What Can the Atheist Movement Learn from the Gay Movement?

This is the text of the talk I gave on Saturday at the Secular Student Alliance Northern California Regional Leadership Summit.

Stonewall riots
I want to talk today about what the atheist movement can learn from the gay/ lesbian/ bi/ trans movement. The atheist movement is already modeling ourselves in many ways on the LGBT movement. And we should. The parallels between the two movements are sometimes eerie. And since the LGBT movement is roughly 35 years ahead of the atheist movement — I think the atheist movement right now is about where the LGBT movement was in the early ’70s right after the Stonewall riots — we have a unique chance to learn from that movement… both from its successes and its failures.

Probably the single most important thing atheists can learn from the LGBT movement is to encourage visibility and coming out — and to work harder on making the atheist movement a safer place to come out into.

Good without god billboard
Very early in the LGBT movement, it became clear that coming out is the most powerful political act gay people can take. Consistently, polls show that the single factor most likely to make people support gay rights is whether they know a gay person personally. (Or, to be more accurate — whether they know that they know a gay person.) And this is a lesson the atheist movement has been taking to heart: with the Out campaign, the atheist bus ads and billboards, and so on. We’re doing an excellent job with visibility — we’ve gone from being on pretty much nobody’s radar to being a major topic at water-coolers and op-ed columns, in a remarkably short time. And more atheists are coming out every day.

But I think we’re doing a less consistent job of making the atheist movement a safe place to land once people do come out. In the post-Stonewall days of the LGBT movement, there was a massive blossoming of LGBT community centers, bookstores, coffeehouses, political groups, bars, bowling leagues, etc. Coming out as queer often meant leaving behind your friends and family — so queers formed our own social support networks, to take the place of the ones that rejected us.

The atheist movement hasn’t been as strong about this. Online we have — we’ve done an excellent job of providing online communities for atheists. But we haven’t done as good a job at providing in- the- flesh support networks to replace the churches/ synagogues/ mosques/ covens/ etc., and the sense of belonging and common purpose they provide. And I’ll include myself in that: I’m much better at participating in the online atheist movement than I am at actually showing up to local meetings. I think one of the things we can learn from the LGBT movement is to remember how difficult coming out is. We need to remember that when we encourage people to re-think religion and consider atheism, we’re asking a lot. We’re not just asking people to reshape the entire philosophical foundation of their lives and to let go of a major source of comfort they’ve relied on for years. We’re asking them, in many cases, to alienate their friends, family, community. I’d like to see us do a better job of providing something to replace it with.

Secular student alliance
I will say, since this is a conference for the Secular Student Alliance, that the college and university groups have, to a great extent, been an exception to this rule. The student groups have been providing a lot of in- the- flesh support and community for fledgling atheists. So I’d like to encourage the leaders of those groups to continue that kind of community work — even after you leave school. I’d like to encourage you to carry that work into the non- college- and- university world. And from what I’ve been hearing, even student groups often have continuity problems: they tend to fold if the driving force behind them has been a strong leader who then has the temerity to graduate. I’d like to encourage student groups to be aware of that phenomenon: to make plans for smooth transitions, and to create strong structures that will last even when the individuals in them move on.

So. Speaking of moving on: There’s another lesson that I think atheists can learn from the LGBT movement; one that the LGBT movement took a little while to learn. And that’s to let firebrands be firebrands, and to let diplomats be diplomats. We need to recognize that not all activists pursue activism in the same say; we need to recognize that using both more confrontational and more diplomatic approaches makes us a stronger movement, and that both these approaches used together, synergistically, are more powerful than either approach alone.

To some extent the LGBT movement is still learning this lesson, but we’ve become much better about it, and our movement has become stronger as a result. Here’s an example: In the queer activist movement of the ’80s and ’90s, loud, angry street activist groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation often accused more mild-mannered lobbying groups of assimilationism, excessive compromise, generally selling out. And the mild-mannered groups often accused the street activists of being overly idealistic, alienating potential allies, and making their own job harder.

But when we look at those years in retrospect, it becomes clear that both methods together were far more effective than either method would have been alone. And the LGBT movement has learned — to some extent — to recognize this fact, and to deliberately strategize around it. Part of this is simply that different methods of activism speak to different people. Some folks are better able to hear a quiet, sympathetic voice. Others are better able to hear a passionate cry for justice. And the “good cop/ bad cop” dynamic can be very effective. Again, in the queer movement of the ’80s and ’90s, the street activists got attention, got on the news, raised general visibility and awareness. The polite negotiators could then raise a more polite, nuanced form of hell, knowing that the people they were working with had at least a baseline awareness of our issues. And when the street activists presented more hard-line demands, that made the polite negotiators seem more reasonable in comparison. The line between an extremist position and a moderate one kept getting moved in our direction. We see this working today: the same-sex marriage debate has made supporting civil unions seem like the moderate position, even the conservative one — which wasn’t true ten years ago.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t debate our tactical differences. On any given issue, it’s sometimes worth debating whether diplomacy or confrontation (or a combination) will be a more effective tactic in that particular case. But I’d like to us stop treating these debates as if they were larger questions of morality or character that have to be resolved in one direction or the other once and for all. We do what we’re inspired to do, and what we’re good at. Some of us are good at passionate, confrontational idealism; some of us are good at sympathy with our opponents. (And some of us are good at a mix of these approaches.) The diplomatic atheists need to stop trying to shut up the firebrands, stop accusing them of alienating people. And the firebrand atheists need to stop accusing the diplomats of being wusses. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and energy.

Oh, and speaking of wasting everyone’s time and energy: There’s a third, very important lesson that the godless movement can learn from the LGBT movement. And that’s to not waste our time squabbling about language. We need to let godless people use whatever language they want to define themselves.

There is, again, an eerie parallel between the non-theist movement and the LGBT movement. It’s a similarity between two relationships: the relationship between homosexuals and bisexuals on the one hand, and the relationship between atheists and agnostics on the other.

Bisexual element
I identify as bisexual, and in the past, I’ve had to put up with a fair amount of crap from gays and lesbians telling me that I’m, quote, “really” lesbian and just won’t admit it. It’s not helpful, to say the least. The question of how to name your sexual identity is extremely personal, and different factors have different weight for different people. I’m about a Kinsey 5 — that’s on the Kinsey sexual orientation scale of 0 to 6, 0 being entirely heterosexual, 6 being entirely homosexual. I’m about a Kinsey 5 — mainly oriented towards women, but with some interest in men. I call myself bisexual — because to me, that interest in men isn’t trivial. It’s included important relationships, it’s an important part of how I view the world, etc. But for some other Kinsey 5, that “some interest” in the opposite sex might not be that important, so they might call themselves gay or lesbian. Which is totally their right — just like it’s my right to call myself bisexual. These terms don’t have clear definitions everyone agrees on — it’s not like there’s a perfect bisexual in a vacuum in the Smithsonian for us to all measure ourselves against.– and, within reason, we have the right to use them in a way that makes sense for us.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Dawkins scale 6
Let’s look at the Richard Dawkins Belief Scale, which goes from 1 to 7: 1 being absolute certainty that there is a God, 7 being absolute certainty that there isn’t. (Brief tangent: I desperately wish he’d made his scale from 0 to 6, to line up with the Kinsey scale, since I make these analogies all the time.) I’m about a 6 on the Dawkins scale, maybe 6 and a half, and I call myself an atheist — because that glimmer of uncertainty isn’t very important to me. It’s hypothetically possible that I’m wrong — just like it’s hypothetically possible that I’m wrong about unicorns not existing — but it’s not keeping me up at night.

But for someone else who’s a 6 on the Dawkins scale, that glimmer of uncertainty might be important. Even if they have exactly the same amount of doubt that I do, the fact of that doubt might really matter to them. So even though we’re in the same place on the Dawkins Scale, it’s totally reasonable for them to call themselves agnostic while I call myself atheist. Again — there’s no perfect atheist in a vacuum in the Smithsonian. This language is imprecise. And the power to name ourselves is too important for us to try to take it away from each other.

So in the same way that gays and lesbians have (for the most part) learned to quit telling bisexuals that they’re “really” gay or lesbian and are just afraid to admit it, I think atheists need to quit telling agnostics that they’re “really” atheist and are just afraid to admit it. (By the same token, just like bisexuals have to quit saying “Everyone’s basically bisexual,” agnostics have to shut up about how most atheists are really agnostic, how, quote, “true” atheism is a belief system as much as religion, and how agnosticism is more consistent and honorable.) Atheists and agnostics are natural allies — along with humanists, skeptics, materialists, naturalists, freethinkers, brights, etc. Much like gays and lesbians and bisexuals and transgendered people are all natural allies. We shouldn’t waste our time and energy squabbling because you say tomayto and I say tomahto.

And I want to close with one more lesson that the atheist movement can learn from the LGBT movement. (There are more — I could discuss this all day — but I only have 20 minutes.) This is a lesson that atheists can learn, not from the successes of the LGBT movement, but from one of our biggest failures — a failure that has come back to bite us in the ass time and again.

Atheists need to work — now — on making our movement more diverse, and making it more welcoming and inclusive of women and people of color.

And by now, I mean now. We need to start on this now, so we don’t get set into patterns and vicious circles and self-fulfilling prophecies that in ten or twenty years will be damn near impossible to fix.

What can we learn here from the LGBT movement? The early LGBT movement screwed this up. Badly.

The early LGBT movement was very much dominated by gay white men. The public representatives of the movement were mostly gay white men; most organizations were led by gay white men. And the gay white male leaders had some seriously bad race and gender stuff: treating gay men of color as fetishistic Others, objects of sexual desire rather than members of the community… and treating lesbians as alien Others, inscrutable and trivial.

And we’re paying for it today. Relations between lesbians and gay men, between white queers and queers of color, are often strained at best. Conversations in our movement about race and gender take place in a decades-old minefield of rancor and bitterness, where nothing anybody says is right. And we still, after decades, have a strong tendency to put gay white men front and center as the most visible, iconic representatives of our community.

That makes it hard on everyone in the LGBT movement — women and men, of all races. It creates rifts that make our community weaker. And it has a seriously bad impact on our ability to make effective social change. For instance, the LGBT movement has a profoundly impaired ability to shift homophobic attitudes in the black communities… since those communities can claim, entirely fairly, that the gay community doesn’t care about black people, and hasn’t made an effort to deal with our racism.

We screwed this up. We still screw this up. We are paying for our screwups.

Atheists have a chance to not do that.

The atheist movement is currently largely dominated by white men… especially in positions of visibility and leadership. And many atheists resist seeing this as a problem that we need to take action on. They’re not overtly racist or sexist, they’re not saying, “We don’t want women or people of color in our movement”… but they don’t see this as their responsibility, and they don’t see it as particularly important.

I could give an entire talk on why this is important. I could give an entire talk on how racism and sexism aren’t always conscious, how we perpetuate them without even thinking about them, and why we therefore need to pay conscious attention to countering them. I could give an entire talk on how people tend to focus on issues that personally affect them… so an atheist movement dominated by white men will focus on issues that largely affect white men — at the expense of issues that largely concern women and people of color. I could talk about self-fulfilling prophecies: how even if the predominant whiteness and maleness of the atheist movement were purely accidental, this pattern would still get perpetuated and ingrained… because women and people of color feel less welcome in a movement that’s largely white and male — and the less welcome they/ we feel, the longer the movement goes on being largely white and male.

But I’m running out of time, so I mainly want to say this: Look at every other movement for social change in recent history. Every single one that I know about has been bitten on the ass by this issue. Every one now wishes they’d taken action on it in the early days, before bad habits and self-fulfilling prophecies got set in a deep groove that’s hard to break out of. And that includes the LGBT movement.

There are lots of good reasons for atheists to work on this. There are idealistic reasons: because religion hurts women and people of color as much as it hurts white men; because female atheists, and atheists of color, matter just as much as white male atheists, etc. And there are practical reasons — it’ll make our movement stronger, larger, better at reaching more people.

Rainbow racism
But if you’re still wondering why this is important, talk to anyone who’s seriously involved in LGBT politics. Ask them, “If you could go back to 1970 and get the early leaders of the post-Stonewall movement to deal with race and sex — would you do it?” I can guarantee you that just about every one would fervently respond, “Yes, for the sweet love of Loki — if we could go back in time and not screw that up, we would.”

We have a chance in the atheist movement to not screw this up. We have a chance to start dealing with this now, so it’s less of a problem in ten or twenty years, and we’re not wasting our time and energy trying to fix what we could be fixing now.

Let’s learn from the mistakes of the LGBT movement, as well as its successes — and let’s take advantage of that chance.

What Can the Atheist Movement Learn from the Gay Movement?

25 thoughts on “What Can the Atheist Movement Learn from the Gay Movement?

  1. 1

    What’s your opinion on arguments between an atheist and an agnostic about why they think their own particular views are more correct? I’m not talking about telling the atheist/agnostic that they’re “really” an agnostic/atheist, but about telling them that maybe they ought to be.
    Is this a good idea, because it helps solidify our definitions and our ideas? Or, is this a bad idea, because arguing amongst ourselves (even if we try and keep it civil) about our own identities is non-productive?
    This is a case where there’s no good parallel with the LGBT movement, since you can’t talk someone into or out of being bisexual (except maybe by getting into a definitional debate), but a lot of non-theists came from theistic backgrounds due to just these sorts of arguments.

  2. 2

    Greta wrote:
    “Let’s look at the Richard Dawkins Belief Scale, which goes from 1 to 7: 1 being absolute certainty that there is a God, 7 being absolute certainty that there isn’t. (Brief tangent: I desperately wish he’d made his scale from 0 to 6, to line up with the Kinsey scale, since I make these analogies all the time.)”
    Dawkins 1-7 scale does match up very well with Klein’s 1-7 scale that he used in his sexual orientation grid:
    It would be interesting to ask folks about their place on the atheist-theist spectrum at different points in their life like Klein’s scale does:
    ** Past (entire life up until a year ago)
    ** Present (last 12 months)
    ** Ideal (what would you like?)
    The sexual behavior and fantasy aspects may not work here (or maybe they would — one does read about people who refuse to date or marry an atheist).
    But it would also be interesting to ask folks the following about the atheist – theist spectrum:
    Emotional preference (what position resonates best with your feelings?)
    Lifestyle preference (who do you spend time with and what groups do you feel most comfortable?)
    Self-identification (what label or labels do you use to describe yourself?)
    On a more serious note, the unconscious “structural” racism are present in the culture that both the LGBT and atheist – freethinker groups exist in. To borrow a phrase from Madge the manicurist from the 1970s dish soap TV ads to describe racism in our society … “you’re soaking in it.”

  3. 3

    I suspect that the reason the early gay liberation movement was largely white and male is because economically white males were in a more secure space, able to risk the familial fallout. The public figures were also primarily self employed and from arts and entertainment backgrounds that would not censure to the extent that other walks of life would. The atheist movement suffers from the same dynamic except that the walk of life is science and rational philosophy which will be comfortable with atheism.
    Atheism tends to be, though not necessarily, associated with political liberalism which augers well for the non-exclusion of minorities. However in order for the “right” people to enter the public sphere we need more prominent black, female, LGBG, differently abled individuals to speak out.
    My suspicion is that the relative anonymity of the internet conceals a whole diversity of online atheists. Whether they have the cultural or economic freedom to out themselves in real life is another question.

  4. 4

    > let firebrands be firebrands, and to let diplomats be diplomats.
    But for exactly the reasons you set out, don’t we need the firebrands to attack the diplomats? Don’t the diplomats have to distance themselves from the firebrands? If we read your article, we may recognise the foolishness in their attacking each other when they are effectively working together, but they have to say the things they do about each other to do their job.

  5. 5

    This year, I not only took over a secularist group, but also started participating in a few queer student groups. I am really jealous of the queer groups. I envy their numbers, their organization, their ability to get funding, and their constant partying. Queers are also much more diverse. I’ve met a more POC in their groups than I have in the rest of college.
    They have separate groups for queer latinas/latinos, black queers, asian queers, and so forth. I don’t entirely like the idea of such subdivisions, but they seem effective in promoting diversity. I’m curious what you think of such ethnic groups.
    (Of course, for our secularist group, subdivisions are moot because we don’t have the numbers to support them.)

  6. 6

    Maybe it’s because I’m young and mostly associate with people my own age (college and university students) but I just don’t seem to have the problems with the acceptance of my atheism as other people do. I should probably mention that I live in British Columbia, and the culture is somewhat liberal here. Either my acquaintances don’t wish to discuss it because they find the topic uncomfortable, or it just isn’t an issue to them.
    I do agree that the atheist movement as a whole needs to diversify. (Or at least,people other than white, heterosexual men need to come out of the woodwork.)
    I look forward to the time when our neighbours south of the border don’t need to worry about being ostracized for their atheism. As much as this was written for an American audience, I can’t help but feel that this is a political issue for me as well. Religion holds more weight in politics in the U.S. than it should for a secular nation. As long as that is influencing public policy, I’ll be worried. As Pierre Trudeau said, living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant.

  7. 8

    Yeah, I think occasionally just how big a difference it would have made if Anne Kronenberg actually had taken over Harvey Milk’s BoS seat. (I could now veer into the whole bisexual issue, but I don’t want to go there right now.)
    But regarding making atheism a safer place to land, that implies a social support network, and that brings up one huge difference between atheism and homosexuality: for all that’s the term is abused by its opponents, there is a gay lifestyle. I don’t need another atheist to discuss theology with nearly as much as I need a MOTAS to hook up with.
    And so queers (to use an all-encompassing term) put a lot of emphasis on socializing. First in a separatist way (if your parents disown you, you might as well live their nightmares) and still because most forms of sexuality require actually finding someone you like to do them with.
    Atheism doesn’t have that drive. Maybe in response to religious oppression (although compared to historical pogroms, current problems in the English-speaking world are relatively minor), but atheism itself is not in itself much of a reson to get together.
    I’m reminded of the Far Side cartoon about the “Didn’t Like Dances With Wolves Society”.
    These days, preceisely because it is less of an issue, there are plenty of people who identify much more strongly with other aspects of their life than their sexuality (Barney Frank, anyone?) I think atheism kind of starts there.

  8. 9

    Interesting stuff, as always. I particularly agree with the point about embracing both the “firebrand” and the “diplomat” approaches (and all points in between). I have seen countless examples of people who have been swayed by one and not the other so both matter, and both should be embraced by all atheists.
    The stuff about the difficulty of coming out and the desire to “replace” churches with some other sort of community is… well, it’s alien to me because I’m not American. It was only really when I lived in the US for many years that I came to understand just how much more of a deal it is for many American atheists to come out. Back in the UK most people either are atheist/agnostic or else they’re “apatheists” – they really don’t think about this stuff much at all. And most of those who are religious do not make some big community thing our of their belief. Basically they go to church on Sunday, sing the hymns, say the prayers, walk back out to the car, drive off and that’s pretty much it. So when we hear Americans say things like “But what will atheists replace religion with?” we tend to be puzzled and say “We don’t want to repleace it with anything. We just want to reject it.” (Or the more flippant people like me say “Well, I dunno. How about we replace it with the same thing we’d replace childhood cancer with?”)
    But, as I say, I get that this is different in the US. Just be aware that in many other parts of the world it’s not seen as a major issue for atheists.
    As for more female and black atheists, god yes, I would love to see that happen. One has to wonder why it doesn’t already, but that’s a long discussion, I think.

  9. 10

    And most of those who are religious do not make some big community thing our of their belief.
    I dunno; I live in the UK and I’ve encountered Christians who are pretty hardline and who make it a big lifestyle thing. They’re just not as visible as in America. For one thing, a lot of them are poor, and for another, even the less poor ones prefer to hang out with each other. They do make a community thing out of it; they just do it thoroughly enough that their communities only sometimes brush with other communities.

  10. 11

    I think one of the big things with atheism and genderrace isn’t whether we must or mustn’t do anything about gender and race – but just what can we do about it?
    One of the major things we need to worry about is that we don’t control the media we get.
    Each of the major atheist figures plays in some way to atheist stereotypes. They are the atheist professors, or the drunken editorial writers, or the philosophers.
    Each plays into popular mythology. It is only a matter of time before the “atheist professor” bested by the lamentably bad argument that goes “evil is the absence of God” becomes Richard Dawkins.
    Consider that the person who was behind the bus campaign was in fact Ariane Sherine – yet the bus campaign is treated as a Dawkins initiative.
    A woman started up the UK’s camp quest yet it got headlined as Camp Dawkins, because Dawkins gave a one off donation to it. That was the extent of his involvement there.
    It isn’t anything Dawkins did – he didn’t seek to take the spotlight – yet there it is.
    Women aren’t getting the coverage and it isn’t because women aren’t active and it isn’t because women aren’t highly important in the movement, it is because women aren’t the atheist stereotype.
    And the same goes for non-whites, or people who aren’t that rich. Atheists make up a larger proportion of the US military than they do the US population as a whole, yet what is the stereotypical US soldier?
    There is also an unspoken belief that atheists are of a certain socio-economic level.
    So what can we do?
    We have to change those stereotypes – so how do we go about changing them?
    (If this repeats can you delete the second one? Thanks hey!)

  11. 12

    On the diplomats versus firebrands topic, I actually don’t think its as simple as “the movement needs both”. There are firebrands and then there are firebrands, and some are pretty problematic.
    One need only look at the other side of the belief/non-belief divide on this. What do we call religious firebrands? Fundamentalists, of course. And as a non-believer, does the existence of fundamentalists make more liberal pro-religionists like Karen Armstrong (“The Case for God”) more palatable. Not really. Sure, I’m not going to tune Karen Armstrong out after 5 seconds the way I would some fundie damning me to Hell. But at the same time, I am going to see in the liberal religionist argument more watered-down versions of arguments I’ve rejected when coming from fundies, and additionally have a pretty negative emotional reaction to having heard these arguments from some pretty unlikable sources.
    I also want to point to secular movements that have been seriously messed up through the dominance of its firebrands and fundamentalists. Feminism and animal rights come to mind immediately as movements that have turned off large numbers of people, to the point where only a minority of people would want to identify with them. In the case of feminism, this is true even when the larger society has largely accepted and been profoundly changed by many of the basic reforms advocated by earlier waves of feminism. Hence, the oft-repeated statement “I’m not a feminist, but…” (And actually, even the animal rights movement has had some mainstream success – large numbers of young people now don’t eat meat at all. And the fields of public health and environmental protection, the idea that in the developed world we consume far too much meat is pretty much a given, even if that position isn’t based on animal rights per se.)
    Nonetheless, both movements also have a very strident fundamentalist factions that seem to dominate those movements, making it very hard for “diplomats” to even function, and so turning off outsiders that the job of the “diplomats” is much harder. The fundamentalists also do a lot to exacerbate tensions with other movements, to the point where I think feminism has problems with race and sexuality issues that make the analogous problems you’ve described in the LGBT movement seem pretty mild by comparison. (In fact, I’d say that the early alienation in the LGBT movement between gay men and lesbians, second-wave lesbian separatists were every bit as much to blame as gay men who wouldn’t share power.)
    I think the atheist movement has an advantage here in that even the firebrands are moderate compared to those in the animal rights, feminist, and assorted leftist movements. The agenda for trying to proselytize believers to non-believers is fairly limited, nor are firebrand atheists demanding the kind of lifestyle policing and moral purism associated with hard-line feminists and vegans. The tension in atheist movement is between those who want to put a friendly face on non-belief versus those who want to stridently demand their rights (and in this regard, I think there are good analogies with the LGBT movement), and in that sense, there is a need for both.

  12. 13

    What do we call religious firebrands? Fundamentalists, of course.
    Not really. Religious firebrands include people who hold very different views to the fundementalists.
    Being a firebrand isn’t the same thing as being a fundementalist, a firebrand seeks revolution, a fundementalist seeks devolution to basic “fundemental” principles.

  13. 14

    Iamcuriousblue: Excellent point re: animal rights. There’s a movement that has lost itself to extremism.
    But on the other side, consider the suffragists, and just how much they were helped by the more radical WSPU.
    It really does take both. But you’re right that one mustn’t let the issue drive potential recruits away. That is what matters, not what opponents think.

  14. 15

    I’m not clear on your distinction vis a vis religious people. Give me some examples of people who are firebrands without being fundamentalists. I can think of some examples in secular movements, but in religion, I’m at a loss.
    I don’t know nearly as much about the history of the UK suffragist movement as the US one, but from what little I know about the WSPU, they combined what was actually a reactionary political stance with militant (even violent) tactics. By reactionary, I mean that they were opponents of universal suffrage – they wanted to extend suffrage to women of the right class background, but opposed the removal of property qualifications for the vote, thereby denying the vote to working-class women and men. This put them sharply to the right of many other suffragists and to the Labour Party, which campaigned for universal adult suffrage, regardless of gender and class.
    This combination of militancy with politics that are outright reactionary on issues outside the scope of gender equality seems to me to set the template for some very bad feminist politics that continue to this day. (I’m thinking specifically of people like Julie Bindel and people like her who exert a really bad influence in the UK today on issues like laws around sex work and freedom of expression.)

  15. 16

    Iamcuriousblue: I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with you at all about your analysis of the feminist movement. (I don’t know enough about the animal rights movement to say.) I think a very similar dynamic happened/ is happening among feminists as the one I described in the LGBT movement: outspoken firebrands got the issues in the public eye, in a way that soft-spoken diplomats never could have. Yes, the outspoken firebrands got a lot of criticism (some valid, some not), and many moderates tried/ try to distance themselves from them. But without them, I don’t think we would have come as far as we did. They got the movement on people’s radar, in a way that polite diplomacy just doesn’t.
    Again, I think it’s worth debating whether any given action of either firebrands or diplomats is useful or appropriate in any given situation. I’d just like to see us knock off the debates about whether confrontation or diplomacy is always and forever the right course of action in all cases.

  16. 17

    Iamcuriousblue: To say nothing of Bindels outright hatred of transpeople.
    (not that that means anything to a large part of the LGB population of the UK at any rate, who have been more than happy to nominate her for awards or invite her to speak at events.)
    Speaking of which, I find it interesting that you spoke about LGBT alienation of potential allies. Especially given my own trans background and the way that you mention how gay men dominated the early LGBT movement, without drawing attention to the way that transsexual people were all but written out of the Stonewall riots, instead becoming ‘transvestites’ and ‘drag queens’, in order to lump us (still inaccurately, due to the sexual orientation of many transvestites and drag queens)in as part of the ‘gay’ movement. There’s certainly a lot the atheist movement could take as a warning from the early LGB(T) movement.
    Apologies, I’m ranting. Seriously though, I love your writing and I read your blog regularly (thought of making pun, thought better of it) I’m just currently in a state of being sick of Token with a capital T in the LGBT, and reading an article that talks about the LGBT community but only actually talks about the LGB community irks. 🙁

  17. J

    *Conversations in our movement about race and gender take place in a decades-old minefield of rancor and bitterness, where nothing anybody says is right.*
    Forsooth. And that’s why there’s no point in the effort. I gave up on anti-racism a long, long, long time ago. Freshman year, in fact. When, in “Race and Racism” it became entirely apparent that any and all discussions about racism will involve NOTHING BUT black people browbeating white people for their stupidness.
    Fuck that shit.

  18. 19

    Forsooth. And that’s why there’s no point in the effort. I gave up on anti-racism a long, long, long time ago.

    No, no, no, no, no, no, no!
    The fact that we can’t make things perfect is absolutely no excuse for not trying to make things better. And a moderate amount of work trying to make things better now, in the early days of the atheist movement, will save us a tremendous amount of work in ten or twenty years… before the decades-old minefield of rancor and bitterness has been laid down.
    Yes, it’s hard sometimes. Most things that are worth doing are.

  19. J

    *And a moderate amount of work trying to make things better now, in the early days of the atheist movement, will save us a tremendous amount of work in ten or twenty years… before the decades-old minefield of rancor and bitterness has been laid down.*
    No. Because, you see, anti-racist stuff isn’t *work* at all, it’s *ritual*. No manner of progress will be made using the ‘tactics’ out there because they aren’t actually *intended* go anywhere: They are a racket for a certain segment of professors and HR people to use to make an economic place for their otherwise useless, pompous selves. Lecturing white people on the hopeless stupidity of their every word, thought and deed is a much creamier gig than actually working, y’know?

  20. 21

    J, with all due respect, the fact that you’ve had some bad experiences with anti-racism work doesn’t mean all anti-racism work is bad or worthless. If there’s particular anti-racism work being done that’s problematic, by all means critique it — but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. This stuff is too important not to deal with.
    And with all due respect, if you think that your problems as a white person having to listen to people criticize racism are somehow more problematic than the problems people of color have to face with racism itself, then you need some perspective. It’s too bad that you’ve had bad experiences… but I’m frankly a whole lot more concerned about the experiences people of color have to face with being treated like criminals and aliens and second-class citizens on a daily basis, than I am with your problems having to listen to occasional unpleasant critiques of racism.

  21. 22

    Having had this same exchange with J on my blog (assuming it’s the same person, I’m fairly sure it is), I can say with some confidence that his personal politics on race and gender are defined by an absolute refusal to engage in any self-examination whatsoever.

  22. 23

    Posted by: Iamcuriousblue | February 21, 2010 at 10:40 AM
    Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s one.
    “There are certain parts which you have to say no to. The Bible accepted slavery. St Paul said women should not speak in church at all and there are people who have used that to say women should not be ordained. There are many things that you shouldn’t accept.”
    He is not a fundementalist, but he is a religious firebrand.

  23. 24

    I’m kind of with, “Back in the UK most people either are atheist/agnostic or else they’re ‘apatheists’ – they really don’t think about this stuff much at all.”
    I just don’t relate to the idea of a “movement” for atheism as opposed to just not believing in whatever. Complaints about the activities of organized religious bodies seems like a political fight only tangentially related to belief, as many believers share the same complaints.

  24. 25

    This is a damn good speech/article. After having listened to it a few times (converted the youtube video to an MP3 file), I have two points I would like to thank you for:
    It seems to me that your advice is applicable to many, if not all, social movements (or whatever the term would be), not just atheists. It seems to me that the struggles of the gay movement to gain, and continue to gain, acceptance should be not only an inspiration to every other marginalized group, but an example that every marginalized group can learn from.
    Thank you, also, for pointing out that the “firebrands” have a no less important role in such a movement as the diplomats. I tend to be a bit hmmm… enthusiastic…. at times and your mentioning that in your speech/article was very helpful to me, personally.

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