Why atheists should care about transgender issues: A conversation with Kayley Whalen

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Activist Kayley Whalen, announcing a D.C. Rollergirls bout.

Activist Kayley Whalen, announcing a D.C. Rollergirls bout. Photo by Pablo Raw, courtesy of Whalen.

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Kayley Whalen, an atheist and queer transgender woman who works for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, talks with RNS about her journey to acceptance and how atheists can be trans allies and advocates.

  • polargirl

    The problem here is that several types of people are conflated as one. It’s more ridiculous than labeling every non-white group of people as colored whether or not they see themselves as such like Jews for example and pretending that it is one common community.

    Look at how well coerced common identity worked out for Yugoslavia and the queer community thinks that they can do better?

  • atheistdude

    It seems more of an issue getting transgender people to care about atheist issues, whereas atheists are almost by default on the side of transgender people. I’d suspect a high percentage of transgender community doesn’t know what an atheist is…that is changing over time, of course.

  • Jemma

    Hahaha, no.

  • I’d suspect a high percentage of transgender community doesn’t know what an atheist is…

    No. That’s simply not true.

    Like the L,G, and B cis communities, there are many, many trans people who have been deeply hurt by religion. Much critique of religion takes place in trans communities, and with that critique, there is a more heightened awareness and acceptance of atheism than you would find in the general populace.

    But, let’s put this in another light. The risk of losing one’s job, abject poverty, violence, and ostracism is way higher when coming out as trans as opposed to coming out as atheist. Cis atheists rarely have to worry about being murdered because of who they are and cis atheists rarely have to turn to sex work to support themselves because no one will hire them and most of their family and friends have turned away. This is not so for trans people, particularly trans people of color, who tend to experience the most virulent consequences of transphobia.

    In my own life, I’ve had far more people react in disgust and outward discomfort when I’ve come out as transgender as opposed to not being Christian, being an atheist, or being an agnostic. And, let us not forget that expressing oneself as a non-believer (or a religious minority for that matter) has far more legal protection than expressing oneself as a trans person. Even in a state that recognizes trans people’s civil rights, I still live in far greater fear that an employer will discover that I’m trans as opposed to discovering that I’m agnostic (and in the past, I experienced far less fear surrounding an employer discovering that I had identified as an atheist).

    So, by sheer need of survival, many trans people quite naturally prioritize trans issue over atheist issues. A similar dynamic happens for many people surrounding issues around sex, nationality, disability, race, immigration status, and many other issues.

    If atheist organizations want to increase people’s levels of interest and trust, it would help to take an approach which emphasizes forming coalitions with various groups who are also impacted negatively by the oppressive side of organized religion. Trans people would certainly be one of those groups. And if cis atheists and agnostics actually care about including more trans atheist/agnostics in their fold (and fostering good will among non-agnostic/atheist trans people), this would be a good move.

    If, however, you prefer atheist organizations and communities with very few trans people, then you needn’t bother with trans issues. We’ve far less resources at our disposal than most cis people and those resources can only be spread so far. We make our choices accordingly. So, if your have little interest in how trans issues intersect with issues surrounding religion, we probably won’t bother showing up. We prioritize what is needed most for our survival.

  • Something went terribly wrong with my blockquote. Only the first sentence should be quoted. 🙁

  • Thanks for this article, Chris. I’ve only seen trans issues given occasional and passing reference in atheist circles. Usually it’s in the form of the “T” being tacked on as an afterthought to the “LGB”. It’s nice to see someone speaking out about this.

    So many atheist circles are centered upon the voices of cis, white, heterosexual, middle class guys who tend to have little interest beyond discussions about the many ways that god doesn’t exist and why religion is inferior to atheism. Once in a while, a little bit of time is devoted to other related issues and then the focus returns to “god’s not real and religious people are stupid, delusional, and immoral”.

    Feeling like you are a wonderful person because you don’t believe in deities can be nice if you’ve been shat upon for not being a believer, but after a while, it can get tiring and dull. There are so many other issues surrounding religion than feeling like a cool, nifty person because you’ve found non-belief.

    My path away from believing in Christianity was catalyzed by a horror and disgust at the notion of a Christian god torturing trans people and other queer people for all eternity. For some of us, our experience as trans people and LGB people is integral to our agnosticism and/or atheism. To not see these issues include in atheist/agnostic spaces only adds insult to past injury. If so much of religion rejects us and much of atheism doesn’t seem to care, then why should we even bother with religious and non-believing groups? It would seem that they are both obsessed with religion in one form or another and not much else matters.

  • samuel Johnston

    I agree with Timberwraith’s analysis. (I think). I am a non believer in any alternative reality, period! I am not happy with the term atheist, because it can imply loyalty to a speculative proposition (the original problem). We all should have the right to change our minds three times before breakfast on any speculative notion.
    To take on some other cause is “mission creep”. There are cause mongers galore, and each has every right to promote their favorite, but it seems to me poor strategy (at least) to adopt a more narrow interest- like gay rights. All are welcome to join us, but not to change the subject. Humanism, on the other hand is a contender for an alternative to atheism, depending on the definition agreed on.

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