There has been a lot of talk recently about “identity politics”. This seems to be the new phrase with which to beat lefties over the head, now that “it’s political correctness gone mad” has been so thoroughly discredited, and “snowflake” seems to have waned in popularity.
A guest post by the Low Priestess
‘The shooter was gay’. On Tuesday when I arrived at an LGBT community group I was told this and it was as if the bottom dropped out of my head. I think the extremity of my shock and upset was because I had been here before: with Brian Copeland who murdered 3 people and maimed more at the Admiral Duncan in Soho, who tried to bomb Brick Lane and set a bomb in Brixton Market that put nails into a baby’s head. (Later working with older LGBTs I met someone whose life had fallen apart that night of the Admiral Duncan attack.) I was out in London that night in 1999, and roadblocks made it hard to get home. It was very frightening, few of us had mobiles then and I couldn’t get any news or ring my partner. I was trying to get to the Glass Bar (a lesbian bar) to get off the street and I even got frightened that fascists were going round planting bombs in all the LGBT bars that night. A week later we marched from Brixton, through Old Compton Street to Brick Lane. Then, a year or so later, when Copeland was sentenced I was by chance in The Naz restaurant in Brick Lane, listening to the radio they had on. I had hoped Copeland’s attacks had at least brought the Brixton, Brick Lane and LGBT communities closer together. The Brick Lane bomb which had not gone off, due to the incredible bravery of a South Asian man, had been close to the Naz. Now on the radio I heard people discussing that Copeland was ‘really gay’ and I imagined the supposed solidarity evaporating as waiters and diners heard it. No, we were not victims, it seemed to say, we were the perpetrators.
So this time I argued about ‘the shooter was gay’. I was upset. I said ‘having same sex attractions doesn’t make you gay. Same sex attraction is a very ordinary human experience for a fairly large proportion of the population if they don’t manage to repress it. What makes you gay or bi is embracing that and identifying as gay or bisexual.’
Later that day, though I stood with that, and stand with it still, I had to come to terms with the fact Omar Mateen may have been strongly attracted to men. I did more thinking about internalised murderous homophobia and its causes, which I believe lie in the pervasive homophobia and transphobia still rampant in society. It doesn’t really matter what culture someone has in their background, he could have come from one of many that nurture homophobia and push same sex attractions into hate. Same sex marriage doesn’t cut it for me, I don’t experience this as the cherry on the top of a raft of equality protections that have made it safer to be LGBTQIA. Oh no, nothing so good as that. I am not safe till all my LGBTQIA siblings are safe (and especially LGB and trans people of colour, who are disproportionately targeted in hate crime). What matters to me is what people are taught about homosexuality (if it is mentioned at all) and how they are supported, and by whom, if their orientation turns out to be at odds with the views of their family or community.
Mostly I am very concerned that much of straight society may take even less responsibility for the way heterosexism and homophobia led to this horror: as if it were only a psychological problem of people who cannot accept their own sexuality. So it could all be made ‘other’ by the majority white, cisgendered, heterosexual society, the society Mateen grew up in. So much ‘other’. I can imagine some thinking, generalising, othering: ‘Well he was gay, and he was Muslim and they are so anti gay aren’t they? He must have had mental health problems. Nothing to do with us. Nothing to see here, let’s move on’.
However Mateen’s hatred and anger were part of a widespread problem of bigotry and uncontrolled blame of othered groups which society does too little to address. He was not only homophobic, apparently. As well as being violent and controlling to his first wife, on her evidence, he seems to have been bigoted in many ways: he was reportedly a racist and misogynist too. The fact he targeted the Latin night of Pulse nightclub in Orlando and killed Latinx and Black clubbers is part of the toxic mix. If you have read their names and seen their photos, this becomes clear. (I read in the Evening Standard that many of the victims were of Latin origin. ‘Many’ is not enough – all but one or two seem to have been Latinx people or appear to be Black or mixed race).
According to a former colleague in G4S, David Gilroy, who was quoted in the New York Times on Sunday 12 June :
“I complained multiple times [to G4S] that he was dangerous, that he didn’t like blacks, women, lesbians and Jews,”
Ah, so Mateen might also perhaps, given his apparently constant anger, have targeted any of these groups.
But of course it is still all speculative and everything about motive serves someone’s agenda. Even mine.
Yes, I have an agenda. I crave a widespread programme in response to this massacre, to all the other massacres of children and teenagers and college students, of women who had not been sexually available to a shooter, of LGB people and of the vast numbers of trans people killed. I would like it to be not only in the USA, not only to be a response to gun availability (crucial as that is) for we have homophobic, transphobic, racist and misogynist murders all over the world. I don’t want to see them happen serially, in the night, either, in areas where guns are not available. I would like the programme to look at systemic bigotry in all kinds of services, and in government, and to institute urgently needed educational programmes in schools. There it is, my agenda.
In the meanwhile I would like to see respect for grief and loss and fear, for as long as it takes, in the communities affected by this, those from whence the victims came and those who have something in common with the shooter. As indeed I have myself. I would have liked minutes of silence in workplaces, few I believe have happened. I have not been calling for the rainbow flag on people’s profiles or cries of ‘Je Suis Pulse!’. But the difference in response from this one to other massacres can be startling for those of us, whatever our orientation, who have continued through the week to grieve and fear and hold each other for comfort, and search, sometimes hopelessly (but never really giving up) for hope.
The Low Priestess came out in 1965 and has been a queer activist since 1972, assisted by her animist, pantheist and polytheist beliefs, and a highly skilled series of cats.
Can love win? Is there any hope?
After a tragedy like the Orlando shooting, it is really hard to believe in love, or hope for a better future. It is all too tempting to despair, to think that after each previous mass shooting, the calls for gun control went unheeded, and to give up on working for change. It is easy to despair when gun sales increase after every mass shooting, and the gun that was used by the shooter is “gun of the week”, and it only takes seven minutes to buy one. It is easy to give up when we know that every shooting done by a person claiming to be a Muslim will result in more anti-Muslim rhetoric, and every shooting done by a person claiming to be a Christian will be regarded as “just a lone nutter”.
We are tired of being vilified, tired of being erased, tired of being targeted, tired of hate preachers. It’s horrible when people who have previously vilified everything about LGBTQ people are suddenly horrified when so many LGBTQ people are murdered – as if their hate-filled rhetoric hadn’t contributed to their deaths.
Homegrown terror is the product of a long history of colonialism, including state and vigilante violence. It is the product of white supremacy and capitalism, which deforms the spirit and fuels interpersonal violence. We especially hold space for our Latinx family now, knowing that the vast majority of those murdered were Latinx, and many were specifically Puerto Rican. From the forced migration of thousands of young people from the island of Puerto Rico to Orlando, to the deadly forced migration throughout Latin America and the Caribbean — we know this is not the first time in history our families have been mowed down with malice, and we stand with you.
Religious extremism is not new to America and is not unique to Islam. For centuries, religion has been used to subjugate queer people of color and lay the groundwork for our deaths. We live in a society that gasps at mass murder but does little to produce the policies or radical ideological shift needed to keep LGBTQ people and our families alive and safe.
But there is hope. There have been terrible injustices, horrific murders, and all the rest. But when these things happen, there are always people reaching out in love, and trying to help others. In the attack on the World Trade Center, people helped others, went back up the stairs to rescue others, called their loved ones to say goodbye. After the Pulse shooting, when emergency workers went in to retrieve the dead and the wounded, the cell-phones of the victims were ringing as anxious loved ones tried to contact them. The next day, 600 people queued around the block to give blood to help the survivors.
— Steve Helling (@stevehelling) June 12, 2016
All around the world, vigils have have taken place in memory of the dead of Orlando. I attended the Oxford (UK) vigil for Orlando last night with two friends. It was beautiful. There were poetry readings, candles, flowers, speeches, and a silence. LGBTQIA people and our allies came together in a shared moment of grieving. Hertford College was flying a rainbow flag at half-mast. The person leading the Oxford vigil for Orlando was Muslim and LGBT. There is a huge number of LGBT Muslims around the world, and they are in mourning too.
It was also noticeable how many of the families of the dead loved them unconditionally, and that the families of one of the couples that were killed – Juan Ramon Guerrero and Christopher “Drew” Leinonen – have arranged a joint funeral for them. They had planned to be married, but now they will be buried side-by-side.
This is in stark contrast to the sad story of the funeral of Tom Bridegroom, which his partner, Shane Bitney Crone, was not allowed by the Bridegroom family to attend – they threatened violence towards him.
In the face of such an appalling tragedy, it is all too easy to assume the world is full of hate. Yet every day, millions of small acts of kindness and love go unnoticed and unreported. People helping refugees, building community, reaching out to each other in friendship and love.
Sadly, as with any social progress, it’s a case of one step forward and two steps backwards. The unsightly rash of ‘bathroom bills’ currently disfiguring the legislatures of America are evidence of that. The horrific murders of 49 people are evidence of that. The fact that demagogues are all too ready to spout anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ hate is sadly still with us. And we must not forget that being LGBTQ is still illegal and subject to the death penalty in far too many countries around the world.
There is some good news today – that Democrat Senators held the floor of the Senate for nearly 15 hours in a push to get some gun control bills heard. They have put forward bills that would institute universal background checks and bar suspected terrorists from buying guns. Such legislation might have prevented some of the recent spate of mass shootings.
But what this tragedy has done is to show the love that the LGBTQ community has for one another. The solidarity represented by the many vigils around the world is beautiful. We have survived centuries of persecution and hate, and we are still here. As Owen Jones said:
The terrorist who carried out America’s worst ever shooting in Orlando will fail just as a neo-Nazi terrorist did 17 years ago in London when he detonated a nail bomb outside the Admiral Duncan pub. The LGBT community will mourn, will cry and will rage but ultimately we will win and the love of LGBT people all over this planet will burn even brighter because of what he did.
Earlier this month, my husband and I went to Oxford Pride. On our way there, we met a grandma who was also going. She expressed regret that she couldn’t get a rainbow bandanna for her little dog (she had ordered it online but it hadn’t turned up). She was going to Pride (to meet up with her entire family) to support her lesbian grand-daughter. My husband was going to Pride to do some morris-dancing with Oxford City Morris to entertain Pride-goers. Both of these things would have been extremely surprising twenty years ago.
Below are some photos from the Oxford (UK) vigil. The one that really sums things up for me is the placard that reads “Stay Proud. Stay Visible”.
As Pat Mosley wrote in a blogpost, Pride is the Answer:
Pride is the way attitudes change. Refusing to live in the shame assigned to us defuses the power of that myth for others being raised in it.
I have anger. But I also have Pride. As an atheist, as a fat diabetic Queer, as a sex-positive, socialist, gender resisting, sober/recovering addict, and occultnik weirdo. I refuse to let the dominant paradigm’s shame narrative closet me. And I refuse to do their work for them by hating the others who join me in living our Queer utopian consciousness.
The LGBT+ community is one that is born from pride and resistance, but also from love. It is our love that marginalizes us and yet draws us together. It is our love that informs our politics and challenges the world around us.
My heart hurts for the loss of so many beautiful lives. And yet I am aware that there is still beauty and grace in the world. Hope and despair, love and loss, joy and sorrow, live side-by-side in our hearts. Life is always renewing itself in the face of death. And the beauty of love is always present, even in the midst of fear and terror.
These are all the Orlando-related articles that I linked to in the blogpost.
Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34 years old
Stanley Almodovar III, 23 years old
Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20 years old
Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22 years old
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36 years old
Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22 years old
Luis S. Vielma, 22 years old
Kimberly Morris, 37 years old
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30 years old
Darryl Roman Burt II, 29 years old
Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32 years old
Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21 years old
Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, 25 years old
Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35 years old
Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50 years old
Amanda Alvear, 25 years old
Martin Benitez Torres, 33 years old
Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37 years old
Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26 years old
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35 years old
Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25 years old
Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31 years old
Oscar A Aracena-Montero, 26 years old
Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25 years old
Miguel Angel Honorato, 30 years old
Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40 years old
Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32 years old
Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19 years old
Cory James Connell, 21 years old
Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37 years old
Luis Daniel Conde, 39 years old
Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33 years old
Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25 years old
Jerald Arthur Wright, 31 years old
Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25 years old
Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25 years old
Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24 years old
Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27 years old
Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33 years old
Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49 years old
Yilmary Rodriguez Sulivan, 24 years old
Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32 years old
Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28 years old
Frank Hernandez, 27 years old
Paul Terrell Henry, 41 years old
Antonio Davon Brown, 29 years old
Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24 years old
May they rest in peace and be reborn among their loved ones. May their partners, lovers, friends, and families find peace. May they rest in the loving arms of the Universe, in the place between the worlds, and return to us in love and joy.
This shooting is the end result of a society that tolerates homophobia, transphobia, and hate speech calling for violence towards LGBT people.
It is also a result of how easy it is for people to get access to guns in America. Countries that have gun control do not have 1052 gun massacres in the space of 1066 days. Every statistic backs this up. CNN agrees:
“(Access to) firearms (is) a significant predictor of these incidents,” Lankford said.The United States has more guns than any other country in the world. There are an estimated 270 million to 310 million firearms in circulation in the United States. With the American population at 319 million, that breaks down to nearly one firearm for every American.Slightly more than one-third of Americans say someone in their home owns a gun, according to the Pew Research Center. …The numbers do show that more restrictive gun laws make a difference. Lankford points to Australia as an example. The country had four mass shootings between 1987 and 1996. After those incidents, public opinion turned against gun ownership and Parliament passed stricter gun laws. Australia hasn’t had a mass shooting since.
If you cannot see the connection between homophobic and transphobic hate speech and the murder of LGBT people: the people with homophobic views are not necessarily going to take a gun into a night club themselves, but when a climate of intolerance is created towards LGBTQIA people, it gives extremists the excuse and a shift of general opinion which helps them to feel justified in killing. Take for example the 2011 shooter who, encouraged by the anti-LGBT and anti-liberal rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh, went into Tennessee Valley UU church with a gun and murdered two of the congregation, and would have murdered more of them if he could – because that congregation hosted a LGBT youth group.
The man who did this mass shooting was a virulent homophobe and was violent towards his ex-wife. He said he was doing the shooting in the name of DAESH – but neither this nor DAESH have anything to do with the true spirit of Islam. Undoubtedly, right-wingers will try to use this shooting to promote hatred against Muslims – another vulnerable group. But there are many Muslims who support LGBT rights; there are many queer Muslims, and they are in mourning too.
50 people are dead. 53 more people are injured, and five of those are in a critical condition. Let us pray for the dead, for the survivors, for their loved ones, and for the whole LGBTQIA community. We are all grieving, and many straight allies are grieving with us. One thing that was beautiful and heart-warming to see was the queue of 600 people waiting to give blood to help those injured in the shooting.
And still, we are rising. We will not be silenced, we will not be disheartened. We grieve for our dead, we mourn for the loss of their beauty in the world. We remind you that it is still not safe for two people of the same sex to kiss or hold hands.
A year ago I put a rainbow flag around my shoulders and celebrated the legalization of gay marriage in the United States. A year ago there was no law banning transgender people from using the bathroom of their choosing. A year ago a man hadn’t shot 50 gay people dead because he saw two men kissing and got angry. “Now that gay marriage is legal, what more do you people want?” Well, I want to stay alive, for one thing.
There aren’t gay coffee shops or gay restaurants – there are gay nightclubs. Gay nightclubs where LGBT people can meet other LGBT people and feel safe. I want to meet other LGBT people and make friends with LGBT people, but I also don’t want to die.
Yes, tired. And angry. And heartbroken. I am angry that this shit is still happening, that people are brutally murdered for who they love. I am angry that loving someone of the same sex is still considered a cause to murder them. Heartbroken that one of the few spaces that is supposed to be safe for LGBT people has become the scene of a brutal slaughter. Angry that more people have been brutally murdered and still nothing will be done about guns. And angry that hateful homophobic and transphobic rhetoric is still being spouted in the name of religion – even in the name of Pagan religions. We of all people can and should do better.
Once again, I call for stronger and deeper love in the face of hate. Love must win.
A lot of people seem to think that inclusive means “I’ve got some gay people in my coven”. That is certainly welcoming – but is it really inclusive? I think there’s a spectrum of inclusivity – so one coven might score 100% and another might score 80% – but I think we have to accept that different people will have different ideas and priorities. However, it would avoid a lot of heartbreak all round if people stated upfront how inclusive their coven actually is.
An inclusive coven ticks some or all of the following boxes:
- Understands that diversity has a place in celebration, theology and cosmology.
- Understands that gender identity, gender expression, sex/gender assigned at birth, and biological characteristics are distinct (when I say distinct, I mean noticeably different, but interpermeable and with fuzzy boundaries).
- Understands that you can make energy through polarity (tension of opposites), resonance (two similar people), or synergy (joining the energies of the whole group).
- Understands that polarity can be made by two or more people of any gender and sexual orientation, and by two or more people of the same gender, and that polarity exists on a spectrum where Person A may be yang in relation to Person B, but yin in relation to Person C.
- Understands that you can make polarity with any pair of opposite qualities (e.g. morning people and evening people, cat lovers and dog lovers, tea drinkers and coffee drinkers, air signs and earth signs, fire signs and water signs).
- Understands that fertility is not strictly biological and may refer to creativity (and that you don’t need a male body & a female body to produce fertility on a symbolic level – e.g. when blessing crops).
- Allows invocation of any gender deity onto any gender human.
- Allows gender fluidity in ritual roles & doesn’t make people stand boy/girl/boy/girl in circle.
- Does cakes & wine with reference to lover & beloved, or using two cups, or on the understanding that we all contain both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ energies, or some other inclusive variation, and can be done by two people of any gender.
- Accommodates difference (e.g. neurodivergence, dyslexia, left-handedness, aphantasia) and disability. Bonus points for embracing the social model of disability.
- Is open to other cultures and ethnicities and does not insist on a genetic basis for culture (e.g. anyone can worship gods from any culture). Bonus points for being aware of the concept of systemic racism.
- Tries to avoid cultural appropriation.
- Is accepting of kink, polyamory, and monogamy.
- Promotes consent culture.
- Welcomes members of all ages (over 18) and accommodates older members’ needs.
- Does not automatically exclude people with mental health issues.
- Accommodates different theological perspectives (animism, atheism, pantheism, polytheism, duotheism etc).
- Body-positive: does not allow fat-shaming or body-shaming.
- Is prepared to accommodate coven members who are less well-off (by not organising expensive social activities, or having a massive and expensive reading list, for example).
- Does not insist that its members reach a particular educational level or belong to a particular socio-economic class.
- Listens to the views of all the members.
- Values the contributions and ideas of all the members.
Inclusive Wicca is about being inclusive towards everyone.
There isn’t a competition over who is more oppressed, and there is no queue for liberation. We can work on small issues and large issues at the same time – I am not suggesting that all the categories mentioned in the list receive the same degree of oppression in society – they are included in the list because at some point, they have been excluded from some Wiccan circles for some reason.
Also, please note that inclusive Wicca is not a new or separate tradition; it is a tendency within existing Wiccan traditions. (Though just to confuse matters, in Australia, there actually is a tradition called Inclusive Wicca, which is unconnected to the inclusive tendency – though it may have similar goals.)
Thanks to Alder Lyncurium, Anna Hammarlund, Anya Read, Brian Paisley, Francois Schaut, Lirilin Lee, Susan Harper, for suggestions and comments on the first draft of this.
UPDATE: I have now created an inclusive Wicca website.
Every time I mention polarity and inclusive Wicca, someone at the back is sure to say, with irritating regularity, “But what about the tradition?” There is also a tendency to assume that polarity must always be made by a man and a woman, and that that is the default option for making polarity. It has got to the point where other forms of making magic don’t seem to be considered in some circles.
As I have pointed out on numerous occasions, and as my friend Alder Lyncurium points out in this excellent article on polarity, there is much more to polarity than the interaction of a male body and a female body:
Polarity is, in essence, a constant interaction between more than one force or element. It is the movement, the striving of those forces, and the rhythm in it, that creates the dynamism. As occultists, witches or magicians we observe the underlying patterns of that rhythm, get insights and tap into it, or try to emulate it — either conscious or unconsciously.
There is also resonance (named by Ed Gutierrez of the Unnamed Path), the ability of two people who have a strong similarity between them to make magic together. It is rather like sympathetic magic.
And then there is synergy, the ability of several people to create magical energy together by bringing their energy together, and making something that is more than the sum of its parts.
But if you want to talk about tradition – which is, in any case, a constantly evolving and developing discourse – then let’s talk about tradition. If you want your Paganism (whether it is Heathenry, or Wicca, or Druidry, or any other Pagan religion) to be really traditional, really connected to ancient pagan religions, then it should not just include LGBTQIA people as some kind of afterthought or bolted-on concession to contemporary “liberal” sensibilities.
On the contrary: truly traditional Pagans should regard LGBTQIA people as an integral part of society. There should be rituals for same-sex partners. Lesbian poets should be celebrated and their songs recorded for posterity. Gay lovers such as Hadrian and Antinous, or Patroclus and Achilles, or Pausanias of Athens and the poet Agathon, should be widely celebrated for their heroic love. Transgender deities such as Loki and Vertumnus should be celebrated for their changes of gender. Humans such as Tiresias should be celebrated for their exploration of the other gender.
The Pagan revival
Many of the Pagan pioneers of the early 20th century, especially Edward Carpenter and Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, were gay, and their enthusiasm for Paganism was partly informed by the knowledge that ancient pagans were gay-friendly. A friend of mine who has studied the period informs me that, similarly, early 20th century bisexual and lesbian women such as Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) were inspired by the example of Sappho. And Sylvia Townsend Warner, author of Lolly Willowes (whose heroine is an unmarried woman who becomes a witch) was both a Nature mystic and bisexual, as explored by Rebecca Beattie in her excellent book Nature Mystics. The first civil rights group for lesbians in the USA was the Daughters of Bilitis, named for a fictional contemporary of Sappho.
It is not clear to me exactly when or how homophobia became such a huge part of Western culture. Many people would like to blame the Bible, but that book is surprisingly ambivalent about same-sex love. The love of David and Jonathan, Naomi and Ruth, and Jesus and the beloved disciple John, are all praised; it is actually fornication (sex without love) that seems to be condemned. Later Christians would of course take a dim view of all pleasures of the flesh, but that seems to have been part of a general turn against the body in Western culture that occurred around 500 CE. Looking at the timeline of LGBT history in Britain, it was not until 1102 that the church took steps to make people aware that homosexuality was sinful; and anal sex was not made illegal until 1533.
Ancient pagan religions’ views of homosexuality
Looking back to ancient pagan religions, most of them were tolerant of gender and sexual diversity, but regarded the passive role in sexual intercourse (whether that role was occupied by a woman or a man) as lesser. Both the ancient Greeks and the Vikings took this view. However, it is not clear whether this view was introduced to Viking society along with Christianity, or whether they felt that way before the introduction of Christianity. Viking Answer Lady has a very comprehensive article on the subject, and it appears that the Vikings were very scathing on the subject of men who were on the receiving end of anal sex; but on the other hand, Oðinn was frequently called ergi, a term which meant a variety of things including effeminate, passive, and irritable. Practitioners of seiðr were regarded as ergi. As many Viking men had female concubines, it was quite likely that some of them had same-sex relationships (as has been found in other cultures with concubinage). There were also male prostitutes, and priests of Frey who danced with bells and were regarded as ‘effeminate’ by the Christians. It is also worth noting that all the sagas and tales were written down 200-300 years after the heyday of pagan Viking society, and were written down by Christians who were hostile to homosexuality. It seems likely that there were ritualised roles for gender-variant and homosexual people (as is the case in many ancient cultures), and whilst the Vikings may have found ergi men uncanny, there was a role for them as priests of Frey and Freyja.
As to the ancient Greeks and Romans, they were much more positive about same-sex love, and extolled its pleasures and virtues in many texts. Again, the active role was regarded as ‘manly’ and the passive role as ‘unmanly’, but same-sex love was not condemned. There were gender-variant deities (Hermaphrodite), deities who engaged in same-sex love (Zeus and Ganymede being the most well-known example). Again, it was complicated. Ancient pagans were not all sweetness and light in their attitudes to same-sex love, but there were many positive examples of it in ancient pagan mythology, and it was not universally condemned.
Numerous LGBT Pagan traditions draw their inspiration from ancient examples: the Minoan Brotherhood, the Modern Gallae, the Temple of Antinous, the Ekklesia Antinoou, and so on. Inclusive Wiccans, whilst not a distinct tradition, and not harking back to any particular ancient example, like to point out that gender-variant and queer magical practitioners have been known in just about every culture, and that “all acts of love and pleasure are Her rituals”, and any pair of opposites can make polarity. Given that Wicca was only developed in the 1950s, and has grown and changed since then, there is no excuse for claiming male/female polarity as some immutable tradition. The idea that only a man and a woman can make polarity is merely a heterocentric assumption rooted in Victorian notions of gender. The Minoan culture of Crete, which inspired both Gerald Gardner and Eddie Buczynski, certainly included same-sex love.
Conclusion: it’s complicated
What all of this shows is that attitudes to homosexuality and gender variance are complicated and varied in all societies, and that how they are viewed by others, and how they are represented symbolically and managed through ritual, has varied over time. It is certainly not the case that we can assume that so-called traditional Christian attitudes to homosexuality and gender variance can just be lifted across into Paganism and assumed to be traditional. How Christians have viewed same-sex love has also varied from one region to another, and from one historical era to another.
So, if you are harking back to some ancient pagan view of the world, and want to adhere to ancient pagan values with regard to LGBTQIA people, it was a mixed picture, and there was no single view (just as there has never been a single view of this or any other issue). The ancient pagan world had rituals and roles for LGBTQIA people, and often regarded them as sacred, and therefore a bit uncanny and weird. Hence the eunuch priests of Cybele, the Galli, and the ergi men devoted to Frey and Freyja. But there is no justification in ancient texts for the kind of virulent homophobia found among some right-wing so-called Pagans.
This leads me to the conclusion that, fascinating though ancient views of sexuality are, we live in our own context and culture, and have to make up our own minds. But perhaps we can recover something of the sacredness of gender-variant and homosexual magic by looking at the myths, legends, and practices of the ancient world.
It is a little known fact that many of the early pioneers of the Pagan revival in England were gay: Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, who came up with the idea of the League of Nations, was a gay man, and had close connections with the Bloomsbury group, and was a friend of E M Forster and Edward Carpenter, both of whom were gay.
Back in the late 19th century, he advocated the revival of the Greek view of life, including Paganism and same-sex love.
Edward Carpenter, a gay Pagan vegetarian socialist poet around at the same time, also advocated a return to nature and wildness, and corresponded with Walt Whitman for a time. His vision of the socialist utopia sounds very Pagan:
Carpenter began to believe that Socialism should not only concern itself with man’s outward economic conditions, but also affect a profound change in human consciousness. In this new stage of society Carpenter argued that mankind would return to a primordial state of simple joy:
“The meaning of the old religions will come back to him. On the high tops once more gathering he will celebrate with naked dances the glory of the human form and the great processions of the stars, or greet the bright horn of the young moon.” (Edward Carpenter (1889) Civilisation: its cause and cure)
Edward Carpenter was an enthusiastic advocate of Nature as a place of freedom, and following him, his friend E. M. Forster made the hero of his novel Maurice feel “at one with the forests and the night” as soon as he had made the decision to adopt an actively gay lifestyle. Harry Hay, founder of the Radical Faeries, who was a Carpenter enthusiast, also stressed the importance of communing with Nature.
Research carried out by Rebecca Beattie into the literary roots of the Pagan revival has also uncovered a bisexual woman who was enthusiastic about ancient paganism, Nature, and the countryside: Sylvia Townsend Warner, author of Lolly Willowes.
We can in fact trace influences between authors: the Transcendentalists: Emerson, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, and Walt Whitman in America, corresponding with Rabindranath Tagore, W B Yeats, Edward Carpenter, and Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson. Carpenter then influenced D H Lawrence and E M Forster, who were fascinated with nature mysticism, and all these ideas fed into the Pagan revival.
These early pioneers were forgotten in the later Pagan revival of the fifties, sixties, and seventies, and it was only in the late nineties that Pagans began to be interested in them again.
Paganism and LGBT people
Paganism is an umbrella term that includes a number of different traditions. The most widely known ones are Wicca (Pagan witchcraft), Druidry (Celtic nature worship), and Heathenry (Norse and Saxon traditions).
There are also a number of different groups reconstructing ancient Pagan religions, such as Religio Romana, Lietuva, and Kemeticism.
Because these traditions mostly arose out of post-Enlightenment culture, they are generally inclusive towards LGBT people and friendly towards people of other religions and no religion.
Ancient pagans were also tolerant towards both same-sex love and gender variance. Paganism celebrates wildness, sexuality, the beauty of Nature, and the sheer joy of being alive.
However, while the vast majority of Pagans are not homophobic, they can sometimes be heterocentric.
Those of us who are LGBT and Pagan, together with our allies, are working to recover the ancient pagan traditions of the gender-variant shaman Divine Androgyne, deities of same-sex love, and to discover or invent new symbols for the diversity of LGBT experience.
The Pagan community also supports marriage equality, and we see the struggle for LGBT equality and the recovery of LGBT stories, mythology, and ritual as complementary efforts.
Currently, Pagans in opposite-sex relationships in England and Wales cannot have a legal wedding, except at one venue, the Glastonbury Goddess Temple. This is because buildings are what get licensed as wedding venues in England and Wales, and Pagans don’t own any buildings.
So, even when same-sex marriage became available in England and Wales, Pagans – much as we would want to – were still unable to perform any wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples that would have any legal standing. We can still do same-sex handfastings (just as we have always done) but they won’t have any legal standing.
In Scotland, Pagans in both opposite-sex and same-sex relationships can have a legal wedding, because people are licensed as celebrants, and the wedding can be performed anywhere you want. So when same-sex marriage became available in Scotland, Pagan celebrants were then able to perform same-sex weddings.
The Scottish Pagan Federation actively campaigned for equal marriage in Scotland, along with the Unitarians, Quakers, Liberal Jews, and other groups.
In Wicca (the Pagan tradition I have practised for 25 years), there is some discussion around creating LGBTQ-inclusive rituals, because many Wiccans honour a specific pair of deities (male and female).
Some covens focus on the mythology of the divine couple to the exclusion of other mythology, and this can be alienating for LGBTQ Wiccans (including myself).
However, many Wiccans are keen to create rituals that include everyone, and explore other ideas.
If we look back into the Pagan past, we can see many queer deities, such as Odin, Vertumnus, Pan, Artemis, the Pales, and so on. There is a tradition of the Divine Androgyne in Wicca.
It is not difficult to tweak the rituals slightly to make them more LGBTQ-inclusive, and this is also great for heterosexuals who find the gender binary paradigm rather tedious.
In Heathenry, there is the practice of seiðr, a shamanic practice which can involve gender-bending and same-sex love, and many LGBTQ people are attracted to Heathenry as a result.
There is a long tradition in indigenous cultures of gender-variant shamans and same-sex love. Traditional societies often regard queer people as being especially able to step over the threshold between the seen and unseen worlds, hence the traditional link between being fey and being queer.
Paganism is largely an open-source religion, where people are free to create their own rituals, drawing on the glittering variety of mythology and symbolism available from past and present, so it is an ideal setting for LGBTQ people to explore our spirituality, because it is mostly welcoming and inclusive.
A previous version of this article was originally published in Gay Star News in 2013 (I have updated it to reflect the fact that same-sex marriage is now legal in England, Wales, and Scotland, and that Pagan weddings are now available at one venue in England). The original is now only available from The Wayback Machine.
Every so often, some ill-informed person opines that we don’t need Black History Month, or International Women’s Day, or LGBT History Month, or the BET Awards. Sure, we wouldn’t need any of them if white privilege, male privilege, and straight privilege didn’t exist. But they do exist.
People who argue that Black history has been “relegated” to Black History Month are missing the point. Prior to the creation of a special month, Black History was completely ignored, except as a footnote to white history. The month is an attempt to get a foot in the door – a door that was previously slammed in the face of Black history.
If “mainstream” history didn’t focus almost exclusively on straight white men, then we wouldn’t need days or months that focused on the people who are usually left out of the history books. But only recently, a British student launched a petition to persuade an exam board in the UK to feature female composers on the GCSE music syllabus. The petition was successful, but she shouldn’t have needed to create a petition: it should have been obvious that female composers should be included.
A great deal of art, music, and literature has been produced by women, Black people, and LGBT people, yet school, college, and university syllabuses frequently focus exclusively on art, music, and literature produced by straight white men. It is not that the artistic productions of straight white men are superior to those produced by Black people, women, and LGBT people – it is because the straight white male view of the world is deemed normal and normative, and anything that doesn’t fit within it is deemed niche or uninteresting.
It is time for the marginalised to be restored to the historical account. Black people have been denied a history, and erased from history. David Olusoga writes:
No other people see history in quite the same way because no other people have had their history so comprehensively denied and disavowed. Among the many justifications for slavery, and later for the colonisation of Africa, was the assertion that Africans were a people without a history. The German philosopher Hegel, writing in the 1830s, claimed that: “Africa … is no historical part of the world.” Other peoples have seen their cultures dismissed as backward or barbarous, but the antiquity of those cultures has rarely been so repudiated.
The erasure of African history and culture is similar to the erasure of the stories of the pagan cultures of antiquity. Only cultures that built in stone and used writing were deemed worthy of the lofty title of ‘civilisation’. Only cultures that were Christian were deemed civilised – everyone else was just barbarian hordes.
So, until the educational syllabuses are reformed root and branch, there will continue to be a vicious cycle of the straight white male view being presented as normative, and the situation will be perpetuated from generation to generation. Ideally, so-called minority history should be integrated throughout the syllabus and presented in context, but until that happens, we still need a special focus. As Andrea Stuart writes (in response to David Cameron claiming the British abolition of slavery as a triumph, despite the fact that Britain started the Transatlantic slave trade),
Black History Month can only be declared a success once it’s redundant:
So why does this ignorance persist, 25 years after Black History Month was launched in Britain? This month we’ve seen events that range from the sublime, such as the award-winning American musical The Scottsboro Boys, to the tokenistic. At my children’s school, many heart-warming pictures of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Doreen Lawrence have been produced, as well as innumerable portraits of black sportsmen from Usain Bolt to Theo Walcott. At a friend’s school, the pupils have been encouraged to turn up dressed as a black pop star. Most of our children have become familiar with the travails of Mary Seacole. But these stories of individual triumph, however uplifting, don’t do nearly enough to fill the knowledge gap. We need to integrate black history across the educational curriculum, and among adults, so that people like our prime minister will also comprehend it.
It also perpetuates the lie that Black people, women, and LGBT people didn’t do anything much in history. And it promotes the idea that change happens when those in power graciously decide to give rights to the oppressed. Whereas the truth is that every single right we possess was wrested out of the hands of the powerful as a result of a protracted struggle by the oppressed. Black History tends to focus on safe and sanitised Black heroes, rather than the lives of ordinary people, or of revolutionaries like Toussaint L’Ouverture. These heroes are presented out of context, writes David Olusoga:
There’s no doubt that black British history, as celebrated during Black History Month, has helped thousands of black children understand their place within the British story. Each year it provides journalists and broadcasters with a topical hook on which to hang stories about black people and black history that might otherwise go untold. And the stories of remarkable men and women – from Britain and around the world – become counterweights against the tsunami of negative stereotypes that wash over black children growing up in this country. But the problem is that biography, especially heroic biography, can at times displace and obscure history rather than explain or deepen it. This is because the life stories of the men and women who make up the pantheon of black heroes are not wide enough, even when viewed together, to encompass the global scale and variety of black history.
The promotion of history as the story of straight white men erases and denies the oppression suffered by Black people, LGBT people, and women, and erases and denies their struggles to overcome that oppression.
That is why I support Black History Month, and especially Crystal Blanton’s Thirty Day Real Black History Challenge. It is why I support LGBT History Month and International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month.
Black History Month is in November in the UK, and in February in the USA and Canada.
LGBT History Month is in February in the UK, and in October in the USA.
For anyone who is unfamiliar with the concept, polarity is the idea that magical energy can be created by bringing together two things which are opposite in nature.
A friend of mine described polarity as the most overused word in Wicca. There are, after all, other ways of making magic. There is resonance, which is the energy created when two similar people come together. It was given the name resonance by Ed Gutierrez of the Unnamed Path. Then there is synergy, which is all the energies in the circle coming together. I think I probably experience synergy in my magical practice more often than polarity.Polarity is what happens when you work with a magical partner, to be sure, but often everyone in the circle works together to create energy.
In my experience, magical polarity can be created by any pair of opposites. Inner and outer, up and down, spirit and matter, lover and beloved, dark and light, masculine and feminine, camp and butch, air and earth, water and fire, and so on. And each pair of opposites is unique and cannot be mapped to other pairs of opposites.
Polarity exists on a spectrum, too. (It is not the same as duality, where two absolute qualities are seen as opposites.) A person can be more yang than another person, but can be yin in relation to a different person. People become a different polarity in relation to different people.
We need a more complex view of energy than a simple binary. As Linda Haggerstone writes:
Polarity is a natural world phenomenon, and it would take me a while to explain how I experience the world, as it relates to both my physical senses and my spiritual perceptions. Here we go: Polarity is not the same as magnetism. All aspects of the world lie on a spectrum, for which there are poles or extremes, if you like. However, as nature is circular or cyclical, so are its spectra. There is a continuum involved here as well. The Tao. The whorl or wheel of life. Slowing, speeding up, forever spinning but never yet stopping. It would be a wacky world for many humans if they did not attempt to exert control over Chaos via categorisation and ends to the spectra. I think that perhaps those who find beauty, energy, succor in the Chaos or the pan-ness of things do tend to move toward Shamanism, while those who find these in a more concrete binary world might prefer or be instinctively drawn to polarised or oppositional practices. Neither is wrong. Neither is flawed. And neither is immovable or immutable. Not sure this made sense, but there ya go. (By the way, I am not Wiccan but I am a Shaman.)
So polarity is a spectrum, and is not immutable; it can shift and change depending on your mood, on the situation, an on who or what you are interacting with. If you are heterosexual or bisexual, it is a lot easier to make polarity with somebody of the opposite biological sex. That is not to say that it’s impossible for a gay or lesbian person to make polarity with a person of the opposite sex, but it is much easier for them to make polarity with someone of the same sex. Why? Because creating polarity has many components: the erotic, romantic, respect, friendship. So it can be done without any erotic attraction, but the more of these elements are present the easier it is to make a connection.
However, Steve Dee writes,
basing polarity on erotic attraction doesn’t work so well for those of us on some part of the Asexual spectrum. Personally I find myself moved by the mystery and otherness of anyone or thing I work with (plants and animals as well). My own journey away from Wicca and towards other, Queerer forms of magical practice was in part due to my discomfort about what my perceived maleness would mean about who I was and what I would be within the circle.
So why would we restrict people to making polarity with only one of these possibilities (male body + female body) when there are so many other possibilities available, and when so many people just don’t fit into the categories provided?
What if your partner (magical and/or sexual partner) doesn’t feel like an “opposite” for you at all? Camilla Kutzner says,
For me – femme-loving femme (and increasingly feeling “femme” as my gender identity more than “woman”) – erotic attraction is not based on gender polarity at all. It took me a while to figure out that my notion of generating power and magic works without polarity.
Clearly in this instance, some other magical connection is at work, or perhaps just the simple and beautiful polarity of lover and beloved, constantly interchangeable between the two partners.
Why would people hamstring LGBTQIA participants in ritual by preventing us from using the whole spectrum of polarities, energies, and connections available? And why privilege heterosexual polarity over all other forms of polarity? Why make magic and ritual much easier for heterosexual participants and place a barrier in the way of LGBTQIA participants?
Every time someone says that we must stand boy-girl-boy-girl in the circle, I feel that my bisexual and genderqueer identity is being erased and denied. It must feel even more erasing if you are gay or lesbian. Naomi Jacobs describes her feelings about being asked to stand boy-girl-boy-girl in a circle:
My partner is non-binary gender (that’s sometimes called ‘genderqueer’). Their pronoun is ‘they’ rather than she or he. I feel uncomfortable any time there’s a boy/girl type division in a ritual, thinking of how it would exclude their (extremely sexy!) energies and identity. As someone who is primarily attracted to women, the polarity stuff doesn’t work for me either. I wonder if there are many people it DOES work for.
No one is saying that straight people have to learn new ways of making polarity if they don’t want to, but LGBTQIA people want to be able to make polarity in all the ways available to us. And we would like for our sexuality not to confer second-class citizen status in the circle.
In many spiritual traditions, the goal is to transcend the gender binary and create a new synthesis of energies in the psyche. Kumar Devadasan writes:
The polarity issue in previous pagan and Wiccan paths [is] due to a fertility-based approach and centred around reproduction as generally seen in nature; therefore a male-female polarity. However, if one progresses, one transcends or one follows a path that leads to a transcending stage then the issue of polarity becomes irrelevant. However, I suspect that it will no longer be a magickal path as we know it if at that stage. I am not saying that there will be no magick; but that it will be knowledge and ability as we know the mundane now and so become second nature and no longer sought.
As Lynna Landstreet so brilliantly put it, for her the ultimate polarity is not male and female, but the lightning striking the primordial waters and creating life. For me personally, the ultimate polarity is spirit and matter, which is a similar idea. And the most inclusive way to express the concept of polarity is to talk about the lover and the beloved.