Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Reaching the goal of Marriage Equality: Why I truly felt the pride

It happened now over a month ago, but I am still reflecting on how the aftershocks of THAT decision in the USA continue to reverberate all across the Caribbean. The lingering vibrations even greater than the ones the Kick'em Jenny underwater volcano has been able to produce.

It was Friday June 26th. The day when we all read the headline.'Same sex marriage is now legal all across the U.S'. Ever since then, pastors from my home country Barbados and the wider Caribbean have been been digging their heels in, vowing to keep 'marriage equality' from reaching their island shores, as if it were a rare and lethal form of dengue or ebola.

Of course for me, it was not a decision that filled me with any worries. Indeed, I saw it as a landmark victory and I felt without doubt that I was part of the winning team. In some respects, it reminded me of how I felt in 2008, when Barack Obama was declared US president. It was a day you hoped you'd be alive to witness,  but never in your wildest dreams expected be there to see. I felt elated for the LGBT community, because I know for them it has been and will continue to be a long hard struggle. But even in my own euphoria, I stopped to reflect a bit.

I am not a member of the LGBT community and I don't live in the US,  so why was I feeling so excited?  Why was I so emotional?  Why was I fighting to hold back the tears? To be quite honest, I really wasn't sure. Canada has had marriage equality for a decade now, so it's no really an issue here where I live. However, though we don't always like to admit it, what happens in the US tends to have a far greater influence on the rest of the world than what happens in other countries. I knew what happened in the US would have a big impact on the debate  in other parts of the world and that has happened. As a result of this ruling,  I believe that full marriage equality worldwide is now a matter of 'when' rather than 'if'. And that, as a certain vice president would say is  'a big fucking deal'.

But that still doesn't explain why it was a big deal for me. Having had now more time to think about it, I  recognize why. It is because I myself have had my own journey over the last few years.  A journey which has brought  as significant an opening of the mind as an opening of the heart. My journey has not been one where I was to trying to be able to love who I wanted to, mine has been one of a loss of love, separation from the God I once believed in. It was coming to terms with accepting an idea I embraced six years ago. The notion that there is no higher power, no cosmic leader or arbitrator beyond space and time that pulls the levers or keeps things in motion. Going through that transition in my belief system certainly provided its degree of emotion and at that time I considered it to be perhaps the biggest struggle of my life to get through. I remember well the anxiety and uncertainty of walking that narrow secular road ahead.

At that time, it was all about finding my own way and figuring how I would "come out" to family and friends and psychologically be able to navigate in the world without that spirit to guide. Still, I happily embraced the world of 'reason' and looked on it to lead the way. In trying to come to grips with my new life, I started to reach out. First through this blog which I started back in 2010 and then through joining organizations such as Centre for Inquiry (CFI) here in Calgary.

In time these associations and activities brought me in contact with more atheist, humanist and secular groups. I discovered atheist and secular podcasts which quickly became my daily diet of listening. Two years later, I would also become a podcaster, doing what I could to add to reasonable rational voices already out there.

I realize now, that on that Friday 'same sex marriage' morning the journey that was pulling at my heartstrings was not my journey to atheism, but my journey since atheism. The journey that has led to me walking arm in arm with so many secularists all over the world. Now that I have successfully navigated my personal 'coming out' as an atheist,  I have discovered that my non-theism is about far more than ME.  It goes far beyond just getting through as David Ince. It's about a family, a community and a world that is held back in so many ways because of the prevalence of religious laws, religious norms and religious thinking that will still take many more years to sweep away.

In the beginning of my atheist life, as much as it was exciting to find a community that I could identify with and feel good about being able to reason with, it was also at times distinctly uncomfortable. The discomfort came from the fact that I realised just how much 'un-reason' there was in the world and how many people were suffering because of it day by day. People have lost their lives, families, jobs and been sent into exile in many places due to 'unreason'. Much of this irrationality stems from religion, and I felt that we as secular people, who understood these issues more than most, had a responsibility to try to fix them. But were we doing enough? Was I doing enough?

Moving beyond my disbelief

I quite quickly realized that one of the biggest issues that the secular movement was involved in, certainly in the western world, was gay rights and rights within the LGBT movement in general.
The first president of the CFI in Calgary when I joined back in 2010 was Mike Gray, He was an enthusiastic leader, passionate about building the secular community and also openly gay. I remember he would from time to time wear a t-shirt with the word "Gaytheist" emblazoned on the front.

I smiled when I saw him do that, but it also was a genuine eye opener for me. For all my time growing up in Barbados I knew my fair share of gay people, or should I say my fair share of people 'rumoured to be gay.' But that's the point, it was never something anyone wore as a source of pride, it was a mark of shame, something to hide from at all costs.

Discovering the word 'homosexual'

I remember very well the first time I heard the word 'homosexual' when I was about seven years old.. One heavy set young fellow pushed a smaller boy on the pasture at school and the little guy responded with the words  "You're a homosexual!" I can guarantee that none of us around there had a clue what that word meant. But we just knew it had to be something bad, really bad. A word so big couldn't be benign. It had four whole syllables, it had to be something dangerous and terrible. Indeed at the time, I think it was the only four syllable word we knew.

So, for the rest of that term the word 'homosexual' became the insult word of choice. It was all fun for us as kids, nothing too serious. But looking back I think the anti gay sentiment was set in for us even back then. I came to learn that homosexual was just the more formal word for 'buller' that pejorative 'b' word for being gay in Barbados.

Yes, as I grew up into adolescence in Barbados I came to realize that you could pretty much survive being accused of anything, but one thing you never wanted to be was to be 'accused' of being gay. No, if anyone were to think that even for a moment, your entire reputation would be flushed down the toilet.  Guaranteed!  In fact in my parents' generation a common euphemism for referring to a person who was gay was to call them a person 'of doubtful reputation'. I have seen it many times, artists, musicians, scientists and sportsmen. All their achievements glibly glossed over as people say ' but you know he is a 'b*****.

Backing away

I can remember one term in secondary school when I began to talk quite regularly to this one guy, as we both used to get picked up from school around the same time. One morning,  a classmate called me aside and said he had noticed I had been spending a lot of time talking with this friend. He warned me that this individual was known to be gay and if I continued to hang out with him, people would start to believe I was the same way too. I was shocked by what I heard and from the very next evening I started cutting my conversations with my new friend short and about two weeks later I was finding other people to hang out with on afternoons. It's embarrassing to look back at that now and I wish I could go back and change it, but that's just the way it was.

In spite of this, I certainly was not among the 'homophobic' in Barbados.  As a liberal, I was always in favour of gays having whatever rights others were entitled to. However, there was still a level of distance that I felt I wanted to keep from them. I endorsed the idea that gays should be equal but still separate. You should tolerate them, but that didn't mean you went out of your way to have them as your best friend. People may find this surprising, but my position at that time was at the very progressive end of the spectrum of attitudes in Barbadian society.  The more conservative  view was. 'You gays just need to find Jesus and stop sinning'.  And of course as 'good Christians' the conservatives were called to reach out to this community in 'love' by helping them to turn from their 'nasty' and  'wicked' lifestyle.

In spite of this hurtful kind of rhetoric, I have to say that at least to Barbados' credit, we never had the violence against gays that other Caribbean countries such as Jamaica had to endure. Indeed, many in the Caribbean often saw Barbados as the most 'gay friendly' island and we Bajans can attest to being frequently teased about this from our island neighbours. Additionally, within Barbados  we often made fun of the gay community ourselves. The easiest way for a comedian to get a cheap laugh, was to  make a joke about homosexuals or trans sexuals. The way they talked, the way the walked the way they dressed, it was all fodder for various forms of ridicule. That was the comedy we seemed to like more than any other type. The popular comedy and calypso singing group MADD milked it for all it was worth through their 'ArchiBULL Cox' character. For so many years we laughed and laughed, lapping up the hilarity without much of a second thought. For those of us who were straight, we would privately let out a sigh of relief that at least we weren't one of THEM.

So when I came in to the secular world and realized that the people I grew up  identifying as those "THEMS" were actually important allies,  it was somewhat of an about turn for me to take. As I said. I have never had problems with the movement for 'gay rights', but a lot of my feelings before being an atheist activist were pretty apathetic. I thought they deserved rights, but I didn't see it as something I needed to get up off the couch and join them in the fight for.

But my views changed quickly, from the time I started going to weekly CFI meetings, held at the 'Sapien ' night club.' Sapien' was a gay club, it's name a clever short form for 'homo- sapien'. I remember feeling a bit uncomfortable telling people I was going there for meetings. Especially people from the Caribbean, who had enough trouble getting over the 'atheist' thing already. I had to admit that even as a freethinker and atheist I still had lingering fears about someone thinking I was gay when I was not. I felt embarrassed about having such feelings and never shared them with any of my new secular friends, most of whom had grown up in Canada and appeared to have no such hang ups like this at all.

I realized somewhat in horror, that even though I was a liberal by Barbadian standards, I still had a way to go in dealing with aspects of my thinking which still had  remnants of indoctrination. Shedding my belief in a god was indeed only the first step of many I would need to take to embrace rationality fully. Going on to meet people like our following president Nate Phelps (son of Fred Phelps) and strong LGBT activist made me understand more. I began to realize this was more of a fight about human rights than about 'approving' of particular sexual practices. Then we interviewed gay individuals from the Caribbean such as Duane Howard and Dadland Maye on 'Freethinking Island' who had faced backlash in their respective countries of Jamaica and Trinidad. Later we interviewed Angeline Jackson whose work as an advocate in Jamaica has made her  recognized publicly by no less a person than President Barack Obama.

But it wasn't all about the social impact of my new friends in the LGBT Community that affected my thinking. It was reason and  evidence of their arguments that ultimately made me open my mind fully on this issue. The LGBT movement, in putting forward their arguments for their rights, always made a convincing and compelling case. Their arguments  made me realize that not only did they deserve tolerance and acceptance, they deserved to be fully embraced and supported in their push for all basic human rights. That included the important right to all the benefits of being 'married' if they chose to go that route.

I came to learn that to look at the gay community as 'equal but separate' was just not good enough. To do that, would be like saying to blacks in times gone by, that you can drink the same water as the whites but you just need to go to a different water fountain. I began to understand why it was important that the word 'marriage' be used to define gay unions as well as straight ones. Many people like to say that if you let gays have a  'marriage like' union you should call it something else. But that's part of the 'separate but equal' mentality that I now definitely reject.

This is what I have come to love about being in the atheist and secular community. You get your views challenged all the time and you move or adjust your position in the face of a rational argument. That's how it should be. Losing my belief in a god, has allowed me to investigate these human rights issues without the inhibition of dogma. I have come to recognize that a world where rights are extended to more people is a win for all. When this happens we should be proud that we as a human species have identified an imbalance in our system and have taken measures to correct it.

Love your neighbour

So, the marriage equality win is not a win for the 'gays' it's a win for the world. I realize this is a difficult concept for some people. For  as much as Christians claim that being good is about loving your neighbour and caring for others, the truth is that religion is generally not about including others and loving unconditionally. It's about loving your 'neighbour' in a restricted sense. Loving those who are 'next to you' culturally or ideologically. In general, religion is not about loving people who are different and respecting them for who they are. For them, love is about trying to push others who may live far away into  becoming 'neighbours'. For its only when you are in the same 'neighbourhood' as them that they think you can experience love fully

This is where the whole 'love the sinner, hate the sin' comes from. Translated it means, 'We love you, but that love is expressed through placing emotional pressure on you to embrace our belief'. So they will argue that you can't really appreciate or understand love until you experience the love of Jesus. They'll say you will only get God's full approval, if you turn away from your 'sin' of being a homosexual. Love in  a religious context definitely comes with strings attached.

You don't have to be in our neighbourhood

But those of us on the secular side don't operate from that premise. Our aim is to love our 'neighbours' but also those who have taken up residence far away, those who may have likes, preferences and cultures far different from ours. It's about looking to defend the rights of the marginalized wherever they may be. It doesn't have to be us atheists ourselves that are the ones being denied the right. In fact it could be and often is the very religious who we disagree with, whose rights we want to defend.

I realize this is a very difficult concept for a lot of people.  That's why some of my friends in Barbados, including some in my own family, wondered if my putting the rainbow filter on my Facebook profile pic, was actually me coming out as a homosexual!

It's weird, but I think I get it. So often our world promotes a 'stand up for YOUR rights' attitude. Fight for what you think that YOU have been denied. It's important to do that, but that's not where it should end. You need to stand up for the rights of others as well, even as others stand up for YOUR rights. That's how we make the world better.  The fight is not over and the battle continues. Other groups will need the support as the years go on. None more so than the 'T's in the 'LGBT' movement, I think of my brave colleague in the Caribbean secular community Gabrielle Bellot, who is the Founder of the 'Caribbean Freethinkers' Society' blog and facebook group. Gabrielle is a transgender woman living in US, who now lives in fear of returning to her native Dominica since her transition. Given the disparaging comments that have been made about people like Caitlyn Jenner in her island and the rest of the Caribbean, her fear is not at all unfounded. Things like this make it clear that we need to keep up the fight both for those in our 'neighbourhood' and those who live well outside.

So we must go on. It's amazing and remarkable. A journey that started out for me as a mere disbelief in the existence of a god has become so much more along the way, and I truly feel the PRIDE when I think about that.

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