Once when I was 15 or 16 the topic of religion came up in a discussion in my English class. The teacher asked for our opinions and two of my classmates raised their hands and talked about their Christian beliefs. I raised my hand and, when my turn came to speak, I talked about being an atheist.
I came from a completely religion-free household, so I didn’t think that being an atheist would be particularly controversial. I had been raised to be tolerant of different beliefs and I assumed that other kids were taught tolerance as well. I had never talked about religion with any of my classmates, but I kind of assumed that the kids in my class had a mixture of different beliefs, with some atheists, some agnostics, some Christians, and maybe some other religions in there as well.
It turned out I was completely wrong about all of this: in fact everyone else in the class was Christian, including the teacher, and all of a sudden they were all pissed off at me. A couple of kids loudly started protesting “You’re not REALLY an atheist, come on!”, some other kids loudly and snidely said that I had was “just trying to get attention”, and the teacher expressed the opinion that I might be mentally ill, and threatened to send me to the principal’s office (although she didn’t follow through on that).
I was shocked and terrified by this uproar; I was a quiet dorky kid who was used to being ignored by pretty much everybody, so having the whole class start yelling at me was pretty scary. Unsurprisingly I didn’t bring talk about my atheism again to anyone until I was in my early-to-mid twenties.
That day I learned that laws alone are not enough to protect freedom of expression. There was no law against saying that you are an atheist, and yet I had still been prevented from saying it. Genuine freedom of expression can only exist in a culture where people are truly tolerant of each-others’ beliefs, even in cases where we sincerely find those beliefs to be inexplicable, threatening, and perverse.
I don’t think we’re there yet.
Quite a few years ago I belonged to a small Earth First-style ecological direct action group. Our aim was to prevent ecological destruction by directly targeting the companies using non-violent direct action. A typical action would be to prevent an office or factory from opening by locking ourselves to the gates.
At the same time I had some friends who ran an anti-capitalist queer cafe every so often, with discussions, films, poetry readings, and bands. I really enjoyed the queer cafe but at the same time I kind of looked down on it; I thought that my group was doing real, hardcore direct action, while the queer cafe was really just entertainment. It was fun, but it wasn’t “real” activism.
Since then I’ve had a rethink of my attitudes: why did I think my group’s Earth First-style actions were “hardcore”, and why did I think the queer cafe wasn’t real activism?
I saw the EF-style actions as being hardcore because we directly confronted power – instead of just asking these companies to stop, we blockaded them, putting ourselves at risk of being arrested. Compared to that, the queer cafe looked like a walk in the park.
What I didn’t realize back then was that running the queer cafe in central Manchester was in fact an incredibly dangerous thing to do. Being heterosexual and cisgendered, I didn’t realize that in the city where I lived it’s common for people to be verbally harassed and even attacked and badly beaten just for being gay or trans, or for looking like they are. Thus I had no idea how brave and confrontational it was to open an overtly queer space right in the city centre (but outside of Canal Street, the corporate pink ghetto that Manchester’s queers were expected to confine themselves to). I and the others in my group were putting ourselves at risk of being arrested, having to spend a night in a police holding cell, having to go to court and pay a fine, all of which was extremely unpleasant, but it wasn’t as bad as being at risk of taking a beating.
If I’m honest, I don’t think my little group’s actions really had much effect – at least none that I could see. By contrast during the time the queer cafe was running I saw a succession of people I knew come out as being gay, bi, trans, or just not very gender-conforming. At the time it didn’t occur to me to wonder why so many people would come out in the space of just a few months, but looking back I think it was probably because for the first time they had a safe and supportive social space in which to come out. So while I was in a group that loved to parrot the slogan “Create the world you want to see”, the queer cafe people were actually doing it.
Needless to say I feel very ashamed to the “more hardcore than thou” attitude that I had at the time, and I’ve come to the conclusion that people who like to boast about how they are the most hardcore direct activists around, probably aren’t.
I noted today that I had a small pile of articles on my floor, unread by anyone and leaking frustrated rage into the atmosphere and I thought to myself, self, you should start a blog.
So. Here we are.