Thought on the Pantheacon controversy

I imagine there are few Pagans who have spent more time studying, thinking, and writing about politics in all its various forms than I, and for those of you who have, you have my sympathies. Even so, I have hesitated to get involved in discussing the controversy that arose over Z Budapest’s “genetic women only” ritual at Pantheacon. But upon reflection, I think I might have some insights of value regarding spirituality, politics, and diversity, and so with trepidation I enter the discussion.

Why trepidation?

Because I think that allowing politics to enter into religion is always a bad thing whenever it happens.  Sometimes it may be necessary, but it is always destructive and so can be justified only to prevent a greater destruction.  Why is it always destructive?  Because politics usually involves conflict and conflict has a powerful tendency to elevate will and power over persuasion, example, and heart. It creates boundaries of separation where there were none and exaggerates boundaries that already existed.  When the personal moral strength we get from religion is combined with a concern for power to realize our values by pushing them on others, the road to misunderstandings, and then to anger and even hatred, is opened wide with few of us wise enough to tread it successfully.

Politics and Religion

By “politics” I mean discussing and deciding on the values our broader community must abide by on pain of sanctions, whether they be the violence of the state, or condemnation and shunning those who disagree within smaller communities and organizations. This is politics as a necessary human endeavor, and not just power tripping and manipulation.   Even so, politics always involves exercising or seeking to exercise power over those who disagree. This power can be physical, but it can also take many other forms.  Politics in the best sense is conducted along that thin but vital line between persuasion and agreement and force and coercion. Walking it is necessary at times and it is tricky all the time. It attracts power junkies and self-righteousness addicts like sugar attracts ants.

For me, spirituality and its organized form as religion is where we seek and hopefully find a context bigger than politics, money, career, family, ego, and the other matters that taken together create mundane life.  Spirituality and religion gives us a context where the mundane, or some aspect of the mundane, will not become all important, as it so easily otherwise can. For many of us Pagans the mundane is thereby sacralized, but as this happens its dimensions are seen and experienced as only a part of a greater whole that gives them meaning.  But in their mundane capacity they do not give it meaning. Politics is a small but important box.  Religion is a very big one.

For this reason I will begin my analysis of this controversy by stating some facts about Pagan ritual and religion in general, and only then get to the politics.

Ritual etiquette

NeoPaganism is a religion of ritual far more than a religion of belief. Years ago I was taught that there must be harmony among participants for a ritual to work.  That is a part of basic “ritual 101.” A great many Pagan rituals are a collective focus on a common purpose.  Dissension among participants defeats the most basic prerequisite for a successful group ritual.  For the same reason, the HP and HPS need to be calm and centered.  Perhaps later in the ritual very different emotions will need to be generated, but they need to be done so within a context that holds and focuses them, a context that requires centeredness and focus.

When I am distracted by worries, animosities, or anything else, I am to that degree removed from the common space the ritual’s participants are attempting to create.  I know from experience that deities can override this barrier on occasion. I also know they rarely do.

For this reason I personally do not go to rituals where I have had ‘problems’ with people there and I think there might still be ‘energy’ over the issue, either on my part or the other person’s part. I attended a group ritual here in Sebastopol for the first time in several years because I thought enough time had passed that a conflict I had had with a member of the group putting it on had melted away.  Even so, I was very aware of her presence. Perhaps the same held for her. I hope not.

I will never forget a May Pole dance ritual in Washington state over 20 years ago.  It was being organized so the dance would go man-woman-man-woman, with one gender going one direction, the other the other.  A few gay male Pagans, or perhaps people who today would be called trans, broke in and disrupted this order because they said it was “sexist” or “essentialist” or some such thing.  They insisted on taking the place a woman would take.  For most of us they were complete strangers.  The ritual lost its unity of focus and became just another May Pole celebration.  Fun enough I guess, but nothing more.

But weren’t they battling discrimination?

The reply that would be made to this comment is that they were battling discrimination and discrimination is bad. Let’s step back a bit.  Yes, they were reacting to a long history of discrimination against gay men, a history that is rapidly drawing to a close in the civilized parts of this country. No spiritual community in America has been more accepting of sexual diversity than have Pagans. There are gay covens, lesbian covens, straight covens, mixed covens, and for all I know, exclusively LGBT covens.  Certainly there is nothing in our approach to suggest otherwise, for when approached wisely, Pagan spirituality finds everything as a manifestation of the Sacred.

Does a gay male coven have the right to exclude straight men and all women?  Of course. Can a straight coven exclude gays if it wants?  Of course. (And to forestall an misunderstanding of my motives, the coven I was longest associated with had a gay member, one of my most talented Wiccan students is bi, and another is lesbian.) The same is true with all other possible mixes of covens.

We assume that to discriminate means to judge along a standard claiming to indicate what is intrinsically better or worse. I think this is a monotheistic holdover from people who could not avoid equating difference with error.  We discriminate all the time without making invidious comparisons.  For example I discriminate in favor of my friends and family.  That does not mean that I think you, your friends, and your family are inferior in ANY sense to mine.

The counter response might be that the two groups are not analogous because gays have long been discriminated against, unlike straights.  They need their safe space in a way straights do not.  Gays need to more powerfully affirm who they are and straights need to more powerfully affirm the worth of people not like them.  I agree, but this is irrelevant in this context.

We are discussing a small working group whose very reason for existence depends on harmony and unity of will.  As anyone with long coven experience knows, this is an achievement that can never be taken for granted, and must sometimes be worked at.  This is why in groups with which I have been associated any coven member has an absolute veto on new members. It is not a democracy.

Returning to the long ago May Pole, very importantly, nothing prevented gay men who wanted to join the women’s section, and those sympathetic with them, from creating their own May Pole.  In a very real sense to move in one someone else’s ritual against their will is an act of aggression.  Organize your own and leave the others alone.

But, someone might say, a large ritual full of strangers is not a coven.  Most of us at the May Pole did not know one another so we were just perpetuating a sad and abusive stereotype. To best understand why this argument does not have the strength its advocates think it has, we need to enlarge the context a little.

Innovation and tradition

A few years ago the now sadly defunct magazine Shaman’s Drum had an article about a new Sun Dance tradition that had arisen on Oregon.  What made it new was that dancers would also use “medicine,” meaning entheogens.  Traditionally among Indians there was a pretty strict prohibition against using medicine when Sun Dancing. Nevertheless, the dance took place even as many elders disapproved.  I have no idea at all whether this tradition survived or not.  If it had led to valuable spiritual experiences among participants it would have grown, otherwise it would not have ever amounted to much, and eventually died out.

Among the Indians I have known the traditional medicine-free Sun Dance itself was performed in two ways.  One group pierced, another did not. Both were well established. This, I submit, is how any broad spiritual tradition not ossified by the power of a controlling elite grows and changes.  New insights find supporters, they try their idea out, and it either “works” or does not.

This means there is NEVER any reason to interfere with another ritual in the absence of very serious ethical issues, such as child abuse.

Spiritual diversity as inevitable

Pantheacon is a gathering of diverse Pagan traditions, many of which have very different ways of practicing from one another. If it has been around long within a given tradition many people will have very different ideas as to who is “doing it right.”  That seems to be a very basic aspect of human psychology. We come together in unity, break up in diversity, and then the process repeats itself.  We differ from the monotheists because for us this is not a problem.   We are a religion of diverse groups that almost always acknowledge the legitimacy of other traditions and religions while arguing vehemently within a tradition as to just what is essential to it being such.  Certainly this is the case for us Gardnerians.

That others do things differently does not mean I am wrong, not does it mean they are wrong.  As Pagans we can celebrate diversity because the Sacred can be approached in far more ways than any person or any culture or perhaps even humanity as a whole can accomplish.

This is the framework from which I will discuss the controversy over Z Budapest’s insistence on a genetic woman only ritual and the peaceful demonstration that took place outside where it was held.

The Pantheacon controversy

Again, I will place my personal cards on the table.  Thorn is a friend whom I respect greatly.  She is a dynamo of inspiration and talent and a powerful example of the best in the next generation of well known Pagans.  Z is an elder deserving of gratitude, honor and respect as one of those most responsible for us being who we are today. We are much the richer for her presence, for her having trod the Pagan path when there were few to offer support and understanding.  But I do not know Z although we have served on a panel together.

Politically I disagree with any position that holds one gender as inferior to another.  I also think there is a tendency for women to exemplify feminine values more than men, men to exemplify masculine values more than women, and also for there to be considerable cross over and blurring here on an individual basis.  Wholesale, the deck is loaded, retail, the balance can and will vary.

This means that I do not think it is automatically an error to do gender specific rituals, and all traditional Pagan societies I know of have done them. I also acknowledge that no woman is entirely feminine and no man is entirely masculine. Societies that have respected people with mixed gender identities have still had men only and women only rituals.  What matters are three points.

1.     Pagan societies since time immemorial have had gender specific rituals.

2.     Harmony among participants is a fundamental aspect of doing ritual.

3.     Gender and sexual preference specific rituals are well known and long established in our community.

These points are more fundamental than the power and relevance of Z Budapest’s arguments. On the other hand, as Lupa emphasized, she can be legitimately criticized for saying that her ritual was to celebrate women as such, “the beauty and grace of the feminine form in all her infinite variety.” Bad wording aside, how can we think most productively about this incident?

To look at the controversy over Z’s preferences in context, we as a community are dealing with how to relate ritually to people who are trans. Are they men, women, or a combination?  Is a person’s self identification all that is necessary for gender identification in all contexts, and if not, what contexts? At an energetic level I can see arguments both ways whereas at a psychological level I think the trans folks have the stronger case.  But the issue is not clear to all sincere people.  Magick and ritual makes use of both psychology and energy.  Based on her remarks in 2011, Z clearly is uneasy with considering trans women as fully women.   Trans women respond they are entirely women in all relevant ways.

I think this issue has something important in common with controversies among our Indian brethren as to whether the Sun Dance is done with or without piercing, with or without medicine, and I suppose, sooner or later, with or without women being pierced in the same way. (By the way, when I was on the Crow reservation in Montana a young Sun Dancer explained that he pierced and did the ordeal so as to offer his body and endurance and suffering to his tribe as women did during childbirth.  We are not talking Republican or Christian style sexism.)

Among Sun Dancers time will tell what traditions grow, what traditions fade, or whether the dance will divide into multiple kinds of dances.  This is what people do.  We change things. Some of our changes take, some work for a small group and fade away, and some are dead ends, with no way to tell in advance which a possible change will ultimately turn out to be.

I want to suggest taking a similar approach to controversies such as that involving Z’s genetic-women-only ritual.  Let her do it, and let the women who want to go do so.  And leave them alone. 

As I understand it, at PantheaCon there was also a woman only ritual with trans people accepted. (Not being a woman I did not go.) Over time perhaps both groups will flourish or one will fade and the other grow or, I think least likely, both will fade away towards a universally inclusive standard.

Odds and ends

As I read various online descriptions by participants in the ritual and in the prayer vigil outside, and by some second parties such as myself who attended PantheaCon but were not at the ritual or protest, as well as some who were not even at Pantheacon, the sad familiar pattern so prevalent when religion is politicized began to make itself evident.

By all accounts I have heard, the prayer vigil was done as respectfully as it could be done.  There was no attempt to disrupt the ritual.  And yet these actions were disruptive.  Those participating in the ritual had to get to the room by passing through a group who obviously disapproved.  That could not help but disrupt the focus needed, and indeed its intention was to get participants to rethink their values.  Why else do it?

Some Pagans decided to serve as a kind of “bridge” between the two groups.  Their actions were misunderstood and apparently seen as threatening by some people in the prayer group.  Other people have since advocated boycotting Pantheacon and saying its organizers owed them an apology for allowing Z’s ritual. This can lead to a “with us or against us” mentality that is destructive in any diverse group.

When passions got inflamed minds, reason and heart take a back seat. People tried to make statements and the words came out wrong, or the words were misunderstood.  This is almost always what happens in politics when both sides feel they are in the right and are morally motivated.  This is why we should seek to minimize the impact of this kind of thing on our community.

To summarize, the protest against Z’s genetic-women only ritual was political.  Its advocates were making a statement about how they believe the entire Pagan community should act: not simply not to condemn, not simply to accept other ways, but to modify their ways so as to include a group that wanted such affirmation even while they were free to practice in their own way within a largely accepting environment.  Sometimes this is necessary to do, as with a hypothetical case of having the community ban a group practicing ritual child abuse. But most of the time this is not necessary.

Z’s ritual was not political as I defined the term.  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.)

To demand Z’s group act as the protesters wanted was to force the large box of people’s relation to the Spiritual into the small box of politics. It reversed the proper relationship of the two. It seemed otherwise because the protestors  were convinced an important moral issue was at stake: the accepting of trans people as legitimate.  But the particular incident they protested did not claim trans people were illegitimate, it just excluded them for the purpose of that gathering, as it excluded men. Z’s comments of the previous year were hurtful, but they were not necessary elements for wanting a genetic-women only ritual as her comments this year demonstrated.

I am a straight male who does not even think the term “patriarchy” is accurate or helpful. In fact I think it causes more confusion than clarity.  (That’s another column…) Therefore I obviously disagree with many of Z’s views.  Even so, her statement to the protestors, passed out by the Pantheacon staff, seems to me completely in the spirit of what I believe:

“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”


Here are some good sources on the controversy by people who were there

Pagan Newswire Collective

Thorn Coyle

Way of the rabbit

Patheos blogs


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