Three “cis-gender crones,” one “muttering”

I had no plans to attend Z Budapest’s ritual on Sunday night. I thought about going to Rabbit’s ceremony, but what I really wanted, after a week of hard work, was to kick back in the hotel room and watch Downton Abbey. (A somewhat guilty pleasure, my class loyalties and politics being what they are.) Alas, the Fates ordained otherwise.

When I heard about the protest (as it was first told to me) / silent meditation that Thorn had called for outside of Z’s ritual, I realized that I would have to be present to hold space. I was acutely conscious of the larger context of the sit-in: the ongoing campaign to ban all Dianic lineages whose rites were for women born and raised, and the vitriolic outpouring that happened to Yeshe Rabbit last year. I was concerned that things could go that way, again, and affect a lot of women—for starters, anyone who wanted to attend Z’s ritual, and ultimately a much larger community of Dianics.

The issue paramount in my mind, and forgotten amidst all the righteous rhetoric, was the sovereignty of women, our right to set our own boundaries and to decide who are our peers and allies. (Yes, of course   trans women too.) Women, that most divided of all groups, make different choices based on who we trust as allies. How can forcing boundaries of self-determination earn that trust? especially when breaking down women’s boundaries is and remains a historically enforced imperative. I was aware that honorably taking responsibility would make me a target; that many people would make unwarranted assumptions, in the gossip and aspersions that run wild out on the wire. But I would have to leave them to it.

The rights to self-determination and to resist coercion do not necessarily entail challenging someone else’s gender identification or the existence of multiple genders. (I am not going to address this very big subject, on which opinions differ even among queer theorists, here.) My own posts have moved about who is and can be an ally. My core criterion is caring deeply about women’s liberation. I will not stand for silencing or coercion of women, and I’ve seen a lot of that in these recent backlash decades. I am looking to broaden my alliances, but will not back down on these principles.

Passing by the restaurant at the Con, I saw Z and Glenn talking, and immediately knew why. So I horned in on the conversation. I told Z I would come to hold sacred space at the door to the ritual. I know that Thorn intended to create sacred space herself and was doing what she thought was right, by her lights. I respect her even when I don’t agree with her. We have common mystic ground. We haven’t had a chance to dialog about these issues, though I came to hear what she had to say at the Gender and Paganism conference last fall.

I had a sinking feeling just thinking about the radioactive zone of pre-judgment, assumptions, polarization, and frenzied name-calling that surrounds this issue. However, that couldn’t be helped. There were things that had to be faced, and said, and lived out. I heard that the controversy would be discussed at the Pagans and the Media panel, and attended it. Some very good things were said, others that I disagreed with or that were, frankly, irrelevant. There was a certain amount of circling around the issue, with one exception: Z was called out by name, in a way I have never seen done to anyone in all the years I have been coming to Pantheacon, in her absence. I could not remember or imagine a male elder coming close to being verbally targeted in this way, for anything. It’s not that an elder can never be wrong, but this breached the pan-tradition protocol of respecting face for elders. It would be far, far surpassed by what transpired later online.

Several years ago, when I heard an archdruid at the Con ridicule “matriarchalist fantasies” as having no historical basis whatsoever, even as he asserted the total non-sexism of his own tradition, no one said a peep. Some people laughed knowingly at the gibe. Sexist generalizations, no prob! I knew, too, how unlikely it was that anyone would challenge the fellow sitting two rows in front of me during the Media panel. He sported a leather jacket emblazoned with a woman tightly gagged and bound, and running along the border of chains, the inscription, “Bound to Please.” Though I find this symbolism of male dominance deeply offensive, I didn’t say anything to him. Nor was I going to bother people who went to bondage-themed parties or rituals glorifying “sacred prostitution,” or which banned women on their bloods, or honored gods linked to male dominance mythologies.

Pantheacon is a libertarian space, and so has places and scenes where I am a complete outsider (something I have a lot of practice at). At times I feel completely alienated, like the year our booth was next to the corset shop, which was mobbed by women forking over hundreds each for this constrictive garment. (The vendor moaned with relief when she took hers off at day’s end). Many people have this experience of alienation, for a whole variety of reasons, and not just at this conference. However, I feel that the people who run the Con (and thank you to the many volunteers) do a marvelous job holding the space for everyone, the whole disparate lot of us. Herding cats! The theme Unity in Diversity was an attempt to address the dissension and polarization.

During the question period of the panel, I spoke about what it means to deride female sovereignty in the context of the intense anti-feminist backlash we are living through now. Margot Adler had mentioned the shrinkage of feminist spaces, bookstores and Women’s Studies. I talked about how that had affected my work, as women’s history got thrown overboard in the stampede to Gender Studies. It’s not because women’s oppression has been solved! I said that this debate has got to get unstuck off the “essentialism” refrain. As long as the issue keeps getting cast only as biological determinism (and I see people in both camps insisting on this discourse in different ways) other real concerns are not being addressed, even effectively denied or misrepresented. We need to have a deeper conversation about the complexities, the differences and the commonalities, between cis, trans, and those who don’t fit this new gender binary. In the current climate such a dialogue, multilogue actually, seems impossible. May the time come soon when we can do so without it turning into a destructive beatdown.

It is hurtful to call people “transies,” but what about “bigot”? This word has been hurled in a steady stream since the 80s, and is in full cry in the current dispute. It is itself used in bigoted ways, especially against lesbian feminists, radical feminists and butch lesbians, who are routinely denounced. Doctrinal certainty cuts more than one way. Last year, Rabbit came to my booth in distress. She didn’t say what had actually gone down, and neither did Amethyst, who came by equally upset for opposite reasons. Only later did I hear about the confrontation at Rabbit’s ritual. I read through the ugliness on the blogs, and was horrified to see what they said about her, the curtain of contempt that descended. Someone even felt entitled to make death threats. This year, people on both sides say they feel that they are unwelcome at the Con, unsafe attending a ritual, or unsafe because they are not allowed to attend that same ritual. Ironically, people who sat in outside the Dianic ritual chose to do so rather than to attend a trans-inclusive Dianic event in the very same timeslot, a much better-attended event.

Coercion and derision is not the way to change someone’s mind, and projecting mistaken assumptions from what one person says or does to entire groups is guaranteed to harden lines. I was well aware that sticking my neck out on this issue would, for many, conflate me completely with what others said or did, regardless of what where I actually stood. It would not matter a whit to them that my events are open to everybody. A lot of things would not matter in the heat of this destructive, vicious argument.

Last weekend, it looked increasingly likely to me that historic lineages of Dianics could get drummed out of Pantheacon, and all in the name of love and justice. (I felt reassured on this score after hearing from the founding elder, Glenn Turner.) Many of the Amazon priestesses were not at the Con this year, such as Ruth Barrett, Ma ShiAat Oloya, Leilani Birely, Falcon River, Anniitra Ravenmoon, Letecia Layson, Wendy Griffin. I can’t speak for them or where they might stand. My concern was to uphold their right to space at the Pantheacon.

So Nava and I decided to weard the door at Z’s ritual: to be there in sacred space, while chanting the Names of Goddess. Perhaps our devotion would touch that of Thorn and others who were meditating. We knew that Glenn would be there too, and were thankful for her holding the space. I knew that Thorn didn’t intend harm with her silent meditation, even if she had made her intention to pressure clear. Still the polarization was daunting. The coercive aspects of the ongoing Urania / Pluto square were on my mind.

We came early to settle in next to the door, me on the floor. I wrapped my Raven mantle around my hips in case it got chilly. Then I began to chant the Sri Lalita Sahasranama. This is one of the Thousand Names of Devi litanies from India, invoking the divine qualities that are within all of us. Nava was meditating and praying too, and Glenn sat beside her, and a while later, Bobbie sat down. Thalassa was there, though I didn’t see her at the time. Elders of various vintages were in the house.

My eyes were closed most of the time, so I missed seeing much of what was going on. I could tell that people were lining up to enter the ritual to my right—door still closed—and facing them were the silent protesters. (Although Thorn didn’t use this word, many did and still do.) I found out afterward that many of these women felt like they were walking a gauntlet as they came down the hall. This feeling only  intensified when some of the protesters took pictures of them. (There is no other word for that but intimidation.) I caught a whiff of disagreement between staff and Bobbie, when they told her not to film what was going on. Some attendees later said no one had stopped protesters from taking pictures of them.

I kept chanting the invocations: Compassionate Devi. Blessed Wisdom. Supreme Power. Origin.  Thousand Petaled Lotus Pouring Forth a Stream of Divine Essence, Foreknower in Perfection, Remover of Obstacles, Dispeller of Fear, Dweller in the Heart. Mother of Ten Million Universes, Shining Embodiment. Wish-fulfilling Vine, Remover of Bondage from the Bound. Immeasurable. Bliss of Truth. Mother. Liberator. Peacefulness.

At one point I felt more people arriving. Rabbit had brought people from her ritual to hold space between the two groups. They sang We All Come From the Goddess, and we sang it along with them. They alternated it with another beautiful chant of Thorn’s. Women inside were also singing We All Come From the Goddess. Z came out and spoke. She apologized for hurting anyone, and she upheld her right to perform her rites. I couldn’t see any response, except when Rabbit admonished Z for forthrightly addressing “your side.” She told her, “There are no sides,” which sounded cosmic and everything, but unconvincing under the circumstances. We weren’t in Rumi’s field yet, where there is no judgment, no rebuke. People came to “take a stand” and there was no mistaking the opposition.

I can’t remember what Z said, but here is her written statement: “I know you are here for me. I come out to say something to all of you. I am sorry if I have hurt anyone’s feelings.  I apologize. I stand for your right of sacred space for the trans community. I stand with my life’s work for the women to have the right to their sacred space equally. I have supported PantheaCon goals for unity and diversity for the 18 years this conference has existed and an opportunity to have everyone to express themselves in a safe place. Peace.” This apology, as difficult as it was for a proud Hungarian priestess to make, has barely been acknowledged in the blogosphere rants, or it has been rejected, for the most part, because she did not back down on the parameters of her rituals.

The silent meditators continued on. Z went back in and the ritual began. I resumed chanting the Sahasranama of Devi. After some time, the silent people wrapped up their meditation and dispersed. I continued chanting for a while longer. Then Glenn, Nava, Bobbie and I talked, a good, long conversation. I felt relieved, for the moment, but less so when the ritual participants came out and talked about having to pass through hostile terrain. I later found out that some even thought that we by the door were there to protest too, adding to their feeling of isolation and outcast. On the other side of the hall, I heard later, certain protesters had said angry words to Rabbit and Devin, assuming that they were on the “wrong” side.

It was truly the cusp of a stellium in Pisces, with a new moon (and therefore sun, plus Mercury and Chiron) joining Neptune, fresh after its entry into its own oceanic sign. Confusion, illusion, and smoking mirrors; also the fragrance of devotion and love, the potential for inspirational vision, and perhaps, in time, the dissolution of acrimony into ho’oponopono. We are all being ground on the anvil of Urania squaring Kali, with many more passes to go. The larger perspective on this tempest will make itself felt in time.

We came home exhausted, after loading and packing up the booth, then unloading after the drive. We had sold little more than half of what we did last year, and were wrung out. Then I saw the firestorm of denunciations on the blogosphere, once again. The comments section on The Wild Hunt was inhabited by torrents of rage and outrage. Bigot, bigot, and bigot to the tenth power. Accusations of man-hating were repeated, in various iterations. Curses uttered, even. My womb was hurting, no lie.

One blogger purported to give a dispassionate account of what went down at the protest. Sitting by the door, he wrote, were “three cis-gender crones,” one of whom was rocking and “muttering.” Ah, the muttering of crones, that phrase really takes me back. I recognize the meme of an old woman singing Goddess invocations, interpreted as muttering some incomprehensible spell, questionable and perhaps diabolic. So now I was seen as a muttering cis-gender crone. But I had plenty of new identities to choose from, if I cared to, in the online vilification stream.

Bigots, manhaters, transphobes, and bigots again, were being cast into outer darkness. The rightful recipients of love and understanding and solidarity and sympathy were clearly marked out. The Others who must be expelled were radical feminists, and if Pantheacon continued to harbor them, it must be boycotted. One man outright called Z “evil.” Women piled on too. Stones were flying in the cyber village square, in the name of tolerance and acceptance. Every time I look again I am heartsick.

A few brave souls waded in to defend against the pan-defamation. (Thank you.) On another blog, a woman begged for forgiveness for really, really needing to attend that ritual, because of the sexual violence and abuse she had suffered: “Instead of taking part in a ritual which I needed I’m sitting in a hotel room writing this letter. I didn’t attend the Sacred Body ritual hosted by Z Budapest because I couldn’t face the protest. A protest sparked by pain. I know pain. I was sexually abused in my marriage for 17 years.  Then I was abused for 5 more years by different men. I hated my womanhood and my body.  Rituals like the one offered by Zsuzsanna have helped me begin to heal and I need them. I’m not a bigot.  I don’t hate you. Please, sisters, hear my words.” Some people relented a bit, but others were sternly implacable. One man tried to invalidate her concerns by a comparison to racism. (Dood! it’s not for you to pass judgment on any woman, least of all one who has suffered beyond your understanding.)

Some people have chosen to forget, if they ever recognized it, the long history of bludgeoning women into submission, of public humiliation and denunciation, ritually repeated. This is not the dialog that needs to happen; it is no dialog at all. Thankfully, I am seeing a breeze of reasonableness come through on some blogs, like that of Gus diZerega, who I just met at the Con. He spoke about the importance of harmony among participants for a ritual to work, and said of Z’s ritual:

“She and those who attended did not make a statement about how the larger community should conduct their rituals let alone setting their ritual up as a proper guide for all, or for all women. Quite explicitly otherwise. In the context of Pantheacon this was a ritual for people wanting to attend a ritual with particular parameters. Those desires were legitimate and indeed are present in almost every Pagan society. (I say “almost” because perhaps somewhere there is an exception, but I doubt it.)” Read more:

Something strange: the comments link on Rabbit’s blog post about this controversy comes up blank, and so does Devin Hunter’s entire blog post. I have heard that other posts describe the experience of women who attended the ritual, but am just now finding links to them. Some I can’t post because they are restricted to the person’s Facebook friends. This one comes from the HecateDemeter blog (Undermining the Patriarchy Every Chance I Get. And I Get a Lot of Chances.) It’s called, I Contain Multitudes:

“What I want is a Paganism full of diversity. I want to honor and respect those who draw a circle that includes me and those who draw a circle that says, ‘We need to be inside here for a time. That means that we need you to stand outside. Can you please stand here and guard our door?’ We need rituals that are drawn as tightly as needed to guard the sanctity of those who have been othered and excluded. Of those who need to other and exclude themselves in order to preserve their own sacred and diverse identities. Of those who simply want to draw a circle and stand inside it without being attacked.”