Monthly Archives: January 2014

Choice and Privilege

IMG_1677-001According to the Merriam – Webster dictionary, privilege is defined as:
* a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others:
* a special opportunity to do something that makes you proud:
* the advantage that wealthy and powerful people have over other people in a society

Sitting at a party recently with some very interesting people, some of whom I was meeting for the first time, the conversation turned down several roads eventually leading to the following question:

Suppose you are an activist dedicated to the fight for food safety/availability/all around justice. You are also responsible for supporting your family and find yourself in desperate need of employment. The only available job is at Monsanto. Would you take the job?

My immediate answer was absolutely not but as I listened to others and let their answers sink in, I was jolted into a reminder about perspective and privilege within any given circle. In this case it was an activist circle where one might assume that our shared concerns and goals would lead to some sort of homogeneous answer on all counts. Not so! One view was that family concerns must always come first and it would be prudent to take the job and continue looking for something else while earning a paycheck. Another view was that if long term unemployment has come to affect important aspects of daily living, an acceptable choice would be to take the job and work for change from within the organization.

How is it possible for people with shared goals and commitments to have such diverse answers? I believe that part of the answer is privilege, whether or not it is acknowledged, intentional or even desired. In the world I envision, privilege would be a term used to describe circumstances of the past. Opportunities, choices, well being and access to the best that the world has to offer would be equally available to each of us. Today’s reality, however, is quite different.

As an out-spoken supporter and participant with the Occupy movement, I have participated in my fair share of condemnation of privilege in our society, having identified the privileged as those among an economic stratum well above my own, beyond reach and unattainable. The existence of their privilege is, to me, a reasonable target for challenge and change. Our cries about how the unacceptable existence of a privileged few are usually fierce and determined. However, that fierceness and determination are no longer comfortable when considering that my opportunities, relative financial stability, access to education and health care as well as my uninterrupted employment make it possible for others to consider me privileged with the same resentment that I have aimed at others.

How easy it is for some of us to say “I would never…” or “I would always…” because the consequences of our decisions would not have a profoundly negative effect on our families or livelihood.

The morning after the party, I thought of other situations in which our personal circumstances would be instrumental in determining our actions despite our personal commitments to change. I offer them here to provoke thought and conversation about how we can best deal with the issue of financial privilege and be mindful of how it can be part of the definition that others have of us whether or not it is part of our own consciousness.

Imagine you are lucky enough to have a job. Your commute to work is 2 hours each way via public transportation. This travel time significantly cuts into the time you have to spend with your family. The lack of personal transportation prevents you from enrolling in classes you want to take to help you get ahead at your job. You are committed to environmental issues and have strong feelings about limiting your carbon footprint . The opportunity to buy an older used vehicle is presented to you at the modest price you can afford but the car only gets 15 miles to a gallon of gas which you find environmentally irresponsible. Do you buy the car?

Imagine you are the single parent of a young child. You have found a job that will help alleviate your financial situation as it exists now. The only way to accept this job is to place your child in day care so that you can go to work. The only affordable child care in your area is below the standards that you have set in keeping with your vision of the best place for your child but without it, you can’t get to work. Do you take the job?

Imagine as an environmental activist, you have the opportunity to stand against a planet crushing project by participating in a physical barricade of the project. The planned action will likely result in arrests. If you are among the arrested, you jeopardize your job because your boss has the right to fire you for any unscheduled or unapproved absence. Do you participate in the protest action and risk arrest?

All of the above examples may be answered differently, perhaps based on the financial privilege of the individuals answering them. The fact that these scenarios present real dilemmas is troublesome but one that we must face, talk about and work to change. If nothing else, I believe we should all be thinking about of how our own circumstances may be defined as privilege to others. With luck, it may provoke insight into what keeps potential allies and community builders separated by their perceived differences. I know that I will be far more thoughtful the next time an activist takes a position that I initially don’t understand. The ultimate goal now is to understand the roads that we travel to reach our decisions.

Homophobia in Paganism

gay triple goddess pentacle

~by RevKess

Homophobia. Biphobia. Transphobia. Each term implies an irrational fear of someone or something that is different. That’s just it. Irrational fear. Unfortunately the Pagan community is not immune to such fears. They are present in the Pagan world just as they are in every other aspect of human civilization. Unlike arachnophobia, which can be founded in something real – a person bitten by a brown recluse may be very afraid of all spiders afterwards – these phobias are more a result of cultural influence than anything real.

Personal experiences: I feel lucky that in my early years as a Pagan and an openly gay person that I did not face these phobias from within my new community. I came out of both the broom closet and the gay closet at the tender age of 14 while attending a small rural high school. I was harassed in school for both my beliefs and my sexual orientation, but did not have to deal with the Pagans in my life being mean or vile towards me because of who I was attracted to. Other than the first two Pagans I met, thanks to a local dial-up BBS, the Pagans I met in my first months on the path were met through a locally owned new age shop, which also happened to be the only GLBT owned bookstore in Lincoln, NE.

Aradia’s Arcane/Arbor Moon was my introduction to a lot of things. I am so grateful to the owners that they created a safe atmosphere for not only the Pagan community but the gay community in my area. The woman who was to become my initiated high priestess introduced me to the store and to many wonderful people, many of whom would become my new family. It wasn’t until five years after my first stepping out of the closet that I encountered these phobias within the local Pagan community.

My coven had all but transplanted itself to Colorado, I and a few others associated with the group chose to remain in Nebraska. I was searching for a new group to work with and find community in my life again. A bisexual couple introduced me to a meditation and study group that was open to new people. The high priestess of that group was very open and loving of most everyone who came through her door. Her husband and the group’s high priest (we’ll call him P) on the other hand was not so open and loving (at the time). A recent transplant from southern California (ironically), he expressed some views that were rather conservative and sometimes hateful. He took umbrage to my being gay. He didn’t out right say anything that would be clearly homophobic, but he did make things uncomfortable. At first I wrote it off as him being “superior” to my 19-year-old self, not appreciating that I was as informed and honest as I was at that young age. I was wrong. In later years he made a woman, also a transplant from southern California and a lesbian, feel so uncomfortable in his home that she has refused to even be in the same room with him.

Many years later P found himself in a situation in which he had no choice but to come to me for help. He’d divorced his wife and was battling depression, lost his job and his house was being foreclosed. His ex-wife asked me if I would be willing to take in his cats while he was seeking treatment for his depression. I wound up offering him crash space in my home. Yes, the same man who despite being educated and a high priest was homophobic. I took him in and gave him a place to sleep, a safe place for his cats, and introduced him to my mother coven from Colorado. I do not know if it was my actions and willingness to provide him a place to live or if it was his own personal evolution, but his attitudes changed over the course of the few months he resided in my home. He now lives two doors down from me and is much more open and accepting than he was when we first met 17 years ago.

My own personal experiences with homophobia in the Pagan world are limited, thankfully. I’ve never felt fear for my life from anyone in the Pagan community because of their fear and hatred of my sexuality. I’ve been blessed that no one has refused me admittance to a ritual or gathering because I am gay. But that is not always the case for others.

PantheaCon is just a few weeks away. Many of us may remember what happened at that event in 2011. But for those that don’t know….

The Dianic Wiccan tradition started out as a safe haven for lesbian Pagans, for women who had been harmed in some way by men, but primarily as a means for lesbian Pagans to gather and celebrate the Goddess in their own way. According to my friend LesBiCris (name changed for anonymity, and I paraphrase her comments), Z’s tradition hosted lesbian Pagans to the exclusion of all other women, looking down their noses at bisexual women and straight women alike – as anyone who would allow a man to touch them was not worthy of the love of the Goddess. The inclusion of transwomen was never even a consideration. Over the years and decades since bi women and straight women have been embraced into the tradition. Perhaps because of a waning in interest or because of pressure from within to allow all ciswomen to worship in the Dianic tradition. LesBiCris has her own opinion and many anecdotes that could argue either way. But transwomen were still not welcome.

Cover-web.jpg

An example of transphobia: At PantheaCon in 2011 the issue came to a head. Members of the Circle of Cerridwen and other groups and individuals had been experiencing ill feeling from Z’s form of Dianic Wicca at the event. Transwomen were not, even in other groups and circles, fully welcome in certain activities. An unfortunate truth even in the gay community (for both transwomen and transmen).

Gender and Transgender in Modern Paganism, an anthology of articles that resulted from the debacle at PantheaCon 2011 in which transgender women were refused entry to a women only ritual hosted by Zsusanna Budapest. Transwomen were turned away at the door to the women only ritual. Why? Because they were born with a penis and were not “real women”. From what I remember, not being at PantheaCon myself, the ritual was a skyclad ritual, one in which the women were encouraged to let go of the “pain caused by men”. Many transwomen are in transition and may still have the male genitalia they were born with.

I can understand the issue when it comes to skyclad ritual. Many women who participate in a ritual as described above may suffer flash backs or other such psychological trauma when seeing a penis, whether it is engorged or not, and this would have adverse effects in such a ritual setting. But it is not the fault of the transwoman that she has a penis.

You can hear my thoughts, and the thoughts of my cohosts on PMPChannel and directly from some of the people involved, either at PantheaCon or as transgender Pagans, in episodes of Pagan-Musings Podcast and the Pagan Weekly News.

What happened at PantheaCon in 2011, and the resulting attempts in 2012 and 2013 to rectify the situation, are just one small example of how Pagans can be homo and transphobic. Biphobia is another story all together. In 2013 the organizers of PantheaCon changed their guidelines to preclude such exclusionary rituals and events. They may still take place, but they are not part of the official PantheaCon schedule. In 2012 a similar ritual took place, again hosted by Z Budapest and her tradition. A silent ritual protest was staged in the hall outside the event room. A panel on diversity was also held in 2012. Z Budapest and many Dianic Wiccans decided not to attend in 2013. What happens this year is yet to be seen. I hope that the Pagans who are transgender who attend this year find a much more open and welcoming atmosphere than they did in 2011. At least one “new” tradition has branched off from the Dianic since these events occurred.

What can we do to combat homophobia, transphobia and biphobia?: Whether it is within the Pagan community or not, the easiest way to combat these phobias is through education and openness. Easier said than done. A bigoted person, no matter their religious/spiritual persuasion, is naturally resistant to education. Telling a homophobe that their hatred towards people who are gay is unhealthy (for both the gay person and the bigot) is about as useful as trying to squeeze water from a rock – difficult even under the best of circumstances. Repeated, calm, rational, and caring education/openness is essential when combating these phobias. Will they work on every ‘phobe? No. They will work on those who are willing to listen to a contrary opinion.

I’ll draw on personal experience again: Years ago, when I was around 18 or 19, I was hanging out with a diverse group of people at a Saturday night modemers’ coffee club. Some of my age peers had never met an openly gay person before, or at least didn’t know that they had. One of these young men was rather fascinated by the world of Paganism and liked to talk to me about spirituality. He knew I was gay, and that part made him uncomfortable. Over the course of several discussions he learned that I wasn’t all that much different from him. Not only did he later become Pagan, but he willingly admitted that he was wrong about gay people. He even asked me and my (at the time) boyfriend to be involved in his wedding.

P, whom I spoke of earlier, is another example of how time, patience, and compassion for another can help lead a phobic person to be more open minded, even to change their view of homosexuality. I’ve encountered many such situations with people who later became good friends of mine. I’ve also had experiences where no matter what I did or said the person remained phobic, even some of the Pagans I have encountered.

I wear a pentacle every day, it is a ring on my left hand. I wear two rainbow wrist bands every day, one on each wrist. When people meet me, if they see the bling, they might know that I am Pagan and that I am gay. These are two very simple ways that I go about my daily routine as an open Pagan and an open gay man. Not everyone can do this. Those who can in some small way show their Paganness and non-heteroness are champions for both communities. When I am asked about either the ring or the wrist bands I always answer openly and honestly. Sometimes that leads to an uncomfortable silence. More often it leads to a smile and a nod or a “good for you!” comment from those who ask. Rarely, but it does happen, does my response lead to an adverse reaction. When it does, I move along (when at work) or I try to counter their reaction with rational and compassionate thought.

More to the point of this discussion, how do we deal with homophobia, biphobia, transphobia within the Pagan community? Some traditions are going to be more conservative. Some paths are apparently opposed to non-heterosexuality. We cannot change the minds and hearts of those who strongly believe that being gay or bi or trans is against their religious or spiritual beliefs. We can show them, however, that gays, bis, trans people are not all that different from them. We are all children of the Gods (or the Goddess, or the One, or whatever Divine title). Many Pagans profess to worship or work with Gods of ancient cultures, from different pantheons. Almost without exception these ancient cultures acknowledged, even embraced, their non-straight members. As LesBiCris reminded me the other night, most aboriginal cultures paid special honor to their “two-spirit” members. Sometimes elevating them to a higher or spiritual status above those who were “normal”.

What do you do to combat these phobias, whether within the Pagan community or elsewhere? Please share your thoughts and experiences with me and those who read this blog.

Paganism: Money is Bad, Right?

images (1)–by Shauna Aura Knight
The question, “Should Pagans charge for services/rituals/events/classes” comes up with some frequency within our community. One of my activist goals is looking at underlying difficulties and assumptions in our culture and how that impacts us.

Pagans (and people, for that matter) have a really unhealthy relationship with money.

It’s one of our cultural “shadows.” Any shadow causes us communal grief. For me, activism is about looking at those cultural shadows and working with them. What are our current assumptions about money? How do those assumptions get in the way of healthy communities and future community resources?

Continue reading

Sticks and Stones and Words

Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but words will never hurt me.

How many of you remember that little ditty?  Bullshit, I say.  Having been on the receiving end of many a word, I have found that the hurt they leave behind is both greater and longer lasting than any physical pain that I have experienced.  Luckily, I have not suffered true abuse, but being more interested in band, theater, and computers instead of sports, cars, and sex during my school years means that I did have to face my share of bullies.

And, you know what:  I can’t recall any of them ever having hit me.  The closest thing to a physical altercation I ever had was when they threw chestnuts at me fallen from a local tree outside of our middle school.  What I mean to say  is:  my bullies used their words.

Words have power.  Sometimes it’s because we put them together to form a narrative attractive in some way but on their own, they can be similarly potent.  Were any of you shocked, even if only slightly, by the use of the term “bullshit” above?  We’ve given that word, and others like it, special significance in our language; we’ve labeled them “curses” and tell our children not to use them.  Granted, at the same time, our media uses them like they’re going out of style, but mixed messaging is a topic for another post.

As Pagans, many of us practice magic in one form or another.  While it is certainly possible to perform a spell silently, most of the ones I’ve either encountered or performed have some element of spoken word.  Even if it’s simply a shared chant to try and get everyone working together and in sync–magically moving in the same direction, if you will.  And, if words lacked power, why would one’s silence about a spell often be considered an important piece of its success?

Portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The problem with words, however, is that they mean different things to different people and at different times.  Our words shift and change, and no matter how many people, from Samuel Johnson to the modern, corporate lexicographers writing our dictionaries today, try to pin them down, they continue to morph and change.

In some cases, new meanings are added as new ideas or technologies enhance our lives.  Hell, I can remember when a “tweet” was something a bird did and you wrote on a “tablet” with a pen or pencil!  Other times, a word’s meaning is actively changed for political or social reasons, especially the words that we use to describe other people.  Do you remember when “retard” was not only a socially acceptable term for some individuals but it was actually considered appropriate?  Or, to bring it closer to home, how many of us who use the term “witch” or “pagan” do so in a way very different from others?  Consider the consternation of many within our wider community when Pope Francis used “paganism” in a recent address; RevKess does a great job summarizing the situation and shares many of my feelings on that topic perhaps better than I’m doing right now.

Above, I stated that words have power.  It’s hard to deny that.  But in many ways, words lack meaning.  Or, perhaps more accurately, they lack an immutable meaning.  This presents a particularly interesting challenge to those of us who write online; we must pick our words very carefully both to try and be as clear as possible and to avoid writing something that might be understood differently by different people.  And, frankly, this latter goal is likely impossible.  If nothing else, if our words are read again decades hence, it’s likely that their meaning will be different.  Imagine a world 30 years after Twitter disappears (think it can’t happen? remember MySpace?); how, then, will be use the word “tweet?”

2013 started, for me, with an identity crisis.  I spent weeks trying to determine who and what I was.  It was largely an internal conflict, a problem that I dealt with but that I’m not sure I’ve fully solved.  Oddly, it also included more than a few online conflagrations between different groups of people within the wider Pagan community over the validity of various forms of polytheism, the nature of the gods, and who is or is not a Pagan.  These situations necessitate the use of words–especially when they’re online–but they are exacerbated by the shifting, changing nature of the meaning and perception of those words.

As we begin 2014, let us all try to see the meaning of the words as intended by their speaker (or writer).  When someone says something you disagree with, don’t immediately assume that they’re a fool.  Instead, let’s resolve to try and figure out why they think what they do and said what the did.  It’s an act of compassion, in many ways, to give someone else’s point of view at least a moment of consideration.  You might find that you still disagree, but I’ve found that my response to those disagreements is more measured and received with more grace when I can show that I’ve attempted to see things in the way that the other does.

Happy New Year from all of us here at Pagan Activist.  May it be filled with joy and laughter, happiness and health, and may its moments of pain be few, far between, and overcome.


P.S. – Last year, I wrote a post about bees.  I’ll admit that they’re a passion of mine and have been since I was young.  If you’re interested in bees, I noticed that two documentaries have popped up on Netflix.  The first is called The Vanishing of the Bees, from 2009, and the other is More than Honey, from 2012.  I have not watched them yet, I just noticed their availability over the weekend, so I can’t speak to their content.  But, if you have access to Netflix and you would like to know more about bees and the challenges they face (and we face without them) either of these might help.