Friday, September 27, 2013

On Paganism's Diversity Problem 2: On Hetero-Cis-Sexist Norms

In my last post on this topic I talked about the friendly-racism within the Pagan community compelling people to believe that if we just stopped pointing out race racism would go away.  It's an important topic, but it's also one that doesn't directly affect me, being a white guy.  This next topic does affect me.  That doesn't make it more important, but it does mean I have lived experience.

That same workshop also delved into queer Pagan issues.  First, a story.  It'll set the stage, don't worry.

Here is a run-down of my very first public ritual.  I'd been a Pagan already for a full decade and had had serious coven-envy... I'd tried (and failed) to form covens as a teen, succeeding only in finding a few kind-of friendships that mostly fizzled away over the years.  I was excited to finally meet a large number of other Pagans all in one place.

The event started with a woman dressed as Glinda from the Wizard of Oz who proceeded to give a hilariously inaccurate Paganism 101 presentation before we all went to do an Ostara ritual.  There were maybe forty or fifty people in this ritual, mostly non-Pagans there to get class credit.  And one of the first things the caller did was tell us to "step forward" according to our gender as she called the God and Goddess.

This ritual not only forced me to choose between being accurate and outing myself in front of a large general-population group, it was also woefully heterosexist despite the (really neat) primary activity absolutely not needing it to be.

And you know, things haven't really improved much since then.  I've been to rituals where the organizers have actively attempted to make things inclusive to non-binary and non-hetero people, but they're usually either done from a place of misunderstanding or thrown in in a half-hearted attempt to appease people who have complained about it in the past.  There are still more attempts to rationalize why hetero symbolism in ritual is necessary even for queer people ("we all have a mother and a faaaather!" or similarly inaccurate tales).

This is an environment I'm actually quite used to, as disturbing as that may sound.  When I go to public Pagan events, it is with the full understanding that I will feel like an outsider.  I do not usually bring this up to organizers because experience has shown that it usually will not help and I'll feel like even more of an outsider.  This is an important thing to mention because the first thing I hear from people is that they had no idea that people were uncomfortable with the way they were doing things... most of us have pretty much learned that people don't listen to these concerns, so we stop bringing them up.

So the workshop I mentioned in my last post happened and the first topic was queer inclusion in Pagan spaces, to which multiple people immediately got angrily defensive and proclaimed that "this was not their experience."  So I said what I said above... I've never, ever been to a public ritual that actually made me feel included because all of them have been steeped in gendered terminology or heterosexual symbolism that I do not identify with.  Which of course also resulted in lots of questions and statements for which I have answers and, well, you might not like all of them.

1. The symbolism you're using at public Pagan rituals is hetero- and cissexist.

"What?!" as the response I usually get to this goes, "this isn't my experience!"  Well, no, it wouldn't be... if these symbols apply to you there's a good chance you won't notice that they're not universal.

Remember first when I say these are "heterosexist" or "cissexist," it's with the same spirit that I point out movies set at prom are usually heterosexist and pro-choice ads referring to people who require abortions as "women" are cissexist.  They aren't "wrong" so much as they leave out a big chunk of the human experience and are blissfully unaware of the fact that they do so.

Garden-variety Pagan rituals tend to use symbols that are very much geared toward heterosexual, binary-gender-privileged people... the dualism of the God and the Goddess, fertility symbolism, psychosexual symbolism with the dagger and chalice, the marriage-and-birth symbolism of the Wheel of the Year.  People think these are universal symbolism, but they aren't... they're only relevant to people who are able to conceptualize things from a hetero- binary-gender perspective and be comfortable with that.

I say "able to conceptualize..." rather than "queer Pagans" because the fact is there are queer Pagans who are fine with these symbols.  There are even people who actively justify it (Christopher Penczak justifies it in his book "Gay Witchcraft," for instance) and go to great lengths to rationalize why queering Paganism is unnecessary.  It's also worth mentioning that a large chunk of Pagans identify as bisexual, but that this doesn't make them above scrutiny for their treatment of queer issues (I wrote this before, but bisexuals can be pretty privilege-blind).  In fact, being bi--especially if you have kids or have primarily been in opposite-sex relationships--might make you more receptive to this kind of symbolism than if you are childfree, marriagefree, gay or lesbian, or non-binary-gendered.

2. Any rationalization you do to explain why queer Pagans need to identify with hetero- and cis- symbolism is through a privileged lens.

Before I go any further, I should explain that this has nothing to do with your personal practices or your coven practices.  If you identify with this symbolism, go ahead and use it.  There's nothing wrong with the symbolism itself.

What's wrong is the assumption that queer Pagans--or any other group of Pagans--should just inherently identify with it just because you do.  That's what's happening here.  People rationalize why these symbols are universal rather than accept that they aren't.

I'll give you an example.  There's talk of "The God" and "The Goddess."  This concept is actually not only alienating to queer Pagans.   It's sharply alienating to hard polytheists and therefore most Reconstructionists.  But as this essay is about queers, I'll just let you mull that over on your own time.  Even among soft polytheistic queer Eclectic Pagans this concept might be alienating as fuck, but people still try rationalizing why it shouldn't be by making some statement that says--in a nutshell--that all creation comes through "symbolic" hetero sex.  Any creation that doesn't look like it on the surface is chalked up to "mixing of male and female energies" of which we all allegedly possess both to some degree.

This is horrendously heterosexist thinking.  It only makes sense if you already identify with it.  Because no, not all creation comes from heterosexual sex.  There are plenty of lifeforms--including animals--that do not reproduce sexually or who have only one or more than two sexed forms.  In fact, conversations surrounding animal and plant reproduction should always be regarded as seen through a heterosexist and cissexist lens... animals and plants do not identify their sex to us, they are assigned a sex by humans!  (I once named my assigned-male Betta "Bella" and had a great time bringing up this fact).  Another favorite?  "We all have a mother and a father!"  Well, no, that's not true... in fact, it's increasingly untrue as more trans people decide to keep our right to reproduce (there are gay and bi trans men who gave birth as men with male partners... their children do not have a father and a mother, and any twisting you may try to do to rationalize why they do is transphobic to the point where, well, you can kind of fuck right off to be honest).

In other words, it just isn't as simple as people are making it out to be.  This symbolism might be just fine and dandy for you--and I invite you to continue using it--but don't assume the rest of us have to identify with it.  There are loads of ways to perform ritual without referencing gender, without referencing sex, while using a queer framework, and so on... and these are fine!

3. As a group we aren't nearly as feminist and queer friendly as we think we are.

Alright, roll-eye-worthy-memory time:  Sitting in this workshop listening to some straight white dude talking about how he's a "minority" in the Pagan world because everything is so focused on queer people and women.

This is a numeric bias.  If you're a straight cis white dude--oppressed in that you have a minority religion but otherwise pretty damn privileged--seeing a higher-than-usual regard for the feelings of women and queers can feel as though you are being disadvantaged.

You're not.  Seriously.

In fact, Pagan men are in many ways a heavily catered-to group.  There are more books dedicated to Pagan men than there are to Pagan women.  Pagan women's traditions are heavily influenced by second-wave feminism which has a less-than-stellar reputation as far as queer, trans, and race issues.  Pagan communities have been remarkably shitty at curtailing men's feeling of entitlement toward women's attention/touch/sexual behavior/nudity.  Pagan men are basically on a pedestal but we don't even realize it because the community pays somewhat more attention to women's issues than society at large.  We aren't even that much of a numeric minority.

And queer people... well, I don't need to go into that in this section, because I'm going over it in the rest of the essay.

The point is, the only reason we even have the ability to think we have a stellar record on these issues is because the bar is set ridiculously low.

4. People need to stop rationalizing trans exclusion in public Pagan space like yesterday.

If you are organizing any sort of event anywhere: NO PUBLIC RITUALS THAT EXCLUDE TRANS PEOPLE.  Fuck.  Why do I even need to say this?  People who are that dedicated to rituals that exist solely in relation to their genitals have the opportunity to do those rituals somewhere that isn't the general Pagan population.  I can't define peoples' traditions for them.  If people have all-cis covens, that's their business.  But public events are not covens.  They can't be selective about the type of energy they'll be inviting into their ritual anyway.  Why single trans people out as undeserving?  The only answer there is transphobia.  Don't be that person.

"But... but... this group insists on doing a trans exclusive ritual!  Can't trans people just have their own ritual?"

Whenever this comes up there's the suggestion that there be a women's ritual, a men's ritual, and either a "trans ritual" or a combined-gender ritual to appease the rest of us.  This is a big problem.

When trans people go to single-gender rituals... women's mysteries, men's mysteries, etc... it is because we are interested in affirming and celebrating that gender.  As a trans man, I took a different path to manhood and I value my transness, but when I celebrate gender mysteries I want to celebrate that manhood and not my transness.  Saying I should swap a men's ritual for a trans ritual is entirely missing the point.  Saying trans women should swap a women's ritual for a trans ritual is also entirely missing the point for the exact same reason.  Trans men and trans women could come together to create such a ritual, but it would only be in addition to and not as a substitute for men's and women's rituals.  Believing it's an appropriate substitute degenders us--makes our genders into "trans"--and that's to be frank really disgusting.  "Trans" isn't my gender, it's a descriptor of my gender... which is male.

I mention my own value of men's mysteries because it's important to me and I try to speak mostly from my own experiences, but the fact is that's an unfair characterization.  In reality men's Pagan groups and rituals are highly unlikely to exclude trans men.  All of the ones I've been involved with have gone out of their way to be supportive of trans men (one got rid of people who believed trans men should be excluded with enthusiastic abandon).  It's trans women who experience this problem, but that's another big reason this is such a problem:  This is a very crisp and clear case of transmisogyny rather than transphobia.  There is no rhyme or reason to it.

"What about non-binary gender people?"  There's a great idea here, but it's also a different issue.  Non-binary folk don't usually want access to "binary" gender rituals.  So a trans or non-binary ritual would be absolutely fantastic for these folk and I would totally support that... just not as a consolation prize for trans women (and less often trans men) who are shoved out of rituals dedicated to celebrating our genders. 

5. Queer practitioners of Paganism aren't shoehorning the Deities into our lifestyles any more than you are.

Alright, now that I've gotten past my trans exclusion tantrum (for now), I'd like to get back on track here... up in points one and two I talked about how hetero and cis symbolism isn't actually universal, it only looks that way if you're hetero and cis (or aren't but have spent a great deal of time rationalizing).  Along with this comes the accusation that people who queer Paganism are "shoehorning the God and Goddess" and making them into something they aren't.  "The God and Goddess don't need to be like you, so why would you make them queer?"  And other such tales.

I actually want to laugh really hard when I read this.

The reason is that many--not all, but many--Neopagans are viewing this Goddess as the culmination of all Goddesses throughout history, and the God similarly a combination of all Gods.  You're taking thousands of deities and packing them all into two... and then you say we're doing the shoehorning?

Were you not aware that there have been queer Deities throughout history that you've been shoehorning into this hetero couple God and Goddess?   The great bisexual Deities like Pan and Set and Zeus and Leto... and modern interpretations of Diana and Bast, not to mention figures and Deities that changed gender or have androgynous qualities like Aphroditus/Hermaphrodite, Loki, and Hapy.

Worshiping two Gods or two Goddesses as a couple or a genderqueer Godde or anything like that is no more shoehorning than deciding Bast, Hathor, and Sekhmet are an aspect of the Triple Goddess.

Alright, now for the practical stuff.

What can we do about it?  These are a few of my own ideas.  Keep in mind that these are not meant to trump your personal coven/circle/solitary practice (unless you want them to).  These are some ideas I've brainstormed to consider for public events where you're dealing with people from multiple traditions.

1. Just flat out admit that your rituals are not "universal" or "general Pagan." Ideally, allow people to view the ritual beforehand if they choose.
When people say "general Pagan" like 99% of the time they mean "Wiccan" or at least "Heavily Wiccan Inspired."  There's nothing wrong with just putting on a Wiccan ritual... but call it that.  There is literally no way to really create a Pagan ritual that's going to represent everybody.

2. Create rituals honoring specific Gods instead of soft-polytheistic Godheads.
This is my preference, being a hard polytheist navigating a soft polytheist community.  The first thing that alienates me from a ritual is having "The Lord and Lady" being called... not just because they're a hetero couple, but because people think these are nice and generic and universal when they absolutely aren't.  I don't actively worship Hekate, but if I were to go to a ritual honoring Hekate--even if most of the organizers and people going to the ritual view her as an aspect of the Goddess--it would be a lot more comfortable than going to one that presumed soft polytheism.  In addition, this will give people more context so they can duck out or observe from the sidelines rather than participate if it's something they're not comfortable with.  Speaking of which...

3. Don't say ridiculous shit like "Paganism isn't a spectator religion!"
My task for my first Pagan ritual was to hand ribbons out to people.  I was supposed to give them to everybody even if they didn't want to participate in the actual ritual, and that was their excuse.  "Paganism isn't a spectator religion!"  They kept pressuring me to force ribbons on people who had refused them (mostly Christian students who were there for class credit), but that's just the thing... not everybody is going to be comfortable engaging in your ritual, and you have to accept that that is OK.  If you're doing something for a Pagan Pride event or some other event that's in theory supposed to advocate, you need to respect peoples' boundaries.

4. If you are having a recurring ritual event, like a monthly esbat ritual, rotate who writes the ritual and from what lens.
Maybe one month you have a queer mysteries practitioner write a same-sex ritual and another you have somebody write one around a Divine Androgyne figure.  Maybe you might have a Kemetic practitioner do a Wep Ronpet ritual.  Note: Although it should always be an option to not attend a ritual, if people claim these are nonrelateable remind them that queer mysteries practitioners/Recons/etc. may feel that way at every ritual.

5. Allow people to call their own Deities.
This can get cumbersome if people want to say lengthy invocations, and Recons might not be comfortable mixing pantheons in a ritual, but this is an option if you're an eclectic group.

6. Do an Ancestor or Nature Spirit ritual.
These bypass the entire concept of Deities which is where a lot of this angst comes from.

7. Don't require people to disclose a gender.
Unless you're in a tight-knit coven or circle environment, don't split people off into gendered groups or force people to disclose.  This can force people to choose between lying or outing themselves (like my story above) and can alienate nonbinary-gender people.

8. Recognize that you can hold an event without a ritual.
A lot of this stress stems from rituals.  Rituals are great.  I'm not saying that you shouldn't do them.  But if you're tumbling with a lot of this stuff, realize that having a get-together or a sabbat celebration or whatnot doesn't inherently require a ritual... I mean, how many people celebrate Christmas but don't go to church?

It's getting late and although I feel like I'm forgetting something I guess I'll just write an addendum if I did.  Probably because it's a heavily expansive topic that's been a thorn in my side for a long time.