Many atheist, humanist and secularist groups loudly and proudly proclaim their trans-inclusivity. But if religious fundamentalists are the major drivers and funders of organised transphobia, why does it remain so prevalent in AHS+ spaces?
Facts don’t care about your feelings
Many of us in the AHS+ community rightly dismiss people’s feelings when they are used as the sole basis for unscientific claims or to defend injustices. We understand that somebody’s “feeling” that there just has to be a higher power somewhere is not an argument for the existence of a god or gods, because they are using these feelings to make a judgement about the external world. However, this should not morph into the idea that feelings are of no value, or people’s feelings can’t tell us something about how they should be treated in a just society.
When a trans woman, or for that matter a cis woman, claims that she is a woman, or describes how she would like to be treated, or her favourite ice cream flavour, she is describing facts about her own internal mind.
Science is on our side
Think of the major sources of public controversy surrounding science where AHS+ people are almost uniformly on the right side. A basic high school understanding of science is generally good enough to engage with these debates. If you’ve completed primary school, you should be able to refute creationism, an A-level in biology qualifies you to debunk any vaccine denying alternative medicine conspiracist.
Most of us amateurs know that experts understand these issues far better than us. But for whatever reason, many of us don’t seem to accept that the science of sex and gender is far more complex, and potentially disagrees with what we learnt in school.
In school I learnt that humans have two chromosomally defined sexes. But while this is broadly accurate, and enough for your Science GCSE, the biology is actually far more complex, and the inner experience of gender even more so.
It would be far simpler if everyone advocating harmful anti-trans view and practices was a moustache twirling villain. Unfortunately, there are giants of the AHS+ movement, including those with previously strong feminist credentials, those who have been on the unpopular but progressive side of so many social issues, who are on the wrong side of trans rights. I can only imagine what it’s like for trans-friends to see people who should be, and may have been, their heroes take these deeply hurtful and ignorant stances. There is no pope of atheism or prophet of secularism, but we have leaders with platforms and followers, and too many are letting us down.
Different AHS+ spaces have very different demographics. A local humanist meeting will usually have an older demographic than a Skeptics in the Pub meetup. Many AHS+ spaces, particularly online, are very male dominated. Trans, and non-binary, people have been with us throughout history, but trans-issues have risen enormously in public visibility over the last decade, and mainstream ideas about appropriate language have evolved rapidly. It could be that the older members of our community are more likely to be out of touch with these changes, or that dynamics of toxic masculinity play a role.
Social justice and prejudice in society
Many AHS+ people feel let down by, and disconnected from, wider social justice movements with their seeming blind spot to religious privilege. I hope we can repair this disconnect, without compromising on AHS+ values, and recover from the stream of anti-woke and anti-social justice sentiment within our community.
Transphobia, and other forms of prejudice pervade society, including internalised within marginalised groups and their allies. AHS+ people and communities are not a special case, freed by the powers of our awesome rationality from the habits of wider society. Sometimes we will be wrong on certain issues or be made aware of prejudices we didn’t even realise we had internalised, and we will need to re-evaluate our positions. We should expect AHS+ communities to be at the forefront of challenging these prejudices – and compared to wider society we are – but expecting them to be entirely eradicated may be a target we can only strive for.
We’re the good guys
It is absolutely no coincidence that the rise of AHS+ movements has coincided in the West with a rapid expansion of LGBTQ rights and equalities. LGBTQ people are significantly overrepresented in nonreligious communities and the leadership of AHS+ groups. Ask many AHS+ people what our movement’s bigger successes have been and the rapid expansion of access to same-sex marriage is likely to be a very popular answer.
Many of us have got so used to seeing ourselves as the ‘good guys’ on gay and lesbian issues, or at least seen religious fundamentalists as so clearly the ‘bad guys’, that we’ve become overconfident in this status and blind to how we’ve fallen short.
There was a time where homophobia was so widespread in society that it didn’t need to hide under the umbrella of religion. For many AHS+ groups, it doesn’t matter how you dress up your homophobia in pseudo-secular terms, we still see that as a problem of religion, or religious -like dogmatism. We need to treat transphobia the same.
Edge lords, contrarians and the ‘intellectual dark web’
Religious privilege and the strong societal taboo against criticising it means AHS+ activism has attracted those more willing (or by virtue of their privilege more able) to transgress. But this willingness to offend and attack societal norms in pursuit of a fairer, more rational world, has mutated. Some AHS+ people like to see themselves as contrarians, bravely questioning anything, unencumbered by the “intellectual weakness” that comes from considering others’ emotions. While we still have a long way to go, the increased normalisation of nonreligious views and criticism of religion has led some of these people to seek new ‘edgier’ issues.
Thanks for reading
To my trans and non-binary friends, who may feel worried that there isn’t a space in the AHS+ community for you, where you will be safe, valued and affirmed, I’m so sorry. I will continue to work hard to make sure you are welcome, at least here.
Everyone, please let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to read more. This certainly won’t be my last post on this topic.
Are there trans and trans-supporting activists in the AHS+ community, you’d like me to interview? Would you be interested in an article reaching out to people in our community who buy into anti-trans ideas? Would you prefer an article which was more focussed on possible solutions?
If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.