I recently heard about a so called “TERF* war” in Pagan spaces. I just saw reference to that same controversy on a UU Facebook page. And I’m remembering the controversy around the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival back when I was attending and the organizers instituted the “Womyn-born-womyn-only” policy. (For more on the ‘MichFest’ controversy see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michigan_Womyn%27s_Music_Festival_and_transgender_people ) (*TERF appears to stand for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. For a broader context for the term, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminist_views_on_transgender_and_transsexual_people#Opposition )
A quick note: I just did an internet search on the term “TERF” and am horrified by the extremity of the rhetoric around this. People making accusations of rape and calling for the painful deaths of other people. I know people can get carried away in social media, but let me just say this absolutely must not happen in CUUPS spaces, including this BLOG.
Full Disclosure: I have briefly practiced as a Dianic Witch. I still believe in the need for “safe spaces” for those who have experienced oppression, e.g. person-of-color-only organizations, Pagan-only discussion boards and reproductive-loss rituals closed to those who have not had that experience…
And, I am married to a trans person, friends with many gender non-conforming people and active with justice-making for trans* people.
I am also a member of the CUUPS board but I am not writing on behalf of the board. The board plans to reflect on this issue carefully and to share a responsibly considered set of guidelines regarding inclusion which we hope our chapters will follow. But this is not that.
UUs affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. According to the author of “Living with Honour”, Emma Restall Orr says “In every group I have assembled to talk of Pagan ethics, after the main sources have been unravelled, the answer becomes clear. It is simple: relationship. Pagans find and craft their ethics through the experience of relationships.” Some phrase this as ‘love is the law.’ Wiccans assert ‘an it harm none, do what you will’ and Norse Pagans list hospitality as one of their nine virtues. We all point to the Universalist idea that universal love means every individual person is important and deserving of love. These ideals call us to find ways to honor each person, to hear their stories, and to find ways to foster their spiritual growth in community. They also call us to work against violence of any kind and against rape culture as we create consent culture, and a culture based on love. Diversity brings richness and growth and most Pagan paths and certainly Unitarian Universalism celebrate the gifts of diversity. We seem to struggle to answer the call to respect different people’s needs when building community. We’ve seen it before: a sort of competition where my needs to deal with my oppression trump your needs to deal with your oppression.
How do we affirm consent culture, protect safe spaces, create communities that are welcoming for oppressed people, act inclusively, accept one-another and encourage each person’s spiritual growth, and live lovingly when sometimes it seems these aspirations are in conflict? I’m not sure they are actually in conflict. In fact, I think that much of this fight is “oppression olympics” or what Reverend McDonald Ladd referred to at this summer’s UU General Assembly Sunday Morning Worship. Reverend Nancy McDonald Ladd, said we need to work together in love and address real problems, and we need to spend less time on what she referred to as “fake fights.” One attendee defined a “fake fight” as “one in which the initiator of the disagreement is picking at the details of an issue to distract us all from the core issue.” I think the oppression olympics is a distraction, a way to divide us when what we need is unity. We need unity in order to throw off the sources of the oppression. We need each other in order to end misogyny, colonialism, racism, able-ism, bullying, and all the other oppressions.I found help sorting this out when I read Roey Thorpe’s 2013 essay “Where Have All the Butches Gone”. Thorpe, who has led GLBT Justice organizations in Ithaca, NY and Portland, OR reflects on her personal experience of the transition of the movement from a Gay and Lesbian movement through adding ‘B’ and ‘T’ to a Queer movement. Her experience mirrors mine. Then Thorpe celebrates the opportunity for the people we love to become themselves. Finally, she invites us all to update our agenda while maintaining compassion for those of us who have lived through prior struggles.
I have a few concrete suggestions. Don’t use the term “TERF”. It is a term that was coined by people who are attempting to describe people with a particular opinion in a negative light. We who have worked hard to reclaim an identity of “dyke” or of “witch” know that it is never right to call someone a term coined with the intention of derogating another person. If you want to refer to “people who hold X opinion” spell it out. Precision of language will help avoid calling names. It is always better to prioritize being clear and specific over argument and rhetoric.
Don’t use the term “woman-born-woman.” It is used only to exclude trans women. If you are doing a ritual around menstruation, wombs, childbearing, reproductive loss, rape, misogyny, incest, or any of the life experiences usually mentioned as excluding trans women and cis-men, describe the ritual accurately in your invitation and expect people to participate appropriately. Consider the richness a man raised as a woman or a woman raised as a man might bring to a conversation about misogyny! Imagine the healing for all human beings who have been raped coming from a healing ritual, no matter their assigned gender!
If your congregation has a “men’s group” or a “women’s group”, ask yourself where your trans* and gender non-conforming siblings can go to explore spirituality through a lens of gender. If you are planning to use gender-specific teaching materials, double-check to make sure you are using the most recent version, recruit both woman-identified and man-identified leaders and supplement. In public ritual, public space, and UU events, instead of excluding people based on profile, look at building a covenant with an emphasis on consent culture. Trust people to choose to attend the events that are appropriate for them. Learn how to enforce covenant and practice consent culture. Spend some time in conversation about the difference between enclave and exclusion. Holding space in enclave with people who have something in common makes it easier to process certain things. Holding space in exclusion of others is a form of using gatherings as a weapon. (Thanks to John Burridge for articulating this distinction.)
It is our task as Pagans and as UUs to avoid name-calling, exclusion, and verbal warfare. We are in covenant to affirm and promote the inherent dignity of every person. As we aspire to this ideal, as we learn to live love, so we build the world we dream of.
More information can be found on Julia Serrano’s blog or see her books “Whipping Girl” and “Excluded”