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American Atheists is perhaps the most visible atheist organization in the United States. As such, it’s not unreasonable for atheists to hold the organization accountable for accurately representing our aims and values.

But earlier today, Dave Muscato, the Public Relations Director for American Atheists, made a problematic and offensive comment about LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) activists.

Responding to a post on Columbia Faith & Values by atheist activist Tony Lakey concerning recent American Atheists billboards, Muscato left a comment signed with his name and title in the organization. Near the end, he made this point (emphasis added):

[T]here are different types of atheist activists and we are not the kind that you seem to wish that we were or want us to be. I talk about this in a talk I give about atheism activism, where I say that, as an example, there are (generalizing) two types of LGBTQ activists: the kind that wear suits & ties and run for office and give speeches, and the kind who dress up in chaps and ride on parade floats. The suit-and-tie atheists say to the a—less-chaps activists, “Stop doing that…”

Just last week, I wrote in this column about clumsy attempts to equate LGBTQ experience and atheist activism. In that piece I addressed the parallel that Muscato attempted to make in his comment:

In this vein, a number of atheists have pointed to the gay rights movement and said that in order to move the cultural needle as the gay rights movement has, the atheist movement needs both conciliatory atheists and aggressive ones (or “diplomats and firebrands”).

In my opinion, Muscato’s comments are a deeply problematic instance of this equation. His words invoke a blatantly uninformed characterization of LGBTQ activists. He erases the diversity of LGBTQ activists, offering instead a caricature (that, for starters, feels very gay male-centric). My first experiences as an activist were in LGBTQ organizations, and I can say without hesitation that framing LGBTQ activists as either “the kind that wear suit & ties” or “the kind who dress up in chaps and ride on parade floats” does not begin to reflect the thoughtfulness and diversity found within the LGBTQ community.

I tweeted about his comment and got a quick response from Muscato saying that he would be willing to discuss his comment over the phone. But as the comment was left on a public forum—and, importantly, signed by Muscato with his title at American Atheists—I’d like to see this discussion unfold in a forum where others are able to access his explanation. He then replied that he would happy to discuss it later.

Thus, I am left wondering: Does American Atheists agree with this demeaning portrayal of LGBTQ activists? And if Muscato has employed this problematic characterization of LGTBQ activists in talks before, why hasn’t American Atheists stepped in?

20 Comments

  1. I think you are wrong on this one Chris. Perhaps it makes a difference that I am over 50 years old. I very clearly remember the very vocal gay activists who’s goal it was to call attention to their issues by behaving in an intentionally outrageous way. I recall being verbally harassed by a 6 foot tall man dressed in a pink tutu during a visit to the art exhibit in Ann Arbor. He and his outrageously dress friends were trying to get attention. To some extent this works by forcing people to think about their opinions.

    Muscato is talking about this kind of activism, which was and is very real and quite common. Confrontations do push people to think about an issue.

    You are being strangely sensitive to Dave’s use of this example. I do not understand why anything he said would be offensive. I am pretty sure I have seen the gay pride float with the cowboy on top. Dave didn’t say that the cowboy was wrong. In fact, Dave is comparing the AA Xmas billboard with the cowboy… chaps and all.

    Why does Dave’s mention of in-your-face gay activism make you feel demeaned? It’s real and Dave is not exaggerating. My, but we Humanists sure do get offended easily.

  2. Anyone want to play Privilege Bingo with John D’s comment?

    “I think you are in the wrong on this one [even though you can speak to this issue personally and I cannot]“; “You are being strangely sensitive [to an issue I clearly do not understand]“; “I do not understand why [it's] offensive [therefore it isn't]“; “But I have seen [example of reductive, oppressive stereotype], (therefore) it’s real”; “my, but we [meaning you, not me] sure do get offended easily.”

    Well hot dog, I don’t even need to use a Free Space.

    • Perhaps you can start by explaining why this is offensive. Chris does not explain it.

      Are you denying that many gay activists over the last several decades drew attention to issues by being intentionally offensive?

      Is it wrong for Muscato to site this example?

      This article by Stedman simply states that Dave is offensive without explaining why or how this is so. Is this a good way to editorialize?

      Chris writes “Does American Atheists agree with this demeaning portrayal of LGBTQ activists?” Is it not possible that this is not demeaning? I think this is possible.

      • You sound like you’d be genuinely interested in hearing an explanation, so I’ll assume good faith if you’d like to have a conversation.

        You say Chris does not explain what is “offensive” (not the word I would use, since the statement is objectively problematic and that problem is not just in how it makes people feel). But he says:

        His words invoke a blatantly uninformed characterization of LGBTQ activists. He erases the diversity of LGBTQ activists, offering instead a caricature (that, for starters, feels very gay male-centric).

        Muscato’s “example” is a disrespectful one. Maybe it isn’t meant to be, maybe he thinks he’s simply describing what “everyone knows” about the LGBTQ community—but as atheists shouldn’t we be a little skeptical about what broad claims “everyone knows” to be true about large communities they don’t actually belong to? Isn’t uncritical stereotyping kind of a big deal to us?

        To characterize LGBTQ rights activists as suit-and-tie versus a**less chaps is belittling and disrespectful in several ways.

        First, it’s a reductive, ignorant false dichotomy. It claims that there are only certain “kinds” of activists. That’s ridiculous.

        Of course Muscato’s speaking in generalities, he says so himself. But why? What purpose does it serve to create a pretend black-or-white description of a community he doesn’t belong to? Oh, it makes a “comical,” hyperbolic parallel for him to talk about himself. Huh. Well that sure makes it seem like he’s using the LGBTQ rights movement as a joke.

        Which leads to my second point: mockery. Does Muscato conjure an image of “a**less chaps” and parade floats to make a thoughtful, insightful commentary about parallels within communities striving for equal rights and representation? Or, rather, does he just think he’s being funny? Inferring from his word choice and tone, Muscato presumably thinks it’s amusing to compare himself and his cohorts to ostentatious, flamboyant gay male stereotypes. Why?

        Thirdly, look at the assumptions it makes. “Suit and tie” or “a**less chaps”? Who is Muscato referring to here when he talks about The Two Kinds of Activists? Ohh, I see: both kinds are the gay male kind. Did lesbians, trans women, bisexual women, genderqueer people, or heck even t-shirt-and-jeans-wearing people stop existing? Or does Muscato not realize there are many kinds of activists? Of course not. But it is not a coincidence that to Muscato, to many people, the “face” of LGBTQ rights looks a lot like the “face” of atheism. Which is, by default, a rich white male face. It’s a symptom of a lack of critical, intersectional thinking about justice.

        Finally, I took issue with your dismissive response that because you have seen LGBTQ activists who embody a particular stereotype, that therefore the stereotype is “just true” and therefore not problematic. I think that’s an outrageous thing to say and I’m surprised to hear it from someone who is involved in any kind of social activism, such as atheism. One time I met an atheist who hated religious people, you know. Another time I knew a communist atheist. I’ve even met some who wanted to take away specific religious freedoms from their fellow citizens. Do you know what that means about Atheists As a Whole? Spoiler: it’s nothing. It means nothing.

        It means that whenever a group of people have a cause that the majority finds objectionable, there will form controlling images and negative stereotypes about that group. And wherever stereotypes exist there will be individuals who choose to embrace them and individuals who choose to reject them. It does NOT mean that you or I or Muscato or anyone is justified or excused for perpetuating those stereotypes against others.

        You asked if it is possible that the original statement is not demeaning. Well maybe, maybe that is possible. But I GUARANTEE one thing is not possible: the ability of individuals like you or me, who are not exposed to anti-LGBTQ oppression, to make that call. When Chris takes the time to tell you it is harmful to him and other people in HIS community, LISTEN. Otherwise you are no different from theists who want US to just sit down and be quiet.

        • wtfwhateverd00d

          Your first comment was incredibly offensive.

          I don’t think you are an evil person, I just think you are inured to the evil you do when you marginalize others.

        • Emily – So, if I am summarizing your statement correctly, you think there are two main problems with Muscato’s comment.

          One problem is that he is creating an unfair simplification. What you claim could be true. I happen to think Muscato’s point is a useful metaphor. Others (such as yourself) think it is not a useful simplification. In any case, does a poor metaphor and an oversimplification require an apology? Muscato is making a comparison based on history. There has been a rift among gay activists much as there is a rift in atheist activists. If Muscato was lying or intentionally causing harm then he should apologize. I don’t think he owes an apology. Even if someone disagrees with his assessment, he has done nothing that warrants an apology.

          You second main point is that (since I am not gay) I cannot judge if Muscato has been offensive or if Chris should feel demeaned. I disagree with you Emily. In a society of open speech and the free sharing of ideas, there are some social rules that apply when we are determining if harm has been done. If harm has been done then an apology is required. I am fully capable of determining if harm has been done, and so are you Emily. This is why we are having this conversation. You think some harm was done and I do not. You and I have articulated are thoughts about this. We both have an opinion and we both make our arguments.

          If Muscato had said something that mocked or belittled the protestor in chaps then I would think he should apologize. But, this is not what he did. He actually compared himself to the chaps guy. Muscato is defending his activist approach of being outrageous. This is not mocking or belittling the chaps guy. This is honoring him. There is a huge difference.

          • Well John, let’s consider a hypothetical situation in which Muscato is at the grocery store, carrying on with his shopping, and he unintentionally runs his shopping cart into another person in the aisle. He certainly wasn’t targeting anyone with malice and forethought, it was clearly a case of inattentiveness causing accidental harm. “Ouch!” the unpleasantly surprised person exclaims.

            What does Muscato say next?

            Does he say, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry! That was totally my fault, I need to pay closer attention in the future. Are you okay?”

            Or does he say, “UGH! People these days are so SENSITIVE, stop VILIFYING me, get OVER it I didn’t hit you that HARD. Don’t you know there are nasty people out there who run people over with carts on purpose? You should be grateful that I’m not one of them! SHEESH what a whiner.”

            If you think the second scenario is a legitimate and defensible course of action, then there is nothing more for us to discuss because we clearly do not share values or social expectations.

            If not, then why the heck would it be legitimate or defensible for him to do now?

          • Secondly, I may not have made my last point clearly enough. I don’t think you can’t tell Chris whether he should feel harmed because you’re not gay.

            You can’t tell Chris whether he should feel harmed BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT CHRIS.

            It blows my mind that this can be at all confusing to anyone with a shred of human empathy, but no, you actually don’t get to decide whose emotions or personal experiences are legitimate in ANY setting. Sure, we as a society can come to a general agreement about how we respond to varying degrees of harm, but what on earth makes you feel personally entitled to pass judgment on, to determine the “validity” of someone else’s feelings?

            It frustrates me to no end because I highly doubt you accept that kind of judgmental entitlement when it’s turned around on you. When theists say atheists have nothing to whine about, that we should be lucky we’re allowed to vote at all–when they condescendingly and inaccurately explain our own experiences to us, saying we are just another religion or we just hate god–when they act like THEY are the marginalized group because we stingy bitter atheists want to rain on their privilege parade… What do you do about it then?

            Do you take the time to challenge and confront those insulting, disrespectful, objectively harmful attitudes? Or do you throw your hands up and agree with them, since heck I guess society has determined no harm, no foul here and who are we to question society?

            Privileged groups of people do NOT have the right to explain the experiences of marginalized groups of people, and for crying out loud especially not TO the marginalized groups of people who are actually living it!

            (A) because they don’t know what they’re talking about, (B) because they are almost invariably incorrect, (C) because that is not the way a civil and respectful community treats its members, and (D) because that is not the way problems get solved.

            And I don’t know about you, but I know Chris and I showed up here to build respectful communities and solve problems.

  3. I grew up in and about San Francisco, including living in the Castro district near the Federal Building. And based on my lifetime experience I don’t see anything particularly wrong with the characterization.

    Unlike you, perhaps, I’ve been to a lot of rodeos and I’ve seen plenty of LGBT pride and political parades in my time and they’re plenty full of people dressed in leather. Whether it’s Dykes on Bikes, or leather-men (Leather Pride — San Francisco Chapter (yes, it’s an organization)) in chaps, guys in leather jock straps, it’s there and it’s common place and doesn’t even raise an eyebrow in the community.

    And they’re not even close to the most provocative as I’ve seen guys and gals with nothing on, guys dressed as bronies, open displays of fetish, pony play, open displays of BDSM, etc., etc., etc.

    The bottom line is that there is a huge group that is there to shock and, frankly, from what I’ve seen over the years the group is the majority. And this is INTENTIONAL. This shocking has been part of the LGBT movement since before YOU were born.

    And if you don’t believe me, just look at the photos of any SF gay-pride parade. It makes Mardi Gras look positively dull and button down. And it’s been going like this since the 1970s!

    And if you’ve never seen a leatherman at a gay pride parade, feast your eyes on this: http://tinyurl.com/lbacloh

    (I’d put in more, but I don’t a ‘too many links’ moderation.)

  4. You sound like you’d be genuinely interested in hearing an explanation, so I’ll assume good faith if you’d like to have a conversation.

    You say Chris does not explain what is “offensive” (not the word I would use, since the statement is objectively problematic and that problem is not just in how it makes people feel). But he says:

    His words invoke a blatantly uninformed characterization of LGBTQ activists. He erases the diversity of LGBTQ activists, offering instead a caricature (that, for starters, feels very gay male-centric).

    Muscato’s “example” is a disrespectful one. Maybe it isn’t meant to be, maybe he thinks he’s simply describing what “everyone knows” about the LGBTQ community—but as atheists shouldn’t we be a little skeptical about what broad claims “everyone knows” to be true about large communities they don’t actually belong to? Isn’t uncritical stereotyping kind of a big deal to us?

    To characterize LGBTQ rights activists as suit-and-tie versus a**less chaps is belittling and disrespectful in several ways.

    First, it’s a reductive, ignorant false dichotomy. It claims that there are only certain “kinds” of activists. That’s ridiculous.

    Of course Muscato’s speaking in generalities, he says so himself. But why? What purpose does it serve to create a pretend black-or-white description of a community he doesn’t belong to? Oh, it makes a “comical,” hyperbolic parallel for him to talk about himself. Huh. Well that sure makes it seem like he’s using the LGBTQ rights movement as a joke.

    Which leads to my second point: mockery. Does Muscato conjure an image of “a**less chaps” and parade floats to make a thoughtful, insightful commentary about parallels within communities striving for equal rights and representation? Or, rather, does he just think he’s being funny? Inferring from his word choice and tone, Muscato presumably thinks it’s amusing to compare himself and his cohorts to ostentatious, flamboyant gay male stereotypes. Why?

    Thirdly, look at the assumptions it makes. “Suit and tie” or “a**less chaps”? Who is Muscato referring to here when he talks about The Two Kinds of Activists? Ohh, I see: both kinds are the gay male kind. Did lesbians, trans women, bisexual women, genderqueer people, or heck even t-shirt-and-jeans-wearing people stop existing? Or does Muscato not realize there are many kinds of activists? Of course not. But it is not a coincidence that to Muscato, to many people, the “face” of LGBTQ rights looks a lot like the “face” of atheism. Which is, by default, a rich white male face. It’s a symptom of a lack of critical, intersectional thinking about justice.

    Finally, I took issue with your dismissive response that because you have seen LGBTQ activists who embody a particular stereotype, that therefore the stereotype is “just true” and therefore not problematic. I think that’s an outrageous thing to say and I’m surprised to hear it from someone who is involved in any kind of social activism, such as atheism. One time I met an atheist who hated religious people, you know. Another time I knew a communist atheist. I’ve even met some who wanted to take away specific religious freedoms from their fellow citizens. Do you know what that means about Atheists As a Whole? Spoiler: it’s nothing. It means nothing.

    It means that whenever a group of people have a cause that the majority finds objectionable, there will form controlling images and negative stereotypes about that group. And wherever stereotypes exist there will be individuals who choose to embrace them and individuals who choose to reject them. It does NOT mean that you or I or Muscato or anyone is justified or excused for perpetuating those stereotypes against others.

    You asked if it is possible that the original statement is not demeaning. Well maybe, maybe that is possible. But I GUARANTEE one thing is not possible: the ability of individuals like you or me, who are not exposed to anti-LGBTQ oppression, to make that call. When Chris takes the time to tell you it is harmful to him and other people in HIS community, LISTEN. Otherwise you are no different from theists who want US to just sit down and be quiet.

  5. wtfwhateverd00d

    [T]here are different types of atheist activists and we are not the kind that you seem to wish that we were or want us to be. I talk about this in a talk I give about atheism activism, where I say that, as an example, there are (generalizing) two types of LGBTQ activists: the kind that wear suits & ties and run for office and give speeches, and the kind who dress up in chaps and ride on parade floats. The suit-and-tie atheists sa to the a—less-chaps activists, “Stop doing that…”

    Stedman isn’t saying anyone is wrong, he is noting the diversity of stances and saying all are needed and then describing the stance he and his organization take.

    You appear to be playing gotcha. What’s the score?

  6. I posted much of this on the original article:

    The final point Muscato makes about LGBTQ activists is extremely problematic to me. The LGBTQ communities are often used in speeches and talks by atheist and humanist leaders as examples for how to structure the nontheist movement. When he is invoking his title as Public Relations Director for AA, he is speaking for AA or at the very least implying that he is. I don’t think this sort of comparison and reductionism is fitting for a national organization working to reduce stigma of a marginalized group.

    In addition the way he is generalizing the LGBTQ communities amounts to stereotyping and is extremely lazy. If you are going to borrow from another community or use them as an example for your own, have the decency to do it in a respectful way.

  7. Thanks for this post. His comment was offensive for numerous reasons (which have been well described by others above) and I’m shocked to see commenters here defending his stereotyping by claiming it’s somehow based in reality, as if that makes it acceptable.

  8. Much ado about nothing.

    Taken with any charity – he is not erasing diversity within the gay rights movement, but pointing out the advantages of that diversity.

    Let me make a suggestion:

    “Surely, you don’t mean there are literally only two types of gay rights activist?”

    “Of course not”

    ***

    The end.

    Seriously, can we just not do this? You know, the thing where we take something someone says in the most uncharitable way possible and have a huge dust-up about it.

    Sometimes criticism and calling-out is useful. I don’t think this is one of those times.

  9. But make no mistake. Muscato does have a point even if it makes some people upset.

    Fact is, when it’s time to preach and pitch to City Hall in front of the TV cameras, trying to pressure the city officials into enacting this or that gay rights law, the gay activists make sure all the Drag Queens, Leather Men, Floor Shows, and What Nots either dress sensibly or stay home. Gotta make sure the viewers do NOT see the whole story!

    • That rift – and that mentality – isn’t nearly as pronounced as it used to be.

      But yes – there is a very real conflict between gay rights activists with a diplomatic approach (some might even say accommodationist) and those who refused to buy-in to even the slightest hint of respectability politics.

      I do think this represents a good lesson for us – not to spend an inordinate amount of time policing others tactics; but to speak for ourselves in order to portray the present diversity of our movement and ALL benefit from addressing our shared issues from a variety of angles and on different fronts.

  10. TheGreatGodPan

    I didn’t find Muscato’s analogy, which utilizes generalization for an intended humorous effect, all that offensive or problematic. I think it’s a lot less offensive or problematic, for example than describing homosexuality as an “evil inclination.” That description comes from your “good friend” the Imam Suhaib Webb, with whom you recently had a “great meeting” that left him “looking forward to working with you,” according to your respective Twitter feeds.

    Given your friendship and collaboration with someone who thinks homosexuality is “evil” and your lack of comment (that I could find) on that position (which he has since shrunk away from but not actually renounced), this column strikes me as a decidedly Breitbart/Fox News-esque example of feigning indignation and manufacturing a nontroversy in the name of getting someone fired.

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