–By Shauna Aura Knight
One of my values, as a Pagan leader, is to make rituals and spiritual experiences that are accessible and inclusive. At least–as much as I’m able to. I talk to a lot of Pagans who vehemently agree with this concept…and who then present rituals that–for various reasons–are not very accessible or inclusive. Their rituals may present difficulty for people with mobility challenges. Or the rituals may not really be inclusive of gay, lesbian, or transgender community members. And there’s lots of other ways rituals could be inaccessible and exclusive. Often this is done unintentionally; however, there is still an impact.
I’ve said before that activism is sometimes saying the unpopular thing. Often, it’s standing up for those who do not have as much power in a dynamic, whose voices are not heard.
In this case, the unpopular thing is the idea that we–Pagan leaders and ritualists–may need to change how we approach rituals in order to make our rituals more accessible and inclusive. We may even need to re-evaluate some of our dearly-held theological beliefs. If we want the dominant culture to change, to legalize gay marriage, support people with disabilities, eliminate racism…don’t we have to do that work first ourselves, within our community?
When I suggest making changes to rituals and “the way things are done,” I’ve experienced some people have gotten pretty angry at me. A few months ago I posted a blog about the idea that Pagans shouldn’t be using disposable cups for Cakes and Ale, and a number of Pagan ritualists and leaders said some harsh things in response. One of the overarching reactions I can sum up as, “It’s too hard to do something different.”
And let’s face it–making changes to the way you’ve always done something is hard.
Usually my activism centers on environmentalism, but more and more within the Pagan community I find that we need activism on some basics…yes, environmentalism, but also, body image issues, health, positive sexuality, ethics. I observe that we don’t always pay as much attention as we should to making space for people with different needs than our own.
Dogmatic Pagan Practices
I often hear Pagans wax poetic on how non-dogmatic we are. Modern Paganism is, in some ways, just as stuck in practices based in dogma as other religions. Ask any of these folks to look at a different way of doing things, and you might get an earful about how “this is the way we have always done it,” or, “this is the way the gods want it done.” If that’s not dogma, then what is?
- In a group that has always used sage to smudge people, ask them to explore ways they might facilitate a ritual without any smoke
- In a group that expects everyone to stand through the whole ritual, ask them to think about ways to allow people to sit
- In a group who has always used the story of the God and Goddess and their heterosexual union for their wheel of the year, ask them to explore a story that is not solely based on gender binary or heterosexual sex
- In a group that has always had talking-heavy rituals, ask them to consider ways to include people with different learning modalities
If I’m running a public ritual, it is my obligation to make space for as many people to be comfortable as possible.
Accessibility: Physical Mobility
Many Pagans have mobility challenges. Bad knees, fibromyalgia, back pain. For whatever reason, some people will have a hard time standing during rituals. An obligation I hold as a leader and ritualist is to make my rituals accessible to those with various physical needs. This includes everything from choosing a venue that is accessible to those with mobility challenges, to making sure that people in my ritual are empowered to sit.
I’m amazed at how many rituals go on and on, and people with canes who are in obvious discomfort will do their best to stand through a ritual. Most ritualists, I observe, never offer any physical accommodation for these folks.
A lot of accessibility can be managed by the ritualists and how much choice you offer your participants.
During my pre-ritual talk, I outline a few agreements such as,I will be inviting people to stand, move, and sing, and if people need to sit down they are welcome to do so, that they can participate as much as they are physically able. If they need to bring a chair in closer they are welcome to do so, or to ask someone for help in doing so. If I’m hosting a spiral dance, I ask people who need to sit to come to the center so that they can participate seated. There are more ways to include people with mobility difficulties than I can outline here. But, because it’s my value to make my ritual accessible, I don’t see these accommodations as compromising my rituals.
Accessibility: Location, Transportation, Cost
Along the same lines, I work hard to make sure that my rituals are hosted close to public transportation and easy parking. I also work to find a venue that is inexpensive enough that I can offer my events on a sliding scale, with no one turned away for lack of funds. Achieving all of those goals inexpensively is no mean feat, which you probably know if you’ve ever organized a Pagan event.
Accessiblity: Scent, Incense, Sage, and other Smoke
I’ve talked to many Pagans who are baffled when I suggest that I do not purify with sage. Some have even posed the question, “Is it even a real ritual without sage?” I personally facilitate almost all of my rituals without smoking/scented things. I, and many other Pagans, are allergic and sensitive to sage, incense, smoke, or other scents.
In fact, I get the question so often from ritual leaders who cannot conceive of how one might facilitate a ritual without incense, sage, or essential oils that I just published a short e-book on how to use scent appropriately, and how to facilitate potent rituals without using any scent, smoke, or fire. I personally would love to attend more rituals where I don’t spend part or most of my time struggling to breathe.
Accessibility: Learning Modalities and Intelligences
Many Pagan rituals are very talky. In a way, they are similar to the classroom setting where teachers present most information as talking to students, with some visual support, and very little for kinesthetics learners. The idea of educational theory to work with multiple learning modalities and various intelligences is one that takes up more than just a blog post on its own. In fact, facilitating for different learning modalities and intelligences is getting almost an entire chapter in the ritual book I’m writing. But one thing to consider is, are your rituals predominantly talky, thusly appealing to auditory learners? How do you include your visual learners, your kinesthetic learners, your emotional learners?
Do your rituals work to include both introverts and extroverts? Internal processors and external processors? Long processors and short processors?
While the theory of the Golden Rule–do unto others as you would have done to you–is a good one, the Golden Rule is occasionally a form of discrimination. When we assume that the experience of others is just like our own, we don’t do a good job of planning and designing rituals that are accessible to people with other ways of being.
Tolerance, Intolerance, and GLBTQ Exclusivity
I hear a lot of Pagans talk about how Pagans are tolerant. Which seems to evaporate as soon as there’s an opportunity to bash Christians on a Facebook group, and doesn’t seem to last very long when discussing different Pagan faiths either.
Tolerance also seems to last until someone suggests changing the way a group has always been run, or changing the way a ritual is done. It kind of comes across as, “I totally support gay marriage, but all my rituals are going to focus on heterosexual union between the Goddess and the God.” In this article I wrote on gender inclusivity in rituals, I went far more in-depth into including transgender community members, as well as folks who prefer to work outside of the gender binary, as well as gay, lesbian, and bisexual community members.
As I said there, it’s one thing to say, “GLBTQ folks are welcome here.” It’s another thing to choose stories that don’t raise up the heterosexual union as the only divine life-cycle. Or to consciously choose language that is gender inclusive, chants that are inclusive. “When we say Goddess, we mean, the genderless divine,” works about as well as saying that God in the Abrahamic traditions is genderless.
Theology and Inclusion
Most Pagan rituals I’ve been to lean pretty heavily on the gender binary. If a tradition is duotheistic–working with the God and the Goddess-then gender polarity and binary is a core part of that tradition’s theology. Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: How can rigidly duotheistic/bigendered tradition and rituals ever be inclusive of folks who don’t work within the gender binary?
I’m not saying that if you’re a duotheist you’re wrong. In other articles I’ve talked about holding paradox when we communicate about things we disagree on. I can hold the paradox that you have the right to practice a duotheistic faith. However, I think the elephant is that we must acknowledge that a duotheistic faith may not appeal to transgender and non-gender-binary folks.
Similarly, if the core of your rituals centers on the heterosexual union of the God and Goddess, can you see how your gay and lesbian community members might not find that very inclusive? For that matter, I still hear debates among some BTW and other “old school” Wiccans along the lines of, “How can you properly initiate a priest/ess who is gay or lesbian, since the initiation only works when conferred (through sex or through ritualistic means) from a priest/ess of the opposite gender?”
I wonder if this is something that may shift over time. Not, “Your theology is wrong,” but more that our understanding of gender today is far different from our understanding of gender when Wicca began rising in popularity in the mid 1900’s. For that matter, coming out as gay or lesbian at that time was probably writing your own death warrant. Things have changed since then, and our theologies and dogmas may need to adapt in a way that most Abrahamic faiths have not been able to.
Similarly, I’ve written in past posts about the exclusion some Dianic groups participate in, barring entry to their rituals by any attendee who is a transgender woman and not a cisgender woman. Perhaps this, too, will ease in the decades to come when a transgender woman is just a woman. Or perhaps the popularity of one-gender-only groups will diminish as our population becomes more genderfluid.
What I know today is that I want to make my rituals inclusive of all genders and sexualities to the best of my ability, and that has meant changing how I do ritual, changing my language. I’m not an expert, but I do my best. My article linked above gives some insight into approaches I’ve taken, and I have more to learn.
Racial and Minority Inclusion
I’ll admit, this is an area I struggle with. I’m white, I was raised in an all-white town where we were taught that the N-word is impolite, however, that you should lock your doors when you’re in the city and there are black or brown people around.
When I first became Pagan, I never saw any Pagans of color, and I used to believe what I heard from other (white) Pagans. “Black people aren’t really interested in Paganism.” Or, “It’s too Euro-Centric.” “Black and Hispanic people have their own traditions, Voodoo and such.” Consequently, at first I went under the (erroneous) assumption that any black Pagans I met were practicing African Diasporic traditions like Vodou, which isn’t necessarily the case.
Over time, I started seeing Pagans of color at events, but it was rare. My former partner was mixed-race, and I learned a lot while I was with him. I learned how alone and even afraid he felt when attending events; he would point out to me that he was almost always the only black guy in the room, and it was true. He was grateful beyond words when there was one other person of color at a Pagan event.
What I also noticed is that when he and I ran events together, more people of color attended.
As someone who is white, I’m not sure how to make my rituals more inclusive beyond the work I already do with open-language trance. Ie, instead of defining that the Goddess is blonde and has blue eyes, I let people determine what the divine looks like for themselves. If we’re working with the story of a particular myth, such as the 9 Muses, I’ll point out that people can work with them as 9 female-gendered Greek deities, or, as 9 aspects of inspiration that go beyond gender or even a specific physical form…that each person is responsible for building up the imagery for how the divine looks to them.
Then again, I am a pantheist and an archetypist, not a hard polytheist, and it’s not important to me that Greek deities look white, or that Egyptian deities look black. For me it’s more about giving people the choice to shape the experience and their experience of the divine in whatever way works best for them.
I don’t care what gender they see the divine as, what race, or even if the divine is human-shaped for them. Story and myth is powerful, and what’s equally powerful is giving people to shape their own experience. I do this primarily through open-language trance–I ask people what they see, instead of telling them what the divine looks like for me. I hope to learn more about how I can better support making my events more accessible and inclusive for Pagans of color.
Feasibility and Cost
As a volunteer organizer, there’s some accommodations I can’t afford to make. Sometimes, I have to go with the cheaper venue. When I host a ritual in Chicago, I have one venue that I typically use that is on the ground floor and it’s pretty accessible. But, it’s not always available, and other venues are sometimes cheaper. One is up 2 flights of stairs.
Pagan festivals are often not physically accessible to everyone. People who have a difficulty walking or coping with the heat, people who need electricity to sleep with a CPAP machine, aren’t necessarily going to be able to have their needs met, and there’s only so much a festival organizer can do and make the festival viable.
If someone who is deaf attends one of my rituals, I have no budget to hire an interpreter, and I don’t currently have access to a Pagan volunteer who can offer sign language. I have, perhaps three or four times, attended a few rituals where there was such a volunteer. I hope to find more people who could offer sign language for deaf participants.
It’s difficult, as a Pagan event organizer, to take every single person’s needs into account. Honestly, if I did, I’d never be able to offer an event. There’s just no way to make an event that is inclusive of everyone. In fact, I wrote a blog recently about some of the challenges of planning Pagan events and some of the multitudes of wacky complaints I get.
Exclusive: When it’s OK
There are times when I consciously make the choice to create a ritual that may be exclusive. If I’m facilitating a ritual that is an intense ordeal and includes fasting and physical hardship, that’s not a ritual that’s for everyone.
If I chose to offer a healing ritual for women who have had miscarriages or abortions, or if I offered a healing ritual for families (all genders) who have had to cope with the same. Either one of those is exclusive, and for a particular purpose.
Sometimes it’s also appropriate to kick someone out of a ritual for bad behavior. Perhaps their bad behavior is because of a learning disability or a mood disorder. But, if someone’s being consistently disruptive or even aggressive, then I may need to bar them from events. I’ve worked to accommodate many people over the years; folks with Aspergers, with a personality-altering brain injury, Narcissists, Borderlines, Bipolar, people on medication for anger management. Ultimately, I’m willing to work with people, but if they become consistently harmful to the group, my responsibility is ultimately to the larger group.
My commitment is to try and make accommodations where I can. I do my best, and it’s not always enough. Sometimes it’s a matter of finances; I dream of the day when Pagan events and groups bring in enough money so that I don’t have to make the impossibly hard choice between an accessible and non-accessible venue. Sometimes it’s a matter of volunteers; I also dream of the day when I have people to offer services such as signing during rituals or workshops, or people to coordinate children’s programming at events.
Sometimes, it’s a matter of taking on a learning curve. I’m white, cisgender, and predominantly heterosexual. I’m pretty physically strong. I’m not an expert in transgender inclusion. I’m not gay or lesbian. I’m not a minority. I don’t contend with a major physical disability.
However, I have compassion. I don’t know what it’s like to be beaten for being gay, don’t know what it’s like to suffer systemic racial discrimination. I do know what it’s like to be rejected, abused, and harmed for other things. My experiences aren’t the same–but they help me to have some context for what others face. It is through that compassion that I work to make space for people to attend ritual and spiritual work, to find a home in community.
And sometimes, it means standing up to call our Pagan community and leaders out for policies that are, intentionally or unintentionally, exclusive and discriminatory.
How can we work to learn how to make our rituals more accessible and inclusive? Will you commit to work to help more Pagans find Home?
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.