Monday, July 5, 2010

Atheism and LGBT vs queer

I didn't see it this way before, but I now realize that one of the greatest hidden blessings I got from the atheist community was the sheer LGBT-positivity.  Atheists are not simply supportive of LGBT.  They actively support LGBT causes, and actively criticize and mock its opponents.  If you look around at atheist blogs, many of them periodically talk about LGBT rights, and no one thinks twice about it.  Gay rights issues are atheist issues.

I'm not the only one who's said so.  See Greta Christina:
I'm not saying that I've never encountered homophobia or homo-stupidity in the atheist community. I have. But I've found it to be very rare, very much the exception. And maybe more to the point: When it does show up, it gets smacked down like a bug, by a dozen different hands or more.
On the whole, the atheist community has been just about the most LGBT- positive community I've been in that wasn't, specifically, an LGBT community itself.
Thanks to the time I've spent in the atheist community, I absorbed a lot of the LGBT-positive attitude.  So by the time I started questioning my sexuality, I already understood why it's okay to be queer and why gay rights are important.  It made my life so much easier.  If you had asked me a few years ago whether being an atheist had improved my life, I would have said, it's not meant to improve my life, that's not why I'm an atheist.  While that's still true, now I can say that it's greatly improved my life because being a gay atheist is just so much brighter and happier than being a gay Catholic.

That said, there is a bit of a limit to how the atheist community handles queer issues.  I don't mean this as a point of criticism or even as an area that needs improvement.  I simply wish to point out the unsurprising fact that the atheist community does not cover queer issues quite as comprehensively as does the queer community itself.  If you aren't in in the queer community, perhaps you're curious what you're missing.

[Insert disclaimer that my experience in the queer community is limited to one year in university, and I have little clue what I'm talking about.]

I want to discuss a particular divide in the LGBT community, though "divide" is very much a mischaracterization.  It's more like, there are many views in the community, and some of them fall closer to one end or the other, with lots of people in the middle.  From this point on, I will call the two sides LGBT vs queer.

This might seem like a weird distinction, since I usually use the two words interchangeably.  Most of the time, people don't mean anything different by "queer" and "LGBT".  But each word has its connotations.  Queer is used more by the younger generation, because it's a recently "reclaimed" pejorative.  Queer also implicitly includes all sexual and gender minorities.  It's such a bother to include further minorities in LGBT, because you need to extend the acronym to something really ugly, like LGBTQQIAAP.

These different connotations can be extended into an entire dimension of internal politics in the LGBT/queer community.

LGBT is about "We're the same as you, so why don't you accept us?"  Queer is more about, "Some of us are different, but what's wrong with that?"  LGBT is mostly about the gays and lesbians.  Queer is about recognizing that not everyone fits in neat little boxes, that there is more to sexuality than gay and straight, and more to gender than male and female.  Queer is also more interested in intersectionality, how sexual identity interacts with things like ethnic identity, disability, social class, gender.

Politically, LGBT is more focused on immediate equal rights.  We need marriage equality, non-discrimination policies.  We need to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell.  Politically, queer takes the longer view.  Queer wants respect and rights for all oppressed minorities, and hates to ignore one group just because it would be politically inconvenient.  Though they both support each other, priorities may clash.  For example, when the proposed ENDA protected sexual orientation without protecting transgender, there was a big dispute over whether this was an acceptable compromise.

Queer asks many questions that are tough to swallow, questions with a lot of room for disagreement.  For example, in what way is being queer a choice, and how might that understanding help us?   In what ways are gender and sexual identity socially constructed?  Should we be fighting for the privilege of marriage, or should we be fighting the institution of marriage itself?  These questions are not really in contradiction with LGBT goals, but they often mesh poorly with LGBT political rhetoric.

Clearly, I am conflating a lot of very different issues with this simplistic LGBT vs queer caricature.  But I needed the caricature as a starting point.

Consider the atheist community's motivations for supporting the LGBT community.  You want an example of how religious beliefs cause definitive harm here and now?  How religion tears families apart, and makes good people do evil things?  You'd be hard pressed to find a better example than religious homophobia.  To the atheist, gay rights are just one of those things that religion tends to get horribly wrong.  Like evolution, but with more human interest.

It's a backlash against religion.  I'm sure that atheists would support gay rights for their own sake, but the active support is motivated by a backlash against religion.  Compare to transgender issues.  I'm sure that religion has plenty of hangups about transgender people, but religious leaders simply give more attention to The Gay than to The Transgender.  And so, atheists don't give transgender much attention either.  If it ever becomes a common issue in political and religious discussion, I'm sure we'd see atheists actively supporting trans people.

In short, atheists are focused on the politics.  In particular, they're focused on the most current and immediate political issues.  That's probably the way it should be. But as I said, the focus on the most current political issues is characteristic of the LGBT end rather than the queer end.  And that's why atheists find themselves skewed in the direction of LGBT rather than queer.

Since I have a non-standard orientation, some weird mixture of gay and asexual, this skews me in the opposite direction, towards queer.  This has made me hyper-aware of how atheists are missing the more queer perspectives on gay issues.  But I'm not complaining, just observing.


The Barefoot Bum said...

To me the queer discourse seems mostly internal. As a person with a fairly vanilla sexuality, I don't see how I can meaningfully or respectfully participate other than saying, "I'm cool with whatever y'all work out. If you want my help, you need but ask."

miller said...

I expect all allies to be more LGBT-focused, simply because queer is more introspective. If an outsider starts talking about queer topics, it can seem invasive.

I had written this in an earlier draft of this essay, but I removed it for some reason.

SlightlyMetaphysical said...

Nice post. I think the distinctions you draw between LGBT and queer are quite drastically oversimplified, but you've done a good job of making it accessible for non-queer people and still meaningful for people like me.

I think we're starting to see LGBT-postiveness even in groups where LGBT people aren't a major focus, or often represented, like atheism or some religious groups (though that's pretty luck-of-the-draw). And it's a lot easier to have the rallying cry of "They're just like us, only they love people of the same gender." When you have to account for all the different queer groups, the rallying cry becomes a bit fragmented, and starts to loose the "Just like us" bit.

DeralterChemiker said...


trivialknot said...

I think you might be overestimating the number of people who argue that same-sex sex exists in nature, and is therefore okay. It's fairly obvious that not everything animals do is good. I think people are mostly using this to argue that homosexuality is not just something we made up or tricked ourselves into with our complicated human minds.

Also, most trans people I've talked to do not actually believe in the "trapped in the wrong body" rhetoric, and instead see it as a simplification for cis people who have an even poorer understanding of trans stuff than you do. Generally, I think you're mischaracterizing everything.

miller said...

The over population of LGB(me)TQIQalphabetsoup in the atheist-agnostic-Humanist-Freethinker movement is strictly a reactionary knee-jerk refuge from annoying fleeing homophobic religious figures. As soon as the religious figures lay off the anything-goes-sexuality bashing, I fully see the flock returning to faith. A wrong reason to 'convert' to non-believer leaves to door open to reconversion to faith.
One need only gasp at the despicable nomination of the Pope as the male of the year by the magasine The advocate. Were it not for vocal homophobia in many churches, the LGBT numbers in this crowd would be much lower. Conversions of this nature :
"why does does god let bad things happen to me, I don't love
you anymore, pout, pout, pout"
was never a very good reason for conversion in the first place. So I'd invite all the patriarchal LGTs to return to the fold of church, and leave us Bs to have fun without patriarchal marriage and expectations!!!!!