The atheist blogosphere has been on fire with discussions sparked at the Women in Secularism Conference about making sure that women feel respected, welcome and safe at freethinking conferences, and particularly about how we can respond to those speakers who abuse their power by acting inappropriately. Stephanie Zvan has offered thoughtful analysis and advice, as has JT Eberhard (and I’m certain others too). But I want to address a question that hasn’t seen much comment: what about the gays? Are there similar problems among queer secularists to those which affect the heterosexual community? And if so, what do we do about it?
I ask because, as a gay Humanist who came out of the closet on a Humanist service trip, my sexual identity and my Humanist identity are closely fused. Being gay, and being a gay rights activist, is a big part of my life. I see my gay rights work and my Humanist work as being part of the same project: to develop a society freer from outdated, repressive sexual codes which restrict and harm people is part of the broader endeavor to create a more reasonable, compassionate and just society.
And so I always bring my sexuality into my talks – I have never made a talk at a Humanist convention, that I can think of, where I haven’t made some comment or joke or reference to my sexual identity. I consider being an openly-gay, proud speaker in the movement might help some folks, and I’ve frequently been approached after my talks by queer audience members who have been appreciative and interested in getting to know another queer secularist.
But what about the “flirting, sex, and lines” which JT has written about? How do I gauge, as an openly gay speaker, how appropriate it is for me to flirt with other guys I meet at the conference, for instance? Are the jokes I sometimes make which reference my sexuality inappropriate? Is it OK to hit on someone you know to be straight, or is that out of bounds?
I honestly had never really considered these questions deeply before, which bothers me because, well, I’m an incorrigible flirt! I flirt with pretty much everybody! And now I’m concerned that some of it may be inappropriate and weird. If I’m absolutely honest, one of the things I’m excited about when I go to freethinking conferences is meeting gay atheists because, let’s face it, it isn’t a huge community! And it would be great to feel that Freethinking conferences could be places where queer freethinkers can feel safe and empowered to express their sexual identity. On the other hand we absolutely don’t want to allow people’s boundaries to be violated.
Furthermore, have queer secularists found cons to be safe, welcoming and respectful? Or is there lingering trouble in this area which needs to be addressed too? I can’t say I’ve ever encountered a case of homophobia at a con personally, but then as a speaker it may be less likely that I will be subject to any disparaging or demeaning remarks.
So I thought I’d open a space for discussion around the issue of queer people and acceptable conduct at conventions. How do you expect your queer speakers to act? Have you had any bad experiences at freethinking cons as a queer person? How can we make sure that conferences are sex-positive and affirming of sexual and gender minorities, while at the same time not creepy and uncomfortable for anyone?
Thinking about this more, I’ve realized that being a speaker at conferences gives you a lot of power. People really look up to you when you’re on stage – it may seem weird but it’s true – and this gives you a certain mystique. And perhaps that power entails (Spider-Man-like) some level of responsibility. If I hook up with a member of the audience after I’ve given a talk – let’s say someone a lot younger than me – have I inappropriately abused my power as a speaker? This is not such an easy question! What do folks think?