Always with One Foot in the Broom Closet

I managed a coffee shop for nearly ten years when I lived in Michigan. While most of us think of coffee shops as small slices of bohemia, the one I worked at was quite different. We were right next door to the Michigan House of Representatives, and even when the Democrats were in the governor’s chair there was a decidedly conservative bent to neighborhood. The store was also owned by two conservative Evangelical Christians. It was a strange mix of personalities and identities, but there were more successes than failures.

Working in such an environment led me to live large chunks of my life in the broom closet. Obviously I wasn’t going to wear a pentacle the size of a hub-cap to work, but it effected me in other ways too. I used to have this awesome collection of Pagan-inspired t-shirts, and when I took over as manager of the coffee shop those went into storage. Since the town I lived in was just small enough that I’d always end up running into a customer at Target, a lot of my existence was spent in the broom closet while off the clock. People are so touchy and strange about religion, (especially when it’s a faith they don’t understand) that I was always worried about losing a customer for wearing shirts with mottos like “Have you accepted Pan as your personal lord and satyr?” (That was really just an example since I don’t actually own that shirt, however you can remedy that if you’ve got an extra twenty-five bucks in your wallet/purse.)

Even before this blog I had a life as a Public Pagan. I spoke at a lot of festivals, and was interviewed by the occasional newspaper or two. A quick google search of my name yielded all kinds of Pagan results. In actuality there was no way I could live as a closeted Pagan, it was always there for the seeing, but in public everyday life one foot remained firmly in the broom closet. In a lot of ways I still live that way.

This past weekend one of our neighbors introduced herself to my wife and I. Of course the question “what do you do for a living?” came up, and I proudly said that I write for Patheos. The part I danced around was what I write for Patheos. That’s not because I’m ashamed of my beliefs, or most of the things I’ve written, it’s just because I don’t want to be instantly judged for one thing: being Pagan. I’m a husband (and sometimes not a horrible one), a sports fan, a fair cook, the shepherd of two cats, a connoisseur of fine hard ciders . . . . I’m not just a Pagan.

Religion and politics always seem to result in instant judgements from a lot of people (and I’ll admit that I can be one of those folks). “Oh you’re a conservative Evangelical Christian? Well we are certainly going to hate each other,” but that’s not always the case. I have some great friends who are Evangelicals, and yeah we sometimes argue politics and faith, but those beliefs aren’t all they are. They are also Moms and Dads, environmental stewards, sci-fi fans, and all kinds of other things.

So when meeting my neighbor on Saturday I refrained from saying that I’m basically a full-time Pagan* out of the fear that suddenly I would just be strictly a Pagan. Just being a Pagan wouldn’t be a horrible thing (though I’d badly miss football), but I’d alway rather be judged as a human being first, and as a label second. My wife likes to say that we “walk between the worlds,” but she’s not referring to the world of spirit when she says it. We’ve always been able to navigate mundania fairly well, with a large and diverse group of friends from both the Pagan and non-Pagan spheres.

I’ve never hidden my Paganism from anyone. It shapes my life in all kinds of ways, from how I treat other people to how I decorate my house. I’m not sure it would even be possible to invite someone into my home and keep them from figuring out my religious beliefs. While there’s not a twelve foot pentagram hanging above the fireplace mantle, there are a lot of bookshelves, ritual tools, statues, chalices, and other assorted Pagan odds and ends floating around my living room. By the time I tend to invite someone into my house they’ve already made a judgement about me, and at that point Paganism is just going to be one more thing about me, and not the only thing.

I’ve also found that people are more receptive to talking about (and accepting) Paganism when it’s not the first thing you spring on them. If people have already established that you aren’t sacrificing family pets in the backyard, conversations are a lot easier. It’s always best to avoid beginning the “Pagan Conversation” from a defensive standpoint. When people know you as you, instead of as a stereotype, it’s harder for them to be judgmental. “This guy is my friend, why would I ever think he’s a Satanist?**”

Sometimes even a more cautious approach to introducing Paganism produces poor results. There will always be numb-nuts who refuse to accept anything outside of the Judeo-Christian sphere, and that’s always especially hurtful when it’s family or an extremely close friend. I’ve lost girlfriends because of my religious choice, and I can’t say everyone in my family has always been especially excited about it. My wife’s grandmother refused to attend our wedding because we weren’t getting married in the Catholic Church (Paganism was only the beginning of her problems . . . . but she did give us a Bible as a wedding gift-woohoo), so we’ve been there. We still live in a society that’s only slowly coming around to accepting alternative spiritual practices (but it’s already a lot better than it was twenty years ago).

Blogging has made my life more difficult when it comes to keeping certain parts of my Paganism away from public consumption. My father reads Raise the Horns and he made the comment recently that he “sometimes learns far more” about me than he ever wanted to. It’s one thing to hear me say that I worship Greek Gods and another thing to read about it in overly personal terms. Maybe that’s why I’m cautious when discussing my blogging. It’s one thing to share those adventures with my tribe, another thing entirely to share them with the little old lady next door.

*I work twelve hours a week at a local bookstore to retain my sanity and talk to other human beings during the day.

**Which, when I think about it, Satanist is nicer than some of the things people have said about me over the years.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • Nicole Platania

    I actually work for a Christian organization and while I was told when I was hired that my religious orientation did not matter, I still keep my beliefs to myself. I’m a baby Pagan, still learning and until I have a better understanding of everything, I intend to stay hidden in said broom closet. Thanks for this article though. As always, it was fascinating.

    • Jason Mankey

      I also think there are times to remain firmly in the broom closet, such as the work situation as you describe, or with certain family members.  If I had a 90 year old grand-mother who would be bothered by me being Pagan I’d probably not say a word to her about it.  

      • Vegetarianwino

        Loved the article. I don’t agree with this “in the broomcloset” talk though. I believe that, at work, you’re just dressing professionally. Your religion is nobody’s business but your own.
        I do see where you’re coming from though. A few years back I had to practically beg a buddy of mine (a mechanic) to hide his Wiccan pentacle because the truckdrivers were finding ways to refuse to allow him to work on their trucks -which would’ve meant less to no money for him.

      • Ingrid Pugri Zaluski

        My mother is 87 yrs young and since I was a child, she has always had an interest.

  • Coneflower Tarot

    Well said. Not everyone is entitled to full disclosure and in fact most people are not. Discussing your religion is not necessarily oversharing but it can be. I draw the line differently with each person/group pretty much the way you do. Disclosing my beliefs to some people causes more trouble than it’s worth. I’m a naturally private person so I don’t advertise my faith either but if you know what you’re looking at you’d know I’m a Pagan.

  • WhiteBirch

    Due to the sorts of financial issues a lot of people have right now (laid off and huge student loans) I had to move back in with my VERY Evangelical parents. The sort of discretion you’re describing here has become as natural to me as breathing now. We have an uneasy truce. They know I’m not Christian, but if they had to describe it the word they’d probably use is “hippy dippy” (love the terminology they pick) and I keep the specifics under my hat so they don’t get too upset. And we all try to not talk about sensitive political topics, which is… well, everything. 

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    I wear my faith on my sleeve. Literally.

    I seldom wear long sleeved tops (even at work, the uniform is a t-shirt) and have matching pentacle-and-crescent-moon tattoos on my inner forearm.

    People seldom comment on them, and when they do, they seldom know what they are about.

    My (rather egocentric) point is that I do not see why I should modify myself for the sake of others. I don’t ask Muslims to stop wearing the burkha, or Sikhs to take off their turbans. That basic courtesy works in both directions, I feel.

    • m0onlitangel

      my jewelry and tattoo usually gets the “r u a charmed fan” i ignore the ignorance and educate the curious

  • Freedom Toobe

    Michigan? *perk*
    -a Michiganian

    • Jason Hatter

      Yes.  He went west from Lansing.   He hosted some pretty awesome parties, as well as even better quiet get togethers.

      (I am also from Michigan. Not in Lansing, but I spend a lot of time there).

  • Stoneofdestiny

    Good article. These is a time and place for disclosure (though I’m completely open if asked). These days I’m more concerned with “how” we have that conversation with outsiders…,

  • Silver Hawk

    I have never been in a broom closet myself. In fact, I didn’t even know that there was such a concept. It doesn’t make sense to me. I am who I am and I make no excuse or secret about my religion. Christians wear a cross, Jews wear a star of David, Pagans wear a pentacle, etc. So what’s the problem? People will always find a reason to “explain” why they don’t like you and if it is based upon your religion, well…that’s been the case for thousands of years, nothing new. At my age (63) my usual response is to get over it. After all, I got over Christianity.

    • Ingrid Pugri Zaluski

      Me too! I don’t leave my house without my pentacle and a rose quartz chrystal is my pocket.

      • Ingrid Pugri Zaluski

        I went to church for many years (confirmation classes every Sat for 2 yrs) My daughter went to church with many neighbours for a long time. I let her decide her own faith. Turns out, she’s on the same page as me. Pagan and Wiccan. My ex family are super Christian believers. I don’t have a problem with that – Christ is supposed to be all caring and forgiving. Then why do you condem me and my beliefs? Ours, Pagan, is basically back to mother earth, helping one another and Karma!

  • Kim

    I moved to Pennsylvania shortly after discovering Paganism. (Long story) I had a pentacle necklace I wore constantly and I was accepted there. Moving to Oklahoma, that acceptance flew out the window. People would cross the street to avoid me or tell me they would pray for my soul. I stepped back into the closet. Now, I’m back in Michigan and I’m easing back out of the broom closet. In a place where your neighbors know you by your first name, it’s hard to wear my Pagan/Wiccan things with pride simply because I don’t want my husband’s job to be in jeopardy simply because of what we believe. I have a Wiccan shirt that either gets chuckles from people or dirty looks.

    • Ingrid Pugri Zaluski

      I worked for a short time in a store with a heavy duty Joho ( Johovahs Witness) I of course, wear my necklace with a pentacle, 2 seeing eyes (not evil eyes) cross, I love you mom and heart. Told her that I have ESP can sense, feel and know certain things about people that I would have no way of knowing. We had to work together Halloween! Man was she paranoid. For most of the night she stayed 10-15 feet away from me. We could have worn costumes, I wanted, so badly, to dress as a witch! Didn’t. I gave a CD to another co-worker, Joho confronted her – “Are you going to take that home? You got it from That witch?” I laughed. Too funny to think that all Wiccans or Pagans are EVIL!

  • Christine Kraemer

    I behave similarly when introducing myself — I say I work as an editor for a religion website and that I’m a nonprofit consultant. I don’t see that as so much being in the broom closet as just being polite behavior, though. I’m pretty sure the other folks who work for Patheos also say “I work for” or “I work for a religion website,” not “I’m a full-time Evangelical/Atheist/Catholic/whatever.” If people are interested in my personal religious commitments, it will come up in conversation naturally.

    I think my minister friends, actually, sometimes wish they could put off telling others what they do for a living (and sometimes do if they’re not asked directly). Once you say, “I’m a minister,” people project all kinds of weird stuff onto you, including giving you the hairy eyeball if you have a beer!