Is There Room in Atheism for Trans People?
June 15, 2018
I’m just going to come out and say it: atheism has a problem with transgender people, especially in online circles. Atheist and secular communities have had issues with diversity for as long as they have existed, and while the demographics have shifted slightly over the years, atheism as a movement is still predominantly white, straight, cisgender (i.e. not transgender), and male. Those who hold marginalized identities, like people of color, women, and LGBT+ folks have consistently been driven away from atheist spaces due to harassment and prejudice.
I’ve experienced some of this first hand by daring to be visibly and openly queer online and talk about my identities. I’ve been called mentally ill, been referred to as “it” and “thing,” had people discuss my body in detail, experienced vulgar sexual comments about how they would “cure” me of my sexuality, and so much more that I can’t even begin to list it all. And I’m not the only one. There are so many stories of marginalized people being driven out of atheist groups due to the sheer amount of abuse and discrimination hurled their way; trans people are no exception.
Probably one of the most frustrating aspects of the prejudice against trans people in atheist communities is the fact that many online atheists view themselves as the arbiters of pure reason and logic and the saviors who will rescue the masses from the evil oppression of religion. Yet many of these atheist saviors immediately turn around and heap more oppression and hatred onto trans people and other marginalized groups just as religious people often do. Their war cry is “science says I’m right” and the hill they want to die on is that your genitalia and/or chromosomes determine some intrinsic part of your being, despite all evidence to the contrary. Obviously I’m making some generalizations about online atheist communities, but this attitude is so prevalent in these spaces that you would be hard pressed to find an openly trans atheist who hasn’t faced this kind of discriminatory rhetoric.
This exclusionary attitude ultimately only harms the atheist movement as a whole. “But wait!” I hear you cry, “What even is the atheist movement and why does it matter if it’s diverse?” I’m glad you asked, imaginary reader. While yes, atheism itself is merely the lack of belief in a god or gods, atheism as a movement has seen several iterations over the years and for the most part seeks to bolster separation of church and state, fight religious abuses, support science education, and fight for other causes that tend to have significant overlap with secularism and humanism. This overlap with humanist values is precisely why modern atheism needs to seek to be more inclusive. Atheists are diverse since the only thing they are guaranteed to have in common is a lack of religious belief, so why should only a certain demographic get to participate and feel comfortable in the movement?
For a group of people who seem to value science and logic so highly, when it comes to trans people, science seems to go out the window. Often online atheists like to play the card that “science says there are only two genders” despite the fact that their understanding of biology has very clearly not advanced since the 9th grade. This is not intended as an insult, but merely as an observation that the fixation on chromosomes or genitalia being the end all and be all of biological sex reflects a decidedly elementary understanding of how biological science defines sex. Online atheists also often conflate sex and gender as being interchangeable, despite the fact that science disagrees with them on that too. Too often claims to the contrary are dismissed using the epithet “SJW” meaning “social justice warrior,” a term used to deride those who are considered “too extreme” in their acceptance of other people or their desire for “political correctness.” Certainly not all online atheists feel this way as I myself am an online atheist, as are many of my friends (none of whom hold these uneducated perspectives). Again, this is a description of general trends and the most common attitudes I’ve encountered among online atheists.
All of this is to say, there is a dire need for education on transgender identities, as well as sex and gender in general. While there are already trans educators out there doing this important work, cisgender atheists need to step up and work on educating themselves and their peers as well. There are tons of resources online that provide information on terminology, how to respect trans people, and other relevant topics (see the links below for some examples). Trans folks deserve respect and to be a part of the atheist community as well, especially considering how many of them have suffered at the hands of religious zealotry. The least cisgender atheists could do is make some room at the table.
Some helpful educational resources on trans identities:
- GLAAD Transgender FAQ
- The Trevor Project Trans + Gender Identity 101
- Why Pronouns Are Important
- Gender Identity Glossary
- Style Guide for Writing About Trans People
About the Author: EJ SorrellEJ is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin double majoring in Aerospace Engineering and Women's and Gender Studies with a minor in Chemistry. They have been actively invovled with the secular movement after joining UT Austin's chapter of the Secular Student Alliance their freshman year. They are currently entering their second year as president of that chapter. EJ is passionate about feminism, LGBT+ rights, secularism, and diversity in the atheist movement. They are an Outreach Intern with the Center for Inquiry in Summer 2018.
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