How Atheists Can Be Better Trans Allies
We Humanists have a saying: “We’re good without God.” While that is certainly true, people can be assholes without God as well. Living in a problematic society such as ours–with systematic racism, sexism, ableism, and queerphobia embedded into our culture and politics–everyone has unconscious biases. Even so-called allies can say and do problematic things. Nobody is exempt from being an oppressor.
And this includes atheists.
A few months ago, Danielle Muscato, the PR Director of American Atheists, came out as a transgender woman on Friendly Atheist. Despite the old saying “Don’t read the comments,” the comments were overwhelmingly supportive. Pleased with the support for Muscato, I posted a link to the post on Reddit’s atheism forum, thinking that it would be met with similar support. While most of the Redditors had nothing but words of praise and support for Muscato, it wasn’t long before the transphobes popped up:
- “I personally would like to take this opportunity to come out as a lamp. I’ll be wearing this lampshade which totally makes me a lamp. Sigh. Sorry. Identify as whatever you like obviously, I’m just feeling a little old fashioned when apparently everyone is making up their own shit these days, from Masculine Hairy Woman With A Penis to Furry GenderQueer Pony with Xe-Pronouned Spirit Other And a Sequoia In a Past Life.”
- “Unpopular dissenting opinion: a person cannot declare themselves the opposite gender any more than a white person can suddenly declare themselves black. Unless you’ve got Klinefelter’s or you’re a true hermaphrodite, I just don’t think it’s healthy to start saying you are something that you’re clearly not. This is America, you have every right to dress however you want and modify your body however you want, but this guy didn’t grow up with a substantial subset of typical female experiences. It’s disrespectful to lay claim to something you simply haven’t experienced or earned.”
Granted, these comments have been downvoted to below zero, but as a genderqueer person, the experience triggered me to the point of wanting to cancel my Internet service and hide under a rock forever. And I shouldn’t have to do that in a community that’s supposed to pro-LGBTQ.
I wish I could say this was an isolated event, but as Zinnia Jones wrote a few months ago, she experienced transphobia from atheists:
Long before I came out, before I transitioned – before I ever talked about trans issues at all – just about the only thing I covered was atheism, and atheists comprised most of my audience. But even back then, plenty of people were already under the impression that I was trans. Here’s what some atheists had to say about my earlier work:
- “Stop lying to yourself and admit you’re a man.”
- “Why are you dressed like a girl?”
- “Denying your own gender is called being delusional.”
- “You’re a transexual? Now you make athiests look bad.”
- “Zinnia Jones creeps me out too. … Flamers creep me out. A lot. I could never take a guy seriously if he wore makeup and had a girly voice, etc.”
- “I honestly think he makes an ugly woman.”
- “This guy is brilliant, and always very well spoken, but I can never use him as reference for helping me make a point.”
- “This chick has the golden voice of Ted Williams.”
- “why i can’t say out loud that someone looks like a freak, if he/she really does?”
- “all he needs is boobs now and I’d hit it… not”
You can clearly see that these atheists have very positive attitudes toward the LGBT community – assuming the T stands for Thunderf00t. Really, what is going on here? From what I’ve been told, atheists should have no reason to treat us this way. And yet, here they are.
Like I said, no one is immune to being an oppressor. You can slap a Human Rights Council bumper sticker on your car, celebrate whenever a new state legalizes marriage equality, and paint your ring fingernail pink for Leelah Alcorn, but you can still say and do problematic things.
So how can atheists be better trans allies? Here are a few suggestions.
1. STOP TALKING OVER US! When we’re talking about our experiences, don’t interrupt to give us your two cents. Unless you face either discrimination or violence because of your gender, you don’t know what it’s like to be us. Instead of talking over us, listen. Listen to our stories. Listen to us when we call you out. Listen when we say something is problematic. That’s not so hard, is it?
2. Do your research. Atheists are very scientific-minded, and rightly so, of course. Science, after all, is how we find out if an idea holds any water. However, it’s easy to cherry pick specific scientific facts to support one’s personal bias instead of doing a thorough research. In the case of transphobic atheists, the number one argument I hear is, “But, biology!”
A good place to start is the recent study by the Medical University of Vienna that explains how networks in the human mind determine gender identity. As Amanda Koehn of Ravishly summarizes it:
In essence, trans people had brain chemistry approaching the middle of the gender spectrum — inherently different from their biological sex and closer to their identified gender. For example, a trans woman has significantly different brain movement than a cis man, despite having the same biological sex. Moreover, trans men and trans women were different from each other, implying that the brain shows a wide range of gender based differences, rather than simply male or female.
As Jesse Pinkman would say, “Yeah, science!”
3. Use correct pronouns. If someone whom you read as male wants to be referred to as she, refer to her as she. If someone whom you read as female wants to be referred to as he, refer to him as he. If someone wants to be referred to as they, refer to them as they. By using correct pronouns, you affirm someone’s identity, therefore affirming them as human beings. When it doubt, just ask.
4. Call people out on their transphobia. It’s not enough that you personally affirm trans people; you need to spread to word to all of your friends as well. If you are cisgender, you have the privilege of being listened to more than us trans folks. Of course, please remember step #1 so you don’t develop a Mackelmore complex.
In the wake of Leelah Alcorn’s suicide, atheism has a unique opportunity to provide a safe space for trans youth who face persecution in the name of religion. But in order to provide that safe space, cisgender atheists need to educate themselves first.
I’ve always regarded my failure to truly understand the trans experience as MY failure. I hope to improve my understanding (I have been following your 4 suggestions already, by the way) and until then, I’ve decided to be supportive, an ally and silent when I wasn’t able to contribute positively to the conversation. It was hard because I have an ego like anyone else and I want my share of the conversation. But it is liberating to acknowledge that your ego is less important than the happiness of others.
Sounds like you’re doing it right so far, SamBarge!