Over the last few years concerns have rightly been raised over anti-trans views in atheism. A big part of this problem is that atheists – and by implication the wider AHS+ movement of atheists, humanists, secularists, skeptics and freethinkers – are still largely defined by a few prominent figures with wanning influence, and the stereotype of the toxic online atheist, rather than our diverse communities and experiences.
There are a lot of outspoken ‘gender criticals’ in our community, and they claim that their views are based on the rationality, logic or science, which should underpin any AHS+ worldview.
A lot of people in our movement, even well-intentioned people, believe that this is an ‘important debate’ and that ‘gender criticals’ have some reasonable points or ‘legitimate concerns’, or that taking up the cause of trans rights is a form of mission creep or distraction. Many believe that trans activism, or inclusion, is a threat to the values of free speech and freethought which we hold dear.
In the spirit of freethought, these are questions, not the strongest or most comprehensive arguments for trans inclusivity. These are the questions that led me to a firmer and better informed trans-allyship. Whatever your position, and whether or not you come to the same answers as me, I hope you will consider them.
If trans activists are “ruining atheism”, then ask yourself:
- When, and how did you start caring about this?
- Why were transgender rights not controversial a few years ago?
- What has been the biggest achievement of the atheist movement over the last twenty years?
- Why are US Christian Nationalists funding the ‘gender critical‘ movement in the UK?
- Why is opposing trans rights a key aim for Christian Nationalists and the reactionary religious right across the globe?
One of the big divides in the movement over the last decade has been between those who favour anti-theism, and those favouring a more humanist focussed social justice. The former group are disproportionately influenced by online trolling culture, with its focus on attacking anything derided as ‘woke’ and a fetishization of shallow pseudo-rationality.
As we have seen with anti-Muslim bigotry, and generalised ‘anti-woke’ sentiments, reactionary religious groups – often heavily influenced by US culture wars – have made inroads in some parts of the atheist movement. Witness how conspiracist, pseudo-mystic, buffoon Jorden Peterson and religious extremist Ben Shapiro have been cast as brave rationalists in some sections of the movement.
I won’t pretend that five years ago the atheist or wider AHS+ movement was a nirvana of trans inclusion, or that trans rights activism was a top priority. Trans rights issues were rarely specifically addressed but fell under the broad umbrella of LGBT-rights that were a priority for the movement. The advancement of LGBT rights made possible by the concerted challenge of religious authoritarianism, was one of the tangible achievements of that movement. A legacy, certain figures seem determined to tarnish.
If trans activism is a religion, then ask yourself:
- Why do the vast majority of atheist humanist and secularist groups with a position support trans rights?
- Under what definition is ‘transgenderism’ a religion?
- If trans allies believe in ‘gendered’ souls, why is this a claim almost exclusively made by gender critical groups?
- What about trans people who categorically do not believe in souls?
Of course, these groups with a generally skeptical outlook could all be wrong, they could have all accidently become religious overnight, or been infiltrated and led astray by the tiny percentage of trans people in the population. Or they could have the institutional memory to recognise and understand how the modern transphobic movement is just repackaged homophobia, and the policy view to understand how it is being use as a wedge by the reactionary religious right. If you’re going to call everything you don’t like or disagree with a religion, then how are you going to have a useful definition of religion, or challenge someone calling any of your beliefs they disagree with a religion?
If trans activism is a threat to women’s safety, then ask yourself:
- Why do the vast majority of feminist groups support trans rights?
- Why do most women support trans rights?
- Why are women more likely than men to support trans rights?
- Why are the figures in the atheist movement most vocally critical of transgender inclusion, the same figures that have been so critical of efforts to tackle sexism in the movement?
- Besides opposing trans rights, what are you doing to make the atheist movement more inclusive and welcoming for women and other underrepresented groups?
The discussion of trans rights inevitably focusses on trans women – with trans men and non-binary folk often ignored. We live in a patriarchal society and need to take threats to women’s rights – including reactionary religious groups – seriously. If trans rights, were a big threat to (cis)women’s rights, it seems weird that most mainstream feminist groups would be supportive. We’d surely expect gender critical views to be widespread rather than concentrated in dedicated fringe groups.
If trans activism is homophobic, then ask yourself:
- Why do the vast majority of LGBT groups support trans rights?
- If the gender critical movement is about supporting LGB rights, why is it so dominated by homophobia?
- Why do trans-rights activists have a long history of supporting gay rights?
- Are there any groups that are actually homophobic, but not transphobic?
- Why is the campaign against LGB and T inclusive RSE in schools, dominated by religious reactionaries?
- If trans-affirming RSE is homophobic, then why are the groups opposing it also homophobic?
One conspiracy theory is that homophobic parents are treating gay children as trans in order to make them straight. How many people are there that are so homophobic that they would go to such an extreme, but aren’t transphobic?
There is plenty to criticise about establishment LGBT groups and the compromises they make for that establishment status. But virtually every mainstream LGB group is pro trans rights, the only LGB groups that are anti-trans are fringe groups set up for that specific purpose, who don’t do anything to actually support LGB people.
Of course, you can point to examples of homophobia from individual trans activist – homophobia is deeply engrained in our society – and many genders critical activists have a long history of supporting LGB rights, but are led into homophobia via transphobia.
If trans activism is anti-science, then ask yourself:
- Why is the gender critical movement so dominated by anti-medial and anti-science conspiracists?
- Why do the vast majority of medical and psychological bodies support trans affirming healthcare?
- Besides the chromosome defined sex, is there any other topic where scientific and medical understanding reaches its pinnacle and gets no more complicated at high school science level?
AHS+ worldviews place a great emphasis on science and evidence based understandings. The leading scientific and medical understandings of sex and gender may be more complicated than what some of us grew up with, or learned in school. A scientific consensus, such as sex and gender being a non-binary spectrum influenced by many factors, or a medical consensus, such as trans-affirming healthcare being the best option for many people, may turn out to be wrong or in need of further revision.
If trans activism is a threat to free speech, then ask yourself:
- Why does the gender critical movement make such extensive use of gagging orders, and legal threats?
- If gender critical voices are being silenced, why is there so much anti-trans media coverage?
- If gender critical voices are being silenced, why do they have such big media platforms, while trans people are almost never quoted in articles about them?
- If you are concerned about ‘invented’ or ‘constructed’ language, what do you think of the use of the term ‘gender critical’?
Free speech is a fundamental value in most atheist, humanist, secularist, and similar worldviews. But some parts of our movement (and this is a massive topic that deserves its own article) have taken a warped toxic understanding of free speech that is so concerned with the rights of people to spread certain views, and so opposed to free speech being used to challenge them.
If trans activism makes you uncomfortable, then ask yourself:
- Do you think being trans, a trans ally or gender critical is a bigger threat to your employment prospects?
- If individual trans people being aresholes online invalidates the movement for trans rights, where does that leave the atheist movement?
- Have you educated yourself on this topic?
I have sympathy for anyone concerned about getting things wrong, or who feel left behind by a changing conversation about sex and gender. But you don’t need to sit there trying to work everything out yourself there are free accessible resources everywhere.
One more question
- What do you think is going to happen next?
Do you think that the mainstream atheist, wider AHS+, feminist, LGBT rights movements, healthcare professionals etc. are all going to suddenly reverse course on trans rights? Based on what? Here’s my predication, and hope, in a decade or two, the flirtation with transphobia in some parts of our movement will be seen as an embarrassing history we’d rather ignore, trans rights will be seen as so widely supported, that transphobia will only be able to survive within religion.
Photo information: Person with Body Painting, Sharon McCutcheon