms of political communication: education, persuasion, and motivation. With persuasion, you have to meet people where they are.

The LGBT community should encourage our straight allies to stand up for us. (See “taking on difficult, thorny issues” above.)

Beehive

Conservatives tend to have a hive mentality, and are by nature better at all staying on one message than progressives. But progressives don’t need to see this as a weakness on our part. We have a strength that conservatives tend not to: the ability to see a wide variety of viewpoints on a topic. When co-ordinating our efforts, we don’t have to all take the same talking points — but we can co-ordinate our diverse efforts (such as co-ordinating the timing of posts on big stories to maximize attention).

Television.svg

If you’re going to do TV appearances, practice in front of a camera — find your sweet spot, the angle from which you photograph best, and stick with it. Stay present on camera — “adjourn the court” of self judgment, you can’t be a participant and an observer at the same time. On a microphone, talk softer than you normally would in public speaking, as if you were talking into someone’s ear — it will pick up the nuance of your voice better. You live with video forever, so be careful of what you say on camera. Don’t let your appearance distract from your message. Have good posture. And on camera, no matter how mad you are, your default should always be a smile. (Examples: Bill Clinton and Rachel Maddow.)

To do effective public relations and get your blog noticed by the mainstream media: Remember that journalists are either busy or lazy, and make their job easier for them. Develop relationships with journalists, know what they’re looking for and be willing and able to feed it to them. Offer something different — news, new information, or just a strong point of view. Most journalists are looking for topical pieces — if your work isn’t necessarily topical, hook it to a topic, or find a publication that’s doing a theme issue.

To make more money blogging, I pretty much need to keep doing what I’m doing. I just need to do it more, consider some additional income streams, and work harder on building my traffic.

And finally: I really need to get a flip camera.

*

Oh. And I learned this:

The queer community sure talks about religion a lot.

But that’s a topic for another post.

My Trip to the LGBT Bloggers’ Conference

My Trip to the LGBT Bloggers' Conference

My Trip to the Bloggers’ Conference
by Greta
Mrs. Marx’s Homeroom
Grade 4

Last weekend I went to a bloggers’ conference in Washington D.C. It was a lot of fun. There were a lot of kids there from other schools. We talked about government and computers and how we can make the world better for every body. Washington D.C. is the capital of our country. There is a big Christmas tree there, and a museum with lots of butterfiles butterflies. I hope we can go back soon.

Pink_triangle_repeater.svg

I’ve never done one of these conference reports before. I’m not quite sure how you do it. I was at the National LGBT Blogger and Citizen Journalist Initiative in D.C. last weekend, and some people have said that they want to hear about it; but I’m not sure how to do that in a way that’s not mind-bogglingly tedious. So instead of talking about the high points of what I did, I think I’ll talk about the high points of what I learned.

*

In political discussions, don’t use the generic word “we.” If you’re talking about a group, be specific.

Diversity
It’s important to take on difficult, thorny issues of race, class, gender identity, nationality, etc. — even if you’re not totally comfortable with it. In other words: White people have to talk about race, middle- and upper- class people have to talk about class, non-trans people have to talk about trans issues, etc.

When you’re taking on difficult, thorny issues of race, class, gender identity, nationality, etc., and you fear that you’re going to put your foot in it because it’s not your particular issue and you don’t know enough about it… acknowledge that from the outset. Frame your piece in the form of questions you’re asking rather than opinions you’re asserting, and ask for feedback. People will cut you more slack for mistakes you may make if you make it clear that you’re aware of your limitations.

When other people are taking on difficult, thorny issues of race, class, gender identity, nationality, etc., and they make mistakes, don’t be an asshole about it. If you think they’re perpetuating misinformation or bigotry, call them on it — but the flame-war dogpile of a jillion people screaming “You’re an asshole” does not foster mutual understanding. Cut each other some slack for good intentions already.

How the homosexuls saved civilization

The LGBT community needs to stop defining ourselves as victims, and start defining ourselves as victors. Framing ourselves as victims feeds into our opponents’ narrative (we’re whiny, we’re weak, we want special rights, etc.) Instead of demanding equal rights, we should demand equal responsibilities: demand to be equal participants and contributors in making our country/ world stronger and better. We need to frame our demands not in terms of what we want, but in terms of what we have to offer.

On that topic: The LGBT community should frame our history as part of the narrative of American history: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And when we do that, we should frame it in a positive way — not as part of the American history of bigotry and brutality and oppression, but as part of our historical arc towards equality and justice.

There are different forms of political communication: education, persuasion, and motivation. With persuasion, you have to meet people where they are.

The LGBT community should encourage our straight allies to stand up for us. (See “taking on difficult, thorny issues” above.)

Beehive

Conservatives tend to have a hive mentality, and are by nature better at all staying on one message than progressives. But progressives don’t need to see this as a weakness on our part. We have a strength that conservatives tend not to: the ability to see a wide variety of viewpoints on a topic. When co-ordinating our efforts, we don’t have to all take the same talking points — but we can co-ordinate our diverse efforts (such as co-ordinating the timing of posts on big stories to maximize attention).

Television.svg

If you’re going to do TV appearances, practice in front of a camera — find your sweet spot, the angle from which you photograph best, and stick with it. Stay present on camera — “adjourn the court” of self judgment, you can’t be a participant and an observer at the same time. On a microphone, talk softer than you normally would in public speaking, as if you were talking into someone’s ear — it will pick up the nuance of your voice better. You live with video forever, so be careful of what you say on camera. Don’t let your appearance distract from your message. Have good posture. And on camera, no matter how mad you are, your default should always be a smile. (Examples: Bill Clinton and Rachel Maddow.)

To do effective public relations and get your blog noticed by the mainstream media: Remember that journalists are either busy or lazy, and make their job easier for them. Develop relationships with journalists, know what they’re looking for and be willing and able to feed it to them. Offer something different — news, new information, or just a strong point of view. Most journalists are looking for topical pieces — if your work isn’t necessarily topical, hook it to a topic, or find a publication that’s doing a theme issue.

To make more money blogging, I pretty much need to keep doing what I’m doing. I just need to do it more, consider some additional income streams, and work harder on building my traffic.

And finally: I really need to get a flip camera.

*

Oh. And I learned this:

The queer community sure talks about religion a lot.

But that’s a topic for another post.

My Trip to the LGBT Bloggers' Conference