Gay liberation and atheist liberation
In 2019, I attended a public event where speakers criticised the Australian government’s proposed ‘Religious Freedoms’ Bills as a license to permit homophobic and transphobic discrimination. There, one prominent LGBTQIA+ community leader thanked ‘queers of faith’ for their ongoing work to defend LGBT rights—as well she should. And yet she failed to also thank queer non-believers, many of whom have also worked for queer rights. Perhaps she should have contemplated the words of heterosexual atheist Phillip Adams:
There are some parallels here between atheism and homosexuality, ‘the Love that dared not speak its name’ as Oscar Wilde pronounced it, leading to millions living their life in the closet. Atheism was, and to a large extent still remains, the philosophy that dared not speak its name. And it’s only recently that I’ve observed atheists coming out, finally confident enough—to borrow a gay slogan—to be loud and proud. Incidentally, spare a thought for gay atheists. (Adams, 2010, 2:37)
The concept of gay atheism is hardly a new idea: I have been living this reality for decades. Queer communities comprise individuals who have undertaken their own personal journey to arrive at a place of autonomy and empowerment, difference and diversity. Atheist communities are the same.
Losing my religion
I recall the exact moment when I realised that I had finally lost the last shreds of my religious world-view in the early 1990s. I was surrounded by my new, queer friends, at workshops for the AIDS Memorial Quilt, where people came in to make panels for those who had been lost to the epidemic. Together, we all shared cups of tea, shoulders to cry on, and lots of hugs. As a former Christian, I was momentarily dumbstruck to realise that there was more genuinely unconditional love in that room than in any church I had ever attended. This shell-shocked group of social outcasts, volunteer activists, and carers, taught me that treating others with basic love and respect was not the self-proclaimed monopoly of any one religion or philosophy, but was actually a pragmatic expression of our shared, common humanity.
And yet history tells a different story. It speaks of marginalisation and exclusion. Particularly under the historic influences of the Abrahamic religions, queers and atheists have been largely proscribed and persecuted: from the burning of witches, faggots and heretics, to family disinheritance and conversion therapy; from the execution of sodomites and apostates, to the ongoing cultural genocide of queer youth, and more.
I have previously noted Camille Beredjick’s observation that religious homophobia can cause a queer person to become atheist (Allshorn, 2018, 116), and this is no more apparent than in the case of gay activist Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, a decorated Vietnam War veteran in the US Air Force. Coming out on the front cover of Time magazine in 1975, he was subsequently court-martialled and discharged by a panel of military personnel who were all religious (Duberman, 1991, 315). His Mormon church then excommunicated him, effectively not once but twice. Ultimately, ‘his faith and spirituality were crushed and he considered himself somewhere ‘between an agnostic and an atheist’.’ (O’Donovan, 2004) His personal resilience and courage enabled his survival until his 1988 death from AIDS, but his loss of faith is rarely mentioned by biographers.
A similar case involves Henry Gerber, who founded the Society for Human Rights, which historian Jonathan Katz records as being the earliest documented gay rights organisation in the USA. Established in 1924, the Society was quickly targeted by police, who arrested its members and confiscated its documentation. This meant that both Henry Gerber and his Society—along with their altruistic ambitions—were largely erased from queer civil rights history. Gerber later attributed this fate, at least in part, to a mixture of ‘religion and politics’, self-identifying as ‘now an avowed atheist’ and openly espousing atheist views, such as: ‘In America, where the Christian religion is losing ground, the horizon is growing brighter for homosexuals’ (Katz, 1994, 419 & 554-557).
Such stories reflect an ongoing experience within our communities. When Israel Folau recently declared that gays and atheists (and other ‘sinners’) are going to hell, his was a familiar historical and cultural narrative regarding a purported hellish afterlife for people who are different—and a hell which many theists throughout history have seemed willing to create for us in this life as well.
‘Smash the Church!’
The Stonewall riots and gay liberation are often proclaimed as being definitive moments in our fight for collective civil rights. But these were not explicitly the start of our collective queer journey out of oppression and towards liberation. Ultimately, this journey began whenever the first individual human being began to think independently and fight against his/her/their oppression. Thus we see the most basic parallel between queers and atheists.
Nor was this journey an easy one. Gay liberation was a war, a declaration of independence, and a call for social revolution. In the UK, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) disrupted the 1971 launch of the Festival of Light (mudlark121, 2019). In the USA, one early GLF street slogan was: ‘2, 4, 6, 8, Smash the Church, Smash the State!’ (Avicolli Mecca, 2009, back cover). Daughters of Bilitis co-founders Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin noted: ‘Everything that’s happened to oppress homosexuals today stems from organised religion. If it hadn’t been for all that shit, we wouldn’t have our problems today.’ (Tobin & Wicker, 1972, 53-4) The 1971 Manifesto of the ‘Third World Gay Revolution’ stated: ‘We want an end to all institutional religions because they aid in genocide by teaching superstition and hatred of Third World people, homosexuals and women…’ (Jay and Young, 1992). One meme expressing such sentiment can be found on a Melbourne badge from that same era: SODOM TODAY, GOMORRAH THE WORLD.
In seeking to be all-encompassing, gay liberation created its own downfall. One GLF activist recalls: ‘GLF didn’t last. We got involved in these endless theoretical debates about what we should do and what our relationship was to other organisations… GLF disintegrated into so many splinter groups that it just disappeared’ (Marcus, 1992, 185-6). In its wake, gay liberation seeded many other activist groups that shared its socially revolutionary aims, including some that subverted religious traditions. These included the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and the Radical Faeries.
This culture war continues today in other forms. Since losing the Marriage Equality postal survey, Australian religious right-wing conservatives have extended their attacks on the Safe Schools program and trans rights. They continue to advocate gay conversion therapy. They demand new ‘religious rights’ to discriminate against queer people. In our increasingly secular twenty-first century world, such religious bigotry provides a strong argument for atheism. It also demonstrates how inadequate are outdated dogmas to provide guidance in a future that may contain new understandings of life, habitat, self-identity, human rights, gender and sexuality. Humanity will surely find fresh perspective in the quote from JBS Haldane that the Universe is queerer than we can suppose.
The history of queer atheism is the story of striving to build such a future.
The rise and fall of militant gay atheism
A formal LGBT atheist movement was born during the ascendancy of gay liberation idealism in the 1970s. This was an era when ‘Kill A Queer For Christ’ bumper stickers adorned some US motor vehicles (Perry & Swicegood, 1991, 13) while anti-gay campaigns were led by US conservatives such as Anita Bryant and John Briggs. The anti-gay Briggs Initiative of 1978 was soundly defeated after US President Jimmy Carter publicly spoke against it, following a rally by gay atheist protesters at a public meeting (Rolfson, 1978a, 7). In his last column in the Bay Area Reporter before his assassination, gay atheist Harvey Milk credited gay atheist Tom Rolfsen with being instrumental in ensuring President Carter’s public support: ‘And Tom Rolfsen pulled it all together in Sacramento last week. Tom’s idea, Tom’s work, Tom’s money, and a group went up there to confront the President of the United States. The rest is history. Congratulations Tom …’ (cited in Rolfsen, 1978b, 5).
Rolfsen and his lifelong partner, Chal Cochran, became founding members of GALA (the Gay Atheist League of America, later renamed Gay And Lesbian Atheists), in 1976. Their San Francisco chapter ran social events and meetings, and published a monthly newsletter and various magazines. The GALA Review began publication in 1978 and continued until 1989, at which point it boasted over a thousand readers; however, the workload upon then-76 year-old Rolfsen forced a scaling-back of their activities (GALA Board, 1989, 1).
It is Texas where perhaps the most controversial gay atheist activities were led by gay couple Don Sanders and Mark Franceschini. The ‘Houston LGBT History’ web page is a good source of material regarding the social, activist, and outreach activities of this Houston group, and of the openly hostile reception it frequently received from religious members of their local community. Operating since 1981, the group began its decline in September 1992 following the death of 38 year-old Franceschini, whose obituary testified: ‘From gay pride parades to ACT UP demonstrations, Mark Franceschini could be counted on to yell the loudest and walk the proudest’ (Sanders, 1993, 4). His partner, Don Sanders, died three years later (Texas Obituary Project, 1995).
These atheist groups—once fueled by gay liberation anger and outrage—are now largely forgotten by queer historians and social commentators. A new generation appears to prefer a less confrontational form of atheist activism.
Humanism and human rights
Australian-born UK activist Peter Tatchell is one example of a gay atheist for modern times. He has been a prominent humanist and human rights activist for many years, and is director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation. He observes, ‘A decent, better world is possible—and we don’t need religion to make it happen. All we need is love and people willing to turn that love into political action for human freedom’ (Tatchell, 2009, 309).
Another prominent example is someone who dates from the earliest days of queer rights. Gay activist pioneer, Magnus Hirschfeld, was a secular Jew, a humanist, and a socialist (Tielman, 1997). He co-founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, which advocated for homosexual rights. He even joined the feminist movement because, as a gay man, he saw a link between the need for queer rights and women’s rights (Finamore 2018).
Other overseas queer humanists have also been prominent activists. Antony Grey has been called ‘Britain’s first gay rights activist’ after helping to secure law reform via the passage of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act (Geen 2010). Rob Tielman is credited with having played a ‘prominent, pioneer role in the Dutch gay movement’ (Gasenbeek and Gogineni 2002, 64), a movement which he documents as having existed continuously since 1911 (Tielman 1997, 21). Dan Savage is known for his writings and podcasts, and perhaps mostly for his 2010 founding of It Gets Better, an Internet website offering bullied GLBTIQ teenagers hope and positivity. Groups like the LGBT Humanists UK, the Pink Triangle Trust (UK), and the LGBTQ Humanist Alliance (USA), also enjoy a long history of activism.
Australia has its own proud history of humanist LGBT activism. In December 1966, the first issue of the Australian Humanist (AH) featured an article in which heterosexual women’s rights activist Beatrice Faust supported gay rights (Faust, 1966, 2). Public meetings, networking, and other activism ensued. Subsequent discourse included gay activist Lex Watson writing subversively in the December 1971isue of AH that: ‘Homosexuality is an alternative sex role, an alternative life style, as inconsequential in one sense as a preference for red hair to black.’ (Watson, 1971, 38).
In 1970, the Humanist Society of Victoria produced a pamphlet entitled, The Homosexual and the Law—A Humanist View, and sent a copy to every member of State Parliament. Further copies sold out in bookshops, necessitating at least one reprint run (Reinganum, 1971, 6). The 5-page booklet criticised the law for its foundation in Biblical scripture, reinforced by its prohibition of what was legally termed ‘the abominable crime of buggery’—an emotive word that prevented Australian society from adopting a more ‘reasoned approach’ to the issue (HSV, 1970, 1 & 2). The booklet was later reprinted by Society Five, an early Melbourne gay rights group (Society Five, 1974).
Humanism offers more than simply an atheist version of liberation theology. It provides ethical cogency for atheists, agnostics, secularists and the non-religious. Humanism proposes more than a negative attitude (‘atheist’ = ‘non-theist’) and provides opportunities to contribute positively to society.
Love thy neighbour
Lesbian atheist comedian Sue-Ann Post quips: ‘I once auditioned for the part of Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar. I gave what I thought was a very realistic rendition of, ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’.’ (Post, 2010, 6:02) Levity aside, the problem of ‘feeling the love’ is very real in Australia, where I see religious privilege in our queer communities. I observe queer theists dominating public discourse and setting queer agendas, while openly atheist speakers are largely excluded from queer conferences, rallies, newspapers, publications, coalitions and networks. Only in independent social media discussions (and in Bent Street!) am I most likely to see any public acknowledgment that queer non-believers even exist.
Queer atheist blogger and author Greta Christina writes of similar experiences within US queer communities: ‘I’ve heard LGBT leaders talk about how important it is to reach out to people of different religious faiths… with no mention whatsoever made of reaching out to people with no religious faith. Not even in lip service’ (Christina, 2008). It must be questioned why queers cling so strongly to dying religious philosophies that have traditionally oppressed them.
While many religions claim a monopoly upon good works or virtue, the reality is that good people proliferate across space and time because of common humanity. Atheists are a part of this ubiquity. We can revisit the old GLF ideal of social transformation instead of assimilation, and use our difference to make a difference. This would surely marry the human existential desire for significance with a pragmatic, humanist response to the world’s injustices.
In seeking to change the world, we should start with ourselves. Transphobic ideologies appear to have been adopted in some atheist circles (Sorrell, 2018; EssenceOfThought, 2019), demonstrating a need for queer atheists to participate in greater community discourse and thereby contribute to what gay atheist and HIV/AIDS activist Michael Callen advocated: ‘The Healing Power of Love’.
Gay liberation may yet make way for atheist liberation—as exemplified in the life of US magician and atheist James Randi, who came out as gay in 2010 at the age of 81, stating on his website: ‘Here is where I have chosen to stand and fight. And I think that I have already won this battle by simply publishing this statement’ (Randi, 2010).
Phillip Adams, 2010. Speech at the 2010 Global Atheist Convention, Melbourne; as recorded on DVD © Atheist Foundation of Australia & Atheist Alliance International, Siren Visual Australia & New Zealand.
Geoff Allshorn, 2018. ‘A Case for Rainbow Atheism’, in Bent Street #2, Melbourne: Clouds of Magellan Press, 115-119.
Tommi Avocolli Mecca, 2009. Smash the Church, Smash the State! The Early Years of Gay Liberation, San Francisco: City Light Books.
Greta Christina, 2008. ‘How to be an Ally with Atheists’, Greta Christina’s Blog, 16 December. Accessed 23 July 2019, at https://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2008/12/how-to-be-an-ally-with-atheists.html
Martin Duberman, 1991. About Time: Exploring the Gay Past, New York: Penguin/Meridian Books.
EssenceOfThought, 2019. ‘The Death Of The Atheist Community Of Austin—Testimonies From Volunteers & Service Users’, EssenceOfThought, 20 July; at https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=x0-yDOBDyuc
Beatrice Faust, 1966. ‘Ethics and Morality’, in The Australian Humanist, No. 1, December, 1—6.
Emma Finamore, 2018. ‘Who Was Magnus Hirschfeld? Meet the Doctor and LGBT+ Activist Who Became A Nazi Target’, Pink News, 17 April; at https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2018/04/17/who-was-magnus-hirschfeld-nazi-target-lgbt-activist-gay-rights-campaigner.
GALA Board, 1989. GALA Realist, October; at http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/BNvot2
Bert Gasenbeek and Babu Gogineni (eds.), 2002. International Humanist and Ethical Union 1952-2002: Past, present and future, Utrecht: De Tijdstroom uitgeverij,(IHEU ebook).
Jessica Geen, 2010. ‘‘First gay rights activist’ Antony Grey dies aged 82’, Pink News, 4 May; at http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2010/05/04/first-gay-rights-activist-antony-grey-dies-aged-82.
‘Houston LGBT History’ web page, at http://www.houstonlgbthistory.org/misc-atheists.html.
Humanist Society of Victoria, 1970. The Homosexual and the Law—A Humanist View.
Karla Jay and Allen Young (Eds.), 1992. Reprint of ‘What We Want, What We Believe’ from Gay Flames No.11, in Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, twentieth anniversary edition, London: GMP Publishers, 363-367.
Jonathan Ned Katz, 1994. Gay/Lesbian Almanac, New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers.
Eric Marcus, 1992. ‘The Radical Activist—Martha Shelley’, in Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Rights, New York: HarperCollins, 175-186.
mudlark121, 2019. ‘Today in London religious history, 1971: the Gay Liberation Front mash up reactionary christian Festival of Light’, Past Tense, 9 September; at https://pasttenseblog.wordpress.com/2019/09/09/today-in-london-religious-history-1971-the-gay-liberation-front-mash-up-reactionary-christian-festival-of-light/
Connell O’Donovan, 2004. ‘Leonard Matlovich Makes Time’, on Affirmation:Gay & Lesbian Mormons website, September. Retrieved from Wayback Machine Internet Archive; at https://web.archive.org/web/20090220032746/http://affirmation.org/memorial/leonard_matlovich_makes_time.shtml
Troy D Perry & Thomas LP Swicegood, 1991. Profiles in Gay & Lesbian Courage, New York: St Martin’s Press.
Sue-Ann Post, 2010. Speech at the 2010 Global Atheist Convention, Melbourne; as recorded on DVD © Atheist Foundation of Australia & Atheist Alliance International, Siren Visual Australia & New Zealand.
James Randi, 2010. ‘How To Say It?’, 21 March. JREF Swift Blog, James Randi Educational Foundation; at http://archive.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/914-how-to-say-it.html
Carl Reinganum, 1971. ‘Homosexual Law Reform Sub-Committee’, in Victorian Humanist, January, 6 & 7.
Thomas Rolfsen, 1978a. Editor. ‘The Impossible Dream: The Sacramento Story’, GALA Review Issue 8, 2-7; at http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/Atwj70
——————–, 1978b. Editor. ‘Harvey Milk: In His Own Words’, GALA Review Issue 9, 2-5; at http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/BNXXT8
Don Sanders, 1993. (Editor) ‘Mark Franceschini’, The American Gay and Lesbian Atheist, Vol 10 Issue 9, AGA, September, 4; at http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/APCY38
Society Five, 1974. The Homosexual and the Law—A Humanist View.
EJ Sorrell, 2018. ‘Is There Room In Atheism For Trans People?’, Center for Inquiry, 15 June; at https://centerforinquiry.org/blog/is_there_room_in_atheism_for_trans_people/
Peter Tatchell, 2009. ‘My Nonreligious Life: A Journey from Superstition to Rationalism’, in Russell Blackford & Udo Schüklenk (eds.), 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing, 300-309.
Texas Obituary Project, 1995. ‘Don Sanders’, at http://www.texasobituaryproject.org/052695sanders.html
Rob Tielman, 1997. ‘Homosexual Rights: Why Humanism Cares’, Free Inquiry, Fall, Vol 17 No 4, 21 & 22.
Kaye Tobin and Randy Wicker, 1972. The Gay Crusaders, New York: Paperback Library.
Lex Watson, 1971. ‘But Would You Marry One?’, The Australian Humanist, No. 8, December, 36—38.
Geoff Allshorn is a former school teacher who has recently been undertaking postgraduate research on the history of HIV/AIDS. He has been a member of many LGBT and other community/activist groups, and has received a number of awards relating to this activism. He is also a former member of various atheist/humanist groups, and is currently the co-convenor of the Rainbow Atheists Facebook and MeetUp pages.
From Bent Street 3