Allies: Your Good Intentions Are Necessary, But NOT Sufficient

Cis folks, we need to have a talk.

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Especially if you are offended by these words.

In the last few days I’ve been a part of and witnessed a number of worrying conversations involving cisgender people who call themselves allies to the trans community, yet don’t listen to a thing we have to say. Instead, they become defensive when corrected, invalidate and minimize our experiences, and tell us how we should feel and act.

A cis man on Facebook told me that I — a transgender person — do not know what the word transphobia means. Normally I’d give someone like this the benefit of the doubt. He doesn’t know me, he doesn’t necessarily know I’m trans, and he doesn’t know that I spend a significant amount of my time interacting with other trans people and educating cisgender people about trans issues. But my profile picture clearly states that I am trans (it’s currently set to a Trans Day of Visibility frame), and yet he persisted in trying to explain to me a concept which affects my life on a daily basis.

This is a screenshot of the conversation we had, which was in response to a meme which read [paraphrased], “If you are cisgender, you are transphobic.”

 

Cis

What disturbed me about this exchange was not that we disagreed, or that we had different usages of the word. As I wrote on the post, the terms we use when discussing bigotry are of secondary importance. It doesn’t bother me if people use transphobia to mean only overt bigotry, and as long as we can agree that trans people do in fact face systemic discrimination in our society, we can have a productive conversation about how best to address that.

The thing that upset me about this interaction was the way he disregarded the perspective of a person who is directly affected by this issue and instead made the conversation about him and how accepting he was towards his trans friend. Instead of acknowledging my point about word usage and continuing to discuss from there, he felt the need to defend his honor and virtue by proving to me he’s not transphobic — according to his usage of that word — and in fact he has a trans friend who he fully accepts (and he even asked how he could help — give this guy a trophy!!!!). Despite me never accusing him of being openly bigoted, he took my broad usage of the word “transphobia” not as the commentary about social programming it was meant to be, but an attack on his personal character, and rushed to correct me. He seems to believe that because he doesn’t see himself as holding any overt prejudices against trans people, he has nothing left to learn about or from us. His official Ally Card is laminated, waiting and ready in his wallet for the next time it needs to be flashed.

I’ve seen multiple instances of this kind of defensiveness over the last week. I saw several cisgender friends of mine say that they feel attacked and othered by being labeled “cis”. When their trans friends told them that it’s not meant as an insult or slur at all, but simply a descriptor, they told these trans people that they are wrong, as if they somehow could know their intentions better than trans people themselves.

A transmasculine friend of mine approached their sociology professor after class to correct her when she said that trans guys are “girls who want to be boys.” Instead of thanking them for the information or even simply asking to continue the conversation further until understanding could be reached, the professor told them, “Don’t tell me how to teach my class!” and ended the discussion. She believes that because she has some minimal education on the topic, she knows as much or more about trans issues than a trans person themself.

I don’t know their intentions for sure, but I believe all of these people mean well. I don’t think they’re bad people who actively want to hurt the trans community. I take them at their word that they really do want everyone to be treated equally, and don’t want members of marginalized groups to be discriminated against. I believe the person on Facebook who said that he fully accepts and supports his trans friend. The problem is not his intentions.

The problem is that there is something more important to him and the others in these stories than achieving understanding — being seen as virtuous.

I understand the impulse to defend yourself against criticism you feel is unwarranted. If you fully support the trans community, I understand that you don’t want people to have the wrong impression of you, and you’re going to push back against accusations that you feel call your allyship into question. But if you aren’t going to listen to the concerns of the group that you claim to be an ally of and allow yourself to be open to constructive critique, you should think long and hard before you use that term to describe yourself again.

That’s not to say that you must unflinchingly accept everything an individual tells you just because they’re trans, queer, black or part of any other marginalized group. There are members of marginalized groups who themselves are victims of misinformation, ignorance, bigotry, and internalized bias against their own group. Occasionally a trans person may position themselves as if they speak for the entire community when they’re really only relaying their personal experience or opinion. But if you see multiple members of this group expressing the same concern over time, especially when it’s about something that affects them directly, there’s a good reason for that.

That’s why it’s essential to speak with a wide variety of people in a marginalized group and not rely solely on the opinion of your token friend. If your friend happens to disagree with the consensus view of the group, you’ll get an impression which does not represent the group as a whole. For example, there are some trans people who believe that trans people should only use the bathroom of the gender that they were assigned at birth, at least until they have gender confirming surgery or can “pass” in the eyes of cis people. That opinion is not by any means the majority opinion of the trans community, so you will be misinformed if you’re getting all your information about trans life from someone who holds that view.

So if a trans person tells you what it’s like to be trans, you don’t have to automatically accept everything they say un-skeptically. But given that they are much more likely to have accurate information about being trans than you are as a cis person, you should at least look further into what they’re saying before you discard it. Ask a variety of other trans people if what they say is true. Use the infinite wisdom of the interwebz. I guarantee you will be able to find that information or people who can give it to you.

You have a right to (and should) try to verify what one individual tells you about a whole group. You aren’t a bigot for asking for more information, but it is totally unwarranted for you to try to tell us what our concerns are, or pretend that you know more about our experiences and struggles than we do. It’s the difference between agnosticism and making a positive claim — it’s perfectly ethical to reserve judgment on an issue until you have more data, but if you want to assert that the expert consensus on this issue is in fact false, you’re going to need some pretty overwhelming evidence. If you want to tell a member of a marginalized group or the entire group as whole that they’re wrong about their own lives, don’t be surprised to experience some significant pushback. If the evidence is on your side, there’s no need to get defensive; simply present your case and most reasonable people will be convinced.

Your defensiveness to criticism betrays not only the weakness of your position, but also your insecurity. When I complain about straight people, men and cis people to my partners (who are both straight-identified cis men) they don’t get offended, because they know I’m not talking about them. They don’t have to tell me how accepting and progressive and egalitarian they are; they show me every day through their words and actions. When my friends of color complain about white people, I don’t take it personally as a white person. I try to listen to what they say so I can examine my own attitudes, see if any of them contribute to the struggles of my friends, and learn how to be a better ally to them. As a queer and trans person I know how cathartic it is to vent about people who don’t recognize their own contributions to oppression, so it makes me happy on their behalf to see them doing the same thing, even if I happen to belong to the group they’re venting about.

Here’s another example. Recently I posted a tongue-in-cheek rant on Facebook offering a quick tip on how straight, cis men can avoid being accused of sexual harassment and assault at atheist conventions: don’t sexually harass or assault people. Some of my friends were upset that I singled out a specific gender and sexual orientation as the targets of my ire. They felt personally attacked, as if I had said that all cis, straight men are sexual criminals, when I was only making a comment about those who do commit these crimes. If you’re a cis, straight man who doesn’t commit sexual harassment or assault, it doesn’t make much sense to me that you would be offended by a post skewering cis, straight men who commit sexual harassment or assault. The reason I pointed out cis, straight men isn’t because I think they’re the only sexual criminals in the world. Yes, people from other groups are capable of committing sexual assault, but this totally misses the point, since no one from any of these other groups has been accused of doing these things at atheist conventions. And more importantly, cis, straight men — especially one in particular, who I was paying homage to in my post — are the only ones complaining that they “can’t go to cons anymore without being accused of harassment.” Just because you are a member of this group doesn’t make you guilty of the same crimes as some of your cohorts, and I don’t think any reasonable person is saying so. (But I digress.)

It seems to me that the only reason to so vociferously defend your righteousness would be if you were concerned with others’ perceptions of you and your intentions. I know that I try my best to listen to the concerns of people of color, so it doesn’t offend me at all when they complain about bigoted white people, because I don’t consider myself bigoted. (At least overtly. As I said in my Facebook exchange above, I still have to wrestle with my cultural programming and unconscious biases.) The only reason to be personally offended when someone complains about racist white people would be if I considered myself a racist white person. If I listen to their complaint, honestly examine myself and find that I am not guilty of the accusation, I know they’re not talking about me so there’s no reason to be upset. I often wonder the same thing about cisgender people who object to being called “cis” because they see trans people venting about the harmful things cis people have done to them. If you are not one of those people who have hurt us, why be upset?

Before you tell yourself, “I’ve never done any of those things, so I’m a good ally,” and click away from this blog feeling sanctimonious and derisive about those bad allies, take an honest look at yourself. I’d be surprised if you have never or will never act or speak in a similar way at some point. I know that I have. I didn’t always used to be so open to criticisms of white people, for example. It used to be that when I’d see a person of color complaining about white people I’d feel a little personally hurt, even if I didn’t say anything to them about it. I’d think, “I’m white and I don’t believe that other races are inferior in any way. I’m for racial equality all the way. It’s so unfair for them to make assumptions about me and my intentions when they don’t even know me.” It took me several years to accept that even though my intentions toward people of color were and are good, I still hold the unconscious biases that have been programmed into me from my culture. I always meant well, but it didn’t make me perfect or incapable of saying, doing or thinking something bigoted without meaning to.

Your good intentions are necessary for allyship, but they are not sufficient. Your words and actions matter just as much. The next time you feel defensive and are tempted to discredit a marginalized person’s experience or prove how tolerant you are, ask yourself: “Is my goal in this moment to listen, learn and support this person or this group, or is it to protect my reputation or ego?” If it’s the later, try to take a step back and work towards the former.

Trans people can’t read your mind and know what your intentions are. We don’t know what your past actions are. We don’t know if you have a trans family member who you love and support, or if you’ve donated money to LGBT organizations, or if you’ve canvassed for pro-equality legal policies. All we know is how you speak and act in the present. If you do that with love, respect, openness and compassion, you won’t have to worry about being perceived as bigoted, because those you interact with will know what kind of person you are.

 

In an Era of Chaos, Find Your Safe Place

If you’re a member of any marginalized group–whether it’s due to your race, sexuality, gender, national origin, ability, socioeconomic status or any other factor–the world (and the US especially) is a scary place for you right now. Recent months have seen a resurgence of bigotry, acts of violence and threatening rhetoric against the most vulnerable people in our society. It’s difficult to feel secure in your world when those in power are vocal and active in their opposition to the rights you deserve as a human being.

It’s important to stay informed and up-to-date on current events, but as I’ve mentioned many times on the podcast and in previous posts, I think it’s at least equally important (if not more so) to take care of your mental health and wellbeing. I’ve seen a lot of hurting among marginalized people because of recent political and social events, and I’ve experienced a decent amount of despair myself. Of course, if tuning out the news and commentary and engaging in so-called “frivolous” activities is healthy for you, I encourage you to do that, and anyone who wants to shame you for that can flush themselves down the toilet.

But keeping informed and engaged doesn’t necessarily have to lead to being overcome by fear, sadness and uncertainty. These feelings are certainly valid and reasonable to have; however, when negative feelings completely take over your emotional landscape, it has a strong impact on your ability to live a productive and fulfilling life. As humans, one of our basic emotional needs is a feeling of safety. Here are a few tips to help you find safety, even in those times when you choose to fully engage with this dangerous world.

Finding safe places in your social sphere

The first place to look for safety is, of course, among those places and people that you already know you can trust. A safe person is anyone who you can speak with freely and openly, without fear of judgment, retribution or unwarranted criticism. For most people, this would be your closest friends, family, or romantic partners. (And hey, you probably didn’t need me to advise you to rely on your loved ones, and that those truly care about you will be happy to do anything they can to help… but in the interest of comprehensiveness, there it is.)

Support groups can also be a huge contributor to feelings of safety, especially for members of marginalized groups. It’s easy to feel isolated if you don’t interact with any other members of your group(s) on a regular basis, and often just knowing that others are experiencing the same fears and that you have a community of peers to help prop you up can make a big difference in your emotional security. If you can, take advantage of support groups in your area for queer people, trans people, people of color, women, chronic illness sufferers, or any other axis of marginalization you may experience. If that’s not available to you, don’t discount online communities, especially forums and Facebook groups! People from all over the country and the world can gather there to share experiences, lend advice and resources, and support one another practically and emotionally.

If your negative feelings are becoming so overwhelming that it’s straining your relationships, work life, or ability to function day-to-day, consider seeing a therapist or counselor, even for just a few sessions. Counseling isn’t just for people with diagnosed mental illness. I’m a strong believer that almost everyone can benefit from talking over their problems with a neutral third party with training in psychology, relationship dynamics and helping others meet personal goals. Therapists are trained in ethics and strive to make their office a confidential and safe place for their clients. (If you need help finding a counselor, I got you, kid!)

And here’s the best part of all this: You don’t necessarily need anyone else to help you make a safe place. Sometimes, being alone in your room with a good book and cup of tea can be a safe refuge from the evils of the world. Sitting quietly and listening to the rain, watching a favorite movie, doing a hobby, making a point to take a different route home from work… Even things as simple and “everyday” as these can help you feel grounded and in control of your world.

Building a mental safe place (aka the real point of this post)

Sometimes you have obligations which keep you from your real-world safe place, your safe people are unavailable, or you feel so unsafe that you can’t open up others. Maybe you feel that the world is an inherently dangerous place and that your safety can’t be guaranteed even when you’re alone. People who have experienced trauma, especially, may feel chronically mistrusting of others and hypervigilant even in the absence of any immediate threats, so they can never feel completely safe anywhere. In these cases, don’t give up – it’s time to DIY and make a safe place inside yourself. (Awwwwww.)

How it works

In our last good news episode, I touched on a way I’ve been keeping myself feeling safe lately. The safe place exercise is a technique used in EMDR to help people with PTSD establish a sense of internal calm and safety when suffering from re-experiencing symptoms. In an EMDR processing session, the client revisits traumatic memories in detail, which can sometimes result in the triggering of intense fear, sadness, shame or loss. To re-establish the client’s sense of safety at the end of a session, the therapist guides them to their mental safe place where they can recover. Outside of the therapist’s office, too, trauma survivors can retreat to this mental safe place to help them re-stabilize when suffering from flashbacks, panic attacks, hypervigilance or just general feelings of unease.

People with PTSD aren’t the only ones who can get overwhelmed by fear, anger and sadness, and we aren’t the only ones who need help quieting our racing thoughts sometimes. Like many therapy techniques, this can be useful to people without mental illness as well. Anyone can benefit from having a peaceful oasis that travels with you wherever you go. You can read about the basics of the technique here, but I’ll break down the process of constructing and visiting your safe place with a handy, easy-to-remember acronym!

Prepare. Get comfortable somewhere where you won’t be interrupted or distracted (especially by a whiny cat demanding füd). I prefer to lie down in bed or on the couch, but sitting upright is also fine as long as it puts you at ease. If it helps you relax and focus, put on some soft music or nature sounds. There are thousands of hours of free relaxation and meditation music and sounds on YouTube to take advantage of. At my therapist’s recommendation, I put headphones on and listen to bilateral music as an auditory analog to the stimulation done in an EMDR session.

Experience a safe place in your mind’s eye. This is a place where you feel totally at peace, where you can be fully yourself, and where you know nothing and no one can harm you. It could be an exact replica of a real-life place you’ve been, a location from a book or movie, or an environment that you construct from scratch. It can be as enclosed or expansive as you need it to be. My therapist told me that her safe place is a warm, sunny beach, while another one of her clients imagines herself in a small windowless room padded with lots of soft pillows. My safe place is on the larger side and covers several acres. If you’re having trouble generating ideas, start with an empty white expanse and add features one by one. Are you outdoors or indoors? What time of year is it? What temperature is the air? Are there any plants, furniture or items near you? What do they look like? Try out a few different ideas and see what sticks. Whatever type of environment makes you most relaxed, content and “at home” is the way to go.

Noodle around. Once you get the basic layout of your safe place solid, start to add, subtract and change aspects of it based on what makes you feel safest and most comforted at the time. This is my favorite part of the exercise – your safe place is totally your own and doesn’t even have to conform to the laws of reality if you don’t want it to. Magic? No probalo. My safe place has a pair of unicorns who live in the woods nearby and protect me and my loved ones from any danger that might approach. Futuristic sci-fi shit? I jump in it. I’ve got special force-fields that keep anyone but me from entering certain areas. If need be, you can change aspects of the environment from day to day depending on what you need in that moment. Each time I visit, I usually visualize myself in whichever area of the environment seems the most comforting to me at the time. I can change aspects within that area to suit what I’m feeling; maybe I’ll adjust the weather or time of day, conjure up an object to interact with, or create a one-time-use secret room if I need to be cloistered far away from everyone else. You can even imagine yourself as different from the real world. You could look different, feel different, or have abilities you don’t have in your real life. Sometimes I pretend I’m a certain fictional character I connect with (guess who?). Your imagination is quite literally the limit here.

Immerse yourself. Once you have your safe place thoroughly set up–which could take 5 minutes or several hours of cumulative time depending on how detailed you like it to be–spend some quality time there. Place yourself in the environment you’ve created and exist in it. What kinds of activities are you doing there? What are the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and physical sensations associated with being in this place? Are there any people, animals or mystical creatures around for you to interact with, or are you alone? See yourself doing and experiencing whatever you need to in order to bring yourself a deep sense of tranquility, safety, or maybe even joy.

Slow down. Don’t worry if you find your mind wandering, especially the first few times you do it or if you’re getting back into it after a while off. It’s natural for the mind to want to go off in different directions and it takes practice to become focused. The first time I tried this exercise, I managed to be “on task” maybe 5 of the 15 minutes, but each time I do it I have an easier time focusing and sometimes am surprised by how quickly the time goes by. Sometimes you might have something else on your mind and have trouble fully immersing yourself in the world you’ve created, and that’s okay! Do what you can at the time. Go at your own pace–remember, the aim is to feel safe, and beating yourself up for getting distracted or doing it “wrong” isn’t kind to yourself and won’t contribute to a sense of safety.

When to use it

Start out doing this exercise for 15-20 minutes at a time as part of your daily routine. I like to do it before bed, but you can do it at any time when you will be free from obligations and distractions, and you can focus and be comfortable. (Just don’t do it while driving, because you might get so relaxed that you fall asleep.)

As your connection to this place becomes clearer and stronger when you practice under “normal” circumstances, start to go there when you feel a little frustrated, sad or scared, and gradually build your way up to using this technique when you feel more intense versions of those emotions. Like any skill, it will take time for this to become easier for you to do. If you’re like me, when you feel overwhelmed you’ll naturally revert to whatever coping mechanisms you typically use, whether healthy or unhealthy (okay, typically unhealthy). Over time it will become natural for you to want to go to this place when you’re feeling unsafe. It will help you calm down more quickly, freeing your mind up for problem-solving rather than continuing to circle the drain. Even if you’re not able to have some time alone or lay down and close your eyes for the full experience, you can still call up some mental images, and with them the feelings of serenity you experience while there.

Now go out there and feel SAFE! And to help you get started, here’s a representation of who you truly are, underneath all the hurt. And who are you to tell this kickass kid that she doesn’t deserve safety? Of course she does, you monster.

Read more at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thegaytheistmanifesto/2017/02/era-chaos-find-safe-place/#UHZrrghE8v2VJADY.99

Finding an Evidence-Based Therapist: A How-To Guide

So you’re an atheist, skeptical, science-minded, secular and/or non-woo-believing person, and you need a therapist. You’ve heard the horror stories of friends who have gone to get treatment for their mental illness, to receive grief counseling, or to work towards bettering their relationships, only to have their lack of religion targeted as the source of their problems and been subjected to proselytizing. Some have gone to a supposedly secular therapist only to be blindsided by outdated, pseudo-scientific approaches. You’ve contacted the Secular Therapist Project, but no luck–maybe they didn’t have any contacts in your area, the person you found didn’t take your insurance, or the suggested therapist simply wasn’t able to help you with your particular issue. You’ve gone to Psychology Today’s Find A Therapist lookup (the most comprehensive list of psychological professionals in the US) and entered in your zip code… and now you have dozens or hundreds of options. How do you narrow it down and make sure the therapist you opt to see will provide you with thoroughly non-religious, evidence-based care?

Luckily, Ari is here to put that fancy psychology degree to work for you and provide you with a step-by-step guide to finding a qualified, science-backed and secular therapist to help heal whatever ails you. Here are 4 simple steps you can follow to determine who to trust and who to avoid when selecting a mental health professional.

Step 1: Check Their Credentials

Like you would with any healthcare professional, you’ll want to make sure you only entrust your care to a well-educated, fully-qualified individual, not just someone who claims to be one. Here’s a breakdown of the different levels of education and qualifications to look for (and to avoid) in a potential therapist in the US.

**Note: This list is limited to talk therapists and does not include psychiatrists: doctors who dispense psychotropic medications. Some psychiatrists provide a limited amount of talk therapy to augment medication, but most typically refer out to master’s and doctoral-level therapists to provide that service for clients who would benefit from it.

Education

You can think of qualified talk therapists as coming in two tiers: basic and deluxe. Neither is inherently “better” than the other, but each is uniquely suited to treat different types of concerns.

Your “basic” therapist holds a master’s degree: either a Master of Arts/Sciences (MA or MS)–typically in counseling–or a Master of Social Work (MSW), each of which take approximately 2-3 years of full-time classwork and supervised practice to receive. Most programs also require the completion of a research thesis. These sorts of therapists are qualified to treat the most common psychological issues, including depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, phobias, eating disorders, OCD, ADHD, mild to moderate autism spectrum disorder, and problems in family and romantic relationships. They are the most common type of therapist and as such are typically more easily accessible and affordable than the “deluxe” tier.

This other breed of therapist, who are more accurately called psychologists, hold Ph.D.s in clinical psychology. It takes on average 5 to 6 years of full-time study to obtain this degree. In addition to the classwork and supervised practice hours that master’s-level therapists also complete, Ph.D. students are required to conduct and present highly-specialized original research on the causes, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses. They often end up focusing their research and study on an illness or family of related illnesses, making them experts in the identification and treatment of those particular disorders.

As a result, Ph.D.s are uniquely qualified to treat less common disorders, like dissociative disorders, personality disorders, bipolar disorder, and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, or more severe cases of issues which could otherwise be treated by a master’s level professional. They are also the ones to go to if you need official evaluation for a diagnosis, especially if you suspect an uncommon diagnosis. There are far fewer Ph.D. psychologists in the US than master’s-level therapists, so they are in high demand and can be difficult to get an immediate appointment with, but if you’re dealing with a concern that you think requires more specialized treatment, this is probably a better bet for success than your basic talk therapist.

Psychology Today lists the school(s) each therapist earned degree(s) from, year of graduation and number of years in practice under the “Qualifications” heading. As always, your mileage may vary; a therapist who received a degree from an Ivy League school isn’t always going to be a better fit for you than one who studied at a state school. Similarly, someone who’s been in practice for 4 years might happen to know more about your specific issue than someone who’s worked for two decades. But this will at least give you an idea as to their level of knowledge and suitability for you. If someone got their degree from a heavily religious institution, for example, or has only been in practice for a year or two, you may want to take pause before putting stock in them.

Licensure

Acronyms like LCSW, LMFT, LPC, LMHC, etc. refer to specific professional licences to practice mental health counseling. Both master’s and doctoral-level therapists must obtain one or more of these qualifications in order to practice counseling legally in the US. Each license has slightly different requirements in order to obtain and maintain them, but none is inherently better or worse than another, and for treating most common mental health issues, they are functionally equivalent. Each requires a graduate-level education, a large number of supervised practice hours (typically in the thousands), and an exam. Check your state’s requirements for each type of licensure if you’re interested to learn more.

Who to avoid

If a potential counselor does not have any of the degrees or licenses listed above, they are not a qualified professional–don’t even consider them! Here are a few such people that you are likely to come across:

In most cases, you will want to avoid M.Divs. These are people with degrees in theology, not psychology. If someone advertising themselves as a counselor holds an M.Div and no other degrees, they are not qualified mental health professionals and should never be entrusted with mental health care. However, some M.Divs and other clergy members known as pastoral counselors study psychology or social work alongside their theology degree. If a person with a degree in theology also boasts an MA, MS, MSW or Ph.D, they may be worth considering, but proceed with a good deal of caution, as they are much more likely to come from a religious perspective than your average therapist.

You should also beware of life coaches. Again, these are not mental health professionals and are in no way qualified to treat mental health concerns. Some may have graduate-level training in one field or another (usually business), but life coaches are not required to attain any specific level of education, undergo supervised practice, pass a rigorous exam or adhere to ethical standards set by a licensing board. Life coaching may be appropriate if you need help furthering your career, breaking bad habits or achieving your life goals, but if you are in psychological distress, don’t seek treatment from a life coach.

And for the love of all that is good, don’t even give a first glance (much less a second) to your average minister, priest, pastor, or any other flavor of religious leader. They have absolutely no training or expertise whatsoever in psychology or social work and should be entrusted with your medical care about as much as any random person on the street – which is to say, not at all.

Step 2: Take Note of Religious Affiliation

Once you’ve weeded out clearly unqualified individuals, the next step is to narrow it down to people who are both properly trained and aren’t interested in disseminating their personal religious agenda.

If you’re searching on Psychology Today, take a look at the right side of the page under the “Client Focus” heading. Is there a religious orientation listed? Is there any overtly religious language in the name of practice or in the therapist’s biography? If so, cross them off your list outright. Don’t worry, this isn’t simply religious discrimination based on the personal beliefs of the practitioner. When a mental health professional lists a religious orientation for their practice, they are not simply letting their personal beliefs be known, but advertising that their practice adheres to a specific religious dogma.

No matter their personal religious beliefs, a therapist who practices non-religious, evidence-based treatment will not advertise a religious affiliation of any kind to potential clients. If a practice or individual therapist makes a point of listing a religious affiliation, you can be sure that this is not a secular environment and that religious ideology will play a role, large or small, in their approach. For example, if a therapist lists a Christian affiliation, make no mistake that they are attempting to cater specifically to Christian clients and will operate within a Christian worldview – if they wished to serve all people equally, they would not label themselves as a Christian therapist and risk alienating potential clients of other faiths or no faith.

Here’s a testament to my claim that even personally religious therapists do not use religious language in their practice if they are committed to providing secular, evidence-based treatment. When I was looking for a therapist in Arkansas, I was very careful to avoid anyone who I suspected would be overtly religious. The therapist I chose, naturally, did not list a religious affiliation on her Psychology Today profile. While I was seeing her, she was well aware that I was an atheist. For the 8 months I saw her she never once mentioned her personal religious beliefs, much less tried to convert me or push religiously-inspired pseudo-psychology on me. One of our sessions even focused on my fear of the end my consciousness at the moment of death, and she never even mentioned the possibility of an afterlife. I assumed she was herself secular. When I stopped seeing her due to moving states, I decided to look her up on social media…  where I found out she was actually a devout Christian. She did what any responsible professional should do–separated her religious beliefs from her practice, respected her client’s right to religious autonomy, and used only methods borne out by research to treat my mental illnesses. The point I’m trying to illustrate here is that it is totally possible (and common) to receive quality secular treatment from a therapist who is personally religious, and any therapist is worth their salt will probably never discuss their religious beliefs with you to begin with.

However, unless it coincides with other concerning factors mentioned in this article, don’t necessarily be put off if a therapist says they will work with clients to improve their “spiritual well-being,” or similar phrases. This kind of language typically means either one of two things: (1) that the therapist has a secular approach but will respect and work with the specific religious needs of the client, or (2) the therapist is using “spiritual” as a cultural synonym for “emotional”. If the therapist’s biography uses the word “spiritual” in this sort of context but they do not list a religious affiliation or have any other red flags on their profile, it’s probably safe. If you’re concerned about it, don’t be afraid to call or email them to ask for clarification before you decide to commit to an intake session.

Here’s another small trick I’ve learned: go back to the “Client Focus” section and see what’s listed under “Categories”. If they specifically list being open to LGBTQ clients, you can safely bet that they are secular. To be sure, there are some religious therapists who also happen to be LGBTQ-friendly, but if a therapist makes a point to be inclusive to these clients and also doesn’t suffer from any of the red flags above, you can be highly confident that they are socially conscious and open to serving clients from all walks of life, which strongly indicates a secular practice.

Step 3: Beware of Pseudo-Psychology Buzzwords and Treatments

Just like any other science, psychology is unfortunately not immune to infiltration by woo. For someone without a background in psychology, it can be hard to decipher the lingo and know which treatments are valid and which are not. Watch out for these key terms in a therapist’s modality, treatment orientation and biography — if you see any of these, it should give you pause.

Psychoanalysis (Related terms: Psychodynamics, Freudian, dream interpretation, repressed memories, excessive usage of unconscious/subconscious)

In common parlance, psychoanalysis (and its more modern cousin, psychodynamics) is often used interchangeably with “talk therapy”, but among psychological professionals, this term refers specifically to the theories and practice of Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that all psychological issues stemmed from unresolved childhood conflicts (mostly of a sexual nature, as in the infamous Oedipus complex) many of which occurred in the first few years of life before memories can be formed and stored. These unconscious desires cause one or more of three components of the mind – the id, ego and superego – to become overly weak or strong, resulting in psychological distress. The therapist helps the patient to identify these hidden conflicts through methods like free association, dream analysis, and projective tests like Rorschach’s inkblots. Once these repressed memories and feelings are recovered into the conscious realm of the mind, they can finally be resolved and the patient will be freed of their distress.

These theories (and I use that term loosely) were concocted by Freud and his associates based on their personal observations and philosophy and were in no way based on research. In fact, many of Freud’s claims cannot be scientifically tested and are unfalsifiable. The majority of those that can be tested have been thoroughly debunked. Those that do happen to hold a grain of truth (such as the existence of the unconscious) often operate totally differently from Freud’s claims and have been incorporated into other evidence-based treatments. In other words, no evidence-based therapist would claim to practice psychoanalysis or psychodynamics, especially as a primary modality.

Even in the absence of these specific terms, you can sometimes spot psychoanalytic influence in a therapist’s biography. If they rely heavily on appeals to the unconscious or repressed memories in their treatment narrative, claim they can interpret dreams to reveal deeper illuminating significance, or assert that most or all negative psychological outcomes stem from forgotten conflicts in infancy and early childhood, they likely have a psychoanalytic bent to their practice and should be avoided.

**Important note: There are legitimate, evidence-based uses of the term “unconscious” which are well-established by research and not related to Freudian theory. If you are interested to learn more, I recommend reading the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

**Other important note: The word “psychotherapy” should not be confused with psychoanalysis and is not a red flag when looking for a qualified professional. Psychotherapy is simply another term for mental health counseling and does not refer to any specific treatment method.

Regression Therapy (Related terms: Age regression, past life regression, hypnotherapy)

This technique comes in two major flavors: Kinda Woo and Super Woo. Both are total bunk scientifically, but the Super Woo version has a supernatural flair in addition to the pseudo-science for bonus nonsense.

The Kinda Woo version stems–again–from Freud’s discredited hypothesis of early childhood psychological conflicts. Regression therapy practitioners believe that clients can resolve these conflicts by traveling back in their minds to the earlier time of stress or trauma. This differs from Freudian methods, though, in that the client does not simply recall these incidents and analyse them with the therapist’s expertise, but is influenced to such a great extent (often through hypnosis) that they truly believe they are reliving these previous experiences. Given that hypnosis is essentially a heightened state of suggestibility, there is a huge issue with false memories among those who receive this kind of practice. Practitioners often guide clients to fabricate memories through the use of leading questions, thereby giving the client a false solution to their issues and inducing a placebo effect.

A kind of “regression” (or progression) to another age is a documented phenomenon in psychology, but only in severe dissociative disorders such as dissociative identity disorder. Outside of these sorts of disorders, literal regression to another age is not possible — the client is simply in a state of heightened suggestibility and is responding to the therapist’s cues in ways they may not consciously realize.

The Super Woo version takes it several steps further down the path to complete fantasy. In this version, the client recovers memories not only of their own lifetime, but of their previous lives as well, whose traumas are equally burdensome on their current mental states. I don’t think I need to get too much into why this is totally unfounded–there’s no empirical evidence that any human has ever lived more than one life, much less that accessing memories of these lives can somehow aid in psychological health. Again, suggestibility and false memories are at play here, but on a macro scale.

Emotional Freedom Technique (Related terms: Tapping, thought field therapy, energy psychology, reiki)

This is quite literally the acupuncture of the psychology world. Instead of inserting needles into the skin at precise points to heal physical ailments, this technique involves the practitioner gently tapping the client’s body with the fingers as the client focuses on a specific problem or issue. The tapping occurs at specific “meridians” (yes, just as in traditional acupuncture, reiki and other forms of energy healing) in order to unblock the flow of energy or chi and promote psychological healing.

Research has shown that any benefit is entirely due to the placebo effect, so you’d be just as likely to find relief with EFT and you would by staying home and eating potato chips you’ve decided are medicinal. Precisely none of this backed up by a shred of evidence or even remotely compatible with the entirety of the scientific body of knowledge of the human mind, not to mention biology and physics.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (Related terms: Law of attraction, The Secret)

Oh, dear. What can I say about this? Essentially it states that thoughts and language have direct power over the events of the universe and that simply imagining something is enough to make it real. Therefore, you can solve your problems and achieve your dreams by thinking about them and feeling it REAL HARD. I must admit I have difficulty summarizing it, as its jargon is thoroughly incomprehensible to anyone with a background in actual psychology… or, just most people. I’ll simply leave the Wikipedia article here for you to attempt to decipher and leave it at that. Suffice it to say, this is a borderline cult with such little scientific backing to its claims that even the psychoanalysts scoff at it.

Oh and also it LITERALLY APPEALS TO MAGIC.

So if these approaches don’t work, what DOES work?

That depends on your specific issue. There are dozens of evidence-based approaches to therapy, and what works best for you will depend not only on your diagnosis, but your personality, life situation and preferences. To get a good feel for what to look for, look at the Wikipedia page for your diagnosis (if you don’t have a diagnosis, try to make an educated guess based on what you’ve read) and read the section on treatments — it won’t be perfect, but it will give you an idea of what to start looking for. Again, there are many evidence-based treatments and what may work for you depends on several factors, but some of the most common evidence-based therapies you can feel confident about undergoing are cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, exposure and response prevention, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, and neurofeedback.

When in doubt… research!

The above is not by any means a comprehensive list of pseudo-psychological approaches; these are simply some of the most blatant, common, currently in vogue techniques you may come across. If you are not familiar with the modality a potential therapist works in, read up before deciding whether or not to pursue. It might not always be obvious by the name, though. Some modalities have woo-ish sounding titles (like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing and mindfulness meditation) but have robust bodies of literature to support their efficacy. RationalWiki is a good place to start learning about other pseudo-psychologies not listed here.

If you are not sure whether a certain treatment is evidence-based, seek out info from reputable, expert sources. Unfortunately, just because you can find a treatment on a psychology website doesn’t necessarily mean it’s evidence-based. Many of these sites function more as journalistic endeavors than science communication, often playing the, “One side says X, the other says Y… We report, you decide!” card. Look for websites that cite primary research studies to support their claims and don’t shy away from admitting and addressing criticisms or weaknesses of the treatment. Wikipedia is a good place to start looking.

Try not to rely on info from organizations which are invested in pushing a specific modality. If the name of the treatment is in the website, for example, it may be run by an organization that holds the rights to trainings and materials, and has a vested interest in presenting only positive information about that treatment. That’s not to say that the information provided on that site is necessarily false, but often these sorts of resources aren’t totally upfront about information which might call their methods into question. You’d be better served by finding an information source which has nothing to gain from promoting one specific modality over another. If the treatment is being purported to cure almost all problems in almost all cases, that’s a sure sign of propaganda.

If you can get a hold of them, college textbook chapters (some of which can also be found online) are typically quite comprehensive and easier for most laypeople to understand than research articles. If you’d rather read the primary literature for yourself rather than relying on second-hand reporting, Google Scholar is a wonderful tool. Simply type in a topic you’re interested in and the algorithm will provide you with dozens or hundreds of abstracts and/or papers. If you are not used to reading scientific research publications, I recommend including “literature review” rather than “study” or “research” in your search terms. Literature reviews are type of scientific publication which summarize the relevant research in a given area and are great for getting a handle on a subject, without getting too bogged down in details and statistics.

Step 4: Go With Your Gut

If there’s anything that doesn’t sit right with you about a therapist’s profile, qualifications, biography or claims, and you aren’t able to quell your doubts after doing your due diligence, don’t feel obligated to give them a chance, especially if there are other options available. If you have a well-developed bullshit detector, your first impressions and lingering nagging feelings are probably valid. Think of it like a dating situation. If you’re considering dating someone but something about them doesn’t feel quite right, you’re probably better off listening to that instinct rather than trying to force it. Further, it’s counterproductive to spend your time attempting to justify your therapist’s methods rather than focusing on your own treatment.

Just as important as the efficacy of the treatment is the relationship between the therapist and the client. A therapist could be the most qualified, knowledgeable and scientifically literate practitioner in the country, but if you don’t get along with or trust them, their ability to help you is limited. The ideal therapist for is someone who not only uses evidence-based methods, but also someone you can connect and identify with. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to therapists, and individual tastes vary widely.

If you find yourself naturally gravitating towards or away from someone (perhaps based just on their Psychology Today ad or website, or even something as inconsequential as a photo) listen to that instinct. If you don’t click with your therapist after the first meeting or two, or if after a while you feel doubtful about your therapist’s suitability for you, don’t be afraid to find someone new. Therapy isn’t about an authority figure giving you advice and solving your problems for you; it’s a relationship and team effort that requires effort and input from both people involved. If you can’t be comfortable, vulnerable and exchange openly with your therapist, you may not be able to effectively identify and work on your problems.

When I was looking for a therapist last fall, I used Psychology Today to narrow it down to a handful of people who practiced evidence-based methods, specialized in the areas I needed help with, and accepted my insurance. Then I went to their websites to see if I could find out more that would distinguish them from one another. I was immediately interested in one above the others when her website showed that she also runs a dog rescue; it helped me feel that she was a compassionate person with whom I could connect. I listened to my instincts and reached out to her first, and she is now my current therapist, who I love working with. She turned out not to just be an animal lover like me–she’s also queer, progressive, eccentric and has a brash sense of humor that makes me enjoy being around her and look forward to seeing her every week, even when sessions are difficult and painful. I know I can trust her with my mental health, not only because of her methods, but because of who she is as a person. That’s the critical element in the therapist-client relationship that neither I nor anyone else besides you can determine.

Do you have any tips I missed, or something you’re wondering about that I didn’t cover in this article? Leave a comment below or send me an email at AriStillman4@gmail.com, and I’ll do my best to answer your question.

6 Valuable Skills I (Inadvertently) Learned As an Abuse Survivor

NOTE: This article contains discussions of emotional and psychological abuse and their effects on victims. It references characteristics of and tactics used by abusers and briefly touches on some abusive situations I have personally experienced. If you are sensitive to these topics, please consider your mental health before reading.

 

If you tend to make unwise decisions when it comes to your information and entertainment sources and  follow my work, you may have noticed that it’s been over 2 months since my last blog post. My old pal depression has crept up on me, making effortful, anxiety-provoking tasks like writing and making meals and cleaning up after myself and returning messages and doing much else other than working, watching YouTube and sleeping difficult or impossible to accomplish.  As a result I’ve been doing a lot of introspection and self-analysis, sometimes in a healthy way, though often due to intrusive self-doubt. Earlier this week I was finally able to return to therapy after a financially-imposed year and a half break, where I was diagnosed with PTSD stemming from nearly-lifelong abuse. (And yes, this DOES, in fact, lend legitimacy to my never-ending SJW quest for #triggerwarnings.)

If you keep up with the goings-on of the atheist community on social media, you can probably recall an incident in August in which a semi-prominent atheist activist (now somewhat disgraced for this and other antagonistic behavior) targeted Callie and I for an out-of-the-blue smear campaign of sorts, which resulted in an invasion of my privacy and betrayal of Callie’s trust. Many people close to me, especially one of my partners who is also a member of the atheist community, were worried about how I would react when I woke up that morning to find so many negative comments about me. Knowing that I suffer from low self-esteem and can have panic attacks triggered by interpersonal conflict, my partner texted me after I had gone to bed and was still unaware of the situation, imploring me to trust him and not to go on Facebook until he let me know it was safe. Being the anxiety-fueled wreck that I am, I automatically assumed someone I loved had died and I couldn’t stop myself from checking social media to find out for certain what horrific, tragic event had occurred.

 

Rather than being upset and panicky like my partner had predicted, my reaction when I found that all of my friends and loved ones were safe – and all that had happened was that some people I didn’t even know said some mean things about me – was one of relief and even amusement. I understood why my partner and other friends of mine were worried about potential damage to my mental health that this situation could have inflicted. Due to the nature of the abuse I went through, one of my biggest anxiety triggers is someone being angry or upset with me (whether that upset is real or imagined), so it made sense that they would be worried about my reaction to dozens of strangers mocking me. And yes, I was a bit anxious and did avoid a good amount of what was being said, but that’s not terribly different from my day-to-day social media habits.

 

But overall, my reaction to the whole situation wasn’t one of hurt or trauma, but rather ironic amusement, especially as it became more and more clear to both myself and most onlookers that the instigating party was the one at fault in the situation. This person tried so desperately to harm me – a person who had never so much as spoken to him – on a personal level, and not only did he fail in that regard, but the attention he brought me ended up making me dozens of new friends and supporters. I thought – and still think – the situation ended up being rather comical in its irony, at least where I was involved (it was markedly less entertaining for Callie, who had a previous friendship with this person which was now completely broken).

As I thought on it more in the days that followed, I came to see that my unexpectedly healthy emotional reaction to a potentially damaging situation was not in spite of my trauma history, but because of it. I realized that although living through abuse has been hellishly painful and had psychological effects reaching well beyond the timeline of the actual events, it has also instilled skills in me that many people never have a chance to develop to the same extent.

Like a species living in an extreme climate, victims of abuse must adapt to their abnormal surroundings in order to survive, sometimes gaining traits that would hinder them in other, dissimilar settings. Drop a sea lion in the rainforests of the Amazon and the poor guy would get tangled in the dense underbrush and bruise its nose on a tree trunk within a few seconds, but observe that same be-flippered creature in its native oceanic habitat and you’ll see how easily it glides through the water and snaps up fish. The flippers and long body may be a big drawback in many environments, but given a suitable environment the sea lion can’t be matched in prowess. If its ancestors had evolved to suit a more temperate climate it may have been able to live in a wider variety of landscapes, but without the evolutionary pressure to adapt to a harsher climate, it probably wouldn’t have excelled in any one area.

 

Growing up in the household equivalent of a relatively “extreme” environment, I was pressured to develop skills and traits to aid in my survival, and while they often hinder me, in the right circumstances those skills can aid me in navigating social interaction and give me insight into self-development. These are the 6 most beneficial skills I learned as a result of my trauma history.

1. How to read others

Once they accept the reality of their abuse and become educated on abusive tactics, victims can very easily spot manipulators, abusers and narcissists in their lives and either avoid them or deal with them appropriately. It’s especially true for those who have been through therapy or a support group, and/or read books and articles on the subject. This, I think, is why I didn’t react as poorly as expected to the situation I wrote about above. As events unfolded the instigator pulled out tactic after tactic straight from the Abuser’s Playbook, a tome I know by rote at this point. It was so predictable to me that I found it much more comical than upsetting when events occurred precisely as I would expect from a toxic person. Because I had so many years of experience in dealing with a similar type of person, I was well equipped to handle the situation. Where someone who had never experienced the depth of human cruelty might have been wrecked and overblown, I was practiced in that area and therefore able to keep confident in myself. Based on my previous experience with a toxic person, I was able to correctly predict this person’s behavior patterns, so I was never caught off guard.

The ability to read others extends beyond the actions of toxic and abusive people and delves into the realm of emotional relationships, too. Because their safety often depends (or previously depended) on intuiting the moods and desires of the abuser, many abuse victims are hyper-aware of others’ emotional and physical needs. On the negative side, that can lead to anxiety and codependency as the person puts others’ needs ahead of their own to avoid the rejection or punishment they have been trained to expect as a consequence for not fully catering to another’s wishes. This is at the root of my fear of interpersonal conflict that I touched on earlier. When I feel that someone is angry with me, I become frantic in my attempts to allay the situation (and often end up making it worse in the process).

But you can also harness this superpower to use for good! Increased intuition for others’ needs, when combined with a drive to lessen hurt, can lead to an increased capability to effectively care for others. As long as it’s within healthy boundaries and they don’t put the other person’s needs or wants above their own health and happiness, a person with a trauma history may be in a better position than someone without to intuit and address the emotional states of those around them and help them to achieve harmony and happiness. Learning to do this in a healthy, non-codependent way can require a lot of retraining, but the benefits are well worth the work involved. I’m in the beginning stages of this process and am learning that when I’m feeling well and set healthy boundaries between my own feelings and the feelings of my loved ones, I’m able to provide intuitive emotional support that is fulfilling to both myself and the other person. Based on the progress I’ve seen so far, I look forward to seeing the good I can do for others with my inherent sensitivity once I master it.

2. How to disengage

When I was 15 my abusive family member and I briefly attended family therapy (very briefly – we only attended 2 sessions before my family member decided to move us to a new state and hope for a “fresh start” instead of addressing the underlying issues.) In a private session, I told the therapist about my family member’s fits of explosive rage where they would scream for hours about all the things I and other family members had done “wrong” since the last outburst. At the time I knew nothing about how therapy works and didn’t have any mental framework with which to interpret my therapist’s reaction, but looking back on it now I believe that she realized the level of anger and irrationality I was up against with my family member. Her advice for getting through these episodes was simple – don’t react. Don’t fight back, don’t argue, don’t do anything to escalate the situation. Don’t even try to present your side in a calm and rational manner – just don’t do anything and wait for it to be over.

As a 15 year old I was inwardly indignant at this advice. What, I should just sit there and let them get away with lying, misrepresenting and doling out undeserved blame on me? This is unjust! I wasn’t able to effectively apply the advice until many years later when I had more of a handle on my own anger and could better control my external reactions to provocation, but it’s since become one of the most spoon-conserving techniques in my arsenal.

The point behind the therapist’s advice was not to blame me for my family member’s behavior, but to convey to me that it’s okay and often necessary to back away from a harmful situation if possible, especially when the other person involved is acting irrationally. There’s no winning in arguing with an irrational person. Some people are not interested in being open to new information and just want to verbally beat others into submission so that they can feel justified in their position or avoid any threat to their self-esteem. These people cannot be reasoned with; they either don’t value truth in the situation or may be unable to gauge the situation objectively, and instead prefer to cling to their beliefs and reject all outside evidence.

The urge to engage with them and hopefully change their mind is understandable and a lot of good might come from it if you are successful. But if the other person is closed off, the chances of success are slim while the chances of causing yourself frustration and pain are quite a bit higher, especially if you have a history of emotional trauma. In accordance with my judgement of the person’s character from the first point on this list, I can decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not engaging with a person could be beneficial, or if there is a greater likelihood of inflicting damage than there is of the situation ending in positive change. I try to remember that I have no obligation to change or fix others – It’s okay for someone to be wrong, and for me to let them continue to be wrong! It took several months of therapy as an adult to come to terms with this, but I know now that my well-being is always more important than someone’s opinion of me or views on an issue.

3. How to love conditionally

No, that’s not a typo. I did mean “conditionally”.

 

We’ve all heard the hype about unconditional love. It’s the truest, most selfless form of love, a love that persists through all obstacles and hardships and can never be broken, no matter what happens between the parties involved. This notion is, frankly, pure and unadulterated bullshit. Despite the adages, unconditional love should never be held up as the pinnacle of affection. It may seem beautiful in theory, but in practice it’s downright dangerous.

All relationships should be conditional – based on the condition of mutual respect. No one is entitled to another person’s love, approval or even presence, not even family. The standard of unconditional love is especially damaging to those who have been abused by a family member or romantic partner. We constantly hear that “blood is thicker than water” and that “you don’t have to like your family, you just have to love them”. No, you don’t have to love or even interact with anyone, no matter their biological or legal connection to you, especially someone who actively harms you.

Abuse survivors are often guilted for cutting off contact with abusers, especially family. How could you abandon the people who raised you, who are responsible for your very existence? Don’t you feel bad for shutting out this person when they were there for you for years? What gives you the right to keep your kids from knowing their (insert relative)?

What gives you the right? Your dignity as a human being. No one has the right to force you to engage with them or to put up with their toxic or damaging behavior. You can’t control how another person behaves, but most times you can control to what extent you will allow them access to your life. You have only one life and you are free to live it as you see fit; it would be a disservice to yourself to waste your life sacrificing your happiness and well-being to suit someone else who doesn’t deserve your charity. If an abuser or someone that enables them accuses you of cowardice or running away from your obligations, let them. You know the truth – no such obligation to subject yourself to harm for someone’s else’s comfort exists. When I realized and internalized this truth, I cut off all contact with my abuser, and in the year since then I have never felt more safe and in control of my life. I learned to set and keep healthier boundaries and conditions in all my relationships. Speaking of knowing the truth, that leads me to…

4. How to think critically and evaluate evidence

If you’ve spent a decent amount of time in social justice discussions online, you’ve probably come across the term gaslighting. Some overzealous rhetoricians have recently stretched the accepted usage of this term, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll clarify that I am speaking of a specific “form of psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception, and sanity,” typically by either denying that certain events ever occurred or by reinterpreting and spinning the occurrence to retroactively absolve the abuser of blame and place it instead on the victim.

To survive interactions with abusers who make you question your understanding of reality, you learn how to check their claims against objective evidence. Am I really the person they say I am? Can I trust what they say about others? Did it actually happen the way they said it did? Should I trust their recounting of events over my own memory? As gaslighting was one of my abuser’s favorite tactics, over time I became quite adept at exercising skepticism. I came to find that when my abuser denied that they did certain actions or tried to tell me what really happened, it often conflicted with my own understanding. When I reviewed the available evidence and consulted others who may have witnessed or been involved in the events, I consistently found that my memories were much closer to the truth than my abuser tried to convince me of.

Through cognitive behavioral therapy, I also learned to challenge my own irrationally negative thoughts and beliefs, especially about myself. When I expressed beliefs that I was incompetent or that others were thinking about me negatively, my therapist guided me through exercises designed to help me question my assumptions. I learned to think critically about the limits of my knowledge and base beliefs about the self and others on evidence rather than relying on my own flawed speculation, attempts to “mind-read” others, and restricted point of view. When I dispense with assumptions and evaluate myself based on evidence instead of arbitrary perfectionistic standards, I find that my beliefs about myself and others are not only healthier and happier, but more accurate as well, which satisfies my skeptical mind quite nicely.

5. How to be compassionate to those who aren’t

I don’t believe that good and evil are universal concepts which exist outside of the human experience. In a secular humanistic worldview, good and evil are simply labels we employ to express the relative harm or benefit of a behavior. For that reason, I don’t believe that people themselves can be rightly called evil, though some of their actions may be called that in some contexts (though personally I prefer to use terms without religious baggage, like harmful).

 

My abuser is not an evil, rotten-to-the-core human. This person has done some terrible things to me and other members of my family, but they’ve also done wonderful things. They provided for me, made my education a top priority, enriched my life with activities and experiences, and sometimes we even had fun together. Abusers tend to think in black and white – don’t do the same!

Abusers are often sad, angry, hurting, ill people who can’t or won’t get help and lash out at others because they are unable to address their own pain. My previous and current therapists agree that my abuser is most likely is suffering from a mood or personality disorder, but because this person believes their behavior is perfectly justified and normal, they never took my advice and sought support and thus never got diagnosed or treated. (If everyone else is the problem, there’s no need to change!) That’s not someone I think is bad or evil or deserving of scorn – that’s someone I feel pity for. They’re suffering in a world of anger and pain and may never experience healing. If they had more self-insight they may have been able to alleviate some of the inner turmoil that caused them to act abusively, but they probably never will, and that makes me sad for them.

This is not to excuse any of their abusive behavior or absolve them of blame. No matter the factors that influenced their behavior, abusers are still ultimately responsible for the damage they inflict and should be held to account just like anyone else. This is just to highlight the nuance in the situation and express that abusers are complex humans, not robots programmed to bring destruction and chaos. Perhaps there are a few people out there without a single well-meaning intention to be found in their mind or a solitary good thing to contribute to the world, but that has yet to be demonstrated, and my abuser certainly doesn’t fit that description. Living with someone like that for 23 years – and later unpacking that experience through therapy and introspection – has given me keen awareness of the complexity of human beings. As a result I’m a more nuanced thinker in general, and it’s difficult for me to see anyone as purely evil or irredeemable. (That doesn’t, however, mean that I allow a toxic person to remain in my life on the off chance that they may reform – they must first meet their burden of proof, so to speak, and demonstrate that they have earned an end to their probation.)

6. How to take pride in my accomplishments and character

Emotional and psychological abusers thrive on making their victims believe that they are inherently helpless and dependent. They know that someone with good self-esteem would dispense with their toxic bull and dump them out of their life, so abusers spend a lot of time engaging in tactics to convince the victim that they can’t survive without the help of the abuser. They need to convince you that you’re worthless and can only be redeemed by allowing your abuser full control over your life, so they cut you down and undermine your self-confidence until you believe that you can’t be functional without them telling you exactly how to live.

Once you realize the abuse and start to see through the tactics, you begin to rebuild confidence in yourself, and when you finally escape, the discovery of your own strength is indescribable. It’s said that the most difficult actions are the most rewarding – no pain, no gain – and I have to agree. Leaving my abusive situation and cutting off contact with my abuser was the most difficult but ultimately most fulfilling thing I have ever done.

After listening to my story, my last therapist told me that she was impressed with how functional and healthy I am given my upbringing. I was incredulous at that claim. At the time I was totally crippled with anxiety, unable to answer phone calls or even open my email inbox, stalling to a paralyzed halt on grad school applications. And she was telling me I was impressively functional? The idea was laughable to me.

She explained that although I had areas I was clearly struggling in, I had overall been much more successful in life than my situation would have predicted. Despite my poor mental health, I had graduated college with honors and was employed full-time with glowing reviews from my bosses. I had a healthy and happy romantic relationship even though I never had one modeled for me growing up. Although I was never even taught what personal boundaries were, much less how to set and maintain them, I had a well-developed sense of justice and knew intuitively when my boundaries were being violated, even if I didn’t always feel strong enough to push back against them.

And that, my therapist told me, was all my doing. Because of my strength and good character. Because of my ambition and my self-respect. Because of my intuitive respect for others and my love of knowledge and truth. And now I believe her. My experiences hurt me and have left a lasting impact on me that effects me every day, but they also turned me into a stronger, more educated and more empathetic person. I can always be proud of myself for being a more functional, more lovable, more compassionate, and better person than my abuser wanted me to be.

It’s the ultimate “screw you” to succeed when someone roots for you to fail, and I just love a good “screw you.”

If you are currently in an abusive situation or need help healing, please contact one or more of the following resources:

National Domestic Violence Hotline: http://www.thehotline.org/

Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: https://www.childhelp.org/hotline/

To find a counselor or therapist: Secular Therapist Project (https://www.seculartherapy.org/) or Psychology Today (https://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms/)

Who Says The Atheist Movement is Being Ruined?

Prominent atheist voice David Smalley recently published a now widely-circulated blog post (and companion podcast episode) addressing inter-atheist disputes. A few minutes ago I was reading over the comments on Seth Andrews’ repost of it on Facebook, and found the response both confusing and enlightening. Who’s to blame for all this mess, according to everyday atheists? It seems that about a third of people think the atheist movement is being ruined by SJWs and liberals, a third think it’s being ruined by racism/sexism/transphobia etc., and a third think there’s no such thing as an atheist movement or community. I disagree with all of these options.

There definitely is an atheist movement and community, which is united in non-belief, opposition to religious privilege, and promotion of secularism in our social circles and our government. If there weren’t, there wouldn’t be such an explosion of atheist conventions, rallies, organizations, or media options/networks like podcasts, blogs and YouTube channels in recent years. Of course there are many atheists who don’t participate in any of those, but that doesn’t make the community non-existent. That throws out the third option.

The first two options rest on the premise that the atheist community is being ruined in the first place. I don’t buy that. Yes, we have a lot of problems within the community, but I strongly reject the notion that these are problems unique to the atheist community, or that they might result in the end of the movement itself.

We all have different visions of what we want to accomplish. Some people want to focus on education, some on deconverting people, some on keeping church and state separate, some on humanism and social justice, some on philosophy, some on science. Some don’t want to accomplish any kind of grand goal and just want some likeminded friends to talk to and make fun of religion with. Some people think all of those goals are worthy and some people think some of them are garbage. Then within each of those goals, people disagree on how best to accomplish them. They think some methods are effective and others are ineffective or counterproductive. (See the militant antitheism vs. accomodationism debate, for example.) In addition to practical matters, people also have their own personal disputes, which should not come as a surprise to anyone who has ever interacted with another human.

None of that means that the atheist movement is a failure or is falling apart. It’s always been a community full of lots of different opinions, strategies and priorities. I’d wager that the divisions are just becoming more visible now thanks to so many different voices having platforms, which is a great thing. (For more on this concept, I highly recommending reading up on the availability heuristic… Or the whole of the field of social cognition. See, I knew this psych degree would come in handy for atheisting.)

For a comparison, think of the LGBTQ community. To some it may seem monolithic, but those who are involved know that there is a huge amount of diversity. There are cis LGBQ people who are trans-exclusionary, and others who are great allies. There are people who don’t think bisexuality or asexuality are real, and others who are totally supportive and actively welcome people with those identities to queer spaces. There are binary trans people who think non-binary people are fake and attention-seeking, and some who are totally inclusive to non-binary people. There are some who value and try to incorporate intersectionality into their approach and others who are openly racist, anti-feminist, etc.

People also disagree on tactics. Some people think that queer liberation can only be achieved through destroying capitalism through violent revolution. Some want to work through the current political system with strict adherence to non-violence, and still others are pretty conservative and think that some of the anti-discrimination laws we currently have are overreaching. Some people don’t want to get involved in politics and instead focus on education or changing individual’s minds. Some people don’t even want to do that and just want to live their lives in peace and anonymity.

Does that mean that the LGBTQ community is falling apart, or that it never existed to begin with? I don’t think so. Just like the atheist community, there is a lot of diversity and nuance, but in the end everyone is doing what they think will best improve things for that particular marginalized group. Eventually, some strains of thought will become less and less common or even die out completely, but it’s not realistic to believe that eventually we will all agree on almost everything, and it’s totally okay and normal for people to disagree vehemently – and even dislike some group members on a more personal level – and still be a part of the same social group.

TL;DR – Humans disagree on things, have different priorities, and sometimes fight with each other. These are not unique aspects to the atheist community and are experienced within every large social group. The sky is not falling. Find your niche and work within that. Good will come of it. If you see something you disagree with, feel free to voice that and try to work against it, or for something that counters it. The community will go on just like it always has.

An Open Letter to my Christian High School Teacher

I attended a private Christian school with a strong evangelical bent for 11th and 12th grade. There was one particular teacher there who I connected with so closely that he became almost a family member to me. He fostered my intellectual development in a way no other teacher had, praised my creative writing and singing, and supported me emotionally when I was struggling with abuse at home and undiagnosed mental illness. I used to spend hours with him – both in his classroom after school and over email – discussing philosophy, politics, literature, theology, music, psychology… anything my anxious, nerdy mind could grapple with. He was my intellectual mentor and the person who taught me almost everything I know about theology and epistemology.

We continued our friendship into my college years, but (as is the way of many life changes) our relationship eventually dropped off, and as of the time of this post, I have not spoken to him in about 3 years. For context, I have been involved in the atheist community in varying degrees for about 2 and a half years, and totally out as trans for about a year.

This is an open letter to that teacher.

Last night I dreamed that I went to visit you, and I had a lot of explaining to do.

Your classroom door was open when I approached. You were teaching Biblical Worldview to a gaggle of baby-faced, credulous 16 year olds – just like I was when I first met you – showing them a video on the follies of non-Christian ideologies. As I waited outside for your class to conclude, I watched along. At one point, the video cut to a few heavily edited and out-of-context clips from The Atheist Experience, which the narrator amusingly referred to as The Life Of The Atheist. Matt Dillahunty and Phil Session were on, explaining to a caller that some percentage of people who self-identify as atheist later express regret at their decision to leave religion. (I have no idea what the stats really say on that or even if it’s ever even been measured, but hey, this is a dream universe.) Before they could elaborate or clarify, the clip ended, the narrator matter-of-factly stating something akin to, “Even atheists agree that a worldview without God is devoid of hope and meaning.”

When your class was dismissed and you had finished cleaning up, you walked out of the classroom to find me in the hallway. After the hugs and joyful tears were exchanged, you asked if I saw the video you played for the class, and what I thought of it. As I was forming my thoughts to speak, I realized that I couldn’t answer honestly and still be the same person you used to know, because you didn’t know the current me.

You have no idea that I’m no longer a Christian, much less much less an atheist activist. You don’t know that I contribute to a podcast and a blog focused on LGBTQ issues in a non-religious context. You don’t even know my current name, since the last time we spoke was about 2 years before I changed it socially, and over 2 and half before it became my legal name.

I knew my answer to your question about the video would be surprising for you, so I tried to soften the blow a bit by leading up to it slowly, hedging. “Well… I actually watch that show, The Atheist Experience. Every week. Actually, I know some of the people involved in that show, and I don’t think what the video showed was true to what they actually believe. It left out a lot of things.” Distancing myself from the “them” of the hosts and strategically declining to state my own opinions on the subject, I explained that in the broader context of the quote, the hosts relayed that the research attributed the majority of this dissatisfaction among a minority of atheists to social pressures like loss of community, family conflict and discrimination rather than the lack of belief in deities itself.

And like you always do, you listened and learned. Just like you did in reality when I told you about my bisexuality, as I would have called it then. Just like when I told you that I’m not actually a girl, that last time I brought dinner to your house and you prayed over the meal while I sat quietly with my eyes opened. You didn’t preach or judge or condemn or pull out your Bible to show me that I was wrong. You listened, asked sincere and well-thought-out questions, made some brilliantly groan-worthy puns, and left your own prejudices behind.

As we continued to talk in the dream, you dragged more and more nuggets of Ari-truth out of me. I mentioned briefly and flippantly that I now co-host a podcast called the Gaytheist Manifesto. Then, as if I were drunk, I felt a sudden compulsion to divulge everything. (“Look, I know this is going to disappoint you, but let me explain this fully. I’m polyamorous, which means I’m in love with more than one person at once…”) And even when you didn’t understand or have the vocabulary to place these concepts in your mental framework, you listened to me.

I don’t remember much more than that, but I’ve been thinking about this dream all day. I don’t believe that dreams have any sort of special, hidden meanings behind them. There’s no spiritual or Freudian symbology behind them that one needs a dream dictionary to interpret. Psychology hasn’t yet determined the exact set of factors that influence the contents of dreams, but according to one of my undergrad professors who is a sleep expert, dreams mostly consist of imagery, themes and emotions that occurred during the preceding waking period. The process of dreaming serves to strengthen neural connections that were created during waking and thereby consolidates memory.

All that is a nerdy way to say, I don’t think there was any sort of overarching fate behind the contents of my dream. No god planted that in my mind; no nebulous cosmic force influenced my sleep imagery with omens. It may have just been totally random, a byproduct of specific areas of my brain being activated and bringing to mind memories of the past. But I’m glad I did have this dream, because it got me thinking about time and circumstances, and how they’ve changed me into someone you may not fully recognize or understand if you were to see me now.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very, very proud of my current self. It may not even be too terribly different from the version of myself you knew, the one you now hold in your mind as the Platonic ideal of me. I still have the same esoteric sense of humor, the same passion for pursuing knowledge and nuance, and the same fear of losing control of my mind that I used to write to you about when I was experience the height of my panic disorder. But there are lots of things about me that are different now. Some of them were inside me all along, waiting until it was safe to come out. Some of them were simply a result of chance events building on one another to result in an incremental but ultimately monumental outcome.

I think about what you would say if I told you I don’t believe in any gods anymore, much less the God of the Bible. You were one of the first people I came to when I was first filled with the Holy Spirit, and I still remember well the joy you expressed when I told you the news that I had been saved in spite of my many months of pestering you with relentless cynicism and doubt in Worldview class. I drifted away from the faith again in the years after that, but even when we were still close I didn’t let on about it to you. I didn’t want to take that joy away from you. I didn’t want you to worry about me and the fate of my soul. I didn’t want to disappoint you.

Would you be disappointed in me now if you knew who I’ve become since then? If I told you that I inject myself in the thigh once a week with testosterone out of a vial, would you furrow your brow in confusion, or would put your thumb to your chin with a curious smile and ask a hundred questions about every relevant aspect of endocrinology, anatomy and psychology that you could conceive of? If I told you I changed my name, would you tell me my new name suits me better, or would you mourn for the old one that I hate? If I told you that I co-host an atheist-targeted podcast about LGBTQ issues, would you express sadness at the loss of my relationship with Jesus, or would you ask for links to my favorite episodes and begin an hours-long discussion about how to be a better ally to queer and trans people? If I told you I’m in some form of romantic relationship with three different people right now, would you recoil at the rebellion against God’s plan for love, or would you earnestly want to learn about relationship arrangements you weren’t previously aware of?

What would you say if I told you that the critical thinking and reasoning skills you spent hundreds of hours fostering in me inside and outside the classroom caused me to abandon your religion? What if you knew that by teaching me in-depth about apologetics, you armed me with the very ammunition I now use to try to convince your peers to discard their belief system? What would you think if I told you I went to Washington, D.C. this summer to gather with thousands of other atheists to protest your religion’s influence in our secular government? What if I told you I make fun of your deeply-held beliefs on a daily basis and that I think you have no good evidence on which to rest the foundation of your life?

Would that hurt you? Would you be saddened and confused by the life that gives me so much fulfilment? Would you pray for me and petition the god I no longer believe in to guide me back to the religion I’m now both intellectually and morally opposed to? Would you wish I could return to the days before I understood my gender, when things seemed so much more simple and natural from the outside?

Or would you be proud of me for becoming myself? Would you look at me and see someone who is more genuine, fulfilled, confident and comfortable in my own skin than the me you used to know? Would you be glad that I and my community don’t live up to your expectation that most atheists are perpetually angry, despondent and selfish people? Would you hug me like always and challenge me to our customary six-hour-long verbal sparring match?

And most importantly for you, would you usher in a whole new host of puns based on my new name?

I don’t know if I’ll ever get the courage to send this to you. I hope I do, because I want you to get to know me again. Not the me you used to know, but the real, current me. The one named Ari. The one with the same cynical bite, the same crippling fear of failure and the same inexplicable love of all things Japanese that you remember… just with broader shoulders, more healthy skepticism, and less giving a shit about social norms than before. Because even though I’m anxious about the prospect of disappointing you, I really want to hear you say you’re proud of me.

Asexuality in the Media and the LGBTQ Community

The following is a guest post from Cassandra Galluppi, my queerplatonic partner. Many thanks to her for doing my job for me!

I am openly asexual. What that means to me is that I came out to my friends and acquaintances on Facebook, and if the topic ever comes up in conversation (which happens oh so rarely), I will absolutely tell people I’m ace. However, that doesn’t mean I have no reservations about doing so. Every time I have to tell someone new, I’m terrified. Not just because I have social anxiety, but because I’m bracing myself to be rejected—to be told that I’m wrong or that asexuality isn’t a “thing” or that I just haven’t found the right person yet.

Part of this fear comes from the way aces are (and aren’t) portrayed in popular culture. I’ll admit, my awareness of pop culture is limited; most of my time is spent watching certain shows that I like over and over again because apparently I’ve become a crotchety old bag at age 24. But there have been a few times in the recent past where I’ve encountered mentions of asexuality, and looking back, I think my reactions, while certainly not representative of the entire ace community, might be informative.

In January 2016, BBC’s Sherlock came out with their Christmas special, “The Abominable Bride”. While I wouldn’t call myself a die-hard fan, I do thoroughly enjoy the show, and as a treat I went to go see the special in theaters. Two of my friends came with me, both of whom know I am ace. Part of the episode is set in Victorian London and depicts a Sherlock and Watson more familiar from the books rather than the characters the show has developed. One of those scenes finds Sherlock and Watson on a stakeout, and as they are waiting for the culprit to arrive, Watson needles Sherlock about the fact that he never courts women. As Sherlock insists that there isn’t actually a need for him to do so, Watson spouts the arguments that aces are so used to hearing: “It’s only natural to want sex” and the like.

I was holding my breath the entire time. I was waiting for them to have Sherlock back down, to admit that he has sexual feelings for Irene Adler and has been too nervous to say so or something (in a not-grey-A-or-demi-way). I was anxious to the point that I was almost crying, and I never do that outside of social situations (and supremely rarely within them). But they didn’t. And I was relieved. After we left, I wanted to tell someone about how I felt, but even around two friends who I know accept me, I was still reluctant to bring it up. Fortunately, when I did, I had a good discussion where I got validation for my thoughts, in this case about the different forms of attraction and which ones might be applicable in this character dynamic.

The source of my fear here was that Sherlock is extremely popular. I knew that whatever they chose to do with that scene could have had implications for how aces are perceived by the public across the board, even if they didn’t explicitly mention asexuality. It’s difficult to have to put that sort of power into the hands of content creators who might not understand us, be able to empathize with us, or accept us. However, we don’t really have a choice. The ideal course of action would be to broadly educate the public to compliment/counter any portrayals of asexuality in media and/or to dialogue with content creators to give them some insight into what the world is like for us, but that’s a tall order.

Another brush with asexuality in media I’ve consumed—and, quite frankly, the only other one I can remember—was when it came up on an episode of the popular YouTube channel Game Grumps. For those who aren’t familiar, Game Grumps is a comedy channel where the hosts play video games and chat while they’re playing, sometimes about the game and sometimes about other random nonsense (mostly about other random nonsense). The hosts for the main show are Arin Hanson and Daniel Avidan, and I’ve spent many, many hours listening to them while crocheting. They seem like great people, and in an episode of their Ocarina of Time playthrough, I got to hear their opinions on asexuality. The conversation starts at around the 8:18 mark. If you don’t feel like listening (although I highly recommend their show in general), I’ve transcribed the relevant bits below with some of the filler words/phrases cut out; I left some in to indicate the general flow of the conversation. For context, Arin was 29 years old when the video aired, and Danny was 37.  

Arin: He’s easy though. I can take him out. Or her, I dunno. I don’t want to be sexist. F*ckin Lord of the Fire Temple could be a girl. I dunno. Could be a guy, could be a girl, could be neither. Could be asexual. Well, asexual’s a different thing. Could be genderless.

Danny: What’s the difference?

Arin: Asexual means that you have no, like, sexual preference.

Danny: Uh huh.

Arin: So you’re not, like, a sexual person. But you can be a male or a female.

Danny: Oh! Oh oh oh. Got it.

Arin: And being genderless is just, you’re not a male or a female.

Danny: Interesting. I think it was always confusing to me because, like, I learned the term asexual in biology class when dealing with, like plants, you know? And so when it came time that humans were defining themselves as that, I was like, “I don’t understand what it means. Does it mean your pistil or stamen…” like, I dunno.

Arin: Yeah. It’s a fairly new, I think, thing that’s becoming more and more accepted.

Danny: Yeah.

Arin: Which is totally cool, as far as I’m concerned.

Danny: Absolutely! Anything’s cool with me. I just, I feel bad because, you know, a lot of this stuff was not defined in terms when I was growing up.

Arin: Yeah, exactly.

Danny: So like, I’m a little behind the curve, and I’m learning about it while I’m doing a show for hundreds of thousands of people, you know? So it’s like, “Oops!” you know? Like, I kind of sound stupid.

I was nervous when the topic came up in the video. Not for the same public-perception reasons as when I was watching Sherlock, but for more personal ones. It was more like, “Oh boy. I really like these guys, and I really, really hope they don’t say something hurtful!” But their conversation was the best I could have hoped for from people who aren’t constantly swimming in the queer alphabet soup. They made some mistakes but corrected themselves, acknowledged what they didn’t know, and most importantly, validated asexual individuals and their allies who may have been watching the show. As I told Ari, the conversation was still making me smile days later.

It’s the little positive things that matter, whether in pop culture or in our personal lives. The asexual community is so small, and part of the function it serves is as a place to vent our frustrations when demeaning or exclusionary things happen to us. And since many of us identify as queer, it’s most hurtful when those attacks come from the LGBTQ community. I’ve heard stories about aces being rejected by queer people because they can pass as heterosexual, being denied space at pride events, not getting a lounge at a queer conference—the list goes on and on.

Stories like this make many of us wary in spaces that are in reality quite accepting of aces. When I started grad school, I wanted to connect with the queer community on campus. But when I started looking into it, I was a little put off. Their website only mentioned LGBT, not Q; they didn’t have any indication that they included people from smaller groups—I knew that I should just go talk to them and ask, but hey, social anxiety! I was waffling back and forth about it for days, until I saw a post from Callie about what it means to be queer on a status of Ari’s:

“When you go through life being affirmed as the default person, you never really have to give though to how your gender or sexuality change how you navigate the world. You have the luxury of being able to say those things really shouldn’t matter, because you’re extremely unlikely to ever experience marginalization or oppression because of them. So it’s the height of privilege to be able to say “no one’s different and we should have everything about everyone everywhere.” Sorry, I AM different than you. The problem is not the difference, the problem is the stigma surrounding that difference. I have no desire to pretend that I’m the same as everyone else, I’m plainly not. What I’d love is for the difference not to matter so much. That’s why we don’t want to erase the queer experience, the trans experience, the black experience, etc. because like it or not those ARE different experiences. And it’s not because WE have cordoned ourselves off from society, it’s because society has cordoned us off from them.”

That was the push I needed to be able to tell myself, “Yes, I am queer, and yes, I should have a space in this community.” I went to the Equity Center the very next day and boldly (while attempting to hide my inner panic) told them I am ace and asked if there were any groups or events that might be appropriate for me. Guess what? There was an asexual pride group that met every Monday. I was also invited to attend the weekly grad student lunch and a weekly lunch for STEM students. For the first time since realizing I am ace, I was able to engage with other aces in person while also feeling welcome in a space dedicated to queer people, and that felt wonderful.

Part of the reason we share those stories of negative encounters outside the ace community with each other is as a warning. We want to steel each other, particularly aces new to the community, against adversity we might face from any side. But the problem with that is that it creates a bias towards the idea that aces are negatively perceived by everyone, when I know that’s not the case. For every hurtful action, there are many, many supportive ones. For example, at the LGBTQ conference mentioned above, when other groups heard about aces not having a room, they stepped in to help. They let us share their space and their food. I felt a personal moment of support when I walked into my lab as we were getting ready to leave for summer fieldwork and saw my advisor labeling identical bandannas, her traditional gift to her summer helpers; she looked up and excitedly brandished the black, white, gray, and purple fabric while exclaiming, “Look, I found them in your colors!” And all of the love I felt from friends and family members when I came out last year was amazing. It’s stories like this that aces should be hearing.

So here’s what I’d like us all to do—aces, allies, and our LGBTQ siblings—let’s share the good, too. Share the times that you feel accepted. Share the times that you feel included. Because if we do, we’ll start to get out from under that bias telling us that we’re not welcome and see things the way I know they really are—that there are plenty of people who love us and will support us as we proudly proclaim our asexuality.

No Cause is Worth Sacrificing Your Well Being

Your activism is important. Your well being is too.

Today a very important person in my life called me, sobbing and hyperventilating.

They (I’ll keep them anonymous) had spent the majority of the day in conversation and debate with someone who espoused some pretty bigoted, hateful and harmful views in the wake of the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. My loved one believed it was up to them to change this person’s mind, because queer and trans lives are on the line. This person isn’t queer or trans themselves but has many friends and loved ones who are. Like many of us, they have been really shaken by the implications of the shooting and feel an increased call to action because of it.

After several hours and no headway being made in changing this person’s mind, my loved one became so distraught that they broke down crying. They told me they felt like a failure. They knew the urgency of the situation, knew that people’s lives are potentially in danger, and that now more than ever, we need to speak up and fight as hard as we can to change minds. They didn’t convince the person they were talking to, and because of that they felt that they let themselves, me, and the entire LGBTQ community down.

This message is for that person, and for everyone else who has been hit hard by conversations surrounding the recent events: whether you have been personally affected or not, whether you’re queer or trans or a straight cis ally, whether you’ve been able to have any discussions about the recent events or whether you’ve had to step away from the news entirely for your mental and emotional health.

You are more important than any cause.

Yes, activism is incredibly important. Whether it’s on a large scale through political change or a small one through individual conversations, we all need to be doing our part to make the world safer for queer and trans people, and all marginalized people. Especially in the wake of such a tragic and eye-opening event, we feel that this is an incredibly urgent cause. Every day that we do not act, people are being murdered, shunned, erased, beaten down physically and emotionally, mistreated, abused into self-harm and suicide.

But you are still more important than that.

It sounds like a selfish message. If people’s lives are at risk, wouldn’t it be incredibly self-centered and heartless NOT to give your all to combat bigotry, hatred and violence? How could any one person be “more important” than the hundreds of thousands who are suffering?

Yes, you should give your all. But you should never give MORE than your all, because if you are hurting, those who seek to destroy you and those you care about have won. Taking care of yourself when others try to tear you down is revolutionary. It’s a form of activism in defiance against those who want you to suffer.

Activism is a humanist endeavor. Activists try to change the world because we care about people and we want to make life better for them. I think self-care and self-love are also forms of activism centered firmly on humanism. You are a human being, too, and you are just as deserving of love, care and peace as any collective group, or any individual in that group.

We all take this journey from different starting points. Some things that are easy for some are difficult for others, and it doesn’t make anyone better than anyone else, just different. We are all individuals fighting alongside one another for the same end. Just as we need to support others who are struggling in our communities, we need to support ourselves when we are struggling. You are part of our community and our family, and we need you. You are precious just by virtue of existing. If all you can do some days is continue to live in the face of a world that doesn’t always care about you, that is enough. If talking about the news or engaging with hateful people is triggering to you and you can’t always speak up where you think it’s needed, you are still enough. We are here supporting you, and those of us who can speak will do our best to step in when you are in too much pain.

Engage where and when you can, because we need all the help we can get right now. But please, for your sake, ONLY engage where and when you can without causing harm to yourself. It’s easy to feel guilty for stepping back when things are painful. I suffer with anxiety and panic attacks that are often triggered by interpersonal conflict, so I know very well the guilt of having to choose to not engage in conversations that may be important to have, but may also be harmful to me. You feel like people are depending on you, like it’s your responsibility to change people’s minds. But it’s not just your task alone. It’s the shared responsibility of all of us. When one arm gets tired, the other comes in to relieve it. That’s why we need our community. No one person can do it all, and we need one another to support not only our cause, but ourselves.

Please remember that your life, your health and your well-being are more important than changing anyone one person’s mind. You are not just a fighter for the cause. You ARE the cause.

“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, and 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.”

If you are struggling and need support, please contact one or more of the following organizations:

Trans Lifeline

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5 Things Trans Allies Say That Mean Well But Miss The Point

Cisgender allies of trans people usually have our best interests in mind, but despite their good intentions, they sometimes say things that are incorrect or betray a hidden anti-trans bias they may have unknowingly internalized.

Cisgender allies of trans people usually have our best interests in mind, but despite their good intentions, they sometimes say things that are incorrect or betray a hidden anti-trans bias they may have unknowingly internalized. Below are few things I wish trans allies wouldn’t say, and tips on how they can rephrase and re-channel these benevolent sentiments in a way that’s more inclusive, kind and accurate.

I want to assure readers that the purpose of this article is not to shame cisgender allies of trans people for being imperfect, or to try to aggressively police their language, but to educate them about how to best support the trans people they know and love through their language. I hope that allies who read this article will be inspired to think more carefully about the words and phrases they choose to use in reference to their trans friends, family members and colleagues and examine whether the language they use may contain some covert harmful assumptions about transgender people.

Without further ado, here are 5 phrases about trans people that mean well, but miss the point:

1. “Cool, I’ve never met a trans person before!”

Why it means well:

The speaker is expressing their excitement at meeting someone with a different life experience from them. Most people who use this phrase and others like it are genuinely interested in getting to know trans people, becoming more educated about trans issues, and pushing for positive social and/or political change, but have not yet had the opportunity because they believe they don’t personally know any transgender people. They may follow up this statement with sincere questions about the person’s personal history or trans issues in general such as, “When did you realize you were trans?”, “What do you think about [well-known trans person]?”, or, “Which bathroom do you use?”

Why it misses the point:

Firstly, this statement is most likely false. Current estimates put transgender people at approximately 0.3 to 1% of the general population, although due to inherent limitations in self-report methodology, this is likely an underestimate. As social, political and interpersonal pressures against identifying and coming out as trans continue to lessen – and as people become aware that “transgender” is an umbrella term including more than just the traditional binary genders – this statistic will likely increase.

Let’s take a rather conservative approach and assume that transgender people account for half of a percent of the general population. That means, statistically, that for every 200 people you have met, 1 is transgender. Infographic site Funders and Founders estimates that the average person meets approximately 80,000 people during their lifetime. Again assuming the highly conservative estimate that 0.5% of people are transgender, that means that most of us will meet at least 400 transgender people before we die.

When someone claims that they have never met a transgender person, what they really mean is that they have never met a person who announced themselves as trans upon their meeting. Whether the person was not living authentically at the time, living as “stealth”, or the topic of their trans status or history was simply irrelevant to the conversation, odds are that most cisgender people have met dozens, if not hundreds, of trans people without ever knowing.

Secondly, referring to someone as your “trans friend” or marveling over their trans status upon first meeting can be taken as essentializing or tokenizing. Most trans people don’t want to be known first and foremost for being trans. They want to be known and seen as complex people with a multifaceted identity, only one aspect of which – large or small – is their trans identity or history.

What you should say instead:

“You’re trans? Okay.”

Until given further notice from the person in question, treat the admission that someone is transgender as if they told you they have Italian heritage or play in a basketball league on Saturdays: it’s a small piece of the mosaic that makes this person themselves, not necessarily a dominant feature of their identity. Individuals vary in how willing or desirous they are to talk about their personal histories and trans issues in general, and they may consider some questions intrusive, so allow the individual to have power over how much they choose to discuss this aspect of themselves with you.

It’s fine to ask the occasional respectful question or two, but be mindful that the person may not be willing to act as a spokesperson for the entire trans community, and even might be uncomfortable discussing their own experience if they feel unsafe or not accepted. Let them set the pace and try your best to be open and receptive to their needs and boundaries. If they want to educate you or tell their personal story to you after you have demonstrated yourself to be trustworthy, they will!

2. “[Name] was born a boy/girl and later changed their gender.”

Why it means well:

This is an attempt to acknowledge that a person was originally assigned a gender which turned out to be incorrect. They now see this person as the gender they say they are, not the gender which they were given earlier in life.

Why it misses the point:

The first problem with this statement lies in the notion of being born a certain gender. Terms like “boy” and “girl” describe gender, not sex. Gender is a personal and highly individual experience that influences how people relate to themselves, to others and to the world around them, and just isn’t something that can be known at birth. When doctors proclaim, “It’s a boy!” or, “It’s a girl!” upon the birth of the baby, they are actually using shorthand to describe the legal sex of the child, not the gender.

Even with sex, we run into some problems. Like gender, sex is a spectrum and isn’t always easily reducible to the appearance of one’s genitals. When a child is assigned a legal sex at birth, the doctor makes this determination entirely based on the appearance of the genitals. Unless the doctor has reason to believe that a baby has an intersex condition, they do not run any testing on the baby’s chromosomes, hormones, or internal sex organs, so most people don’t actually know the full extent of their biological sex. So when you say that you were “born male” or “born female” because that’s the letter the doctor chose on your birth certificate, you may not be referring to your biological sex at all, only your legal sex. You may have the genitals typically associated with one sex which lead the doctor to assign you a certain legal sex, but there are a myriad of factors involved in biological sex that you most likely don’t even know about.

Now for the major problem contained in the above sentiment: When someone transitions, they don’t actually change their gender or sex. They simply change whatever outward aspects of themselves don’t reflect their current gender, whether that be their name, pronouns, clothing choices, or physical characteristics. Some people, especially those in the non-binary umbrella, change few or none of these aspects of themselves upon embracing their trans identity; they simply adjust their self-understanding.

The phrasing of “changing” one’s gender heavily insinuates surgery, which not all trans people need, want or can get. A few weeks ago, one of my partners was talking to a friend about trans issues and realized that his friend was under the impression that the “transgender” label only applies to someone who has had, in the words of so many cisgender people, “the surgery,” medically referred to as sex reassignment surgery (SRS) or gender confirmation surgery (GCS). In reality, not all trans people desire any kind of surgery on their genitals – myself included – and many who do want it are unable to access it due to cost, lack of insurance, trouble getting time off work, or medical gatekeeping. Anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable with the gender they’ve been assigned by society is transgender, regardless of whether they want, can get, or have had surgery, or any kind of medical (or even social) transition.

What you should say instead:

Avoid assigning gender terms like “boy” or “girl”  to someone’s legal sex designation. Instead, say something along the lines of, “[Name] was assigned male/female at birth, but is transitioning/has transitioned to reflect their authentic gender.”

3. “I was born a [gender] and you’re more beautiful than me!”

Why it means well:

There are several common variations on this theme, including, “Wow, I could never tell you’re trans!” and “You look just like a real [gender]!” Typically, a person saying one of these phrases is trying to compliment the person’s appearance and note that they look happier and more “like themselves” when presenting as their authentic gender.

Why it misses the point:

Despite the truly kind intentions behind them, compliments like these betray a hidden, possibly subconscious belief that an attractive transgender person is a rarity. Comments like, “You’re so beautiful for a trans person!” contain the hidden premise that trans people are, in general, unattractive compared to cisgender people.

It also assumes that “looking transgender” – in other words, falling outside of traditional cisgender-centric notions of beauty – automatically makes one unattractive, and that only those trans people who can convincingly pass for cisgender are worthy of compliments. (For more opinions on why the concept of passing is harmful to trans, intersex and gender non-conforming people, see my previous post.)

Depending on what kind of phrasing is used, many of these kinds of sentiments heavily insinuate (or even state outright) that only people who were assigned a given gender at birth are legitimate members of that gender. A cisgender woman attempting to compliment a trans woman’s appearance may say, “It’s not fair! I was born a woman and you’re still way hotter than me!” In addition to linking back to the problems with the notion of being “born” a gender as outlined in the previous section, these statements express a kind of indignation or jealousy that someone who was never “supposed” to be a member of a gender could conform so well to the expectations for beauty designated for that gender.

What you should say instead:

“That [clothing item, hairstyle, etc.] suits you.”

“You look so happy!”

“You’re beautiful.”

4. “I’m a straight guy, so I only date women and trans guys.”

Why it means well:

You can extrapolate this type of statement to any monosexuality – for example, a gay man who says he is open to dating “pre-op” trans women. (In a future article, I’ll detail why the trans community would be better served if we altogether abandoned categorizing people according to whether or not they’ve had transition-related surgery.) People who say this believe they are being inclusive and broadening the tent by being open to dating anyone with the particular genitals and/or secondary sex characteristics they prefer. It’s another way of saying, “I could date anyone with the parts I like, even if they’re trans.”

Why it misses the point:

Let’s take the example of the straight guy. Men who identify as straight are interested entirely or almost entirely in women, right? And they don’t typically like to be with men, right? Then by definition, they should not be dating trans men, because trans men are men, period, no matter what their genitals look like. No matter if a trans guy is taking hormones, had any kind of surgery, or even has short hair, he’s still a man. The same goes, of course, for trans women – they are women and therefore not the typical partner for a self-described gay man.

I’m not here to police people’s labels or argue that people who aren’t attracted to certain types of bodies are bigots or transphobes. I’m a non-binary person with two partners who both identify themselves as straight men despite me not being a woman, and they have every right to do so. They both are attracted to women 99% of the time and I am the one exception to that rule, so they choose to keep the heterosexual label, and I am comfortable with that. (Again, this is a topic I will go into more detail about in a later post.)

What I am less comfortable with is – if we continue with the example listed above for continuity’s sake – straight men conflating cisgender women and transgender men simply because they may share similar genitals and other sex characteristics. Of course there’s nothing wrong with being attracted to both cisgender women and transmasculine people, but I’d advise that you rethink calling yourself heterosexual if the attraction to transmasculine people is more than incidental. I believe that people should be able to label their own sexualities… within reason. If a woman calls herself totally heterosexual but only ever has sex with other women and is sexually repulsed by men, that label is not an accurate one for her. Similarly, a self-identified straight woman who is more than occasionally attracted to trans women is probably not using the appropriate label, because trans women are women.

What you should say instead:

“I’m a straight guy, so I date women,” meaning any kind of women.

Or, if you’re more concerned about the genitals than the gender, “I like vaginas, so I date people with vaginas.”

5. “[Name], who was born/formerly known as [birth name]…”

Why it means well:

Journalists often use this phrase and others like it to give readers context and background information, especially when covering a person who was already well-known before coming out as trans. For example, this article from The Guardian, which was released days after director Lilly Wachowski came out as trans earlier this year, briefly mentions her previous name for context before returning to her current name.

Why it misses the point:

It’s fine to use a person’s previous name when the name change is relatively recent, such as in an article announcing someone’s coming out, but after a certain amount of time, it reaches a level of absurdity. It’s been over a year since Caitlyn Jenner became public about her gender identity. Almost everyone who pays attention to news media now knows that she is trans and used to be called a different name – and if they don’t they can find out in less than 5 seconds with a Google search – yet even some recent articles still find a way to work in her previous name. The above Guardian article mentions the previous name of Lilly Wachowski’s sister, Lana, despite it having been four years since she went public with her transition. It then goes on to caption an image of a masculine-presenting Lilly with yet another reference to her previous name, this one wholly unnecessary after having already explained the name change.

So why do news articles and people in daily conversations continue to purposefully refer to trans people by their old names, even long after their names have changed and the public at large – or, in the case of everyday trans people, their social or professional circles – has been made aware? Most will argue that it’s in the interest of making the readers aware of who the person is by using the name they became well-known under, but as I stated earlier, there comes a point when this is no longer a valid defense. When’s the last time you saw an article referring to “Miley Cyrus, born Destiny Hope Cyrus”? It seems to me that it’s mostly for a shock factor, or, as Callie likes to put it, the “trans people are icky” defense. When someone points out that a person who used to have a feminine name now has a masculine one or vice versa, they’re drawing attention to the “otherness” of a person who “used to be” one gender and is now another. (As a pointed out above, it’s not the case that a trans person who has started a physical transition has changed their gender, but it may seem that in the mind of the speaker.) There are those who do so maliciously and derisively, of course, but even people with good intentions sometimes engage subconsciously in this kind of othering.

As with most rules, there are exceptions, but most trans people who have changed their names to better reflect their gender don’t like being referred to as their previous name, even if the events being spoken of occurred before the change of name. Constantly making reference to a famous trans person’s previous name in news articles gives the impression to cisgender readers that it’s okay to use someone’s deadname in their daily life.

What you should say instead:

Just call them by their current name! You wouldn’t keep referring to a married person by their previous last name all the time, especially after it had been months or years since it had been changed, so don’t do it for people’s first names either. Unless the person specifically gives permission, it’s never okay to use that person’s deadname.

If you think I’m letting trans people off the hook, don’t worry… In the next few weeks I’ll be posting a similar article, this time a list of terms and phrases common among trans people that I believe should be retired.

What’s a phrase you hear allies use that you wish they wouldn’t? Leave it in the comments!

Pass It Up: Why Trans People and Allies Should Abandon The Language of Passing

Can we PLEASE stop judging trans people by their ability to “look cisgender?”

In the transgender community, the term “passing” refers to when a person is consistently seen and recognized as the gender they identify as, even by strangers who don’t know about their trans status or history. For many, passing as the gender they identify as serves as a means to achieving gender euphoria (a sense of satisfaction and comfort with one’s perceived gender), the opposite of gender dysphoria (the discomfort many transgender people feel with their bodies, gendered name and pronouns, clothing norms, and more). Passing is also a safety concern in many cases; the less visibly different from the mainstream cisgender society one appears, the less one needs to worry about possible discrimination and violence.

While passing is highly important to many individual trans people – and for good reason – I believe that on the collective scale, this concept is more harmful than many trans people and their cisgender allies realize. It sets arbitrary standards of beauty for trans people which many can’t or don’t wish to meet, erases non-binary and gender non-conforming people, and paradoxically leads to an atmosphere of greater public danger for transgender people.

I used to be a member of a private Facebook support group exclusively for transgender people. It was intended and marketed as a way to share resources, make friends and build support networks, solicit and offer advice and comfort, and share stories, all things that are desperately needed in the trans community. As the group grew in numbers, supportive and helpful posts were quickly crowded out by selfies, invariably captioned with, “Do I pass?”. Most of the comments on these threads were genuinely encouraging and supportive, but I was troubled by the occasional shallow, judgmental reply. Trans people should know, perhaps better than most, the emotional and psychological damage that these types of comments can inflict.

More disheartening for me than the rare insensitive comment was the disproportionate amount of value that the posters of these photos placed on their appearances and others’ opinions of them. They seemed to feel that their worth as trans people directly correlated to how well they could pass for (or, to phrase it differently, pretend to be) cisgender; the less gender non-conforming they appeared to others, the better they felt about themselves. As a trans person, I understand the anxiety, discomfort and outright anguish that physical dysphoria can cause, and I don’t want to take away from anyone the euphoria that can come with outwardly appearing as oneself. But as a non-binary person, I also understand that appearing cisgender and presenting as one’s authentic self are not always necessarily interrelated concepts, and that the concept of passing is especially harmful to those who do not fit traditional cisgender standards of beauty.

For many binary trans people – people who identify as strictly man or woman – being seen and identified by others as your true gender can be a badge of honor and source of pride. It signals that you are finally starting to live and be seen totally as your authentic self and triggers a sense of gender euphoria. But what would passing mean for a non-binary person: someone who identifies as a combination of man and woman, neither man nor woman, or outside of such concepts altogether? What of intersex people who present outside our typical norms of appearance? How can one “pass” in the public eye as a gender which is not recognized by society at large?

For many non-binary or otherwise gender non-conforming (GNC) people, this is a constant source of discomfort. As a non-binary person in a society that exclusively recognizes and privileges binary gender, I am practically never perceived as my authentic self. If passing is the standard to which trans and cis people alike hold trans people, does that make me and other non-binary or GNC people less trans? I reject any concept which rests on the foundation that all trans people must be alike, or that some trans people are more trans than others. There is no rulebook for being transgender; the only requirement is that one is not totally comfortable with the gender they have been assigned by those around them. Transgender people, like any other group, are diverse and varied in their experiences, their goals, their outlooks and their self-expression. Transgender people and allies alike should learn to love each individual for who they are and how they wish to self-express, never look down upon or be made uneasy by those who choose a different path for themselves.

At its core, the idea of passing as cisgender as the end game for all trans people is a concept rooted in cissexism, the belief that cisgender people are inherently more “normal” – and therefore more attractive – than transgender people. In order to be considered beautiful, trans people must cease to be visibly trans; they must assimilate into the cultural standards of the dominant cisgender society they live in. For many non-binary people including myself, this is not an option, and conforming to the standards for either of the two largely-recognized genders causes anxiety, shame and unhappiness. And why should we? These standards are ultimately arbitrary and often rooted further in patriarchal, essentialist ideas of men and women which box  each gender in to a handful of immutable traits. Trans people, and non-binary people in particular, have a vested interest in combating these notions wherever possible.

Reliance on the concept of passing not only erases and delegitimizes non-binary and GNC people who don’t feel comfortable or authentic conforming to traditional standards of appearance, but it makes navigating public spaces potentially more dangerous for non-binary and binary people alike. By propping up the language of passing, we are indirectly encouraging scrutiny and judgement based on physical appearance. People who are visibly GNC or in a state of transition are targets for ridicule, discrimination and outright violence, especially in areas of the United States such as North Carolina and Mississippi which now actively encourage citizens to discriminate and deny public access based on perceived gender. Even if one wishes to be seen  as exclusively male or female, doing so in our strictly gendered society may require months or years of expensive and difficult-to-access hormone treatments, surgeries and other invasive procedures, wardrobe changes, vocal training, and more. If we encourage people to notice whether someone “passes” or not, what becomes of those who can’t or don’t wish to meet these standards?

I don’t begrudge trans people who want to pass as a personal choice for themselves. We just need to be sure to refrain from judging those who can’t or don’t want to pass for a binary gender. Trans people: do whatever makes you happy and safe, but please don’t expect others to conform to your ideals, because what you wish for yourself should never be a requirement for others. Cisgender people: please be mindful of the diversity within the trans community. Be aware that not everyone wishes to be seen as a man or a woman, and that gender identity and gender expression exist on a large continuum. I strongly believe that it should not be up to transgender people to change themselves to fit into society without risk of violence, but it should be up to cisgender people to challenge their notions of gender in order to make our culture safer and more comfortable for everyone. Instead of judging trans people based on whether or not they “pass” as member of a group they may or may not even consider themselves part of, we should determine success based on the happiness, comfort and gender euphoria of the individual in question. As non-believers in religion, we should strive to challenge our dogmatic, black-and-white views wherever they remain and, as I like to say, smash the binary.