It Shouldn’t Have to Be So Hard to Be a Queer Atheist

There is a line between encouraging religions to reform and become more progressive, something in which I deeply believe and that I personally strive to encourage, and leaving non-religious people behind, which has become a problem in Western queer spaces in recent years.

It’s not that I think that religious LGBT folks shouldn’t be included in queer spaces, rather that the effort within queer spaces to be inclusive towards religious people is disproportionate and can be downright exclusionary towards non-religious people. As Greta noted, being an atheist in queer spaces means receiving far less encouragement and acceptance than being queer in atheist spaces.

I’ve personally experienced queer-religious intersections that have made my atheist self rather uncomfortable. When I volunteered for the No on Prop 8 campaign, the local dispatch center was a church. At on-campus LGBT events, many of the speakers were religious and talked about their god as if everyone believed in that sort of deity. It seems that it has become more important to appease the  “we’re Not All Like That!”s, straight or queer, than it is to accommodate the approximately half of all LGBT people who aren’t religious.

The worst experience I had was at a local conference about mental health and LGBT issues. Fully half of the panels were about religion, and every panel had a representative of what was euphemistically referred to as “the faith community.” To their credit, the conference organizers included me as the token atheist. I tried to represent those of us LGBT folks who have been harmed by religion and want no part in it. However, I found myself the subject of subtle and not-so-subtle digs by my fellow panelists that went unchallenged by the moderator. The expectation was that I would agree with others’ “live-and-let-live”-style statements and accept the “teasing” I got for being an atheist lest I sound like an intolerant naysayer.

It is bizarre, to say the least, to sit in a room filled with LGBT folks and hear nothing but praise for religion and disdain for criticism of religion. Any mention of the homophobia in Christianity or any other religion was treated as if it were taboo, or at least unnecessarily hostile. I found myself feeling an odd sense of longing for the openly-homophobic Muslim I had encountered on an interfaith panel I had done at a local high school. He at least acknowledged the anti-queerness in his faith rather than pretended it didn’t exist and wasn’t relevant to the discussion.

What I experienced locally seems to be indicative of a national-level issue. Despite the fact that — again — nearly half of all LGBT-identified folks are non-religious, Creating Change has many, many sessions about religion and faith but few-to-none that are explicitly for the non-religious. If Creating Change focuses on religion and perhaps outright reinforces religious privilege without having much in the way of secular representation, then where is the non-religious half of the LGBT population supposed to go to find community? You’d think that “the largest annual gathering of activists, organizers, and leaders in the LGBT movement” would care about all LGBT folks, not just the half that claims a religion.

As per the British Alex Gabriel, the issue is not limited to the United States.

Many in queer communities have histories of religious abuse, whether ordinary queerphobia or physical, sexual or emotional varieties: the mere presence of guests in holy orders, even entirely friendly ones, can make an event a no-go area. There are apostates from all forms of religion who feel unwelcome or uncomfortable in LGBT groups that have been godded-up, as I did at university. There are atheists and believers alike with reservations about God-loves-the-gays theology who feel expected to keep quiet. There are undecided people who feel put on the spot, pressured to be louder and prouder. There are people who want to discuss religious queerphobia without attaching endless caveats, or who just want to hear it acknowledged.

Welding together religion and queer identity is a false economy. Communally, it makes us more exclusionary rather than less; politically, it writes off queer people and others who’ll never be godly enough, pushed to the margins by religious structures.

Just as I cannot decouple my feminism from my atheism, I cannot separate my radically political and anti-assimilatist queer identity from my atheism; gender and queer issues were part of why I doubted and eventually left Islam. Although queerphobia can come from non-religious sources, that much of it stems from religious beliefs is self-evident — unless you’re going to outright deny what people say about their own motivations, Reza Aslan-style.

Why should we atheist queers have to capitulate to religions, the very institutions that have vilified, demonized, abused, tortured, and murdered us in the name of their beliefs? Our views on the harms of religion have the realistic precedent. The (a)historical revisionism that casts Jesus as a queer ally and depicts religion as benign at worst and helpful to LGBT causes at best is factually dubious and actively exclusionary.

It Shouldn’t Have to Be So Hard to Be a Queer Atheist

14 thoughts on “It Shouldn’t Have to Be So Hard to Be a Queer Atheist

  1. 1

    This why, as I commented on Alex’s blog, queer spaces should be religiously neutral. That’s not to say that religious queer people are traitors to our movement (I’m a big fan of bisexual Christian writer Eliel Cruz), or that religious queer allies aren’t real allies (of course some secular allies aren’t really allies, either). But instead of trying to convince queer people that God loves queer people, let’s just leave religion out of it and focus on queer liberation.

    I mean, if you’re religious and you believe all the homophobes of your religion “aren’t true Christians/Muslims/Jews/etc.,” that’s basically No True Scotsman 101. Instead of saying “Not all religious people,” say “Too many religious people.”

    Because, like I told Alex, it’s not the Holy Spirit telling people “Gay is okay;” people are just finally using their brains and crediting God for “showing them the light.”

  2. 2

    It should be this hard to be an atheist in general. But yes the fact that this baffling desire to make nice to nonsense is infecting even LGBT spaces is just depressing.

  3. 5

    I’d rather imagine that religious non-Christian queer people can be well put off and feel less than supported by these generic-Christian-centric LGBTQ support groups as well. Even if it isn’t directly discouraging or off-putting, it still means that one can expect whacking great chunks of content which simply are no help to the people to which the Christian angle doesn’t apply.

  4. 6

    In a couple centuries, people will be having this same discussion about Islam and the LGBT community. I just wish I could live long enough to witness those verbal acrobatics.

  5. 7

    My family is very religious, and it seems very unlikely that they will stop being religious anytime soon. I confess that my desire to not be ostracized has won on this front. I am constantly sending them books defending LGBT culture through a Christian perspective. I just feel better knowing that I have some support from that camp. Maybe it’s residual trauma. Maybe I’ll feel differently in a few years. For now, though, I feel that LGBT affirming religion does have its place in that it provides justification for people who want to be supportive but haven’t had the opportunity to vocalize that support due to oppression. I also feel that LGBT affirming religious groups give LGBT teens who grow up in more rigid religious communities a place to go. For me, finding LGBT affirming Christians was part of my journey to atheism. Once I stripped away all of the unnecessary guilt I realized that I didn’t need the rituals anymore and began studying secular humanism. I share this not as a defense of bad behavior by those who use the existence of affirming Christians as a silencing tactic, but merely as a consideration as to (what I percieve to be) the need for affirming religious practice.s

    1. 7.1

      I understand that need to affirm religious LGBT people, I definitely do. I also understand the need to justify LGBT existence and activism through religion to help religious people to become less bigoted. What I oppose is the overbearing and disproportionate favoring and — yes, I’ll say it — privileging of religious LGBT folks and religious voices within LGBT groups and conferences, to the point where the non-religious are unwelcome.

      1. I get what you’re saying. I haven’t experienced that, but I’m sure I will eventually. So far all I’ve really encountered are actual allies who also happen to be Christian. Every now and then I meet the type of Christian who says “well, everyone’s a sinner, so who cares if you’re a filthy abomination? Jesus still loves you!” Those ones drive me CRAZY because they are covertly hostile. That’s the type of Christianity I grew up with. They tolerated my existence, which was never really an enjoyable experience for me. I’m sure I will eventually encounter the other covert hostility of #notallchristians, which sounds very much like what you are describing. Not looking forward to that. But, since I started an LGBTQ club on my college campus, I’m sure the experience is inevitable. I do want to include allies, whether or not they are religious, but I’ll draw similar lines to the ones I draw around my feminism and atheism. I’m fine with someone being an ally and a Christian, but if they make everything about how much of an ally they are then we’re done.

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