Gender Activism

Pantheacon 2011 – Addressing Dianic Exclusion of Transgendered Women

In the couple of weeks leading up to the convention, Rev. Gina wanted to address issues surrounding gender discrimination at Pantheacon, after having had some bad experiences herself in previous years as well as being concerned about the harm caused to transgendered people at the convention. For reference, amongst the founders of the Circle of Cerridwen, Rev. Gina, is not transgendered, but Sarah (the author of this essay) happens to be a transsexual woman.

Rev. Gina’s first thought was to write an open letter to the Pantheacon organisers detailing her concerns, but despite significant effort it didn’t quite come together in a form that really said what she felt needed saying. Though I wanted to support her, I was reluctant to put myself into the middle of that particular controversy. Too many painful memories, too much hurt piled on more hurt over the years. For myself, I’ve never really had any interest in women’s-only events, regardless of whether they specifically include transsexual and transgendered women, because I’ve not wanted to put myself into a position where someone could hurt me badly by negating my existence by denying my claim to my gender. No skin can be thick enough to deflect an arbitrary number of such attacks.

After a few sleepless nights, I decided to pitch in and help, but I was not prepared to do so at a level of intensity anything less than all-out — life and experience have forced warriorship on me, and whilst an inner-me would rather resemble a pagan Dalai Lama, when I have to fight for something I always do so with an intent to win. What would Khamael, archangel of Geburah, do? Know my enemy, know what I have to do to win, and know what winning would actually look like, so you know what to aim for and when to stop. Anything less might feel satisfying, but would not yield significant benefits.

We decided to change tack slightly. Rev. Gina dropped her attempt at the open letter and worked on a ritual plan instead, and I took on the letter. After some thought, the whole thing pretty much flowed in one piece. The full text is here:

I chose to use my real name rather than my magickal name, because I felt that my words would have more force if they were coming without qualification.

Rev. Gina’s ritual turned out to be particularly powerful. The full text is here:

We printed handouts and flyers, publicising an intent to perform the ritual in public near the fireplace in the hotel lobby on the Sunday lunchtime of the convention. The open letter had also been circulating for a couple of days by that time, and had stirred up an astonishing amount of interest, most of it positive, with at least one person taking it on herself to photocopy and distribute extra copies.

On Sunday morning, our preparations complete, the coven (not just myself and Rev. Gina, this was a group action), assembled at the intended place a few minutes early, and proceeded to nervously get organized, distribute scripts and arrange costumes. Then, something rather astonishing happened: our assumed enemy, the Pantheacon organizers, or rather the programming team, showed up, surrendered, and then immediately changed sides. At least, that’s how it seemed at the time. In actuality, the organisers had for some time wanted to do something about the gender discrimination that was going on, but no one had actually stepped up and not only complained but been prepared to actually do something about it. We were offered immediate legitimacy: one of the large ballrooms for 2 hours on Monday morning, 11am to 1pm, in order to hold the open discussion that we’d initially hoped to continue informally after our ritual. Speaking of that ritual — it never happened, because it worked wildly successfully before it was even performed. Not only that, the organizers resolved to enact specific policies for future events that specifically disallow gender discrimination at events (details to be figured out).

Sunday afternoon was a whirl of running around the huge hotel getting presenter badges, organising flyers, registering for this and that and such like. I think we probably walked a few miles inside the building, but it got the job done. Sunday night was evidence that people were actually interested — there was a definite buzz, and much of the conversation that evening up in the hospitality suite was relevant.

The tricky thing at this point was, OK, yes, we won the first battle, decisively, without firing a shot. Now what were we supposed to do? There was interest from the Dianic community in showing up and taking part, which appeared to be honest in its intent. After a little contemplation, it seemed to me that we’d invoked Geburah big-time, but more of the same was not the right thing at all. We needed some Chesed to balance it out, which was going to be difficult considering level of emotion felt by both sides of the debate, but ultimately I had to be prepared to stand on Tiphareth, and (using some Golden Dawn symbolism) I had to be Ma’at, Keeper of the Balance. This idea is probably best described by stealing the description of the Hegemon’s wand, from the OSOGD web site:

The Wand of the Hegemon The Hegemon is the godform of Ma’at, and her wand is also red but separated into three sections with two gold rings, defining the Sephera of the Pillar of Mercy. In the old Aeon system, it was mitre-headed, and the gold mitre bore the red Calvary Cross. The S.M. ritual of the Neophyte Hall specifically refers to the cross on the Hegemon’s staff as representative of “religion”, which is the proper guide of aspirations of the soul. In Thelemic redaction, the proper guide is True Will, the “balance” between Light and Darkness, and so the mitre is recast as a golden symbol of the female yoni (combined with the masculine ‘rod’ of the Wand itself), and the cross is replaced with the Feather of Ma’at. Also mounted into the top piece is an actual feather, preferably one of red or one of red striped with green. — OSOGD

Rev. Gina wrote a new circle casting, specifically for the purpose of holding a sacred space for the Monday discussion. The intent was that it should be an open circle, with no prohibition on entering or leaving, and that it should promote calm and focus and work against the chaos that could very easily erupt. The script for this circle casting is included here:

I suspect that this opening ritual is likely to be useful for other cases where a distinctly open circle is necessary. The symbolism comes from the poem, The Sword, which also inspired our coven’s distinctive pentacle design — there is much more to be said about that particular formula, but that will have to wait for a later essay.

At the actual discussion, up in the Fir Ballroom at 11am on Monday, we began with Rev. Gina, as crow, opening the circle. She then sat in the north and held space for the duration of the circle. I can’t include a script for the introduction that I made, because I was working entirely ad-lib, but in outline, my intention was to make it clear that the purpose of the event was to bring to light the problem, allow people their say, and hopefully to find a way forward. I remember saying that our actions so far had been rooted in Geburah, but we needed, today, to focus on Chesed, mercy, in order to find balance, Tiphareth. I declared that I was Ma’at, keeper of the balance, standing on Tiphareth. I went on to talk a little about the concept that no one present really wished anyone else ill and was trying to do the right thing, working altruistically, and the conflict seen is really just a consequence of different people’s and different group’s differences in core beliefs. I insisted upon the Native American tradition of using a talking stick (in our case, a 1/5″ diameter, 8.5″ long ebony wand with deep relief carving of stones and plants — actually a wand dedicated to the element of Earth that I made recently, though it’s possible that I might now rededicate it specifically as a talking stick). This worked extremely well, in practice. I started by reading the letter that I’d distributed previously, and then passed the stick to Wendy Griffin, Professor Emerita and Chair of the Department of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at CA. State University, Long Beach, and a well-known Dianic elder. She spoke from the heart about the Dianic position that their Mysteries were for and of what they call women-born-women (a term that I actually personally regard as rather offensive), and that allowing transgender women into their circles would effectively destroy their religious practice. She made a fairly classic, second-wave feminist argument that gender was purely a social construct, inculcated after birth due to the differences in the ways that parents interact with children, and used that to support her argument. As it turned out, no one directly challenged this — I felt I wanted to, but the conversation moved on rapidly. A transsexual woman in the audience delivered a speech that, if my letter was something of a hand-grenade, was analogous to detonating a nuke. She had had a hard life, beyond belief, and I doubt that anyone in the room was not moved to tears. Many people told their stories. Ruth Barrett, founder of the Temple of Diana, gave a passionate account of her feelings about the women’s mysteries she has worked over many years to pass on — at one point, she held out her blood-red initiation cord, and it was entirely obvious that her beliefs were deeply held, right to the core of her being.

The debate continued. No one won, as-such, but winning wasn’t the point. Though I’m not unbiased in this matter, I doubt anyone would disagree that, at the end, the Dianic elders present were affected by the experience. I believe them when they said that they had no wish to harm transsexual and transgendered women, but they remained firm. Wendy Griffin, toward the end, got quite upset, stating that the issue is effectively one of religious freedom, and that what was being proposed effectively would prevent her from engaging in her religion. Ruth Barrett, who I must admit showed astonishing strength in retaining composure throughout the event — for her, the issue was that she wanted to continue to run events at Pantheacon, but that a non-discrimination policy would effectively mean that she could not continue to do so.

At the end, I took the talking stick, and using it as a wand, I charged everyone present to go forward and actually do something about the issue. Rev. Gina then closed the circle with our traditional, The circle is open, but it is not broken. May we merry meet, merry part, and merry meet again.

So what happens now? Good question. I for one intend to keep the dialogue open, and will be focusing on trying to build a policy that will protect both the religious freedom of the Dianic tradition to work at Pantheacon, whilst also protecting the civil rights of all of the convention’s participants. This won’t be easy. Both sides will have to give a little in order to make this possible.

Sarah Thompson, February 2011

Anthology — Gender and Transgender in Modern Paganism

Released in 2012, this anthology was an attempt to bring all the voices of the debate in 2011 into a format that can be accessed by the most people. See the main book page for more information.