This is a guest post by Chris Stedman. He is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisDStedman.
My twenty-sixth birthday is two weeks from today. But early April isn’t just the anniversary of my birth — it’s also the anniversary of when I came out of the closet. I was 13 years old, nearly 14, when I came out to my mom as queer. This year, as I turn 26, I will have spent twelve years out of the closet, which is nearly half of my life — and certainly more than half of the life that I can remember.
My thirteen-year-old self couldn’t have imagined that I would reach this point, and he certainly couldn’t have imagined that the Supreme Court of the United States would be hearing arguments for same-sex marriage just twelve years later. But thanks to the tireless activism of many, and the people who have stepped out of the closet and built relationships of understanding, we live in a very different world today.
In Faitheist, I tell the story of how I despaired during my years in the closet because I could not imagine a life for myself as a queer person. Today queer people are much more visible and, with the solidarity and support of allies, we are building a more pluralistic society that enables different people to imagine, and then pursue, an authentic life.
A few days ago I returned from accompanying a group of atheist, agnostic, and non-religious graduate students from the Humanist Community at Harvard on an alternative spring break service trip to rural Kentucky to learn about strip-mining and rural poverty, and to do service work with community members. On the fourth day of the trip, we had a wonderful, extended, moving conversation with three women who volunteer at a community thrift store in a rural coal-mining town, all of whom were widows of coal miners. We heard some devastating, challenging stories about the obstacles they and other members of their community live with, and we worked alongside them.
Near the end of our time there, they began to ask us about who we were. After learning that myself and a couple of other trip participants were queer, they gleefully told us about how they would take their coal-miner husbands to the nearest big city nearly three hours away to go to a gay bar with them and their gay friends. We ended up staying for another hour, talking with them about how different our lives are, but how much we have in common. Talking with them, I was reminded of a simple, important lesson: your assumptions about people with different experiences and identities are often wrong. If you don’t give someone an opportunity to be an ally, you may never know they are one.
That same week, my HCH colleague Chelsea Link and I had a lovely conversation about atheism and Humanism with the Parish Director of the Catholic Church that hosted us for the week we were in Kentucky. On the first day of the trip, we introduced ourselves to her as staff members of a community-building organization for atheists, agnostics, and the nonreligious. She smiled and said that she was glad we were there, that she understands our position, that she thinks we all need to work together, and that people in the church need to not be so afraid of us. Without even hesitating, she was immediately open, honest, and welcoming. It was hugely refreshing, and set a good tone for the rest of the week.
Visibility matters. Positive relationships matter.
Support for marriage equality more than doubles among people who know a gay person. The Pew Research Center reports that of the 14% of Americans who changed their mind and decided to support gay marriage in the last decade, 37% (the largest category) cited having “friends/family/acquaintances who are gay/lesbian” as the primary reason. The second largest group in this astounding shift, at 25%, said they became more tolerant, learned more, and became more aware. Only two percent said that they changed their minds because they came to believe that gay people are “born that way.”
Regardless of the outcome of the SCOTUS hearings today and tomorrow, I’m grateful for the outpouring of love that we’ve seen in the last decade as cultural conversations around LGBT equality have shifted. I’m glad for the visible LGBT activists, for those who ardently promote and defend the separation of church and state, for the open and affirming churches and mosques and synagogues that are organizing and mobilizing religious communities to activism, for the grandmothers marching in pride parades (including my own), and for the many LGBT people who have had the courage to live in the light and show young people like me that it is not only possible, but that it is the most fulfilling way to live.
As the LGBT movement considers this historic week, the atheist movement can look to and learn from it — by working to build positive relationships with faith communities, and connecting with our allies in different communities, we can create a world where it is safer for people to challenge religious norms and expectations. The LGBT community isn’t on a mission to eliminate heterosexuality — its mission is to challenge the limitations of heteronormativity, and to build a society where differences are not only allowed for, but embraced and engaged. As we were reminded in Kentucky last week, that will require allies who can work within their communities to promote pluralism, compassion, and critical thinking — and to advocate for the interests and well-being of all people, not just the majority.
As an atheist and a Humanist, I believe that it is up to us to build the world we want to see. No divine force is going to do the work for us. That means we’re going to have to work with allies in each and every community.
We haven’t gotten there yet, but we’re getting closer. Today I am filled with gratitude for the many people — religious and nonreligious alike — who are helping us get there much sooner than my thirteen-year-old self thought possible.