Pagan Coming Out Day

Pagan Coming Out Day May 2, 2013

I hadn’t planned to write about Pagan Coming Out Day, which is today. I’m happy we have this day and I clearly see the importance of it, but I don’t have a lot of personal energy around it. I don’t hide who I am, but I don’t broadcast it, either… except in this strange on-line world where everyone broadcasts everything about themselves.

I don’t like it when other people push their religion on me so I try not to push my religion on them. If you’re interested, just ask and I’ll tell you all you want to know and then some. Otherwise, I figure you don’t care one way or the other.

Then I read today’s Wild Hunt and was reminded of Kyrja Withers, a Pagan and author of children’s books, who has been subject to violent harassment because of her religion. And I was reminded of Cara Schulz’s simple but powerful statement behind Pagan Coming Out Day: “No one should have to hide their religion due to fear of discrimination and violence.”

I grew up in a time and place where the phrase “I don’t think he’s a Christian” meant “he’s not my kind of Christian.” It also meant “something’s wrong with him.” Jews were tolerated because they were “God’s chosen people” but that just meant they were subject to a kinder, gentler pressure to convert. The few people brave enough to call themselves atheists were fair game for mockery and harassment. Everybody else was pretty much invisible.

One of the origins of the word “religion” is the Latin re-ligare, literally “to reconnect” or more generally “to bind.” Religion binds people together, which is a good thing. But in doing so it marks those not bound as the Other.

We’re afraid of the Other. That fear goes back to our earliest human ancestors who were never sure if the tribe from across the river just wanted to trade skins and shells or if they wanted to kill them for their hunting grounds. Of course, the tribe across the river was wondering the same thing. “Shoot (arrows) first and ask questions later” did not begin in the American West.

We’re more civilized about it now – most of us, anyway. But that fear of the Other persists.

The amazing progress the LBGT community has made toward full equality in the past generation is due to one thing – coming out. As people began to put a name and a face to “gay” the fears subsided. I can relate to this first-hand – when I got to know a gay person, I stopped being afraid of homosexuality. It was no longer the Other.

For too many people in our society, “Pagan” still means “Other.” That must change. That’s why I’ve always blogged under my own name and posted announcements with my contact info (and I’ve never had a problem come from it). More recently I’ve come to understand that’s not enough. At this point in my life I have a fair amount of privilege and that privilege carries responsibilities.

I have an obligation to put a name and a face on “Pagan” for friends and family who’ve never (knowingly) met one. I have an obligation to articulate what I believe, what I do and why. I have an obligation to be out, not just for myself (though that’s important by itself) but for Kyrja Withers and for everyone else who fears they will be targeted as the Other if their religion becomes known.

Some day, no one will care what god or goddess you do or don’t pray to, only that you conduct yourself with integrity and compassion. Until then, we need Pagan Coming Out Day.

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  • JasonMankey

    I’m frightened that people seeing constant mentions of “Pagan Coming Out Day” on Facebook or whatever will result in a sort of peer pressure towards coming out of the broom closet. The right time to approach the question of Paganism with others is not mandated by the calendar or a fancy banner, it’s mandated by circumstances and all sorts of other factors.

    I would be much more comfortable with “Pagan Education Day” or something along those lines (and let’s get it away from the National Day of Prayer, this makes us look petty). Not everyone needs to come out of the closet, what happened to “Hidden Children of the Goddess?” No one needs to push Paganism in Grandma’s face.

    • kenofken

      There is a degree of peer pressure and there should be. No minority movement or group in history has ever gained their full measure of respect or even basic security by staying closeted or “toning down” who they are. Blacks didn’t get civil rights by addressing white strangers as their betters and riding on the back of the bus, and Jews didn’t secure safety by play acting as Catholics.

      There were times in history where they had so little power or critical mass that they had to do that to survive, but it was never a strategy. It was a tactic. Pagans in this country, for all our travails, are not in true danger of life and limb the way they are in, say, Islamic countries. 99% of the reason people stay closeted is they just don’t want to have the difficult argument with the family or stand up to what they assume (not always correctly) will be social ostracism in their local communities.

      Staying closeted is living as a slave, and paganism is a set of paths for free men and women. Closeting oneself is giving power to our oppressors, and owning the things they say about us. It is abasing oneself and one’s community before bullies by doing their work for them. It’s sick enough when a bully commands you to jump and you ask “how high, sir.” It’s worse when you jump all the time just in case he has someone watching you…

      Ultimately, the decision to come out belongs to the individual, and we shouldn’t “out” people against their will (unless they’re hypocritical public figures). That said, we should work to make “out” a cultural norm and something to aspire to and we should do our best to help people navigate the hard spots.

      But I’m done dealing with pagans who can’t be seen at a public ritual or bookstore or who want me to craft a cover story for how else I know them in case they’re seen by their mom’s pastor or whatever. Screw that. Being pagan isn’t a crime, and if there are people who will disown me because of it, I’m much better off without them. Trim the deadwood. Closeted pagans warrant pity, but not a hell of a lot of respect.

      • The danger of being out is far less than most people imagine, and although there are occasional people like Kyrja Withers for whom the danger becomes serious, those occasions are rare.

        At this point in my life I have no excuse for not being transparent about my religion. But if I was a public school teacher, I imagine I would feel otherwise.

        • kenofken

          I think there are distinctions to be made in what is “closeted” behavior vs ordinary discretion. There are plenty of venues and circumstances in one’s life where there’s no good reason to broach the topic. There’s no reason one has to wear a huge pentacle or other symbol around in the workplace or raise the topic beyond logistical needs of holidays with one’s manager etc. No reason to bring it up to relatives if your relationship normally doesn’t enter that space. I think the key consideration is whether or not you’re taking active steps to hide your spiritual identity or to lie and maintain a cover story that you’re still going to church etc. That’s closeting, and it’s unhealthy. We all have decisions to make about what we reveal to various people in our lives. There are many factors that go into those decisions. The fact that we’re pagan should not be one of them.

      • JasonMankey

        “Coming out” is a nuanced thing. Why would anyone feel the need to come
        out to their 80 year old Grandmother if they knew it would cause her
        distress? I’m not advocating hiding Paganism, I just don’t see the need
        to flaunt it in such a situation.

        Everyone has to do what they think is best for them, if someone believes stepping out of the broom closet could hurt them with a boss I can understand the need to stay closeted. If that irritates you, I’d suggest participating in circles that don’t cater to such circumstances. To say that you don’t give them “a hell of a lot of respect” is a pretty big statement, and until you walk in someone in shoes . . . . . you never really know the circumstance.

    • I can see where you are going with this, but I, for example am a gay man. As you probably know there is a Coming Out day in October. Growing up this did not encourage me to come out, but it made me feel more comfortable, it made me feel not safe, but it let me know that there are other people who are facing the public and saying ‘I am gay’. That gave me a courage, and a strength of resolve that I didn’t have otherwise. It never made me feel like I had to come out, but it did make me hopeful and a bit more steady as I struggled with my own sexuality. In that spirit, I fully support Pagan ‘Coming Out’ day.

      No intelligent person is going to ignore their life circumstances and situations to come out on this day.

      • Thanks, Conor – I appreciate your perspective here. I think that’s the whole idea behind all the coming out celebrations: “here’s someone who did it and you can too, when you’re ready” not “here’s what you have to do now”.

      • elorie

        I am bi, and “coming out day” only reminds me that I have no support system. I’ve suffered more bi-phobia from the “gay community” than from straight people. This is related to my issues with Pagans “coming out”: if we encourage people to do that, then we have an obligation as a community to support them when they do.

    • Pagan Coming Out Day is always May 2nd. The National Day of Prayer is on the first Thursday in May. This year they happen to coincide. We also note, repeatedly, that coming out is a personal choice that can only be made by the individual. You decide, when, how, if, and to whom you reveal your spiritual identiy.

  • elorie

    I used to be open with my legal name…until a fellow Pagan posted my name, place of work and where I lived on his website, while encouraging people to harass me, because he was angry that I called him out for plagiarizing other people’s work. The reaction to that was mostly stunning silence; this person still teaches and does workshops at events. I went back underground because I am a single bi woman with (at the time) a minor child, in a state where a gay man had recently had his house burned down. (Because of linking my online handles with my Craft name and legal name, he also “outed” me publicly as bisexual.)

    If we are to encourage people to “come out,” then we as a community have an obligation to support them when they do. Using the vulnerability that creates as a weapon in a dispute should be off-limits.

    • “If we are to encourage people to “come out,” then we as a community have an obligation to support them when they do.” — I absolutely agree with you on this point. In fact, I’d go a step further and say that even those folks that do not want to “come out” publicly deserve support from the wider Pagan community. We seem to talk “community” when it suits our needs or supports our causes…but vanish when its needed for people/issues/causes that we find a little inconvenient or just a little off-taste for us. I know I’m painting with an overly broad-bush and extremely wide strokes…but it is a point that we – as a Pagan community (local/county/state/regional/national/international) need to bring to a point of comprehension. If we are going to embrace under the wide umbrella of Paganism, then we also need to stand up and support those that come under that umbrella as well.

      This is something that I’ve personally become aware of in myself over the past two years. I want to see a vibrant supportive community – but that’s all got to start somewhere…for me, I figured it had to start inside of me. Just my two pence….