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How Being Queer Inspires My Interfaith-Atheist Work

It's Pride Month and World Humanist Day, so what better time to run this post? Chris Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and the Managing Director of State of Formation, a new initiative at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is the founder and author of the blog NonProphet Status, and his book, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground With the Religious, will be published by Beacon Press in Fall 2012. 

A version of this essay (which was originally published at Huffington Post) will appear in Atheist Voices of Minnesota, out this August from Freethought House. 

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Faitheist-borderRecently, while talking to my mom, I used the word "queer" to describe myself. Though it wasn't the first time she had heard me use it, she paused.

"I don't really like that word," she said. "'Queer.' When I was younger, it was a slur."

"Well, when I was younger, 'gay' was an insult," I replied. "So I've had to reclaim that -- why not 'queer,' too?"

She nodded, unconvinced, and I reminded her that other aspects of who I am and what I do are commonly used in a derogatory way. "'Atheist' isn't exactly free of negative connotations," I said. "And ask some of the Muslims I work with about some of the flack they get."

"I get it," she said, "I do. But I just can't shake the negative associations I have with that word."

My mom is perhaps a bit more protective of me than she'd like to admit -- especially when it comes to my sexual orientation and how others treat me because of it. She was the reason I came out: when I was a freshman in high school, she found a journal I kept detailing my struggles over being gay and a "born-again" Christian. Unable to accept myself as gay, I was contemplating suicide, but my mother pointed me in the direction of resources that helped me embrace my sexual orientation. She's always encouraged me to chart my own course and be self-reliant, but she's also been a tireless advocate every step of the way.

My mom has always modeled tolerance and acceptance. In 1986 -- the year before I was born -- she didn't think anything of it when she went to her mother's for dinner and was greeted by three HIV-positive gay men. At that time, HIV/AIDS was incredibly taboo -- especially in Minnesota -- but my mother was raised in a home that welcomed those whom mainstream society rejected. This attitude of openness was instilled in her at a young age, and my siblings and I were raised to wear gender-neutral clothing, to play with non-gendered toys, and to think of ourselves as unrestrained by societal norms. My mother gave dolls to all three of her boys so that we might learn to be nurturing and caring; my younger brother Colton, who would go on to play football and head up his college's rugby fraternity, loved his doll more than any of us did, making blankets for it and taking it with him everywhere.

During my teen years as a "born-again" Christian, these values were eclipsed as I embraced my church's message that LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) people were inferior -- that their lives were not a part of God's plan. But after my mom helped me come to accept myself, I was introduced to a different community of Christians, which welcomed, included and celebrated LGBTQ people.

Now, 10 years after my mom first helped me come to accept myself, I work as an atheist and interfaith activist. (If that seems like a bit of a jump, it is -- unfortunately, I can't fit my entire journey into this piece, which is why I'm working on a memoir.) I am frequently asked how my atheism and my interfaith activism align, just as often as I am asked why I call myself queer and gay instead of just gay.

While I can understand such questions, I believe that there is a value in identifying as queer in the same way that I believe in the importance of interfaith engagement. I call myself queer for the same reason that I split my work at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard between building up and supporting a community for the nonreligious and promoting interfaith engagement -- because I believe in constructing solidarity among diverse people around shared experiences and shared values.

One of the reasons I most love doing interfaith work is that it encourages me to be in conversation with religious people about some of the challenges that atheists and queer people face. For example, I have had deeply transformative experiences being in dialogue with the Muslim community (for more on this, check out a piece I wrote on LGBTQ-Muslim dialogue). Just as I've been able to share my experiences as a queer atheist with people from many different faith communities and encourage them to challenge their beliefs about atheists and queer people, I've been fortunate in return to learn a lot about the lives of people who believe radically different things about the world than I do. By coming together as large, diverse groups of people to engage in dialogue and common work, we are able to educate one another and, in turn, advocate for one another.

The importance of positive relationships in effecting social change cannot be overemphasized. In 2010, a Gallup poll demonstrated that people are significantly more inclined to oppose same-sex marriage if they do not know anyone who is gay. Around that same time, a Time Magazine cover story revealed that only 37 percent of Americans even know a Muslim American, and a Pew survey reported that 55 percent of Americans know "not very much" or "nothing at all" about Islam. As Robert Wright wrote in The New York Times, the LGBTQ community has learned that engaged relationships change people's hearts and minds, and this is a model that the interfaith movement utilizes in its aim to counter the negative and often combative relationships that exist between people of different (or no) religions. Engaged diversity humanizes those we see as vastly different from ourselves; through positive and productive relationships across lines of identity, we learn that another has value, worth and the right to dignity.

I engage in interfaith work because I see my dignity and my identity as an atheist and a queer person -- my happiness, my well-being and my freedom -- as bound up in the identities of others, and their abilities to be happy and live freely. Similarly, I identify as queer because I believe that those of us who are not heterosexual, those of us who do not fit into traditional conceptions of gender expression -- and even those who do -- share common concerns, common joys and common challenges, and that we can better address those concerns, joys and challenges when we are engaged with one another.

I credit the accepting upbringing my mom provided, and the struggles I experienced around being queer, with setting the course for the work I do now. Being a member of a marginalized community helps me empathize with experiences and worldviews that are different from my own, and I believe that this has made me more compassionate. At one point in my life, being gay might have contributed to the bitterness I had toward religion and the religious, but now it informs my desire to be deeply and personally invested in active religious pluralism, or the idea that we all -- religious or not, LGBTQ or straight -- need to work to understand one another better.

The only way we'll be able to break down the walls that keep us apart -- the stereotypes and assumptions that exist about atheists, LGBTQ people and various religious communities -- is by finding avenues to discover common ground. I believe that interfaith and queer work are two of the best ways to do so.