“there is value in standing up and being counted.”

i’ve had the hook from this song stuck in my head while i’ve been percolating this blog post.

the idea of “coming out” has been something i’ve been thinking about a lot these last few months.

at the forum on acquired disability i attended as a panelist last month, there was some talk about being open about being a person with a disability. i know that i am – it took me a while though before i could claim the title of “disabled” without feeling sad or embarrassed. it’s not my only identity, but it’s one of them and by being open about it, not only have i felt like i was living a true life, but my friends have developed more awareness of the realities of living with a disability as well.

a winter 2009 visit to the school where i used to teach.

“coming out” is probably most associated with the idea of folks in the LGBTQ community revealing their sexuality and gender preferences.  i’ve ended up having some interesting conversations with friends lately around this topic. one was a with the woman who waxes my eyebrows – yep, i’m coming out about having my eyebrows waxed! my eyebrow stylist said that her younger brother came out while he was in his late teens and that she once said to him, “i don’t care that you’re gay.” she realized that that didn’t sound like what she felt, so she clarified by saying that of course she cared that he was gay – it was a piece of his overall identity and because she cared about him, she cared about the pieces of his identity. i’m not sure that there’s a simpler way of saying what she meant.

gandolf!

a few weeks back, anderson cooper issued a statement in which he said “the fact is, I’m gay.” his statement was interesting to me, not because i’m interested in the sexuality of public figures, but because of this line – “i do think there is value in standing up and being counted.” although i’m not gay, that sentence really resonated with me. there’s value in standing up and being counted not only because you’re able to live a truer life, but also because the count is more accurate. i’m guessing that the more public figures come out, the less “different” people feel who are not straight, and the more regular folks feel safe coming out. there’s also the idea of community – i feel like marginalized groups naturally create communities which welcome new members with acceptance and experience. this is certainly true in the disabled community – i could see it so clearly at the forum i went to last month. it has also been a strong force in the “it gets better” campaign – this idea that other people have been through what you’re going through and have had similar experiences.

which all got me to thinking – is there any piece of my identity that i’m “in the closet” about? i’m out as a disabled person, a vegetarian, and now a person who gets her eyebrows waxed. when i was a foster parent, my foster daughter and i didn’t hide how we ended up together. i’m honest that i don’t care about sports. i admit that i love reading a super-trashy vampire series. what else?  in taking an inventory of my life, i did see one thing that i’ve made an effort to hide. so inspired by anderson cooper’s words, here i go.

i’m an atheist.

some background – i grew up in a secular home, but my parents really encouraged me to go to church with my friends, so that i’d have a better understanding of different beliefs. i enjoyed going to church, but the religious teachings never really resonated with me beyond the storytelling level. then again, i think that i might be hard-wired for atheism – i never really got into the whole santa thing, and when i confirmed my suspicions i was outraged that my parents had lied to me, and i made a catalog of all the other things they’d lied about – the tooth fairy! the easter bunny! so i think that i’m a skeptic on a genetic level.

but i also from a young age realized that being an atheist was something to keep quiet about. i really went into the closet about it when i started teaching elementary school in my mid-twenties. my first school was in a strongly religious community, and i worried what people would say if they knew. i worried that people would view everything about me through that lens. so when kids would ask me if i believed in god, i learned to shift the focus away from me – “what about you? do you believe in god?”

my foster daughter was really curious about religion. i was very honest about my beliefs. but she went to the school where i taught. so i explained to her that she could never tell anyone at school that i was an atheist. saying that made me feel morally wrong, but it was just too risky.

just like my parents did, i encouraged my foster daughter to go to church with her friends. i wanted her to be aware of many belief systems, but i also wondered if one of those belief systems might really resonate with her. because i’m not an evangelical atheist. what it all comes down to for me is that i admire people who do the right things in their lives – their motivation truly doesn’t matter to me at all.

i usually listened to npr on my commute, and enjoyed the “this i believe” segments. once a week a person would read an essay about something they believed in, with topics ranging from addiction to war. in 2005, penn jillette (of penn and teller) read his essay, starting with this – “i believe that there is no god.” i remember feeling a jolt when i heard that – did he really just say that out loud? on the radio? i felt like i was a little less alone, a little less different. and since then, whenever i see him on tv, i feel a connection to him – he’s like me. he could say the thing that i wished i could say, but i couldn’t because it would have put my job in danger. truly. i think that some people still have this idea that atheists are predators, and i was an elementary school teacher in a very religious school and town. not a safe place to out yourself. but i’m in a stage of my life where it feels safe to say it.

me with my first class.

so i’m standing up and being counted as an atheist.

and it seems fitting that i’m finishing this post on sunday morning. soon i’ll be heading out for my own sunday morning ritual – i meet my grandma for the $1.99 early bird breakfast special at a dive bar down the road.

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8 responses to ““there is value in standing up and being counted.”

  1. I really appreciate this, Kriste. As a native of the Bible Belt, there is a real stigma to coming out as atheist, and I have described it as this too. I feel like I can’t do it until my grandmother passes, because she only just stopped sending me those Bible tracts in the mail and I hate for her to waste the postage. Plus, I’m afraid she would kill herself with excess prayer. Being an atheist in Corvallis is probably as easy as it gets in the U.S., so I find it intriguing that you feel this social pressure even here.

    • the places where i felt pressure were the little town in northern california where i started my teaching career, and a small town to the east of us. i feel like you’re right about corvallis – there’s a respect for differences in opinion here. an expectation almost.

  2. You did it! As fortunate as we are to live in a more liberal, tolerant part of the country, it’s always a tricky thing to be open about atheism. I love that you’ve spent all this time letting people get to know and love all the other pieces of you first. I find it’s a lot harder for people to turn into Judgy McJudgersons when they already know you to be a good, honest, intelligent person. This is my new favorite post. *heathen hugs*

    • “judgy mcjudgersons” – just the term i was looking for. yeah, i’ll be the will truman of atheism.

      much humanistic love to you from oregon!

  3. Belinda Biddick

    Excellent…thanks for writing it. Maybe it will give more people the courage to come out.

  4. I really love this post. Congrats on “coming out” about your atheism. It’s an empowering feeling to claim something about oneself that might be judged and/or have negative consequences. It’s a good reminder that we all have things that we hide, and that it’s not easy for any of us to share ourselves with the world. I know the world will be a better place if we can all get better at that, and if we can all get better at embracing it when someone takes the risk of coming out, in whatever capacity that might be. btw, I love the picture of you with Santa. Hilarious, and so fitting! Thanks for this post. You truly are the arbiter of rad.

    • so empowering – i’m actually surprised how much better i feel having put it out there. and nothing bad has happened because of it.

      you rock, jamie.

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