Atheists in the Pride Parade: Some Thoughts on Churlishness and Integrity

How can atheists be civil and friendly with religious believers — particularly believers who are actively representing their beliefs — while maintaining our integrity about our atheism?

Pride 2 crowd
Last Sunday, I marched with the atheist contingent in the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade (hosted by San Francisco Atheists, East Bay Atheists, and Atheist Advocates of San Francisco). It was an awesomely fun day (even with the “hanging around for over three hours waiting our turn to get into the parade” part). We had a good 50 people in the contingent: it was a totally fun and marvelously motley crew, and hanging out and marching with them was a blast. And we got LOTS of love and support from the crowds watching the parade: from generic “Woo-hoo!”-ing to intense emotional outpourings. (We also got a certain amount of blank, deer- in- the- headlights stares, and the occasional bit of pushback — but mostly, we got love and support.) It was very gratifying, and more fun than a barrel of narwhals. Causing a commotion, ’cause we are so awesome!

But because contingents in the Pride Parade are organized by theme, we wound up marching close behind the assorted gay religious groups: the Metropolitan Community Church, Dignity (the gay Catholic organization), the gay evangelical group whose name I don’t remember, the ones who had the float with the giant rainbow cross on it. (I so wish I’d thought to get a photo.)

Which meant that the three-plus hours hanging around waiting our turn to get into the parade was spent in fairly close quarters with these religious groups.

Which posed an etiquette/ ethics conundrum: How can I be civil and friendly with religious believers — particularly believers who are actively representing their beliefs — while maintaining my integrity about my atheism? The basic principle — respecting people and treating them with courtesy and dignity, while retaining the right to criticize and even disrespect ideas — is a straightforward one in theory… but how does it play out in practice?

I’m going to be very clear right now: I’m speaking here only for myself. I am not speaking for any of the organizations hosting the atheist contingent in the Pride parade, or for any of the other participants in it. The thought processes and decisions I’m describing here are entirely my own.

Pride 7 David
So here was the situation. Many of the people in the religious contingents wanted to be friendly and make nice with the atheists. Many folks smiled and gave us the thumbs-up; when their contingents were moving past us on their way to filing into the parade, many of them cheered and applauded us. Some even made more overt gestures: one woman from the gay evangelical group came over to talk with us about David Byers’ “Leviticus Says… Crazy Shit,” sign, and how much she agreed with it, and how those bad homophobic right-wing evangelicals were getting God’s true message totally bolloxed up, and how in the end it was really all about love.

Nice, right?

Yeah. See, here’s the problem.

In the last several years, I’ve gotten into many, many conversations with progressive, tolerant, ecumenical religious believers about atheism. And in my experience, their tolerance for atheists dries up fast when we actually start discussing atheism. Once they find out that atheists don’t agree with any religion — even theirs? Once they find out that we are, in fact, familiar with the progressive and accepting versions of religion, that it really isn’t new to us… and that we still don’t believe? Once they find out that the reason we’re atheists isn’t because we think religion is hostile and ugly, but because we think it isn’t, you know, true? Once they find out that most atheists’ attitude towards progressive ecumenical religion is, “Yeah, it’s less bad than the hateful, bigoted right-wing bullshit, but it still lends credibility to the idea that it’s okay to believe whatever you feel like without any good evidence to support it — and most importantly, it’s still just flat-out wrong”?

Once they find that out — the pro-atheist Kumbaya hand-holding dries up in a hurry.

Seal of approval
It’s not a facade or a fake, exactly. I think the believers are sincere about it. It’s just not very closely examined. In many cases, they’ve never really talked with atheists about our atheism. So they make assumptions about what we think of them… assumptions that are generally not true. They assume that we’re as uncritically accepting of progressive ecumenical religions as progressive ecumenical religions are of each other. They assume that our opposition to religion is simply opposition to the bigotry and hatred of the more conservative versions of it… and not opposition to the whole idea of belief in invisible supernatural entities. They assume that their particular beliefs get the Atheist Seal of Approval. And when they find out that they’re wrong… then the “Thumbs-Up For Atheism” attitude tends to disappear into the mist.

And it was very hard to see the smiles and the applauding and the thumbs-ups at the Pride Parade, and not remember all those conversations. It was very hard to see the smiles and the applauding and the thumbs-ups, and not think, “I know how this conversation ends up.” It was very hard to see the smiles and the applauding and the thumbs-ups, and not think that ultimately, it was bullshit.

I didn’t want to get into an argument. Or rather… I did want to get into an argument. Very much so. When the woman who was trying to make nice with us said that the homophobic religious right had gotten God’s message all wrong, I absolutely wanted to ask her, “Okay, so you think the homophobic religious right is getting Christ’s message wrong. How do you know that you’re getting it right? What reason do you have to think that you, personally, know what Jesus really meant, and that all these other jackasses are getting it wrong? They cherry-pick scripture to support their position; you cherry-pick scripture to support yours — how do you know that your cherries are the ones Jesus would approve of? Oh, and while we’re on the subject: What evidence do you have to believe that Jesus is the divine son of God in the first place? Are you aware of how laughably unreliable the New Testament is as a historical document? Are you familiar with the arguments that the historical Jesus probably didn’t even exist, and that the case for him being the divine son of God is a total joke?” I was kind of dying to get into it, if you want to know the truth. I was chomping at the bit.

Pride 3 Greta
But I also felt like it would be inappropriate. This wasn’t the time or the place. This wasn’t a debate, or an editorial, or an atheist blog comment thread. This was the Pride Parade. A time for celebration — not a time for divisiveness. And besides, the reason I was there to put forth a positive representation of happy, joyful, queer-positive atheism into the LGBT community… not to get into a pissing match. So I smiled weakly, and mouthed non-committal vaguenesses, and escaped from the conversation as gracefully as I could.

Which still made me feel churlish. When people are extending a “We’re all brothers and sisters” hand, it feels churlish to shrug and reply, “Yeah, not so much.”

The same thing happened when the religious contingents and floats went by us and applauded. I felt like they were saying to us, “Sure, we believe in God — but we’re not like those other bad religions! We think atheists are great! Don’t you think we’re great, too?” I felt like they were asking us for the Atheist Seal of Approval. I felt like they were expecting us to applaud them back. And I felt churlish for not doing so.

But you know what? I can’t applaud religion. I just can’t. I think religion is a flatly mistaken idea about the world. I think it’s an idea that, on the whole, does significantly more harm than good. I’m devoting my writing career to persuading people out of it. I can be friendly and respectful with the believers… but I’m not going to express my approval for the beliefs.

And in a culture — like progressive LGBT culture — where uncritical acceptance of different religious beliefs is part of the standard etiquette, I don’t know how to maintain that integrity without coming across as pissy, intolerant, and churlish.

Atheists talk a lot about the parallels between the LGBT movement and the atheist movement. I talk a lot about it myself. But I think we need to remember that, for all the parallels between the two movements, there are some important differences. And one of the biggest differences is this:

There is nothing about saying, “I am queer,” that implies, “You are mistaken to be straight.” But there is something about saying, “I am an atheist,” that implies, “You are mistaken to believe in God.” Coming out as queer is a subjective statement about what is true for you personally. Coming out as atheist is an assertion about what you think is objectively true about the external world. When we come out as atheists, we’re not just saying what’s true for us. We’re saying what we think is true in the world. And by implication, we’re saying that people who disagree with us are wrong. Even if we’re not actively trying to persuade people out of religion — heck, even if we don’t care whether people believe in religion — we’re still saying that we think religion is wrong.

We need to cop to that.

Don't believe in god billboard
We need to acknowledge that, for atheists, coming out is different than it is for queers. We need to acknowledge that, for atheists, even the gentlest, least- confrontational, “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone” forms of coming out are, in fact, still confrontational. Not just because people don’t want to hear it; not just because the conventional etiquette demands that we not say it. Because it is. Because we’re telling people that they’re wrong.

I think we need to accept that. And I think we need to take responsibility for it.

There's probably no god
There are a lot of different ways for us to say it. We can say it in gentle, diplomatic, “You can be good without God” ways. We can say it in snarky, in-your-face, “You know it’s a myth” ways. We can say it in bald, statement-of-fact, “There’s probably no God” ways. There is room for both confrontationalism and diplomacy in this movement, and in fact the movement is stronger with both methods than it would be with just one or the other.

But I think we need to accept that this is always going to be a difficult topic. I think we need to accept that being honest about who we are and what we think is always going to ruffle some feathers. I think we need to accept that ruffling feathers is not the worst thing human beings can do to one another. It’s not even in the Top Ten. And I think we need to accept that being out as atheists, and maintaining our integrity as out atheists, may always be seen — and feel — a little bit churlish.

Because it is.

That’s just going to have to be okay with us.

Atheists in the Pride Parade: Some Thoughts on Churlishness and Integrity

Save the Students!

“For just a dollar a day, you can help guarantee these students’ spiritual emptiness for years to come.”

Hi-larious — excuse me, heartbreaking, poignant, deeply touching — video from the Secular Student Alliance, riffing off the “You can save little Sheila, or you can turn the page” motif. Hear all about the desperately needy secular students, “many of them in reason- deprived areas of the world, like the United States.” Watch them try to keep straight faces. And see me and PZ Myers jump joyfully in the air!

Video below the jump, since putting it above the jump mucks up my archives.

Continue reading “Save the Students!”

Save the Students!

Wealthy, Handsome, Strong, and with Endless Hard-Ons: Is Masculinity Impossible?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

The cultural ideal of masculinity isn’t just narrow and rigid — it’s literally unattainable. What can men do about it?

If you’re familiar with feminism — whether you’re for it or against it — you’ve almost certainly heard feminist rants about cultural ideals of femininity. You’ve heard how standards of femininity are so narrow and rigid that they’re literally unattainable. You’ve heard how, to avoid being seen as unfeminine, women are expected to navigate an increasingly narrow window between slut and prude, between capable and docile, between moral enforcer and empathetic helpmeet. You’ve heard how female fashion models have been getting increasingly thin over the years, to the point where disordered eating is becoming an industry norm… and how even the minuscule percentage of women who can become fashion models, with or without eating disorders, routinely get their pictures Photoshopped to make them fit the beauty myth. You may have even ranted some of those rants yourself.

Here’s what you may not know: It works that way for men as well.

I’ve been thinking more and more these days about how rigid and narrow the gender expectations are for men. I’ve even written about it before, in this very space. But a recent article about male fitness models has made me vividly conscious of how the expectations of masculinity aren’t just rigid or narrow. They are impossible. They are, quite literally, unattainable.

And while this unattainability can tie men into knots, I think that — in a weird paradox — it can also offer a glimmer of hope.

The article in question is about the hellish, dangerous, illness-inducing routines that male fitness models regularly go through to forge their bodies into an attractive photograph of the masculine ideal. According to journalist Peta Bee in the Express UK (the article was originally published in the Sunday Times [London], but they put it behind a paywall), in order to make their bodies more photogenic and more in keeping with the masculine “fitness” ideal, top male fitness models routinely put themselves through an extreme regimen in the days and weeks before a photo shoot. Not a regimen of intense exercise and rigorously healthy diet, mind you… but a regimen that involves starvation, dehydration, excessive consumption of alcohol and sugar right before a shoot, and more. This routine is entirely unrelated to any concept of “fitness.” In fact, it leaves the models in a state of serious hypoglycemia: dizzy, exhausted, disoriented, and (ironically) unable to exercise, and indeed barely able to walk. But the routine makes their muscles look big, and tightens their skin to make their muscles “pop” on camera. And even then, the magazines use lighting tricks, posture tricks, flat-out deceptions, even Photoshop, to exaggerate this illusion of masculinity even further.

On any sort of realistic irony meter, the concept of starved, dehydrated, dazed, weakened men being offered as models of fitness completely buries the needle. But this isn’t about reality. The image being sold is clearly not one of “fitness” — i.e. athletic ability and physical health. The image being sold is an exaggerated, idealized, impossible extreme of hyper- masculinity.

And the illusion being sold by the fitness magazines is that this hyper-masculinity is attainable. If you just work out longer and harder; if you’re just more careful about your diet; if you just take the right supplements and drink the right sports beverage… then you, too, can have a body like a fitness model. A cartoon image of fitness is being sold to men as if it were actual fitness. And men are being taught that there’s something wrong with them if they can’t get there.

But this ideal of masculinity isn’t just difficult to achieve. It isn’t just narrow; it isn’t just rigid; it isn’t just out of reach for some or even most men. It is, quite literally, unattainable. Even the fitness models themselves can’t attain it: not without nightmarish physical ordeals, camera tricks, and Photoshop. It is a carrot being dangled in front of a donkey — which the donkey will never, ever get to eat.

We’re not just talking about the world of fitness modeling, either. From weight loss products to underwear ads to cosmetic surgery to supposedly helpful books of advice on how to make yourself tolerably appealing to the opposite sex, men are being increasingly bombarded with messages about what Real Men are supposed to look like. It’s not surprising that, among men, reported rates of anorexia nervosa, anorexia athletica, and other forms of disordered eating and body dysmorphia are on the rise.

And we’re not just talking about physical ideals of masculinity. We’re talking about cultural ideals. Sexual ideals. Economic ideals. Emotional ideals.

Sexuality educator Dr. Charlie Glickman has written a great deal (and teaches workshops) about male gender expectations, and what he calls “the performance of masculinity.” And a twopart series he recently wrote crystallized this idea for me. He was talking about the “box” of masculinity — the ideas we have in American culture about what a “real man” is and does. You know: strong, competitive, dominant, wealthy, good at fixing machinery, lots of sexual partners, enjoys sports, big dick that gets hard on demand. You know the drill.

And he pointed out that many of these ideas aren’t just rigid or limiting. They actually conflict with each other. As Glickman put it, “Some of the items in the box are contradictory. You can’t be a mechanic and a CEO. I’ve talked with men who are convinced they’re not Real Men because they aren’t rich and I’ve talked with men who are convinced they aren’t Real Men because they don’t work with their hands.”

In other words: The Act Like a Man Box isn’t just a painful, difficult, miserably limiting place to live. It is, quite literally, an impossible place to live. It doesn’t exist. It isn’t like having your goal be to live in a big mansion in Beverly Hills with dozens of supermodels hanging around the pool. It’s like having your goal be to live on the surface of the sun. It literally can’t be done.

But here’s the good news.

“Impossible” is, in many ways, a better cultural ideal to have than “really, really difficult.”

Because it’s a whole lot easier to ignore.

Now here is where, I freely admit, I am stepping away from more solid facts, and into the realm of harebrained speculation based on my own personal experience. That being said, I still think I’m onto something.

The day I realized that the cultural ideal of femininity was, quite literally, unattainable? The day I realized that women are supposed to be sexy and chaste, undemanding and seeking commitment, meek delicate flowers and strong backbones of the family? The day I realized that if you’re tall you’re supposed to look shorter, and if you’re short you’re supposed to look taller, and if you’re fat you’re supposed to look thinner, and if you’re thin you’re supposed to look more voluptuous, and that whatever body type you had you were supposed to make it look different? The day I realized that every woman is insecure about her looks… including the ones we’re supposed to idolize? The day I realized that, no matter what I did, no matter how hard I worked, I would always, always, always be a failure as a woman?

That was the day I quit worrying about it.

If the world is telling you that if you work just a little bit harder, you can be strong enough, pretty enough, rich enough, whatever enough… you’ll be a lot more tempted to keep running that treadmill, keep chasing the carrot that’s dangling in front of you. But if the world is telling you that if you work just a little bit harder, you can turn yourself into a unicorn and start shitting diamonds? The whole thing just becomes laughable. And it becomes a whole lot easier to step off the treadmill. Obviously the cultural expectations still affect you — I’m not claiming to be free of them, I don’t think anyone is — but it’s a lot easier to see them for what they are, and shrug them off, and get on with your life.

So guys? Listen up.

The world is telling you to turn yourself into a unicorn and start shitting diamonds.

The world is giving you an impossible task. It’s not just a stupid task; it’s not just a pointless task; it’s not just a needlessly confining task; it’s not just a task that will make you miserable. It is, quite literally, unattainable. You will never, ever be man enough.

So stop giving a damn. And be whoever you are.

Be a whisky-drinking electronic music nerd who mixes a perfect Manhattan. Be a dialog editor who bakes banana bread and does stand-up comedy. Be a tattooed poet and kettlebell competitor. Be a retired soldier who does English folk dancing. Be a software engineer with waist-length hair and a thing for Michelin-star restaurants. Be a French-speaking rare book collector who calls into sports radio talk shows. Be a porn writer and atheist activist with eighteen cats. Be a muscle-bound gym rat who sings opera and cries in public.

Be who you are. That’s actually an attainable goal. And it’s a hell of a lot more fun.

Wealthy, Handsome, Strong, and with Endless Hard-Ons: Is Masculinity Impossible?

Sex, Love, Revenge … and Atheism? Finally, a Big New Film That Shows Non-Belief in a Positive Light

“The Ledge” is smart, riveting, complex, emotionally engaging, visually gorgeous… and best of all, almost entirely unpredictable.

Ledge still
A young man walks toward the ledge of a tall building. He is clearly filled with trepidation and even terror; at the same time, he has an equally clear air of purpose and resolve. That resolve: To jump.

It soon comes out that the man is an atheist. And the audience’s first thought might be, “Oh, right. Atheism — depressing, joyless, no sense of meaning or life’s value. Why wouldn’t he just kill himself?” But the story unfolds in places that are miles away from any such predictable path. Far from being depressed or joyless, the potential jumper, Gavin (Charlie Hunnam), has a singular joie de vivre. Far from having no meaning, his life is filled with compassion and intense moments of connection, both large and small. And his suicide attempt is not, as it turns out, a result of his seeing life as valueless and meaningless. It is, instead, an expression of his deep sense of how precious life is.

For reasons I can’t tell you without giving away the ending.

Let’s get this out of the way right at the start: I enjoyed the heck out of “The Ledge,” and am recommending it heartily to pretty much everyone. Atheists, believers who are curious about atheists, people who just like good movies — I recommend “The Ledge” to all of you. Written and directed by Matthew Chapman (author of Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir and 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, Oxycontin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania, as well as Charles Darwin’s great-grandson), “The Ledge” is smart, riveting, complex, emotionally engaging, visually gorgeous… and best of all, almost entirely unpredictable. Its characters are, well, human — likable, aggravating, tough, loving, damaged — and the story is unpredictable in exactly the ways that human beings are unpredictable. It’s not a perfect film — I’ll get to that in a tic — but its imperfections are ten times more compelling than most of the boilerplate crap regularly churned out by the Hollywood machinery.


Thus begins my review for AlterNet of the new atheist feature film, “The Ledge”: Sex, Love, Revenge … and Atheism? Finally, a Big New Film That Shows Non-Belief in a Positive Light. To find out more about what made this movie so compelling, what made it flawed, and whether I think it really is atheism’s “Brokeback Mountain” (as its producers have been pitching it), read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Sex, Love, Revenge … and Atheism? Finally, a Big New Film That Shows Non-Belief in a Positive Light

Upcomng Events: Atheists at SF Pride Parade, and Greta speaking at TAM and SSA Conference

Hi, all! I’m going to be at some upcoming events that I thought you might want to know about.

I’m marching with the atheist contingent in this Sunday’s LGBT Pride Parade in San Francisco.

I’m going to be speaking at The Amazing Meeting — along with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Carol Tavris, Adam Savage, Eugenie Scott, Bill Nye, PZ Myers, Michael Shermer, Jennifer McCreight, Debbie Goddard, Jamila Bey, Hemant Mehta, James Randi (of course), and a bunch of other skeptical all-stars.

And I’m going to be speaking at the Secular Student Alliance annual conference — along with PZ Myers, Dan Barker, Jessica Ahlquist, Jennifer McCreight, David Silverman, Jamila Bey, Hemant Mehta, Amanda Knief, Debbie Goddard, and more totally awesome atheist speakers. Plus there’ll be a game room all day Friday… and this conference is where I will be popping my karaoke cherry, as promised when Team Awesome beat PZ Myers in the Camp Quest fundraising challenge.

Here are the details for all three events. Hope to see some of you there!

EVENT: Atheist Contingent at the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade
TIME: Meeting at 10:30 am
LOCATION: We’re gathering at Assembly Area K on Beale between Mission & Howard in San Francisco. Look for the banners: Atheist Advocates of SF, SF Atheists and East Bay Atheists. Please allow time to deal with walking from the BART Embarcadero Station, etc. There will be no nearby parking.
NOTE: If you’re planning to go, it’d be good if you could RSVP through the Meetup event, so the organizers have an idea of how many marchers to expect. It’s not absolutely necessary, though — you can just show up!
ANOTHER NOTE: Be sure to bring water and sunscreen. We’ll be outside in the sun for a long time.
STILL ANOTHER NOTE: You don’t have to be LGBT to be part of this contingent! Straight allies are welcomed and indeed encouraged. I, for one, would love for the queer community to see a bunch of atheists with signs saying things like, “Straight Atheists Support Gay Rights.”
ONE MORE NOTE: If you’re not in the Bay Area, there might be an atheist contingent in your local Pride Parade! Check with your local atheist group or Pride Parade organizers.

Tam logo
EVENT: The Amazing Meeting
DATES: July 14-17, 2011
DATE AND TIME OF MY PRESENTATION: Sunday, July 17, 2011, 2:15 – 3:15 pm
LOCATION: Southpoint Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, NV
TOPIC: Diversity in Skepticism — panel discussion with Greta Christina , D. J. Grothe, Debbie Goddard, Jamila Bey and Hemant Mehta; moderated by Desiree Schell
COST: See convention website for details

EVENT: Secular Student Alliance annual conference
DATES: July 29-31, 2011
DATE AND TIME OF MY PRESENTATION: Saturday, July 30, 8:30 pm – 9:00 pm
LOCATION: Hitchcock Hall, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
TOPIC: Resistance Is Not Futile: Why Arguing About Religion Is Not A Waste of Time
SUMMARY: Many atheists think that trying to persuade people out of religion never works, and simply alienates people. But debating believers about their beliefs can be effective — in changing people’s minds about religion, as well as in achieving other goals of the atheist community. When does it makes sense to debate about religion? How should we go about it? And what should our expectations be for what these debates can accomplish?
COST: See convention website for details. But a lot cheaper than you’d think — and they have travel grants available, group rates for groups of students coming from the same school, and cheap dorm housing. They really want students to come, and want to make it as east as possible. So come!

Upcomng Events: Atheists at SF Pride Parade, and Greta speaking at TAM and SSA Conference

Wealthy, Handsome, Strong, and with Endless Hard-Ons: The Impossible Ideals Men Are Expected to Meet

American ideas about “real men” are contradictory and impossible to live up to. So stop trying!

You’ve almost certainly heard feminist rants about impossible cultural ideals of femininity: how standards of femininity are so narrow and rigid they’re literally unattainable; how, to avoid being seen as unfeminine, women are expected to navigate an increasingly narrow window between slut and prude, between capable and docile, between moral enforcer and empathetic helpmeet.

Here’s what you may not know: It works that way for men as well.

A recent article about male fitness models has made me vividly conscious of how the expectations of masculinity aren’t just rigid or narrow. They are impossible. They are, quite literally, unattainable.

And while this unattainability can tie men into knots, I think that — in a weird paradox — it can also offer a glimmer of hope.


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Wealthy, Handsome, Strong, and with Endless Hard-Ons: The Impossible Ideals Men Are Expected to Meet. To find out more about how male fitness models endure dangerous, illness-inducing routines to make their bodies look that way on camera; how the ideal of masculinity — not just the physical ideal, but the emotional and cultural and sexual ideal — has become not only narrow and rigid but literally unattainable; and how, paradoxically, the unattainability of this ideal can be actually liberating… read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Wealthy, Handsome, Strong, and with Endless Hard-Ons: The Impossible Ideals Men Are Expected to Meet

Grief Beyond Belief: A Faith-Free Support Network Launches on Facebook

Grief beyond belief logo
How can atheists and other non-believers deal with the reality of grief in our lives?

And how can we help one another deal with that reality?

We talk a lot in the atheist movement about making atheism a safe place to land for people who are leaving religion. We talk a lot about how religion is, for many people, the only game in town when it comes to community and support in a time of loss and grief — and how, if we’re going to make atheism a viable alternative to religion, we need to build community and support networks to replace it. We talk a lot about the commonly-held belief that religion is necessary to give comfort and solace in the face of death and grief — and how the atheist community needs to not only make godless philosophies of death more widely known and understood, but provide one another with practical, on-the-ground support in the face of death’s reality.

Some of us are even doing something about it.

My friend Rebecca Hensler is one of them. She has just started Grief Beyond Belief, a faith-free online support network for non-religious people grieving the death of a loved one.

Her announcement about the network is below. She explains it better than I can, so I’m just going to let her have the floor. Please spread the word about it. This is something many people in the atheist/ agnostic/ humanist/ skeptic/ freethinker/ non-religious world are very much in need of — or will be in need of at some point in our lives — and we should let people know that it’s available.


In response to the clear need for grief support among non-religious people, Grief Beyond Belief launches today on Facebook. The Grief Beyond Belief page offers an online support network for people grieving the death of a child, parent, partner, or other loved one — without belief in a higher power or an afterlife. Atheists, agnostics, humanists and anyone else living without religious beliefs are invited to join and participate on the page. Bereaved people in the process of questioning or letting go of previously held religious beliefs are also welcome to be part of the community and seek support.

In many ways, Grief Beyond Belief resembles other online grief support networks and forums. However, religious grief support — including prayer, faith in god, and belief in an afterlife — is not welcome in posts or comments. In this way Grief Beyond Belief offers a safe space for atheists and other non-religious people to share and process the death of a loved one. Recognizing that the death of a loved one sometimes leads to reevaluation of religious beliefs, every effort will be made to make the page accessible to people who are still struggling with these issues. However, the page is not intended as a venue for debate, but as a space for shared compassion and support. While religious believers may participate on the page, they are required to follow these guidelines.

Once a participant has “liked” Grief Beyond Belief, she or he will periodically receive a thought, question, quote or link in her or his News Feed addressing various aspects of grief, often focusing on grieving a death without faith. Participants are also invited to post memories, photos, thoughts, feelings or questions they would like to share, on which other members can comment. In addition, the page serves as a central location on the web where members can link to writing about grief and loss that is coming from an non-religious perspective. Bloggers are strongly encouraged to post links to blog entries on this topic on the Grief Beyond Belief wall.

Grief Beyond Belief’s founder, Rebecca Hensler, discovered the need for such a group when seeking support for her own grief after the death of her three-month-old son. “I quickly found a network of parents who were also grieving the deaths of their children at The Compassionate Friends (a 42-year-old parental grief support group). But I often felt alienated by assurances from other members that my son was in heaven or by offers to pray for me, comforts that were kindly meant but that I do not believe and cannot accept. It wasn’t until an atheist member reached out to me in friendship that I understood what I had been missing.” Hensler soon discovered that she was not the only non-believer who felt a need for safe space to grieve without faith or belief in an afterlife. “I have been particularly moved by the experiences of non-believers who are attempting to heal from loss while surrounded by religious people pressuring them to join or rejoin their religions; at its worst that kind of so-called ‘help’ can verge on abuse.”

The need for faith-free space to share grief and healing has been addressed frequently on atheist blogs, such as Friendly Atheist. (Hemant Mehta. “Are There Resources for Atheist Widows?”, Friendly Atheist, June 2, 2011.) While a Facebook page may only meet a small portion of that need, Grief Beyond Belief serves to open the door to grieving non-believers seeking community and compassion.

Contact: Rebecca Hensler, [email protected]

Join Grief Beyond Belief by going to the Facebook page and clicking the “like” button.

Grief Beyond Belief: A Faith-Free Support Network Launches on Facebook

10 Scariest States to Be an Atheist

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

United states
Let’s be clear. It’s not like it’s easy to be an atheist anywhere in the U.S. Atheists are the most distrusted and disliked of all minority groups — more than Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, and gays and lesbians — and polls show that Americans are less likely to vote for an atheist than they are for a person in any other minority or marginalized category. And this hostility can have serious consequences, in the form of harassment, bullying, ostracism, vandalism, alienation from family, loss of jobs, and more.

But to be honest, there are parts of the country where being an atheist really isn’t all that awful. Heck, I live in one of them. There’s some bigotry, some discrimination, a fair amount of misunderstanding and even hostility… but all things considered, it’s pretty okay. And then, there are some parts of the country where being an atheist sucks giant donkey dicks.

Let’s talk about a few of those, shall we?

Red regions blue regions
Now, to a great extent, how badly it sucks to be an atheist may not depend on the state you live in. It’s sort of like the red-state/ blue state myth: cultural differences in the United States break down more along urban/ rural lines than they do along state lines. Is it easier to be an atheist in New York than in Texas? Maybe… but it may also be easier if you’re in Austin, Texas than if you’re in rural upstate New York.

Many atheist and secularist leaders I spoke to stressed this point. According to Fred Edwords, National Director of the United Coalition of Reason (the organization responsible for many of the atheist billboard campaigns), “As for the worst states to be an atheist, it doesn’t generally work that way. It depends on what part of a state you are in.” In fact, he’s not even sure that this difference always breaks down along urban/ rural lines. “Is the key idea that the more rural areas give us the most trouble?” he asked. “Maybe. But we had bus ads vandalized in Detroit, too.” And he added that in Kentucky, “we had no problem in Louisville, but I still can’t get a billboard company to run our ads in supposedly more liberal Lexington.” And according to the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State “No state is really safe for non-believers. You find creationist ideas in schools from Louisiana to New Jersey. You find efforts to send secular tax dollars to religious schools in Indiana and Florida. And, finally, you find polls done of all Americans demonstrating that plenty of families don’t want their sons or daughters marrying atheists. There are many sad states of affairs.”

So the point here isn’t to show that some states suck for atheists worse than others. The point is to show that anti-atheist bigotry is real. The point is to show that it has real-world consequences. And the point is to let you know what some of those consequences are.

So with all that being said — let’s get on with the list! If you’re finishing your degree in secular studies and are trying to decide where in the country you want to plant your godless stakes… here are some places you might want to avoid.

#10: Pennsylvania. Yes, I know. Everyone’s expecting this list to be overloaded with the deep South. And yes, I’ll be getting there soon enough. But religious privilege and anti-atheist hostility don’t stay below the Mason-Dixon line. Anti-atheist bigotry can, and does, happen anywhere.

And Pennsylvania is Exhibit A. Specifically, Annville, Pennsylvania. Where atheist veterans marching in the Memorial Day parade were jeered, booed, insulted, cursed at, yelled at to leave, and told they were going to burn in hell. Not once or twice by a couple of fanatics… but repeatedly, throughout the course of the parade.

Let me spell that one out again. In small town America, veterans — veterans, on Memorial Day, marching in a Memorial Day parade — were jeered, booed, insulted, cursed at, yelled at to leave, and told they were going to burn in hell.

Because they were atheists.

‘Nuff said.

#9: Idaho. Where atheist billboards — not in-your-face controversial ones, but almost aggressively mild ones, simply announcing that atheists exist and are good people — are vandalized on a regular basis. According to Maggie Ardiente, Director of Development and Communications of the American Humanist Association, “Thanks to a member of ours who lives in Moscow, Idaho, the AHA has been putting up billboards over the past two years to promote humanism and atheism. When we put up a factual, non-controversial billboard that said, ‘Millions are Good Without God,’ it was vandalized twice! We continue to put billboards in the area, but there is often additional security provided when we put up a new one.” Just like it says in the Bible: “And whatever place will not take you in and will not give ear to you, when you go away, put off the dust from your feet… and then deface their billboards like a douchebag.”

Arkansas postcard
#8: Arkansas. (I told you I’d get to the deep South!) Hey, at least in Idaho, atheists can put up their dang billboards. In Arkansas, the Central Arkansas Transit Authority (CATA) has flatly rejected an atheist ad that the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason wanted to put up on 18 buses… solely and entirely because the content of the ads — “Are you good without God? Millions are” — is atheist.

I am not kidding. Even the public excuses being given for rejecting the ads — possible vandalism and even “terrorism” due to the “controversial” nature of the ad — are based on the fact that these ads have atheist content, expressing the “controversial” view that atheists, you know, exist, and are good people. And as the behind-the-scenes scrambling reveals, they are blatantly doing this based on religious hostility to atheism. Check this out:

In response to an e-mail message dated February 28, 2011, from Plaintiff’s media broker to the Advertising Agent conveying the content of the Proposed Advertisement, the Advertising Agent forwarded the message to Betty Wineland, the Executive Director of the Authority, stating in her accompanying message (in its entirety): “Dear God……HELP!” Ms. Wineland replied: “I need Him now more than ever. Good grief. I think we need to throw religion into the advertising policy – as a negative. Stall while CATA reviews.”

Let me spell this one out very plainly: A government-run public transit authority is rejecting religious-themed advertising — solely because the religious view being advertised is the view that religion is mistaken. And no, they haven’t changed their policy to reject all religious-themed ads. They still take religious-themed ads. Just not ones from atheists.

Oh, and in case you were wondering: Yes. They’re being sued.

#7: Alabama. The state where the actual governor, Robert Bentley, said in actual words, “Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister.” The state where it took an interfaith delegation, led by the Anti-Defamation league, to inform him that there are non-Christians in Alabama. Non-Christians who — I hope I don’t have to remind you — are fully fledged legal residents of the state. Non-Christians whom Bentley also serves as governor… every bit as much as he serves the Christians. As American Atheists president David Silverman says, “Top of my list is Alabama, home of Roy Moore and ‘You are not my brother’ Governor Bentley. It appears that to hold office in Alabama, you have to be completely ignorant of American Law and despise the Separation of Church and State.”

Oh, and in case that’s not enough: Let’s talk about some places where it sucks to be an atheist in high school. Let’s talk about the Secular Student Alliance, and their new program specifically devoted to supporting high school atheist groups. Let’s talk about the resistance that atheist students routinely get from public high school administrators who want to block students from forming secular groups. And let’s talk a little more about Alabama. The only state where the SSA has had to initiate a lawsuit about it.

Duncan Henderson wanted to form a secular club at his public school — which he has the full legal right to do. But his school principal denied his request. According to JT Eberhard, campus organizer and high school specialist at the Secular Student Alliance, “When Duncan’s father scheduled a meeting to discuss the matter, the principal showed up to the meeting with a lawyer, who more or less repeated, ‘We’re going to follow the law’ in response to every question. But the school has not followed through on that promise to follow the law. The school has stonewalled, and attempts by the SSA to discuss the matter were met with an email from the school’s attorney saying they’re not going to speak to anybody.”

Hence — lawsuit. Which, as of this writing, is happening solely and entirely in the state of Alabama. As Eberhard added, “While it’s not the first state in which we have seen pushback from adults in a position of authority over students to the idea of atheists forming clubs in the same way religious students form clubs, it is the first state in which we’ve had to bring in lawyers to fight for equality denied.”

North carolina postcard
#6: North Carolina. Where in December of 2009, Cecil Bothwell couldn’t even get elected to the Asheville city council, without people trying to invoke laws — antiquated laws overruled by the Supreme Court, but laws nonetheless — banning him from taking office because he’s an atheist.

Okay. Let’s be fair. This isn’t exactly an isolated case. Lauren Becker, Vice President and Director of Outreach of the Center for Inquiry, points out that several states have antiquated laws on the books banning atheists from holding office. “The Supreme Court has said that federal law prohibits states from requiring a religious test to serve office,” she says, but “there are still some states that have such laws, whether they enforce them or not.”

North Carolina, however, has the distinction of actually trying to enforce one of these laws. Less than a year and a half ago.

#5. Florida. On the other hand, in Florida, you might get kicked out of a city council meeting simply for wearing an atheist T-shirt. And if you protest against prayers at city council meetings, you might actually get arrested.

So that’s gotta suck.

#4: Rhode Island Did you hear the one about the public high school with the prayer banner in the school gym — a prayer banner specifically addressed to “Our Heavenly Father”? The public high school that got asked to take the banner down by fifteen-year-old atheist high school student Jessica Ahlquist, since it’s an unconstitutional promotion of religion by government? The public high school that’s digging in its heels and hanging on to the banner, despite decades of unambiguous legal precedent making it clear that they’re in the wrong? The public high school that’s getting sued by said atheist high school student and the ACLU… and is still digging in its heels, devoting extensive time and resources to defending their promotion of religion?

That’s Rhode Island, folks. And this story isn’t just about a school administration insisting on its right to unconstitutionally establish religion. It’s about a community’s ostracization of an atheist teenager — in some cases to the point of threats of violence. Ahlquist has been shunned, insulted, vilified, and even threatened with violence. Students in an English class in her school said — during class — that she should be “smacked around and beat up” for fighting the prayer banner. Comments in the Providence Journal article on the story were ugly, personal, even threatening — to a great extent about the ACLU, but largely about Ahlquist herself. (“I think you need to talk to a doctor and get help… you are sick in the head.” “Looks like we have a moon bat in the making.” “Make no mistake, Jessica and the Bolshevik thugs representing her are driven by anti-Christian bigotry and intolerance and censorship… Curse them to hell.”) In fact, according to the Providence Journal, Ahlquist and another student were removed from their regular classroom schedule last month — after some students said they intended to harm her. To quote JT Eberhard, high school specialist at the Secular Student Alliance, “In the city of Cranston, an entire community, perhaps an entire state of adults, is engaging in a smear campaign against a single high school student. Her crime? Believing her school violates the first amendment by hanging a prayer banner in the gym invoking the phrases ‘Our heavenly father’ and ‘Amen’.”

And this is in New England. This is Rhode Island. The first of the 13 original colonies to declare independence from British rule. The state specifically founded as a place of religious freedom, as a response to religious persecution. A slat in the cradle of liberty. And they are vilifying and threatening a fifteen- year- old girl for being an atheist, and for insisting that her public school follow the Constitution and not shove religion down her throat. Anti-atheist bigotry is everywhere. It’s not just in Alabama or Mississippi. Or even Texas.

#3: Texas. Wow. Where do you start with Texas? The public high school graduation ceremony that was like a revival meeting? The transit company that changed their policies and stopped accepting any bus ads for any religious organizations… just so they wouldn’t have to take ads from atheists? The governor who responded to economic troubles, natural disasters, and terrorism by initiating a state day of prayer, and exhorted Texans to “call on Jesus”? The governor, again, who decreed three official state Days of Prayer for Rain? The public school where they distribute Bibles? The high school textbooks which teach that the Bible was a “foundational text” in the framing of the U.S., that the King James Bible “remains one of the… most-loved books in the history of the world,” and that “the sun went black” when Jesus was crucified? The state Constitution that says, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being“? The teachers that get fired, not for being atheists, but for being suspected of being atheists? The town where they get seriously hysterical about atheists playing “Jingle Bells” in a Christmas parade?

Come on. Did you really expect Texas not to be on this list?

Mississippi postcard
#2: Mississippi. I could say a lot about Mississippi. For instance, I could talk about how, when the Second Chance Prom was being organized for lesbian student Constance McMillan, the state chapter of the freaking ACLU refused to take money from the American Humanist Association and the Stiefel Freethought Foundation… because it was atheist money. I shit you not. In an e-mail message to AHA, Jennifer Carr, the fund-raiser for the ACLU of Mississippi, said, “Although we support and understand organizations like yours, the majority of Mississippians tremble in terror at the word ‘atheist.'” The ACLU would later apologize and accept the money; but, as Maggie Ardiente, Director of Development and Communications of the AHA, puts it, “We were very disappointed to see an organization that’s famously known for standing up for everyone’s rights — including the right to be an atheist or humanist — initially discriminate against us.”

That’s reasonably messed-up. But I want to focus instead on a much more practical, nuts-and-bolts, life-screwing-up form of anti-atheist bigotry — child custody.

It is depressingly common for atheists to have child custody limited, or even denied, explicitly on the basis of their atheism. Cases have been documented again and again and again, in states including Michigan, Minnesota, Arkansas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Texas. But according to Eugene Volokh of The Volokh Conspiracy, “Mississippi is the most serious offender.” Volokh goes on to say, “In 2001, for instance, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld an order giving a mother custody partly because she took the child to church more often than the father did, thus providing a better ‘future religious example.’ In 2000, it ordered a father to take the child to church each week, as a [lower] Mississippi court ordered… reasoning that ‘it is certainly to the best interests of [the child] to receive regular and systematic spiritual training.'”

Try to imagine a judge in this country denying or limiting custody to a parent, explicitly and specifically, because they were Jewish. Because they were Mormon. Because they were Baptist. And now, try to imagine a judge in this country denying or limiting custody to a parent, explicitly and specifically because they’re an atheist. You don’t have to imagine it. This is real. This happens. And it happens in Mississippi more than anywhere else in the country.

And finally, we come to my Number One Worst State to Be an Atheist:

#1: Louisiana.

I freely admit that this list, and the order I’m presenting it, is subjective. It’s not based on a careful statistical analysis of rigorously gathered data based on journalistically objective criteria about anti-atheist bigotry. It’s based on stories that happened to get my atheist dander up. It’s based on stories that made me sad — and enraged.

And the story that happened in Louisiana made me sad, and enraged, more than almost any other.

I’m talking about Damon Fowler.

I’m talking about the atheist high school student who opposed his public school having a school-sponsored prayer at his graduation. Whose name was leaked. And who, as a result, was hounded, pilloried, and ostracized by his community; publicly demeaned by one of his teachers; physically threatened; and thrown out by his parents, who cut off his financial support, kicked him out of the house, and threw his belongings onto the front porch. Whose public school went ahead and had the graduation prayer anyway. Who has had to leave his home and move in with his sister near Dallas, Texas.

You know things are bad when your atheist safe haven from extremist religious persecution is in Texas.

That’s Louisiana.

Worst. State. Ever.


United_states postcard
And you wanna know the really sad thing? This piece could have been a lot longer. This could easily have been the 20 Worst States to Be an Atheist. The 30 Worst. Heck… the 50 Worst.

You’ve got Maryland. Where yet another atheist high school student started a group, whose posters were torn down by other students — and where actual parents of those students wrote letters to the editor supporting the vandalism, and calling the atheist posters “an atrocity.” You’ve got Georgia. Where students taking their AP tests at a church were proselytized to by church members. You’ve got Utah. Where, says American Atheists president David Silverman, “the State Attorney General is trying to have the Roman Cross pronounced secular so it can be placed on public buildings and schools without regard to equal access.” You’ve got Oklahoma. Where still another public high school student tried to start an atheist group, and was accused by his principle of trying to start a “hate group”… and where the faculty advisor for the group suddenly withdrew, saying she had been told sponsoring the group would be “a bad career move.” You’ve got… oh, you get the idea.

Is anti-atheist bigotry as bad as homophobia or racism, misogyny or transphobia? No, probably not. Not for the most part. I don’t like comparing oppressions: it’s divisive and pointless, and I don’t think anything is gained by playing “more oppressed than thou.” There are a few ways that anti-atheist bigotry is worse than others — the roadblocks being tossed up against high school students leap to mind, as does the whole “least trusted/ least likely to be voted for” thing. But atheists don’t seem to be subject to the same level of physical violence as gay or trans people — or the same level of economic oppression as women or people of color. And I’m not saying that they are.

My point is not that anti-atheist bigotry is as bad as other forms of bigotry. My point is simply that it exists. It is real. It happens all over the country. And it has real-world consequences.

So if you’re ever tempted to ask why atheists are so angry, or why they have to kick up such a fuss all the time, or why they want to organize and form groups based on what they don’t believe in… remember that.

10 Scariest States to Be an Atheist

"I was kind of an aimless teenager": Greta's Interview with Teen Skepchick


There’s a cool interview with me on Teen Skepchick! We talk about boys, clothes, makeup, Justin Bieber… no, no, no. Totally kidding. I’ve just always wanted to be interviewed by Teen Something magazine, and I’m letting my imagination run away with me. We talk about shifting identities, connections between skepticism and sexuality, career paths or the lack thereof, making atheism a safer place for teens to come out into, and more. Here’s an excerpt:

When you were a teen, where did you see yourself going in your adult life? Are you the person you thought you would be?

Honestly? I was kind of an aimless teenager. My goal as a teenager was to get into a good college where I knew I’d be happy — and I was very focused on that goal. I actually graduated high school in three years (which took a lot of work) so I could get the hell out of there and get on with my life. But beyond college, my future was kind of a blur. And it was still very much a blur once I left college. I took a long, long time to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and while I’ve been writing professionally off and on since my late twenties, I didn’t get serious about it until I turned 40. For many years, I drifted from job to job, mostly based on what was catching my interest at the time. (And on what jobs were available at times when I needed to find new work!)

Which actually worked out really well for me. I know adults aren’t supposed to say that to teenagers — but it’s true. I do wish I’d gotten more serious about the writing earlier — I missed a lot of opportunities that I still regret. But drifting from job to job got me into some very interesting jobs. I’ve worked at an abortion clinic, a public library, a lesbian sex magazine, a gay newspaper, a sex toy company, a small press book publisher and distributor. Even my boring job at the ticket company exposed me to music and theater and dance and other culture that I never would have explored on my own.

And a lot of those “drifting” jobs opened professional doors. The job at the lesbian sex magazine was just a clerical job, but they were the first place to publish my writing. Ditto the gay newspaper — it was initially just a clerical job, but they eventually hired me to write as well. And most of my jobs exposed me to new political and cultural ideas, about feminism and sexuality and LGBT rights and censorship and so on — ideas I’m still exploring in my writing. I would much rather have a boring job at an interesting place than an interesting job at a boring place. I don’t know if I’d give that as general career advice… but it’s certainly been true for me.

To read more, read the rest of the interview. And if you feel inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comments to the Teen Skepchick site — they like comments there, too. Enjoy!

"I was kind of an aimless teenager": Greta's Interview with Teen Skepchick

The People I've Slept With

This piece was originally published on CarnalNation. The movie is now available on DVD.

People ive slept with 1
A young woman is talking to her newborn baby.

“I love sex,” she says. “And some people thought it was a bad thing. But I’ve learned that a slut is just a woman with the morals of a man.”

Sudden, screeching rewind back in time, slightly less than nine months. The free-spirited adventurer in question, Angela (Karin Anna Cheung), has just learned that one of her adventures has resulted in an embryo. She considers getting an abortion — her gay best friend, Gabriel (Wilson Cruz) practically demands it — but her conservative sister Juliet (Lynn Chen) pressures/ fearmongers/ persuades her that her life would be better if she settled down to a normal, stable family life. “Settle down,” she exhorts. “Grow up, and be happy for once.” Somehow neglecting to notice that Angela is already pretty darned happy. And definitely neglecting to notice that Angela is making her own conscious decisions about her own life… pretty much the textbook definition of being grown up.

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So Angela decides to keep the baby… and embarks on a comical search to figure out which of her many adventuring partners is the father. It’s a challenge: Angela’s partners are sufficient enough in number that she keeps track of them through what she calls “baseball cards,” Polaroids with personal stats scrawled on the back. But she narrows the possibilities down to the five men she didn’t use birth control with — and goes through an assortment of wacky hijinks to collect their DNA for paternity tests. Her heart is pulling her in one direction — toward Jefferson (Archie Kao), the sweetheart labeled on her baseball card as “Mystery Man” — but she’s bound and determined that she’s going to have a normal married life, which means the man she marries should bloody well be the man she happened to conceive with. Regardless of whether she actually, you know, likes him, and wants to spend the rest of her life with him.

Yes, I know. It’s another “shmashortion” movie, in which a woman who under any other circumstances would be off to Planned Parenthood in a nanosecond for an abortion mysteriously decides to keep the baby… because if she didn’t, it’d be a fifteen minute movie. It’s an annoying pattern. Noted. Annoyed. Let’s move on.

Because “The People I’ve Slept With” is, in fact, a movie worth moving on to. It’s an odd duck: a mutant offspring of a smart, quirky, genuinely funny character study/ comedy of errors, and a sloppy, under-written jumble of cliches and careless implausibility. But the good stuff is sufficiently good — and sufficiently uncommon — to make it well worth a look.

Especially for anyone interested in movie depictions of unconventional sex.

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For starters, it’s delightful to see a woman in a movie have casual sex, with a wide assortment of partners of both genders, in a wide assortment of styles and variations… and be pretty much fine with it. And it’s a striking reminder of how rare this is. (Samantha in the increasingly revolting “Sex and the City” franchise is pretty much all we’ve got. Loki help us all.)

It’s true that much of the movie involves Angela’s freakout about her free-form life, and her cockamamie, half-assed pursuit of the American Dream, Heteronormative Style. But throughout the course of her cockamamie freakout, it’s made eminently clear that… well, that it’s a cockamamie freakout. The source of the humor isn’t that she’s struggling to find her way to the Right and True Path while being comically sidetracked into her old habits. The source of the humor is that she’s struggling to find her way to a path that’s laughably wrong for her. And in the end — and no, it’s not a spoiler, they give it away in the first five minutes — her salvation comes, not by accepting conventionality, but by embracing unconventionality. Especially in how she arranges her new family.

And there are oodles of lovely, funny, wonderfully refreshing sexual touches generously sprinkled throughout the movie. I love that the slutty, quirky, free-spirited Angela is her father’s favorite, and her normal, buttoned-down sister Juliet is the one he worries about and feels alienated from. It shatters so many stereotypes: about Asian families in particular, and about all families in general. I love how casually multicultural the movie is, and how sex not only with lots of different partners but with partners of lots of different races is treated as No Big Deal. I love how casually Angela’s bisexuality is revealed: her female partners are introduced in the litany of baseball cards right alongside the male ones, and while they’re less frequent than the guys, they’re shuffled into the pack as equals, and treated with the same cheerful, breezy affection.

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And I love, love, love that Gabriel, Angela’s Gay Best Friend, has not just a life of his own, but a sex life of his own. The Gay Best Friend is quickly becoming one of the most annoying movie tropes in town: yes, yes, positive gay visibility in media, it’s all very nice indeed, but when gay people are constantly relegated to the sidelines of the real story, there solely to provide support and wisdom and a shoulder to cry on for the people who really count, and kept carefully neutered to keep them likeable and safe, it starts to wear a bit thin. But not here. In “The People I’ve Slept With,” the Gay Best Friend gets to have a storyline of his own. And he gets to have sex. And love. And romantic complications. He’s not the main character — this is Angela’s story, not Gabriel’s — but he clearly has a rich, complicated, fully sexual life of his own. A life that folds into Angela’s as an equal, instead of being subsumed by it as a sidekick.

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All of which made me desperately wish this were a better movie. It comes so close. So many of the characters are rich and unpredictable and human… and yet so many others are one-note caricatures. So much of the emotion is nuanced and authentic… and yet so much of it is mawkish and hackneyed. So much of the story is natural and believable… and yet so very, very much of it is labored and fake, with plot twists that strain credibility, taking place not because that’s what the characters would do, not because any living human being would ever do anything remotely like that, but because the story has to move on to the next bit. I hate how Nice-But-Boring-Guy turns into a hysterical stalker overnight when he thinks he’s going to be a father… and I truly hate how his stalking is played for laughs. I hate how a major breakup near the end (I won’t tell you whose) is impossibly utopian, perfectly happy for all concerned, with no emotional complications or consequences, breezily dismissed so the train can keep pressing along to Happy Ending Land without further delay. I hate the sister who doesn’t care that her brother’s dead. And I hate, hate, hate that the entire plot hinges on Angela’s half-assed use of birth control. I know, I know — it’s like the “shmashortion” thing, there wouldn’t be a movie without the dumb plot device — but given how happy and self-aware she is in general about her sluthood, it just rings false.

And the whole movie is like that. The false notes are woven into the true ones, bouncing back and forth between thoughtfully funny character exploration and dumb screwball hijinks, so fast it makes your neck hurt trying to keep track. And it’s so unnecessary. The good movie is truly good — smart and quirky, inventive and funny, with a fresh approach to sexuality and a casually gutsy willingness to question tons of assumptions about it. It’s actually way more entertaining than the dumb, fake hijinks. I wish the filmmakers had either done another rewrite to work the dumb bits out of there… or trusted that the good movie didn’t need them.

People ive slept with 2
The People I’ve Slept With. Starring Karin Anna Cheung, Wilson Cruz, Archie Kao, James Shigeta, Lynn Chen, Rane Jameson, Tim Chiou, and Stacie Rippy. Written by Koji Steven Sakai. Directed by Quentin Lee. Produced by Steven Sakai, Stanley Yung, and Quentin Lee. People Pictures/ 408 Films Production. Unrated.

The People I've Slept With