On Saturday, June 1, I was given an award by the American Humanist Association at their annual conference: the LGBT Humanist Pride Award for 2013. It was kind of a big deal, more so than I think I realized until it was actually happening. I thought some of you might like to see my acceptance speech. I went off-script from this somewhat, as I typically do when I give talks, so these aren’t the exact words I spoke from the podium — but they’re pretty close. (There is video from the awards banquet, by the way, with me and Tommy Raskin, the Humanist Magazine’s 2012 Essay Contest Winner. From this page, click through to the AHA13 Saturday Night Awards.)
Thank you so much: to Jennifer, to all the organizers and volunteers who are making this conference happen, and to the American Humanist Association. I’m very much honored by this award, and I’m very grateful for it.
I’ll also admit, when I was first notified that I was being given this award, I was a little puzzled. Completely honored, and completely grateful — but just a little bit puzzled. I wasn’t quite sure what exactly it meant to be the LGBT Humanist of the Year. It seemed at first like I was being honored for being bisexual. And it’s not like being bisexual is an accomplishment, like something I finally achieved after years of hard work and sacrifice — it’s just who I am.
But I don’t actually think I’m being honored today for being bisexual. I don’t think I’m being honored for who I am. I think I’m being honored for what I’ve done with who I am. There are probably lots of things that it means to the American Humanist Association to name someone LGBT Humanist of the Year — but I can tell you what it means to me.
For me, being bisexual and being a humanist aren’t separate. They inform each other, they’re influenced by each other. Being the LGBT Humanist of the Year isn’t like being the Coffee-Drinking Humanist of the Year, or the Humanist who Likes to Watch “What Not to Wear” of the Year. They’re not irrelevant. They’re connected. A big part of why I’m so passionately committed to the godless community and the godless movement is that I’m passionately opposed to how religion has traditionally dealt with sexuality — sexuality in general, and LGBT sexuality in particular. I’m fiercely opposed to the traditional homophobia and transphobia and sexism and general sex-negativity of most traditional religions, and to the terrible harm it’s inflicted on millions of people. But I’m not just opposed to these specific religious doctrines about sex. I’m opposed to the very idea of religion shaping our sexuality. I’m opposed to the very idea that we should base our sexual ethics on how our sex lives supposedly affect invisible beings in an unproven hypothetical life after this one. I’m opposed to the very idea that we should base our sexual ethics on what someone else wrote down thousands of years ago about what God supposedly told them about how he does and doesn’t want us to do the nasty. The very idea is absurd. The very idea does harm — even if the specific doctrines are harmless. And this is a huge part of what drives me as an godless writer and activist.
And a big part of what first drew me to the godless community was how queer-friendly it generally is. When my wife Ingrid and I first started hanging out in the atheist blogosphere, one of the first things we noticed was how the atheist bloggers — including the straight ones, especially the straight ones — were taking on LGBT issues, fiercely and frequently and with tremendous committment. And one of the first things we noticed was that, on the rare occasions when someone in a comment thread would say something stupid or bigoted about gay people, straight people would immediately be all over them. In droves. We — Ingrid and I and other queer people — didn’t always have to be the ones speaking out about homophobia. We usually didn’t have to be the ones speaking out. We could just sit back and watch the straight people deliver the smackdown. That, just by itself, made us feel incredibly welcomed into the atheist movement, and made us enthusiastic about getting involved in it.
I do think I need to clarify something important here: When I say that the godless world is generally very LGBT-friendly, actually what I mean is that we’re generally very LGB-friendly. We’re not always as accepting and supportive about the T part of LGBT as we are about the LGB parts. We’re not always as trans-friendly as we are lesbian and gay and bisexual friendly. I suppose that’s not hugely surprising — the world in general isn’t as accepting or supportive of the T part as it is about the LGB part. Even the LGBT community isn’t as accepting or supportive of the T part as we are about the LGB part. So this isn’t surprising — but it’s still not okay. We need to work on that. But setting that aside for the moment, the godless community has generally been very gay and lesbian and bi friendly: it’s taken on LGB issues very much as its own, as core issues in opposing religion’s toxic effects on society. And this is a big part of why I felt inspired to take on godlessness as my own core issue, the center of my life’s work.
And my godless activism is informed by my queerness in another, very important way. As someone who’s been involved in the LGBT community for many years, I’m very conscious of how similar the atheist/ humanist/ secularist movement is to the LGBT movement. I often say that the godless movement is about 35 years behind the LGBT movement — we’re about where the queer movement was in the early- to mid- Seventies, shortly after the Stonewall riots, when the queer movement was just beginning to be seriously visible, seriously vocal, more activist, better organized, and a lot less apologetic. And I think we have a huge amount to learn from the history of that movement. I don’t think I’m alone in that assessment, by the way: I don’t think this is some brilliant insight I came up with all by myself. Lots of godless people have been drawing parallels between our movement and the LGBT movement. But I do think that that’s a lot of what humanists and other non-believers look to me for when they read my writing or come to hear me speak. When I write and speak about strategies for building godless communities and the godless movement, a lot of what I’m looking at is the history of queer communities and the queer movement. I’m looking at the successes of the queer movement, and how we can model ourselves on them. I’m looking at the failures of the queer movement, and how we can avoid some of those landmines. And I’m looking at some of the important differences between our movements — I think we can learn from those, too.
I actually give an entire full-length talk on this topic, on what the atheist movement can learn from the LGBT movement. I promise I’m not going to do that tonight — I’m not going to shoehorn in a whole other talk into this one. I just want to touch on a few of the bullet points — since again, I think this is a big part of what people look to me for as a writer, and what I’m being honored for here tonight.
So. Bullet points. What can the godless movement learn from the LGBT movement? Bullet point Number One: Coming out. Coming out is huge. Coming out is the single most powerful political act that LGBT people can take — and it’s the single most powerful political act that godless people can take. Consistently, polls show that the one factor most likely to predict whether 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 I think that’s true for godless people as well. We’re already seeing that: our approval numbers in polls are starting to go up — they still suck but they’re going up, a lot faster than a lot of us expected, and I think that’s due in large part to increased atheist visibility. And of course, coming out has a snowball effect: when more people come out of the closet, it makes other people feel safer about coming out… and then they make the next wave feel safer… and so on, and so on.
In fact, there’s actually an important difference here between atheists and LGBT people, which I also think is instrtuctive. Coming out queer doesn’t turn other people queer. It encourages people who are already queer to come out, but it doesn’t create new queer people. But coming out godless does help turn other people godless. For a lot of non-believers, a big part of what persuaded them to stop believing was simply learning about the existence of atheists, and about atheists who live happy, ethical, meaningful lives. Religion relies on social consent to perpetuate itself — and the more of us there are who deny that social consent, the harder it is for the emperor to pretend that he’s wearing clothes. So when it comes to the power of coming out, we actually have a big advantage over the LGBT community. For us, coming out doesn’t just increase our visibility and our acceptance — it increases our numbers. For us, the snowball effect has the potential to turn into an avalanche.
But when it comes to coming out, there’s something else we can learn from the history of the LGBT movement. It’s not enough to just encourage people to come out. We need to make humanism and atheism a safe place to come out into. We need to keep working on creating godless communities — and we need to keep working on making those communities welcoming to a wider variety of people. When people come out about their non-belief, they often risk losing their families, their friends, their social and economic support networks, sometimes their jobs and their homes. Just like when people come out as queer. So we need to keep working on giving people who are leaving religion a safe place to land.
A few other things we can learn from the LGBT movement: Let firebrands be firebrands, and let diplomats be diplomats. We don’t all pursue activism the same way — and both these methods used together are stronger than either one alone. Do not underestimate “good cop, bad cop.” There’s a reason cops use it. It works.
What else? Don’t squabble about language. LGBT people have spent way too much time telling each other what to call ourselves. It’s a waste of time. I’m not entirely sure why the words “humanist,” “atheist,” “freethinker,” “skeptic,” and so on seem to attract somewhat different kinds of people — with a lot of overlap, of course — but the reality is that they do. And the power to name ourselves is too important to try to take away from each other. Besides, we have waaay more interesting things to be fighting about.
Something else that I think we can learn from LGBT history — and I very much hope that we have to learn this sooner rather than later — is that we have to be prepared for atheism to become mainstream. So many people in the godless movement are so amazing — brave, funny, smart, tough, strong personalities — and I think this sometimes leads us to think that there’s something inherently special about being a non-believer. I think we tend to forget that the difficulty of coming out is a powerful self-selecting filter for amazingness. And as we do succeed in making it easier for more people to come out atheist, I think the atheist community is going to start looking more like just the regular old human community. And when that happens, we’ll have to let go of any ideas we have about how not believing in God automatically makes us smarter, or braver, or anything special. It’d be a good idea to get a head start on that now.
There’s an interesting flip side to this, though, and I think it’s also worth looking at. A lot of our PR in the godless movement — just like a lot of PR in the LGBT movement — is focused on how we’re just like everyone else. We’re your neighbors, your friends, your colleagues, your family — and we’re just like you, except for the part where we don’t believe in God. (Or, in the case of gay people, except for the part where we like gay sex.) Of course there’s a way this is true — human beings are all human beings, with basic commonalities we all share. But when you look at the world without believing in magic, without believing that unseen beings are guiding your life, without believing that wishing things can make them happen — this changes the way you see the world. That’s a point my friend Rebecca Hensler made when she spoke on Thursday, and I think it’s important. I think we do see things like death, suffering, the meaning of life, in some ways that are pretty profoundly different from religious people. Just like being queer generally means you see things like gender and gender roles, sexuality, what it means to be a family, rather differently from mainstream straight society. Of course it makes sense to point out our common humanity — but when we’re bulding our own communities and support structures, I think it’s good to remember that we aren’t exactly like religious people in every way. What we need isn’t always going to be exactly what they need. And I think that this will be true, even as we become more mainstream. I think we can look at what religion offers people, without trying to duplicate exactly what they’re doing, just with the God taken out.
And finally: One of the most hugely important lessons we can learn from LGBT history doesn’t come from the successes of that movement. It comes from one of our biggest failures. And that was our failure, especially in the early days of our movement, to deal with diversity.
I could rant for hours about diversity in the godless movement. I have ranted for hours, many many hours, about diversity in the godless movement. I actually give an entire talk about diversity in the godless movement. I promise I’m not going to give that entire talk today — again, I’m not going to shoehorn a whole other talk into this one. I just want to say this:
Talk to anyone who’s seriously involved in LGBT politics. And ask them, “If you could go back to the early days of the movement and get them to deal with racism, and sexism, and classism, and other failures to make the community inclusive and diverse — would you do it?” I can guarantee you that just about every one of them would fervently respond, “Yes, for the sweet love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla — if we could go back in time and not screw that up, we would. If we could stop those vicious circles and bad habits and unconscious biases and self-fulfilling prophecies and decades of rancor and bitterness from biting us in the ass time and time again — yes. Absolutely. Do you have a time machine? Can you please make that happen?”
I know that we’re all sick of the fighting about sexism and racism and classism and ageism and transphobia and other diversity issues. I’m sick of it, too — believe me, wben I dive into yet another fight about diversity, there are a hundred other things I would rather be doing. Like, say, bashing myself on the forehead with a sledgehammer. But as frustrating and disheartening as these fights can be, I am so glad that we’re having them, now — instead of ten years from now, or twenty, or fifty. The fact that we’re having these fights now means that we won’t be having them in ten years, or twenty, or fifty. Or at least, we won’t be having them as badly. And the generation of atheists that’s coming after us won’t be wasting their time and energy trying to fix what we could be fixing now.
The LGBT movement screwed this up. We still screw this up. We are paying for our screwups.
Atheists have a chance to not do that.
Let’s learn from the mistakes of the LGBT movement, as well as its successes — and let’s take advantage of that chance.