When I first became aware of the word “activism” it was usually in context of people who would go and protest at things. In fact, I used to shy away from the word activist, because I felt that I wasn’t a “real” one. So what if I recycled, and talked about environmental sustainability. I wasn’t out there with my signboards shouting and chanting and blocking traffic and getting arrested.
However, years ago I was given a definition of the word “Power” as “The ability to take an action,” while I was in the leadership and ritual arts training program at Diana’s Grove. And the way I see activism, it’s not synonymous with protesting. Activism, much like power, is taking an action. It’s standing up, speaking up.
And that sounds so simple, and it’s not.
Standing Up is Difficult
How many times have you been in an uncomfortable situation where someone’s made a racial, transgender, or homophobic joke you don’t feel comfortable with? Or watched someone using or buying styrofoam, and you wanted to say something but didn’t want to be offensive. It can be hard to speak up about the little encroachments, which is why it often takes something big to get upset enough to stand up and say, “This isn’t ok.”
And why is this? In part, it’s because we’re trained to be passive aggressive, to be conflict avoidant until we blow up in anger. It’s also because we are all trained from the earliest age to obey Them. The Authority. They won’t be happy with you if you speak up, if you rebel. There will be consequences if I’m not a good little girl and do what I’m told.
So, just standing up can be a hard thing to do. Just talking to the leader of the coven you’re in to say, “I’m not ok with us using styrofoam and plastic plates at coven meetings,” or, “I would like for us to recycle at our annual Pagan Picnic,” or, “Can we talk as a group about our use of ecological resources?” All of those can be hard things to say.
Activism doesn’t have to be fighting against “the man,” the corporate machine, the government. In fact, I think it usually fails to address any problems when the voice is too small. Harvey Milk, famous in gay rights activism, encouraged gay people to come out, to come out to friends and family and coworkers, to show that gay people are human, they are your friends and neighbors, and they deserve your love and respect. Coming out is a tremendous kind of activism, it’s a one-on-one human activism that engages people’s inner compassion.
But one-on-one is hard, too, because there are social consequences. Your covenmates might get angry if you get on their case about their lack of recycling, your feminist friends might not like it when you ask them to stop male-bashing.
External Activism: What Actually Has Impact?
Recently I had two experiences of what I would call larger-scale activism. One was where I joined in a massive (thousands of people) protest in Chicago that ended in violence. The other was in June, standing up for transgender rights within the Pagan community. I can tell you where I felt I had more impact, even though I was just one voice, and that was standing up for transgender rights.
Activism doesn’t have to be standing up against an organization or person you hate. Quite the contrary, I think it often works best when you have love and compassion for that organization, a personal investment. If you read The Wild Hunt blog, you’re aware of the various Pagan news and issues that come up.
Pagan Transgender Rights Activism
Back in June at Pagan Spirit Gathering (PSG), there was the annual Women’s ritual and Men’s ritual. They’re hosted on the same night at the same time. Last year (2011) I had the honor of being asked to facilitate the Women’s ritual, and I had asked Selena Fox if I could make it open to attendees to self-determine their gender. I was told that that was up to me as a facilitator.
With all the transgender hullabaloo at PantheaCon, I was excited to be able to offer a more inclusive option at Pagan Spirit Gathering.
The 2012 Pagan Spirit Gathering Women’s ritual was hosted by Dianic Ruth Barrett, and prohibited entry by anyone not genetically born female. I opted to not attend the ritual because I couldn’t support one of the main rituals at PSG excluding transgender people in that way. I could go into more detail on my thoughts about inclusion and exclusion, but it boils down to, I have no problems with a Dianic group hosting a ritual and self-determining that only women are allowed, and for them, being a woman requires having been born with female genitals. Individual groups should be able to choose who is invited. And yes, it can be exclusive, but there are times when it is appropriate.
As PSG is such a large event and such a homecoming for so many Pagans, I really couldn’t support such an exclusive ritual as one of the main rituals. If someone wanted to do other more specific rituals, like a blood mysteries ritual, or a rape survivors ritual, or a ritual just for people of color or just for people of first nations descent, I can support that.
So when Melissa came out of the transgender closet and spoke of her pain at being excluded at the PSG morning meeting, I stood up with her. I spoke out.
And was this a Sharks vs. Jets/Us vs. Pagan Spirit Gathering and Circle Sanctuary? Absolutely not. I am really amazed at the dialogue that took place, even though I wasn’t an intimate part of all of it. Are there problems to still be worked out? Of course. As Melissa said, this isn’t an easy question, and there are no easy answers. How do we balance inclusion and exclusion?
For me, the point is that we talked about it. Those of us that felt strongly stood up, we spoke out, in nonviolent action. We spoke with love and compassion, and we listened with love and compassion, and we worked to make the PSG gathering a more inclusive place. And hopefully what happened at PSG can be an inspiration for other Pagan gatherings, about a way to have respectful discourse.
This month, the Reclaiming Tradition crafted new language for their Principles of Unity document in order to make the POU more gender inclusive. This came about after many years of activism on the part of transgender people within the Reclaiming Tradition standing up and speaking out.
Speaking Out or Being a Pain?
So very often within the Pagan community, there is this challenging space between being an activist and speaking out, and being a real pain in the butt causing grief in your local community. It can be a tough space to negotiate.
For some of us, the challenge is standing up and speaking out. I can tell you that when I decided to stand up and speak about how I was upset about the transgender exclusion at Pagan Spirit Gathering, I was worried for a little bit that I was risking my space in that community by speaking out. Because–speaking up can be frightening.
We’re going against the rules. People might not like us.
For others of us, the challenge is tempering our message, and learning the difference between being a solid activist and speaking up when needed, and being a relentless pain that is annoying everyone. I can tell you that when someone is constantly nagging at me, I’m not likely to listen to their message. Nor am I as likely to clearly hear a message from someone who is upset, shouting at me, or insulting me.
Activism within our community, and without, is a tough space to negotiate. I’m very interested in hearing experiences and challenges that others have had.
How do you stand up? What is worth speaking out for? What causes do you believe in and are willing to discuss with your close friends, family, or fellow Pagans? And what causes do you find to be too much of a risk to bring up? What consequences do you fear?
Shauna 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.