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Article ID: 12197

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Gender and Paganism

Author: Janice Van Cleve
Posted: January 27th. 2008
Times Viewed: 12,722

I used to think that paganism was this happy, liberal, fun, exciting adventure, where all the domineering, straight jacketed moralisms of patriarchal religion were out the window. I could probably be forgiven my naiveté, seeing as at the time I was newly arrived into the pagan community. Of course I brushed up against Gardiner, Alexander, George and other theorists whose pagan notions retained sexist overtones, but I paid them no attention.

After all, paganism is about experience rather than philosophy, right? And so far, my experience in all women circles was nothing but positive, welcoming, and comfortably feminist.

Then came the skyclad ritual.

It was co-ed and I am a lesbian. I prefer to express my spirituality in woman only space, but I can occasionally expand my participation to include men as long as they do not impose sexual touch upon me. I had been to a co-ed sky clad ritual before and that one was okay. This time, however, only after we were already in naked in circle, did the priestess announce that this would be a Georgian ritual.

We had to get boy, girl, boy, girl and count off in teams for mutual stroking at each of the shrines. This was very different from what I expected and I was uncomfortable. I would have left then and there except that she did give us a “safe sign” to use if we did not want physical contact.

Trusting that the safe sign would be respected, I decided I could stay.

For the most part it was okay. However, the high priest ignored my safe sign and laid hands and lips on me anyway. I felt violated and I was very upset. That’s how I was finally forced to confront the issue of gender in my pagan practice.

My initial reaction to the incident was to convey my concerns to the persons in charge.

To their credit, they took my concerns seriously and corrected the situation before the next skyclad ritual by allowing people to group in any way they wanted. They realized that the retreat must be inclusive of all sexual orientations, since 20% to 25% of the people attending that weekend were gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

On a deeper level, however, the trauma of that incident caused me to look at the words and imagery surrounding our neo-pagan practice. How much of our modern pagan experience is limited to the male/female polarity? How much do we assume heterosexuality in our writings or illustrations? Are we ignoring or even marginalizing our lesbian, gay, and bisexual sisters and brothers in the way we speak about and act out our paganism?

To start with, I certainly concede that male/female sexual activity, and allusions thereto, are powerful magical tools. They can and do raise abundant energy. In Dreaming The Dark, Starhawk writes: “Sexuality was a sacrament in the Old Religion; it was (and is) viewed as a powerful force through which the healing, fructifying love of the immanent Goddess was directly known, and could be drawn down to nourish the world, to quicken fertility in human beings and in nature.”

Much of Gardinerian magic is based on this notion that physical interaction between male and female is not only desirable, but also necessary. Most ritual books, even today, assume a priest and priestess working together to create the magic for which they gathered.

Yet male/female polarity is not the only sexually magical tool. Sexual energy between two women or two men is equally powerful and effective in pagan practice. Riane Eisler in Sacred Pleasure notes that Isis was served in Egypt by a gay priesthood.

Margot Adler in Drawing Down The Moon noted the powerful energy that lesbian women and gay men have brought to the Craft. Ffiona Morgan has given us moving examples of lesbian sexual energy used in pagan ritual in her Goddess Spirituality Book.

In an article called “A Sprinkling of Radical Faerie Dust, Don Kilhefner writes that the dilemma facing gays is “our assimilation into the mainstream versus our enspiritment as a people . . . There is a reality to being gay that is radically different from being straight.”

Peter Soderberg, in an interview with Margot Adler, said of gays: “There is a lot of queer energy in the men and women most cultures consider magical. It’s practically a requirement for certain kinds of medicine and magic.” He concluded that the pagan movement doesn’t give credit to this, for “there’s a lot of heterosexism in modern neo-pagan culture.”

Kilhefner, Soderberg, Budapest and others eventually broke away from the mainstream pagan movement to form gender specific circles. Dianic Wiccans and Radical Faeries became homes for gender specific bonding and magic work. Soon the women’s groups attracted feminists of all sexual orientations who were opposed to assigned patriarchal roles.

Radical Faeries attracted men for the same reason. Adler quotes one man: “when he first entered the pagan community, you could not even touch another man. And there were regular polarity checks in circles – you know, boy, girl, boy, girl.

There’s been a wonderful loosening and blossoming in the last few years, but there is also much resistance.”

Today there is a lot less resistance to the energies that lesbians and gays bring to the neo-pagan movement, but there is still a good deal of blossoming yet to accomplish.

Removing gender and sexual bias from our pagan practice goes beyond being “politically correct.” It puts into action our belief in the immanence of spirit in all things and in all persons. It acknowledges the equal value of all persons and of their unique expression of life.

It takes its authority, not from some headquarters or book, but from the lived experience of our sisters and brothers. It removes from our pagan practice biases that may be burdens to us and barriers to others.

How can we accomplish this?

One good place to start is to make no assumptions. Not everybody knows who Gardiner or George is, not everybody is heterosexual, and many solitaries or newcomers may not even be aware of common group ritual practices.

One group in Seattle did a workshop at a retreat to explain what would be happening prior to their sky clad ritual. The Gnostic group here welcomes all to their masses, but makes clear in advance that visitors are expected to take communion. These are good examples of groups retaining their traditions and identity but acknowledging the diversity around them.

When we write articles and books, we can avoid assumptions either by acknowledging and including all of our diverse audience or by acknowledging them, but defining our approach up front if we are going to focus on a more narrow segment of them. We can do the same thing in presentations we give in classrooms. In more public settings, as in interfaith gatherings or in pagan gatherings open to all, it would be best to avoid sexual and gender bias altogether.

There is always room for individual groups to follow their own specific traditions, of course. Some groups use only Celtic symbolism while others prefer Native American, Greek, or Teutonic.

Some groups are just for women or just for men; others may be just for gays or lesbians. As long as none of us assume we have the whole truth or the only truth, and as long as we respect and include pagans who are different from ourselves when outside of our own circles, we will go a long way toward honoring the Goddess or God in all persons.

If we can succeed in doing that, we just may create a paganism that is happy, liberal, fun, and an exciting adventure where all the domineering, straight-jacketed moralisms truly are out the window.

Copyright: Copyright 2007, Janice Van Cleve


Janice Van Cleve

Location: Seattle, Washington

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