My name’s Mikel and I’m a GIRL

My name’s Mikel and I’m a GIRL

I have a traditionally male name. I mean, sometimes it’s used as a girl’s name but not very often. I was also born in 1980, when Michael was the most popular name for baby boys. I’ve heard speculation on why my parents chose this name, but I don’t really know the whole story. My mother didn’t have an ultrasound — I don’t think it was available at the time — to be able to determine my sex before I was born, so it’s not implausible to think maybe they were hoping for a boy.

Anyway, in my early school years, I teased frequently by being called a boy. That’s a boy’s name. I went through a phase where I only wanted to wear dresses and I would introduce myself by saying “My name’s Mikel, and I’m a girl.” It was a big deal to me. I was mortified about that time at the idea of mom wanting to get me a pack of plain t-shirts from the boys section (though they were cheaper). I was mortified at the idea of even walking into the boy’s section in a store. I heard the explanation, over and over, that my name was ok because it’s spelled differently than the boy’s name. I got tired of there needing to be an explanation.

One day when I was sitting on the toilet in the school bathroom — probably about 3rd grade — I had a moment of self-doubt. How did I know I was a girl? Well, I reasoned, I must be because boys have this mysterious appendage called a penis and I didn’t. I wasn’t really sure what it was that I did have, or how to check, but for the time being it was proof enough to me that I didn’t have what boys have.

When I had a new class in school, from my public school days all the way to college, teachers taking roll in a new class would see “Mikel” in their student list, and look to my left and right before finally realizing that I am Mikel.

At that time in my life and for many years after, the idea that someone might have a gender that does not match their organs would never have occurred to me. I started thinking about it again when I was introduced to the idea that one should ask a transgender person what pronouns they prefer to be applied to them. I’ve been misgendered — mainly in written communication — more times than I can even remember, so I have some idea of what that means. I’ve grown so used to my name being mispronounced, misspelled, and sometimes (intentionally or unintentionally) feminized, that I forget it bothers me until I get that sense of immense satisfaction when someone I don’t know actually gets it right on the first try.

When I left home for college I was actually sorted into the boy’s dormitory at first. There was no marking on the application to say if I was male or female, and it was just assumed from my name that I was male. When they couldn’t find my dorm assignment among the girls it was not hard for me to guess what had gone wrong.

My husband has told me of funny reactions he’s gotten when telling coworkers the name of his (then) fiancée.

I’ve gone to job interviews where the interviewer was clearly expecting a man. It was obvious by the brief moment of confusion when a woman walks in saying she is here for an interview. A discussion of my name has also made a great conversation starter when I’m feeling social. I tell them my name and see that look of “did I hear you right?” on their face along with worry that they will offend me if they get it wrong. And every now and then someone tries to call my Mika or Michelle. They are perfectly fine names, but they are not mine.

I still get mail all the time addressed to “Mr. Mikel.” I’ve thrown out perfectly good free return address labels because of the “Mr.” And whoever made my permanent ID card for the zoo and science center membership decided my name is spelled “Mikal” even though it was spelled properly in the application. Maybe since Mikal is a girl’s name and Mikel is a boy’s name (and that couldn’t be right!?). An innocent mistake probably, but that sort of thing has gotten old. I haven’t decided if it’s worth the trouble to get it corrected as long as the card works.

I’m good with my name. It’s my identity. It’s also been a lifelong lesson on what happens when one lives in defiance — even just a tiny little tiny bit in defiance — of gender norms.

I know I’m a woman, not because of my anatomy or because of the label I was given at birth. I know I’m a woman because I know who I am. And I trust that other people know who they are as well.

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Ideas from the Women in Secularism Conference #wiscfi

Ideas from the Women in Secularism Conference #wiscfi

The Women in Secularism Conference is over now, and I am back at home enjoying one more day of vacation before jumping back into my work-a-day life. While I still have a bit of time off, I want to reflect on what I have learned at the Women in Secularism conference and how I can incorporate these ideas into my activism in the days to come.

1. If we wish to reach more people, we must engage in activities that affect their lives.

Typically, meetings of atheist groups are things that have appealed to people who have access to plenty of spare time, disposable income, and ample transportation. The leaders and topics of meetings have largely been from the sciences and from philosophy as well, topics that have been dominated for a long time by middle to upper class white men. I though it was a good point made by someone (sorry I forget who) that the reason we have such a imbalance of gender and race in atheist meetings is that most of our leaders come from a background that has the exact same problem.
Unfortunately, not everyone who might be interested in atheist community can stop in the middle of their busy lives in order to drive across town for a science lecture (or something similar). In order to reach a broader audience, we need to engage in activities that affect people in their daily lives. Things like volunteering on school boards, and providing child care services. I’m not exactly sure how to implement these ideas into our group in Louisville yet, but it is a question I will be pondering in the near future.

2. Misogynistic beliefs are a lot like religious (or any other) beliefs. It can be difficult to recognize such beliefs in oneself, and it may take many encounters to finally stop these patterns of thinking.

Greta Christina and Jen McCreight both noted that as a result of their writing about both atheism and feminism on their blogs, that they have gotten many messages from atheists saying that they had changed their minds about feminism. Greta has noted progress in this area, saying that every time there is a massive argument about sexism in the atheist blogosphere, the discussion is less neatly divided along lines of sex and the more men are accepting and repeating the feminist arguments. Yay progress!

3. Studies on communications styles have shown that women are generally less likely to speak up in meetings and more likely to be interrupted when they are speaking.

This is due to the fact that people with more perceived power in an interaction are more likely to interrupt and talk often and loudly. This is worth noting in male/female interactions since femininity is associated with submissiveness and masculinity with aggressiveness. Women are more likely to be concerned with saving face for others and with consensus building, so they are more likely to use a deferent tone when speaking in a meeting. The main takeaway from this talk was that both men and women need to learn both the submissive style and the assertive styles of speaking and to use them when appropriate. There is more information on this at http://www.bernicesandler.com/ under the section on The Chilly Climate.

Also, a takeaway for group leaders is to be aware of these differences in communication styles and make sure that everyone in a group discussion is heard and has their ideas recognized.

4. Studies have shown that women are more likely to attend a conference and to feel comfortable there when where are an equitable number of women on the podium.

This finding has clear implications for the organizers of atheist conferences. There are plenty of women atheist activists out there, so get them as speakers and panelists.

5. We have a lot to gain from working with religious and “interfaith” groups in order to obtain specific goals. However, we must be careful to define in advance what our values are and what we are willing to compromise to make sure that our beliefs and values are not steamrolled in the process. 

Greta noted a secular student group and Muslim group working together to fight religious discrimination after a the secular group started a discussion with them over Everybody Draw Muhammad day. Even though they disagreed about drawing Muhammad, that discussion lead to an acknowledgment of the areas where they did agree and could work together. There is also the example of The American Cancer society rejecting the full participation of the Foundation Beyond Belief in their fundraising. Unfortunately, an otherwise decent charity may blanch at the idea of working with the atheists (even for a very large donation!). Happily, FBB found another great organization who is willing to work with them, and participates with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Foundation in their Light the Night program. You can see the acknowledgment of FBB on the Light the Night website at http://www.lightthenight.org/what/sponsors/foundationbeyondbelief/.

This post does not even come close to highlighting all of the great ideas and contributors at the Women in Secularism Conference, only the main ideas that have stuck in my mind which I hope to apply to my own efforts in the near future. I have also brought home Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars by Sikivu Hutchinson, as her contributions on the panel have convinced me that I really need to know more on this topic.

I am looking forward to reading Why Truth Matters, which was coauthored by Ophelia Benson who was also a panelist in the convention.

 

I also highly recommend the books Doubt, A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht and Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby. Though I had read their books many years ago as a new atheist, this is the first time I heard either of them speak.

I am looking forward to WIS2.

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Upcoming Women in Secularism Conference

Next weekend I will be attending the Center for Inquiry’s Women in Secularism conference in Washington DC.  I’ve been to multiple atheist conventions in the past, including the American Atheists Convention and Skepticon, but this will be the first time I’ve been to a conference focusing on the contributions of women to the secular movement.

Up to this point the secular movement has been focused mostly on single, individualistic, people who do not have children. This has been a setup that caters mainly to the needs of singles seeking a social scene, people who are willing to go to events alone, and people who are old enough to attend events in bars. And senior citizens and retirees, especially at meetings that have the word “Humanist” in the title. Unfortunately, many women though their 20’s-30’s have the brunt of child care responsibilities, and for social support and safety reason may not want to go alone to events with a bunch of strangers. And some women whose stories I have heard have not wanted to attend atheist meetups for the same sort of reason they might not want to step foot into a comic book store…there is the potential of meeting a bunch of geeky guys who see an unclaimed women in the room mainly as a potential date. (Just tread carefully here guys…) Or who could hear a great discussion points by a woman but can think of nothing but her appearance. (“You’re beautiful” is not an appropriate response to a woman who has just made an intellectual point.)

Fortunately as the secular movement has grown larger, there has been more focus on community building and issues that affect women have been brought more to the forefront. At the most recent American Atheists Convention, there was child care was provided by a local licensed nanny service. Other conferences, including this one, are having childcare expenses funded by the Richard Dawkins Foundation. Women’s contributions are being talked about more frequently. Convention organizers are making more of a deliberate effort to enlist women speakers.  And outspoken women leaders in the secular community have raised everyone’s consciousness about sexism among otherwise rational people.

It’s a step in the right direction.

For more reading on women and women’s issues in the secular movement:

Where are all the atheist women? Right here!

More Women in Skepticism Blog: This blog addresses myths and questions regarding sexism in the secular/skeptical community. I have learned quite a lot from following this blog.

SkepChick Blog: Not exclusively women’s issues, but a quick search of the site will find relevant posts.

See more information about the Women in Secularism Conference at http://www.womeninsecularism.org/

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War on Women Rally

War on Women Rally

Last Saturday I went to the War Against the War on Women Rally in Louisville, Ky. There were rallies in multiple cities across the country, which were organized by Unite Women. These rallies are mainly in response to the surge in conservative politicians attempting to roll back women’s rights and healthcare. Not only abortion rights are precarious, but also access to birth control and sex education are being framed as frivolous and unnecessary by mostly male politicians and pundits. It’s amazing and a bit disheartening that even in 2012 we are having to protest this nonsense.

Even so, I did have a fine time at the rally, meeting up with old friends and making some new friends.

While I was there I met some of my friends from my time as a Clinic Escort.

And I saw a friend I had met though the Atheist Women of Louisville group.

I also took the opportunity to do some atheist activism at the rally, wearing my American Atheists convention t-shirt and taking slips of paper with the information for Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers. In all, about four or five people expressed interest in discussing atheism and I handed them information. Maybe we will see some more new faces at the meetups.

Source: http://teampowerment.tumblr.com/

I was a bit nervous on the way there about being so open about my atheism at the rally, but I am glad I did. I’m not usually good at going up to complete strangers and striking up conversation, but this gave me a topic to start with. The first response I got was from a couple of younger women who got excited when they read the back of my shirt and asked if I’d heard of the Rational Response Squad and the Infidel Guy (I had). One of the volunteers at a table looked over my shirt and replied “I’m kind of an atheist too.” I also got to hear the story from another woman about how her daughter (now grown) had been called out by school administration in a Louisville high school for not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance. She was sent to the principle’s office and her mother called. The daughter’s reason? She was an atheist and didn’t agree with “under God” being in the pledge. The mother pointed out that this was her daughter’s right to expression, and the school administrators didn’t argue with her on this point. But they vaguely noted that there could be ‘consequences’ for such actions. Apparently these consequences never materialized in any real way besides her being sent to the principal’s office and having her mother called, as if she has started a fight or something similarly disorderly. How many such stories do we never hear about?

There were some speakers too, and I listened when I wasn’t busy talking to the attendees. Rep. John Yarmuth was there, though unfortunately I got there just as his speech was ending. I heard a talk by a representative of the Kentucky Coalition for Reproductive Choice, who spoke about why people of faith should support sex education and abortion rights. Cate Fosl was there from the University of Louisville and spoke about social activism and the Anne Braden Institute, which I had not heard of before but will now need to look into.

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More on the danger of faith

I just now found this post though The Atheist Experience blog, and it is so beautiful that I just have to share it. The post is from “Sincerely, Natalie Reed” and is called God Does Not Love Trans People. In this post she discusses the issue within the transgender community regarding religion. Since transgender people have been so victimized by religion, why do so many still cling to it so tightly? This same discussion is also relevant to women, racial minorities, and other groups who have been victimized so often in the name of faith.

Faith is the opposite of skepticism. Faith is “just knowing”. Under ideal circumstances, a person derives their conclusions from observations, facts and thinking things through. If new perspectives, new ideas, new considerations, new arguments, new observations or new facts come along, we adapt the conclusion. Faith asks us instead to work backwards. We have the conclusion already. Thought, perspectives, observations, facts and interpretations are structured to support the conclusion. Facts that contradict it are either denied, or re-interpreted and re-framed until they can fit with the original conclusion. For instance, if the initial conclusion is that God created man and woman, and for a man to don a woman’s clothing is a sin, then suddenly finding yourself trans puts you in conflict with the conclusion your faith states MUST be the case. So instead of reconsidering the initial conclusion, and accepting that maybe the whole God thing isn’t quite right, you either adapt the facts (suppressing your trans identity and attempting to conform) or you re-interpret and contort your perspective until it all fits together somehow. He made you this way because He loves you. He made you this way to test your strength. He made you this way because suffering brings you closer to Him. Etc.

I recommend that you read the entire post. It is long, but worth it.

In particular the stories of transgender people fascinate me, because I was so ingrained with the ideas of binary sexuality (you must be a man or woman, period!). It was even harder for me to drop the cis-sexism than it was to walk away from religion, since the idea is so engrained in all aspects of our culture. It’s an assumption taken on faith that few people even consider the possibility of questioning. It was only though my contact with the feminist movement and through reading the blogs and stories of transgender people that the assumption began to crack. When you do some reading about sex, and the development of sexuality and the development of sexual identity and preferences, it becomes clear that human sexuality exists on a spectrum and is definitely not binary. (I recommend Darrel Ray’s Sex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality for more information.)

We need to always question our assumptions and not merely take things on faith. Particular when taking things on faith causes so much suffering for good people.

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Have we learned nothing from Comstock?

Have we learned nothing from Comstock?

Have you even heard of Anthony Comstock? I didn’t learn about him in classes in American history, and never heard the name until I became involved in the atheist and freethought movement. Anthony Comstock was the champion of a set of regulations that made it illegal to send “obscene” materials though the mail.

What qualified as “obscene?” For starters, and for the purpose of this post, any information or objects having anything to do with contraception were forbidden from being sent though the mail by the Comstock Laws. For the crimes of distributing educational materials about birth control, such notable women as Margret Sanger and Elmina D. Slenker were arrested and/or imprisoned. The laws also banned anyone from sending materials having anything to do with sex or sexuality, whether it be porn or medical information. Many others faced arrest and persecution and the shutting down of their magazines and newspapers.

Anthony Comstock was the founder of the eerily named "New York Society for the Suppression of Vice."

The Comstock Laws were passed in 1873, and while they have not been officially repealed they have time and again been crippled due to being found unconstitutional. However, comstockery still pops up its ugly head from time to time in American law and politics.

This is a quote from an apparently approving article in Harper’s Weekly in 1915, where Anthony Comstock’s views and those of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice are described:

If you allow the devil to decorate the Chamber of Imagery in your heart with licentious and sensual things, you will find that he has practically thrown a noose about your neck and will forever after exert himself to draw you away from the “Lamb of God which taketh away sins of the world.” You have practically put rope on memory’s bell and placed the other end of the rope in the devil’s hands, and

though you may will out your mind, the memory of some vile story or picture that you may have looked upon, be assured that even in your most solitary moments the devil will ring memory’s bell and call up the hateful thing to turn your thoughts away from God and undermine all aspirations for holy things.

Let me emphasize one fact, supported by my nearly forty-two years of public life in fighting this particular foe. My experience leads me to the conviction that once these matters enter through the eye and ear into the chamber of imagery in the heart of the child, nothing but the grace of God can ever erase or blot it out.

Finally, brethren, “let us not be weary in well doing, for in due season we shall reap if we faint not.” Raise over each of your heads the banner of the Lord Jesus Christ. Look to Him as you Commander and Leader.

Then, as now, the excuse and justification for limiting the liberties of others comes down to religious belief.

Later in the article, here are the words of Comstock in describing the effects of birth control in response to the questions of the interviewer.

“But,” I protested, repeating an argument often brought forward, although I felt as if my persistence was somewhat placing me in the ranks of those who desire evil rather than good, “If the parents lack that self-control, the punishment falls upon the child.”

“It does not,” replied Mr. Comstock. “The punishment falls upon the parents. When a man and woman marry they are responsible for their children. You can’t reform a family in any of these superficial ways. You have to go deep down into their minds and souls. The prevention of conception would work the greatest demoralization. God has set certain natural barriers. If you turn loose the passions and break down that fear you bring worse disaster than the war. It would debase sacred things, break down the health of women and disseminate a greater curse than the plagues and diseases of Europe.”

Compare this to Santorum’s words.

Santorum pads his opinion by saying he supports Title X from a “governmental perspective” but quickly says that birth control is “bad for women and bad for society.” Implicit in his statements is the idea that sex for any reason other than procreation is sin, and that couples who try to avoid pregnancy when they have sex are avoiding their responsibilities. These are purely religious ideas and nothing based in the realities of human experience.

These are the kinds of motives and ideas behind “abstinence only education” (harkening back to the Comstock idea that educational material about sex is obscene). Also the recent push to allow employers to block insurance coverage of contraception in the name of religious freedom, along with the attempt to do anything possible to prevent women’s voices from being heard in the hearings. There is nothing new here, and nothing that should be surprising to us if we know a bit of American history. Those who would take away our freedoms almost always do so under the guise of good and morality and responsibility, but those ideals are not what is at stake. Let’s take care that history does not repeat itself and take women’s rights back over a century in the process.

Sources and More Information:

Stamping Out Indecency, The Postal Way — A article on the Comstock Laws, and their effects and continuing influence.

Comstock Laws — Women’s Health Encyclopedia

VIOLATING POSTAL LAWS.; A WOMAN ARRESTED FOR MAILING OBSCENE MATTER. — New York Times Article on the arrest of Elmina D. Slenker for distributing “obscene” materials though the mail. I recommend reading it, just for the shock of how they talk about her immoral ways and absolve her husband of all the wrongdoing and shame of her actions. The sexism and condescending tone of the article is breathtaking.

The Birth of the Pill — Article on the history of birth control and the effects of the Comstock Laws.

Women Without Superstition “No God’s No Masters”: The Collected Writings of the Women Freethinkers of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, an anthology compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor.

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