Coming Out: Gay vs. Atheist

June 6, 2012

June is LGBT Pride Month. And the LGBT movement can take pride in many accomplishments. In the space of a few decades, gays have moved from being pariahs and criminals to being generally accepted in many parts of the U.S. The transformation in the political, legal, and social landscape has been nothing short of astonishing.

Same-sex marriage is now legal in several states, and whatever the outcome of the litigation over DOMA or Proposition 8, polling data suggests an increasing number of people are willing to support marriage equality.

One major factor in the increasing acceptance of LGBT individuals has been the willingness of many of them to come “out,” that is, to make their sexual orientation known to others. It is much more difficult to hate someone who you have known as a friend, colleague, or relative. Negative stereotypes persist in part because many people don’t have personal experiences that contradict the stereotypes.

For similar reasons, secular organizations such as the Center for Inquiry have urged atheists and other freethinkers to be open and candid about their beliefs. Many Americans remain bigoted toward atheists. One reason this prejudice remains is that many people don’t have experiences that contradict all the negative information about the nonreligious that they have been fed for most of their lives, such as the claim that atheists are immoral or untrustworthy.

Or at least they think they have not had experiences that contradict these claims. The irony is that some of those who are prejudiced against atheists probably are acquainted with atheists—they’re just not aware of this. The reason they are not aware of this fact is that many atheists remain closeted. They have not revealed their skepticism to others because they are concerned about the reaction they will encounter—and not without reason.

But, of course, they need to overcome this fear. Like the LGBT movement, the secular movement will not gain real traction unless and until the majority of atheists come out in the open.

So there’s little question that encouraging fellow atheists to come out is a good thing; we will not make substantial progress unless people do come out, and coming out is a tactic that will have some success.

However, here I have to register a note of caution. I don’t think coming out will have the same level of success for atheists as it’s had for LGBT individuals. Why? Because even after we come out, some fear will persist. For some, the level of fear, the sense of being threatened, may actually increase.

There’s a big difference between being gay and being an atheist. Someone can persuade you to be an atheist; no one is going to persuade you to be gay (no matter what the extremist anti-gay propaganda says).

I don’t foresee a best-selling book entitled The Straight Delusion or Heterosexuality Poisons Everything. The LGBT community wants acceptance; they don’t want to persuade others to join their “team,” and even if they had that objective, they would strive for it in vain.

By contrast, the amount of literature that has been produced in the last decade criticizing religious belief is extensive and continues to grow. Moreover, these critiques of religion seem to have had some effect.

Of course, many atheists have little or no interest in persuading the religious to abandon their beliefs. They merely want to be treated as equals and to end the influence that religion has on public policy. That doesn’t matter. The realization that many atheists once were religious and then “lost” their faith has an unnerving effect on some of the religious. How far will atheism spread? Will I be next? Or my children?

Gays are different, but they don’t send the message that heterosexuals are mistaken about their sexuality. On the other hand, not only are atheists different, but explicitly or implicitly, they are telling the faithful that they’re mistaken about a core commitment—for some the core commitment—of their lives. As the number of open atheists increases—and this seems likely—we can expect some religious to become more defensive, more strident in promoting their beliefs. They will regard themselves as under attack.

No matter how accepting straight people are of gays, heterosexuals don’t have to worry about becoming a small minority. When headlines proclaim that religion is becoming “extinct” in some countries, anxiety will be felt by some of the religious.

Nothing in the foregoing should be interpreted as suggesting we atheists should keep our beliefs under wraps to calm the fears of the religious. To the contrary, I firmly advocate the “coming out” of atheists and other freethinkers. Not only is it something we atheists should do to maintain our integrity, but, on the whole, it will be beneficial in reducing the level of prejudice against atheists. However, the path to acceptance may be a bit longer and rougher than it has been for our LGBT friends.




#1 Rogi Riverstone (Guest) on Wednesday June 06, 2012 at 5:56am

By using the word, “Gay” to mean “QUILTBAG,” your message, while well-meaning, erases the rest of us. We’re not all cis-gendered males who love other males or want to marry one.

QUOTE: QUILTBAG is an acronym. It stands for Queer/Questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transgender/Transsexual, Bisexual, Allied/Asexual, Gay/Genderqueer. It is meant to be a more inclusive term than GLBT/LGBT and to be more pronounceable (and memorable) than some of the other variations or extensions on the GLBT/LGBT abbreviation.

#2 jerrys on Wednesday June 06, 2012 at 5:24pm


I think the segmentation of non-straight sexuality has gotten completely out of hand.  Even if QUILTBAG seems to cover everything today, tomorrow there will be more.  I prefer simply saying “Alternative sexual orientations” or something like that to cover all current and future categories. 

Incidentally according to wikipedia (on 6/6/2012)  “Queer is an umbrella term for sexual minorities”  which would mean that “Queer” would cover it all and you don’t need anything else.  But wikipedia isn’t a source I trust on this kind of issue. 

For the record, I am a straight man.

#3 DebGod on Wednesday June 06, 2012 at 8:30pm

Hi Jerry,

You say, “For the record, I am a straight man.”  After the comment you made, that isn’t surprising.

QUILTBAG is not a term I favor, but I get the idea, which is that “gay” doesn’t cover so, so much.  You might already know that gender expression isn’t the same as sexual orientation.  Intersex isn’t the same as gay or transgender.  The distinctions exist and are useful.  Maybe in your standard world you don’t need them, but it’s useful in my world—and respectful—to know the difference between a cisgendered bisexual woman, a gay transman, and a genderqueer asexual female.  If we’re all together in a bunch, “queer” might cover it, but don’t you see that it’s useful in many circumstances to make the distinctions, just as it’s useful to have an inclusive and descriptive umbrella term?  (Isn’t that how language works?)

#4 DebGod on Wednesday June 06, 2012 at 8:49pm

There are a few ideas here that I’d like to question.

“Someone can persuade you to be an atheist; no one is going to persuade you to be gay (no matter what the extremist anti-gay propaganda says).”

Yes, people can be “persuaded” to be gay.  Having an environment that’s open and accepting of gay individuals allows more individuals to be comfortable with being out and being gay, instead of perhaps hiding it shamefully and engaging in with “normal” heterosexual behavior (marriage, kids, whatever).  For example, consider Michele Bachmann’s perspective on this, as well as the difference between inclination and behavior.

“I don’t foresee a best-selling book entitled The Straight Delusion…”

I can *totally* see that book!  “The Straight Delusion: How Everyone (Including You!) is Really at Least a Little Bit Bisexual.” 

“The realization that many atheists once were religious and then ‘lost’ their faith has an unnerving effect on some of the religious. How far will atheism spread? Will I be next? Or my children?”

The realization that many out LGB individuals were once straight before “losing” their heterosexuality…I actually do think this is part of the homophobic narrative for some people; don’t you?

“Gays are different, but they don’t send the message that heterosexuals are mistaken about their sexuality.”

At the least, many heterosexuals get the message that they might be mistaken about sexuality!  Also, I believe that a lot of homophobia is driven by heterosexual individuals feeling threatened by LGBT individuals — the straight individuals feel that the LGBT individuals are telling them that they’re mistaken about their sexuality.

Just some thoughts.

#5 jerrys on Wednesday June 06, 2012 at 10:41pm

I think you misunderstood me.  I didn’t mean to suggest that there weren’t distinctions to be made.  On the contrary I was suggesting that there are many distinctions to be made. But if there is a community of interest then both members of the community and outsiders need a single term that refers to the community rather than using a long, ever growing list of all the sub categories. 

I apologize for having suggested “alternative sexual orientation”.  I shouldn’t have done so because I’m not a member of the community and I believe in the principle that the members of a community ought to be allowed to pick their own way to refer to themselves.  So if they want to use LGBT, LGBTQ or QUITBAG to refer to themselves I’ll be happy to go along.

#6 Jeri Devlin (Guest) on Thursday June 07, 2012 at 7:28am

In my GLBTQIA group we use specific terms, but my friends also use “GSM (Gender and Sexual Minorities) and allies” to refer to the all inclusive group.  I don’t particularly like GSM, but it’s what our young members seem to prefer.

#7 DebGod on Thursday June 07, 2012 at 2:21pm

Hey @jerrys,

Ah, thanks for clarifying your intent.  Your sentence “I think the segmentation of non-straight sexuality has gotten completely out of hand” implied to me a different point of view.

I think one of the issues is that “the community” doesn’t have one way of describing itself.  Some people are happy with the term “gay community,” but that doesn’t obviously doesn’t cover trans* individuals, etc.

It’s my understanding that many (mostly older) gay men and lesbians are uncomfortable with use of the term “queer,” although I think it’s increasing in popularity; maybe it’ll even become the standard term down the road.

Labels are slippery things, yeah?  I just saw yet another online discussion over use of African American v. black, and you and I both know how often people in our own movement argue about whether it’s the atheist, skeptic, secular, or whatever else movement.  Maybe the movement will one day create an awkward acronym that sums up “alternative worldviews.”  Let’s see…instead of atheist/agnostic/skeptic/secular/humanist/rationalist/freethinker/bright, I get:


Okay, just kidding.

#8 Ronald A. Lindsay on Sunday June 10, 2012 at 7:56am

Thanks to everyone for their comments.

On the language issue, human sexuality and its expression is so varied, there’s never going to be two, three, or even four terms that cover everyone. Even straights or heterosexuals can’t be grouped together for all purposes, as the only thing that places them in the same category is their lack of cross-gender expression or activity—and if DebGod is right, people may even be bi without knowing it (more on that below). I would say this: in some contexts it makes sense to make fine distinctions; in others, one should be able to use an umbrella term(s) provided they are respectful. I note that when HuffPo reposted my essay, they put it in the category of “Gay Voices,”—obviously imprecise, but I think acceptable. (Although given the subject of the post it really belonged in the Religion category anyway.)

DebGod raises some interesting issues in comment #4. Sure, there have been some people who suppressed/denied their sexuality (even to themselves) because of their environment, and once they found themselves in a more open environment, they had the opportunity to express their true selves. I’m skeptical whether that’s true of all heteros, however, or even a substantial number of them. I would say the burden is on you to establish your “there’s a bit of bi in all of us” thesis—so I look forward to your forthcoming book (just remember who gave you the idea for the title!)

By the way, the man-on-man sex (or woman-on-woman sex) that occurs in confinement, such as prisons, obviously is not evidence for your thesis. That’s faute de mieux activity, and is no more indicative of the participants’ true inclinations than a gay man’s marriage to a woman in the 1950’s was an accurate indicator of his orientation.

And you’re correct that on the far right there is this fear that their sons/daughters may be seduced into becoming LGBT—especially if they have LGBT individuals as teachers. But this is largely an irrational fear. Again, except for those individuals who acquire a better understanding of their sexuality by being in a more open environment, people don’t become LGBT simply because they are acquainted with LGBT individuals. Furthermore, one typically cannot persuade someone to become LGBT by an argument in a book or lecture. By contrast, one can persuade some theists that their beliefs are unfounded through argument.

#9 DebGod on Wednesday June 13, 2012 at 10:11pm

Clarification: I did not state that I believe that everyone is a little bit bisexual, nor do I believe that to be true — so sorry, I won’t be writing a book on the topic.  Some people say it and some people believe it (and wasn’t Freud one of them?), so I could indeed imagine a book with a title like “The Straight Delusion.”

You said, “By the way, the man-on-man sex (or woman-on-woman sex) that occurs in confinement, such as prisons, obviously is not evidence for your thesis.”  If this is relating to “The Straight Delusion,” again, that’s not a thesis I offered.  (I had to go look up “faute de mieux.”  I learned new words!)

Regarding the last paragraph, I’m glad you agree that there are those on the far right who believe one can “catch” homosexuality, as irrational as that may seem.  I do think that one of the fears is that the acceptance of “out” LGBT individuals in the public square leads to increasing numbers of individuals who feel comfortable being “out,” and the Bachmann-types might agree that one can have same-sex inclinations but should consider these shameful and sinful and live a hetero “lifestyle” anyway.

Sigh.  We have a lot of work to do!

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