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

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.
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.

The atheist community has been struggling with sexism for years. Next week, a number of atheists will gather to address this at the third Women in Secularism conference, sponsored by the Center for Inquiry.

Among those planning to attend is Kayley Whalen, an atheist and queer transgender woman who currently works for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Formerly a development associate at the American Humanist Association, Whalen is an activist and writer who has made waves promoting trans acceptance as a member of the D.C. Rollergirls.

I spoke with Whalen about her journey to acceptance, how atheists can be trans allies and advocates, sexism and harassment in the atheist movement, and her work as an atheist, interfaith, and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) activist.

Chris Stedman: Can you share your story?

Kayley Whalen: My journey to living as the out and proud queer, atheist transgender woman I am now has involved a great deal of personal reexamination—and open defiance of other people’s expectations of me as someone assigned male at birth and raised Catholic.

From as early as I can remember, I’ve been insatiably curious, always studying the world. While I found schoolwork exhilarating—especially science—I often used my studies as a way to shield myself from interacting with other kids. In elementary school I was picked on for being a teacher’s pet, a loner, and for being overly sensitive. There was even a song some kids made up to mock me for crying. Puberty was even more difficult, and I especially struggled with the macho, misogynist culture I was surrounded by in the Boy Scouts and playing men’s sports.

But when I went to a science and tech high school, new possibilities opened for me while being surrounded by peers who shared my love of learning. When I joined my high school’s theater group, everything started to change. They became a chosen family. I bonded instantly with several queer women and gender-bending men while putting on plays like Macbeth and Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit. I developed a new feminist, queer-positive outlook, and I found new meaning in the arts and philosophy. My loneliness abated, and I shed my religious beliefs.

My gender proved a more difficult puzzle. For years people, myself included, tried to fit me in a box of a gay man because of my disinterest in masculine activities. But my femininity had never been driven by an attraction to men—as I am primarily attracted to women—but, instead, by a deep sense that the façade of male-ness I’d been forced to wear simply didn’t fit.

At my first transgender conference, I met two people that society told me couldn’t possibly exist: two tough, confident dykes who happened to be transgender women. New possibilities opened for me again, and at that moment I knew who I was meant to be. Within a few months I was going by a female name, had started hormones, and was helping run my college’s Women’s Resource Center. And soon after that I experienced my first lesbian relationship with a beautiful, creative woman whom I am still close to today.

CS: You used to work for the American Humanist Association and now work for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. How does Humanism inform your passion for activism?

KW: Humanism helps give me a set of guiding principles in my activism, and a vision for a transformed society based on compassion, reason, and justice. I’m passionate about questioning everything, and that passion is why I stand up against those who would police my identity based on false concepts of “traditional” or “natural” gender roles and sexuality.

CS: How do you feel as a transgender person in the atheist community?

KW: I know many other atheists and Humanists in the transgender community, but not very many who are as passionate as me about building atheist community. That said, almost all of the atheist trans people I know are involved in activism of some kind. However, there are so many pressing issues facing the trans community that focusing solely on issues such as church-state separation and fighting for science in schools—while tied to so many of our struggles—often takes a back seat to addressing more immediate concerns such as tackling homelessness, unemployment, ending police brutality and the criminalization of trans people.

CS: What can atheists and Humanists do to be advocates and allies? 

KW: As science continues to explore sexuality and gender, we understand more and more about the wide range of diversity of gender and sexuality. We must stand together in celebrating this diversity as healthy to our society, and stand against anyone who dismisses LGBTQ identities as unnatural or immoral.

One example is fighting the stigma and discrimination transgender people face when seeking gender-affirming medical care.  The medical community has spoken—gender dysphoria is a treatable condition, and health insurance plans should cover that care. But to this day, most insurance companies still routinely exclude transgender care from being covered based on outdated, discriminatory understandings of gender. It is up to our advocates and allies to fight for access to comprehensive medical care for all

We also must consciously make our atheist communities fully inclusive and welcoming to transgender people—and here’s an excellent resource to help make that happen.

CS: How do you think transgender voices are being considered in the atheist movement’s struggle against sexism and harassment?

Many atheists and transgender people feel isolated or silenced, which I definitely relate to. I think it’s one reason so many of us turn to the Internet for support, community, and to feel heard.

That has upsides and downsides. It’s hard to develop deep bonds with people you rarely see in person. In-person meetups can often feel exclusive and clique-y and, among atheists, often heterosexual white-male dominated. We wait for months to reconnect with each other at conferences. Divorced from the humanizing nature of face-to-face interaction, online arguments, flame wars and Internet trolling can spiral out of control.

We’ve seen this cause major tension and outright hostility between queer transgender women and drag queens, and we’ve seen it with so-called “Elevatorgate” or, more recently, the responses to Melody Hensley. Our communities eat each other alive.

This is why I believe organizing community solely around identity is sometimes less useful than organizing around shared values. If someone doesn’t believe in God but thinks women are inferior to men, I don’t consider them an ally—or even someone who is part of the same movement towards social justice and equality that I am.

CS: Speaking of shared values: You’ve been an advocate for interfaith activism, and for nontheists having a voice in it. Why?

KW: In order to change hearts and minds as we fight for a more just society, we need to look beyond political movements based solely on identity—LGBTQ, atheist, and so on—to building movements based on shared values. I’m happy to work alongside religious individuals who, for example, know that religious exemption laws that would allow employers to deny birth control coverage, or would allow businesses to not serve LGBTQ people, are simply smokescreens for sexism and bigotry.

When I was in Royal Oak, Michigan last year working to get voters to pass a city-wide LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinance, I was able to have meaningful conversations with many religious individuals about our shared values—and, at the same time, we also had faith organizers working directly with congregations. We narrowly won that campaign, and I know that important victory for LGBTQ people would never have happened without our interfaith outreach.


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  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.