A Letter to My Heroes

Giving it some reflection, I’ve had a pretty good year and I’d like to take a few moments to thank the people who I feel are at least partially responsible.

It all started when a man asked a woman in an elevator at 4am in Ireland if she would like to come back to his room. That woman, of course was Rebecca Watson. I remember my first time watching the now-infamous video where she says, fairly simply, “don’t do that”. And I have to admit that at the time I kind of thought to myself “I don’t get it” and went on about my life.

But some people took didn’t get it even more and these people decided to take Rebecca to task for her comments in what would soon become termed “Elevatorgate”. And while most of these people were assholes and behaved as such, I owe them a tremendous debt, because they sparked a conversation that it turns it I desperately needed to hear.

I’ve always considered myself a feminist, but it turns out the whole time I had no idea what that actually meant. I thought we could get away with just saying “equality=good” and that was all the was to it. I quickly learned that I was wrong. I didn’t realize the scope of actual problems still faced by women in modern times. I don’t really feel equipped to talk about the subtle (or sometimes not-so subtle) ways women are put down in our society, but I’ve had a great time these past few months realizing just how much there is that I don’t know about women’s issues and filling in those gaps in my knowledge. After Elevatorgate I added Skepchick, Blag Hag, and Greta Christina among others to my blogroll and it’s been an eye-opening and educational experience.

So Rebecca Watson, thank you.

A few months after I started learning about Feminism, I saw a talk from Skepticon IV where JT Eberhard talked about mental illness. I ha never heard of JT before, but that was (is) a brilliant talk that literally brought me to tears. I realized some of the subconscious prejudice I had had against the mentally ill and why hat was stupid. (Watch it. No, seriously, watch it. You have no idea how great this talk is.) I find it difficult to word exactly what those prejudices were, since they were subconscious. Not major prejudices like not wanting to associate with them, or thinking they should be locked away, but little things like not understanding “Why can’t they just make themselves better?” Which I freely admit is probably one of the stupidest things I’ve ever believed: but that’s the point, it was subconscious. And in its own way, that’s a much more sinister type of belief. Without realizing you even hold it, it can cause you to mistreat fellow human beings and you don’t even realize enough to reevaluate your position. It took JT to grab me by the collar and shake me until I realized that this is the kind of thing I thought. The point of the talk is how people need to reevaluate how they think about mental illness and for me (and I suspect a lot of other people) I think it worked.

I got the chance to meet JT this weekend at the Reason Rally, and while I didn’t have a chance (or, due to my shyness, the words) to tell him the specifics of this story, I did muster up the courage to go and talk to him and to thank him for dramatically changing how I view mental illness, even if I didn’t elaborate. The next day at the American Atheists National Convention, I even got to hang out with him for an hour or so and it was probably one of the best moments of my life to be around someone just so awesome and full of life. When I left back to my hotel, he even gave me a hug, which is an amazing moment: to hug one of your heroes. While I’m embarrassed for the prejudices I used to hold about mental illness, I feel like JT has made me a much better person.

So JT Eberhard, thank you.

In my course of reading Skepchick, there was one woman who really stood out to me as someone else who made me think about things. That woman was Natalie Reed who blogs (primarily) about trans issues. Never before in my life have I had one writer bring up so many different issues that have never even occurred to me to think about before. Having been raised in the gay community, I think I felt like I had some sort of grasp on transgender issues because the GLBT community all gets lumped into one acronyms. Reading Natalie’s words, I realize not just how little I know about the trans experience and the prejudice they face, but the enormous gulf of just how much more there is for me to learn. She now has her own blog at Freethougt Blogs called Sincerely, Natalie Reed, which is updated twice-daily.

One of her biggest complaints about cis people like me is how we don’t call out anti-trans prejudice when we see it. If we see someone call someone else a faggot or a nigger, I think most civilized people are going to call them out on it. But if someone calls someone a tranny or comments that some girl “looks like a dude”, we’re a lot less likely to say anything. Natalie is trying to change that, and as someone who tries pretty hard at being a good person, I am trying to listen. At the Reason Rally this weekend one of the attendees had made a sign saying “Shirley Phelps has a penis”. Now let’s be clear: Shirley Phelps is a horrible person, who deserves only the worst things to be said of her. But the idea that she has a penis, or that she has in some way a non-binary gender or sex characteristics is somehow the most horrible thing you can say about her? I confronted the guy who had this sign to tell him why I thought it was offensive and tried to make him see why it wasn’t appropriate. In the end, I doubt I changed his mind, but I think actions like this are how we start to do so somewhere down the road. Calling out religious people who hurl “atheist” as an insult and not putting up with their prejudice was a big theme of the Reason Rally this weekend, and I suspect most people there agree with this notion. We should absolutely extend this to any denigrated minority, and I want to commit right now to doing this.

I’m not trying to tell this story as sort of a “look how good an ally I am” moment. If anything I’m trying to acknowledge that I need to stride to be a better ally to the trans community, and Natalie Reed is the person I owe for making me realize this.

So Natalie Reed, thank you.

The three of you, Rebecca, JT and Natalie, have challenged my own privilege and the only things I can really offer you is my thanks for the amazing ways in which you have changed by life in the past year towards the direction of making me a better person, and a promise at I will continue to seek out challenges to privileges, prejudices and preconceptions that I may not even realize I have.

Thank you.

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