The Sword of Judgment

Pantheacon is the world’s largest indoor Pagan gathering, exceeded only by the largest outdoor festivals like Pagan Spirit Gathering. Each year’s lineup of speakers, workshops, rituals and entertainment (not to mention connecting face to face with people you only know via the Internet) is both impressive and broad. Most people who go say it’s awesome. I’ve never been… one of these years I’ll get my travel budget and vacation time aligned so I can.

Unfortunately, for the second straight year the main accomplishments of the convention have been overshadowed by a high-profile dispute over the exclusion of transgender women from a women-only ritual. I wasn’t there and I’m not going to attempt an in-depth analysis of the situation. A summary of last year’s incident is here, including some bigoted and hateful remarks by Z. Budapest, author and founder of Dianic Wicca.

The Wild Hunt has some coverage of this year’s convention, where Budapest led a ritual labeled “genetic women only.” Thorn Coyle organized a silent meditation protest, which drew three times as many participants as the ritual itself. Though not a disinterested report, I think Thorn’s explanation of why she did what she did is the best commentary I’ve found.

My thoughts on this matter are fairly simple:

  • I have no interest in single-gender rituals and activities, but I understand they can be meaningful and even therapeutic for some.
  • Gender is not a binary thing, and I find it ironic that someone as radical as Z. Budapest is echoing the most conservative Texas Republicans in saying that transgender women are just men who want to be women.
  • Therefore, I support the right of people to be included in the activities of whatever gender they identify with.
  • If there is value in rituals and activities restricted to ciswomen, their place is in private settings, not in a large public gathering.
  • When one traditionally oppressed group is pitted against another traditionally oppressed group, the only winner is the oppressor.

Some Pagans are supporting the right of all people who identify as women to participate in all women’s activities, while others are supporting the right ciswomen to restrict their rituals to other ciswomen. There are good, ethical, compassionate reasons to support either position – this situation is not as simple as some on either side are saying.

A few people are saying the protest was out of line, that freedom of religion demands we tolerate anything that isn’t actively harming others, and that censuring Z. Budapest amounts to establishing a Pagan orthodoxy, or at least is a big step in that direction.

Here is where the rainbow of diverse values congeals into black and white. Z. Budapest’s comments toward transgender women are bigoted and hateful, and her opinions on men are as mean-spirited as they are ill-informed. The phrase “genetic women only” is a blunt instrument, in every sense of the term. Yes, she has contributed greatly to women’s spirituality and yes, her work has been meaningful and helpful to thousands of women. She deserves our honor and our respect for the good she has done. But that does not and cannot give her a free pass for promoting bigotry.


In classical magic the Sword is the tool of Air, of the Intellect, of Judgment and of Justice. The Sword is not the tool of Justice because of a threat of violence. It is the tool of Justice because it cuts the False away from the True. The Sword is used to cast the circle and to draw boundaries – to declare some things within and some things without.

We in the liberal religious traditions – and here I include Pagans, UUs, Progressive Christians, and many others – are reluctant to pick up the Sword and draw sharp, bright lines. Maybe we think we’ll look like the fundamentalists who make outcasts of everyone who’s not exactly like themselves. Maybe we aren’t grounded in our own beliefs and ethics and we’re not sure how or where to draw a line. And maybe we don’t want to take a stand that might hurt someone’s feelings and cause them to strike back at us.

We’ve all seen instances – online if not in the material world – where a moderate Christian or Muslim has apologized for something one of their radical co-religionists has done and said “we’re not all like that.” And our response, silently if not openly, is “you don’t have to tell me – go tell them!”

Paganism is perhaps the biggest of big religious tents. It has room for a wide diversity of beliefs, practices and opinions. It is a new religion (or religions, if you prefer) and its boundaries are not well defined. Most of us like it that way.

But there are times when we must pick up the Sword, draw a line and say “this is part of our community and that is not.” This is one of those times. Bigotry, hatred and prejudice based on gender and gender identity is not and cannot be part of Paganism.

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  • Joe Wolfarth

    Well Said, John! I feel I know you now better (after reading your words here) than I might have after serving the Pagan community many more years than the small amount of time I’ve known you through our individual commitments to the CUUPs National Board… I was reminded of a time 15 years ago when I regularly attended a predominantly GLBT church in Minneapolis (one that I never joined, having discovered neither Unitarian Universalism OR the Pagan Faith Path[s] yet at that time, but knowing I needed something more than “mere Christianity” [to quote the title of a book I’ve never read by author C.S. Lewis of “Narnia” fame]…) – I was flattered, as a “non-member,” to be permitted to host a “Mens’ Group” meeting… I was approached by two separate individuals who asked if they might be permitted to attend – a transgender woman and a genetic female who identified socially with males. The church’s minister informed me that as host, I could decide for myself who was welcome. I always want to “err” (if it comes to that) on the side of inclusion, rather than exclusion, and I could see no reason to exclude either of the people for whom participation meant something significant enough to embolden their requests. Most folks who are my friends today – Christians, Pagans, Humanists and Buddhists – probably would see the logic in my reasoning, which simply felt to me at that time, for spiritual reasons, like “the right thing to do…” (incidentally, both requests were honored and neither guest “misbehaved” or failed to add something to the gathering, in my humble opinion!)… I was surprised that other attendees grumbled afterwards. I guess human beings like to feel somehow that “membership has its privileges” and it’s nice to belong to an exclusive group sometimes. But I asked myself THEN, and I would ask again Now, “At what Cost does this feeling of ‘privilege’ come? And who am I to make that determination – especially if no set rule is being broken?” – And beyond that, if a rule is to be set, How shall it be set? and By Whom? It is very Unitarian Universalist of me to say this (now that I know who I am) – but sometimes the questions – and the process of resolving them – are the tools that give us the best opportunities to grow as compassionate human beings!