Thursday, May 31, 2012

You Self-Identify Wrong

A friend recently sent me this talk by Daniel Dennett, “How To Tell You're An Atheist.” Dennett is, I think it's fair to say, the least obnoxious of your Four Horsemen of New Atheism, and the talk is pretty interesting, especially at the bookends: the phenomenon of closet-atheist clergy is enormously fascinating, as is the observation that religious creeds must tend to impenetrability if they're to survive.

However, the talk's very title telegraphs something that thoroughly infuriates me about New Atheism, and that is its evangelical fervor. I realize I run the risk of making a false equivalency here, so let me state forthrightly that I absolutely do not think that New Atheists and the Christian right are like totally the same and both sides are as bad as each other and the truth lies in the fuzzy-wuzzy middle. The fact that the United States (where much of this discourse is taking place) is a Christian supremacist society means that the dynamics at play when an atheist speaks are very different than when a Christian speaks, even if they're saying the same thing. They're coming from different places, they got there in different ways, they have diametrically opposed agendas; but the fundagelical and the atheist telling me I'm not really a Christian are both very wrong.

The intense hostility of much of US culture toward atheists is pretty mystifying for us godless-commie-Europeans, but it certainly exists, and it completely explains the forcefulness of some American atheists. When you're a marginalized group trying to assert yourself to a dominant culture that would prefer to pretend you don't exist, you have to be loud and proud, and if you bruise the delicate fee-fees of your oppressors, well, cry me a frickin' river. I get that. But the marginalization of non-believers in the US really isn't exactly the same as other axes of marginalization and oppression, because belief (or lack thereof) is, as Dennett points out in that speech, entirely internal. His suggestion that Christians who help the poor are closet atheists is breathtakingly cynical (and that's coming from a thoroughgoing cynic), but his point stands: no matter what someone says and does, we can't know what they truly do or don't believe. Dennett's theory is that, for an awful lot of people, their behavior and their beliefs do not align. Christianity, on his reading, is teeming with closet atheists for whom the social consequences of admitting their lack of faith are just too high.

Now, I sympathize with the goal of making it socially acceptable to be openly atheist. Frankly, I find it nonsensical that it's not acceptable here. But I have a lot less sympathy for the accusation of widespread bad faith or false consciousness – for the practice of telling self-identified Christians that, if they're thinking people or not fully orthodox or lefties, they're probably not really Christians.

Since Dennett himself uses the analogy of gayness (which is totally not in any way a cheap shot or a false equivalency), let's roll with that. I am a queer person, and if I'm perfectly honest straightness baffles me. On a gut level it weirds me out and repels me, and, though I'm surrounded by self-identified straight people, I just don't get why anyone would be straight.

I could make the argument that they shouldn't be. I could say that, once upon a time, I thought I must be straight too, before I knew it was possible to be anything else; that I understand the fear of social consequences that keeps people closeted; that probably there are tons of straight-identified people who are really secret queers, but they're too uninformed or afraid to admit that they're anything other than straight.

To some extent, I think this is true (though the numbers are probably fewer than I'd like them to be), just as it's true of closet-atheist Christians. But that doesn't mean I think it's right to second-guess all straight people, to tell them their identity as a straight person is a lie (at best to everyone around them, at worst to themselves as well), to redefine the parameters of straightness so as to exclude a lot of straight-identified people (because I understand straightness better than they do? because I know them better than they know themselves? because I've put a lot of thought into this whole issue, and the fact that they still call themselves straight proves that they haven't?). My goal might be the noble one of encouraging self-actualization and greater self-understanding, but this tactic sucks. It's aggressive, it's arrogant, it's domineering, and it's hierarchical.

Saying “if you call yourself straight, but you've ever thought about kissing someone of the same gender as you, then you're actually a big flaming 'mo” isn't helpful. For straight people who are not ready to think deeply about sexuality, that statement sounds like a threat. For straight people who have thought deeply about sexuality, it's insulting and delegitimizes their process. Either way, it's accusing straight people of a false consciousness and co-opting their identity.

Of course, if your ultimate concern is swelling the ranks of people you can call queer, then I suppose this is the optimal tactic. But if your ultimate concern is giving people the tools for greater self-awareness, better critical thinking, and a richer engagement with the world and people around them, then you're better off sticking to education. Despite his title and some of his more condescending moments, Dennett does recognize this in that speech, and that is why I have more respect for him than for Dawkins et al.

By all means, be as loud and proud an atheist as you want. God (or whoever) knows the world needs more thinking people who will stand up boldly for what they (don't) believe in. People need to encounter others who think and live differently than they do. It's the only way to learn and grow as a person.

Tell me how you self-identify, what you think and believe, and why; I need to hear it. Just don't fucking tell me what I am.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

So It Begins

So, I finally bought a binder.

I've been wanting one for so long, but I was too afraid to actually get it. Oh, they're too expensive. Oh, figuring out the sizing is too confusing. Oh, making one is beyond me because I have no arts-and-crafts skills. (Am I still allowed to be part of the queer and/or blogging communities if I admit that I have no arts-and-crafts skills?)

A week ago, the excuses ran out. I just couldn't stand it any longer. I ordered one online, and yesterday it finally arrived.

I'd been really on edge waiting for it. I knew it was ridiculous, but I just felt like putting it on for the first time would be this ~magical moment of truth~, an epiphany where everything fell into place and I would be able to stand up straight and tall and say LOOK AT ME, WORLD, THIS IS WHAT I AM.

Of course, this is not exactly what happened. It's a nice thing to have; I like what it does to my body shape a lot; but it doesn't make me completely flat, and it certainly doesn't solve all my issues in one swoop. But I did think that my first day wearing it out would be a day without (or, okay, with less) dysphoria.

It started out grand enough. I went into the city with a group of friends. It was a beautiful day, and I was wearing my new binder under one of my favorite T-shirts. I felt okay about myself, or at least as close to okay as I ever get.

Then we went to a bowling alley, and I nipped to the bathroom. There were non-gendered bathrooms, which was nice. I adjusted my binder and made sure I looked okay, and then went to join my friends in the bowling alley. They'd already paid for two lanes and entered everyone's names. They'd split up the group into “men” and “women”, and included me among the latter.

Do you want to know what the dysphoria felt like? I will tell you. It felt not unlike a panic attack: waves of nausea would crash over me, so intense I could barely stand upright, and then recede just enough to make me think I could cope before hitting me again in full force.

I am not very good at confronting issues head-on, and anyway I didn't want to ruin anyone else's fun, so I did not say anything. And it's not that I expect my friends to read my mind or anything – I haven't spoken about it openly with many of them and I don't expect them all to be totally sensitive about it – but they see the gender-neutral pronoun buttons I wear; they know gender is kind of a difficult subject for me; they know I prefer gender-neutral language wherever possible.

They should've fucking known this would upset me.

Like, I don't know, maybe gender dysphoria is trivial or a joke to them; but it's really, really painful for me. Every time someone uses female pronouns for me, it stings a little; every time someone calls attention to my assumed femaleness in a major way, it's like a punch in the gut. It really does feel like a physical injury.

The other day one of my friends referred to me as a “girl”. I didn't say anything, but afterward I cried about it in the shower.

All my life, I've been suppressing this. At a very, very early age I intuited the need to suppress it. I assumed every girl wanted to be a boy, but nobody talked about it because (a) it would upset their mother and (b) there was nothing you could do about it anyway. I channeled all of these feelings into fiction: I desperately sought out novels written by female authors from the perspective of a male character as legitimation that it was okay to do this, and I wrote all my own stories from the perspective of boys or gender-non-conforming girls. I guess the gender policing I encountered as a very small child made it clear to me that “not being a girl” would have to sit alongside “walking with dinosaurs” and “solving mysteries” as belonging to the realm of pure imagination.

Well, guess what? I give up. I give up trying to be who everyone wants me to be. I don't have a clue who I am, but I know who I'm not. The bowling incident has made that crystal clear: if I were a woman, it would not have upset me so much to be called one.

I packed up my not-girl-ness in a box marked PURE FANTASY at a very early age. Inside the box, it festered and grew; now it's a big ugly mess that has burst free of the childhood fetters, and what it will look like once I've given it two decades' worth of care and attention is anybody's guess.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Coming Out To Myself

Some people face a lot of hostility when they come out. They lose friends. Their parents disown them. They get beaten or killed.

I am not one of those people. All of my friends were super-cool; my parents were a bit weird at first (well, they still are sometimes), but they mostly got over it; I've been threatened, but never subject to physical violence. I've had the tremendous good fortune to live in queer-friendly communities.

I am very, very lucky. The biggest obstacle in my coming-out process was myself.

The hard part of coming out to myself was not actually figuring out my attractions. It was entirely clear to me quite early on that I did not want to have sex with boys and that I did want to have sex with girls. That, to be honest, was never in doubt.

That's why one older queer person's advice to me when I admitted my confusion about my sexuality – “Have sex with a guy and have sex with a girl, and see which one you like more” – was so profoundly unhelpful. Which one I would like more was definitely not the issue.

What was the issue – what I mean when I refer to “coming out to myself” – was deconstructing my internalized heterosexism.

By “internalized heterosexism,” I mean the deeply ingrained idea that straight is default and gay is Other. This idea pervades our culture like air, and is similarly taken for granted. I feel like a lot of straight people don't ever think about it.

Take my parents. They're good upstanding bleeding-heart liberals; they'd be horrified if anyone had ever suggested that they were homophobic. “We have gay friends!” they would say. “We'd never dream of saying there was anything wrong with being gay.” And of course they wouldn't; but they brought me and my brothers up with the assumption that we would be straight – that we would be like them. When we were small, they would talk about “one day when you get married,” “one day when you have kids.” My mother would give me unsolicited advice about dating men, which I would remember and be grateful for “one day.” And, sure, as we got older we were periodically told, “If any of you are gay that is totally okay,” but there was an almost dismissively hypothetically tone to it. If you were gay, we would be totally fine with that. But you're not, because being gay is something that happens to other people.

I honestly believed that. When I was a teenager, I would write shit in my diary like, “I'm not gay – I'm just homosexual,” because I couldn't be gay. Gay was Other; straight was default; to myself I am the ultimately default, and therefore I cannot be gay. The fact that I fit all the apparent criteria for being gay – 1. be gay; 2. oh wait that's it – was not sufficient for me to overcome the internalized heterosexism that told me I couldn't be gay. There must be some additional criterion, some test you had to take, some qualification you had to earn, some card you had to have… something that granted you gayness the way a power ring makes you a Green Lantern.

It took me a few years, but eventually I realized that there is no external criterion of gayness. There's no gay Guardians of the Universe, bestowing the quality of being gay on those who have proved themselves worthy. I had been unnecessarily problematizing my gayness by positing a false consciousness whereby the Otherness of “gay” required external validation before I could self-identify as such; but there is no difference between “I think I'm gay” and “I'm gay.” The only thing telling me there was a difference was my internalized heterosexism: the mechanism whereby gay was Other, and therefore Not Me. When I finally let myself participate in gayness – visiting websites for gay people, watching TV shows with gay characters, simply writing down “I am a lesbian” – I was able to dissolve that mechanism. Goodbye, internalized heterosexism. Hello, self-actualization.

It was tremendously freeing, letting all that deeply ingrained ugliness go like so much dust in the wind. Now I just have to figure out how to do the same thing with my internalized cissexism.