Today, Star Foster over at Patheos wrote about whether or not this kind of brouhaha is really a form of religious discrimination, and that gave me a moment of pause. As a queer Pagan activist myself, with a number of transgendered Pagan friends, my initial reaction was to jump on the fact that this gender exclusive ritual was allowed to happen again at the biggest Pagan conference in the country. But Star's article got me thinking. Is it discriminatory to hold gender exclusive rituals at a public event of this nature? Well, I happen to have some experience with the gendered space issue.
Gender and sexual-orientation exclusive spaces is something that has been a wedge issue in the Radical Faeries for a number of years. When the faeries were first formed back in the 70's it was essentially a gay male counterpart to the radical lesbian separatist movement that grew out of 60's/70's feminism (from which we got the awesome work of Z. Budapest and Mary Daly). The initial gatherings were such that it was exclusively focused on healing the gay male soul, finding safe space for personal growth, self-exploration, and engaging in a positive, spiritual, healing group dynamic. Like all separatist movements it was about finding shared identity, creating synthesis within the self, and mutual exploration of the complexities of individual and group identity outside of the dominant cultural paradigm.
But over the years Radical Faeries grew and changed, and the public gatherings started to become more inclusive of different genders, transgender bodies, different sexual orientations, etc. This process hasn't been easy, by any stretch of the imagination. Each step forward was coupled with a visceral backlash from people who wished to retain that original purpose of gay-male-only space. So, different Faerie Sanctuaries around the country each went through their own processes, their own debates, their own hurt and healing and each one cobbled together a solution that worked for them. The majority of large faerie gatherings that take place today are pangendered, pansexual in nature, but still Fae in spirit. Even those "straight" folks who come have some quality that draws them to the faeries, and sets them firmly in our worldview, outside of the traditional heterosexual, patriarchal paradigm of contemporary society. But it took us decades to get there, and endless amounts of communication and heart space.
But still there is a need for that gay-male-only healing space. So, some faerie enclaves host smaller gatherings that are exclusive unto those people. And they get a lot of shit for it. But there is still a need, and some men feel called to still find that space where they can be among other gay men, bond with each other over shared experiences as a minority, and find comfort and healing in that process. Some men don't feel comfortable being around women. They don't feel that they can open up about their feelings as they could with someone else who understands where they are coming from. Being in mixed company changes the way people behave around each other, and some people just don't feel comfortable exposing themselves emotionally or physically around people of different genders.
When people seek out spaces that are gender exclusive they are doing so because there is a need for connection to shared experience. And yes, that exclusivity can be hurtful to people who have been discriminated against and belittled for their gender identity. But it doesn't negate the need for people to want to connect with a subgroup that they feel makes sense to them.
Part of what Z. Budapest is trying to do is to establish a space for cisgendered women to heal. One of the people who needed that space at Pantheacon chose not to participate because she couldn't deal with the protestors. As a woman who had been sexually abused for a number of years, she found healing in this gender exclusive space. And given the statistics on domestic and sexual abuse of women, having a place for emotional, psychological, and spiritual healing is extremely important. And that's what we're really talking about here.
As Pagans we talk a lot about mysteries. A mystery though is something that only you understand, because you have lived through that experience. And everyone's experience is different. I would no sooner expect a straight male friend to understand my experience as a gay male, as I would expect a cisgendered woman to understand a transgendered woman's experience. Those mysteries are completely different, and the wisdom that one gains from those experiences is radically different. Some people need to find those of a like mind, who truly understand, can empathize, and share their experiences and build up a shared space of understanding.
There is a philosophical concept that I return to in these moments: Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis. Thesis and Antithesis are two halves of the same coin. Those who seek out niche communities are looking for thesis, the like mind, because they are living through antithesis, a hurtful paradigm. They need to bond together and build their strength before they can work toward synthesis, a reformation/integration of the self-identity and the greater society.
So, as for the question of gender exclusive spaces at Pantheacon. Clearly some people need this, emotionally, it means something to them. Does it need to happen at Pantheacon? Maybe, maybe not. Pantheacon draws thousands of Pagans from all over the place, and it goes on for days. It may be some people's only vacation trip, or their only chance to go and immerse themselves in their spiritual practice. Some people, like the woman who wrote above, look forward to this experience to be led in ritual by a luminary of their community. Again, does it need to happen at Pantheacon? Could it happen in conjunction with Pantheacon? Do other rituals that have exclusive communities bar the door in public ritual space? Is it overcomplicating what is already a challenging event to coordinate, to ask that exclusive rites be held somewhere else? Is it not equally marginalizing to cisgendered women to ask them to separate their ritual from the rest of the conference?
One of the things that happens at Faerie gatherings is that there is so much to offer that if you don't like what's happening in one place, you can go somewhere else. I'm not a sweat lodge person, but I do like cutting vegetables and making cheese. I'm not big on hiking, but I like a ritual circle. People can go to whatever they want, as they are inclined. No restrictions. I think this is a good practice for public events. At the American Library Association conference there are numerous after-hours socials hosted by special roundtables, vendors, interest groups, and all of it happens just in the vicinity of the conference. Again, this is pretty standard for conferences. If you're going to have private or exclusive rituals, they could take place on the grounds but outside of regular conference hours, not be advertised in the main program brochure, and posted as a supplement from people via a booth, via a special invitation, or some other method that indicates that this is a special, non-conference sponsored event. They could take place in private suites or even in ballrooms, but just be outside of the scope of the main event. Anything that's advertised publicly should be just that: All attendees welcome. Perhaps that's the most diplomatic solution to this conflict of interests. Let it be a private event, and let each group set their own rules as to who gets access.