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.
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!
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. ♥
- 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.
- 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.