Pagan Leadership, Dissension, Transgender Activism, Ethics, and Community

6862835_xxl–by Shauna Aura Knight

Pagan communities are fraught with internal conflicts. There’s that saying, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?” We don’t need Fox News, or a judge ruling on a case, or a religious leader to tear us down. We do it pretty well ourselves. And there’s a thousand reasons for it, most of them done in innocence.

Where is that path paved in good intentions going? The Underworld, I think…

Recently there was hubub about an editorial in Witches & Pagans; basically, an assertion that the Pagan PR response to the defamatory comments made by Fox News about Pagans wasn’t that big a deal and there were other Pagan issues that deserved more attention. And there were responses tearing that editor down for what she wrote and blasting her.

Recently there was also a backlash response to some of Ruth Barrett’s comments about the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival; basically, she supported the “womyn born womyn” or “cisgender only” policy. Ruth Barrett, and others, have supported their stance with the idea that women need women-only space. You know, real women only, right?

Now, I can see how, in a generation or so, statements like that will be as faux pas as saying, “You know, we want white-0nly space. We don’t want to have to deal with sharing space with black people or brown people. We just want to be able to be ourselves, you know? White only, where we feel safe.”

The anti-trans argument is a segregation argument. That trans women are a “different” sort of women who can’t understand the experience of being real women and so shouldn’t be permitted to attend an event where they might offend “real” women.

Putting the long view on again–some day, we’ll just call trans women….women. Just like some day, gay marriage will just be…marriage. You don’t really hear people clarify, “Oh, that’s an interracial marriage.”

But as you might expect, a lot of people blasted Ruth Barrett for her stance, including me. And…there is another side to it. Ruth has been a fierce activist for women’s rights, and deserves respect for that work. And I’m sure it’s true that women who are victims of sexual assault are triggered by seeing women with male genital parts showering in the communal showers. As Melissa Murry said and I so often quote, it’s not an easy question, with no easy answers.

The last time I posted here on Pagan Activist it was about asking Pagans to be more ecologically conscious and to reduce their use of disposable items in ritual. And I took rather a lot of flack from Pagans, some of them event organizers who thought I was personally attacking them.

Pagan Community Building
All three of these scenarios are pretty common in our community. Someone in the Pagan community says something someone else doesn’t like, and they get blasted for it. But, how do we discern when to stand up and speak out? Part of activism is speaking up and standing up for what we believe. But, so very often, this becomes a fistfight of ego-bruising proportions that causes huge rifts in the community.

Starhawk often writes about how healthy dissent is important in a community. But, I see so few Pagan communities that are strong enough to sustain real dissent. For that matter, I see few Pagans with the communication skills to skillfully articulate dissent in a way that doesn’t tear a community apart. And I see few Pagan leaders who can sustain that level of negative feedback; as someone who’s had people tear me apart before, it can be hard to hear and work through. And all this is part of why I’ve devoted considerable time to teaching skills of Pagan leadership, community building, communication, and conflict resolution skills; because, to be stronger as a community, as a connected grouping of communities, we need to get better at this, or we’ll just keep ripping ourselves apart.

Before tearing someone a new one, have you thought through the issue? Is the issue really worth getting on your soap box about? There’s a spectrum of behavior here. On one extreme, you have angry loudmouths/toxic people who are never satisfied by anything and compelled to complain about everything. These are the folks that are referred to in the book “Antagonists in the Church,” often suffering from major personality disorders. On the other extreme, you have people who will excuse anything their group leader does in an unhealthy, cult-like codependence. I’ve seen both of these situations play out, and both actually still lead to a group exploding or imploding, it’s just a matter of when.

Discernment means checking in with yourself. Is this an issue that is just about you? Is it just about you needing to be right? Or is this a larger moral issue? Are you compelled by your ethics to speak out? There’s a difference between being an antagonist, and being an activist. But it’s sometimes a very fine line. For me, this kind of discernment requires me to know myself pretty well. What are issues that trigger me? What are things I’m personally passionate about? What’s my sense of ethics, what informs my ethics? What’s right and wrong to me? What’s right and wrong in the group I’m in? Does the group share my ethics and values or am I the odd duck out? When I’m triggered, what’s my instinctive reaction? How do I feel? When I’m angry, do I lash out?

Discernment requires we know ourselves really well, and that we are able to take a breath and look at the situation from a bit of a distance, so that we can make an informed decision about how to act. What happens if I speak up? What happens if I don’t speak up? Am I going to be the only one calling the Emperor on having no clothes?

Holding Paradox and Critical Thinking
A lot of debates and arguments I see in the Pagan community involve polarities, black/white thinking. This is either wrong, or right. I am either wrong, or right. And usually,  if you’re “right,” that means I’m “wrong.” What if, instead, we could hold paradox? That possibly, you and I can disagree on something, and neither of us need be “wrong” or “bad,” but perhaps we can hold that we have different opinions.

Often, the polarizing happens during triangulation and gossip. Basically, person A has an issue with person B but instead of telling person B, they complain to person C. “Do you know what C did to me at the last ritual?” C, having heard of this first from A, assumes that A is telling the truth. C is then polarized against B. We’re inclined to believe what we hear from someone we know well, or from the first person who approaches us to tell us a story about a conflict.

Again, discernment, and critical thinking, means we have to look at all sides. What’s the other side to the conflict? What are the needs beneath the conflict? Is it a conflict where both parties could hold paradox? Or is there an irresolvable difference? Critical thinking requires us to check our sources. Instead of just accepting someone’s word, it’s important to fact check, which means asking the other party for their side of the story. Not just accepting, “Well, people say.”

I’ve had a lot of feedback offered to me in the form of, “I have heard people say that you are…” and then they refuse to divulge their sources. “It’s confidential.” Usually, this is a sneaky way of bolstering their opinion by making it seem like they have the weight of many voices. As a leader, it’s still my job to listen to and consider feedback like that, but I also consider the person’s agenda. What do they have to gain? Is this a power play? Or is this feedback about something I’ve done as a leader that wasn’t in alignment with my values, and I require a course correction and to apologize?

Ego and Egotism
Ego isn’t bad. Ego is the psychic bag of skin that holds the innards of our mind together into a cohesive identity. Ego has a job, and that’s to make us look good; ego wants us to have a positive self image. Egotism, I usually experience as a backlash response to deep personal issues around poor self esteem. In the Iron Pentacle taught in Feri and Reclaiming, this is referred to as the Rusted and Gilded Pentacle. When we have poor self esteem, it’s a hole in the ego. Arrogance and egotism is a poor patch-job on that hole in our ego. Most of the arrogant, egotistical people I see have really huge issues with self image. The more they fear they’ll look bad, the more they puff themselves up. Many of these folks, at the core, identify as a victim, feel like they are always under attack.

I understand it, because I’ve been there. Choosing to heal the old wounds in my ego, to develop better self esteem, to take responsibility for myself and my actions and my choices…well. That’s the work of a lifetime. But it’s this work that allows me to hear feedback and not immediately overreact to it. I can consider what’s being said. I might get pissed, I might get hurt, but eventually I can listen to it and check in. Did I do something wrong as a leader? Do I need to change my behavior? Do I need to apologize? Or am I listening to the sniping of an antagonist?

Or is it something in the middle; someone who has a genuine concern, because their own issues of self identity are triggered by something I said or did? Is it an ethical issue, a values issue, or an issue of a wound being triggered, or something else?

Communication and Conflict Resolution
There’s one tool I teach in my leadership classes that, if we actually all used this tool, I think most of the community conflicts would be reduced or even eliminated. Or at least, most of the needless ones. The tool is the Four Levels of Reality, taught to me at Diana’s Grove, and taught to them by Jean Houston.

  1. Physical Reality: What actually happened. “Pat stood 30 feet away from me in the circle and squinted.”
  2. Mythic Reality: We don’t see physical reality, we tell an instant story. “Pat glared at me.”
  3. Emotional Reality: The story we create in our head creates an instantaneous emotional response. “Pat hates me, they are glaring at me, I’m so angry at them, I’m so embarrassed.”
  4. Essential Reality: Why is that the mythic reality we chose, the story we wrote? Why didn’t we think, “Pat is squinting at the sun,” instead? Essential Reality is our core issues of identity and self esteem, how we frame the world. If we assume that everyone actually hates us because no one has ever really liked us, that’s essential reality. It’s our core identity, but it’s an identity that can be changed. This requires a lot of personal work. If you find you approach everything as a victim, that people are out to get you, that nobody likes you…that might be some areas to consider doing some personal spiritual work.

Poor self esteem and poor self image are at the root of many of the conflicts I see. Person A and person B have a massive argument because both are so petrified of people seeing them be “wrong” that they can’t fathom backing down. Ego’s job is to keep us feeling positive about ourselves. And…if I’m wrong, then I’m “bad,” right? And if I’m “bad,” then I’m a bad person, and nobody will like me, right? Then I’ll die alone.

Doesn’t have to make sense, it’s just how it works for some of us. And the irony is, by being the jerk who has to be right all the time, people really do start to dislike us and withdraw from this.

Take this from my personal experience. I used to be the self-loathing jerk who had to be right all the time. I’ve done a lot of personal work around this. I still get my hackles up sometimes, I want to be “right.” But I can usually head it off at the pass. I am a lot more confident in myself than I was 10 years ago, and it allows me to not rise to the bait of the “I have to be right” folks. It allows me to hold discernment about how to respond to a disagreement.

The Four Levels tool offers two potential roads for personal and group work. The first is exploring your mythic responses, and the essential reality under them. It offers the potential to create a new essential reality for yourself, heal the old wounds that are driving your actions and responses.

Direct Communication
However, there’s also the external work of checking in with people directly. If Pat is squinting at me, and I’m not sure if Pat is glaring, or what, it’s pretty simple. I can go and ask Pat, “Hey, in Circle you were squinting, were you glaring at me or just squinting at the sun?” Maybe Pat says, “Just the sunlight, sorry!”

Or maybe Pat says, “Yeah, I was really pissed at you because you…” and then you have an opportunity to address the conflict.

But, most of you won’t ever do this.

If we actually directly addressed things, most of the conflicts out there would dissolve without drama because most conflicts are over us making up stories in our heads based on our past wounding. But given our passive-aggressive culture, we’re taught to not bring anything up until we’re so pissed off that we can’t hold it in anymore and we blow up in a fit of temper.

For me, part of being an activist, and someone who is empowered to bring up the voice of dissent in groups I am part of means doing my own ruthless personal work to know who I am, where I stand, to heal the wounds of my past and to hold discernment for the issues I’m bringing up. Sometimes I realize that something I’m bringing up is just “about me” and I don’t need to speak up; I’m not standing in alignment with my values, in my integrity, if I speak out when it’s actually about my own issues. Sometimes, I realize that the cost of not speaking up, is not calling the Emperor out on their lack of clothes. And that isn’t standing in my integrity either.

Sometimes only history can tell us the “right” of our actions.

For my part, I have the discernment to hold both perspectives offered by the editorial in Witches & Pagans. I see the author’s point, and, I also think the Pagan PR response to Fox’s comments was also important. With Ruth Barrett and other Dianic and Feminist voices speaking out against Trans women being included in women-only events, I feel that this is a civil rights issue, and it’s only a matter of time before our society catches up to what’s right, just as states are slowly legalizing gay marriage, and as once upon a time, women were given the right to vote, and people of color were given legal equal rights.

I got torn apart by people who disagreed with me that Pagans should stop using styrofoam and other non-ecologically-friendly items, and some of that feedback hurt. But, it’s the voice of dissent that needs to be heard, even if it’s unpopular.

I’d like to call on each of us to learn how to communicate more skillfully. To read books like Nonviolent Communication to learn how to give more effective feedback, to read books on leadership and community building, to learn to have respectful discourse, to do our own personal work to become the people who don’t fly off the handle at the slightest insult. To learn how to build and strengthen our groups instead of tearing them apart from the inside.

Only when we come at activism, and standing up, from a place of ethics and integrity, is the dissenting voice going to have the kind of impact we hope for.


BioShauna2Shauna Aura Knight is an author, artist, ritualist, community builder, activist, and spiritual seeker. She travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, community leadership, and spiritual growth. She’s the published author of books and articles on leadership, ritual facilitation, and personal transformation, as well as an author of fantasy fiction. Her mythic artwork is used for magazines, book covers, and personal shrines. Check out her blog on Pagan leadership and community building or her web site for more information on upcoming classes, rituals, books, and articles.


23 thoughts on “Pagan Leadership, Dissension, Transgender Activism, Ethics, and Community

  1. Sarenth

    I agree with your point that a good deal of the problems the Pagan communities face comes down to discernment. In fact, I would say most of it does. It may take a lot of separating out one’s initial reactions to a thing and recognizing that a reaction is directly influenced by pattern recognition clouding one’s judgment in this scenario and a reaction to an adverse environment that is informed by the selfsame pattern recognition in another. That takes a lot of work to be able to pick your own head apart like that.

    Some things we could do is look at discernment in several directions, namely in terms of defining how we can discern what a leader is here to do, what followers/congregationalists are here to do, and what independent Pagans are here to do. Given that we have Pagan communities rather than a singular Pagan community, I’m sure there will be tons of answers, as I believe there should. Some of them are:
    What are Pagan leaders here to do? What are the expectations we ought to have of them? What should they expect of their communities? What community-specific expectations are there/should there be of Pagan leaders? What community-specific expectations are there/should there be of Pagan followers/congregationalists, and/or individuals?

    I think you have answered some of the very deeply important questions I would have had, like ‘how can we communicate more effectively?’ and ‘why do some seem to lash out at leaders?’

    I think before we can dig into the meat of discernment and leadership some of the core questions of what we want our leaders to actually be need to be answered. Are our leaders religious specialists, i.e. priests and priestesses? Are they community organizers? What roles do they otherwise share?

    I think that thinking deeply on these questions, finding places for our leadership as well as our followers/congregationalists, and/or individuals is deeply important and gives us keys to effective dialogue on what kinds of leaders are appropriate for our communities, and what needs must be addressed by and for each one.

    I find that sometimes simple boundary-setting is the hardest thing to do. Setting standards, as you mention above, is not easy, and is especially ruthless for the work you do. It isn’t easy for a wide variety of reasons, which could be an entire blog post in and of itself. Yet I see that it is one of many effective antidotes to the poison churning in the communities we interact in.

  2. Deirdre Hebert

    I think there are a few reasons why we tend to be confrontational.

    Certainly one of these reasons is because, as you suggest, we don’t practice a bit of introspection before we lash out; we automatically assume that we know what the other person was thinking – we are personally insulted, and we lash out.

    The second reason though, involves the Internet, and the nature of such written, electronic communications. The written word requires a good deal more skill than verbal communications to articulate the nuances that we normally add to our speech. It is far easier to appear insulting with the written word than with the spoken word, when there is no intent at all to be insulting.

    Along with this, there is the pure and simple ease of using the web as a platform or soap-box. Because the fallout is always delayed, It’s easy to say what we want, however hurtful and cruel it might be, and then close our laptops and go away. Later, we can read, or not, whatever responses might be there – or just glance over them and ignore the vitriol that might come our way – ignore the wreckage we caused.

    I know that I’ve said things, and not said things, and both have hurt people; sometimes people that I care for deeply. I recall a therapist I was once talking to saying that one of the saddest of human interactions is when there are two people who love each other, but who share incompatible views – and where each of those views is right. As children of a Western World, we have been brought up with a philosophy that suggests that if we are right, that someone with a different view must be wrong. Sometimes, this is true, but it’s not always so.

    The way I interpret the Wiccan Rede is this: I look at my actions, and if they will cause no harm, I’m free to act with liberty. But if they will cause harm, and there are few actions that will never cause some harm, to somebody, then I should choose the path that will cause the least harm to achieve whatever goals I find are necessary.

    One example, which you noted is transgender rights. Those who view transgender women as “men”, will necessarily face some pain, some “harm” when their views are confronted or challenged. Just as important is the idea that I may experience some “harm” in the achievement of someone else’s goals. As a pre-op transsexual, I recognize that I may not be permitted in some rites that I should like to attend. I can view this as harm; or I can view it as a rite for which I am not qualified for initiation – at least at present.

    I think though, that if both sides of a discussion were more circumspect, and willing to look through the lens of the other, that there might be more resolution and less acrimony. Maybe one tool we could use would be to trade places, to advocate – at least for sake of argument – the opposing position. I wonder if I could make the argument, effectively, for the WBW position of Michfest. I wonder if Ruth could make an effective argument for inclusion of trans-women at that festival. I wonder if positions might change after trying to advocate – even if it’s just in a debate – for each other’s positions.

    I also think that civility should be the rule, rather than the exception, though I’ve at times let my emotions get the better of me. One of the skills I’m trying to learn is how to be respectful, yet firm. That is a very difficult balance to achieve, and I commend those who do achieve it. I hope that someday, I’ll be able to count myself among them – it’s not easy to avoid having one’s passions get the best of you.

  3. Liz

    I love this article! There is a book I want to recomend. It’s called the Four Agrements, which are 1) make no assumptions (don’t assume she was glaring at you in circle) 2)be impecable with your speach (ask if she was glairing and if so at whom), 3) always to your best (by doing so, you can forgive youself for mistakes) 4. don’t take anything personaly (because maybe you just arn’t really important enough to be the source of whatever)

    Read the book, it will transform your life!

  4. swanspirit

    Pagan men have men only (real men right?) events , where a drivers license identifying the man as a male is required . Why is that not ok for women?

  5. Sarenth

    Just because there are ‘men only (real men right?)’ events does not mean I support them, agree with their rationale, or believe that what they say are ‘real men’ are real men.

    This ‘real men’ and ‘real women’ thing that goes around is often more about caricatures or stultifying portrayals of *some* real men and women, but into which a good deal of us simply do not fit.

    It is not ‘okay’ with me because saying either one is okay, ‘men-born-men’ or ‘womyn-born-womyn’, is me agreeing that their gender, sexual, and other views, politics, etc. in regards to gender and identity are okay, and I could not disagree more.

    I am not my sexual organs.
    Should my sexual organs fail, or my penis be removed by intention or accident, I do not suddenly stop being a man. I am a man because that is part of my identity, and so long as we tie my penis to my identity, indeed making *it* the sole identifier of my maleness, there is a lot missed out on and much of my identity is put by the wayside.

    I cannot speak directly for or in place of transgendered people. For me this one of many reasons is why I object personally to my identification of a male being bound up with my sex organs, sex organs that, for some men have never worked, never will work, and will never be used for reproduction.

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  7. Dennis Velco

    I stumbled across this website based on the content and topic of this posting. I am personally Unitarian Universalist with Pagan leanings. I appreciated the article and the comments thus far. It is always wonderful to have conversations where we listen with heart and mind and open dialog.

    Thanks for this article and your reporting. What you do is appreciated.

    I posted it to my LGBT Group on LinkedIn with over 19,800+ global members to spur members to read your article and to make comment. I also scooped it at Scoop.It on my LGBT Times news mashup.

    Link to group >>

    All LGBT+ and community allies…. please come join me and 19,800+ of your soon to be great connections on LinkedIn. The member base represents 80% of the world’s countries.

    It’s core value is – Visibility can lead to awareness which can lead to equality. Come stand with us and increase our visibility on the globe’s largest professional networking site. Be a professional who just happens to be LGBT – or a welcomed community ally.

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  9. barefootwitch


    Let’s also use discernment when attacking groups or events for wanting women-only women space, as well. As a high priestess in a women-only women coven, I’ve been the target of lots of vitriol. This makes me automatically feel like I’m on the defensive, that I need to defend my choice. When really, I am the one who created a group, and have been working very hard, making sacrifices for it for almost ten years, and I should get to include who I want to include. I DO have many reasons for the women-born women only experience, but besides that, it comes down to discernment- I get to pick and choose who I include in my spiritual family. I have nothing against transwomen. I founded a witchy women’s social group that meets that happily includes transwomen. I don’t really care how someone wants to identify themselves- it’s their own business.

    If I’m running an event on blood and wombworking, etc. it’s my responsibility to make sure that all of the people attending the event are comfortable. Some may feel uncomfortable talking about menstruation and what comes with it if men, or those who’ve never experienced womanblood are present. If I’m facilitating a silent meditation workshop, and someone brings their noisy kid, am I discriminating against single parents (I’ve heard this one too)? Or if someone with a disability that causes them to fidget or speak uncontrollably wants to attend- then I’m discriminating against the disabled.

    As a facilitator, it’s MY RESPONSIBILITY to use my discernment to create a workshop that will include those who will make it successful. Sure, many workshops can be adjusted for the disabled or to allow kids, but if that’s not what you signed up for, it’s annoying. And as a facilitator, we get blamed for that. That’s why expectations do need to be very clear. *Women-born women, only. *Gay men only. *Men only. *Adults and kids over 12 allowed. *Everyone is welcome!

    I just hate this sense of entitlement that seems to have leaked into the Pagan community. I get messages all the time like, “I’ve chosen to join your coven, when can we meet?” Uh, that’s not how it works. “But it’s not FAIR! Why can’t I just join your coven?” I use my discernment to turn away women who wouldn’t be a good fit. Only applicants that would be a good fit are allowed into our dedicant program. And we have strict bylaws and special requirements one need to abide by while in the coven. It’s worked really well, with a very limited amount of drama.

    But now, we have teachers who work hard to create classes, groups, events, etc. and then the community tells them how they should facilitate their classes. Newsflash- no one has a RIGHT to attend Pagan events.

    People connect with one another through commonalities. Sometimes it’s the ownership of a vagina or societal pressures growing up as female. Sometimes it’s a love of Greek deity. Some connect with one another through being transgender. Sometimes connection is through being a gay man. Sometimes just be identifying as Pagan. Sometimes by being Latino or African American- I’ve seen this (those groups exist mainly to honor deities/traditions from their ancestral heritage that I’ve seen).

    Right now, the hot button is the trans community, though, I’m sure the scope will expand as the entitlement generation does as well (not aligning entitlement with all of the transcommunity, but as a growing phenomenon). I’m actually planning to embark on a project about inclusivity in Pagan groups- if I, as a girly looking women-born woman said that identify as a gay man, would I be considered for a gay men’s coven?

    By being super inclusive, many times the meaning of the ritual/ workshop/ activity is lost, as it will be tailored in a generic fashion, since so many different kinds of people are attending, there aren’t a lot of commonalities to connect through. This is not to say that inclusive workshops/ritual are bad- they totally have their place, but those who plan to attend need to have clear expectations. And most workshop/ classes ARE inclusive- they include everyone!

    It’s up to the facilitator of the group/event, etc. to use their discernment to make their class/event successful- so that all of their hard work isn’t for nothing. That the Pagan community is now expecting inclusivity for most events/groups/workshops- not even allowing the facilitator to offer the class/event they WANT TO without bringing the torches and pitch forks out, is a shame. How would you like it to create a well-researched, meaningful ritual honoring Greek deity, only to be told by one of your attendees that you need to include Norse deities also for them. THIS HAPPENS. This entitlement is getting out of control.

    I keep hearing how there is a lack of good Pagan teachers, and close-knit, focused covens. But then we tell leaders that their groups should include everyone. But a coven/group without connection through commonalities will likely fail. When did we stop trusting the discernment of our Pagan teachers? When did we stop respecting the value and the wisdom they bring to the table? Why do we feel the need to tell our teachers how to teach? Do we think that poking them with pitchforks, telling them to include everyone.

    BESIDES that part- I enjoyed the article, especially the part about communication and conflict resolution- these are key points in my high priestess training program. Nip any possibly misunderstandings in the bud- so that they won’t grow, get out of control and bloom into drama! I’m going to look into that book you mentioned.

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  11. Renna Shesso

    “…You know, real women only, right?
    Now, I can see how, in a generation or so, statements like that will be as faux pas as saying, ‘You know, we want white-only space. We don’t want to have to deal with sharing space with black people or brown people…'”

    I can see the point you’re trying to make (and it’s a point with some strong emotional heft) but how many black or brown people have race-change surgery? It’s not an apt analogy, but let’s flip it around: Should I as a white woman feel entitled to attend an event aimed at, say, “social activism and consciousness-raising, from black women to their daughters”? Or “curandera traditions we women learned from our grandmothers”? How about “networking for people of color in the Wiccan community”?

    If someone identifies themselves to me as female, they’re welcome at my occasional women-only event. I’m not going to peek down anyone’s pants or check state-issued IDs. But when someone self-identifies as trans, in my experience it means they’re still focussing on that change and what that transition means. I honor that, but it doesn’t mean we have the same issues or needs, or a shared frame of reference, or parallel past experiences.

    The pagan community tends to be extremely inclusive, which makes me proud and joyful, but we sometimes carry this to extremes that make no sense whatsoever. For example, how do we define “crone”? Even with guidelines like “55 and older, and/or post-menopausal,” we had a nursing mother show up to a crone’s gathering and demand inclusion (unsuccessfully), based on her many experiences of giving birth. Should everyone have access to everything? Really?

    When I visit a sweat lodge, I accept a generally-unspoken agreement to honor the traditions as practiced in that specific lodge, whether or not I would ever choose to adapt them in my home lodge. I’m there as a guest, not as a teacher, and it’s not my role to “correct” THEIR ceremony. I honor their ways as an act of cultural respect.

    Is there a specific range of experiences unique to those of us who were born into female bodies, and the paths we’ve walked? I think so, and those who adapt a female body and path later in life haven’t shared many of those experiences (for starters, no menstruation talk, no bloody underwear, and no tampons), just as I haven’t shared many of their experiences. No fault, but to insist on equal-access equivalency implies a sameness in identities that can short-change both of us.

    We say we honor our community’s diversity. When we as women occasionally claim our own space, shouldn’t our choice be honored in that same light?

  12. hisleara

    You know, i really think you hit this one on the nose. I once went to a youth camp called Anytown. Everything there was gender neutral, even the showers. Not once did I have an issue with a man (cis or trans!) saying anything inappropriate in the showers. It just didn’t happen. In fact, we usually showered at specific times. So it was more of a, “these people like to shower at 7 pm too… and hey, these two guys start singing in the shower, and make us all crack up!” situation. We eventually were made to stop sharing bathrooms due to a SEPARATE issue where one of the boys was, i believe, hitting on one of the “counselor” type people (they were usually not much older than us. A year or two.).

    Point being, i’m a victim of sexual assault/molestation. But not once did i freak out about having boys in the bathroom with me. It’s not like i ever had to see a penis – all of the toilets were sit down, and the showers were all separate stalls. Instead, it just made me feel more at home.

    Here you are talking about the Pagan religion in particular (and, i believe this can be used for any religion, really. Just switch around some words!). This is a religion where, generally, people worship both Gods and Goddesses, not just one or the other. So why all the separation? In many holiday rituals, a man is needed to play the role of the God during his cyclical life cycle, just as a woman is needed for the role of the Goddess. Heck, many rituals are done sky-clad for many! Why does it suddenly bother us who has what genitalia?! If it’s a problem, i say, don’t look. Or move to a coven or gathering that does not do work in the nude. Problem solved.

    For the record, i would like to say i think the fact that you took heat for pushing for Earth-friendly ritual items was ridiculous. Many, if not all, Pagans practice Earth-based religion, the God and Goddess both being connected to the Earth (if they are not the Green Man or Horned God or Earth Mother themselves!). Since when have we not been told by our religion to protect and cherish the Earth? Craziness.

    i will ask, however, as one of those practitioners with a personality disorder… do you know for sure that those ones you spoke of actually “usually” have a “major personality disorder”? Or is that speculation? If it is speculation, i would ask that you don’t say things like that… Those of us who do have personality disorders do see things (at least for my particular personality disorder!) as attacks frequently as a nature of the disorder. Luckily, today is a good day, and i’m able to ask questions instead of jump the gun and down your throat! That is what you were advocating for, isn’t it? 😉


  13. hisleara

    i apologize, but i need to add an addendum to my previous comment.

    Not all Pagan cultures do not accept those who are trans. In fact, some welcome them and give them special roles, sometimes with the men, sometimes with the women, and sometimes by themselves. i would ask people to look into the situations of “winktes” in the Native American culture (i believe it’s Lakota, but i could be wrong). These are either gay or trans individuals and are given special gender roles, from what i understand. There is no talk of them not being a “real” this or a “real” that. They are just themselves.


  14. Shauna Aura knight Post author

    I want to thank folks for the respectful discourse, particularly when you’re disagreeing with something. I’ve been thinking about responses, but I’m out of town teaching a ritual arts class at the moment. When I’m back home, I’ll have a few thoughts to share. Thanks!

  15. Deirdre Hebert

    Dear Barefoot witch,
    I don’t object to most of what you wrote – we all have the right to have those in our group with whom we are comfortable. It would be wrong of me to suggest that because I’m a Pagan, I belong in your group – that’s not how magick works. There is a reality to spirituality and magick, and there needs to be some compatibility. If there is a great deal of discomfort, it will be difficult to work with a unity of purpose.

    Likewise, we all have the right to define who we shall, and shall not have in our circles. If I say that in my circles, all are welcome, and prejudice and bigotry will not be tolerated, and someone has a problem with that, then it is they who are defining themselves as incompatible with the purposes of that group. If I wished to start a group for transgender women, then anyone who isn’t, simply wouldn’t belong. That’s not bigotry, it’s unity of purpose, and I don’t have a problem with that. It’s the same for a group for cis-gendered women. I don’t have a problem with such groups – it’s unity of purpose.

    What I do have a problem with is a group that claims to be “for women only”, but then chooses to define “women” narrowly and exclusively – suggesting that anyone who doesn’t meet “their definition” aren’t real women. That is insulting and demeaning. I have more of a problem with groups that claim to be open to women, who give no indication on their literature that they actually exclude certain women who don’t meet their criteria, and who then reject people at the gate after they have spent a great deal of money to attend. (Think MWMF, who don’t state the anti-trans policy on their website.)

    I did have a problem with your use of the word “entitlement”. As human beings, we are ALL entitled – we all deserve to be treated with dignity and with respect – whatever our views, whether we’re male, female, lesbian, gay, bi, straight – whatever. Likewise, we are all charged to treat each other with dignity and with respect.

    I am a transsexual woman. When it comes time to express my gender, the operative word, however, is “woman”. The modifier is simply an adjective, like black, white, native American, menopausal, post-menopausal, pregnant, childless, single, married, lesbian, straight or any other adjective which might modify “woman”. What is difficult for me to comprehend is groups of woman which exclude only one “type” of woman – trans. I hear “trans-women haven’t bled”. Okay, then why not open the group to only women who have bled? But that would exclude any other woman who hasn’t bled. Or we’ll hear that “trans women weren’t raised as girls”. What of the genetic female who was raised as a boy? Should they be excluded as well?

    Again, I have no problem with space for women who bleed, for those who have given birth, for lesbians, for women who have gone through menopause, for women who love men, for any “type” of woman, for that matter. It’s just difficult to be in a world that has groups that exclude ONLY trans women. It makes me wonder how popular a group would be if they excluded only white women, only black women, only women with red hair, only married women, only women larger than size 10, or any other arbitrary “type” of woman.

    Trans women are not men seeking access to women’s space. Trans women are simply women who do not wish to be defined as “other”; who wish to see the word “woman”, rather than “transsexual” as the operative, defining word which expresses our gender. It’s not a matter of “entitlement”; any woman is “entitled” to be called “woman”.

  16. Wolfmaan

    You make some very good points in your article All too many times I see bullies spreading rumours, and people damaging eachothers character out of sheer ignorance and self-loathing. It is no wonder pagan people get a bad name. Thank you for your insights!

  17. Anon Ymous

    As a Black woman, I can tell you that in my view, while transgender prejudice and racist prejudice share elements, they are not equivalent and do not express themselves identically in many instances. Also, many people of color have POC-only spaces, and I can tell you that as a person of color, I find that these spaces can be necessary and healthy and can be extremely important. While I don’t necessarily support “white only” spaces in most instances, it would be helpful when working on issues of racism. Even Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum said as much in her book, ” ‘Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria?’ And Other Conversations About Race”. I also think that (as a cis-woman) all ‘cis’ spaces are not necessarily a bad thing all the time.

  18. Pingback: What to do About That Annoying/Disruptive Group Member | Shauna Aura Knight

  19. MercuryVincenzo

    I see some interesting misconceptions here. The first is that this is a binary proposition. For all you who think male or female is fixed at birth, what do you want to do about folks who are born intersexed? Where do you classify them or can you? If you cannot, how can you classify anyone because your criteria break down when you try to apply it to intersexed. How do you know that transgender is not another form of intersexed? There is ample evidence that trans brains are different and correspond to the gender that a transperson sees him/herself as. Now to another point, my DL says male, as does my passport, as does my Soc Sec card, etc. However, my birth certificate does not have male on it. Do I qualify to be part of an all male ritual or an all female ritual? Which ID counts? What is the test? My T levels are above average for a man of my age. My body is hairy all over including my face. I sing baritone.Transphobia is about hate and fear. And I find it ironic as hell that one of my friends who is a conservative, Christian man has far more acceptance than some “so called pagans”. And I am referring to transphobic Pagans with that comment.

  20. Pingback: Racism, Rape Culture, and Pagan Events | Pagan Activist

  21. Tina Harper

    You had me until you blamed people with “mental illnesses” as one of the causes of constant complaints and discord. Please, please, please stop blaming mental illness for all the discord and discontent within the pagan community. There was a time when homosexuality and lesbianism was considered a mental illness and people were treated horribly. I know. I have seen it all. Now, today, where it’s anathema to mention being gay or transgender in any negative way (and rightly so), people with mental illnesses are being treated as the new scapegoats from societal discord to terrorism. Mental illness is not one illness, it lies on a continuum where some illnesses are not as severe as others i.e. schizophrenia is a very severe mental illness if left untreated however depression or anxiety disorder is very mild. Most people affected with mental illness are aware of it and are receiving successful treatment. You do realize that you did to people with mental illnesses what you are saying pagans (and the world at large) should never be able do to gay and transgender people? You blamed them as a cause of community discord; you put a target on their backs. Maybe we should think about the fact that a pagan community is made up of all kinds of people with different temperments, personalities, histories and perceptions so discord is going to happen. To give them a scapegoat is not responsible. Consider that once the community becomes aware of the fact that a member has a mental illness, for which they are receiving treatment, they can use it to the individuals detriment. All of a sudden that argument between the individual and another is a psychotic break, not a simple difference of opinions, or because the individual is crying after a particular ritual (and I have seen “normal” people break down as well) it’s because they are mentally unbalanced, not because of the intense emotions and energies they have just been dealing with or a need to centre and ground. Mental illness is the new witch hunt and there are many of these individuals who exist in my community who I advise to keep their illnesses secret because of this automatic, go to, blame game. I appeal to all pagans, no matter what path you follow, please do not see the illness, see the person and do not shun or shame them out of the community that they have also found, like you, to be so welcoming and nourishing to their soul. We all need to be more understanding and compassionate and “save space” before snapping to any kind of judgment about anybody for any reason. Thanks for letting me comment.

  22. Shauna Aura Knight Post author

    Hi Tina, I hear you. I really do. As a Pagan leader–and as someone who teaches Pagan leadership–I struggle with what to tell people about mental illness, because mentally ill Pagans are frequently a cause of difficulties in groups whether as a group member, or as a group leader. And I myself struggle with anxiety and depression. I’m absolutely aware that there’s a hugely unfair stigma. And yet, I also see mentally ill Pagans cause problems in groups and communities regularly enough that it’s a pattern.

    I suppose what is first useful to say (and it should be obvious, but I guess it isn’t to many people) is that mental illness is a broad category. There are a lot if different types of mental illness. Some are treatable, some aren’t. Some types of mental illness can mean that the person is a danger to others, some aren’t. Even within a specific diagnosis, like Bipolar, there are hundreds, thousands of ways it can manifest and be treated. Some people respond well to a treatment plan, and others consistently go off their treatment and can, at times, cause harm to people around them.

    And then there’s the further challenge of the cost of mental health care. I do disagree with you that “Most people affected with mental illness are aware of it and receiving treatment.” I vehemently disagree with this statement. Not only do I know of many people who are unable to afford any kind of treatment, I’m aware of many other folks who are completely unaware of their behavior. Getting back to the costs, I know of some folks with Bipolar who know exactly what medication works for them–except, that one’s not covered by their insurance, so if they can’t afford to pay $300 out of pocket per month, they are screwed. Another friend has ADHD, which has caused him problems in the workplace. And that’s a downward spiral, because without a job, he can’t afford the meds that help his condition, and then that makes it harder for him to apply for jobs or get an interview. He was able to land another job without meds, however, he got fired from that one because he hadn’t caught up on enough bills to afford his meds, and it was affecting his work again. And I know of a number of people who have a treatment plan, and they still go off their plan regularly in a way that’s harmful to themselves and others.

    It’s difficult to talk about mental health in the Pagan community because there are so many nuances. It’s true that mentally ill people are stigmatized, and it’s also true that Pagan groups rarely have the kind of resources that more organized religions with clergy and counseling training have, or some larger churches do as far as assisting those with mental illness. It’s also true that there are mentally ill Pagans out there, often enough in leadership positions, who have no business being in leadership. Some of the major personality disorders like Narcisissistic personality disorder isn’t really treatable. It’s possible, but unlikely. Borderline PD used to be untreatable too, though I’m aware of that that is changing. There are times when sociopaths end up in Pagan groups–or leading them.

    Mental illness doesn’t break down well into an easy yes or no concept. It’s not true that all mentally ill people are dangerous for groups. Nor is it true that all mentally ill people are safe.

    I often say, don’t worry about labeling the mental illness, see the pattern of behavior. If someone in your group (or your group leader) is continuing to engage in behavior that harms the group, don’t worry about the specific diagnosis of what mental illness it is. If their behavior is to the detriment to the group, then they should not be involved in the group, and they certainly shouldn’t be leading it.

    Too many Pagan groups have tried to keep holding space and trying to “fix” someone who repeatedly engages in harmful, even abusive behavior. This is a frequent (perhaps the most frequent) cause of Pagan groups blowing up. There’s a balance, and it’s not an easy one. Yes, hold space, see what’s going on. But when someone is repeatedly engaging in harmful behavior despite being offered feedback about their behavior, it’s time to remove them from the group, or to leave the group ourselves, in the case that the leader’s the one doing it.

  23. Isabel Herrera Hagar

    I am a Mexican/American female. I’m sixty-nine years old. People in the Pagan community assume I am into Mexican/Hispanic witchcraft. Even one of the commenters here said something about Hispanics and curanderas. Curanderismo is not necessarily a Pagan practice. All the curanderas I knew growing up were Catholic. I have even had a young man tell me that he practiced the religion of his ancestors, Norse Paganism. So why didn’t I practice the religion of my ancestors like the Aztecs or Mayas. I answered him that it was against the law everywhere to remove the still beating heart of a sacrifice and offer it to the Sun God. Of course if he wanted to volunteer… I tried for a while to belong to a CUUP group but they did not make me feel very welcome. Actually it was the leader that seemed to have issues of insecurity with me. Because I had been a Pagan for so long and had studied so many traditions and mythologies she felt I might want to “take over”. Also as you mention in the blog, having similar backgrounds and ages helps. Most of the people in this group were from Fort Bliss, they were in their early to late thirties with young families and mostly Anglo Saxon. I have never had problems relating to any of these demographics but apparently the leader felt a bit ill at ease with me and let me know it in many ways. Instead of fighting the tide or confronting the situation I just stopped going and went back to being a solitary. I can’t see the point in forcing my way into a group where the leader doesn’t want me.

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