I’ve been going to PantheaCon for many years. For about a decade it’s been held at the Doubletree Hotel in San Jose, California, a large convention hotel. It’s gladdening to see it growing to where it now attracts about 3000 people from far and near. It can be overload with workshops, presentations, and rituals going from the early morning hours to well after midnight, to say nothing of the maze of hospitality suites and accompanying revelry. For three and a half days the hotel is abuzz with energy with rituals being conducted by FoDLA, ADF, Ekklesia Antinoou, Hrafnar. Thiasos Olympikos, Feri, Reclaiming and so many other groups.
Over the years the programming has become much more diverse, there being many more reconstructionist tracks, for instance. Yet often in events supposedly for the general audience the language remains “Wicca-centric”, i.e. the God and the Goddess, the Four elements, etc. I think the tensions this generates will be around for a long time in Neopagan events, but as non-Wiccans become a larger and larger proportion of the pagan demographic this must be challenged.
Wicca, especially in its British and British-derived traditions, is a very gender essentialist religion. This is in striking contrast to polytheistic religions, where the deities themselves mirror many gender and sexuality possibilities. Gender essentialism reared its ugly head this past weekend in a Dianic ritual put on by the Amazon Tribe of CAYA Coven, which did not advertise that its ritual was only for those women who are biological females. Some transgendered women were turned away at the door. Fortunately the next day a discussion was held about this discrimination, but some of those who put on the ritual claimed that this was an issue of religious freedom. I find this a suspect defense; it seems akin to arguments raised by Islamists in defense of so-called honor killings (sic), or purdah, or of the Mormon church’s fighting same-sex marriage and interfering in electoral politics in California. Is it fair for the Dianics to claim this exclusion of some women is simply an issue of their religious freedom? I think it’s also important to note this occurred at a public event in a hotel and the description in the program schedule for the event was so vague that I thought men would be able to attend this woman centered rite. A further terrible irony is that the rite was for Lilith, who is often portrayed as transgendered or gender-variant.
A lot of leaders in the Neopaganism scene came of age and were influenced deeply by 70s feminism, by writers like Barbara Walker, Mary Daly, Riane Eisler, Merlin Stone and Marija Gimbutas. There’s much that was wonderful there, but their gender views are ones that through the way they essentialized ‘woman’ excluded many women, including many African American women to name but one example, (which has been written about cogently by bell hooks). And of course, many women don’t identify with motherhood or childbirth, which are so emphasized in these accounts of what is ‘woman’. At the same time French feminists were already developing a non-essentializing view of gender, for example, brilliant theorists like Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva, as well as Judith Butler in the US. I can remember when Eisler’s and Gimbutas’ view of the past seemed a hopeful one, but I still had doubts, as queer people had no real place within this vision, which exploded when I started reading people like Helene Cixous, Gloria Anzaldua, Adelle Olivia Gladwell and bell hooks.
So this opens into the huge sea of gender essentialism in neopaganisms, both in Wiccan and Ceremonial Magic circles, the whole notion that magic is based on polarity, the polarity of the archetypal masculine and feminine. Such beliefs have often led to exclusion of homosexual and bisexual individuals or at least the continued marginalization thereof. I hope these are areas that will become questioned more and more in the various interlocking communities that make up the contermporary pagan world.
Gender polarity may be a valid method for some, but it’s simply inauthentic as a foundational view of magic. So much of traditional magic is based on working with language, the textual magic found everywhere from Alexandrian Egypt to the Sorceresses of Larzac (in Gaul). I myself work with the Celtic magical poetic practice known as filidecht, again no gender polarity required!
I have more to say about these issues in the future but for now some more discussion of the gender problems at this year’s PantheaCon can be found at the links below.