Category Archives: Atheism

Not believing in the existence of deities

The silent majority of deplorables

[Image: Screenshot from NBC News of Donald Trump speaking in Iowa, with the caption “What did Donald Trump think of the third night of the DNC?” A quote from Trump reads, “I wanted to hit a couple of those speakers so hard… so hard their heads would spin they’d never recover.”]

Last night, along with the rest of the world, I watched the election returns come in with a growing sense of dread and disgust. Unlike many of my friends reacting on Facebook with shock and horror, however, the result was not entirely surprising to me. This country was built on a foundation of exclusion and oppression of everyone except for straight cisgender white Christian men, and those are the people who Trump correctly predicted constituted the “silent majority” that would carry him to victory.

Although I did not endorse or vote for Hillary Clinton, I don’t want to talk about her flaws, perceived or actual. I don’t want to talk about e-mail servers or Wikileaks or Russian interference or what might have happened if Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic candidate. And I definitely don’t want to talk about third party “spoilers”. Anyone blaming or shaming progressives who voted for third parties, or who didn’t vote at all, needs to keep your comments out of my space.

The only thing I want to address right now is that millions of US-Americans voted for a man who ran on a campaign of unbridled bigotry, bullying, and blatant dishonesty. The people who say they want to “Make America Great Again” are thinking of a time when people like me—a queer black trans atheist—were invisible and openly oppressed, and ridiculed with impunity without any fear of repercussions. A time when joking or bragging about sexually harassing women was more socially acceptable, inside or outside of locker rooms. A time when religious freedom applied only to people practicing different flavors of Christianity.

This oppression and invisibility and rape culture never actually went away, which is what many of those who were shocked with the election results didn’t understand. You all need to understand it now. Donald Trump is the product—the very embodiment—of white supremacy. His people have spoken, and they want to “take back” a country that they never actually lost in the first place.

I am not willing to take this result quietly. I am a pacifist, but not passive; I support loud, angry protests and civil disobedience. Last night, people in a number of cities took to the streets, and that will continue today and likely for the forseeable future. This will not be a peaceful transition of power.

In the meantime, for anyone in the LGBT+ community who is feeling suicidal, please know that there is help out there.  You can call the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 or the Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. Our community is under attack, but we are resilient, and we will get through this if we have each others’ backs.

CeCe McDonald at TDoR SF[Image: CeCe McDonald speaks at the Trans Day of Remembrance, SF.]

I had already planned to spend time with fellow black trans people (and our allies) over the next two days, tonight at the Black Excellence Tour with CeCe McDonald and Joshua Allen, and tomorrow night at the Free CeCe documentary that opens the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival. I will have to miss the Trump protests in San Francisco and Oakland tonight, but it’s important for me to be with some of the people who are most impacted by his bigotry.

I am not OK. I was not OK before the election, and I don’t know if I ever will be OK in the future. If you want to support me, please amplify the voices of the marginalized people who have been speaking out against institutionalized oppression all along. Make our country great, for the first time.

Religion and politics

[Image: Bishop Gene Robinson speaks into a microphone, accompanied by four other ministers.]

Back around 1990, I took a class called “Religion and Politics” from Professor Garry Wills* at Northwestern University. The man—a practicing Catholic—was so unassuming that I mistook him for a janitor on first encounter; I only found out later that he was actually rather famous. I learned from his class that the USA was one of the most religious—Christian, specifically—countries in the world, second only to Ireland in regular church attendance. Twenty-odd years later, I read Society without God by sociologist Phil Zuckerman, and learned that the USA was still far more religious than most other Western countries.

I had these facts in mind when reading an article in The Guardian about the Wikileaks revelation of an apparent DNC strategy to discredit Bernie Sanders based on his supposed atheism. As the article states and as I can verify from my own experience, many Jews in the USA are atheists or agnostics; one can claim a Jewish identity without a belief in God. (Green presidential candidate Jill Stein is an agnostic Jew, for example.) The same cannot be readily said of Christianity, although from reading Society without God I learned that there are many “cultural” Christians in Europe who are actually atheists. (In fact, the countries Zuckerman visited that had official state religions had far, far fewer religious adherents than the USA, where we supposedly have separation of church and state.)

In the article about Sanders, a Jewish supporter of Hillary Clinton states, “I’m gay and America would have less of a problem with a gay president than an atheist president.” I wouldn’t be surprised if this were true. Our country is and always has been overwhelmingly religious, and overwhelmingly Christian. Outside of progressive hubs like the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, atheists are still looked upon with distrust.

Some Christians are becoming more tolerant of the LGBT community, and I’ve spent a lot of time around queer religious people as part of the fight for marriage equality. I took the photo at the top of this post at a Eucharist ceremony (the only one I’ve attended to date), just prior to the 2011 San Francisco Pride Parade. Gene Robinson, pictured speaking, became the first openly gay Episcopalian bishop.

Jerry Peterson and Roland Stringfellow[Image: Jerry Peterson and Reverend Roland Stringfellow embrace at a marriage equality rally.]

I was hired to shoot the parade by Reverend Roland Stringfellow of the Coalition of Welcoming Congregations, pictured above in 2012 with his now-husband Jerry Peterson. Yes, in San Francisco we have plenty of openly gay interracial couples. But we still have respectability politics, and a dark-skinned black man with locs like Stringfellow is still at risk of police profiling, even if he is a Christian minister. (He and his husband-to-be had actually just been released from police custody when I took this photo, but their annual Valentine’s Day marriage equality sit-in at City Hall had been conducted with the police department’s prior knowledge and full cooperation.)

Religion and respectability politics are part of why I’ve heard nearly as much mention of God at the Democratic National Convention as I did at the Republican event. President Obama might have thrown a crumb to atheists by acknowledging “non-believers” in his inaugural address, but we’re still not fully trusted by the US-American public. Religious institutions get tax breaks, God is on our currency and in our Pledge of Allegiance (though the latter only since the 1950s), and most public officials swear in on Bibles. People who don’t care much about religion might not notice or be bothered by it, but when you’re a committed atheist, religion—and Christianity specifically—is very much in-your-face.

Our theistic, Christian foundation is part of why I don’t think our government can be reformed, even by third parties, to my satisfaction. What viable candidate is really going to call for complete pacifism? We now have a pair of vegan candidates in the Humane Party’s Clifton Roberts and Breeze Harper, but I’m still not convinced that continuing with our current system of government is a good plan.

Hearing Democrats at their convention compete with Republicans for who could praise our “great country” and military might the most just crystallized for me how unpatriotic I’ve become. I don’t agree that we’re the greatest country on Earth. I don’t have a better one in mind because I haven’t traveled abroad much. I’m just not into this “us versus them” mentality. I’m a US citizen by accident of birth, not by choice. And I’m questioning more and more every day whether or not I really want to stay here.

*ETA: Interesting analysis (from 1995) by Wills of the right to bear arms, in light of our country’s current debate over the Second Amendment.

Thou shalt not kill

[Image: Assorted kitchen knives on a magnetic strip.]

I’m having trouble coping in a world that seems resigned to the inevitability of killing. Deliberate, premeditated killing. Whether of our “enemies” in other countries, “thugs” on our streets, or “livestock” on our farms, there always seem to be exceptions to the commandment that billions of people claim to live by: “Thou shalt not kill.”

As a pacifist, I don’t want guns “controlled,” I want them gone. All of them, not just “assault weapons” but handguns, rifles, and every other tool designed for the specific purpose of killing another person. I include animals as people, so I’m not interested in exceptions for killing a charging bear in the wilderness (for example). Humans—with the possible exception of the few remaining indigenous groups that have kept mostly to themselves—have encroached on the territory of other animals far too much already. (I’m not opposed to using tranquilizers and other non-lethal means to fend off attackers, however.)

The abolition of guns and other lethal weapons cannot and will not take place through legislation alone. Even without guns, humans will just kill each other with cars or knives. Eliminating murder completely might be impossible, but I have to believe that we can evolve beyond this culture of killing, even if it will take what seems like a miracle.

As an atheist, I’m not praying to any gods for a miracle, but I leave open the possibility that help might arrive through extraordinary means. I recently re/watched the entirety of Star Trek, from the original series through Enterprise. The one episode that stuck with me the most was “Errand of Mercy“. This was not because it was the episode that first introduced the Klingons, but because of another species: The Organians. Disguised as humans, they revealed themselves to be powerful beings of pure energy. Without violence, these pacifists neutralized the weapons of both the Klingons and the Federation, bringing on a (forced) peace treaty.

Of course, this morsel of Gene Roddenberryesque idealism was isolated; fighting and killing continued throughout the television series, and the Organians showed little regard for human life in a prequel episode. Still, I sometimes can’t help but think that intervention from an outside source is the only thing that will stop humans from being such a murderous species. Though the idea of a Supreme Being that created and rules over the world makes no sense to me, I’m entirely open to the possibility of other lifeforms that are so powerful that some humans would worship them as gods. In fact, I would find it very depressing if humans represented the most intelligent beings that the universe could come up with.

Some say that philosophizing about “big picture” things like this is what separates humans from our fellow animals. Even if that’s true, it’s no justification for killing them or treating them as property. If we won’t even stop murdering the most defenseless among us, what hope do we have to stop murdering each other?

I don’t have all the answers here, and I’m suspicious of those who claim they do. I only know that I want the violence to end.

Oppression, Christianity, and “forgiveness”

[Image: A church building with a sign in front reading “The Pittsburgh New Church – Welcome to Worship.”]

On Friday I watched a segment on the CBS Evening News that really angered me. It was about a black man who was framed by a white cop, spent four years in jail, and later came to forgive and even “love” his oppressor. Please watch or read the story for yourself before continuing (it’s three minutes long).

I didn’t write anything about this at the time, but today read a post by Son of Baldwin which encapsulated all that’s wrong with this shitty “feel-good” example of white supremacy. I posted this reply:


This story made me so angry when I watched it on the CBS Evening News. Especially the last line: “And clearly, if these two guys from the coffee shop can set aside their bitter grounds, what’s our excuse?” Their bitter grounds? As if a racist white cop has any “grounds” for being angry with the innocent black man that he framed? As if having four years of your life stolen from you by a racist white cop is something you should just “set aside?” As if the racist prison industrial complex — where one of out three black men can expect to serve jail time —can be papered over by Christian forgiveness?

I’m an atheist, but I’m not going to blame Christianity specifically for white supremacy (though the #NotAllChristians excuse is just as bad as #NotAllWhites and #NotAllMen). Regardless, if this particular black man wants to forgive this particular racist white cop that’s his prerogative, but it is not, not, not incumbent upon anyone else to forgive their oppressors.

Make no mistake: This story is not just about a “crooked” or “bad” cop. This is racism, which does not have to look like the “n” word or hooded figures burning crosses on lawns. If you deny that this man’s arrest and the subsequent framing of this “feel-good” story is white supremacy in action, you seriously need to check your privileges.


I want to expand here on the part about Christian forgiveness. As I’ve written before, the only person who can forgive an oppressor or abuser is their victim (or survivor). No one else. I’m just going to say it: A religion that assigns ultimate judgment of human affairs to a supernatural being is a tool of the oppressors. Christianity in particular has been used to justify racism (including slavery), sexism, sexual abuse, heterosexism, and cissexism for centuries.

As I posted on Medium, I do not want to hear “Not All Christians” in response to this charge. Christianity is the dominant religion in the USA, and always has been. While church attendance and theism dwindle in Europe, Christian beliefs and practices remain strong here, and are reflected in our politics. It is incumbent upon Christians to reform their religion, not upon atheists and those who practice other religions to submit to it.

While Protestant faiths dominate here, Pope Francis, who gets news headlines for saying anything that sounds the slightest bit progressive, is also not a friend of the oppressed. I especially do not want to hear “Not All Catholics,” when the Vatican has made it clear that only straight cisgender monogamous men are fully deserving of rights. Catholics who support birth control, abortion, “extramarital” or homosexual sex, gender transition, or women holding church leadership positions are acting in direct opposition to the central authority of their church.

Believing in God might not be a choice, but in the USA, church membership is voluntary. Christians who oppose oppressive church doctrine ought to protest against it, loudly, or else leave those churches behind.

I take heart in sites like The Orbit for featuring black atheists (among other atheists of color) in a society that too often assumes that all black folks are Christian. While I never belonged to any church (or temple or mosque) to begin with, many atheists have left their religious communities, and that can come at a cost. Atheists need communities as much as any other group, and women/of color especially need supportive environments in a movement that is dominated by white men.

But I digress. The point is, when I point out racism or any other oppression, do not come to me speaking of forgiveness. Fix the problem, rather than blaming the victims.

New site for atheism and social justice

Today, Greta Christina, one of the women I featured in my International Women’s Day post, announced her new blogging home on The Orbit, a site dedicated to atheism and social justice. As with animal rights and veganism, the atheist movement has a lot of sexist, racist, and otherwise oppressive messaging, which Greta and other feminist bloggers have been fighting against for years. A site created by and for atheists who care about social justice is a welcome development.

As I’ve written previously, I’ve been an atheist for 30 years – it’s my longest-standing identity – but atheism isn’t currently a high priority for my activism. It’s still important to me, however, and I’m always glad to see others writing about atheism in a non-oppressive way. Despite our theoretical separation of church and state, the USA is a very religious country, and being a nonbeliever can be challenging or even life-threatening in some communities. Atheists who are already facing discrimination on the basis of their skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, or other factors especially need safe spaces within the skeptic movement.

So check out The Orbit, and whatever your feelings on religion, please make space for those who don’t share your privileges.*

* Obligatory note/reminder: I’m no longer with DxE (and neither are several others in the montage on my post about privileges), but the main content of that post still holds true.

Happy International Women’s Day

[Image: lauren Ornelas gives a presentation on the Food Empowerment Project.]

Happy International Women’s Day! In honor of the occasion, I’d like to say a few words about each of the women currently featured on my links list.* I present them here in alphabetical order, along with one recommended work for each.

Kat Blaque

Kat Blaque is a vlogger, illustrator, and activist, speaking out against sexism, racism, and trans-antagonism. She has created educational videos on these topics for Everyday Feminism, and has built a thriving, active community on Facebook and other social networks. I recommend her video explaining the difference between gender expression and identity.

Greta Christina

Greta Christina is a writer on topics including atheism, feminism, sexism, cis/heterosexism, and sexuality. She has published several books on atheism, and speaks out against oppression in the atheist movement. I recommend her article on what not to say in response to misogyny.

Amie Breeze Harper

Dr. A. Breeze Harper is a speaker, educator, and author on feminism, veganism, and critical race studies. She founded Sistah Vegan Project and Critical Diversity Solutions, and is on the advisory board of Black Vegans Rock. I recommend her article on raising children in a world of oppression and hostility.

Aph Ko

Aph Ko is a blogger, performer, digital media producer, and founder of Aphro-ism and Black Vegans Rock. She advocates veganism from black feminist perspective. I recommend her video on animal oppression and anti-racism.

Syl Ko

Syl Ko is a writer, activist, and doctoral student, researching the human/animal binary from a black vegan feminist perspective. She co-founded Aphro-ism with her sister Aph, and is on the advisory board of Black Vegans Rock. I recommend her article on anti-racism and the human/animal divide.

Sophie Labelle

Sophie Labelle is a trans activist, illustrator, and author of the web comic Assigned Male. Her comic challenges cissexism (including non-binary and intersex erasure) from the humorous perspective of a young trans girl. She has so many great strips that I can’t single out one to recommend; if you have time, just read them all from the beginning.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is an author, primarily of fantasy and science fiction, whose books explore gender and sexuality, among other topics. Le Guin is my favorite author; I took my last name from her book The Left Hand of Darkness, which is my recommended read.

lauren Ornelas

lauren Ornelas is the founder and executive director of the Food Empowerment Project, a vegan food justice organization that actively works to counter oppression of marginalized humans as well as our fellow animals. I recommend her post on experiencing oppression in the fast food industry.

Ali Seiter

Ali Seiter blogs about feminism, anti-speciesism, and anti-racism on Chickpeas and Change. The site has been on hiatus for awhile, but has many articles well worth reading. I recommend reading her thoughts on the origins of the term “intersectionality.”

Julia Serano

Julia Serano is a writer, performer, speaker, and trans activist. She has authored numerous essays and books, including Whipping Girl, a classic on trans feminism and gender theory. I recommend her article on the “T” word and the language of trans activism.

Sarah K. Woodcock

Sarah K. Woodcock is the founder and executive director of The Advocacy of Veganism Society. She speaks out against all oppression of humans as well as our fellow animals. I recommend her article explaining why her organization stopped using the word “abolitionist.”

Corey Lee Wrenn

Dr. Corey Lee Wrenn is a lecturer, author, and founder of The Academic Activist Vegan and Vegan Feminist Network. She advocates veganism from a feminist perspective, and calls out oppression in the animal rights movement. I recommend her article on sexism faced by vegan women.

Several of the women on this list  – A. Breeze Harper, Aph Ko, lauren Ornelas, and Sarah K. Woodcock – will be speaking at the Intersectional Justice Conference later this month, where I’ll also be presenting. I trust you will find much of value in their wise words.

* Remember that not everyone who has a feminine-sounding name or appearance is a woman; several people on my links list are non-binary.

Reason for the season

[Image: People wearing red underwear and Santa hats run through the Castro in San Francisco.]

This Friday, I will be following my usual tradition of honoring Buy Nothing Day. My reason for avoiding the shopping frenzy goes beyond a critique of consumerism. I do not exchange cards or gifts for Christmas, Hanukkah, or any other religious holiday because I am an atheist, and I am not interested in secular celebrations of these events.

Many atheists, including myself in the past, are happy to exchange cards and gifts and otherwise participate in non-religious activities this time of year. I no longer feel comfortable doing so. I simply cannot ignore the theistic origins of these holidays, including the pagan Yule (which Christians co-opted). Despite what conservatives may claim, the USA is still a very religious country, and while I may not be able to avoid all entanglement with religion, I am under no obligation to observe any holiday traditions.

So am I just a Grinch? To the contrary, I believe that the ideals of peace, goodwill, and generosity should be followed year-round, and not just be given lip service around the time of the winter solstice. When I was gainfully employed, I frequently took my friends out to dinner and bought them gifts at other times of the year. I’m just not interested in doing so purely out of social obligation.

The family nature of the season is another stressor, as I am estranged from my birth family. Depressed people like myself often have a very difficult time during the holidays. Seeing images of smiling children gathered around Christmas trees does nothing to lift my spirits.

All that said, I am not an anti-Christmas activist. I’m not going to yell at someone for wishing me Happy Holidays or even Merry Christmas. I’m not going to tear down any decorations. I still enjoy some seasonal music, and I have no objection to fun activities like the Santa Skivvies Run pictured above. (Hordes of queer folks running in their underwear for charity is a great San Francisco tradition.) I’m just not interested in participating.

I look forward to longer days returning after the solstice, and hope that next year brings more true peace and understanding.

Unpopular opinions

As an activist, I am used to my opinions being unpopular. The amount that I talk about these opinions varies partly based on how directly I am affected by the issue at hand. But part of it also depends on how much I am confronted with the issue on a daily basis, whether or not I am a direct target of oppression.

Take atheism. I’ve been an unwavering atheist for nearly 30 years now. But I’ve never felt the need to become an activist for atheism. Part of the reason is that I’ve never felt coerced into participating in any religious practices, or pressured into lying about my (lack of) beliefs. Since middle school I’ve lived in and near major cities where atheists, agnostics, and skeptics were not only tolerated, but welcomed. I’ve had no trouble finding atheist and agnostic friends; few of my friends worship any deities.

That doesn’t mean I’ve been unaffected by theism, however. Churches are still supported by my taxes, “In God We Trust” is printed on my money, and theistic religion is omnipresent in countless other ways. I just haven’t felt angry enough to speak out about it much, yet.

Part of the reason I haven’t participated in atheist activism is that I’m not actually opposed to someone believing in one or more deities. I might think that the Christian conception of a supreme being is as realistic as a Flying Spaghetti Monster or Invisible Pink Unicorn, but just believing in any of these things is not, in and of itself, oppressive. What’s oppressive is making laws and justifying violence based on someone’s interpretations of a supreme being’s wishes. I support activism against religious institutions, but I don’t necessarily believe that theism itself must be dismantled.

In contrast, take speciesism: the belief that human animals are superior to non-human ones. As a human, I am not directly oppressed by this widespread belief. While many people do indeed think I am inferior based on my skin color, gender identity, and/or sexual orientation (hence my activism on those fronts), it is not currently legal in this country to keep me as property, forcibly impregnate me and take my babies away so that I can be milked, kill me for my flesh, or harvest my organs without my consent. All of these practices are legal and commonplace for non-human animals, because of speciesism.

While I have no fear of being killed by another human specifically for my flesh, I know that every sentient being – which includes every animal we raise for food – fears death. I can no longer look upon animals being eaten without having feelings of revulsion, sadness, or anger. I live surrounded by advertisements of smiling people eating dead bodies. I see animals’ bodies, eggs, and milk being shared at social justice events, and even at animal welfare events. The sentiment that humans are entitled to use our fellow animals is everywhere. It’s virtually inescapable in this culture of killing.

This is why I cannot be silent about speciesism, as unpopular as my opinion that animals are people, not property may be. The world will not change if people like me are afraid to speak out, or if we make anti-oppression more palatable, offering “Meatless Mondays” as if killing six days a week is acceptable. I recognize that some people face genuine obstacles to going vegan, but those obstacles will never be overcome if we continue to support the mindset that human needs and desires are superior to those of all other animals.

We share the Earth with our fellow animals; we do not own it. It’s time to stop acting like we do.

Finding my tribe

[Image: A young woman lights the first of a semi-circle of thirteen candles.]

I’ve just read a moving essay by Sherry F. Colb, a Jewish vegan professor, daughter of Holocaust survivors, and author of the book Mind If I Order The Cheeseburger? (which I recommend highly). As we’re currently in the season of the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I’m reflecting on my own Jewish history. As with my difficulty fitting into the black community, I’ve never felt truly at ease with this aspect of my heritage.

I was born in 1970 to a white Jewish father and a black mother who believed in God but did not profess any specific religious affiliation. My father was very secular, said he hated going to Hebrew school and so didn’t want to make me suffer through it. I did attend pre-school activities at a Jewish Community Center in Pittsburgh briefly when I was very young, before we moved to a WASP town in West Virginia in 1975.

We drove to Pittsburgh to attend a Passover seder at my grandparents’ house each year, and I lit Hanukkah candles (next to our Christmas tree), but that was about the extent of my Jewish upbringing. I never had a bat mitzvah (the one pictured above is from a hired photo shoot I did a few years ago), and did not attend any religious services.

We moved back to Pittsburgh in 1982, and in 1984 I enrolled in high school in a heavily Jewish community, with numerous synagogues. We often saw Orthodox families walking to shul, and some businesses were closed on Jewish holidays. But most of my Jewish friends were secular like my father, and agnostic or atheist in their beliefs even if they did observe various holidays and customs. I had already begun to doubt the existence of God by age 12, and by age 16 I was decidedly and openly atheist, a position I haven’t wavered from since.

In college at Northwestern, I became good friends with a couple of observant Jews (of the Reform variety), one of whom I began to date seriously.  He knew I was an atheist, and he hoped to become a rabbi. I tried to learn more about Judaism so that I might relate to him better, attending a few events with other students at Hillel.  But I simply could not reconcile my atheism with the direct, unmistakable presence of God in the Hebrew Bible. I did not feel that I could ignore this and simply celebrate Judaism in a secular way.

I tried once again some time after moving to California in 1992, reading books about Judaism and attending High Holy Days services at a synagogue in Berkeley. Once again, I was very uncomfortable with the theism inherent in the services. I could witness these events as a cultural phenomenon, but my perspective definitely felt  like that of an outsider, despite my Jewish heritage.

I knew many other atheist Jews felt strong connections to their heritage. I became quite enamored of monologist Josh Kornbluth, an atheist who spoke about Judaism frequently in his shows, and eventually traveled to the Holy Land for his bar mitzvah at the age of 52. But his upbringing – raised by Jewish Communists in New York City – was nothing like mine.

Along the way, I explored other religions. I discovered Buddhism in college, and identified as a Buddhist for a good 20 years. But I rarely practiced formal meditation, either alone or with others; Buddhism to me was (and still is, to some extent) primarily an ethical and philosophical stance. I’ve more recently read about Jainism, and have concluded that I agree with the fundamental ethics, but cannot relate to the metaphysics.

Starting in graduate school I also explored neo-paganism, doing a fair amount of reading (The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk was one of my favorite books) and briefly participating in a Church of All Worlds circle. But once again, the theism – even if there was more than one god/dess – turned me off to the practice. I felt that deifying nature by assigning human characteristics to nonhuman animals, plants, and natural phenomena diminished rather than enhanced these elements of our shared Earth. I also was a vegetarian moving toward veganism by this point, and felt a disconnect from people who practiced a nature-based religion while killing and eating farmed animals. (Many of the Buddhists I met ate animal flesh as well.)

Eventually, I decided I shouldn’t try to force a connection that just wasn’t there. When I realized two years ago that I was trans, part of the reason I changed my last name along with my first was that my original last name (which I never changed through two marriages) was very obviously Jewish. While there’s nothing more wrong with Judaism than with any other theistic religion (from my perspective), I felt strongly that I wanted to assert my own identity, not my father’s.

I took the name Gethen from The Left Hand of Darkness, a book by Ursula K. Le Guin about a planet with no gender roles, as all of the humanoids are literal hermaphrodites*. Being in the family of nonbinary people makes sense to me. And yet, I haven’t felt entirely comfortable in that “tribe” either. Nonbinary people, as with trans and other gender-variant people, have widely differing attitudes and life experiences. I attended a local genderqueer peer support group briefly, but felt it only highlighted how different my feelings about gender identity and expression are from most people.

Coming out as bisexual and, later, polyamorous, predated my coming out as trans by many years, and I did actively participate in bisexual and polyamory-focused events for awhile. But eventually I stopped going to these because I realized that sexual orientation and choice to have multiple partners were not enough of a common bond for me to spend time with others on just that basis. Changing my identity from bi to queer, and becoming much less sexually active, further distanced me from these communities.

Animal rights activists are another “tribe” I’ve tried to integrate with, but I’ve found that vegans and AR activists who are also staunchly against human oppression are seriously lacking. I’ve met some good friends through Direct Action Everywhere, but I haven’t been attending actions or meetups lately, for reasons I’ve written about previously.

Musicians are the group I’ve had the most trouble with. While I have sung or played some kind of musical instrument since the age of three, I’ve never been able to maintain connections with other musicians outside of structured, paid settings, like the band workshops I took at the Blue Bear School of Music or my singing in the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco. I’m in an uncomfortable middle area where I’m frustrated with casual, inexperienced musicians, but not skilled enough to join the ranks of serious amateurs or professionals. The effect of testosterone on my vocal chords has further limited my ability to make music with others, though private lessons are helping.

It’s possible that I simply don’t have a “tribe,” and I should be OK with that. Over the last few months, I’ve preferred to spend as much time alone as possible, so not having any regular commitments to meet with others helps me relax a bit. But I do feel isolated and lonely at times.

I keep returning to the idea that there’s some group out there that relates to the world in the same way that I do. A community of nonbinary vegan atheist anarchists or socialists would be close to ideal, I suppose. But for now, I’ll continue to write and read and learn about the world around me, and hope that I find the inner peace I need to become a more effective activist.

* While appropriate in this fictional setting, the term “hermaphrodite” should never be used to describe humans with variant sexual anatomy. “Intersex” is the preferred term.

Animals are people, not property

[Image: Lisa, a pit bull with tan and white fur, relaxes on a sofa.]

Edit, June 2016: Since publishing this post I have left Direct Action Everywhere (DxE). My points about animal personhood still stand.

An insightful article about what it means to be human published yesterday on the Aphro-ism site got me thinking about how we define what a “person” is. Since I got involved in animal rights activism a year ago, the core of my philosophy has been that animals are people, not property. I’ve had this slogan as my profile photo on Facebook since soon after it was taken at this year’s DxE Forum (as part of The Faces We Fight With photo directory):

Pax: Animals are people, not property.
[Image: Pax holds a sign reading “Animal Liberation because… Animals are people, not property.”]

But what do I actually mean when I say “animals are people, not property?” Entire books have been written on this subject, with lots of academic jargon that many find inaccessible. I’m a grad school dropout and have no credentials in philosophy or any other academic subject, so I’ll try to keep it simple.

First of all, I’m an atheist, and I reject any notion that humans have a soul or other spiritual characteristics that set us apart from other animals. Anything written in a religious text that states or suggests that animals were created for humans to use is completely irrelevant to me. (I’m aware that many religions have a different conception of human-nonhuman relations, and that many believe that all living beings have souls, but I don’t want to stray into a discussion of comparative religion; I’m speaking from my own perspective, here.)

Second, there is no universal characteristic that humans have that other animals do not. Non-human animals have language (even if we humans can’t fully understand it). They make friends. They have families. Some of them use tools. Many modify their environments. The fact that humans have modified our environment to the point that we’ve taken over the Earth like a cancer does not, to me, merit granting us the exclusive title of “people.”

Many seem to confuse “person” with “citizen,” or at least “civilized person” (which, as the article I linked to at the top points out, is a white European conception of personhood). Some people make ridiculous, derailing statements about animal rights activists wanting to grant nonhumans the right to vote or to marry. The legal right to vote or marry does not define whether a human is a person or not. Societies that have these human rights defined must grant them to all regardless of race, gender, or other irrelevant characteristics, but species is not an irrelevant characteristic here.

A free-living animal has no use for voting or marriage. These are human concepts useful in a human society. Our votes do affect the lives of nonhuman animals, but this is because we insist on treating them as property, and on displacing “wild” animals from their homes for our own human developments.

Justice and equity are the goal of animal rights, not a false “equality” that pretends there’s no difference between a human, dog, pig, fish, or chicken. The most important things all of these animals have in common are the ability to feel and the desire to live, and none of them can consent to be used as the property of another. Until animals are viewed as individual persons, they will never receive justice, no matter how many welfare reforms are put into place to make them more comfortable while they are exploited and killed by humans. A person who is the property of another can never truly be free.

I’m well aware that my view is controversial, and outright offensive to many. Women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ people who have been viewed as sub-human for centuries often do not take kindly to being lumped in with other animals. As a queer black agender trans male, I am a member of several of those oppressed groups, and speak out frequently against sexism, racism, heterosexism, and cissexism. I hope this might convince others that the argument that nonhuman animals are people, too, is not merely a tool of privileged white veganism. I am an animal, and I am a person, and I seek to liberate all animals from property status.