The Balancing Path: Public Ritual Should Never be Exclusionary . . .

The Balancing Path: Public Ritual Should Never be Exclusionary . . . February 13, 2020

. . .  Or My Farewell to Pantheacon

I try not to make “never” and “always” statements, because there are bound to be exceptions even in the rare cases when such statements are generally true.  However, if pagans, witches, and those of tangential traditions and paths who organize and attend public metaphysical events want to be inclusive, this is a critically important step to take.

I am focusing on Pantheacon, in large part because it is so prominent and the problems it has experienced have been very public, though I am certain its foibles are far from unique.  There is a great deal we can learn about what not to do, especially when organizing for or presenting at public events.  Dear people, please learn from their mistakes, and when you organize your own events, even small ones, don’t allow exclusionary events or presenters, ever, no matter the scale or justification.

Although I have watched from afar, this is going to be my first, and obviously last year attending Pantheacon.  For personal reasons that have nothing to do with the problems of the convention, I will only be there on Saturday, specifically to lead a nonbinary ritual.  I’ll give the organizers credit where it is due.  This year they have been much more proactive about making sure none of the presenters are known overt bigots, racists, transphobes, or otherwise engaging in hateful behavior.  However, when I submitted my event, I was explicitly prompted to specify who was and was not allowed to attend my ritual.

I was explicitly prompted to specify who was and was not allowed to attend my ritual. Image by Sergey Gricanov via Pixabay.

Why this is a problem…

Specifying who is allowed at my ritual was a prominent part of the submission process, ensuring that everyone who wanted to present knew that they were not only allowed to discriminate, but they were welcome to do so, and would be fully supported in such decisions.

I don’t wish to be exclusionary, so of course I said that there were no restrictions, but I had to specify that preference.

Now, I fully agree with potential age restrictions.  There is no reason a small child needs to attend a panel on tantric magic, or any other topics that are clearly adult or sexual in nature (although I will fight anyone who says gender topics are “adults only”).  I believe there is nothing wrong with teenagers or children being aware adult subjects exist, or in some cases even learning about them under safe circumstances, but a public convention is not the appropriate time or place for that.  So, by all means, ask if attendees need to be adults.

The problem lies with any other potential exclusions, which are going to be based on things such as sex, gender, sexual orientation, skin color, ethnicity, ancestry, religious path, age, etc.  You know, things that are ideally legally protected from discrimination in all aspects of public life and welfare.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a personal path or private group which is focused on a particular subset of humanity.  If you want to only have women, or men, or queer people in your ritual group, go for it.  If you want to have only Wiccans, or heathens, or some other specific religion, go for it.  If you want to have only duotheists, polytheists, or atheists, do it.  If you want some other restriction, do it.  You don’t have to let a single soul into your private practice or group who you would rather not be there (although I will take issue with anyone who wants to exclude all people of color, because that’s straight up racist).  Everyone deserves to have a safe space where they feel comfortable, and for some people that means a space which is carefully curated.

When you curate public spaces, it creates an antagonistic situation where there are “chosen” people, and “other” people. Image by Ohmydearlife via Pixabay.

Public spaces are inherently not curated or are minimally curated.  That’s what makes them “public”, or put another way, open to all.  When you attempt to curate public spaces, you create an antagonistic situation where there are “chosen” or “worthy” people, and “other” people.  This is called “othering”, and it is the antithesis of inclusion.  It creates barriers that tells some people they aren’t good enough, aren’t appropriate, aren’t worthy, aren’t welcome, aren’t allowed to be.

No one feels good about being told they aren’t the right kind of person to be somewhere or do something they wanted to do.  It reeks of discrimination, usually directed at people who get more than enough of that in their everyday lives.  They certainly don’t need another dose in their spiritual lives, at an event that’s supposed to be fun and uplifting.  Anyone who is discriminated against is perfectly justified in being upset, confused, hurt, angry, and bitter, no matter the justification given by those being discriminatory.

But in My Tradition…

Fine.  Do your tradition, in your own spaces.  Don’t come to a space that is supposed to be open to all (ex: all the people who paid for the convention and expect to have access to all events in exchange for their con pass), and put up a barrier of exclusivity to those who want to attend.  If you are going to open your ritual or panel to the public at a public venue, then expect that the public will come, because if the event is successful, they will.

If your ritual can’t bear a man to cross the threshold (and I’m talking about a male-identifying man), then don’t offer that ritual to the public, because the public includes men.  If your tradition excludes anyone who isn’t of a particular ancestry, don’t bring it into a public event because there will be people of other ancestries.  If your ritual can’t bear the weight of a queer person attending, or a person of color, or a transgender person, it has no business being offered to the public, because it’s not actually for the public.  It is a private club for you and your friends.  Do everyone a favor, yourself included, and keep it private.

Exclusionary curation of public events reeks of discrimination, because it is discrimination. Image by succo via Pixabay.

You Don’t Know Who is Present

People who want to attend a ritual or panel may not look quite the way you would expect, be that their clothing, affectations, gender, skin color, age, etc.  You don’t know why they are there, even if they do look the way you expect.  You don’t know what their personal path is.  It is not your place to judge whether or not the content of the event is something for them, especially at first glance.

Only the people attending know why they are there. Only they can say whether or not they should be there.  Only they can understand what they are getting out of the event.

You don’t know if the fellow who is attending a goddess ritual was called to do so by his patron goddess.  You don’t know if he is seeking to better understand the women in his life.  You don’t know if he is actually transgender, but not public about it, and seeking to better understand or celebrate her/their own womanhood.  You don’t know if “he” is nonbinary, and just looks male to you.  Most men are probably not going to be interested in attending a women-focused event, so it’s better to assume those that come have a good reason for being there.

You don’t know if that black woman who is attending a blot is a long-time devotee of Freya.  You don’t know if that Asian-looking fellow has Scandinavian ancestry and wants to better understand the pantheon of that ancestry.  You don’t know if that young lady with crutches is beloved of the AllFather.  Faith is a choice, and although often tied to ancestry, can call to people of any background.

Expel people from your event if they behave badly.  Don’t pre-judge them based solely on your personal biases.

You don’t know them.  You can’t judge.

If it’s public, it’s public. No exceptions. Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images via Pixabay.

If It’s Public, It’s Public.  No Exceptions.

If you wish to present at an event that gives you the option to be discriminatory, don’t take that option.  I expect anyone who would hold a public talk or ritual hopes to reach new people, so allow them to come!  Don’t limit your audience just because it might include a few surprises.

If you are involved in running an event that includes presentations and rituals given by a variety of people, watch out for anyone who seeks exclusivity.  Sometimes that exclusivity is unintentional (maybe they’re just accustomed to their goddess ritual being an exclusive space for women), but a lot of the time it stems from deep-seated discriminatory practices, racism, bigotry, and so on.

Make it clear when people are submitting their talks and rituals that it will be open to all who are attending the event, no exceptions.  If public outreach really is important to presenters, they can adapt their approach so that anyone can attend.  In most cases it is as simple as just not keeping people out, but if for some reason inclusion is not possible, then the talk or ritual being offered is not suited to a public space and should be denied.  Let someone else who isn’t discriminatory have a shot at presenting.

If your entire event is focused on a particular subset of the pagan and metaphysical world, make it extremely clear in all of your promotional materials, so people know what to expect.  Just like with Women in Science conferences, there is definite value in more focused events, but the focus should be completely clear.  You don’t want people showing up to a Wicca-focused event thinking they are going to find presentations on chaos magic.  However, there are likely to be some people who come that don’t match your idea of your target demographic, and that’s a good thing.  Like I wrote above, you don’t know what their path is, and can’t judge on sight whether or not your event is for them.

Semi-Public Safe Spaces

There are some circumstances at conventions and other events where it is appropriate and good to have curated semi-public and safe spaces.  These are usually spaces which exist throughout the entirety of the event, rather than being specific timed events like talks or rituals.  These spaces are also usually either booth spaces or hospitality suites, paid for (in part or full) by the people who manage them, and thus are rightly subject to whatever restrictions the people managing those spaces would prefer.

These semi-public spaces are ideal safe spaces for marginalized groups, and appropriate locations for talks or rituals that are more limited in scope and not intended for the convention as a whole.

Things are changing. Image by ivanacoi via Pixabay.

Things are Changing, Whether or Not You Want Them To

It may have taken the better part of a decade, but in the end the pagan community as a whole passed judgement on Pantheacon for its discriminatory habits.  They were too inclusive for the bigots and racists but continued to be too exclusionary for people who care about inclusion.  The fact that even this year presenters were invited to discriminate is proof that they either don’t get it or caring about these issues is nothing more than lip service.

The intent to be inclusive seems clear, and I think that played a huge part in how many more years the event has limped along since the very public transphobic debacle in 2012.  However, each year has been fraught with discrimination, as well as ongoing problems with racism and cultural appropriation.  No single incident since has hit the level of public blowback caused by the transphobia of Budapest Z in 2012, but Pantheacon was plagued with problems every year.  In 2019 confirmed presenters were disinvited after prospective attendees expressed concerns of bigotry and cultural appropriation, ongoing racism issues resulted in a walkout, and 2020 will be the final year.

I understand and fully support the fact that many people are boycotting Pantheacon due to ongoing problems.  As far as I’m concerned, events that are exclusionary and discriminatory deserve to die, and Pantheacon has already been given more than its fair share of chances to change.

I’m mentioning these things because overall, I think it’s clear that the pagan community decided they have had enough.  Attendance dropped year to year, and this year the hotel block, normally a nightmare of disappointment after a frantic 3-5 minute window before selling out, was still open two days before the discount rate cutoff.  The public doesn’t want an event which simultaneously espouses inclusion, explicitly allows exclusion, bans overtly bigoted or racist presenters, and also allows conditions that make people of color or diverse genders feel unsafe.

They tried.  They really did.  But it’s clear that the convention had an established culture of exclusion (who is not allowed at your ritual?), and many of the inclusion policies enacted over the years felt more like reactions to criticism than well thought out and understood plans to affect genuine change.  For example, their current diversity and consent policy is good, but borrowed with permission from Hexenfest, indicating that they couldn’t articulate how they wanted to proceed.

In the end, Pantheacon’s leadership either had no idea how to really fix the problems or was too entrenched in exclusionary justifications to be able to get out of their own way.  You can’t have it both ways, and you can’t do it half-way.  Both are recipes for failure.

You must be proactive about preventing hatemongers from getting a foothold. Image by Bruno/Germany via Pixabay.

I Warned You That Absolute Statements Always Have Exceptions

When you allow racists into a space, they, and by extension you, drive away people of color.  When you allow bigots into a space, they, and by extension you, drive away anyone who is queer.  When you allow transphobes into a space, they, and by extension you, drive away anyone who is transgender.  You also drive away their allies.

Bigots, racists, and transphobes are ideologically hostile to those who are the target of their hate.  They actively create problems through their actions, words, and behaviors.  If you want an inclusive space, community, or event, you have to start by excluding those who are racist, bigoted, transphobic, or otherwise engage in hateful behavior.  You must deny them a platform and expel them if they come as attendees and engage in bad behavior.  They deliberately make inclusion as difficult as possible, or ideally impossible, because the goal is to drive away anyone who they have othered.  You must be proactive about preventing them from getting a foothold, or they will take over.

I’m both glad and sad that this is the last year for Pantheacon.

I’m sad because it has been a fixture in California paganism for decades, and it’s not hard to find blog entries about panels and rituals that had a profound and positive impact on the people who attended.  I know a great many local people who attended for years, or even decades, and had no regrets.  Granted, all of them are white, and to my knowledge none are trans or queer.

I’m glad because the pagan community at large decided that it wasn’t worth it to support an event which was chronically plagued with problems of exclusion and racism, even when those things didn’t affect them personally.  That gives me hope for the future, that younger pagans might have their priorities straight.

I’m also glad that this final year there are a number of people, myself included, who are not burned out on Pantheacon and could take up the torch to present on a number of inclusive topics.  Marginalized voices will carry to the end and continue on long after this particular convention is gone.  There are other events, and other spaces, so go forth and help to make them as inclusive and welcoming as you can.

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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