Clouds in My Coffee: Addressing Some Criticisms, and Offering a Few More

Clouds in My Coffee: Addressing Some Criticisms, and Offering a Few More September 18, 2017

Hello again, beautiful creatures!

Prior to last week, the most popular post on my humble little blog was a geeky ramble about Dungeons & Dragons leading me to witchcraft. It was kind of silly, but fun to write, and apparently it resonated for some folks, who were kind enough to respond with encouragement and personal reminiscences. That was nice.

Then, I published a piece stating that modern esoteric spirituality has a serious problem with gender essentialism, and closed on that Pagans, polytheists, and magicians should take a critical look at the ways in which their beliefs and practices contribute to transphobia, homophobia, sexism, and misogyny.

It’s been an interesting week since then. As of this writing, “Tracing the Thread: Critiquing Gender Essentialism in Paganism, Polytheism, and Magic” has been shared more than a thousand times. It’s received responses ranging from laudatory to indifferent to dismissive, and has apparently sparked multiple conversations in a variety of settings. Some of those conversations have been cordial, even cheerful, while others have been just shy of full-blown witch-wars. All of them, it would seem, have been necessary conversations for their communities to have… which was the entire point of writing that post in the first place.

Of course, popularity is no proof of veracity. It is suggestive, however, of resonance. If my D&D post struck a chord for some folks, my post on gender essentialism seems to struck enough chords to cover a Ramones song. (There might only be three chords, but I beat the bejesus out of ’em.) For each accusation of “cultural Marxism” and Orwellian doublespeak levied against it, there’ve been several people who’ve responded with excitement, enthusiasm, and reflection on their own lived experiences in relation to gender and spirituality. That’s encouraging for me as a writer, validating my desire to write that post in the first place, but I don’t want to dismiss the critics out of hand. On the contrary, I want to take a moment to respond to some of the criticisms levied against the piece, in hopes of clarifying what were clearly some misapprehensions or miscommunications.

And if you'd like, feel free to grab a cup of coffee, or some other beverage, and perhaps a tasty baked good.
And if you’d like, feel free to grab a cup of coffee, or some other beverage, and perhaps a tasty baked good.
 

Criticisms and Responses (with Special Guest Stars)

I would like to state, from the outset, that every single one of the criticisms to which I’m responding was actually observed in the wild, somewhere in the social media to which I have access. I have not quoted any particular person’s comments here, in part because I’m not interested in singling anyone out, and in part because enough of them overlap that no particular critic stood out in my mind.

You’re trying to take away my gender!

Despite closing my jeremiad with an explicit statement to the contrary, a few folks got the impression that I’m trying to abolish gender, or that I’m opposed to gender having any place in magical spirituality. I promise you, that’s not the case. While I myself don’t feel an allegiance to any gender whatsoever, I really, truly don’t mind other folks having genders, nor living out their gender in the context of their spiritual practice. I’m not even opposed to spirituality which employs binary gender as its defining metaphor. Honest!

In closing my post, I invited my fellow Pagans, polytheists, and practitioners to “think about our practices and traditions analytically, even critically, when gender comes into play.” I’m pleased to see that many communities under the p-word umbrella have taken me up on that invitation. I’m admittedly puzzled that some folks consider such an invitation tantamount to an attack, but I accept that not everyone will read things as I intend them.

 

You’re trying to force people to change their traditions!

No, I’m asking people to think critically about their traditions, to engage honestly with the metaphorical and magical language with which we express and manifest reality. I’m asking us to ask ourselves if the gendering of our praxis actually has a magicoreligious value, or if it reinforces a cultural ideology which, when hauled out into the open, is actually antithetical to our stated values.

And if, after a careful examination of both our traditions and our consciences, we come to the conclusion that gender is an inextricable religious value inherent to our praxis, I want us to be honest about what that means, both practically and philosophically. For some folks, that might mean working to find a way of working with seekers, initiates, and practitioners whose gendered experience doesn’t match the context of our paradigm. For others, it may mean explicitly stating that one’s practice is intrinsically gender-essentialist, rooted in a metaphor which ascribes spiritual value to certain interpretations of biology and social performance, and that seekers whose gender experience does not match that context are unwelcome1.

 

But science! Two genders! Biology is destiny!

Unless you happen to hold an advanced degree from a reputable university in one of the sciences related to biological or psychological development, I assure you that your scientific opinion is not germane to the conversation. (And if you do, I would love to hear your thoughts!)

 

This is nothing but cultural Marxism!

Confession time: when I saw this accusation, I literally laughed out loud. I had to go look the definition of “cultural Marxism” just to verify that I wasn’t misinterpreting it. Then I laughed even harder.

Okay, so, look: as one might expect from a queer witch with a gender studies degree, I’m a progressive, a political leftist. I make no secret of this.

However.

The point at which avowed Pagans are literally accusing me of being a crypto-Communist agent of a Jewish-Marxist conspiracy to destroy the United States through the cunning deployment of feminism, queerness, academia, rock and roll, and other aspects of counterculture is the point at which I have clearly done something very, very right, and will pour myself a whiskey—Redbreast 12 year, neat—to celebrate.

 

This is just political correctness run amok!

Allow me to defer to noted fantasy author and tireless free speech advocate Neil Gaiman, who perfectly summarized my feelings on this issue here:

I was reading a book (about interjections, oddly enough) yesterday which included the phrase “In these days of political correctness…” talking about no longer making jokes that denigrated people for their culture or for the colour of their skin. And I thought, “That’s not actually anything to do with ‘political correctness’. That’s just treating other people with respect.”

Which made me oddly happy. I started imagining a world in which we replaced the phrase “politically correct” wherever we could with “treating other people with respect”, and it made me smile.

You should try it. It’s peculiarly enlightening.

 

You were mean and/or unfair to [insert tradition here]!

Well, I certainly wasn’t trying to be2. When I said that all of my critiques come from a place of respect, I meant it. For instance, despite my critical observations of it, I have an abiding love for the Gardnerian tradition. I promise you that I strive to take just as analytical an view towards the other traditions of which I am privileged to be an initiate.

 

But you’re holding them to an unreasonable standard! They were great for their time! [Alternately: They’ve gotten so much better!]

No, I’m not. I’m just not giving them a pass based on previous good behavior. Aren’t modern p-word traditions better about gender than what came before them? Some of them, yes… and others, not so much. Haven’t some of them evolved to become less sexist/homophobic/transphobic? Again, some yes, some no.

In any event, a spiritual tradition’s beneficence towards oppressed groups at an earlier point in history has limited relevance to how it behaves today, other than as context. Likewise, while past progress is laudable, it’s not a Get Out Of Responsibility card. We all have to live in the now (and the future, assuming it gets here), so I’m writing about what I see now.

 

I dislike the tone of your piece.

I don’t much care for your tone, either.

Okay, that’s overly flippant. My authorial voice, which I’ve been told is somewhere between “overly enthusiastic grad-school student” and “snarky social justice warrior,” isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. Last I checked, though, no writer is going to be everybody’s cup of tea.

 

These aren’t original thoughts.

I’ll have to cop to this, at least in part. It’s entirely likely that nothing I have written, or will ever write, is particularly original, because nothing I say, do, or write exists in a vacuum. I live in the context of a network of relationships with people, spirits, and gods, including other thinkers and writers. Everything I write arises from that context, and builds on the work of the giants who came before me. When I can, I hope to contribute some small bit of originality to my lines of thought, but ultimately, I don’t see my job here as “trailblazer.” Rather, I’m trying to call attention to some ideas which haven’t gotten nearly the airplay they deserve, and which might actually contribute to our communities (and, dare I say it, our world) becoming better places to be.

If that means being accused of a lack of originality, well, I suppose I’m comfortable with that.

 

This is boring.

Well, then, don’t read it. Sheesh. Go watch Game of Drones or something.

 

It was too short! Go deeper! I want more! More on gender, more on sexuality, more on all the things!

There will be more, honest! I’m dancing as fast as I can, gang. If you’d like a sneak preview, I’m working on a piece about the inherent, inescapable queerness of the Witches’ Sabbath, because apparently I don’t know when to leave well enough alone… and in the meantime, if you’d like to see me dilate on some particular topic or conceptual thread, please feel free to let me know, here in comments or over on my Facebook page.

Until next time, dear hearts. ♥


  1. This will almost certainly lead to charges of transphobia from certain quarters. Given the term’s definition as “a range of negative attitudes, feelings or actions toward transgender or transsexual people” including “emotional disgust, fear, violence, anger or discomfort felt or expressed towards people who do not conform to society’s gender expectations,” this charge would seem to have validity.
  2. Unless the tradition in question was the Asatru Folk Assembly, in which case, not to put too fine a point on it, fuck ’em. They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic white supremacists. Nothing I said came within a light year of being too mean for the likes of them.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Pagan
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Rose Jayada Bekker

    “The point at which avowed Pagans are literally accusing me of being a crypto-Communist agent of a Jewish-Marxist conspiracy to destroy the United States through the cunning deployment of feminism, queerness, academia, rock and roll, and other aspects of counterculture is the point at which I have clearly done something very, very right, and will pour myself a whiskey—Redbreast 12 year, neat—to celebrate.”
    HA! Spoken like a true Dustbunny <3

    • I’ll take any opportunity I can to pour myself a Redbreast neat. ^_^

      • Rhys S/V Alchemy

        Well, we have very akin taste in Irish beverages. As for the above, I
        just read it. There might be something to this “people projecting”
        thing based on your replies. I didn’t actually find the original
        particularly challenging, nor did I see it as a call to dismantle
        horrible, no-good Wicca. But perhaps being secure in my life choices means differing people with differing viewpoints don’t frighten me (or the rest of the fine people with whom I work) very much.

        • I didn’t think what I wrote was especially challenging, either… and certainly not in the ways in which some of it was clearly taken. Then again, I also didn’t think I was calling for the dismantling of anyone’s tradition, Wiccan or otherwise. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

          Also, cheers! ^_^

  • Secret Blue

    I’ve been trying to figure out how to phrase this well. I apologize in advance for any failure to do so.

    Is it more important to have a system that strongly speaks to 92% of the population or is it more important to have a system that feels inclusive to 8% of the population*?

    Is it possible to have a system that speaks as powerfully to heterosexual, cisgendered people as a gender essentialist view while at the same time not alienating people who are LGBT?

    I believe these questions are important because if you alienate LGBT then it is very possible that you are compromising core values. On the other hand if you alienate 92% of the population then whatever it is you are doing is going to be at a huge disadvantage. I wish I had an answer to these questions but I don’t. I just think they are important.

    *As per a Gallup poll mentioned in the article “In US, More Adults Identifying as LGBT”, 4% of people identify as LGBT in the United States. In order to account for various factors such as people in the closet I doubled the number to 8%.

    • Hello, Secret Blue!

      I agree, these ARE important questions, and I’m glad you raised them. I’m aware of the demographics in relation to LGBT folks in the US, but I want to suggest that those numbers aren’t relevant to the issue, because they create a numerical prerequisite for being included. (What percentage of the population do LGBT people need to reach to qualify for consideration? Is it 10%, 15%, 20%, or more?)

      Instead, I want to suggest that the issue is psychological and spiritual in nature, and has to do with what gender and sexuality intrinsically ARE. I think we need to have some serious discussions about gender, sexuality, biology, and how those things are related to our spirituality. I think it’s desperately important for our spiritual traditions to struggle with these issues, as well as the questions underneath them. This is where I think a lot of modern p-word traditions could benefit from both gender theory and scientific research on gender and sex. After all, if our beliefs are out of sync with what we can actually see in the natural world, there’s a non-zero possibility that our beliefs are wrong.

      I don’t pretend to have answers to all of the questions that will arise from these discussions, and I don’t know that there ARE answers to some of them. In fact, I would suggest that the moment we declare we have The Answer, we’ve stopped thinking and created an orthodoxy. Historically speaking, that never ends well, in Paganism as in the rest of the world. ^_^

      Thanks for commenting!

    • Allanah Walker

      Hi Secret Blue,

      Re: Is it more important to have a system that strongly speaks to 92% of the population or is it more important to have a system that feels inclusive to 8% of the population?”

      It’s a valid question to ask, but there’s more to deconstructing gender essentialism than just making space for the LGBT and non-binary gender members of our communities. I believe that critiquing the gender essentialist assumptions inherent in most modern p-word communities also benefits the 92% cis, straight members of the population as well. Gender essentialism puts everything into two little boxes and doesn’t leave much room for a full exploration of the human experience.

      In my own experience as a straight, cis-gendered woman, the image of femininity/goddess energy that is idealized in an existentialist paradigm makes me feel…constrained. It doesn’t match my experience of what it is to be a woman. My gender expression (and experiences) swings from hyper feminine(I love the power and sensuality I feel while belly dancing, and looking after hearth and home brings me great satisfaction), to what would be considered “masculine” experiences (I wear my hair quite short, I love martial arts, hiking, camping, working my body to it’s limits). I also dislike the emphasis on biology and reproduction that is so prevalent: for women, you’re either the virgin maiden, a mother, or a crone who can no longer reproduce. The mother archetype particularly bothers me these days: I do not have children, and there’s a distinct possibility that I never will. In an essentialist model, one’s femininity and (dare I extrapolate to say) one’s value as a woman is tied to reproduction, thus, if I do not procrate, will I ever be a “true woman”?*

      *not saying that you’re saying that, just providing it as an example 🙂

      You ask “Is it possible to have a system that speaks as powerfully to heterosexual, cisgendered people as a gender essentialist view while at the same time not alienating people who are LGBT?” I think the answer is yes. Questioning and critiquing the gender essentialist model allows us to open up those little boxes and make space for ALL humans in all of our varying experiences of gender – including those who strongly identify with the essentialist categorizations.

      “Jailbreaking the Goddess: A Radical Revisioning of Feminist Spirituality” by Lasara Firefox Allen is an excellent book on this topic. She articulates a way of moving beyond using biology as our sole defining characteristics of who we are and how we relate to the divine far better than i can. I highly recommend it!

      • Well phrased, Allanah, all of this. I found this part especially noteworthy:

        “In my own experience as a straight, cis-gendered woman, the image of femininity/goddess energy that is idealized in an existentialist paradigm makes me feel…constrained. It doesn’t match my experience of what it is to be a woman.”

        And this, in a nutshell, is PRECISELY the problem with gender essentialism. It presupposes a universality of certain notions of gendered experience, and posits that anyone who doesn’t match those “universal” standards is somehow aberrant. <3

        • Allanah Walker

          Thanks!

          Now, if I could only go back and fix my typos…seems autocorrect felt that “essentialist” should be “existentialist”…

          • For some reason, your comment is showing up as “awaiting moderation,” despite my not having moderated it. Oh, Disqus. >.< Lemme see what I can do…