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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We Need To Talk About How We Talk About Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

We Need To Talk About How We Talk About Religion

My Atheism Will Not Be Politically Correct

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

I’m more interested in saying what I think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Atheism Will Not Be Politically Correct

Her Own Words: Niki Massey, 1980-2016

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

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

Transcript below the fold.

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

Her Own Words: Niki Massey, 1980-2016

Remembering Niki Massey

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Josiah Mannion/Biblename Photo

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

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

—Rebecca Goldstein, ‘The Mattering Map’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bye, Niki. You mattered.

Remembering Niki Massey

Mum

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

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

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

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

Mum

David Bowie, 1947-2016.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Bowie, 1947-2016.

* * *

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David Bowie, 1947-2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop Saying Homophobes Aren't Real Christians

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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Stop Saying Homophobes Aren't Real Christians

Stop Saying Homophobes Aren’t Real Christians

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Stop Saying Homophobes Aren’t Real Christians