Many atheists might not know how to reconcile trans discourse with the way they argue about the importance of tangible evidence in religious debate. That's where humanism's more comprehensive approach to data and public policy comes into play.
I really didn’t want to have to write this piece. Amid pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine, along with famines, the ravages of climate change, and other global conflicts, did the U.S. really need to exacerbate human trauma by introducing so much harmful legislation lately?
Gosh. Even writing that, it’s hard to pin down which legislation I mean, isn’t it? Between the abusive abortion bills, attacks on voting rights, and anti-CRT legislation providing cover to pull Black history and queer literature from schools, you might not even have noticed the latest in anti-queer legislation, which includes a set of anti-trans bills that criminalize hormonal therapy as “child abuse”, and establish duties to report trans families and medical practitioners.
But it’s the trans bills in particular that require an unflinching humanist response.
Why? Because I strongly suspect that many of my fellow atheists don’t know how to feel about this issue without contradicting how they arrived at or express their atheism.
Many affectations of “empirical” atheism, after all, are predicated on one core principle: Show me the evidence. Show me the real-world, external, concrete manifestation of the phenomenon you claim to be real. Why can’t I, too, hear or feel the voice or the presence in your head? Why should I believe it’s anything but a delusion?
The challenge, for even well-meaning atheists
Atheists are by and large more progressive than religious folks, but some social-justice issues can still be difficult to reconcile. How can someone else’s word not be enough for god-belief, but still be enough to accept their stated gender, even and especially when that stated gender doesn’t seem to match the anatomy and physiology of the speaker?
And so I suspect that many atheists, for fear of being labeled “transphobes” for grappling with this disconnect, are at best offering blanket support to the queer community (but without fully investing, the way that harm-reduction requires), and at worst, growing in resentment at feeling like they have to suppress their doubts.
(I say “I suspect” from personal anecdote: I’m fortunate that a lot of white male colleagues have, over the years, felt comfortable telling me about these doubts, and sharing sincere questions. They’re not always easy chats, but they’re important.)
Either way, it’s dangerous to live for too long with a sense of unease about sharing our doubts. Why? Because it opens us to letting discomfort, not humanist curiosity, shape how we come to conclusions and choose to act. Unease can also incline us to even wildly different movements, lured by the call to “speak our minds!” in a way that “the other side” supposedly won’t let you.
In short, unease can make “empirical” thinkers vulnerable to radicalizing, too.
“But I really did get called a transphobe when I asked a question!” some might say. Or,
“But all these online answers are so completely contradictory! Some say that sex and gender are the same thing, or should be under the law! Some say they aren’t, and that no one’s arguing otherwise! How can I take seriously an issue where no one’s using the same language for anything?”
And, yes, the internet is a messy place. Most people on it aren’t academics, and we didn’t all just come fresh from a convention where we standardized every single term and definition, let alone approach to local advocacy.
So, hello, my puzzled and doubting fellow atheists. I hear you.
Let’s talk about why trans advocacy is good humanism.
A bit about the author
Under the current lingo, I’m nonbinary, a catch-all for folks who don’t have a gender identity that fits neatly into, well, “the binary”. You might have heard the term cis used to describe people whose sense of gender matches the labels given to them from (or before) birth. You might even have been told that you have to use this term, or you’re erasing trans experience. That’s an unfortunate byproduct of online debate, where enough people have refused the term expressly to deny the inclusion of trans people that reluctance to call yourself cis has become a red flag for seasoned participants.
Personally, I don’t use that term unless a person tells me they’re cis, for a few reasons. For one, people might not feel safe disclosing a different status, and I don’t want to add to their dysphoria just because they’re not “out” yet. Or maybe they haven’t had the means to think much about gender (certainly true for many thrown into rigid gender roles early on). Or maybe they’re still in the middle of deciding! In short: You do you. I’ll follow your lead on how you label your gender.
(And I wish that were true for everyone in our online discourse, but please remember that you’re entering heated, painful waters whenever you ask your questions and express your doubts. Try not to take it personally if folks don’t always feel safe around your statements and hypothetical remarks.)
As for me, when I was younger, the terms for people who didn’t fit “cis” or “trans” were “genderqueer”, “pangender”, and “agender”, and they’re still used today. Some nonbinary folks, or “enbies”, also identify as trans, and enbies and trans folk are often lumped together in related discourse. But don’t let that lazy categorization fool you: nonbinary and trans views on gender are not monolith. Some enbies and trans folk feel they have a distinct inner gender that doesn’t accord with how they’ve been externally labeled. Meanwhile, I feel I have no inner gender, and you might be surprised to learn that some trans folk feel this way, too.
I very obviously have a body with a distinct reproductive anatomy (breasts, vulva, uterus), but the most important “gender” in my life is how I’m gendered by the world around me. In other words: how people make assumptions about who I am, what I can do, and what I should be doing for them, based on what they assume about my anatomy and consequent physiology.
But no one who’s ever, say, sexually assaulted me has ever stopped to ask my pronouns. And no one “checks under the hood” before sexually harassing me on the street. For me, the most dangerous and socially important gender has always been the one between other people’s ears.
What’s in a name?
Now, I occupy a strange position because of my nonbinary status. It certainly accords well with my atheism: gender, for me, is as much a construct as god-belief. But a group with wide-ranging names also doesn’t “believe” in gender. Some call themselves “gender-critical feminists”. Others embrace the term TERF, trans-exclusionary radical feminist, which holds similar discursive weight to “calling a Nazi a Nazi” in certain liberal circles. Where do we differ? I strongly believe that this construct has real and pressing worldly impacts. The gender-critical group, conversely, holds that because gender is a construct, it should not matter in legal spheres.
Can you see why strong anti-theists might resonate with this premise? On the surface, there’s an uncanny similarity between the desire to keep religion and gender variance out of law. But it’s only a superficial similarity, as allies to the gender-critical movement make clear. Because you know who else wants nice rigid divisions between “the sexes” protected in law? Religious extremists and traditionalists, of course.
Oh, if only there were some other, more proactive philosophy we could apply, to help navigate this intersection between how some atheists argue, and some theists advocate!
Oh, hey! Humanism!
This is where humanism, with its strong commitment to a comprehensively informed empirical baseline for political action to improve human agency, matters greatly. And when I say “comprehensively informed”? I’m referring to the fruits of all the sciences: human behavioralism, anthropology, and sociology, right alongside baseline biochemistry. What maximizes human agency is never a simple reduction to naturalistic fallacy. The more we learn about ourselves as a group-species, ever-operating in systems of shared and shifting sociopolitical narrative, the more power we have to advocate for those values that will best uplift us all.
Let’s take the obvious example first:
I don’t believe in a god or gods. Clearly. But I do believe in the existence of some 6.5 billion god concepts. Maybe more. Maybe closer to 7.3 billion, if we’re only subtracting the half-billion or so strong atheists from the world’s population. And why wouldn’t I? How could any solid understanding of human society lead me to believe that god concepts don’t exist? I’m surrounded by people who express god-belief, strong and weak alike. And so, even though I sometimes find it incredible to imagine that anyone could truly feel connected to a living god, I have to remind myself that incredulity is an act of incuriosity. No matter what the phenomenology of our world suggests to me about the existence of supernatural beings, billions of people have a dissenting inner truth, a noumenological truth, that shapes how they see everything.
And for me, that’s as true for inner gender as it is for god-belief. Although many would boggle (and do) at the idea that I don’t have an inner gender, I equally boggle at the idea that they feel they do have an inner gender. That they truly feel that they are Men, or that they are Women. And yet, that majority-view shapes the world I live in: a world where gender, in relation to sex, crops up in social and legal structures everywhere.
The tedious selectivity of cultural debate
Granted, noumenological truths show up everywhere, but it’s pretty telling that only a few receive the same level of intense public and political scrutiny as, say, god-belief and sexual dimorphism. If a person says, “I love you”, for instance, I can certainly evaluate that statement through their words and actions, but I can’t really know if they’re just going through the motions. I can only make an educated guess, and adjust my findings as new evidence arises. Or if they say “Hi, I’m Bob,” I’m neither going to ask to see ID to prove this in casual conversation, nor go into deep philosophical debate about how sure they are about their intrinsic “Bob”-ness. Likewise, if a person tells me that they see demons, I might 100% disagree, but I’m still going to use context-specific discretion in how I manifest my dissent.
Trans identities are different, though, because gender and sex have serious legal consequences. In a society with institutions significantly framed around the terms “woman” and “man”, many gender-critical folk fear “infiltration”: changes to legally prescribed demographic divisions that they feel could increase harm. And is this not similar to many atheists’ fears around threats to church-state separation?
As you might have guessed, then, I’m not at all unsympathetic to this border-crossing panic, in principle. When people in the gender-critical camp invoke horrific anecdotes like a case of prison rape after inmate transfer, or perpetuate misrepresentations of combat-sports outcomes, I am not in favour of downplaying the core concern. The development of better, more humanist public policy should never be a competition over whose “side” has the most harm.
And thankfully, it doesn’t have to be.
The key for humanists in trans advocacy
If you’ve followed along closely, I bet you can already surmise the Big Ol’ Problem with a great deal of gender-critical discourse, and not just for trans advocacy. For the gender-critical, this denial of gender identity as a legitimate legal category has to come with something in its stead.
And it does: “sex”, a rigid division between Woman and Man, derived from a generalized view of biology. This division has a long institutional history of upholding inequality, but now some feminists view the traditional state as a net-good, whenever its divisions can be leveraged for the creation and defense of “safe” spaces for Women, from Men.
But in practice, this sex-based legal definition, ostensibly shaped by “objective” biology, is still incredibly messy: a matter of different constructs, not their complete removal.
No, I’m not going to dive into the usual what-about-ism around different genomes and hormonal arrangements. I’m going to zero in, rather, on this question of “safety”. After all, that’s the stated concern, right? The desire for a “safer” world for “real” Women?
Yes, absolutely, immense harm is done to people with anatomy like mine: people with breasts, people with uteruses, people with vulvas. And it’s often done by people who assume the existence of breasts, uteruses, and vulvas when they instigate these attacks, based on… what, exactly? Are they running genetic tests on everyone they harass? Checking birth certificates?
Oh, right. They’re making a phenomenological assessment based on how well what they see or hear aligns (or doesn’t) with their expectations for a “man” or “woman”.
And that’s where we get into horribly confused waters. To the average person on the street, for instance, what’s the difference between a cis woman with more traditionally masculine features, a cis butch lesbian in masculinized apparel, and a trans woman in the middle of initial hormone treatments?
When bathroom laws were all the rage, not much. The range of acceptable sex-female presentations was starkly reduced to “people who look feminine”, and guess what happened? The sort of Women that gender-critical folk claim to want to protect became victims of everyday policing. Ditto with girls on sports teams. Meanwhile, the research is clear: stranger-danger does not bear out in claims about public bathrooms.
Trans men, I should note, don’t show up in much of this fear-mongering. In part, this is because when they do show up, such as in the case of trans men who want to compete in men’s divisions, they muddy the existing argumentation around strict chromosomal categories. But also, the key for gender-critical advocacy is the maintenance of “safe” spaces for “real” Women, so what trans men do, and the dangers they face when they enter “real” Men’s spaces, is of lesser concern.
Mostly, then, trans men emerge in this discourse as targets of condescending upset over “women” mutilating their breasts, uteruses, and vulvas. As a nonbinary person, I’m also considered deluded by some in that set. Apparently I’m merely attempting to “escape” the oppression of my sex? But I promise you, being nonbinary hasn’t helped me avoid sexual violence in the slightest. And I remain every bit as concerned about physical autonomy from my position on gender.
(I also think that using “people with [X body part]” or “people who [do Y]” is far better for healthcare and related advocacy. For one, it avoids conflating “women” and “girls” in an already hypersexualized world. It also doesn’t estrange people who, for whatever reason, don’t have all the parts or experiences targeted by a campaign. There’s a lot of grief among women for life changes that they see as lessening their womanhood, and if more biologically specific language can reduce that acculturated loss, I’m all for it.)
The gender-critical group is far more concerned about trans women in “real” Women’s spaces. In part, this is because many believe that XY people are only “becoming” women out of a sick coveting of female marginalization and/or a desire to improve their access to “real” Women and Girls for reasons of sexual predation and related power.
This is why so much of their activism focuses on setting rigid bars to entry to “women-only spaces”. The existence of a penis and/or higher testosterone levels has become the key metric in their gender-violence prevention, and so people with either (chromosomally) need strict policing to protect “real” Women in semi-public spaces.
The humanist reframing
For cis male atheists in particular, this must be a heck of a head-scratcher, no? Sure, you might want to be consistently progressive. But how do you weigh in responsibly? How do you serve as a good ally when two traditionally marginalized groups are calling for diametrically opposed reforms? Queer persons have long, difficult histories of marginalization, especially under the yoke of certain religious traditions. But women in general haven’t exactly been spared from oppression and exploitation, either.
If one subgroup of women says “you’re not for women if you let men call themselves women to enter our safe spaces for their oppressive ends,” and the other group says “please let us be who we are and grant us state protections that will reduce the violence we experience for being trans”… is there really any winning move here?
Because again, humanism, as a philosophy, calls for a more comprehensive rethink based on all the data. And in this case, it’s abundantly clear that the kind of policing, the kind of state-enforced vigilance against border-crossing that gender-critical folk keep calling for, is vastly disconnected from how people see and react to gender on the street. What they’re calling for requires extreme top-down enforcement, as seen in the recent anti-trans bills advanced by religious-conservative politicians.
(By the by, this level of enforcement also means strengthening state apparatuses that do harm to other marginalized groups, including Black, Indigenous, and other Women of Color. So we really do need to think holistically about the solutions we propose to answer any claims of harm as they arise.)
Meanwhile, the specific concerns that these gender-critical groups raise? The horror-story anecdotes that it frustrates many to see trans activists dismiss as “unimportant” in the larger scheme of things? The fears of predation in women’s prisons? The fears of athletes compelled to face vastly unequal opponents?
Oh, for sure, those concerns matter.
Reducing harm, for humanists, always matters.
Thinking differently about key policy challenges
It’s just that these outlier cases and arenas for gender-politics can be addressed in other ways. And need to be, if we’re to avoid dehumanizing anyone in the process. I don’t think most people who start with vague misgivings about gender intend to end up endorsing extreme state oversight. I doubt they realized they’d end up supporting civilian policing of others’ self-performance. And even though some radical feminists absolutely loathe people with XY chromosomes? I also doubt that the majority of the gender-critical intended to become quite so essentialist about men and violence.
What happened? I think they started with discomfort, and confusion, and fear. And for feminized people like me, who’ve been assaulted or abused? Probably trauma, too. And I think that, in not having safe outlet for their discomfort, fear, and trauma, they were easily radicalized in the heat of online debate. Yes, maybe it’s not “right” to turn away from a given movement just because someone’s criticized you. But it is human, especially when another’s criticism trips into the site of your personal trauma.
And we are all so dreadfully human sometimes, no?
So that’s the start of it, for many in these movements: hurt people hurting people. Hurt people shocked that they should even have to defend their desire for safety against someone else’s appeal for safety, too. Hurt people with an underlying fear that there will never be enough safety to go around: that it’s truly “ours” or “theirs”, never both.
Then sunk cost fallacy shows up. Because, okay, now you’ve done it. You’ve “red-pilled” on gender. From here on out, everyone’s going to call you a transphobe and they’ll hang it over you forever. What’s the point of revising your views? The gender-critical are your people now, for better or for worse. You’ve invested in this new range of positions, which spans everything from doubts you share, to views about half the human population that you don’t. Even if new evidence arises to answer past misgivings, so what? Can you ever really go back now?
If you aspire to be an empiricist or rationalist, I would hope so. I would hope that folks always have the courage to follow new evidence and reasoning above all else. But, again… we’re human. And we hurt when we’re despised. We long above all else to be accepted, and we’ll decide our political allegiances based on belonging as much (if not more) as on what is actually the best response to a given issue.
So how on earth do we fix this stratification?
Leaning into humanism as our “out”
Well, as humanists, we start by recognizing the role that doubt and unease play for so many of us in our supposedly “higher” reasoning. We remind ourselves that not all skepticism is equal, and that misgivings alone are not intrinsic markers of truth. Then we take a look at any stated safety concerns through a more comprehensive lens.
Predation in women’s prisons, for instance, is one of many consequences of an overpopulated, over-privatized, and just plain overwhelmed carceral system. If the aim among gender-critical groups is really to reduce harm, why not target the bigger problems? Why fixate on the (already in-process) band-aid solution of stricter rules on prison transfers, instead of advocating for reduced sentencing and early release? And for the de-privatization of prisons in general? Why not rally for increased accountability and oversight even in the public models? And where’s the call to invest in more rehabilitative justices and social-welfare reforms, to reduce recidivism rates?
Meanwhile, in the world of sports, it’s easy to forget that new hormone science is incorporated as it emerges. The way that gender-discourse anecdotes show up in so much of mainstream media, it’s easy to forget that sports authorities are always fine-tuning classification bands. Cut-offs change, and athletes’ careers are routinely knocked off-course by rules adjustments. But because the pre-existing role of empirical inquiry in sports has been downplayed as of late, you’ve got the same phenomenon emerging that we saw with COVID-19 medical literacy: everyone furious because the on-boarding of all kinds of new data, especially across disparate state bodies, is messy, inconsistent, and prone to leaving some athletes crushed.
But this whole messy adjustment process is necessary, because natural human variation (even within XX chromosome persons) is an issue in sports that also contains a strongly racialized component. “Standard”, human bodies aren’t.
Our strength, as humanists, lies in recognizing that the scientific method is an ally. We just need to train people out of anecdotalism and back into a deeper understanding of science as a complex process (both for sports, and for health mandates). And we do this by pursuing an enthusiastic empirical interest in ongoing rule- and competitor-band modification in general, as per the most up-to-date meta-analysis of injury and performance rates. We normalize expecting classification rules to change routinely.
In other words, we “Yes, and!” anyone’s stated desire to reduce harm, and then hold folks to those claims of good intent. Anecdotal cases offer excellent outlier data for scientific and classification-board assessment. But for the rest of us? Our work lies with the bigger question of whether a given solution really is the best social fix to a problem. Does it even achieve the stated aims of the advocacy group making the proposal? Or does it just cause other, equally or more complex problems?
The secular humanist guide for trans advocacy
It should be clear by now that I don’t agree with the gender-critical when it comes to trans advocacy. I think many folks in that set do tremendous social harm, even if they believe they are doing otherwise. Even if they think they’re just protecting “real” Women from further trauma in an unquestionably violent world. The problem is, the crux of their campaigning relies on heightening top-down state oversight, and sanctions the civilian policing of a wonderfully diverse range of human beings. It’s reductive, it fortifies the rise of oppressive movements in secular spaces, and it doesn’t align well with other social changes needed to bring about a more just world.
But people in this set are also part of the world I live in. Like the 6.5 to 7.3 billion who believe in a god-concept when I do not, the noumenological truths of the gender-critical exist alongside mine. My practice of humanism needs to account for them, too.
So here’s my humanist invitation to you, oh uneasy fellow atheist:
If you’re unsure about trans advocacy because you don’t know how to align your views on gender with your views on god-belief, that’s an understandable starting point. It especially makes sense if you’ve spent a lot of time de-bunking others’ inner convictions, and not as much on reflecting on your own.
So let’s reflect on them now:
What is your philosophy? How do you manifest this outlook in the world? What kind of world do you want to live in? What issues stand in the way of living in it already? Which policies and social processes do you think will work best to build that better world?
And then, when it comes to specific policy questions, like trans advocacy, check in on your doubts and unease. Ask yourself the source of any misgivings with popular beliefs.
Are you shaping your views on a subject, and the extent of your related allyship, around how someone reacted to your questions and doubts? Is fear of “cancelation” playing a role in how you reason out your stance on the issue itself? Is your quarrel with a given topic really more of a quibble with the inconsistency of related terms or rhetoric?
If you answered “yes” to any of these, that’s perfectly human. Congrats on being human!
But is it humanist?
And can you determine your stance on the underlying human rights issues without starting from your reaction to a messy exchange, or frustration with its terms?
Take your time.
Reframe the issue around harm reduction and boosting human agency, if it helps.
And in an issue like this, where both sides claim their own as the most harmed party? Give yourself room for lateral thinking. Draw upon the fullness of human knowledge. Think of others, too: groups not typically heard in these debates but still affected. Who’s at risk under all these proposed solutions? Who’s left out?
And don’t forget to consider the role of human behavior, collectively and as individuals, right alongside our biochemistry. Resist naturalistic fallacy. Seek intuition pumps.
But above all else? Imagine being wrong, and normalize being okay with having to correct a preceding point of view. Yes, I know that this part isn’t easy. After all, so much of online discourse isn’t humanist. It’s hard, it’s strident, it’s inconsistent, and it doesn’t at all account for behavioral response to people angry with us.
Meanwhile, we don’t set good policy, and we don’t collaborate well as a species, when we feel threatened, diminished, and dehumanized. And that’s true irrespective of whether we are actually the most threatened or dehumanized in any argument on hand.
But so what if “others” aren’t acting charitably? We can do better, can’t we? We can refuse to let unease, doubt, and offense quiet us in the face of overt state threats to human dignity. If we focus on our humanism, we can lean instead into harm reduction—actual harm reduction, following the most comprehensive data on hand. And we can do so wherever and whenever an opportunity arises in the public sphere.
Goodness knows, these days the opportunities keep showing up most everywhere.