Gender, Paganism, and Finding Our Way

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The 1st Annual Conference on Earth-Based, Nature-Centered, Polytheistic & Indigenous Faiths with the theme of Earth-Based Spiritualities & Gender left me with an intriguing mix of thoughts. I feel grateful that the Pagan Alliance put in the time, energy, and money to organize the conference, and am proud that Solar Cross Temple helped to sponsor it. Talking about gender in the context of Paganism feels very important to me. The sense I was left with after Saturday was that while we only scratched the surface of the topic, an elephant in the room was barely addressed, and more dialogue is necessary, goodwill was present amongst those attending, and that counts for a lot.

Many things felt heartening to me about the day: a variety of gender expressions walking through the hallways; seeing second wave feminists I cut my teeth on presenting at a Pagan conference; meeting a human rights activist from the Organisation Intersex International and wanting to talk more theology; the insightful comments and ideas that people shared with each other during my presentation on genderqueer theology; talks with people in between sessions . . .

The conference felt like a proper response to the pain and upheaval that came out of last year's Pantheacon, which has been written about a lot, including two pieces I wrote. But writing about something is not the same as having face time to get into some of the issues. The Pagan Alliance recognized this and tried to court a wide variety of presenters to speak on the topic. I did a fair bit of recruiting myself.

The first year of something is always difficult and they did a great job. The presenter's list was impressive and the array of topics intriguing. The fact that a mixer was included at day's end was brilliant. It gave people a chance to speak with each other in a casual setting, to discuss the talks they'd been to, or just get to know one another better. There were also things that felt troubling simply because there wasn't a clear space to discuss them.

Vicky Noble's keynote address began by speaking to her own gender history, and ended with a rousing call for us all to work together instead of ripping each other apart, but it felt jarring to not have a chance to address and unpack some ideas that came up in the middle of her talk. For example, what do we do when we aren't just tearing each other down, but have genuine grievances with one another that need to be addressed so our coalitions can become effective?

She also spoke of problems with the medical establishment performing surgery on people to impose normalization and to make money. This might be true in some cases, and has certainly had severe ramifications on the lives of intersex people, but it fails to address the men and women who seek out hormones and surgery to better fit their psyches with their physical bodies. How can we celebrate a multiplicity of genders and gender expressions while making room for a variety of choices around gender, including changing one's sex? I would have liked time for discussion on these sorts of points.

In general, there didn't seem to be space for ciswomen with separatist practices to sit in dialogue with men or transwomen about the very real pain of exclusion and the blindness of privilege as well as why they feel a spiritual need for separate space. Some presentations allowed room for interchange, but others ran out of time. The whole subject of gender, normativity, fluidity, and polarity felt like it needs a lot more breathing room.

During the conference, a ritual of healing and forgiveness was offered and I didn't attend for two reasons. The first was practical: people were hanging out to talk after my presentation and I wanted to be present to that. The second was feeling that in order to attend such a ritual, I first needed a forum to discuss, face to face, the ongoing pain people still have at feeling excluded, maligned, or misunderstood. It doesn't feel like it is yet time to heal and move on. It feels like we have barely begun the necessary work. I do hope the ritual ended up being another step in that direction.