The Prodigal Son's Brother: More Thoughts on Queers and the Atheist Community

Gay atheist
I thought I’d reached something resembling peace about being an atheist in the LGBT community. I’m not happy with the high level of vociferous religiosity in the queer community, or with how non-believers in that community get dissed. But I also realize that the atheist movement has only been getting serious visibility and organization in the last few years, and it’s just not realistic to expect the entire world — queer or otherwise — to jump overnight from ignorance and bigotry to understanding and acceptance.

But then I got this email from Dick Hewetson, who read my Being an Atheist in the Queer Community piece, and made this point:

As you have, I have discovered that freethinkers are consistently my friends. Yet the [LGBT] movement people seem reluctant to acknowledge all the support they receive from atheist and humanists groups. But they will gush all over an individual congregation or clergy person who stands up for us. I just find it tiresome.

And I got mad all over again.

I got mad, because until I got his email, the “gushing” issue hadn’t occurred to me. And now I can’t get it out of my mind.

Why is it that, when religious leaders and groups finally come around and say or do something marginally nice about queers, the LGBT community falls all over itself in gratitude… but the godless community, one of the staunchest and most vocal supporters of queer rights outside the queer community itself, gets almost no recognition for their support?

Why is it that leaders and organizations in the LGBT community are bending over backwards to do outreach to religious groups — including religious groups who are lukewarm on our issues at best and downright hostile at worst — but virtually no mention is ever made of reaching out to the godless community, who already runs like crazy with our issues and would almost certainly love to run with them some more?

I want to give you a little taste of what this support looks like before I move on. I want to give you a sense of just how supportive the atheist community has been of the queer movement… so you can get an idea of why it ticks me off so much when that community get ignored or dissed.

From Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism, Hate-Crime Laws and Loving the Sinner:

The question is, given the demonstrable falsehood of their stated premises, what’s the real reason why religious right groups are so adamantly opposed to hate crime laws? If it’s true, as they say, that they “hate the sin and love the sinner”, one would think that they would support laws that give LGBT people more legal protection against crimes of bias.

The obvious answer is that they truly do hate homosexuals and want to preserve their right to discriminate against them.

From Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist, You Say We’re Redefining Marriage? You’re Redefining Love:

I say this to the religious people who oppose marriage equality:

You think we’re redefining marriage?

How can you accuse us of that when you’ve done something far worse?

You redefined love.

“Love the sinner, hate the sin”? Please 

For you, “love” means making sure gay people cannot adopt a child who needs a home.

For you, “love” means stripping away the marital status of gay couples who were legally married in California before Proposition 8 took effect.

For you, “love” means accepting someone only if they never act on their sexuality.

From PZ Myers at Pharyngula, Priorities:

We really do have a screwed up culture. Carrie Prejean, Miss California USA, could publicly argue for continued denial of civil rights to gays on air, in a beauty pageant, and pageant officials were unperturbed. Now that semi-nude modeling photos of Prejean are emerging, they are considering revoking her title. So flaunting her bigotry is no big deal, but posing in lingerie makes them clutch their pearls and squeak in horror?

From Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Orson Scott Card Goes Off the Deep End on Gay Marriage:

Until a few years ago, I’d never even heard of Orson Scott Card. I’m not a science fiction reader, so I’d never read his many books, some of which my friends tell me are quite good if you like that genre. But after watching him make a complete fool of himself over the last few years with his ignorant ravings on evolution and homosexuality, I find him to be one of the most contemptible writers I’ve ever come across.

You really must see the absolutely unhinged claims he makes about gay marriage in an article in the Mormon Times, wherein he calls for outright revolution if the government allows gays to get married.

And finally, from Zee Harrison at Black Woman Thinks, Homophobic Jamaican Prime Minister:

Here is an example of the damage caused by ignorance, religion and politicians who profit from maintaining the status quo. Dangerous. I know these views are prevalent in many societies not just Jamaica, but for the Prime Minister to promote homophobia and then clumsily try to squirm his way around it with a pile of words that could be described as nothing other than bullshit is revealing.

Straight against h8
All of these bloggers are — to the best of my knowledge — straight. And these excerpts are just a drop in the bucket. All of these bloggers write frequently and at length on queer issues… as do many, many other non- queer atheists. I didn’t have to dig for these links and quotes: every one of them was posted just in the last month. (BTW: If you have other examples you’d like to link to — from your own atheist blog or from others — please feel free to quote them/ link to them in the comments.)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Of all the communities and worlds I’ve been a part of, the atheist movement is by far the one where I’ve felt most strongly that straight people had my back. It’s the one where I’ve felt most strongly that straight people were not only supporting and accepting of my queerness, but passionately and pro-actively concerned about queer rights.

And it ticks me off that they’re not getting recognition for it.

I want to illustrate this point with a story. And, in an irony that I’m sure you’ll all find vastly entertaining, the story I want to illustrate it with comes from the Bible.

Prodigal son
You all know the story of the Prodigal Son. Son demands his share of his dad’s inheritance; squanders it all on weed and strippers and video games; gets stuck working as a fry cook in a McDonald’s. Son slinks back home to Dad, says he knows he fucked up, says he doesn’t expect his old room back but asks if he can sleep in the garage. Dad embraces him, throws a big barbecue to celebrate his return. Dad’s other son, the non- prodigal one, gets pissy and resentful, pointing out that he’s been a good son and has worked hard for years in Dad’s chicken processing plant, and yet Dad never threw any barbecues for him. Dad says, “Chill out, dude. Your brother’s back. Be happy. Here, have a burger.”

Now, I’ve always thought that the older brother had a point. Yes, he’s being a little pissy; yes, he should celebrate and be happy that his brother came home. But he has a point. If he’s telling the truth — if his father never did throw him any sort of party or give him any recognition of his hard work and devotion — then that’s messed up.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course the prodigal son should get a party. The messed-up part isn’t that the prodigal son is getting a party. The messed-up part is that the non-prodigal son never did. The messed-up part is that the son who consistently does the right thing without being asked gets less appreciation than the son who acts like a big dumb jerk but then comes around.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Hand outreach
I’m not saying that the LGBT community shouldn’t be reaching out to religious groups, shouldn’t be expressing appreciation when said groups help us out or come around to a more queer- positive outlook. I’m saying that the LGBT community should also be reaching out to the godless community… and should be acknowledging the extensive support that the godless community has already given and continues to give.

And I’m kind of baffled about why they don’t.

Scarlet letter
The generous part of me thinks that many leaders and organizers in the LGBT community just don’t know about the atheist community. They know about atheists, of course — in recent years, we’ve been increasingly hard to avoid — but they may not know that we’re a community and a movement, one that’s increasing in both size and organization practically every day. And they definitely may not know how passionately and actively queer- positive that community is.

But when I’m in a less generous mood, I feel like they just don’t give a damn. Atheists already support them. Why should they bother to reach out to us, or even acknowledge us? And atheists aren’t — yet — a massively powerful and well- organized political force. Why should they go to any lengths to make alliances with us? What good can we do them?

I know, I know. I sound churlish and petty. That’s the problem with being the prodigal son’s brother. If you don’t say anything, you’re a doormat; if you do say something, you come off sounding churlish and petty.

So in the interest of not just griping churlishly and pettily, I’d like to make some specific, positive suggestions of what kind of atheist recognition and outreach I’d like to see from the queer community.

I’d like for non- atheist queers to not assume that all queers have religious beliefs. In public or semi- public forums (speeches, conferences, panel discussions, email forums, etc.), where the community as a whole is being addressed, I’d like to not hear general exhortations to pray, or references to “our Creator” or “our spirituality,” or whatnot. I don’t pray, and I have neither a creator nor a spirituality. (If you want to talk about your own religious beliefs, of course I’m totally fine with that — just please don’t express them in a way that assumes that I share them.)

I’d like for non- atheist queers to learn about the most common bigoted myths and stereotypes about atheists. I’d like for them to not perpetuate those myths. And when they hear other people perpetuating those myths, I’d like for them to call them on it.

When LGBT organizations do outreach to religious organizations, I’d like them to at least consider doing outreach to atheist and secularist organizations as well.

When LGBT organizations are putting together panels and conferences and whatnot and are working to get diversity, I’d like for atheists to be part of that diversity mix. Especially if they’re trying to get diversity of religious faiths… or if religion is going to be a central issue of the panel/ conference/ whatever.

When LGBT leaders speak publicly about the diversity of spiritual belief in our community, I’d like them to include queers with no spiritual beliefs as part of the picture.

I’d like for LGBT organizations and bloggers to have at least a couple of major atheist blogs on their radar. Pharyngula at a bare minimum — or, if Pharyngula is too snarky for them, Friendly Atheist. I’d like them to read the blogs, send good stories their way, put them on their blogrolls, give them some link love.

I’m sure there’s more. (If you can think of more, please speak up in the comments.) But that’ll do for now.

Because you know what?

We’ve been good sons.

We’ve been helpful and supportive. We can be even more helpful and supportive if the LGBT community works more directly with us.

And we deserve our barbecue.

Other stories in this series:
Being an Atheist in the Queer Community
How to be an Ally with Atheists

The Prodigal Son's Brother: More Thoughts on Queers and the Atheist Community
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30 thoughts on “The Prodigal Son's Brother: More Thoughts on Queers and the Atheist Community

  1. 1

    Mmm, barbecue.
    I think part of this might be a poorly (or not at all) thought out pragmatism: atheism is generally seen as less acceptable than being queer, still. By openly embracing the nontheist community, the LGBT community is associating with an unpopular group that discourages the (much larger) religious groups they gush over the support of. The benefits of uniting with nontheists are less than the costs of alienating the religious. But I doubt that’s a calculated and considered view, but something that if brought to light – with posts like yours – can quickly fall apart.

  2. 2

    Great piece, Greta. I’ve been submerged in the atheist community for quite a while already, and I can attest that it is about as LGBT-friendly as it can get without being queer itself. So much, that now that I’ve recently awakened to my own bisexuality I haven’t really even felt any need to go anywhere else in need of acceptance.
    Because of this, I didn’t have a good idea of the attitude of the queer community to the atheist one until I started reading your blog. I must say I was rather surprised, since I expected a larger overlap and cohesiveness. How can queers still pander to religion when most major ones would have us sent to hell?

  3. 3

    As an atheist it was always perplexing to me how people would judge others not on their personal merit but based on who they were (as in group they’ve identified with – i.e. gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, atheist, Christian, Muslim etc…) for some reason their religious, sexual, political etc. orientation was defining them and others above and beyond it ever should.
    Thanks Greta for this great article. As a human I feel I need to stand up for the minorities and those whose individual rights are being trampled upon (such as LGBT community) but as a member of atheist community I hardly feel any reciprocity from any in this regard. Not that it is required, I will continue to support other communities despite that there is no reciprocity. It doesn’t change the fact that it is the right thing to do.

  4. 5

    I’m going to make some guess work here (being British, non-religious tends to be the norm more than the more-than-a-little-scary overt religiosity America ‘enjoys’) I think part of it is that we court those we need to convince. At its base, and no matter what people claim to the contrary – homophobia is by far and away caused by or rooted in religion. As such, atheists are generally a lot less homophobic (in my experience) and any atheist organisations can be pretty much guaranteed to be allies on some level. It’s kind of like the way the Democrat party in America is accused of taking blacks and hispanics for granted – they know they are pretty much going top get the support automatically, so they don’t go out their way
    So it goes with GBLT groups and atheist groups
    Oh gods this is getting long

  5. 6

    I think a second front is that, sadly, the religious groups of America are much much more numerous and more powerful than the atheist ones. They’re also much more focused on gay issues (not say that atheist groups don’t pay attention to them – but it’s not one of their hugest priorities – naturally). The religious right seems to spend far more time thinking about hot gay sex than I do as a gay man, only abortion seems to throw the gay sexing into second place. In short – the religious groups are a major issue (and, much as I tend to avoid inflammatory language – a major enemy) of GBLT groups.
    Which brings me to point 3. Praising a religious group for not being complete arseholes to us is not about the novelty value or praising an ally. Not really. It’s about proving a point and poking the other religious groups which still would much rather us all crawl under a hole and die somewhere. It’s about striking a blow and turning the tide against a very very large and powerful force that wants us gone (the varying degrees to which they want us gone – dead, ‘changed,’ second class citizens or deeply closeted are all depressing).

  6. 7

    Does that excuse the shoddy treatment GBLT movements give to atheist movements? No. It explains it, but it doesn’t excuse it. It’s all to easy to take an ally for granted – and it’s wrong. Allies are with us, allies fight for us, these allies help make our lives safe and liveable – they deserve praise and respect for that and failing to do so is an insult.
    Last comment I promise. And I apologise for the spammage – damn I need to learn how not to ramble

  7. 8

    I’m a straight female atheist, and I’ve blogged about homosexually many times. Here’s my favorite:
    Natural Sexuality – A satire of the “homosexuality isn’t natural” argument using bizarre sex examples from the animal kingdom.
    People ask me if I’m pro-gay rights because I have so many gay friends. No, I have so many gay friends because I’m pro-gay rights.

  8. 9

    I love the parable, Greta, but I think it’s actually a little worse than that. In the parable the father recognizes that the other son has always been there with him and says that everything he has is his. The other son isn’t actually taken for granted by the father, which fits the analogy with god.
    The atheist movement really is taken for granted by the LGBT community. After victories for LGBT rights, atheists aren’t even on the radar of people to thank or credit. I think you make a good point that atheists don’t require outreach, and that we’re often looked over out of ignorance as well.
    But, another major reason could be that leaders of the LGBT community feel that openly associating with atheists would hurt their long term goals. It makes it too easy for religious bigots to write off gays and lesbians as immoral heathens. Why else would they hang out with atheists? They buy the commonly held belief that religion is necessary for morality, therefore they point and shout every time a religious group validates them.
    In the end it comes down to can the endorsement of atheists help the moral argument for gay rights?

  9. 10

    “But, another major reason could be that leaders of the LGBT community feel that openly associating with atheists would hurt their long term goals.”
    Supposing they feel that way and it sounds plausible enough to consider as a hypothesis, I think then they’re confusing short-term and long-term political goals. Glad-handing religious groups so that marriage-equality laws get passed in more stats? That’s short-term. Medium at most. An effectively secularized nation in which people can practice religion freely but the State isn’t wrapped around the Church’s little finger? That’s a long-term goal. And, guess what, that outcome sounds pretty queer-friendly to me. . . .

  10. 13

    I’m curious about how the LGBT interaction with atheists compares with other groups. How atheist-friendly are feminists? Political liberals? Political libertarians? Science educators? Others I haven’t thought of? Is this a general problem, that we’re just too controversial to touch? Or is the problem particular to the LGBT group?
    Unfortunately, I don’t keep close track of any of these communities, except through the atheist community, or through bloggers who happen to be atheists. However, my ignorant guess is that the problem is not particular to the LGBT group. Most groups are leery about thanking atheists or the non-religious, no matter how supportive atheists may be.

  11. 14

    Good point. But as a straight (if not particularly narrow) atheist with a closet full of gay pride parade staff t-shirts, I don’t mind too much. I like LGBT people and culture, and that’s quite enough reward for me.
    As for building bridges… well, frankly, politically atheists aren’t exactly a constituency to be worried about. The whole herding cats thing has prevented us from having a strong voice.
    The LGBT community, on the other hand, is pretty good at political activism. Which is a somewhat cold-blooded but practical reason for currying favor with organized religions.

  12. 15

    As a straight atheist, I’m pro LGBT, because in the final analysis, the LGBT community forces (enforces) diversity and tolerance that spills over into secular issues.
    Unlike Greta I’m not really bothered by the lack of acknowledgment by the LGBT community since they are the ones doing the heavy lifting for many secular causes that affect us atheists as well. If the LGBT community needs to glad handle the religious groups to further achieve common goals, then thats fine by me.

  13. 17

    Hey Greta
    I never realised how the GLBT crew could be so dismissive of the support the godless community give them, but now you mention it there is always a big show (even here in Oz) when some religious leader ordains a GLBT person or proclaims support for equality. Noone seems to give a shit when someone of a secular bent does it.
    Over at we’re constantly posting about gay rights (before but especially since Prop H8), bigging up the states that choose to end their bigotry ( and, bien sur, constantly battling deluded bigots in the comments thread. Drop over just about any time and you can see us duking it out with ‘phobes, LFJs (liars for Jesus) and fundagelicals who haven’t even read their own Bible.
    Keep it up Greta, we’re with ya (but you knew that)


  14. 18

    Overall, I think that atheists or secularists in general are disregard, but it isn’t always deliberate. Only being a member of the agnostic end of the theistic/atheistic scale (due largely to apathy), I agree with Sparky:
    Atheists in general, like the Democrats I grew up with, are expected to be supportive of diversity and to be opposed to prejudice and social injustice.
    The GLBT community may feel the need to coddle the few theists who in public will stand up. I am sure the personal reasons are numerous. Some part of my mind wonders if there is also an acceptance-fantasy involved, with regard to being severed from family and attendant religious community (in some cases, society as a whole), and the hope that these wounds might heal someday. But I can’t assume, it simply arose as a possibility in my thoughts on this subject.

  15. 19

    But most of you just tried to explain why GLBT is treating us this way. That doesn’t make it the right thing to do. I don’t know for other atheists but for me supporting GLBT is the right thing to do. I am not seeking their or anyone elses approval and in fact would support it even if it socially hurts me (and being in the Bible Belt it does). GLBT should be aware how damaging their persecution is so I don’t understand why they do not step up and protect other people’s rights the way atheists do? Unless they too agree that atheists should be shunned and in general treated the way we are?
    Even if the later is true (and I suspect in many cases in GLBT community it is) it doesn’t change my view. My support to GLBT rights does not depend on their support of atheists. I speak up for them because it is the right thing to do not because it is a popular thing to do. Perhaps one day they will return the favor, perhaps not, but it is the right thing to do.

  16. jo

    seems like a lot of national lgbt orgs are more after acceptance into the mainstream than changing the mainstream. makes sense then to overlook or even shy away from the even more extreme seeming groups like atheists.
    I also think you’re correct that most people don’t have any sense of a unified atheist movement/community… i’m not even sure i do… (outside of the blogging world of course)

  17. 21

    The only time in my life I’ve given money to a political organization was to the No On 8 campaign. I was very vocal about my stance on voting for discrimination. I didn’t do it for the recognition. Like others have said before me, I do things like that because they’re the moral thing to do.
    I’m used to being shunned for my opinions. Be it my stance on gays, gods, guns, or grass, I find it hard to keep my mouth shut long enough to keep from being turned into some sort of pariah. I won’t hold that against the LBGT community.

  18. vel

    it’s worse than just “What good can we do them?” It’s that the great majority of the LGBT movement still accepts that religious means “good” just like the rest of the world. It seems that they dont’ want to be “tarnished” by the perception that atheists are “moralless” people.

  19. 23

    I’ve made a few blog posts, and forum posts in regard to it, and marched publicly against a law that ended up taking away the rights of gay couples to adopt, even private adoptions.

  20. 24

    Well, according to a previous post by Greta, the LGBT does not just ignore atheists; they actually hate us as much as the rest of the religious do, because we “beleive in nothing” and “cannot be good without God” and are “depressed and miserable individuals”…
    Rather than non-prodigal sons, it seems to me we are good samaritans…

  21. 25

    When did I say that, Valhar2000?
    Yes, there are a handful of LGBTs who repeat these anti- atheist canards — more than I’d like. But it’s hardly the prevailing sentiment, and I don’t remember ever saying that it was. I’d say the prevailing sentiment is more “we can peacefully coexist, as long as atheists shut up.” Combined with a general cluelessness about how to speak about religion in a way that’s inclusive about atheists (i.e., a tendency to talk about “our creator,” to exhort people to pray, etc.).

  22. 26

    Well, you don’t sound churlish and petty to me, Greta. You sound like you have a legitimate beef* and are tired of staying silent about it.
    I’ve started to think that the main reason the LGBT community doesn’t seem to want anything to do with the atheist community is that, while they’re passionate about helping the minority they belong to, they don’t actually think our minority deserves the same protection. I think many of them share the current thinking in this country that it’s ok to have a different faith, as long as you do have a faith.
    And I think a lot of them share the deep Christian conviction that it’s ok to be different (race, gender, or whatever), but it’s *not* ok be different religiously. I had a girlfriend long ago who was very PC–she got all upset if you used the wrong terms or gave any sign of insensitivity toward any minority, but she literally felt that the minority I belonged to didn’t count. I think there’s a lot of that out there.
    That sort of compartmentalization is nothing new in civil rights groups: Stokely Carmichael basically declared that blacks should have rights, but not women.
    Then again, in my more generous moments I like to think that the LGBT community shies away from the atheist one partly because it doesn’t need to be associated with yet another stigma.
    * Get it? Beef–barbecue? Ok, this would be the moment where my wife groans that she married a 12-year-old.

  23. 27

    Well, I run towards the cynical on my best days, so my assumption is that, as mentioned above, the GLBT community is as actively taken in by the god-hoax as the rest of the country AND that being associated with atheists hurts their political goals.
    As a straight atheist, I have been a staunch supporter of civil rights for all since I was in elementary school and we had mock election during the presidential election that took place during that time frame. I’ve marched at pride and I am currently a community organizer for the poly community, which supports all genders and sexual/relationship orientations. I blog about my political and religious ideas at and you can add /tag/ followed by the specific tag to the end of that URL to follow specific tags, such as /tag/atheism, /tag/religion, /tag/gender issues, tag/freedom/politics (a complete list of my tags is located in the sidebar of the main journal page).

  24. 28

    I lost faith in God before I had experiences that made me think I may not be straight. So I never had to try and reconcile my beliefs with my nature. Non-atheist LGBT people would have had to grapple with this issue on top of the problems with coming out.
    That could potentially cause some subconcious “you guys have it easier” resentment at least in some people.

  25. 29

    In my Catholic upbringing, the sermon after the Prodigal son usually had the priest turn to the part where the father said, “but everything I have is yours” indicating that should the second son so have desired it, he could have had a party – he shouldn’t expect that parties should fall from the sky but could just ask if he wanted one.
    The idea of an atheist community does amuse me however. I certainly don’t feel that there is one in Australia, although I do understand the need for one in the US, given how coming out as an atheist is a big deal.
    I understand any group’s joy in feeling more accepted by a group that was previously exclusionary. And support their right to point at that group as an example to all remaining groups who continue to exclude them.
    Atheists and secular humanists (is there a difference) may have had their day in the sun as far as the LGBTIQ community goes, and maybe the best way to get further recognition is to ask or even demand it.

  26. 30

    I think it is fair to give credit where credit is due. John Townsend in Lavendar Magazine (Minneapolis/St. Paul) had this to say about the Minnesota Atheists:

    Many radio programs broadcast locally are queer-inclusive. But aside from KFAI’s Fresh Fruit, which is total queer content, no program is as fully queer-supportive as Atheists Talk. Large time chunks have been devoted to Wayne Besen, the Fagbug, and Project 515. Plus, an organic queer sensitivity weaves throughout other segments, because of the atheist and democratic value that separates religion and state.

    Lavendar issue #368.

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