Scott Douglas Jacobsen: James, you are the program director for the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix (HSGP). When was the moment of ethical, political awakening for becoming a Humanist?
I’ve always believed in the importance of doing the right thing, even if it’s not the easiest thing, and I’ve been an atheist since about the beginning of my teenage years. However, I didn’t have community as an atheist, and struggled with maintaining a sense of greater purpose and dealing with the eventuality of death, so during a few rough patches in my childhood and young adulthood, I delved back into religion as an escape from the realities of life. Those explorations lasted a year at most, though, as the more familiar I became with various religious texts, the less comfortable I was with accepting the tenets, especially since any faith in a god or gods I had was tenuous at best.
It wasn’t until the last few years that I learned of humanism, and the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix, but as I delved further into both the organisation and the tenets of the American Humanist Association (AHA) and the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) (HSGP is an official chapter of these organisations, among others), I felt like I had finally found a community and philosophy that spoke to me.
What is humanism to you? How does this inform professional work?
To me, humanism in its most simple form is defined as “Atheists and agnostics dedicated to doing good.” Humanism is a secular application of the drive to make a positive difference in people’s lives and the world as a whole, and that drive and passion for positive change and action is at the heart of nearly all my choices, professional and otherwise.
As a trans educator, I am seeking to create a better, safer world for others. When I give workshops and speeches on consent, boundaries, and toxic relationships, I have the same goal. With my podcast, “A Queer Was Here,” I seek that same positive future through providing approachable education on various LGBT+ topics. As a spoken word poet and author, my drive for positive change is the same. As Program Director of HSGP, I also seek to improve the world. And as a human being, I seek to be as ethical and moral as I can be, guided by my sense of right and wrong and my openness to changing my perception of situations and topics with the introduction of new knowledge or perspectives.
I try to live my life as a whole with the same singular goal and purpose that humanism highlights in its tenets.
What tasks and responsibilities come with being the program director for the HSGP?
My main responsibility is booking and introducing the Sunday speakers we have twice a month (except for December, which only has one), but I also vote on board decisions and try to help out wherever I can with other events and tasks.
As well, you are in a unique position as not only an author, but a public speaker and spoken word poet. Some of the topics relate to being trans. How do you engage audiences, whether through books, speaking in public, or poetry, on trans topics?
Most of the speeches I give on trans topics are educational ones, and many of them are directed at non-trans audiences. As the public has become more aware of trans folks, they’ve been looking for sources willing to educate, so speeches that I book on trans topics generally have fairly large audiences. I’ve found being approachable and calm makes people a lot more willing to listen and change their minds on trans topics, though I of course understand that education is not the responsibility of trans individuals. However, it’s something I enjoy being able to offer.
When it comes to poetry, I find that it helps to emphasise the emotions various situations evoke rather than the situations themselves, like I do in the poem “The Sound of Home,” in which I write about how it felt to discover the word “transgender,” or address broader situations using trans topics as examples, as I do in my poem “Stage Fright,” in which I talk about coming out on stage and learning to associate fear with success.
Also, what are common misconceptions, or common questions from audiences about being trans?
A lot of people unfamiliar with trans identities will conflate them with sexual orientation, thinking an individual assigned female at birth who is interested in men, for instance, will then become interested in women instead after transitioning, which is not usually the case.
Also, many people don’t understand what transitioning means. It’s not just some one arbitrary surgery. Trans individuals undergo a variety of surgical and hormonal and legal changes in their transition, and some only choose to take hormones, or have one of the many possible surgeries, or do none of the above, with reasons as varied as the individuals themselves. These procedures are often life-saving when individuals do elect to have them, however. The trans population has a suicide attempt rate of nearly nine times that of the general populace.
People also often confuse gender expression with gender identity, when in many cases, they do not interrelate at all. Gender identity is a person’s internal sense of where they fall in or out of the gender spectrum. Gender expression refers to how your outward behaviours and appearance fit within societal gender norms, whether they match with your gender or sex or not. Just like there are cis women who are mechanics (a mostly male-dominated career in the US) or who prefer pants over skirts, or cis men who are stay-at-home dads (a mostly female-dominated position in the US) or wear make-up, there are also trans women and trans men who fit these categories, and those things do not invalidate their identities.
Some common themes include love and heartbreak, mental health, politics, science as metaphor, and introspection, as well as grief and friendship.
Also, how do you keep up the writing pace?
Dedication, a prompts list I constantly add to, and a consistently engaged mind. I also just really love writing, and no longer allow the abstract concept of “writer’s block” to stop my attempts to piece words together effectively.
As well, with the spoken word poetry and writing to have various platforms to express yourself, and the HSGP community of humanists, whether religious or irreligious, what is the importance of community in pursuit of artistic interests?
I think community is always incredibly important. I went through a lot of trauma as a young adult, and one of the biggest things that allowed me to heal and grow and speak was the friendships I developed among the music crowd. Having that sense of community and support, and the push to keep improving, had a tremendous effect on my future.
Does it necessarily have to be an artistic community, or simply an appreciative audience that can include artists?
Some of the people who most affected my drive to keep growing as a poet were not artists of any kind themselves. They were the people who came up to me after a performance and told me how my words had affected them, and urged me to continue. They were the people who bought my books because they wanted to show their support. They were the people who asked if they could share one of my poems in their class or support group, because I said something they hadn’t been able to find the words to. They were the ones who walked up to me after a series of hard-hitting poems and wordlessly offered a hug. When listeners, or viewers, of an art form express the ways the artist’s work affects them, they provide something precious.
Thank you for your time, James
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.