Guest Bloggers

Guest Post: Oh GOWD! (or, Dear Privileged People, It’s Not Always About You)

Today’s Guest Post is from Dena Roth about NECSS 2013 and the importance of safe spaces for underrepresented groups within the skeptic/secular community. It’s important to have empathy for another’s experience, especially when you don’t regularly experience being the “other” in the room (with regards to age, gender, color, etc.) and equally important to give them the space so that they feel like their needs are being addressed.


NECSS 2013 (The 5th annual Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism) was a fantastical whirlwind of a weekend. The attendees were amazing, the lectures were mind-blowing (thank you Simon Singh), the scientific opera songs were incredible (thank you Hai-Ting Chinn), and the debates were fierce (thank you Massimo Pigliucci). I’m not going to spend the next several paragraphs raving about how much I love NECSS (though I easily could). However, as much as I loved the conference, I have just one problem with NECSS, and that is that it’s much like the rest of world in one very stark way: among the attendees are a lot of entitled gentlemen, or Generic Old White Dudes™ (GOWDs) who forget that not everyone is a straight white male over 40. Don’t get me wrong—there are a ton of awesome straight old white dudes out in the world and at NECSS and some of them are my closest friends and I hate that they often get caught in the crossfire when it comes to conversations about straight or male or white or age privilege. This isn’t a commentary on straight white men that are over 40, but rather the space that they take up in the skeptic/secular communities, usually without realizing it. It’s hard to recognize the disconnect in the skeptical movement when most of the prominent figures look just like you. Lately, their privileged space in the science/skeptic community in New York City has just barely been called into question and they’ve got some things to say about it. Luckily for them, I’m really good at listening to their opinions and I’m hoping they have the same patience for mine.

I’m younger, queerer, and much less male (in both gender identity and presentation) than the average member of this community. I’m aware of these differences and have no intention to hide them, but this trifecta had left me feeling mostly unwelcome and underappreciated in the community until recently, when very pointed groups and safe spaces began popping up throughout the city within local scientific/skeptic organizations. These safe spaces are designated social or support groups unique to a certain demographic that allows those marginalized people (like me) the freedom to be who they are in a space that is accepting and supportive. I think this is a huge win for the skeptical community; we’re finally calling attention to the fact that the skeptic/scientific/secular demographic is much wider than often seen at conferences and this is allowing more people to feel like they can actually be a part of the community as a whole. The marginalized members of the skeptic community (such as LGBTQ folks, people of color, women and nonbinary people, people born after 1975) have felt far more comfortable and welcome in groups in NYC lately, now that we have the space to move freely and project our own voices in our safe spaces. It’s small and it’s slow, but it’s a step towards being able to move freely through all spaces. Unfortunately, this feels threatening for a lot of people that don’t see a need for safe space, and as an organizer of many of these specific community groups, I see the pushback and receive the criticism, and I heard it loud and clear at NECSS. The message is that young queer females and people of color are monopolizing social groups, pushing out the older straight white men, and taking their space away.


Over the past several months (and most recently at NECSS), I’ve been told by a number of people that they find our safe spaces (to use their words) irritating, unfair, a nuisance, petty, discriminatory, ageist, sexist, and oppressive. Our presence is so irritating that these people have cancelled memberships, withdrawn donations, and asked that leadership members step down for simply allowing these spaces to exist.

Yes, there are some social groups that are exclusive to certain demographics, but that is to allow them safe spaces to be comfortable as they are without continuing to feel marginalized. There are still plenty of groups—most events, actually—that are open to the public. And as a young, queer, female-bodied person, I’m so grateful that these groups exist because I feel like marginalized people finally have a voice. It’s frustrating and disheartening to walk into events and constantly be the only non-cisgender male, the youngest person by 25 years, or the only person of color, especially when people call attention to our otherness (as I have experienced when I have the audacity to show up somewhere). I feel under-represented and that my voice is often not heard, so I love being welcomed into spaces where I can freely express my contribution to this community and I’m glad there are groups that can finally provide that to people.

I’m not here to vilify any specific Generic Old White Dude™ or to single anyone out. However, a particularly unpleasant conversation I had at NECSS shed new light on recent complaints we’ve received about the culture of our NYC skeptical community: allegedly, we’re giving too much space to minorities and it’s not fair because we’re taking it away from the people that are used to having it.

These complaints come from people who are a product of their privilege (and who likely don’t realize it), so I can’t necessarily blame them. They are used to having privilege and haven’t realized that it’s there yet. If they did recognize their privileged status, maybe they would be less hostile towards these community safe spaces. I’ve seen privileged people in our community who have questioned their privilege, realized the space they’re taking, and graciously step aside to give others the opportunity to be heard. When it happens, it’s beautiful, and I love those people and am grateful for them for extending their critical thinking lenses to observe and adjust their own behaviors.

When we keep straight people out of LGBTQ groups, it doesn’t mean that we don’t care about them. We are asking them to give us our own space in the community because we don’t have any other place to go yet. For example, growing up Muslim and rejecting that faith is dangerous and can be a life-threatening decision, so it is reasonable that ex-Muslims should want their own support group exclusive of non-ex-Muslims. It’s not because the ex-Muslims hate people of other religions, it’s because non-Muslim people don’t understand what that life is like. (And for the record, it’s not because they don’t want you to understand—that’s what open-forum lectures and intellectual debates and discussions are for, not support groups.)



When you’re in a place of privilege, you are used to being safe, represented, and appreciated everywhere without ever needing to question your place in the world. So, I can see how it might feel threatening to be asked to step back from a few select spaces. But as someone who doesn’t feel safe, represented, appreciated, or even welcome in most places in the skeptic community, these groups are necessary for people like me. It’s not the minority’s responsibility to customize our safe spaces to please the privileged majority. All we’re asking for is some breathing room in this community. We want to stick around and stick together sometimes.

I know these hostile sentiments are not necessarily the norm when marginalized people carve out spaces for themselves in the skeptic community. I remarked my frustrations to plenty of people at NECSS, and every single one of them offered support and empowerment to me and others. More recently, I don’t often feel that my youth, queerness, or woman-ness make me an “other” in this community, not only because of the safe spaces that are finally available to me but also because of the support I see in the community. More people are recognizing the space that their privilege takes up and they are willing to put that aside and give the space back to those of us who need it.

I would also like to point out that Michael Feldman and the NECSS organizers were amazing to everyone. If I had ever felt harassed or threatened at the conference, I knew they would have supported me and been diligent in ensuring that NECSS remained a safe space for everybody. They were incredibly warm and welcoming to all of us, and the diversity of speakers made me and so many others feel more supported at NECSS than any other conference I’ve been to.

I don’t intend for the few people who have a problem with my membership in the community to imply that any organizers share their views. In fact, the most support I’ve seen for marginalized people has come from executive directors, conference organizers, event hosts, and leadership teams across plenty of organizations based in New York City. This is empowering and encouraging because I know that the minority groups are appreciated, loved, and supported here and that we have allies all over the place who are willing to give us our space, listen to us, support us, and stand in solidarity with us when we ask for it without silencing us.

This is simply a call to action for the rest of the people—the ones who feel like they can’t be members of this community as long as previously-mentioned marginalized groups are demanding equal footing. We’re asking you to recognize that our safe spaces are necessary because they are the only places we get to have a voice that isn’t overpowered by your privilege.

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Dena is an artist and activist living in New York City. They began volunteering for Center For Inquiry in 2012, and is involved in local secular and skeptic communities. Dena is an activist and advocate for better public education and promoting critical thinking and reason among students and children. They co-organize CFI-NYC’s LGBTQ Humanists, and Beyond Faith: An Ex-Christian Student Support Group. Dena likes Carl Sagan’s turtlenecks and eating ice cream with a fork. Seriously, try it. You can find Dena on Twitter at @OhItsDena.



Mary Brock works as an Immunology scientist by day and takes care of a pink-loving princess child by night. She likes cloudy days, crafting, cooking, and Fall weather in New England.

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  1. ‘We want to stick around and stick together sometimes.’

    I’m beginning to think that I have to do more about that second part myself as well.

  2. It’s _never_ ok to exclude people. How else are these Generic Old White Dudes ever going to know what your side, if you exclude them? Invite them in, instead. Show them the other side. But on your terms. But excluding is never, ever fair.

    1. Immediately, the point gets missed.

      ‘Yes, there are some social groups that are exclusive to certain demographics, but that is to allow them safe spaces to be comfortable as they are without continuing to feel marginalized. There are still plenty of groups—most events, actually—that are open to the public.’

      The point is, it’s not always about the Generic Old White Dudes. It’s not always about getting them on “your side”.It’s about creating a space for those in marginalized or vulnerable populations to have a space to feel comfortable, a space where they won’t have their discussions derailed into “how will we gain the approval of the GOWD?”. Think of it as a staging area that may potentially open up individuals who might feel less than welcome, or just uncomfortable, to the larger group dynamic.

    2. It’s not about excluding people, it’s about having a space where you can talk to people who already understand. People to whom you don’t HAVE to explain “your side.” If you have a problem that’s giving you a lot of stress, do you issue a general invitation to anyone to come talk to you about it, or do you seek out the people who know you well and understand you, that you can confide in without having to justify yourself or explain every detail? I would guess the second and that’s similar to what people are seeking when they seek out these groups.

    3. I think you missed this line as well, Kaylee:

      (And for the record, it’s not because they don’t want you to understand—that’s what open-forum lectures and intellectual debates and discussions are for, not support groups.)

    4. Kaylee I totally agree. It’s impossible to expect solidarity and support if people push others away. That’s why what I advocate for is allowing the freedom to have safe spaces in addition to open houses, open lectures, and forum discussions. Some marginalized groups need their own space to talk about issues unique to themselves, and as long as organizations are providing opportunity for both inclusive and exclusive groups, I think as a community we will grow stronger.

  3. So, I’m an under 40 straight white male from New York City and I’ve not been involved in active skepticism before primarily because it seems so unable to move on from or at least add on to its mission of debunking psychics and wagging its fingers at bigfoot believers. In particular I feel it’s had no major successes on anything of importance in America in the last decade or more. Vaccinations are down, anti-fluoridation campaigns are up (our very own Peter Vallone advocates against it), reproductive rights are still in danger of encroachment, and homeopathy and other assorted bullshit run rampant in every Duane Reade and CVS across the street from each other. I’m also not terribly interested in hearing a bunch of older white dudes talk exclusively (and never was).

    This post actually makes me very interested in becoming an active participant. I really had no idea there were inclusive groups like you describe. I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting a more comprehensive list of what’s around. Thanks for piquing my interest!

        1. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Don’t let a bad experience keep you away. I’ve definitely had my share of bad or awkward skeptic meetups, but then I found a good group. If you are near Boston sometime, you should check out our local group!

          1. The NY branch is different from what, um, occurred this past week, at least to me. As you can see, Dena, the author of this guest post is a volunteer.

            It’s mostly about community building.

        2. I try very hard (some may say too hard) to create a diverse and inclusive community for skeptics, humanists, and nonreligious people in NYC. CFI-NYC’s calendar has grown rapidly in the past year, but if you still don’t see anything that piques your interest, all of our social groups are volunteer-run, and I’d love to work with you on getting another special interest group going if you’re interested. If you’d like to try it out, I recommend our upcoming Nerd TV on Tuesday night where we watch and heckle sc-fi tv shows while drinking cheap beers in Brooklyn.

          Please feel free to add me on Facebook. I hope to see you soon! :)

    1. That is a completely accurate commentary and I’m so glad you’re learning more about what’s available in our community! Like I mentioned, it’s slow growth, but it’s there, and we’re moving away from the “bunch of older white dudes” exclusivity, which I am thrilled about. I’d recommend checking out the local meetups in your area because I’m sure there are plenty of opportunities! And if not – start your own! If you’re local to NYC I can recommend specific groups, but I don’t know much about other areas.

      1. Oh, I definitely am (Queens represent)! If you have any others on top of scribe999’s suggestion of CFI-NYC I’m all ears. Thank you!

  4. I have a bit an issue with their pricing. THAT, in and of itself, excludes most diversity from NECSS. By specifically pricing the event at that level, they make it an upper middle class only event. Whenever I asked why there wasn’t a raffle for free tickets, I was told that just couldn’t do that. They kept on sending out emails about winning tickets, when in fact it was VIP tickets for those already registered, and an auction going to the highest bidder.

      1. There was a checkoff on the registration form to sponsor a student ticket. (Which I did. Yeah me! Rah Rah Rah! :-) ) Did they not offer the free tickets to qualified people or did not enough people contribute or was it too restrictive and not allow enough “students” to participate?

        For me, the biggest cost was the price of NYC hotels, at least $200/night. But if you live in New York, that shouldn’t be an issue. (And I’m old, rich white guy, I could afford it, but it probably affects lots of people who don’t live in New York.)

        So would it make more sense to move the venue to somewhere less expansive than mid-town Manhattan? (New Jersey or other suburbs?) Not only would hotels be cheaper, but the cost of the facilities should be lower, OTOH, it would mean a longer, more expensive commute for people who live in the city.

        Or would it be better to raise the regular ticket price and reduce the student price, or to make it easier to qualify for the student rate? (I’m assuming they basically break even on the cost/revenue, so to lower prices they would either have to lower costs or cross-subsidize.) Or just try to get more people to make more student ticket contributions, maybe by offering extra freebies like Surlies or t-shirts to anyone who contributes?

        Maybe if they held it in the summer, and at a college (as they usually seem to do), they could get cheap dorm rooms for the attendees.

        Or find new sources of revenue (bake sales??? auctions??)

        P.S. I tried to post this earlier, but it simultaneously told me that I must be logged in to post and that I was already logged in. I saved the content, reloaded the page, and it told me I wasn’t logged in and also that there were a whole bunch of new comments, many of which say the same things I was trying to say. So I’m blaming the redundancy on the asynchronous nature of the Internet, cosmic rays and the Department of Redundancy Department.

        1. These are all great suggestions. I agree with finding a cheaper city, the only disadvantage being that NYC has a lot of fun stuff you can do in addition to the con, whereas a different city might not have much within walking distance.

    1. That’s a really great point that I failed to mention in the article. Many events (including most conferences) are tailored to those with expendable income – much like the rest of our society, which unfortunately keeps the demographic in a very specific socio-economic group. I have been to several conferences, most recently Women in Secularism, that offers a few scholarships. I know conference organizers would love it if they could be free but unfortunately it’s not feasible. Though nearly all CFI and other local atheist/skeptic community meetups in the city are free or very cheap!

      1. SkeptiCON and SkepchickCON are both free events, I believe. And I would like to add that I have always found transportation and hotel costs to be the biggest burden for me. When I went to TAM, my husband and I easily spent $4000 total, tickets were only 10% of that.

        1. And now Skeptech.

          SkepchickCon isn’t exactly free because you have to pay to get into CONvergence, the larger con that it’s a skeptic/science track of, but even that larger con is only $60 for four days. We don’t get any cut from the ticket sales or charge anything, so what we offer is free and brought to the con on our dime, so we do rely on donations.

  5. Necrosynth – I am one of he organizers of NECSS. This is not public information, but for the sake of this discussion, NECSS lost money this year. The reality is – conferences are expensive. We do everything we can to find ways to support the conference other than ticket prices – the auction was one method. let people who can afford it subsidize those who cannot. We look for sponsors. We organize writing contests for sponsored registration. We give student discounts. We have fundraising events. Raffles are a logistical problem – there are laws in the way. We are basically not allowed to do it legally.

    These are all designed to keep ticket prices as low as possible. And they are priced so that we just survive. No one has made a dime from NECSS.

    So – we all want the same thing, more inclusion, lowering the barrier to getting into NECSS. You don’t have to convince us about that. What you can do, if you are serious about this, is one of two things. Give us a practical idea to raise money and lower ticket prices, or support individuals who cannot afford to come. Or volunteer to actually help organize and run one such campaign. Find us potential sponsors, for example.

    1. I think it’s probably safe to say that many (most?) events in skepticism/atheism/etc. don’t make money. I don’t know that they ever will. Breaking even is probably the first goal, just to be able to keep the con going.

      Part of the solution as far as outreach to a more diverse community, I think, is in adding events as well as improving what’s already there–more smaller cons in various areas, more cons held by student groups (who have the advantage of campus resources, such as buildings for holding the panels), and more cons consciously reaching out to more diverse groups (and holding events in areas where people with less money already live, so they/we don’t have the travel costs). More live-streaming of events will also help bring them to people who can’t be there physically. I also think that looking into existing conventions that might welcome a skepticism/science track is a good idea, as we’re doing with sci-fi/fantasy cons (DragonCon, CONvergence), not only because it’s a way to sidestep many of the organizing and resources issues but also because it’s less of an insulated “preaching to the choir” scenario. (And I think we need the “preaching to the choir” cons as well, don’t get me wrong, but as far as a con doing the double duty of outreach and providing content and community, looking into areas of potentially overlapping interests is a strong option.)

      1. As someone who has known a lot of SF/Fantasy/Comics/etc convention people over a span of more years than I care to think about… most events don’t make money, period. Cons quite often don’t start making money until at least three to five years in once they’ve built up a core membership, and that’s assuming they ever do. (The gaming con I helped run once actually did make money its first year, though very very little. The money made was almost all from the concession stand. Selling drinks and snacks to gamers is always in.)

        A number of fan-run cons actually go for multi-tiered entry fees to help with this: say, the basic convention membership which gets you into the event is only $60, but if you pay $120, you get a mention in the convention book as a sponsor, a T-shirt, and a dinner with the guests of honour. People who can afford the extra money are often willing to help out (especially if they get something from it), while it helps keep the costs a little lower for everybody else.

        Judging entry fees is never easy, and the smaller the con, the more you have to charge per person just to even come close to breaking even, but the more you charge, the fewer people who will show up. That’s why a lot of cons low-ball the entry fees to start with to start building a core membership, and just eat the thousands of dollars in losses the first few years. Starting a new con requires someone willing to give it significant financial support.

    2. Perhaps this is one reason why there needs to be more focus on smaller conferences and events. Maybe things don’t always need to be on such a grand scale. Maybe things can be more localized — a lot of cities don’t have much of a presence.

      1. Well, I would contend that NECSS is more localized in that it’s ostensibly for New England. If it’s too expensive for someone from this region to hove off to DC, Las Vegas, Austin, Dublin, Melbourne, or Bucharest, New York City is one of the easiest places to get to. Millions of people commute here each day and public transportation costs are relatively low (though definitely difficult across three days if you have a lower income and live further afield). Still, we’re the largest city in the country and contain a significant poor and underprivileged community. Moving it out of New York would probably mean a lot of people would also not be able to come. That’s my long way of replying to marilove (and Melanie a bit) to say this aspect should be further explored.

        I also suspect the marketing is at fault. NECSS may not be marketing or getting promotion in areas/publications/websites where people other than middle-class white folks can hear about it.

  6. Hmm. Reckoning up my privileges, I find I’m actually a SCOWLMAD (Straight Cisgender Old White Lean Middle-class Able-bodied Dude). Though I think there comes a point when the “Old” is no longer privileged, even in scepticism: I’d say age-privilege is an inverted U, with the peak coming later for men than for women. And I admit the “Lean” could be questioned (BMI is currently just on 25), but I needed an “L”!

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