Random Observations and Musings

A while ago I put a particular book, “Just One of the Guys?: Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality”, on hold at the library. When I picked it up from the holds shelf, I noticed that it was put in upside-down. This was not a mistake of accidentally putting it on the shelf wrong. See, they print out the last name of the person who placed the hold on receipt type paper and put it in the book (so that the name sticks up out of the book) before they put it on the holds shelf, so that the person who placed the hold will be easily able to find all of their holds. The paper was put in the book such that the book would have to be placed upside-down on the shelf for the name to be properly visible. So, if it was a mistake, it was made when the paper was placed in the book which, given that they presumably must check the title of the book before putting the paper in, seems like a less likely stage of the shelving process for a book to accidentally be placed upside down. My gut reaction when I saw that this book, and none of the others I put on hold, was upside down, was that someone must have done that (probably unconsciously) because the word transgender in the title made them feel uncomfortable. I could be wrong, though. But I find myself paying special attention, now, to whether any book I place on hold is right side up or upside down on the holds shelf, and, if it is, does the title stick out as something that people would be likely to find objectionable? It isn’t hard to imagine this happening with any of the books on atheism that I check out of the library, either.

The other day I ran into one of the many people on college campuses trying to get people to register to vote. I was not yet registered to vote in my state, so I decided to take advantage of this highly convenient method of voter registration. When it came to putting my name on the form and marking the gender box, I felt like a fake. I haven’t got any of my official documents changed yet, and voter registration seems like one of the forms that’s going to be checked against a database; if I put anything other than what will match the information they already have (or what can be checked against official sources), I don’t think it will go through. Worse, the person helping me was telling me what a pretty name I have (my birth name is hideously feminine). I refrained from telling her that I absolutely despise my birth name (precisely because it is hideously feminine) and wish to change it legally as soon as reasonably possible. I also refrained from correcting her obvious assumption that I am female. Letting a complete stranger who was helping me register to vote know that I am transgender just did not seem smart at all. There is just no way to predict a stranger’s reaction, and the information I put on the form, such as my name, could potentially be used against me (putting “[name] is transgender” on the internet is all it would take to potentially bring all sorts of harm to a transgender person). I pretended to be a woman for the entirety of this three-minute interaction, and I felt like such a fake.

My roommate assumed that since I am an atheist, I also probably don’t believe in stuff like ghosts. She is right, as it turns out, but the one does not necessarily follow from the other. There is a significant overlap between atheists and skeptics, to be sure, but not all atheists are skeptics, and not all skeptics are atheists. I happen to be part of the aforementioned overlap, though.

The cashier seemed to do a double take when she was swiping the “for men” shampoo that I had decided to buy. Also, why must they put the shampoo, including “men’s” shampoo, on the same aisle as feminine hygiene products? It’s not on the same part of the aisle as said products, but I imagine there are more than a few cismen who are uncomfortable with that, at least to the point of not wanting to walk through that part of the aisle. Also, while I’m on the subject, why are men so uncomfortable with buying feminine hygiene products if their wife/girlfriend needs them but doesn’t want to go out due to cramps or whatever? You would think that the willingness to buy feminine hygiene products for a girlfriend/wife while she is feeling like crap would be a much appreciated quality in a man in a heterosexual relationship.

EDIT- And, of course, even though I noticed the library book thing months ago, two days after I post about it, I notice another random upside down book on hold, only this one is just one part of a whole trilogy I put on hold (specifically, The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman). I guess I could see someone having a problem with the His Dark Materials trilogy, but it makes less sense that only one of the three was upside down (though they may not have all been shelved at the same time, or by the same person). It does seem like the upside down book thing is a lot more common than I initially assumed, though, which makes my initial hypothesis (that upside down hold books might reflect bias) both less likely and more difficult to test.

Radical Skepticism

I’ve done a lot of philosophical thinking, especially during the time when I was actively trying to figure out if there is a god (and, if so, which one?), but I haven’t really done that much reading of philosophy, aside from taking Philosophy 101 last year (which introduced me to the problem of evil and changed the question from “is there a god?” to “if god(s) exist, why would I want to worship/obey them?”). So, every so often, I run into a name of some philosophy or other and think “Oh, hey, there is a name for my position/a position I used to hold!” This is just what happened when I was reading Jesus and Mo the other day.

Radical Skepticism is at the heart of my own philosophical thinking. In trying to figure out how I could know that god is real, somewhere along the way I started thinking about how I could know that anything is real. My conclusion was that I could not know anything, even including the position that I could not know anything. I certainly can’t trust my senses, since I regularly hallucinate (we usually call it dreaming, though). I can’t trust my memory either; I forget things on a regular basis. How else can I find out anything without the use of my senses and memory? My knowledge of everything is ultimately obtained through use of my senses (even my knowledge of objective research comes to me through my senses, using my eyes to read the research paper). The only thing I can “know” is the state of my own mind (which might or might not be housed in some sort of physical meatsuit).

This position actually kind of comes in handy when trying to have lucid dreams. In order to realize that you are dreaming, you must first be willing to consider that you might be dreaming. Whether awake or dreaming, the implicit assumption is that you are awake. It might seem incredibly obvious, once you wake up, that you were dreaming, but it’s not at all obvious when you are still dreaming. However, already having the idea in my mind that things might not be real makes it much easier for me to seriously consider, while appearing to be awake, whether I might be dreaming.

This is, however, just about the only practical use I’ve ever found for radical skepticism. That’s the problem with radical skepticism. It’s just not very useful. The desk I’m writing at might or might not be “real”, but it’s still going to hurt if I stub my toe on it (unless I’m dreaming, in which case it might still hurt, or my foot might go through it, or it might turn into a pumpkin, or whatever). However, I do think it makes a good cornerstone to my thinking on philosophy and ethics and stuff.

I did eventually decide on a nice practical rule (which I had already been living by, anyway): if it seems real, treat it like it’s real, just in case it is. So yea, small puppies? They might be real. Killing small puppies in a video game might be ok, but killing small puppies in waking life would be bad, because maybe they are real. Even if they aren’t real, I believe they are real (one cannot easily control one’s beliefs, and I find that I am generally inclined to believe in things I experience through sense data), and killing them would still have a bad effect on me, so it’s still bad.

This rule also applies to dreams. Even if I’m dreaming, and I know it’s a dream, this is no excuse to go around shooting people. Really, the only reason that I’m inclined to believe that waking life is real and dreams are not is that I’m inclined to forget dreams (something I have to struggle against on a daily basis just to remember a few scenes or fragments), and dreams tend to make less sense and be less consistent and persistent than waking life (as far as my fallible memory tells me while I am awake, anyway). This does not necessarily mean that I have correctly identified which of the two general states of being that I experience (waking and dreaming) is real, assuming that one, and only one, of these two states is real (and also assuming that these are the only two general states of being that I experience, and also assuming that I have correctly identified which state I am in, and also assuming that waking and dreaming are two different, distinct states, and so on).

This rule does not apply to video games. I have no more reason to think that characters in video games have feelings and can experience pain than I have to think that rocks have feelings and can experience pain. Video games do not seem real. They are a part of waking life, simulated through computers. As a computer science major, I understand even more than most about how video games work. Furthermore, the graphics just aren’t good enough to ever be mistaken for real. If holodecks end up being on the list of nifty Star Trek tech that actually gets invented, though, I might have to reconsider. If a video game is actually realistic enough that it cannot easily be distinguished from reality, I would still have to treat it as though it is real (at least to the point where running around killing people becomes not ok), because it might be possible to be in the real world while thinking I am in the holodeck, which would obviously be very bad if I thought I were playing a first person shooter.

This is about the same reason that it’s a bad idea to point an unloaded gun at a friend and an even worse idea to pull the trigger of an unloaded gun while pointing it at a friend; if you are wrong (and the gun is loaded), someone could die. Which leads right in to another idea which I highly esteem that ties right in with radical skepticism. I could be wrong about stuff.

Ah, but if I am a radical skeptic, if I can’t know anything, isn’t the idea of being right or wrong about things meaningless? In a way, perhaps, but there is a difference between knowing something absolutely for certain, and knowing something with high probability. I maintain that nothing can be known with absolute certainty (or if it can, I can’t see how). But even if I can’t know anything and even if everything I experience might be a lie or an illusion or a dream… well, I haven’t really got anything else to go on, have I? So I might as well just go on what I have and then just remember that I could be wrong, too.

So yea. I could be wrong about stuff. I could, in fact, be wrong about anything or everything that I think I know. I should not disregard a position in opposition to mine just because I don’t want to be (or admit being) wrong. People are wrong about stuff all the time. It’s ok to be wrong about stuff. It’s not ok to cling to an idea and insist that it is right in spite of all evidence to the contrary, without ever fairly considering the possibility that it might be wrong. It’s not ok to hold an idea as being above question. I should also not be afraid to admit when I don’t know something. I don’t know a lot of things. I don’t know anything with absolute certainty. Lots of people don’t know lots of things. When you don’t know stuff, isn’t it better to just say “I don’t know” than to make stuff up or pretend that you know stuff?

Since ideas–any and all ideas–could be wrong, it’s also important to think about what assumptions those ideas are based on. For instance, the idea that the sun rises every morning is (for many people) based on observation and the idea that if something has always been observed to happen in certain circumstances in the past (with no contradictions), it will continue to do so in the future. The idea that observation is good evidence for something is based the assumptions that sense data reflects on some objective reality and that memory (or whatever medium the observation was recorded in) is reliable. If you can’t figure out for certain whether something is true or not (which is true (ha!) of every single thing if you are a radical skeptic), knowing what ideas it is based on and what ideas are based on it will give you a much better idea of how likely it is to be true and what would be different if it were not true. To me, knowing how something is known is as, or more, important than knowing the thing itself. (Besides, the how is often a useful shorthand to remember the thing, like how I never memorized the quadratic formula because whenever I need to use it I can just derive it using the completing the squares method, and then I don’t have to worry if I remembered it right, and I know why it works)

I don’t really bring up the whole radical skepticism position very often (though when I do, it tends to lead to some very fun debates) and, truthfully, I don’t even really think about it very often. Most of the time I just wear my “I’m going to assume that sense data reflects on an objective reality because that makes things easier” hat and go about my business. The thing is, I still know it’s a hat.

Books Worth Reading

It just occurred to me today. I read a lot of books. I have a blog that I need to post on more often. I could combine these things and write bossy blog posts telling people what books to read!

First up is a book I just finished reading today: “Just One of the Guys?: Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality”* by Kristen Schilt. It talks about gender inequality in the workplace as seen through the viewpoint of transgender men. Obviously this book is going to be interesting to me personally because I happen to be a transman, but, as it turns out, transmen have a really useful perspective on gender inequality because they experience being “one of the guys” while remembering how they were treated when they were seen as women. Sometimes the differences in treatment are fairly obvious, such as when a professor said of a transman, “his work is much better than his sister’s”, without realizing that they were the same person. This is not a unique anecdote, either. Although the book primarily focuses on transmen, it also discusses the differences in the reactions people have to transwomen and transmen. Transmen tend to be much more easily accepted because they are seen as moving up, rather than down, the social hierarchy. Also discussed are the different experiences of transmen based on factors such as race, height, and passability (that’s totally a word, I don’t care if I just invented it). Transmen who are tall, white, and pass well receive greater benefit from male privilege than transmen who are short, racial minorities, or have difficulty passing. The book is based on original research by the author, which includes interviews and questionnaires of transmen and their co-workers in Texas and California. A discussion of methodology is included in the appendix.

The next book I’m going to suggest is a very unique one, in that I actually bothered to part with $8 to own a copy of this book, rather than checking it out from the library multiple times. I almost never buy books. In the past year, I’ve bought textbooks, a couple language dictionaries (I had a gift card), and this book. That’s it. Anyway, the book I’m talking about is “Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming”** by Stephen LaBerge, Ph.D. and Howard Rheingold. LaBerge is a leading researcher on lucid dreaming and he developed techniques both to prove the existence of lucid dreaming and to induce lucid dreams. He talks about both in his book. The first half of the book is mostly about how to become lucid and how to stay lucid in a dream. The second half is mostly about what to do once you are lucid. For instance, lucid dreams can be used to overcome nightmares or rehearse a situation, such as a public speaking engagement. I often recommend this book to anyone who is interested in lucid dreaming. Although, honestly, these days I mostly just use the book by leaving it next to my bed as a subtle reminder that, hey, lucid dreams are totally fun and I should try to have more of them. Writing about it is making me want to read it again, though…

The last book I’m going to recommend today is “Gender, Nature, and Nurture” by Richard A. Lippa. I found this book incredibly helpful when I was trying to figure out what gender I am, even though transgender topics are little more than a side note in this book, because part of what I needed to figure out was just what on Earth gender is, in the first place. This book does a good job describing what gender is, covering gender differences (which are mostly small, statistical differences), how gender develops (discussing both nature and nurture theories of gender development), and individual differences in masculinity/femininity. It does a really good job conveying just how incredibly complicated a thing gender is, and it has some really great discussion about how theories about gender developed over time.

I wanted to put a good transgender 101 type book in this list, but I still need to find one. Does anyone know a good transgender 101 book?

* I’m including links to the books on Amazon mostly because Amazon tends to have useful information about books, like previews, descriptions, and comments, not because I actually want people to buy the books on Amazon (unless, of course, I could get money by referring people to Amazon… hmmm). I got all of these books at my local library. I heartily suggest using libraries as a way to access books. If they don’t have it your library, you might be able to get it through inter-library loan or something. It’s worth checking out anyway, because, you know, it’s free.

** I was just reading some of the reviews of this book on Amazon, and I found it absolutely hilarious that most of the bad reviews can be summed up as “but there’s too much science and not enough woo!”

My Experiences Coming Out as an Atheist

I originally wrote this in response to a request by another blogger for coming out stories from atheists. I feel a little lazy using it as a blog post verbatim, but, hey, lazy posts are better than no posts, right?

[Edit- I have changed or removed some small details to make the story less personally identifiable. I wish I could say I was just being paranoid, but I know of at least one blogger I used to read who had someone who knows them in meatspace figure out that it was their blog and then use it against them. I blog about things which could potentially cause me harm if the wrong people found out (e.g. being trans), so I think I am going to make a little more effort to protect my anonymity.]

I started using the term atheist to refer to myself about a year ago. The first people I came out to were my roommates, friends, and fellow students at college. I came out to my brother and his wife a little later, and I’m still not out to the rest of my family.

With friends and fellow students, it’s just something I casually bring up if the subject happens to come up. For instance, in a class last semester we were discussing a piece of writing about Cristopher Hitchens. I took this as an opportunity to mention to a classmate that I am an atheist, and he told me that he is Christian. That was pretty much the extent of the conversation. This is the same approach I use for coming out as queer, and so far it’s worked quite well regardless of what I am coming out as. No one has ever made a big deal out of it or seemed to treat me differently afterwards.

With my roommates, what religion every is came up in discussion one day. I told them I’m an atheist, and they told me what they are. It wasn’t really any more contentious a subject than the discussion about what everyone’s hobbies are. My roommates have told me that I’m welcome to accompany them to religious services if I wish, and I plan to invite them in like kind if I ever get around to going to any skeptic/atheist events or joining the campus skeptic/atheist group.

Actually, the religious vs. atheist thing came into play much more when I came out as trans than when I came out as an atheist. My Christian roommate was very supportive and accepting when I first came out as some variety of not-straight (I identify as queer because “it’s complicated” doesn’t really roll off the tongue very well); she was curious and asked questions to try to understand things (which I didn’t mind at all) and never gave me any crap about it. But when I later came out as trans, although it was clear that she was trying to be supportive and accepting, it was also clear that this conflicts with her religious beliefs and that, even though she respects me enough to try to use my preferred name and pronouns, she still thinks of me as female.

She left me a letter right before she went to visit family that basically said “I totally support whatever you decide to do, but I’m going to quote bible verses at you and tell you that I think you are a wonderful person ‘just the way you are’ (read: female) and I pray you will come to accept yourself ‘as you are'”. This was painful to read. I don’t think she meant to be offensive, but intent is NOT magic. I wish she would have said these things to my face or at least given me a chance to respond. I really wish she would not apply her religion-based morality to me or quote bible verses like they’re evidence when she knows I am an atheist. If I were Christian (or perhaps even just some variety of theist) and came out as trans, I could say stuff like “pray with me” or “god made me this way, so surely he made me like this for a reason” or try to argue why being trans is not wrong from a theological perspective, but as an atheist, making these sorts of arguments feels almost dishonest. Why should I have to try to tell someone else what their religion is and isn’t compatible with? Why should I even have to know enough about someone else’s religion to debate this in the first place? I’m at a bit of a loss as to how to approach this, other than to say “don’t impose your religious beliefs on me” (which will probably go over much more diplomatically than what I really want to say, which is “fuck off about your religion”).

Over the past few months, I’ve come out to my brother and his wife as queer, trans, and atheist. It seems like I am always coming out as something. Their reaction is usually something along the lines of “We love you and support you no matter what, and if you need anything, just let us know”. They’re awesome like that. When I decided to come out as an atheist, I already had a few clues that they probably wouldn’t flip out on me. They’d already reacted well when I’d previously come out as other things. They hadn’t gone to church regularly in several years, mostly due to a few bad experiences they had. They were openly supportive of gay marriage and suchlike, despite our parents’ religiously based opposition of gay marriage. My brother and I were both raised in an environment where religion was considered to be THE important thing, though, so it was still scary to tell him I’m an atheist. It took me a little while to work up the nerve. When I did, I just outright said “I’m an atheist” and then spent a minute or two clarifying what that means to me. I got the usual (and awesome) “We love you no matter what” response. I discussed with my brother later what his current beliefs are, and he told me that he still considers himself a Christian, although he doesn’t go to church. He also told me he would support me if I decided to come out to our parents, although he and I both know that one isn’t likely to go so well. One thing I really appreciate is that neither he nor his wife has ever tried to blame my atheism on my queerness, or vice-versa. Neither one was caused by the other, although becoming an atheist made it a lot easier to explore, and come to terms with, my gender and sexuality.

Generally, I’ve been very happy about coming out, especially as an atheist. People tend to say fewer annoying/ignorant/stupid things when I come out as an atheist than when I come out as, say, trans. I like being out because I hate hiding things and I’m not ashamed of who and what I am. I also want people to know that I am an atheist/trans/queer/whatever so that maybe people will start to get the idea that, hey, we’re just regular people. Actually knowing a person who is part of a category of people that gets villified or oppressed may help to demolish some of the harmful stereotypes, like “atheists have no morals”, and it may help people to be more accepting. For example, it’s a lot harder to hate gay people if you find out your son is gay.

As far as coming out advice, make sure to consider carefully who you want to be out to beforehand. If there is a particular person or persons you do not want to be out to, consider carefully whether you want to take the risk of coming out to someone who knows these person(s). If there may be consequences to coming out or being outed, take a little time to think ahead about how you could handle this. Pick a time to come out when there is relatively little else going on, so there won’t be any unusual distractions or stressors to complicate things. If you or the person you are coming out to is upset, it’s not a good time, especially if it’s you that’s upset–the other person might think that being an atheist is upsetting to you, which is probably not the sort of impression you want to make. Make sure you will have some time available afterwards to answer questions or explain things, if needed.

I find it interesting that I can’t really talk about my experiences coming out as an atheist without talking at least a little about my experiences coming out as queer, or vice-versa. These experiences are very closely related and intertwined for me, if for no other reason than that they happened during roughly the same time frame. However, my atheism is not at all related to my queerness, except insofar as being an atheist made it easier to explore my gender and sexuality. When I was religious, I assumed I was straight, because that was the ‘right’ way to be, and, had I known what it meant, I would have assumed I was cisgender for the same reason. I’m really glad I became an atheist before I figured out that I’m queer, because I got to skip the whole religious guilt step. It does, however, rather complicate considerations of if/when I want to come out to my very religious parents. I would rather not come out to them as an atheist at all (for reasons which look like they’ll make a better response to a different post), but I highly doubt I could come out as queer without god coming into the conversation, and I’m not willing to lie if I’m directly asked about my atitude towards god and religion.

As to being involved in the atheist community, I mostly just lurk on FtB and Skepchick, although I have my own small blog, on which I mostly talk about atheism, sexuality/gender, and dreams (literal dreams- I’m into lucid dreaming as a hobby and think dreams in general are fascinating, even if they do tend to inspire a lot of woo).