Sometimes I feel lucky that when I came out as FTM and began transitioning that I didn’t do it in a Pagan community. When I did come back, one of the first things I did was to make sure that the things I was interested in would welcome me, and that my gender and sexuality wouldn’t be an issue. For me, that meant finding paths (like CR, Feri, and ADF Druidry) that weren’t centered on gender polarity.
Let me follow that up by saying that my intention isn’t to insult Pagans or our communities. More often than not, I feel like people respond to me in ways that are meant to be positive or friendly. Inclusivity and awareness are popular topics, and many organizations identify themselves as welcoming to trans* folks. Still, being willing to welcome us is different from successfully including us.
That kind of inclusion can be actively difficult to find in paths whose ritual liturgy and beliefs are built around the idea of gender polarity or a gender binary. Wiccan groups in particular can be troublesome. Most (but not all!) forms of Wicca are duotheistic, centered on a female Goddess and a male God. During the liturgical year, the two of them move through the stages of life, and the God fathers himself and is reborn by the Goddess during the annual ritual cycle. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, theologically or otherwise.
What becomes tricky, though, is how that theology seems to trickle down into community attitudes that foster gender essentialism and simplistic beliefs about sex and gender that can create a hostile environment for LGBTQ and intersex participants.
While I think a lot of would-be allies in the Pagan community think that they are welcoming and understanding, many biased attitudes still exist. In his book, Brothers of the Sun, Rev. Terry Riley both describes same-sex attraction as “both an urge and a choice” and outlines what he calls the Universal Law of Gender. He writes:
“…for anything to be created, whether it is human, animal or plant life, the male plants a seed inside the female and after a period of incubation, the product is brought forth directly from the female aspect. This applies through all levels of manifestations even down to the atomic level…”
“…but what about Homosexuals? You might ask. Well, I believe even in a Homosexual relationship, one takes on the role of the masculine aspect and the other takes on the role of the feminine aspect.”
Riley’s got some apparent blind spots in terms of biology (hello, asexual reproduction) and chemistry (can Hydrogen even be gendered?), but it’s possible he’s writing more from ignorance than animus. Still, it’s not harmless ignorance. By propagating offensive stereotypes and bad science and integrating it into spirituality, he’s potentially compromising his students’ understanding, as well as the ability of his community to be a safe space.
More disturbing is the transphobia espoused by Z. Budapest, who responded to criticisms about a ritual at Pantheacon in 2011 excluding transwomen by writing:
“This struggle has been going since the Women’s Mysteries first appeared. These individuals selfishly never think about the following: if women allow men to be incorporated into Dianic Mysteries,What will women own on their own? Nothing! Again! Transies who attack us only care about themselves.
We women need our own culture, our own resourcing, our own traditions.
You can tell these are men, They don’t care if women loose the Only tradition reclaimed after much research and practice ,the Dianic Tradition. Men simply want in. its their will. How dare us women not let them in and give away the ONLY spiritual home we have!
Men want to worship the Goddess? Why not put in the WORK and create your own trads. The order of ATTIS for example,(dormant since the 4rth century) used to be for trans gendered people, also the castrata, men who castrated themselves to be more like the Goddess.
Why are we the ONLY tradition they want? Go Gardnerian!Go Druid! Go Ecclectic!
Filled with women, and men. They would fit fine.
But if you claim to be one of us, you have to have sometimes in your life a womb, and overies and MOON bleed and not die.
Women are born not made by men on operating tables.”
Budapest’s animus and bias are clear, but so too is her ignorance with regard to the priesthood and worship of Attis. While she’s a far cry from Riley, what she’s saying ultimately arises from the same kind of gender essentialism that Riley espouses in his book. This should tell us something pretty critical:
If Pagans working in gendered paradigms want to be inclusive of all people regardless of sexuality or gender, our community needs to learn about and begin to appropriately address the realities of human biology, sexuality, and gender identity without imposing inaccurate or biased religious attitudes on participants.
We Pagans frequently criticize other religions — often Christianity, but sometimes others — for imposing outmoded ideals on practitioners about gender and sexuality, but that’s only so much empty posturing if we don’t apply that same sort of critical eye to our own communities and traditions.
This doesn’t mean we should not offer gendered mysteries, or have gendered spaces in our work. Instead, what we should be doing is looking at the assumptions we make in how we construct that work, and how we can create these spaces and implement these practices in a thoughtful and creative way.
To do this, Pagans need to begin by addressing ignorance and bias in our communities. When elders and co-religionists teach misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and ignorance, step up. Educate yourself. Listen to people whose genders and sexualities are different from yours. How does the path affirm them? What do they struggle with? What makes them feel included? Excluded? What do they want or need from you? Learn to be a good ally.
Pagans working in gendered paradigms also need to look long and hard about how the implications of that paradigm are being applied, and how to approach that work in a more inclusive way. While the Goddess and God in Wicca may be a perfect divine polarity, neither the natural world nor human beings manifest in this way. If one believes all things are born of their union, and that all things are a reflection of them, then taking into account the realities of our material world and how we manifest in it should be part of that work. The idea that one can force human-shaped pegs into theologically and philosophically ideal holes neither affirms the people involved nor honors deity. In fact, I’d say it does a disservice to both while reinforcing bias and privilege.
Practitioners need to begin looking at ways to make the practical work more inclusive. As I said before, this doesn’t mean an end to Men’s or Women’s mysteries. On the contrary, this work is both important and affirming to many in our communities. What it does mean is that we need to examine how we do the work, how our techniques exclude or affirm, and who is welcome.
A basic group ritual in which the script calls for certain lines to be spoken by men, with other lines to be spoken by women may seem benign, but such a script may exclude someone who identifies as genderqueer, or put someone who is closeted or questioning in a difficult position. It’s not difficult to revise a call-and-response chant to call for individuals on one side of a circle to say a line, or for individuals wishing to connect with the masculine to say a line, etc.
Likewise, gendered mysteries and rites of passage should be tailored to participants or communities. After all, which is more preferable: making a trans* boy undergo a rite of passage that proclaims him a woman because he’s begun to menstruate, or offering him a rite that helps him connect with the body he’s in while marking his transition into manhood?
Also, communities can include and affirm the sexualities participants in gendered mysteries by shedding the heterosexism and transphobia that so frequently crops up in gendered mysteries — seriously, if I hear one more men’s mysteries guy talk about the desire to hunt animals or women, I’m going to have opinions — and making sure that the lives of LGBTQ people are reflected in the language and lore. When groups plan events like Goddess Weekend or God Weekend, they need to consider: how are we including people whose bodies, sexualities, and identities don’t fit into a heterosexual cisgender binary? How are we creating spaces that are safe for everyone? When we hold women’s or men’s rituals, are we including all women and men? Are we making space for people who might identify as both? Neither? And when we as Pagans do make space for them, are we making certain that we’re really welcoming them to gendered work, and not just relegating them to the unisex rite ghetto?
Finally, the community needs to let people who who are LGBTQ or intersex define themselves. Our spiritual leaders and co-religionists are not the gender police, and they do not get to define the nature of other people’s relationships for them. If we’re talking about trans* people, for example, and you start to correct me about my own experience, or how being trans* works? You are doing it wrong.
Further, labeling LGBTQ people with culturally-specific or indigenous terms like “Two-Spirit” without their consent is never okay. Not only is that appropriation, but it also erases the identities we’re trying to express. I am not a Two-Spirit person. I am not a third-gender person. I’m a queer-identified transman with a complex gender, and if you don’t understand what that means to me so that you can include me, you’re going to have to sit down and listen so that you can work with me as an individual instead of making things up or telling me what my “real” gender or sexuality is about.
So yeah. Pagan community? Do better. I know we’re capable of it.