From MinverCheevy's Blog
23 February 2012
An open letter to the PantheaCon organization
To Glenn Turner and the other organizers of PantheaCon:
I write to you in the understanding that you have asked for feedback from the community about this year's contention over gender and ritual and the role of transgender Pagans at PantheaCon, as triggered by Z Budapest's ritual Sunday night and the protest that accompanied it.
Already, just a few days after the weekend has concluded, we see an explosion of discussion of these topics by Pagans on the web. With so much discussion in the air, I want to try to speak to the specific implications for you in the PantheaCon organization.
Even that specific focus demands a long-windedness which I hope that you, and other interested readers, will forgive me. Understanding the meaning of the weekend's events demands understanding their context. Understanding the implications for the future demands opening some difficult questions.
A word about me
I am a Pagan Hermeticist and a cis man. (For readers unfamiliar with the term “cis”, it means “not-trans”; I was called a boy the day I was born and call myself a man today. The trans community has expressed their preference for this language over other alternatives; I use it as a mark of respect for trans people.)
The night of Z Budapest's ritual I had duties which prevented me from witnessing the protest against it. As I am neither trans nor a witch nor a woman nor present at the pivotal event, one might say that I have no stake in that singular moment last weekend.
But I believe that I do. I have participated in PantheaCon every year for fifteen years. I am a Pagan living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Your event is an integral part of my community. And so I write to you as a member of that community.
I must also note that I am co-founder of Solar Cross Temple with T. Thorn Coyle, who played an important role in the events of the weekend, having precipitated the protest by announcing her intent to sit in silence outside the ritual. (It's worth noting that Thorn, who at that point did not know that anyone would join her, did not refer to her plan as a “protest” at all. That we now refer to this as a protest contains a lesson, I suspect.) But I speak neither for Thorn nor for Solar Cross, but rather as a member of the PantheaCon community.
The past year
The incident at the Lilith ritual at last year's PantheaCon and the the many discussions in the Pagan community which followed influenced both the shape of this year's Con and the significance of Budapest's ritual. I'll not rehash the whole story here, but I want to underline a few key points essential to understanding the current controversy.
The clumsiness and confusion underlying the original incident demonstrated how despite often having good intentions the Pagan community does not have the sophistication about gender which it needs in order to properly welcome every member of the community. We saw how people neither thoughtless nor malicious took actions that turned badly sour, leaving trans Pagans feeling justifiably alienated.
The original incident demonstrated how exclusive rituals, however defined, can put the PantheaCon organization in the awkward position of enforcing the ritual's rules and implicitly endorsing the the event.
The vigorous discussion which followed demonstrated that the Pagan community could not and would not defer an examination of how we handle the complexities of gender any longer. That discussion failed to close (or even to fully open) many of the questions we face. Having demonstrated a commitment to talking about those questions was no small achievement, but we still have many Pagans of different perspectives feeling that they remain unheard, unsupported, and unsafe in the community.
In short, we found that we had a lot of work to do, that the work is difficult, that we cannot turn away from it, and that PantheaCon has an essential role to play in helping to lead the greater Pagan community forward.
This year's PantheaCon
The PantheaCon organization obviously made a commitment to this process. The Con schedule included numerous events — talks, rituals, and panels — addressing gender in the Pagan community and in Pagan practice. The schedule included a ritual offered explicitly welcoming of all women, both cis and trans. The convention theme of “unity in diversity” obviously alluded, in part, to PantheaCon including trans people in that diversity.
That deserves applause. Both the PantheaCon organization and PantheaCon community the made the effort to walk the walk.
This makes me certain that you included Z Budapest's ritual in this year's schedule with the very best of intentions. The thinking must have been that, in the spirit of having spaces which support the needs of the diverse members of the Pagan community, it made sense to have a range of differently-defined rituals, including one limited to women but inclusive of all women, both cis and trans, and another ritual limited to only cis women.
I can imagine a ritual for cis women only which many of the people who protested this weekend would have found entirely appropriate for PantheaCon and the community. I can imagine many others among the protestors finding that such a ritual justified criticism but not protest.
But Z Budapest's “The Sacred Body of Woman (Self-Blessing)” was not that ritual. It represented a terrible failure of what I take to be the PantheaCon organization's intentions.
Budapest has a reputation for — putting it kindly — stubbornness and speaking bluntly. I respect that strength of character. It is impossible to imagine that a gentler woman could have broken the ground she has and achieved the things she has in the times and circumstances she faced. The Pagan community stands on a foundation of those achievements, and while I can count myself as neither witch nor woman, as an American Pagan I mark myself as owing an incalculable debt to her. One could easily argue that without her efforts over many years, PantheaCon itself might never have happened. And many, many people in our community have greater and more direct debts to her and her work.
That speaks to the past, but her value to the Pagan community lies not only in the past. Just two weeks before PantheaCon I stood in circle with her at the Pagan Studies Conference, where she served as keynote speaker. At one point the energy of our circle had started to flag. She got a mischievous look and said something that has always seemed as trite and flat as a bumper sticker to me.“The Goddess is alive,” she told us.“And magic is afoot.” These words held a spark I never recognized before. Then she turned and grinned and said it again, differently. “The Goddess is alive, and magic isafoot!” It was utterly infectious and we repeated it with her. “The Goddess is alive and magic is afoot! The Goddess is alive and magick is afoot!!” The Goddess wasthere, and I knew her in a way I never had before.Magick.
So while I have the profoundest disagreements with many things that she stands for — some well beyond the scope of this letter — it pains me to speak against her. It does not surprise me that some people wept as they sat in protest on Sunday.
One of those things which she stands for is the fear and hatred of trans women. She represents transphobia in the most literal sense.
Many commentators have pointed to this statementattributed to her, inspired by last year's controversy:
This struggle has been going since the Women’s Mysteries first appeared. These individuals selfishly never think about the following: if women allow men to be incorporated into Dianic Mysteries,What will women own on their own? Nothing! Again! Transies who attack us only care about themselves.
We women need our own culture, our own resourcing, our own traditions. You can tell these are men, They don’t care if women loose the Only tradition reclaimed after much research and practice ,the Dianic Tradition. Men simply want in. its their will. How dare us women not let them in and give away the ONLY spiritual home we have!
Men want to worship the Goddess? Why not put in the WORK and create your own trads. The order of ATTIS for example,(dormant since the 4rth century) used to be for trans gendered people, also the castrata, men who castrated themselves to be more like the Goddess.
Why are we the ONLY tradition they want? Go Gardnerian!Go Druid! Go Ecclectic!
Filled with women, and men. They would fit fine.
But if you claim to be one of us, you have to have sometimes in your life a womb, and overies and MOON bleed and not die.
Women are born not made by men on operating tables.
I cannot read this as anything other than contempt toward trans women expressed through deliberate insults. The word “Transies” alone is unmistakably a slur. Budapest says both directly and by implication that trans women are in no sense women, they are nothing other than men in disguise, and the only meaning to their desire to circle with cis women is what it denies to cis women. This dismisses the lived experiences, material realities, and obvious commitment of trans women to living as women.
T. Thorn Coyle, who instigated the sitting in silence at Budapest's PantheaCon ritual, called this hate speech. She is right. It denies the fundamental dignity of trans women, as many commentators have described more ably than I can.
Recently, Budapest has said that some people have attributed things to her that she did not really say, though she has not specified what she means. Perhaps she includes this well-known blog comment … though tellingly she has had nearly a year to correct the record on it and has not found it necessary to do so.
But even if this specific comment did not come from her, the sentiment of fear and hatred and disrespect for our trans sisters it contains unmistakably reflects her expressed views, well known in the community. Many people have described her as having made similar comments in person, and I count myself among them. The morning before I circled with her two weeks ago, at the conference she spoke this same idea that trans women wanting to circle in women-only spaces are none other than men who, characteristically for men, want to deny women any space to themselves.
I will not attempt a full critique of those ideas here. Others have, more ably than I could. It is enough, in order to understand the significance of her ritual on Sunday and the protest that accompanied it, to note that many people in the Pagan community, both cis and trans, rightly regard Budapest as hostile to trans women.
PantheaCon included only only one scheduled event featuring Budapest this year:
The Sacred Body of Woman (Self-Blessing)
This skyclad rite honors the body of each and every woman present, the beauty and grace of the feminine form in all of her infinite variety. Allow yourself to be embraced by the glorious love of your sisters, with voices raised in sacred song in this central ritual of the Dianic Tradition. Genetic women only.
It would be wrong — it would be an insult to the diversity of trans people — to suggest that the trans community speaks with one voice. Indeed, the concerns and the rhetoric of the trans community exhibits so much diversity, and moves so quickly, that even keenly interested people can have difficulty keeping up. But in at least one way trans people have spoken unambiguously: if you want to demonstrate respect toward trans people, when you describe people as not-trans, you refer to them as “cis”. Cis men. Cis women. Cis people.
So a person who cared to make the effort could have identified this ritual as exclusive to cis women without making the description itself insulting.
That the description of the ritual used, instead, thestrange descriptor “genetic women” indicates that Budapest — and by extension, you in the PantheaCon organization having published this description in the guide — either did not make the effort to know that this language would be offensive, or you did not care.
What Budapest's ritual signifies
Many commentators have suggested that the protest against Budapest's ritual represents an attack on cis women having their own space at PantheaCon, an attack on the Dianic tradition, an attack on Budapest for having unpopular opinions. These readings are wrong. I have spoken to several of the protestors, and read the writings of many more. Niether the fact of a ritual restricted to cis women nor the fact of Z Budapest present a ritual inspired the protest.
It was combination of the ritual description and it being led by someone well-known for bigotry against trans women and its timing in the wake of the events of the last year that add up to the ritual being an insult to trans women. It was that having this on the convention schedule implied that such an insult is an accepted part of Pagan culture.
So the Pagan community stepped forward and said:
No. We cannot allow the implication that we accept bigotry against our trans sisters. We cannot allow the implication that we accept insults to our trans sisters.
Nor can we allow the implication that we disrespect our Dianic sisters who find value in spaces for cis women only. We will protest in the least disruptive way we can.
But we will not let the moment pass unmarked.
I say the Pagan community pointedly. This was not a protest of trans women, or of trans people, or of activists. It was a protest by a range of people reflecting the diversity of the Pagan community.
I have no doubt that the diverse participants in the protest, and those not present but aligned with it in spirit, hold a suitably diverse range of opinions about the greater questions of gender in the Pagan community. I look forward to that conversation, which has already begun to unfold.
Mindful of that, I don't want to pretend to speak for all of the protestors. The one opinion I feel confident in claiming that the protesters share is that we want our trans brothers and sisters to feel welcome in our community.
So what about rituals exclusive to cis women, in general?
The Pagan community is now talking about the role of rituals exclusive to cis women in Pagan practice.
No one can or should enforce some kind of ban on rituals exclusive to cis women, and were such a ban even possible, I certainly would not want the PantheaCon organization to police it, if for no other reason than that you don't deserve to be cursed with that kind of responsibility.
But no one is calling for that, and defenders of exclusive rituals for cis women who hear an attack on Dianics' religious freedom, who hear some voices in the Pagan community “telling them what to do”, have heard something which no one has said. They have mistaken criticism for some kind of compulsion. I see a Pagan community which recognizes the freedom of Budapest or anyone else to say and do what they wish. But that freedom does not extend to freedom from criticism.
Frankly, some criticism is warranted. In many of the defenses of cis women's circles, I have seen some unexamined transphobia. I'd like to see more discussion to explore that, and I'm heartened to see that happening; the community has obviously made a commitment to discussing these questions.
But those transphobic commentators — Budapest among them — do not speak for all cis women who build exclusive spaces, or even more narrowly for all Dianics. And in this conversation I think we have also seen the awesome power which rituals and other spaces exclusive to cis women can have. I cannot imagine how anyone could hear the stories that cis women have told about the importance of these spaces without feeling profoundly moved. And the depth of these spaces' significance goes beyond what I can ever fully appreciate having lived the life of a cis man.
This reflects one of the truths learned by social justice movements. A range of forums are necessary to nourish the community. We must have inclusive forums where we all come together. And we must have exclusive forums where people who share a more specific identity can do work they can only do together with people who share that identity. And not for nothing, it's worth noting that we owe this realization in large part to women like Z Budapest who discovered the vital importance of women having some spaces away from men.
So we have some work to do to figure out the place of exclusive rituals for cis women in the Pagan community. More conversation is needed, and it looks like we are going to get it.
I say all of this in service of pointing out that this conversation isn't PantheaCon's to adjudicate. You shouldn't do it, you cannot do it, and I cannot ask you to do it. But you do need to follow this conversation as it unfolds, because you need it to inform a thing which I am asking you to do.
The need for a clear policy about exclusive spaces at PantheaCon
Unhappily for the PantheaCon organization, we have obviously come to the end of an era in which it has been possible to run the Con without having pinned down exactly what role exclusive events — events which will only admit some members of our community — have at PantheaCon. I think you will no longer be able to make decisions about events in isolation, but will need to do it in reference to a clear, explicit policy.
In retrospect, it becomes evident that this day had to come eventually. It's not hard to imagine the exclusive events the community would reject out of hand. But if there are some exclusive events PantheaCon supports and others which it rejects, what defines the difference? Someday you have to answer the question, and that day is now upon us.
An argument can be made that as an environment where the Pagan community as a whole comes together, PantheaCon simply should not include exclusive events at all. That would be a clean solution, and I believe that you need to consider it.
But eliminating exclusive events would also be a loss. Eliminating events exclusive to cis women would be a loss. We have been talking about exclusive rituals' power for cis women, and they can be powerful for many other groups as well. Certainly many conventions of all kinds include exclusive events, so they are not inherently a problem. But I think you cannot schedule them any more without referencing a policy that you publish to the world.
”Event descriptions must not insult people who are excluded from the event” would make a good rule to include in that policy.
I'm not asking for a policy to last forever, but I believe that the organization does need to name one for next year, and to commit to refining it in the years to come.
The need for an apology from the PantheaCon organization
You have taken on the question of gender at the conference with grace and goodwill and seriousness of purpose, and mostly done a good job of it. But with the inclusion of Budapest's ritual you screwed up badly, and you should have known better.
You need to apologize to trans women, to PantheaCon participants, and to the Pagan community as a whole. It was your responsibility to forsee this problem, and you failed.
A non-apology apology will not cut it. You're not sorry people's feelings were hurt, you're sorry that you did the wrong thing. You need to make clear what was wrong about it, so that we know that you understand, and so that the whole Pagan community can see what was at stake.
Everything I have seen from the PantheaCon organization makes me confident that you will step up. This will do a great deal to heal the community.
The need for an apology from Z Budapest
I believe that before this weekend, it might have been possible to schedule Z Budapest for an event without it constituting an insult to trans women. Had she been speaking on another topic, or leading a different kind of ritual, it would not have been an endorsement by PantheaCon of the range of her views, and thus could be read not as an endorsement of the bigoted slurs she has made toward trans women ... though even that seems iffy in retrospect.
But at this point, she has become identified with her rhetorical attacks on trans women. Scheduling her foranything now would read as support for her and what she has said and done.
Yes, she attempted an “apology” the night of the ritual. I presume that the PantheaCon staff urged her to do so, and if that guess is correct you deserve great credit for that. But that was not a real apology, and the community needs one. She needs to say that what she did was wrong. She needs to show that she knows why it was wrong. She has to promise not to do it again.
PantheaCon should not silence her, and does not have the power to do so anyway. But you don't have to give her a microphone.
What I call for
PantheaCon is facing this crisis because you have shown invaluable leadership in the Pagan community, both with respect to the addressing the role of gender in our community and in general. That leadership is renewed each year and ratified by the community's participation in the event.
We need you to show that leadership again. So I am calling on you to do three things:
- A clear apology from PantheaCon for the insult to trans women implied by the scheduling of Z Budapest's ritual
- A refusal to schedule Z Budapest for any PantheaCon events in the future unless she apologizes for her comments about trans women and recants them
- A clear policy about what constitutes an appropriate basis for a ritual with restricted participants
I hope that other members of the community join me in this call.
Commentary on this blog post
I hope that other members of the Pagan community will co-sign this letter. Co-signatories need not agree with the letter in every particular, but should agree with the things I called for at the end. I am reserving the comment thread on this page for people to join me as co-signatories on this letter; any other comments on thispage will be deleted.
But in the hope that this letter will garner comments and criticism, I have created a separate page on my blog for commentary and discussion. I will also try to index every discussion of the letter which I know about on that supplemental page. I encourage folks commenting elsewhere to contact me by email, so that my index can be as complete as possible.
I strongly encourage anyone to repost this letter, in whole and in part, but I ask that all re-posts link back to this page.
As I have had reports of some folks having trouble posting blog comments, I have added a section for folks who have emailed me asking to be co-signatories:
Note from Rawprincess: Follow this link to add your signature to the open letter onsite at MiniverCheevy ...