What About the Gays?

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 I see my gay rights work and my Humanist work as being part of the same project: to develop a society freer from outdated, repressive sexual codes which restrict and harm people is part of the broader endeavor to create a more reasonable, compassionate and just society.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?

Further Thoughts

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?

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Jonathan Figdor

    Great post, James. This is an interesting question for the secular movement to consider. I would add that while I have never been Elevator-gated by a woman, I have been aggressively approached by gay men (always on the older side of things) and hit on.

    This doesn’t make me uncomfortable, but I could see how it would make other folks who are less comfortable around gay people very uncomfortable.

    It is interesting that in my experience/observations, it has always been men who have been overly aggressive in their approaches, either with women or with men.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      I’ve been approached rather aggressively by older gay guys too. I tend to find it very flattering, but I can see how some would also feel extremely uncomfortable.

  • http://kaleenamenke.blogspot.com Kaleena

    I’m an equally opportunity flirter and intend to keep flirting with you, James. (Assuming that’s OK) ;)

    I have a hard time with this issue because like you I find nearly flirting welcome and flattering from people of all ages, genders and sexual orientations.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/almostdiamonds/ Stephanie Zvan

    Do tell me if I ever cross your boundaries while flirting with you. I read the kind of theater background from you that says, “What personal space?” And just shoo me away if I get in the way of you flirting with someone else, of course. ;)

    The speaker issue is a tough one. You do have extra power by virtue of having been on the stage. On the other hand, you don’t have the degree of power that we as a society consider to be coercive in and of itself, even if it isn’t overtly exercised. In that case, I think you’re left mostly in a position of letting them convince you that this is a good idea. That doesn’t mean you have to play hard to get, just understand the difference between signaling that you’re available and signaling that you’re interested.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      You read me absolutely right – the concept of personal space is pretty much foreign to me (although of course I respect other people’s!) =D

      The point regarding the difference between “interested” and “available” is great – I hadn’t thought about it in this way before. I shall have to practice my “available” eyes =P

  • http://jcsamuelson.com J.C. Samuelson

    Gay or straight, I think relationships – even of the passing variety – should begin with common decency and as level a playing field as possible. Context matters.

    As for the speaker bit, I think Stephanie nailed it by pointing out the difference between signaling availability and signaling interest. I’d only add that “star power” probably varies based on a number of factors, and that a speaker’s best bet is simply to be human and deal with people as equals.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Agreed – I think Stephanie’s distinction between signalling “available” and “interested” is extremely valuable, and I thank he for raising it.