Firebrands, Diplomats, and Bedfellows What Humanists Can Learn from the LGBT Movement

Greta Christina is a widely read atheist blogger, speaker, and freelance writer. In addition to her “Fierce Humanism” column in the Humanist, she regularly contributes to Free Inquiry and Alternet, and her writing has appeared in Ms., Penthouse, the Chicago Sun-Times, and Skeptical Inquirer.  After growing up in Chicago, Christina studied religion at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1984. Early on, her writing and activism were focused more on sexuality and LGBT issues; she worked at a womens’ health clinic, wrote for the lesbian sex magazine On Our Back and the San Francisco Bay Times, and worked as an editor at Last Gasp, a publisher of independent books and comics. In 2007 her focus shifted from sex to atheism, but she remains keenly interested in the intersection between the two. For example, she’s the co-organizer of the Godless Perverts Story Hour in San Francisco. Her books include the 2004 collection, Paying For It: A Guide by Sex Workers for Their Clients (Ed.); Why Are You Atheists So Angry?: 99 Things that Piss Off the Godless (2012); and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More (2013). On June 1, 2013, Greta Christina was given the American Humanist Association’s LGBT Humanist Pride award at their annual conference. The following was adapted from her remarks in accepting the award.


When I was first notified by the American Humanist Association that I was being given the LGBT Humanist Pride award, I was a little puzzled. Completely honored, and completely grateful—but I wasn’t quite sure what exactly it meant. It seemed at first like I was being honored for being bisexual. And it’s not like being bisexual is an accomplishment—something I finally achieved after years of hard work and sacrifice. It’s just who I am.

But I don’t actually think I was being honored for my bisexuality, for being who I am. I think I was honored for what I’ve done with who I am. There are probably lots of things that the LGBT Humanist Pride award means to the AHA—but I can tell you what it means to me.

For me, being bisexual and being a humanist aren’t separate things. They inform each other, they’re influenced by each other. Being the LGBT humanist awardee 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. My sexuality and my humanism are 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, transphobia, sexism, and general sex-negativity of most traditional religions, and to the terrible harm they’ve 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 said 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 a 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 atheist bloggers—including the straight ones, especially the straight ones—were taking on LGBT issues fiercely and frequently and with tremendous commitment. And another thing 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 could just sit back and watch the straight people deliver the smackdown. That, just by itself, made us feel incredibly welcome in the atheist movement, and made us enthusiastic about getting involved.

I do think I need to clarify something important here: when I say that the godless world is generally very LGBT-friendly (that is, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender-friendly), 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. I suppose that’s not hugely surprising—the world in general isn’t as accepting or supportive of transgender identification as it is about lesbian, gay, and bisexual identities. Even the LGBT community isn’t as accepting or supportive of the T folks. So while this isn’t surprising, 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-, 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.

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/secular movement is to the LGBT movement. I often say that the godless movement is about thirty-five years behind the LGBT movement—we’re about where the queer movement was in the early to mid-1970s, 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’m not alone in that assessment, by the way: lots of godless people have drawn parallels between our movement and the LGBT movement. And a lot of humanists and other nonbelievers look to me for those parallels when they read my writing or come hear me speak. When I write about and present 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 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 and I’d like 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 a big part of why the AHA has honored me.

So, what can the godless movement learn from the LGBT movement? Bullet point number one: coming out. 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, 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.

In terms of coming out, there’s an important difference between atheists and LGBT people, which I think is instructive. 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. However, coming out godless does lead to more godlessness. For many nonbelievers, 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 a kind of social consent to perpetuate itself—and the more of us there are who deny that social consent, the harder it is to pretend the emperor’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 about their godlessness. We need to make humanism and atheism a safe place for them to go. 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.

Another thing we can learn from the LGBT movement is to 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 way more interesting things to be fighting about.

Something else we need to learn from LGBT history—and I very much hope that we’ll face this sooner rather than later—is that we have to be prepared for atheism to become mainstream. There are so many amazing people in the godless movement—brave, funny, smart, tough, strong personalities—and this sometimes leads us to think that there’s something inherently special about being a nonbeliever. We tend to forget that the difficulty of coming out is a powerful self-selecting filter for amazingness. And as we do continue to make it easier for more people to come out, 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 that’s 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 common wants and needs. 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 (a counselor and founder of Grief Beyond Belief) makes, and I think it’s important. We do see things like death, suffering, and the meaning of life in some ways that are pretty profoundly different from the way religious people see them. Just like being queer generally means you see things like gender and gender roles, sexuality, and what it means to be a family rather differently from the mainstream, straight society’s view. Of course it makes sense to point out our common humanity—but when we’re building our own communities and support structures, 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 this will continue to be true, even as we become more mainstream.

Finally, one of the most important lessons we can learn from LGBT history doesn’t come from the successes of that movement but from one of its biggest failures. And that was our failure, especially in the early days of our movement, to deal with diversity.

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, when I dive into yet another fight about diversity, there are a hundred other things I’d 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 its time and energy trying to fix what we could be fixing now.

The LGBT movement screwed this up. We still screw this up and we’re still paying for it. 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.


Greta Christina is the recipient of the American Humanist Association’s 2013 Humanist Pride Award.