Washing the Clay Feet of Broken Idols: Confronting Paganism’s TERF Problem

Washing the Clay Feet of Broken Idols: Confronting Paganism’s TERF Problem July 27, 2018

Hello, beautiful creatures.

Just as a warning, this will not be one of my happier pieces. On the contrary, it’s a bit more snark-filled then my usual, largely because I’m feeling a bit saltier usual. Readers on a low-sodium diet are excused from class today.

So… another week, another round of Watching Big Name P-Words Shit Themselves In Public.

I wish I could say I’m surprised, but honestly, after mumblemumble years knocking around the loose conglomeration of Pagans, polytheists, and magical practitioners that we call “the community,” very little surprises me anymore. I mean, if it’s not some ceremonial magick dude managing to simultaneously junk-punch himself and hang himself with his own tongue by clumsily conflating rape and rape culture with BDSM, it’s some Pagan dude bloviating about uppity women, queers, and trans folks getting peanut butter in his Ten Thousand Year Old Book of Cisgender Heterosexual Shadows… or, in the case of the current bee in my bonnet, it’s a Well-Respected Feminist Elder™ running her tattered TERF1 flag up the flagpole to see who salutes.

Yes, dear reader, I’m talking about Zsuzsanna “Z” Budapest, noted feminist, witch, and author of numerous books and Facebook screeds about trans women.

Over the years, Z has dropped numerous boluses of misinformation, hatred, and paranoia, but her most recent public self-soiling, in which she literally accused trans women of being bankrolled agitators who only want to see naked cis women in rituals, will surely go down in the annals of Pagan history as an embarrassingly notable intersection of TERF nonsense and right-wing propaganda tropes. (I mean, who does she think is paying these trans agitators? George Soros?) And then, of course, we turn to the comments sections of said posts and whoa, Nellie, is there ever some badness happening in here! Uncritical approval of provably false statements, paranoid oppression fantasies that would look embarrassing in the comments section of an InfoWars video, and rancid bigotry and hatred in flavors ranging from transphobic to homophobic to weirdly misogynist to borderline anti-Semitic… all of this and more, and always—always—from scared folks striving to defend what they see as “their people” and “their space” from the perceived attacks of others, of outsiders.

Of course, who those outsiders are changes from group to group. In this case, it’s trans women, and trans folks generally. In other groups, it’s queer folks, or women, or people of color, or abuse survivors. Outsiders are the ones without the power, the ones who invariably end up on the receiving end of violence: physical, social, economic, emotional, and spiritual.

Yeah, it’s good times out here in the P-word blogosphere. Garbage like this almost makes me want to start a p-word analogue to The Onion… except that I’d have the same problem the actual Onion does, namely, the sheer impossibility of coming up with satirical stories more ridiculous than the actual stories. As above, so below, and the Pagan subculture continues to keep pace with the mainstream overculture.

Now, I can already hear some grumbling out there. Some may think I’m coming to this party a bit late, but fashionable tardiness aside, I want to suggest that this isn’t really about Z… or rather, it’s not merely about Z. (I’ll get to that in a moment.) Others may be ginning up their outrage machines to defend Z from my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad misogyny. Well, nothing I say is really going to change their minds, but I do want to speak to that, just a little.

First, I bear Z Budapest no particular ill will. The one in-person interaction I’ve had with her was in a professional capacity, and while it didn’t fill me with a tremendous faith in her ability to manage her own affairs, much less to act as any sort of spiritual leader, it was perfectly harmless. I’d appreciate it if she’d stop spreading provably false claims that perpetuate violence against trans people, women and men and nonbinary alike, but that’s a far cry from wishing her ill.

Second, I personally don’t care who Z has or doesn’t have at her rituals. If she wants to host events that exclude cis men, trans women, trans men, or anyone who doesn’t buy into her gender-essentialist horseshit, I’m not going to argue that she doesn’t have the right to do so.

However—and I think this is an important point, so please note it well—I’m also not going to support her in doing so, nor am I going to support any suggestion that the interlinked Pagan, polytheist, and magical communities should give her and her followers any platform for their hateful right-wing nonsense. On the contrary, it’s my considered opinion that Z Budapest and all the other TERFs out there—Ruth Barrett, Max Dashu, Luisah Teish, and all the rest—have no legitimate place in our communities, any more than neo-Nazi white supremacists or “Men’s Rights Advocates” do. They are of a piece with the alt-right, from their reliance on outdated pseudo-science to their deployment of propaganda intended to demonize and do violence to at-risk marginalized groups, and should be treated as such.

So, what do I suggest? The same thing I suggest with the alt-right: stop giving them a platform. Stop booking them for conferences and other events, and stop attending their events. Stop selling their books in our stores, and stop buying their books from stores that do sell them. Stop amplifying their voices. Stop rewarding them for teaching hatred and fomenting violence against the other, the outsider.

I know that many of you reading this have found their work deeply influential, even formative… and that’s okay. It’s possible to acknowledge both the value of someone’s work and their personal flaws, faults, and failings as a human being. As an example, and possibly the ur-example in the modern occult movement, Aleister Crowley was an innovative occultist and an intermittently brilliant writer. He was also notoriously misogynistic, racist, and generally awful to the majority of the folks in his life2. Does that mean we should throw his work away? Not necessarily. It does mean, though, that we should look at him and his work with a critical eye, and discern carefully how much of his work is marred by his deeply flawed personality. Where it serves a useful purpose, as many believe it does, it should be upheld and propagated. Where it serves to foster hatred and oppression, as many others believe it can, it should be rejected.

The bottom line is that our heroes, mentors, and teachers are as human as we are, clay feet and all, and are just as prone to the failings and flaws of humanity3. We need not beat ourselves for trusting in flawed idols, but neither are we bound to serve them. As with all else in life, I suggest we find what good we may in their work, and leave the rest to rot on the midden-heap of history.

For those interested in pursuing this line of inquiry further, I’d like to recommend “It’s All About Sex: Feminism, Paganism, and Trans Exclusion,” Sophia Burns’ incendiary dismantling of the intersection of Paganism and TERF bigotry. She writes on this subject in a profoundly moving, deeply informed way.

Oh, and one final thing:

Trans women are women. Trans men are men.

If anyone reading this has a problem with either of those statements, the door’s that way. Don’t bother responding, don’t bother saying goodbye. Just leave. I have neither the patience nor the crayons right now to explain to anyone why they should respect other people’s lives, identities, and agency, and I have no interest in providing such persons with a platform for their bigotry.

For the rest of you, dear ones, take care of each other. It’s hard out here. ♥

(Image by Dean Moriarty via Pixabay.)

  1. TERF, as patiently explained in this article, is a value-neutral acronym meaning “trans-exclusionary radical feminist.” Leaving aside for a moment the question of how feminist their “feminism” actually is, the irrefutable fact is that if you believe the term “TERF” is a slur, you’re simply wrong. On the other hand, if you believe that this term’s common usage implies that being a TERF is a bad thing, you’re absolutely right… because being a TERF is a bad thing, and if you’re a TERF, you should feel bad about that. Glad we could clear that up.
  2. As Colin Low wrote in his review of Martin Booth’s Crowley biography, “He used them as tools for his own purposes (masquerading as the Great Work), and threw them away […] he took the gold and left dross behind.”
  3. I exempt from consideration here those folks whose teachers are Holy Guardian Angels, Ascended Masters on the Inner Planes, Secret Chiefs, spirits, daemons, or other entities who cannot be said to be, strictly speaking, “human.” I note, however, the paucity of books and weekend workshops attributed to such nonhuman entities, so I think my point still stands.
About Misha Magdalene
Misha Magdalene (Seattle) is a multi-classed, multi-geek, multi-queer witch and sorcerer with a degree in gender studies and a slightly odd sense of humor. They're an initiate of multiple lines of traditional witchcraft, including the Anderson Feri tradition and Gardnerian Wicca, and have also been known to dabble recklessly in both modern ceremonial magic and grimoiric goetia. They've been blogging since 2001, negotiating the online world since 1987, playing Dungeons & Dragons since 1981, and listening to weird music since birth. They live on occupied Duwamish territory in the Pacific Northwest with their polymath partner, their precocious daughter, far too much coffee-making apparatus, and a long-suffering bamboo plant named Smitty. You can find them on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram, or lurking somewhere around the Seattle area, usually hiding behind a cup of coffee. You can read more about the author here.

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