Saturday, April 21, 2007

Should Atheists Come Out?

Not an atheist, obviously, but I found this question very interesting since I've argued for this very thing over at Mitch Stephen's blog and to atheist/agnostic friends. I came across this debate at DU and thought I'd weigh in with a refutation of some of the problems in the discussion and some hopefully helpful answers. (Considering some of the participants are those who have repeatedly attacked me, I think you can understand why I'm doing it here rather than there.)

Atheist v. Gay, which is harder?

I've never quite liked the oppression pissing contest, especially since the difficulty of being (insert minority here) depends upon one's personal circumstance. Coming out as a gay person in the Bible Belt is much more difficult than coming out in New York. Coming out as an atheist in a non-religious family would be easier than coming out if you're the son or daughter of a minister, rabbi, etc. So, we can't simply compare in some general way the experiences of gay people and atheists. Experience is far too subjective for that.

The only objective measurement that can be made is on the legal, social position of each group. Currently, as mentioned in the discussion, gay people are denied thousands of rights/benefits that atheists are not. Dozens of state constitutions establish gay people as a separate, unequal class. Not so for atheists. Discrimination against gay people is legal in most of the country, with few state/local protections and no federal protections for gay people under anti-discrimination, equal opportunity, or hate crimes legislation. Not so for atheists, who are protected by the "religion" classification in these laws. In a handful of states, consensual, same-sex sexual activity remains a felony.

Does community make the difference?

Yes, gay people today are far more organized (despite our being one of the most diverse minorities in history, composed of myriad groups with often-conflicting interests and aims) than atheists. This is in large part due to the decades-long emphasis on coming out. Atheists, however, have far more resources than people seem to realize, from secular humanist organizations to online communities to atheist/skeptic publications and societies. None of these organizations are now or have ever been illegal.

Early gay activists came out in an era when: Simply wearing clothing of the opposite sex could get you arrested. Gay bars were illegal, forcing dancing couples to switch partners with a couple of the opposite sex at the flick of the lights to avoid arrest. Gay sex was illegal in 49 states. Police regularly raided gay establishments and kept "pink lists" of known homosexuals, who were then reported to family members and employers. Homosexuality was considered a severe mental illness by the APA, AMA, and other medical/mental health organizations. It was illegal for a gay person to immigrate to the United States. I can go on and on.

Access to LGBT organizations does make it easier for many gay people to find support after they've come out or when they are preparing to do so. This does not blunt the horrible reaction many have to a family member or friend coming out. Even now, however, many gay people (especially youth) do not have ready access to the community when they come out. Where social resources exist, they are a result of people bravely taking the first step to create safe havens for gay people in often dangerous environments.

So, should you come out?

Absolutely.

Whether you're gay or an atheist, being in the closet can be easier than coming out. However, the psychological effects of treating a central aspect of your identity as something that should be hidden or as an object of shame can be devastating.

Also, while the masses of gay people (in the past) and atheists (now) remain hidden, the worst amongst you get all the attention. As I mentioned in my earlier post, atheists are often publicly represented by drooling imbeciles who arrogantly attack innocent people who may otherwise be your allies or who simply need assistance in understanding what atheism is and who atheists are. Their behavior reflects on you and harms you considerably.

The same was true for gay people before we began coming out in droves. The only exposure most people had to homosexuals were the stories of police raids on public bathrooms and bathhouses where gay men were engaging in often casual sexual encounters. The lurid details that filled the pages of the daily paper and the screens of movie theatres across the country supported the stereotype of gay people as sexual deviants.

Coming out allows people to be exposed to the tremendous diversity of the gay or atheist communities. They get to see the humanity of neighbors, friends, family members, coworkers, teachers, lawyers, doctors, soldiers, sailors, etc. rather than the stereotype. Without this opportunity, many who would be our allies otherwise, who genuinely would like to understand, may end up either ambivalent or ignorant of the realities of our lives. This helps those who hate us and harms us all.

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