Podcast: On Hair Loss, Queer Aesthetics and Ritual

If you haven’t subscribed to Miri‘s new podcast, 2 AM Talks, it might be time you did. Recently, I was lucky enough to be its first guest.

After both losing our hair in the last few years—blame chemotherapy and genetics, respectively—Miri and I sat down to talk about what the experience taught us, in a  conversation that spanned religion, gender, science fiction and relationship abuse.

Listen here, or read the first half of our conversation below.

M. Hi Alex!

A. Hi! Good to be here.

M. I’m so excited to finally have you on here.

You chose baldness as one of your topics. Tell me a bit about why.

A. I guess this goes back to you. You had a health thing recently that involved losing your hair, right? You’ve posted and written a certain amount about that.

M. Yes. I went through chemo. I’m better now, I guess—that’s a work in progress!

A. Glad to hear it.

M. I did lose all of my hair, and it’s now growing back, but I’m still reflecting on what that experience meant.

A. I remember you saying a little while back, in one of our Facebook chats, that for you there came a point when baldness made you feel regal and queenlike. Something along those lines?

My baldness, my hair loss, is just quote-unquote male pattern baldness. (I’m a lot less binary than that, but that’s what it’s called.) In reality, the way I experience that now and what it’s become for me, cosmetically and philosophically and otherwise, is way queerer and more complex. I’m interested in seeing where those two experiences we have join up.

M. Yeah! I’ll tell you a bit about what that progression was like for me.

Obviously, when I was diagnosed with cancer, this was at the end of October 2017. As soon as I knew I’d be going through chemo, I knew what that meant.

I wouldn’t say that I struggled with that as much as I did with many of the other aspects of having breast cancer when you’re 26, 27. But I cherished my hair so much, and part of that was because I had this haircut. It was a very queer haircut, where on side is shaved and the other is these bouncing curls, and it was just how I expressed myself.

I remember after my diagnosis, but before I lost the hair, I kept running my hands through it all the time and kind of saying goodbye to it. It was heartbreaking, in a way. Then, right before I started chemo, I decided to make the transition easier for myself. I went to the hair salon and I had it buzzed short, and I had it dyed bright purple. It felt like kind of my war paint.

That hair stayed there for a few weeks, and then chemo started to take its toll. My hair started to recede, in actually a very interesting male-pattern-baldness sort of way. First it started to recede, then it started to itch and prick me horribly, because I guess that’s what happens when hair falls out. (They did not warn me about that—I thought it would just kind of fall.) And when I would run my hands through it, pieces would come out, gradually more and more.

So one night, I was like, ‘Fuck this. I can’t stand this any more. This is uncomfortable physically and mentally.’ So I went to the bathroom and I put on an interesting podcast, and I pulled out as much of it as I could. It wasn’t anything like pulling hair out normally, because it just came right out. And then what didn’t come out, I shaved off in the shower. And I came out of the shower and I dried off with a towel, and I looked in the mirror, and there I was. You know, without hair.

It was weird. But it wasn’t—you know, I don’t know why I expected this, but I expected it to be, like, grotesque, or one of those horrible soap opera character moments, when it’s like, ‘Oh, what am I? What have I become? I have no hair!’ It was not like that. It was kind of like, ‘Alright. This is the new reality.’

And at first I felt oddly protective of it. Not in the sense that I was insecure about my appearance or anything like that. I almost felt like it was this private, modest thing that I should keep covered. And I’ve never been religious, at least not in that way. It wasn’t coming from a history of that.

At home, I usually wore comfortable hats, and when I went out, I would wear—I had almost twenty different wigs by the end of this, that I loved, and I would wear these different wigs and make outfits with them. When I would go to bed (my partner stays over most nights), I would go the bathroom when I went to brush my teeth, and that’s when I would switch from my wig to my hat. Or I would wait until my partner was in the bathroom. I did not want anyone, not even my most intimate people, to see my head, and I would sleep in these sleep caps.

Then over time, I got lazy. The caps would fall off at night. First my partner saw me without hair, then my little sister was curious what it looked like, and I let her see it, and she was just like, ‘Cool!’ I would chill at home without anything on my head, and the pizza delivery guy would come see it. So I just started to loosen up about that.

The turning point came one night when I had gone out to the symphony. I had a beautiful wig and beautiful makeup, and I came home and I was feeling good, and I took the wig off in front of the mirror as I usually do, and suddenly it was like the face of a totally new person was looking back at me.

I looked like some sort of—I think one of my friends later said ‘like a space empress’. It was this fantastical, science fictional look. I had dark burgundy lipstick and a full face of makeup, and just no hair. And I looked like someone who reigns over an empire in space and has no time whatsoever for hair, and thinks that she looks amazing as is, and everyone bows down to her, hair or no.

And it was completely transformative. And of course, being a millennial, I captured it in the form of a selfie and I put it on Facebook.

People were very surprised, because they knew how I felt about that privacy thing. They were very surprised, but they were very positive! It was one of the most affirming things I experienced during my treatment, and after that, although I continued usually wearing a wig of some sort of whatever, I never saw myself the same way again after that, and I still don’t.

A. That’s fabulous.Wigs are a thing for me as well. I’m currently staring at a long, acid green one!

There’s a lot of social norms and implicit expectations around ‘male’ baldness, and one of them is this idea that I particularly don’t like, that as soon as your hair starts falling out, you just shave it. That’s what you have to do as a ‘man’. You have to shave your head, and don’t have any feelings about it at all. There’s kind of a comic figure of the man who wears a wig—in England it’s Bruce Forsyth who’s the famous person, but Donald Trump as well. It’s not actually a wig, but the comic figure of the man in a wig, you can kind of read him that way.

Now that my whole head’s shaved, including my face and eyebrows—the lashes are the only bit of hair there—I love the way my head can be this amazing genderless blank canvas I can just put stuff on, including wigs. I wear wigs, and I wear bright green, neon pink, ridiculous ones. I’m quite into the idea of wearing them deliberately so they’re noticeable, and people look at me and go, ‘Argh, what’s going on there?’

M. I really love this imagery of the face as a blank canvas onto which you paint or design something, and it can be something different every day, and it doesn’t have to be, you know, just because you identify this way or use these pronouns, then that’s the hair or makeup or whatever that you’re gonna have.

A. You mentioned wearing hats as well.

I don’t feel this as much because we know each other, and I wouldn’t expect you to be gatekeepy, but it’s strange, me talking about just a natural process of hair loss as (supposedly) a dude, and to somebody who had breast cancer. It’s like, am I allowed to have feelings in this conversation? You know what I mean? And I know the answer is yes, but again, that’s the. You aren’t supposed to have feelings about this if you were assigned male at birth.

My hair started to go when I was 15. I’m 27 now. I’m looking at the Facebook photos of people I was at school with who made fun of me, and their hair’s just starting to recede now, and I’m here going, ‘I’ve dealt with all this. I’m fine now. I’m a glamorous bald egg queen. Look at you being all insecure! Look forward to that for the next few years.’

But one of the things I’ve found out that nobody tells you about baldness is hats. You can wear hats. Like, you can really wear hats.

I always wanted to do the hat thing when I had hair, but it never worked. I can’t really explain why, but I had similar hair to yours—it never grew downward, it just went outwards—and hats on me were just never a thing that quite sat right. Now what I’ve found, because I have the blank canvas thing and I don’t have hair, is that when you get rid of all that stuff, you can commit more to other accessories. I’ve found that I can wear brighter and louder shirts, and it doesn’t look as cartoonish because you’ve removed one element, so you can add more elsewhere.

Again, it’s the mythos of the bald man. Everybody thinks bald guys wear hats to cover up their bald heads. No. I love my bald head! It’s just hats look fucking awesome on me.

M. I didn’t wear hats as often as I wore wigs, although that had a lot to do with the fact that it was winter, and if I wore a winter hat outside, that would be too hot for inside, whereas wigs actually provided a very good level of both protection from the elements and comfort indoors.

But yeah, I definitely hat that experience with hats, and I had some interesting ones. I had some ones with beautiful designs on them that I wouldn’t have really—I never would have thought to wear that. And I had a similar issue to you where it didn’t really work with my hair, especially when I had, you know, the side-shave and then the swoosh. If I wore a hat, the swoosh part would come out, but it would be plastered to my forehead, and it just wasn’t really cute.

Also, the experience of wearing wigs resolved a lot of my concerns about having very brightly coloured hair. Because I was always curious: what would its e like to just have neon pink or bright purple hair? And then I thought, ‘Ugh, what if I wanted to wear a yellow dress that day?’ You know? But with wigs and hats, you obviously switch it out, and it’s a canvas.

Some days I would feel like I was playing The Sims, just kind of playing with their hair and makeup and clothing. And during those long, long months of treatment and generally not feeling super great about my body, that was really health for me. It was very constructive.

A. I can see that.

You mentioned having a strangely ritual feeling about it, which I relate to as well. To me it has not exactly a religious, but a cultural or some kind of historical dimension to it, because hats are a big thing in Judaism, right? Traditionally, there’s that idea of covering heads and praying, and putting a hat on has just become a nice, regular part of my day when I’m going outside. I don’t know—it’s a very abstract, de-theologised thing, but it’s nice to have that as a thing for me.

M. I really love the idea of reclaiming ritual from religion. Especially personal ritual. This is something I actually ended up doing in a much more concrete way as part of my own cancer experience. (I can talk about that later.)

You don’t have to be religious, or have any particular kind of faith, to have that kind of connection to your head or your hair; or covering parts of your body, or uncovering parts of your body. It doesn’t have either, you know, ‘There’s a commandment that I have to do this or I’m going to face divine consequences’, or ‘Fuck it, whatever, it doesn’t matter, all I care about is how it looks.’ (That’s also a totally fine approach: I was just interested in something a bit more, I don’t know, personally meaningful.)

A. I remember your posts. You had a hair removal ritual, or something like that?

M. Yeah. There was obviously the day to day ritual of putting on the wig and taking off the wig and so forth, but then I also decided to prepare for my double mastectomy, which is something I really, really struggled with on many levels in the months leading up to that. I decided to try and recognise and affirm those feelings, together with my close friends and loved ones, as a ritual that I designed with the help of my friend Rabbi Alex Braver, who is the rabbi at the synagogue I attend. (Yes, I attend synagogue even though I’m nonreligious. But that’s a topic for another episode!)

We designed a ritual that put together some elements of traditional Jewish prayer, and also some things that I’d designed or come up with on my own, or incorporated from somewhere else. The very beginning of the ritual, actually, was a prayer that—I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something like, ‘Blessed is our Lord Adonai, who made me in a divine image.’ And then I took off my headscarf and remained uncovered for the duration of the ritual. And that was so fucking cool to me. It was so cool. And it really set the tone for the rest of the thing.

A. I’m into that!

I live in a very queer household, and my housemate, who also has the baldness thing going on, says ‘I always feel at my most femme when I’ve just wet-shaved my head.’ I have that thing as well. Two moments for me that were milestones were the first time I wet-shaved rather than just electrically clipping it (because first of all, it’s then completely gone—it’s more of a symbolic moment, and also, choosing to wet shave rather than clip it, you then move closer to shaving body hair in a way that’s coded as feminine), and then later, when  I, just on a whim this January, shaved off my eyebrows for the first time, and looked in the mirror and just went, ‘Ahh! Genderqueer lizard. Glamour Voldemort. Hi. I’m here for it.’

M. How did you come to that decision to shave your eyebrows?

A. Here’s the thing about shaving eyebrows: they grow back! For a variety of reasons, including disability based stuff, I’m not somebody who’s normatively employable, and therefore I don’t really have to look like it. But I just thought, ‘I’ll shave them off, and we’ll see. And if it doesn’t work, in a month’s time I’ll have them again.’ But it turned out, yeah, I was really into it.

Also, I was learning and am continuing to learn makeup—advanced theatrical, drag, prosthetic makeup, that kind of stuff—and I wanted to be able to draw eyebrows on and do stuff like that, and just have more of a versatile face. I look hilarious when I shave now! I use shaving foam like most people, but it’s on my jaw and on my head and then also on my eyebrows, so most of me from the neck up is this white, foamy moon creature.

M. That’s a funny image, definitely!

What you said about the wet shaving and what that was like? That actually makes me, for the first time, kind of regret how I went about things. You know that moment I told you about, when I finally like, ‘Fuck it, I can’t handle this, I’m gonna get rid of all this hair’? I think I needed to do that, because I remember, as I was making that decision, I was home from work and I was talking to my mom on the phone and I was crying. And I’m like, ‘I know it was going to fall out. It’s not that!’ Whatever, chemo makes you emotional. But I needed to take control of that, in the same I initially buzzed and dyed my hair. That’s why I did that, but I wish I could have been more intentional about it. First of all, I did it with the same razor that I just shaved my legs or armpits with, and I don’t recommend this course of action!

A. Why’s that?

M. It was uncomfortable!

A. Oh! That’s not a thing for me. Was it just that it was blunt?

M. Maybe I should have gotten a fresh razor for it, actually. Because it was totally fine for what I had been using it for, but for this—especially considering that my head was already kind of tender, and that I couldn’t see what I was doing, and heads obviously have ridges and bumps and things? It’s not that it, like, hurt or anything, and I didn’t nick myself. It just was, I would say, a pretty uncomfortable experience all around.

More to the point, I was just trying to get it over with. I wasn’t trying to have any kind of experience. I wasn’t trying to have any kind of ritual, in the way that I ritualised the days leading up to losing my breasts. And now I really kind of wish that I had thought ahead of time. Like, ‘How do I want to do this, and what does it mean to me, and how do I kind of honour that?’ But you know, of course I wasn’t in the best frame of mind for thinking of things in that way.

And it’s okay. It is what it is. But that would have been really special.

A. I get that. It took me a while to get there as well.

I originally tried to do the ‘just buzz it off and then feel fine about it’ thing. I will say I was never traumatic about it, or anything like that. There’s a layer, actually, of sadness about it. I’m conscious that I turned 27 recently, which is the start of the end of your twenties. You’re not a young young person any more at 27. And I’m conscious that I went through most of that time not ever looking or feeling conventionally attractive, particularly in notionally gay male culture. I never had that young-and-beautiful phase, so to the extent that my appearance is something I out time into and feel good about, it’s always slightly alternative now.

It was a couple of years ago, in late 2015, when I first got rid of my hair entirely. I just tried to buzz it off and then live like that, and not really have any investment in it or be intentional about it. Which for a while, actually, is quite difficult, because apart from anything else, if you’re just doing it electronically and shaving your head isn’t a normal part of [your shaving routine], you’ve got to do it every couple of weeks, and it’s grown back significantly by the time you buzz it off again. So that was a bit of a chore.

For a while I just decided, ‘Let it grow back and just live with it.’ One thing I actually had for a while was, there’s stuff which is hair powder that’s a bit mascara-y, so if you’ve got thin hair, it will just give it a bit more volume make it look more ‘there’. Which I wore for a while, and I had normal looking hair, and that was quite cool. One of the things I really resent the Cult of Enforced Unemotional Male Baldness about is the fact that, actually, if you’re a dude and your hair starts to go, there’s a load of different things you can do with it. You can buzz it off immediately if thats your thing, or you can just keep it short and let it do its thing, or you can wear it however and let it go.

Also, it’s worth saying: you were talking about the fact that your hair receded when you did chemo, and it did the supposedly male thing. I actually have what I consider to be the worst kind of pattern baldness. People don’t necessarily know there are different types. Some people, they’ve got it and it recedes. Like, it starts at the brow and it goes back, and eventually you get a receding hairline. Now what I had! And I didn’t have the bald-spot-at-the-back thing either. What I’ve always had is ‘diffuse thinning’, which is where across the top of your head, your hair is thin and it gets thinner everywhere at once. Which I think is the worst thing you can have, because there’s no stylish way of wearing that.

If you’ve got a receding hairline, you can have a widow’s peak, and that can look cool. There’s famous people I can think of who’ve had that look, and it’s fine. If it’s going at the back, you just keep it short everywhere you grow, like, a pompadour. There’s awesome ways to style that. There’s really nothing you can do if it’s just falling out everywhere, and so yeah, I was just left with the option of having it look a bit rubbish or nothing at all. But yeah, I’m totally pro the idea that people in general, but particularly AMAB folks and men and variations of that, should just do whatever they feel like with hair and not be shamed about it.

M. I can get behind that 100 percent.

You’ve mentioned a few times this cultural idea that men, or people assigned male at birth, have to just not care about their hair loss. What was that journey like for you? I’m guessing at the very beginning of it, you probably definitely did care.

A. When I had hair, I was always self-conscious about it. A lot of my old selfies, I would darken in that particular area near the front, so there was a bit more shadow and the thinness wasn’t as visible. It was never particularly a massive trauma in my life. I think a lot of the feelings I have about it are ones that I’m only processing now that I’m actually making time to think and feel about my (now lack of) hair. But yeah. It started to go when I was 15, in the middle of my teens, and people did not hesitate to point that out, which was not particularly nice.

There’s a lot of ways that hair is more politically and culturally loaded than we think it is. Religion is something we’ve talked about, but I had Jewish hair as well, the whole curly thing going on. Also, I had autistic hair in that I never liked having it cut as a child, and therefore I never really worked out what to do with it. One of the things that’s really nice about not having hair any more is that I never knew how to style my hair, how to make it look the way I wanted. It was always a very fractious relationship. And now that’s not even there any more!

It’s also really nice in summer, because I keep coming inside on hot days and just going, ‘Imagine how horrible this would be with hair. Remember that?’

There’s a lot of ways in which I’ve always had reason to feel that I didn’t own my body, or wasn’t in charge of it, or it was something that was narrated by someone else. And being a bald genderqueer alien egg now is my favourite thing.

M. And you know, like you said, I have no gatekeepery feelings about this, or else I wouldn’t even have done this episode. And I really wanted to do this episode! But what you pointed out about getting made fun of for something obviously completely out of your control, and that sadly happens to many people, about lots of aspects of their bodies or situations? The thing is, when you’re going through cancer treatment, nobody can say anything negative to you.

I mean, I’m sure that happens to people who are less fortunate than I am in terms of having supportive people in my life. But everyone was so affirming, no matter what I did. You know, when I buzzed it and dyed it, or when I got rid of it entirely, and all the wigs that I wore, and when I went bald, and when I did scarves, and when I did hats. Ad obviously, what I was going through was awful, and losing my hair was by no means the most difficult part of that, but it was a thing that I had to cope with. But I had all this outpouring of support.

Compare that with someone like you, an AMAB person who starts losing their hair very early on, or any person who starts thinning with age or going bald. Being [told] ‘It’s just ageing, you’re a dude, why do you care?’ That kind of invalidation probably makes things a lot harder to cope with.

A. And the fact that the normalised way of responding to that is not even to say, ‘No, I have feelings about that. Please don’t talk about it that way.’ It’s just to disengage emotionally from the entire process.

Actually, it strikes me that you probably know way more about this than I do, but to me, in my head, one of the things that abusive partners are known for doing is impressing on people, and especially women, the idea that they shouldn’t or are not allowed to care about how they look.

M. Yes.

A. The whole ‘Don’t wear so much makeup’ thing. And culturally, that’s what we’re told. If you’re a dude, or something along those lines, and hair loss is a thing for you, not only are you supposed to not care about it, but you’re supposed to be fine with people joking about, and not care about other people caring. So I guess there’s a lot of feelings there that I’m only becoming aware of retroactively now.

The flip side of that is that getting rid of my hair—first wet shaving and then losing the eyebrows and everything else—gave me loads of gender feels and queer affirmation. If you’re somebody in that situation and you google stuff because you’re interested, there’s a load of media stuff about, ‘So you’re a bald guy. Look at these famous bald men. Look how cool they look!’ But actually, all my bald role models are femmes and women and people like that. In cinema, there’s a particular trope of the bald woman who’s evil, and that’s definitely a reference point for me.

M. I want to go back to that, because I definitely have thoughts on that. But another thing I have thoughts on that you were just saying is that I hate that our culture does this: that appearance is so important, and that it impacts so much of how you move through the world, and yet we’re supposed to not care about it. Like, you need to pick one, okay? Either appearance can be super important and impact everything about how we live, and we acknowledge that and celebrate each other’s efforts to improve and care about our appearance, or appearance does not impact how we move through the world, and we don’t have to care about it. Right? Because it’s so hypocritical.

And you see that in everything. For instance, when they do those pols. First of all, I hate the idea of polling cisgender hetero men about women’s appearance, because who the fucked asked? But they do this, and they’ll ask them, ‘What kind of look do you prefer on women? No makeup, natural look, or like, full face of makeup?’ And they’ll be like, ‘Oh, I don’t like any makeup. I like it natural!’ And then you have them pick photos of women’s faces that they like, and you have foundation, blush, mascara, eye shadow, eye liner, lip liner. That’s what they think natural looks like! And I bet you, those same men, when their girlfriend is like, ‘Wait a minute, I need a few minutes to finish my makeup’, they’re like, ‘What are you talking about babe? You look good without makeup.’ She wears that shit every day, and that’s what you fucking prefer! Urghhh!

…anyway. Sorry about that.

I’m also angry about this idea that the only reason one could possibly have for caring about our appearance is that they’re shallow, or whatever. Which, first of all—if you just like to look good, and you like people to like how you look, that’s fine! We’re social creatures. We like affirmation. That’s okay. But more to the point, when you do your looks or I do my looks, that’s not primarily about, ‘Oh, I want people to think I’m pretty.’ It is expression. Especially for a queer person or a nonbinary person, to express their gender and all the feelings that go along with that, through their hair, makeup, fashion choices, whatever? It is like a canvas. It’s creating a work of art. Of course, when I say that, I’m like, ‘Ehh, my makeup skills aren’t really that worthy.’ But still, that’s the point.

Read Part two of this post at Brute Reason.

Podcast: On Hair Loss, Queer Aesthetics and Ritual
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James Croft Asked Me To Give His Patheos Blog A New Look, And I Said Yes

TotF2

If you’ve spent time on the Patheos atheist channel, or hang with the same people I do, you might have read Temple of the Future, James Croft’s blog about humanism and ethics. I’ve known James for about as long as I’ve been in the blogosphere myself—we’ve spoken together and write about many of the same things, often disagreeing fiercely—and last autumn he hired me to give his blog a new look. I’ve been worn out over the last ten months, stretched thin between a day job and half a dozen other projects and creatively tired—all credit goes to James for showing me far more patience than I deserved—but this week I at last signed off on it.
Continue reading “James Croft Asked Me To Give His Patheos Blog A New Look, And I Said Yes”

James Croft Asked Me To Give His Patheos Blog A New Look, And I Said Yes

Why I’m Ditching My Blog’s Comment Section

You may have seen a recent post at Brute Reason where Miri announced she was dropping her comment section. Here’s something you don’t know: when we were building the Orbit early this year, I talked about wanting to do the same. Since launch I’ve been going back and forth on it—a couple of months away from the blog made it hard to know what I’d be missing—but now the gears are turning again, I’m doing it. My reasons are completely different from Miri’s.

If you’ve followed this blog, you’ll know my comments were never especially busy. Only the occasional post received more than a few, and those posts were the controversial ones. This isn’t to do with pageviews: even pieces that got many thousands of hits never got comments in corresponding numbers. Small posts got individual messages that rarely demanded replies. Big posts sparked arguments that weren’t to do with me. Both meant keeping up with new notifications.

I know a lot of people with active comment sections. Most started blogging before social media arrived, and have maintained the regulars who found them when comment sections were where you reacted to things. I started this blog in 2013. Since then, other platforms—Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Reddit—have been where people react to my posts. I’m ditching comments for the same reason as more and more big media sites: I don’t believe comment sections are the future.

My author section below gives my email and social media links for a reason. Like most commentators, I like interacting with interested people. I don’t consider it the function of my blog. For many writers I’m lucky to know, blogging works as a dialogue, with readers’ comments part of the process. Especially as someone who experienced abuse, part of what makes writing therapeutic for me is that my blog isn’t a dialogue—it’s a space devoted to my own voice. Round here, I’m talking.

If you’ve been a commenter here, chances are I wasn’t paying much attention. Having designed posts to stand on their own, the comments never felt as relevant as tweets and emails do. You probably deserve better than that. Over the last week, I’ve received a lot of messages in those places, and they’re where I’m likeliest to respond. I’ll also say what Miri said: if you’re one of my patrons, or you’d like to be, let’s get to know each other more. Unlike my blog, Patreon has comments, and I’ll read them.

That’s all there is to this. I’m not closing comments because of any I’ve received, or because I’m stressed out (not that those aren’t perfectly good reasons). The comment section just isn’t why I’m here. I don’t write because I want to defend my opinions. I don’t write because I want to mediate other people’s arguments. I don’t write because I want to manage comments. I write because I want to write. I’m going to focus on that.

Why I’m Ditching My Blog’s Comment Section

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

Atheists: Here’s Another Reason You Need To Book Women At Conferences

As I write this, the Seventh Annual Orange Country Freethought Alliance Conference—so good they named it lots—is underway. I know this because over the last hour, friends have been sharing an image showcasing (if not advertising) the conference’s lineup of speakers. According to the ad, there are twelve people speaking at this year’s OCFAC. In stark contrast with the county itself, all of them appear to be white, while in contrast with planet Earth, eleven appear to be men. I’m not here to crucify OCFAC’s organisers—there is, however, a point I’d like to make.

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I’ve written quite a lot about growing up in the church. Unlike California, my town was far from racially diverse, but church taught me a lot about gender and visibility. Since the eighteen hundreds, my town—Keswick—has hosted an evangelical convention, now one of the world’s most prominent and influential, which served as Billy Graham’s road to Damascus and gave birth to the idea of let-go-and-let-God. In 2010, twelve thousand people—two and a half times the local population—attended the Keswick Convention, and its grip is as strong today as when I was a child.

Here is the Keswick Convention’s lineup of speakers this year.

Here is OCFAC’s.

Why do I bring this up? In the churches I belonged to, women did everything. I’ve forgotten most of their names, but remember Margaret who served tea and coffee, Hillary who ran Sunday school and Lynn who ran the crèche, Doreen who sent shoeboxes to orphanages abroad, Gill the receptionist, Donna the keyboard player, Lizzie who made soup for the church café, Lynda who sold visitors sandwiches from the church bus. Sara, who was my headteacher. My sister, a missionary. My mum, who sold conventioners traybakes to make ends meet.

In those churches, women did everything—except speak publicly.

This year, the Keswick Convention has thirty-one speakers, of whom four are women. In parts of the local Christian landscape, even their inclusion provokes outrage, and one church my mum belonged to was part of a worldwide network with a firm line against women preaching. Churches today are divided on female leadership—books on family members’ shelves call it an act of Satanic violence—but even those which now employ female clergy obeyed Saint Paul for centuries, with women omnipresent but unacknowledged, voices unheard and work ignored.

I got out of the church, and while the women in my family stayed, millions of others have got out too. They’re getting out, and they’ll continue to—in greater and greater numbers if current trends continue. I know dozens of women who’ve escaped the church, and work with some; others are writing books about the ‘exodus’ of women from churches in the US. Still others will just be finding their feet, looking for a place to land after letting to go of God—looking for friends, for books about people like them, for new communities and secular conferences to attend.

My town’s evangelical convention has thirty-one speakers, four of whom appear to be women. That’s just under thirteen percent. The Orange County Freethought Alliance Conference has twelve speakers, just one of whom is a woman. That’s eight percent. It’s one thing to spout buzzwords like diversity, but here’s the question I’m burning to ask. When women from churches like my hometown’s break free of faith and, in search of community, glance toward us, what do they see? Are we better than those churches, or just more of the same, even—whisper it—worse?

If secular conferences have fewer women speakers than churches with thousand-year histories of banning women from public speaking, what are we telling female escapees of those churches about the opportunities for participation our community offers them? This isn’t about the sheen of diversity. It’s about what kind of movement we are. Do we want women fleeing churches like mine to know we have their backs—or that, like those churches, we want them there, working silently and behind the scenes, but never acknowledged or listened to, paid or let on the stage?

There are other reasons to invite female speakers, and plenty of women are qualified. There are reasons to care about visibility in its other forms, particularly, in OCFAC’s case, race. Those have been enummerated in other posts by authors better qualified than me, and I expect they’ll continue to be. This post isn’t an exhaustive treatise on why atheists should invite women to speak at cons—but if you’re wondering why you need to, here’s one answer from me: because when I look at this ad, I see the church where my mum never got the chance to preach.

Atheists: Here’s Another Reason You Need To Book Women At Conferences

Four Things The Orbit Is Doing Differently, And Why We Founded It

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably noticed this blog has moved. Until Monday, when this site went live, it was hosted at Freethought Blogs, as were about half the other blogs here. I’ve said my goodbyes to FTB, where I was fortunate enough to spend three years. Now it’s my turn, and my pleasure, to welcome you to the Orbit. If you haven’t already, see our public press release; then read our About page, then watch our video on Kickstarter, where we reached our first goal in just over a day. If you’re still hungry, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

A lot’s been happening these past few days, and we’re still scrambling to catch up. In particular, there have been questions about why some of us left Freethought Blogs to create this site, what our relationship will be and what the differences between us are. Colleagues of mine, Heina and Stephanie among them, have already gone some way to fleshing out the details, and it’s worth noting that ex-FTBers constitute only one part of our membership—but since it’s true that we were the ones who decided to launch our own site, I want to give my own answers to those questions.

To begin with, the Orbit is an independent site. Those of us who’ve moved here from FTB are proud of our work there and want to continue it here, but the association is informal: we’re less a sister site and more of a mutant offspring. As for why we decided to start our own site, the short version is that a few months back, when conversations about updating FTB’s internal structure took place, several of us came to the realisation simultaneously that our ideal network would be easier to build from scratch than to mould by reforming a site with its own history and machinery.

The more we talked about the site we wanted to be, the clearer it was that our best moments were when we didn’t copy FTB, and that it wasn’t the site most writers at Freethought Blogs had signed up to. We didn’t want colleagues to have to choose between leaving a reshaped FTB and staying on a site no longer resembling the one they’d joined, so we made our own plans. If Friendly Atheist readers were wondering, the reason Pharyngula isn’t hosted here is that a network cofounded by PZ Myers already exists: our network isn’t that network, and it works differently.

With that in mind, here are some ways the Orbit differs from other sites. Continue reading “Four Things The Orbit Is Doing Differently, And Why We Founded It”

Four Things The Orbit Is Doing Differently, And Why We Founded It

David Bowie, 1947-2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Bowie, 1947-2016.

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David Bowie, 1947-2016.

The Art Of Being Okay

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Yesterday wasn’t the best day. When I woke up, something was stuck at the back of my mouth, tickling my tongue and making me retch. On peering in, I found my uvula was the size of a wax crayon, pointing forward instead of down. Being December 25, all drop-in centres near me were shut, as was the tube, so getting an anti-inflammatory took four hours’ trudging through rain in shoes with holes in them. My feet are still blistered, and I spent the rest of the day alone in a bedsit with no oven. I could probably be forgiven for being fed up—but strangely enough, I’m doing okay.

There’s a popular view that the word ‘fine’ is meaningless, that being fine, thank you when a friend asks after you is a hollow nicety. I wrote about depression back in June, and I’ve heard other people with it say as much. That isn’t my experience at all. When your two basic emotional states are ‘at risk of self-harm’ and ‘not at risk’, fine is the best you can hope for. Fine is precious. I sometimes find myself saying my symptoms come and go. In fact they only alternate: most days, when depression isn’t making me want to die, it makes me more reliably okay than almost anyone I know.

Friday was a crap day to cap off a shit year—a year of family harassment, homelessness and political hopelessness. The art of losing isn’t hard to master, and one does one’s best: I lost family and friends in the spring, watched the left lose in May, lost a place to live in July, lost money in winter. (Thanks, all who helped.) For once, I haven’t managed to lose faith. At the moment, I feel much better than I did in June. What living with depression means for me is that my emotions aren’t linked to external events, that how okay I am doesn’t depend on what happens to me. I’m rarely happy, but I’m almost always fine. Continue reading “The Art Of Being Okay”

The Art Of Being Okay

The Magic Of Reality: What Growing Up Christian Had To Do With Believing In Santa

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If you ever believed in Santa—how did you find out that he wasn’t real?
And how did you feel about it?

* * *

Some childish things I put away early—others I stayed attached to for too long. In my last year of primary school, Mrs Fanshawe asked if I had toys and things at my dad’s, gauging, I now suspect, whether to let him collect me at home time. I remember sensing I ought to nod, doing so even as I wondered who the hell still played with toys aged ten. (At the time, I would have said ‘who on earth’.) I knew by then that there was no Saint Nick, except the real one, who was a disappointment of a saint, but it hadn’t been long since I’d found out. I’m never sure whether I grew up too fast or too late.

The garden where Mum and I built snowmen had been a rubbish tip, and our house was designed equally messily. Five doors opened onto the living room, which must have been twelve square metres at most, and only three led into other rooms. Behind Mum’s storytelling chair, a cupboard with two compartments stretched from floor to ceiling. The top one smelt of truffles when you poked your head inside, and was where passports and grownup letters were stored—and, more importantly, chocolate boxes and booze. One night a year a glass of sherry was left out, next to a mince pie and half a carrot.

I think I was nineish when Mum fessed up. I distinctly recall lying in bed, hugging the wall the way I liked to when she prayed for me. Before lights out, we’d talk a while, then she would sing the end of Numbers 6—‘The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face shine upon you’. That night, she told me Nicholas had been a patron of children even during his life—so what did I think their parents told them after he died? It strikes me now this was likely a fairy tale too, that all I’d done was graduate from one fiction to another, but at the time my reaction was one of confusion. In the years since, that hasn’t changed.

People attached to telling children Santa Claus is real often complain I don’t get it. I don’t. It’s never been intuitive to me why telling someone things you know are false—not to safeguard their wellbeing or your own, but just to watch them smile on being duped—is cruel and degrading in principle but twee in one specific case. Learning that Father Christmas was a lie didn’t make me cry or act up, but lied to was exactly how I felt. This year my niece turned eight: being required to play along was hard, and I’ve known parents admit to being more conflicted than they let on.

When friends say stories of a man in a red suit—the other one—made Christmas magical, I think they mean that on some level, they knew makebelieve when they saw it, but that the power of ritual swept them up. I sympathise—all stories are enchantments, all words spells. The trouble is, Father Christmas was more than a story to me, more than something I half believed. I knew the tooth fairy was imaginary, that costumed men who gave us Dairy Milk on the last day of term were imposters—there was enough nudging and winking in each case—but as I saw it, the man himself was every bit as real as God.

Mum came to regret that particular literalism. ‘I made it into something it was never meant to be,’ she told me some years back. There are a lot of memes about Father Christmas and God, some better than others, but in my mind, they occupied exactly the same space. I was used to the idea whatever extraordinary things Mum spoke of must be true (and she spoke of far more extraordinary things than Christian children all receiving gifts on the same night)—to the idea holding extraordinary beliefs was itself virtuous, never more so than if hostile nonbelievers surrounded you.

It wasn’t simply that we were Christians: plenty of children raised in Christian homes are functionally able to distinguish makebelieve from sincere belief (supernatural or not) perfectly well. It was that Mum and her then-church practised an evangelicalism that never drew any such line. Magic, makebelieve, ritual, story, play—these were never acknowledged as mere suspensions of disbelief, or as a realm in which belief might constitute something subtly different. All beliefs were literal, and makebelieve itself was a dangerous and demon-haunted thing: thinking Halloween was only a game was how the enemy got you.

Atheists are often stereotyped as Philistines with one-dimensional worldviews and no grasp of aesthetics or ritual. That described my church upbringing more than it describes me. In my experience, letting stories be stories only strengthens their magic. Believing Santa Claus was real caused me to miss the beauty I now see in the leaving-out of a small sherry and a mince pie, and Mum’s prayers worked because of how she sang, not because she believed—because of a cupboard of secret things, a chair in which fantastic tales were told, and the first snowman in the world that never had to melt.

* * *

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.

The Magic Of Reality: What Growing Up Christian Had To Do With Believing In Santa

I’m At Risk Of Homelessness And In Need Of A Laptop. Please Help

Today my iPad froze up on the startup screen. I got it just over a year ago on being hired to translate a book, and this was the first time it had happened. Small issues like this afflict gadgets now and then, and ordinarily, I’d have plugged it into iTunes and been back to normal in two minutes—but that was five hours ago. In September, the laptop I bought as an undergraduate finally upped and died, leaving no way to defibrilate the tablet, and nothing but a weather-beaten phone from 2011 on which to work tonight. (If anyone in central London has iTunes and a computer I can plug into, email me.)

Toward the start of September I became homeless. For most of that month and the next, I floated from one sofa to the next. I’ve now been in the same place, precariously and ruggedly housed but secure and rent-free, for just about five weeks. (This had a lot to do with why I was so much more productive last month.) While it’s a huge relief, I now rely on paying £18 for hotspot internet every five days, which makes a significant dent; seeking new work also means I’m facing the costs of travel and ordering documents, and lacking a laptop is now making a financial impact.

When I’m not writing—thanks to those who support me that way—graphic design provides a major part of my income. (Here’s a portfolio.) Although the iPad and tonight my phone are lifesavers, I can’t do that kind of work without a laptop—and without doing that work, I can’t afford one on my own. (The old one’s death also held up several already overdue projects, which I’ve committed to having complete by the new year.) Last week then, I set up a fundraiser at GoFundMe and asked Facebook friends to chip in who wanted to—thanks to a huge amount of generosity, it’s at £605.

I listed my initial target as £1000, which now looks within reach. In the blurb, I also mentioned the possibility I’d extend it to provide a cushion and meet fundraising costs. It turned out that, due to the oddities of Vodafone’s billing schedule, the three-figure phone bill I mentioned having put me in the red hadn’t actually gone through at the time. Thanks, once again, to everyone who’s donated, as the amount contributed so far means that I’ve still escaped my overdraft, but to compensate, I’ve now upped the target to £1200, a goal I think is achievable.

Since my current accommodation is temporary, I’m likely to become homeless again in the new year, or else to be facing the overheads that come with finding a real place to live, so it’s possible that once I have computer and Photoshop access again, I’ll keep the page alive as a jar I can rattle a little whenever things are tough. Prior to Christmas though, replacing the laptop is the priority. (A quick note, tech people: yes, the old one is irreparable. Yes, I’ve looked into it. Yes, I really do require a new one.) This being said, I’m going to ask people reading this to help out a bit.

Here’s the fundraising page. So far, wanting to give it a good start, I’ve held off on posting it here and sharing it aggressively—now I want to push it all the way.

GiTsupportthisblog

If you’ve chipped in already, all my thanks—it means the world. If you haven’t shared the page with people you know on social media (or have, but could again) please consider doing so. And if you’re able to help out a struggling blogger and feel like doing so, it means more than you can know.

(In case you’ve been sent this and don’t know me, I write about subjects as diverse as religious abuse, mental illness, racism in geek culture, queer politics and Doctor Who—here are all my posts from last month.)

What’s in it for you, you ask? Firstly, here are some perks.

Give any amount and you’ll have my undying thanks.

Give £10 and I’ll send a personalised ‘thank you’ email to the address listed with GoFundMe. If you’ve been lurking on this blog invisibly for an age, as it turns out several people who leant me a sofa during September and October had, now’s a good time to say hello. Let’s talk.

Give £25 and I’ll include your name and an optional link to your online profile below all posts in January, with a ‘Special thanks’ line. (People who’ve given already, feel free to claim this perk.)

Give £50 and I’ll devout a post to giving you a shoutout, together with whatever work you do or care about. If you have a developing blog or want to boost the visibility of activism close to your heart, then (provided it’s nothing I can’t stand) I’ll write a short feature on it for my not-inconsiderable audience.

Give £100 and I’ll write a full article or essay-length blog post on a topic of your choice, whether it’s something you think the world needs to discuss more, something you’re looking for answers, advice or explanations on or just something you’d like me to discuss. (This is, of course, subject to my agreement—in the unlikely event I’m not down for your first-choice topic, we can still select one.) Since it’s something my readers tend to like, you can also choose to commission a snark-post, in which I’ll spend a few paragraphs being acerbic on any agreed subject of your choice.

A couple of other things: did I mention people hire me to design things for them? (Here’s that portfolio again—I’ve done blog banners, book covers, logos, t-shirts, promotional fliers and all things in between.) If you’re interested in employing me, drop me an email: I typically charge fifty percent on commission and the rest on completion of things, and in this case, that down-payment can go into the fundraiser.

Oh—and I’m an editor too. A pretty great one, actually. Last autumn an old friend hired me to edit the first article she ever wrote, which then went viral in the press and garnered millions of hits; a year back, another asked my advice for a note to a childhood bully, which gained just shy of twenty thousand Facebook likes and was reported in world news programmes. I copy edited Greta Christina’s well-received book Coming Out Atheist, have worked with a large number of other names from the secular blogosphere, and have spent 2015 editing a first-time author’s novel. If you’ve got a project you want to hire me for, just call.

Again: here’s the fundraiser. Again: if you can’t contribute but do want to help out, please consider sharing it far and wide. If you can donate to this and want to, it means more than I can tell you.

I’m At Risk Of Homelessness And In Need Of A Laptop. Please Help