Storytelling is a social catalyst and powerful force for change. The Embracing Identities Project is a series of narrative interviews about coming out as LGBTQ and atheist in a variety of communities. Our mission is to increase understanding of the diverse collection of people who identify as queer and faithless, examine the intersections of identities and experiences within this group, and to inspire others to embrace their identities within their communities.
Make sure to check out other stories in the series too!
- Melanie Brewster: Don’t Tell Your Grandmother
- Aadil Salam, Pt 1: The Best Thing & the Worst Thing at the Same Time
- Aadil Salam, Pt 2: Coming to American and Coming Out
Melanie Brewster, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University, earned her Ph.D from the University of Florida. Her research focuses on marginalized groups and examines how experiences of discrimination and stigma may shape the mental health of minority group members (e.g., LGBTQ individuals, atheists, people of color). Dr. Brewster also examines potential resilience factors, such as bicultural self-efficacy and cognitive flexibility, that may promote the mental health of minority individuals. She tweets about atheism, queer issues, and academia @melysebrewster
Melanie Brewster will be speaking about the narratives of atheists and the nonreligious on April 12, 2015, as a part of Humanism at Yale Week. This event will be free and open to the public.
Don’t Tell You Grandmother: Melanie Brewster
My mom was Methodist—not Southern Methodist— but from the time I was young she took me to church. My dad was lackadaisical about faith.
For me, religion never stuck. I never really identified as religious or spiritual. As far back as I can remember, it just didn’t make sense to me. Jesus was killed and then he was put in a cave and then he came back? And how did all the animals fit on the ark? Why were certain groups “favored” over others? I’m from Miami, and in Miami you are exposed to a lot of different religious and cultural groups. We lived in a neighborhood with a large Jewish community, and I wondered, “Are they wrong if they believe in something else?”
I vividly remember having fights with my mom in the car on the way home from church—and that started when I was really little. We would have these debates and just scream at each other. There never had to be a “coming-out” incident because from the earliest I can remember I said, “I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it.” Her responses were bumbling, typically: “You don’t have to understand it,” but most importantly, “Don’t tell your grandmother,” because my grandma is really religious.
Her comfort with debating religion did not extend to the fact that her daughter might like women. Even when I dated guys I would never talk about stuff like that with her. Sexuality was a topic that we didn’t approach, but I remember having these critical incidents—almost like these flashbulb memories, where I thought, “Oh, this probably isn’t normal, but I don’t know.” I remember in middle school and watching the other girls playing kickball and thinking, “I guess I like women, but I don’t know anyone who likes women and men, too. What’s the word for that?” Maybe that same year, I had some friends over and we were washing my dad’s car—it was fun to wash a car in middle school for some reason— and afterwards, they asked, “Are you bisexual?” It was really awkward, and I don’t know what led to it, but that was the first time I’d heard that term. I was probably 12 or 13.
I always told myself that maybe I didn’t need to tell my family until I was with a woman more seriously. I started dating somebody; I think it was my freshman year of college. I came home from school and my parents and I went out to eat. We were at a Red Lobster, of all places. I told them, “There’s something I need to tell you: I’m bisexual and I’m dating a girl.” My mom started crying. It was terrible. Her only reaction was, “Don’t tell your grandmother.” That’s like, the theme of my life: don’t tell my 90-something year old grandmother anything! My father’s reaction was, “Heh heh heh, I figured.” It was such a weird contrast.
I feel lucky because it’s gotten slightly better. The past few years, every time I’ve come home she’s gathered a pile of news clippings from the Miami Herald about different gay-related news. She saves them for me. She’s very outspoken about gay issues and human rights, and I think this is where my sexuality and her faith start to fuse.
It started getting more apparent when I was in doc school. Hearing people at the church being homophobic or misogynist really put her off. We would be talking about something and she’d say, “I’m just getting more and more angry about religion!” So now, ironically, my mom is atheist too. Maybe all the fights got into her head in some way, but I think having a daughter who does social justice work and identifies as queer made her unable to support her church anymore. She keeps up appearances though—mostly for my grandma. She’ll go to church with her on holidays and pray with her before meals.
I moved to New York to start a job here at Teachers College— this is my fourth year. My book Atheists in America came out in June—so it’s been out for a few months now. In the past, professionally, I would simply say that I was “not religious.” I would be way more likely to tell people that I was queer. I’ve been very wary to call myself atheist, because I think a lot of people have a knee-jerk reaction. Within multicultural psychology there’s an idea that if you’re atheist you’re not going to be sensitive to your religious clients—you’re not going to be warm and affirming, and I went through my whole graduate training program without once learning how to work with nonbelieving clients.
More people need to start saying that they’re atheist—owning it—and showing a more diverse portrait of what atheists look like and believe in and are. This doesn’t sound “cool,” but we need to find the more moderate voices within the community. There are people that are so vocally anti-theist, but I feel like when you’re anti-theist you’re really not acknowledging how many communities rely on religious institutions for support. We can’t really be anti-theist until we put other support structures in place, particularly in underserved communities. How are we supposed to take away resources and not replace them?
I did a book talk recently for the Teachers College community, and I actually read my coming out narrative. It mentions identifying as queer, but also identifying as atheist from a young age. It felt a little scary, but also pretty good. Most the time when people do academic presentations here, there are a couple questions afterwards and then everyone disperses. But the talk resulted in a really long conversation—with people disclosing all sorts of things right there in the lecture hall. I think people need a space to open up about who they are, as well as some modeling, and they’ll do it.