For the past little while, Greta Christina and I have been having an e-mail discussion about a piece I wrote entitled “Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression,” which some of you may have read. Greta took issue with some comments I made about the difference in scale I see between atheist oppression and that leveled against trans* and gender non-conforming folks. We have decided to take the conversation public, and I am incredibly grateful to Greta for how she has gone about this conversation; she is without question one of the best writers and people in this movement, and one of the reasons I write in the first place. I can’t properly express how flattered I am that she has taken the time to do this. You can read her first post in this series by following this link. What you will read below is my initial reply to her.
I’m glad you read the post, and I think you raise important concerns. I would just like to, if I can, respond to them and try to help you understand where I’m coming from.
I don’t deny that atheists in America, particularly the South, face oppression. I lived in Cincinnati for several years and spent a lot of time in Kentucky, so I have some experience of it. However, the dividing line for me is the issue of systemic violence.
In the last year, three people that I knew and several others who I did not have died, all of them trans* or gender non-conforming. Of the three who I knew, one of them was stabbed to death on the sidewalk in their neighborhood in Philadelphia, just for being trans*. That crime went unreported and probably will never be resolved. Two committed suicide, because they found that living with what they go through every single day just wasn’t worth it. There are many more such cases, far too many, of people who I never knew, but only heard their stories through other friends who operated in the same circles, or did activism together.
You mentioned Damon Fowler in your post. The kind of hatred that he received for his actions happens every single day, from every single corridor of the world for trans* people, particularly those of color. We atheists have the privilege of being able to conceal our beliefs; many trans* folks cannot conceal who they are, nor, do I think, should they have to. They are walking around with signs on them that demand that those who have hate in their hearts do them harm, most of the time.
To that end, I think a lot of my anger comes from atheists who continue to play the victim card while blithely ignoring issues outside of their worlds, which is not something I’m accusing you of. I simply cannot be anything but angry when I see people expending effort on Nativity scenes, or spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for Times Square billboards when my friends are dying because of who they are.
Atheists do face discrimination, yes. Damon Fowler and Jessica Ahlquist and others got shit for it, yes, more than they ever should have had. But they have their lives, support structures, roofs over their heads, food on the table. I know too many people who don’t have those things because the state chooses not to grant them basic protections, and it infuriates me. I don’t mean to trivialize what happened to Damon at all, or what happened to anyone discriminated because of their beliefs. With my perspective, though, I just find it difficult to sympathize with the kind of activist work that many of the big atheist organizations do. To me, they seem like half-measures, limp attempts, that in the long run may favor atheists, but not particularly anyone else.
I know I’m a dreamer, but I can’t bring myself to throw whatever energy I have behind causes that I do not believe will bring true systemic change for all. I’m tired of the territorial crap. So, I will still operate in atheist circles, but I’m going to do my damnedest to be a check to the movement’s activism, just as I try to be for all the other movements I take part in. I’m just trying to offer another perspective, another source of knowledge, that might make some people think differently.
Thank you so much for the e-mail, Greta. I hope I’ve given you a better idea of what I was trying to get at.