The Balancing Path: My Nonbinary Liminal Pantheacon Experience

The Balancing Path: My Nonbinary Liminal Pantheacon Experience February 19, 2020

This past Saturday was my first and last day attending Pantheacon, a very long-running and infamous pagan convention that happened in San Jose, CA on Valentine’s Day weekend for the past 26 years.  I’ve lived in the Bay Area or Sacramento area most of my life, and been a pagan for the past twenty-odd years.  I also love attending conventions and festivals in general, and have done so on a multitude of occasions as an attendee, vendor, and presenter.

I have wanted to attend Pantheacon since around 2000, and yet, for various reasons, it never worked out until this year.  As it so happens, this was also the last year of the convention, and between emergency expenses and family illness, even this year’s attendance almost didn’t happen for me.

I feel like a stranger who had been watching curiously from across the street, and then suddenly got invited in at the last minute to come play right before the party closed down and after most of the fixtures of the party had said their goodbyes.  I could still see their ghosts, in the half-vacant hospitality suite hall which as far as I could tell featured no minority groups, in the discussions and panels which were less than full, and in the sparsely populated halls (I’ve been at this hotel for many a convention and never seen it so empty on a Saturday afternoon, even during the more modest events).

I handed out hundreds of Gender Diversity Sigil Cards.  Not a single person turned down the sigil cards, and most smiled when they read them, giving me hope that some of the ghosts were from those who wished to exclude.  I put the sigil cards on the information table, and every time I walked past, I added more to refill the pile.

Outside the Charmed Circle, by Misha Magdalene.

Outside the Charmed Circle

I didn’t manage to cross paths with a couple people I had hoped to meet in person, but I was able to come to the talk Misha Magdalene gave about their new book, Outside the Charmed Circle.  I have had my copy for a couple weeks, and look forward to finishing it and writing a review, hopefully in the next few weeks.

The talk was an intimate group of maybe a dozen people in the Family of Druidry hospitality suite, where not only did Misha talk about their book, but everyone in the room participated in a discussion on queer experiences both in and outside pagan arenas, and how those relate to understanding and inclusiveness (or a lack thereof).

I might be comfortable with the solitary path, but it still felt amazing and validating to meet with someone else who could share commonality in perspective.  Even in queer and witchy circles, my perspectives tend to be met with anything ranging from confusion to surprise, and it is a beautiful feeling to meet a single person who viscerally “gets it”, let alone several people in one room.

One of the main points Misha made about the book is that magic is inherently queer, because it is outside the status quo and the social norm.  Be queer with the rest of us.

Nonbinary Ritual

I went out of my way to attend Pantheacon specifically because they accepted my Nonbinary Ritual.  I felt it was very important to be there to hold that ritual, to foster greater understanding of nonbinary perspectives, and to make sure I sent a clear message to anyone else out there who is or thinks they might be nonbinary:

You are as valid and sacred as anyone who identifies with binary genders.

I honestly had no idea how many people might attend.  Last September I offered a nonbinary ritual at the local Pagan Pride event, and only five people, including myself and my partner, participated.  Granted, it was a far, far smaller event, but that low turnout surprised me greatly at the time.  I know there are a lot of nonbinary people out there, and people who want to better understand their nonbinary friends, but would they come?  I didn’t know, had no way of knowing, and was nervous for weeks beforehand, let alone the day of.

Altar setup for the Nonbinary Ritual.

I went to the room a half hour early, got the ritual area set up to my satisfaction, and waited.  Twenty minutes before start, I had one older person who took a seat at the back of the room.

Ten minutes before start, we had a handful of people in the room.  Each one received a sigil card as they came in.

Five minutes before start, and we had about a dozen people.

Then, suddenly we had more than twenty.

Most of those who came were waving their queer flags with pride, and I was very happy that the room wasn’t entirely white.  If anyone who is cis-gendered came, it never came up during the whole of the ritual, and I hope they walked away having found greater understanding and appreciation.

I don’t use a standard ritual structure from any established tradition.  Instead, I created my own opening and closing ritual structure which is based on the elements (fire, water, earth, and air) plus spirit and void, to create an open circle that is empowered and warded, without creating a hard barrier or shutting us off from the rest of existence.

I use no direction or gender associations with the elements, and they are instead arranged in a way that makes sense to best support the purpose of the rite.  The interconnectedness and interdependence of the elements are emphasized, as a path to better understanding how we and all the rest of existence are also interconnected.

That meant I spent the first few minutes of the ritual time explaining the structure we would be using, and the symbology and reasoning behind the props present.  I asked for volunteers, and explained to them what they would need to do.  I needed five Ambassadors for the elements, to bear them around the circle during opening and closing.

I also emphasized that, although I didn’t expect touching to be part of the ritual, if it did come up everyone needed to ask for consent first, and accept ambiguous answers as “no”.  Everyone nodded and looked happy about that requirement.

I also explained the overall intent of the ritual, so everyone had at least a basic idea of what I was planning for us to accomplish.  Then, I belatedly introduced myself, because I’m frankly bad about that.

Once everything was set, the lights were dimmed, and we began in the Void.  In the first minute I managed to knock the antler headdress I was wearing off my head.  Ooops!  We all got a giggle out of that, and continued on.  It wasn’t the only occasion when the path of the ritual demonstrated that no paths are straight or direct or without hiccups.  When the unexpected happens, adjust as needed and keep working towards your goal.

Once Void was settled in the center of the circle, we acknowledged all the elements, proceeding from the heaviest (foundation of earth) to the lightest (consciousness of spirit).  All the Ambassadors did a fantastic job.

After that, everyone took a chair, and I began invoking divine genders, starting with the most familiar and explored, female and male, but from a nonbinary perspective.  From there we invoked nonbinary genders, seeing the differences and the similarities, seeing their interconnection and the blurred lines, and how each of us, no matter our personal gender, carries the seeds of every possible kind of divinity within our hearts and minds and souls.

We saw how each gender divinity had its strengths and its virtues, which make them particularly suited to helping in different situations.  We celebrated the fact that uniqueness and commonality can and do exist simultaneously.  We all called out what these divine genders mean to each of us.

Each of us carries the seeds of every possible kind of divinity within our hearts and minds and souls. (image by author)

The next portion of the ritual was much more personal and freeform, and elusive to describe without seeming dismissively silly.  We definitely laughed, but it was the laughter of surprise and discovery and joy and platonic love.

Suffice it to say, I think we all learned things about ourselves, our own divinities, our own persons, and the others sharing that space, through visceral liminal experiences that would be impossible to duplicate because they were the product of that place and time and those people in those moments.  It’s definitely something I will do again in the future, but the nature of it is to be profoundly different every time.

Once we had all settled, it was time to bless the items which had been brought by those attending.  I wasn’t sure anyone would bring anything, but suddenly there was a plethora of sacred and beloved items being brought forth to the altar until it was almost overflowing. One quite large and beautiful statue appeared seemingly from out of nowhere.  It literally brought tears to my eyes.

One person seated near me looked at me with profound disappointment and said that they didn’t realize they should have brought something.  I suggested the sigil card they had received coming into the ritual space.  An item doesn’t have to be expensive or flashy to be profound and meaningful.

Upon hearing that suggestion, several other people put down their sigil cards, and one person put down a whole stack they were planning to take back with them to their working group.  A few more modest and everyday objects appeared from out of pockets and purses as well.

As a group, we took the energy we had built up in the space, from the invocations to our personal explorations, and put that toward blessing everything on the altar and everyone in the room.  We clapped, and danced, and made noise.  We are here, and we will be seen and accepted, same as anyone else.

Lastly, after all the items had been retrieved, we took what remained of the energy we had gathered, and sent it out to support the expansion of understanding and inclusion, there in that space, out in our lives, and in the greater world at large.

The Ambassadors returned to the center of the circle, and we closed it out as the lights were once again dimmed, starting with Spirit and moving around the pentagram until we got to Earth.  Lastly, I took Void from the center of the circle and walked it out to where I began near the door, for we are all born from pure potential, and to pure potential we will someday return.

Many hugs and thanks were exchanged after the close of ritual, as most people picked up their things and drifted on to other meetings.  I don’t think words are adequate to describe how happy I was at seeing the peace and joy and discovery in the eyes and faces of those around me.

One youth who had attended with their mother approached me and wanted a photo of us together.  It was touching and beautiful, and I wish them all the best on the hopefully long and wonderful road ahead of them.

If you are curious about the ritual structure I use and how to use it in your own practice, I am planning to write about it in the coming months, so please be patient and watch this space.

Between the Veils presents a convention for the otherworldly.

Between the Veils

For me, the other highlight of the day came in the form of a Q&A about an explicitly inclusive pagan convention that is tentatively planned for the same weekend at the same location in 2021.  It is in the very early planning and fundraising stages, but I couldn’t be more excited for the potential of this event, Between the Veils.

I’m excited about this because they are taking exactly the same steps I would, but with far more knowledge than I have regarding the nitty gritty of holding a convention or running a nonprofit, and with the support of a large community.

I am elated that they are organizing as a nonprofit, with a board that includes people from minority groups.  Creating a sustainable and inclusive event is more important to them than their personal glory or pocketbooks.

They have learned from the mistakes of Pantheacon, and are proactively working to create systems that will foster inclusiveness and protect against the racism, bigotry, transphobia, and exclusivity that plagued the old event.  It has tremendous potential, and I believe that most of those under the pagan umbrella at large are more than ready for this kind of event, and these kinds of changes.

The Liminal

This was the end to Pantheacon, and it was also the beginning for Between the Veils.

The Nonbinary Ritual started just after sunset, as the world moved into nighttime.

Nonbinary pathways are often inherently liminal because they defy the standard paths and perspectives of our societies.  Queerness is inherently liminal because it describes that which is outside the bounds of generally accepted normality.  Celebrating nonbinary perspective and queerness is a liminal act, because it requires you to look beyond that which is established and generally accepted.  In looking beyond, it changes the way you see that which is established and generally accepted.

I give my sincere and heartfelt thanks to everyone who was a part of the Nonbinary Ritual, and a part of my day at Pantheacon.  It was an amazing experience, and I will treasure it always.

Until next our paths cross, Blessed Be.

Gender Diversity Sigil. Image by author.

This is a sigil for gender diversity, acceptance, and inclusion in pagan and magical spaces, community, rituals, and workings.

This has been magically charged with intent for:
*learning
*welcoming
*community
*crossroads and bridges
*inclusion and full acceptance
*open to other perspectives
*wards against hate and bigotry

You can read more about the sigil, what it means, suggestions for how to use it, details about its creation and the specific symbology used, and download high resolution image files.

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About Sidney Eileen
Sidney Eileen is a non-binary, asexual, animistic, polytheist witch and artist. They acknowledge divinity and unique natures in not just the gods, but in all manner of ephemeral and supernatural beings, spirits, living beings, and the souls that embody the physical objects and spaces around us. Their practice is lifelong and of an intuitive nature, seeking fulfillment through mutable asymmetrical balance. You can read more about the author here.

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