on dead and dying heroes

i learned not to have heroes the hard way


Callie: Big shout out to Courtney for becoming a new patron this week. Thank you, friend. Love you lots. My name is Callie Wright and this is Queersplaining. Jean Luc Picard was my first hero. He’s the Paragon of virtue. Honest, compassionate kind resolute. Sure of himself. He was the father I grew up without. The nice thing about how having a fictional hero from the nineties is that those heroes don’t usually turn out to be deeply flawed, questionable people.

They just get to be heroes. That’s why they were so great at that. And I think why they might maybe seem boring today. My first real life hero was James Hetfield from Metallica. Metallica was my first favorite band. The first music I ever took personally there, the reason I picked up the guitar, the reason I love metal music, and this was still in the age where it was really easy for a celebrity to stay private about their private life.

Literally all I knew. About James Hatfield was, he was Metallica’s front man. He liked to hunt and he had a rough childhood. It was really easy to keep him around as a hero. Then it was the famous atheist, the podcasters YouTubers, bloggers, the leaders of the big atheist organizations. I had a lot of heroes in that space.

And the thing about the atheist community was, and is. It’s small enough that you can often meet and interact with your heroes. You can get to know them as people. And I did just that. In fact, that’s literally what led me to start a podcast of my own.

There was one atheist podcast in particular that I loved. I ended up in a Facebook group with its producer. I’ll totally admit to fan girling a little bit. He was a great musician. He helped make a podcast that I loved and a lot to me. And suddenly I was like one step closer to this podcast that I love.

And so I sort of sheepishly asked if I could help. At all with the show, the first bit of podcast work I ever did was some real basic audio work for the show. And I was over the moon. I was part of something big, something tens of thousands of people would hear. I got to know the host, a we’ll call him famous podcast, dude.

And, uh, and he had me on the show briefly to talk about trans things. It was incredible. I was becoming actual friends with one of my heroes. How Fucking cool is that

the short version of why I started a podcast of my own was that I realized there were very few visible trans folks in the atheist movement. I had some rough experiences as an atheist in LGBTQ spaces. I have a background in audio engineering. So a podcast seemed like a natural step to address both of those problems.

By this time, I was an official volunteer for the show, whatever the hell that means, but I had to sign forms and shit. So it felt super official. I even did a Skype call with someone for an orientation, nevermind that it’s illegal for a, for profit corporation to have unpaid volunteers. I had no idea about that at the time, but I was officially doing things for a big, important podcast that I loved.

And so when I decided to make my own, I expected support and I got it kinda. See, there was another podcast I listened to and the whole offered to just give space on his show to someone new who wanted to get their name out there. And I thought that’d be a real cool way to get an audience fast. So I thought, well, maybe I’ll do that first.

Instead of making my own thing, then this big show that I was working for announced, they were starting a podcast network. I was on the inside. So that seemed like a rad opportunity too. So I was talking to famous podcast dude, and I mentioned all this to her and his tone immediately shifted. He’ll let me know that if I had already talked with someone else, then he considered that competition.

If I started a podcast and didn’t start it on his network, I wouldn’t be allowed to work for his show anymore. Since I was another atheist podcast, I was either on his network or I was his competition. I was shocked. This was not the community minded, compassionate person I knew from his podcast. This wasn’t the guy I thought would encourage and lift me up.

When I decided to go out and do work, he told me, he thought was important. What was actually important was that I tie that work to him. But I was still naive. The guy has an audience of tens of thousands of people that I’d be exposed to. And so I did it. I signed a contract with him and in fairness, he did help me a lot.

I was on a show a few times. He taught me how to negotiate speaking gigs. He taught me about marketing, a podcast and a bunch of other stuff, but once you’re on the inside, you start to see the other side. Right. I went to a convention and watched how he talked to fans versus people behind the scenes. It was like flipping a switch.

He was a funny, charismatic life of the party type in front of his fans. And when he wasn’t, he turned into a diva, like he thought he was an, a list celebrity or something, someone who was important and knew every bit of how important he was. And that was the first time I really got on the inside of watching someone cultivate this pristine image on the outside that looked nothing like reality.

And the stories kept coming. As I got to know more and more people who worked for this guy, I heard more and more stories about what a shitbag he actually was. I stopped talking to him as much. He ended his podcast network when it didn’t start making them a bunch of money. So I didn’t have any official ties to him anymore.

And we still kind of operated as an unofficial network. The shows on his network would still like cross promote and help each other out. So we were still connected, just not officially.

One night. I got a message from a friend. He sent me a picture of this Facebook post. His message, which was something like you might have already seen this, but I wanted to make sure in case you have, and if I’m the first one to tell you about it, I am so sorry.

The Facebook post was from another somewhat prominent atheist. He had written a few books. He’d been involved with some atheist org drama had gotten into an argument with someone on a Facebook post about something racist. I had him blocked on Facebook by this time. But someone had sent him screenshots of the things I was saying.

No idea why they did that because we were in high school, I guess. So in response, he posted a picture with a caption that made it clear. He was posting about me. The picture was of the nerdy, the fat gamer guy from South park. If you’ve not seen it, it’s what you probably imagine. It’s supposed to evoke disgust, right?

He’s fat. He has a five o’clock shadow in a super messy room. He’s bald. He has acne so on and so forth. And I don’t remember what the caption said exactly, but it had my last name in it somewhere. He was obviously saying this was a picture of me. And this was another guy who was kind of a hero of mine.

He’d given me money to get to a con. Once he gave me free books, he gave me advice on stuff. He helped me out a lot, but now he was going nuclear on me because I said something was racist. He went after my old cohost too, which was even lower. And so how is this connected to famous podcast dude? Well South Park picture guy and famous podcast dude were business partners. At one time, I reached out to famous podcast dude and was like, Hey, are you guys still partners? Because I don’t want to be attached to anything this guy is attached to anymore. Then remember the podcast network, wasn’t an official thing. Anymore, but we still cross promoted shows and stuff.

And I was definitely going to sever ties completely. If South park picture guy was still involved and of course, famous podcast, dude was just, he was going to defend me, right. His friend. There’s nothing that could justify the transphobia fatphobia and general assholery of that post. Right. I wasn’t super fond of famous podcast dude at this point, but he would certainly come to my defense on this one.

Right. If I put this story in the podcast, I’m sure you can probably guess that’s not actually what happened. Instead, famous podcast dude gave me a will. That was wrong, but. I was supposed to consider what South park picture guy was going through. People had been attacking him a bunch and he decided that he was going to bully the bullies.

So maybe that thing that he did to me was wrong, but I should try to understand where he’s coming from and talk it out. Him and I agree on 99% of things, we should be friends and allies. Shouldn’t cut them off completely over just this one thing. And this was the line. I was not going to let go of, we weren’t talking about some fine point of philosophy difference.

This was a deliberate mean-spirited personal attack. Surely that crosses the line. Right. We can’t just agree to disagree. On that and famous podcast, dude, play mediator. He wanted to get us on the phone together to talk it out. I wasn’t going to do that without at least an apology. First, I felt that was a reasonable precondition.

I still feel that was a reasonable precondition famous podcast dude didn’t. So famous podcast, dude made an episode out of it. He called it what’s killing the atheist movement. He never used my name, but he described the situation and enough detail that it was very obvious. He was talking about me and South park picture guy here was my former hero.

One of my first. Real life heroes, a real life hero that became a friend. And now he thought I was part of what was killing an entire movement because I expected an apology over a transphobic and fatphobic personal attack.

And so it went with a lot of heroes, quote unquote, in the atheist movement. I learned not to do hero worship the hard way. Sometimes you just. Find out your heroes are people with flaws and foibles like anyone else and that’s life, right? Cause even the best of us have flaws. You hopefully grow up and realize that no one deserves a pedestal.

You can love and respect a person. You can appreciate their work without giving them a godlike status. My experience was more about finding out lots of my heroes were actually just shit people. They carefully crafted their public image to look nothing like them as a real person underneath the heroic persona.

Wasn’t just a regular person, but often someone who was racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or just mean, and I guess I should say it wasn’t literally all of them, just most of them, so much of my experience and finding communities is. Finding them getting involved in them, then finding out how awful lots of the people in them are and finding that problem so pervasive, I just kind of have to leave them behind if you ever wonder why you don’t hear about me getting involved in activist groups much. This is why I’m constantly afraid of this happening. It feeds into my anxiety so much that it makes it really hard. It’s one of the reasons Roller Derby was so good for me.

I thought of a lot of my teammates as heroes. Then I got to know them as people and they’re still just wonderful people. Not heroes, just good people and that’s healthy.

I think a lot about why we do this. Why do we put people on pedestals? I can understand things from the point of view of the person being put on the pedestal. There’s a certain kind of person that wants that kind of power. They actively cultivate that power. They love the adoration of a crowd, the constant reassurance that they’re smart and amazing and wonderful.

I don’t always get it from the point of view of the person putting someone else on a pedestal though. Why do so many of us, even want heroes, maybe it’s because we need the hope that a hero represents. We see some problem. We see someone trying to address that problem. Maybe they do it in a way we don’t think we can.

So we elevate that person above ourselves because of it. Is it some reflection of our own insecurities? We can never do what this person does. So we do the next best thing and give them our platforms and support and adoration and the power they meet to do the thing they do. I certainly think that’s what happened with me and famous podcast dude.

And this turns bad so quickly, right? Because it seems like it’s inevitable that this hero making leads to people being allowed to get away with all kinds of heinous shit. So what do we do about that? We, humans are social creatures, right? We want to invest our hopes and other people. And maybe I shouldn’t say we, because I’m definitely talking about myself here.

I am an intensely social creature and I desperately want to believe in other people’s capacity to do good, because I know what’s there. When I see someone consistently doing that, it’s hard not to elevate that person a little bit in my mind. I think I’ve got that impulse under control now because it’s been betrayed so many times, but that hasn’t stopped me from doing it completely.

I find myself swinging really hard back and forth between hope and cynicism. And I honestly think there are good reasons for both. I think my friend Stephanie Yvonne said it best. We have to be about the work, not the people or the organizations, even the best of people will let us down. And of course we have to consider the difference between someone making a mistake and someone being malicious, but that’s a conversation for a different episode.

The work. The values we live by. Those things have to be at the center of what we do. It is ultimately about the people being served by the work and the values that inform that work. But we don’t get there by creating and canonizing heroes. We get there by focusing on the work. We can love and respect people without making them into heroes.

In fact, we should. Love and respect people without making them into heroes.

Thanks for listening friend. If you want to help support the show and keep stories like these coming, please consider heading to patreon.com/queersplaining And making a per episode donation to support the show. You can’t do that. A share and a shout out on social media is a big help too. Before I go, I want you to know that if you’re lost, you’re hurting, you’re scared.

If you feel like no one cares and no one understands, you need to know there’s a community out here that loves you cares for you knows that you’re capable of amazing things and that you are worthy of love. If you’re struggling, please, don’t be afraid to reach out until next time friend, my name is Callie Wright and this is Queersplaining.