Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Clarifying the Pears

Jen’s Note: I posted Sharon and Lyz’s original article not only because I personally trust them as individuals, but because they are professional atheist organizers with tons of experience in dealing with groups and inclusivity. After watching the video from the panel and hearing the audio of Sean’s talk, I find no evidence that they purposefully misrepresented content. I do, however, feel that there was a bit of communication failure between most of the parties involved, which is why I wanted to post their clarification here.

The following is a guest post by Lyz Liddell and Sharon Moss. These are the views of individuals and do not represent the views of the Secular Student Alliance or the Humanist Community of Central Ohio.

Hoo. Boy.

Well, when we first wrote the article "When Gender Goes Pear-Shaped," we hoped it would get at least a little attention. But we weren't expecting the crazy amount of attention, comments, and - unfortunately - misunderstandings that came out of it.

So we wanted to clear up a few things about our intentions and our goals in writing the article.

Our intention in writing this article was to shed light on an issue our entire movement struggles with. With the number of blogs, panels, questions, and articles out there discussing how to make our movement more welcoming to women, we clearly have some serious room for improvement. The good news is that it seems basically everyone in our movement is on board with the idea of welcoming women. The trickier issue is dealing with those unconscious behaviors that can still make women feel uncomfortable - even though they are not intended to do so. It’s a conversation that we need to have and keep having. That’s what we - organizers with years of experience working with grassroots groups - were trying to address in our post.

We did NOT mean to make it sound as though any one person, organization, event or organizer was at fault or the focus of this article. Here's where our intentions were blocked by our inexperience in blogging - despite our best intentions, it did come across as though we were attacking the SERAM, American Atheists, the organizers, Sean Faircloth, and others. That was *never* our intent, and we want to apologize for not making that clear. We still think that the SERAM was a great event - in fact, we want to see more events like it! (Sold out, 200 attendees from all over, over a third women and almost half at their first event - awesome!) Likewise, American Atheists not only has a history and continuing practice of women in leadership positions, it is doing great work to improve our movement's diversity (have doubts? check out the speaker lineup for their national convention!), focusing on its niche as an activist organization, and providing support for local groups. While the issue we're discussing affects the entire freethought movement, we don't want anyone to come away thinking of AA, SERAM or Sean Faircloth as the bad guys.

There have been some accusations that we misrepresented what happened at the Sunday morning panel (read: that we were lying). The video of the talk was posted here. We encourage people to watch that video. It demonstrates both that the panel wasn't a terrible sexist monster, but also clearly shows the parts of the panel that concerned us - most notably, the handling of the audience member's question and its aftermath. We realize that our article made it sound like Sharon was the only person to follow the young woman - she wasn't the only one, but she was the first (and she couldn't very well see that others behind her also moved to help). The point we wanted to make was that she wasn't an event organizer but still wanted to help; not that the event organizers didn't help or didn't want to. (Unfortunately, the video of Sean Faircloth's talk is not up yet, but the SERAM organizers are planning to make it available soon.)

There also seems to be some confusion about our views on the Million Dollar Challenge (MDC) and the "female" v. "woman" language question. None of us were arguing against the point the MDC illustrates; it's perfectly true that in our society, women tend to be the gatekeepers of sexual activity. Our concerns were with the manner in which it was presented: encouraging the men in the room to look around at the women in the room and identify specific women they were sexually attracted to, then proceeding with the hypothetical challenge. Likewise, neither of us have a problem with the use of either "female" or "woman" when discussing gender issues. Our concern was with the way the woman asking the question was treated at the event. We are trying to make the point that if you're making fellow supporters of our movement that uncomfortable, then you're doing something wrong.

One last misunderstanding has come to our attention. There were several instances where we alluded to problems in the general movement that were taken as though they had happened at the SERAM. We didn't mean to imply that the audience at the SERAM was continuously staring at our chests; that didn't happen at this event. BUT, there have been numerous other events where it has happened and continues to happen, and we wanted to raise the issue. We also didn't intend to imply that there were instances of racism or anti-parentism at the SERAM. In our years of leading freethought groups, we have seen both of these behaviors at other events at different times, and mentioned them since they tie into the issue of making our movement more comfortable to newcomers. Again, our blogging inexperience interfered with the points we were trying to make.

You might be asking why we chose to focus on the SERAM so specifically if it wasn't itself the problem. Well, we chose to focus on these instances, at this event, for two reasons. First, they were recent and relevant - they were specific examples of specific behaviors that we have observed, time after time, that can and often do make women uncomfortable. Second, because we had to focus on something. If we had just posted an article about how “sometimes there's some stuff that makes women feel uncomfortable in our movement,” our post would have been ignored, or readers would have demanded to see the evidence. So we provided recent, relevant, specific examples that illustrated our main point: that we should work to make women in our movement feel more comfortable. If nothing else, we have succeeded in making enough noise that lots of people are talking about the issue - and that is our goal.

There will be no apology for making it clear that women often feel uncomfortable in our movement. If you are a woman in this movement and you find yourself comfortable, that's great! But just because you are comfortable doesn't mean that everyone is - and since our movement is growing SO rapidly, we need to pay attention to those who might not be as outgoing or outspoken - whether they be women, people of any age, less-educated people, racial minorities, LGBTQs, etc. These people are on our side, and we should make our movement a safe landing place for them.

For all the bad feelings that have come up out of this article, we want to emphasize that there has been some very constructive communication to go along with it. In particular, we have had great conversations with the SERAM event coordinators Scott Savage and Christie Swords; David Silverman of American Atheists; and Sean Faircloth at the Secular Coalition for America. Furthermore, we have received several messages from local group leaders telling us how glad they were that the issue was raised, or that they're planning to use our tips for improvement with their own groups. (Those tips are toward the bottom of the original article, if you only read the first part, the comments, a summary, etc.) We have also been thanked by lots of women (and men, too) who have felt uncomfortable in our movement but were too afraid to raise their voices.

It's been a rough ride. We're doing the best we can to make our movement a bigger, better, stronger one. We hope you'll forgive us our miscommunication and keep working with us to build a world where freethinkers of all types and kinds can flourish!

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