Donate to RNS

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

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.

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.