Sunday, 24 June 2012

Paganism and Gender: Bold Action, Gracious Passivity, Infinite Diversity

This is a bit of a disjointed post, but I wanted to get my thoughts down while they were floating around!

I've been quite surprised that I'm surrounded by as many heterosexual people in the Pagan community as I was in church. That's great, of course! - but I thought maybe Paganism, with its openness and variety, would attract more of a range of approaches to sexuality (and gender) than Christianity. And of course, to some extent it does. Women are far more evident in leadership in the Pagan community than in the Christian world, where they are still grappling with ideas like the different 'roles' of men and women (which is often code for extreme sexism) and how they relate that to a pluralistic, post-feminist world. There seems to be a fairly good balance of men and women in the Pagan movement (although again, probably more women - but sociological research suggests that true of every spirituality). There's definitely no overt inequality between the genders - not that I've seen, anyway.

I'm a feminist. I'm a gay/bisexual woman in a relationship with another woman. I'm close to someone who is genderqueer. I resist many gender expectations personally - they mainly don't work for me. I teach a course on Gender and Society at a university, so I know what the research really says about gender - sociological, psychological, biological and even linguistic research. I question everything that society accepts about gender. And I really do mean everything.

So when I hear/read about how air is 'masculine' and water is 'feminine', or about how the Ceridwen story is about (heterosexual) sex and fertility, or about how the moon is a goddess and the sun is a god (and so has it ever been and so shall it ever be, which just isn't true), or about how the Divine is expressed through duality of gender in the God and the Goddess, I'm get very uncomfortable. If these beliefs work for people, fine - but they're so far from what I can relate to, that they make me wonder if Paganism can ever really work for me. I usually realise fairly quickly that my path is my own, that I can relate to the Divine in whatever way I want, that I can worship a sun goddess if I feel like it, and that fertility does not have to be a concept that I use in any of my rituals. (And thank gods for that, because I am the least motherly person I know, and I do not plan on expressing fertility in any way in my life, except maybe symbolically in my garden. And my sex life is just fine, thank you, without any need for any reference to fertility - I'm not in the Catholic church, with its expectations of churning out babies!) But I still feel the major pressure of 'having' to think this way, especially when these concepts are subtly or obviously reinforced in the things I'm learning from - courses, for example (mentioning no names of any courses, but you get the idea).

There is nothing necessarily 'natural' about associating caring or motherly tendencies with women. There is nothing necessarily 'natural' about associating heroic or warrior tendencies with men. All these gendered associations, and so many more, are socially constructed. They've been socially constructed for a long time, so we see them as natural (which is called an 'essentialist' approach to gender) - but they are not.* We 'perform' gender every day, and in so doing, we reinforce the expectations associated with it. That's great if you feel comfortable with and empowered by those associations. If you don't, you can feel straitjacketed or even oppressed by those expectations and beliefs - as many transgendered people will tell you. I'm a scholar, and the elements with which I associate most closely are air and fire - the apparently more 'masculine' elements. I have aspects of myself that many would consider feminine, and aspects that many would consider masculine - but I don't really see any of them that way. They're just part of how I express myself and my creativity, intellect, and other qualities. I also strongly dislike being told what women are like and what men are like, because that rarely fits with the way I experience life. I want to be empowered by my own approach to gender, too, just as other people are empowered by theirs. I want to explore the heroic path, despite the irony of that for a disabled scaredy-cat with a strong attachment to home comforts. I also want to explore a warrior's path, despite the irony of my simultaneous commitment to peace, and the fact that I will never have the kind of physical fitness that would normally be associated with that approach. Life is about contradictions, and I'm as diverse as the rest of the universe!

I have someone in my life who is genderqueer, who I'm very close to, and who has taught me a lot about how much variety there is in the way that people see, live and experience gender. This post was inspired by my finally getting to listen to Hyperion's 'Unnamed Path' podcast episode about the protest at PantheaCon against Z Budapest's women-born-women-only ritual (which Fire Lyte and I talked about on his podcast a few months ago). That's a very separate issue, but at the same time, there are related issues there. Some of the statements that came out of that, about trans women actually being men, seemed to me to be rooted in an essentialist view of gender that is oppressive not only for trans people, but also for anyone who does not associate with more traditional views of gender, whether they are genderqueer like my family member, or just highly questioning of gender, like me.

This, by the way, may be a big part of why I don't personally get along with the 'all the goddesses are one goddess' type approach. Polytheism, for me, expresses the vast diversity of life far better than duality. I love that Aine can be seen as a sun goddess, and that the Morrighan is associated with warriors, while Manannán mac Lir is fast becoming my god of contemplation, mystery, mysticism, and other apparently 'passive' qualities that lead to the Divine. I completely adore how much variety of roles and expressions can be associated with Pagan gods. That's just not the case in some spiritualities. Even in mystical/Gnostic Christianity, Sophia seems to be lower than the Divine - in some myths she has to be rescued by Christ, for example.

I didn't realise how much I had spiritually internalised this idea of 'passive' and 'active' roles for women and men, as a result of some of these Christian and cultural myths, until a few years ago. It's something I'm trying to work on, and it's very hard for me - for all my feminist principles, I don't usually actually want to take action. The gods are challenging me on this, and it's really hard. It's going to continue to be really hard. But it's about authenticity, I think. If I hold a belief, e.g. that gender is variety and women are equal with men, how am I actually expressing and living that in my life? How am I living in an active way? And for me, related to that will be accepting the times when I have to be passive and accept help, and learn not to feel disempowered by that. Being disabled means other people are always going to be helping me. If I can graciously learn to accept help from the community, while giving back to it the things that I am able to give, I will be living in more balance and less struggle. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Try having to have your wheelchair pushed by another person, and experience how much you feel out-of-control and utterly reliant on someone else, and then reconsider that!

And through all of this, Brighid is a constant - who is as motherly and hearth-and-home-focused as you can get. I think she sees me as a challenge. There are things she can teach me about gender and living it in my own way, too. It's just a lot more like hard work than my connection with some of the more 'active' goddesses. Fortunately, she's very patient too. And I'm just not going to comment on why that has long been considered a feminine quality, or we'll be here all day!

*There is, of course, some debate around this in sociology. Most sociologists think that the research leans strongly towards the socially constructed approach to gender. I recommend the book Brain Storm for an excellent debunking of much of the biological research that attempts to 'prove' that gender is natural or essential.

Sunday, 17 June 2012


I'm writing this from bed, after a week during which I got some kind of cold or flu thing, completely lost my voice for a couple of days, and am now feeling just about well enough to hang out drinking tea and taking ginseng (there's more evidence that it might help colds than there is for echinacea, which is a very expensive placebo!)

At the same time, Cat has been writing about sacrifice, and has sparked a lot of debate on the subject. I had been thinking a lot about sacrifice before that, although I hadn't put it into those terms. I don't agree with everything Cat says, but I haven't been able to stop thinking about the subject since, and the debate around it has been fascinating.

In Cat's most recent post on the subject, she asked her readers to reflect on what we give up voluntarily, not through obligation. But in my experience, a lot of sacrifice comes out of the social situation we inhabit. We value that which we don't have much of, and that's about the situation we're in. To give up some of your food to the gods, in a rural, subsistence economy, when you don't know for how long food will be plentiful, and in famine too, is far more of a sacrifice than giving up part of a meal is for us. That's what I imagine our ancestors did as sacrifice. Of course, that's a romanticised notion - they were probably also involved in all sorts of sacrifices that we would find distasteful (archaeological and other evidence suggests they were, although we can't be completely sure). I think that's part of what Nimue is critiquing about the concept of sacrifice. But I don't think there's anything wrong with being inspired by a concept that our ancestors (may have) shared and modifying it to fit with the wisdom we have now - even if that's easily dismissed as romanticism. And it's this idea of contextual sacrifice, of giving voluntarily from within a situation that you didn't choose, that I find the most useful and profound.

I don't believe that this has to mean medieval Christian-style martyrdom. There's a difference between feeling sorry for yourself or feeling that you have to suffer, and willingly working within the constraints that your life imposes. I could pretend that my disability doesn't make my life difficult, as the disability rights movement sometimes goes overboard trying to prove, but it does. There is crap in my life that I rarely talk about. My social context, as a disabled person, means that even blogging and podcasting are sacrifices. There is really very little useful time in my life - when I'm not sick, in pain, needing to rest, or having to do things much more slowly and painfully than I used to - and there's much that I want to accomplish in those little slivers of useful time. So I have to think very carefully before, for example, committing to putting out a podcast episode that takes between 10 and 20 hours of planning, recording and editing time. It means I go without many other things that I'd like to do, and it's a sacrifice. Of course, blogging and podcasting and all those other interesting things I do are a privilege and a joy, too, not just a sacrifice. But it would be dishonest of me to pretend that these things are all about fluffy clouds and dancing in meadows. And more importantly, the struggle is something I'm proud of, not ashamed of. Not always - sometimes I'd much rather hide my differences and pretend everything is great in my life, because of some misguided idea that I'll 'fit in' better that way. But I think something is more valuable if you've worked hard for it. For me, sacrifice is about giving up something that really means something. My time and energy are worth a great deal to me. Other things are much easier for me to give up, but they might be exactly the things that someone else has in short supply - for them, something else is a sacrifice.

I'm thinking of my mum, who managed to get a higher degree despite having two young children and absolutely no time, and who taught me far more about the value of studying for degrees than my Oxford-educated dad who got his degree at 21 when he was living in a posh college and had no distractions. Or my wife, who, when I got very ill six months into our relationship, dealt with it in ways that I never expected from anyone. She's spent many years looking after me, when I don't doubt that other people would have left as soon as things got difficult. At our wedding, she said that "If you can really say 'for poorer - for worse - in sickness', you're with the right person," and made everyone cry. If I went next-door to her study now and asked her if it was a sacrifice, she'd probably laugh at me. Not everyone thinks of these things in the same way. I know how difficult it's been for her, though. These are situations that are partly about the imposition of circumstances, and partly about free choice. For me, the balance between the two is what makes them sacrifices.

I'm uncomfortable with the negativity I often hear from Pagans towards the Christian concept of sacrifice. Unfortunately, I think it's widely misunderstood by non-Christians. The idea that Jesus was some kind of blood sacrifice to appease a tyrannical god is only one, minority way of seeing the Cross. There are other interpretations, some that have more in common with Odin's self-sacrifice on the world tree. In the Gnostic Christian mythos, Jesus willingly sacrifices himself to redeem the fallen Sophia,* redeeming wisdom for humanity. It's a sacrifice myth, like many of the other myths that reflect the incredible sacrifices that are involved in seeking wisdom, as Cat talks about in her post in relation to Jesus and the Buddha. That's the way I see sacrifice, in both a Christian and a Pagan context - life-altering, comfort zone-destroying, Gnosis-seeking. Looking at it that way, most of the time I feel like it's entirely beyond me. I'm far too weak to sacrifice anything serious for Gnosis, or to the gods. I feel guilty all the time that I'm not doing 'enough'. But at the same time, if sacrifice is related to what I have to offer (as I always believed in a Christian context), then my use of my resources is what matters.

I don't say very much here, or anywhere really, about my developing relationship with my gods. I don't get along with the 'archetypes' concept of the gods, and I worry that people will think me silly or naive if I share my own views on deity, so I mostly don't. But the gods are central to my spirituality (and I'm really bored of trying to pretend otherwise). This summer, my gods have been pushing me outside of my comfort zone. Not much, but enough that I feel it. I'm working on facing my fears and doing things I wouldn't of my own accord. This probably wouldn't look like much from the outside - lots of other people would do these things without thinking, and I'm sure they could also think of better things I could be doing. But I have to work with my own resources. That's the only raw material the gods have to work with, if I want them to help me to do things with my life. That's what I sacrifice to them, but it's also a sacrifice to myself. Along the way, they seem to want me to answer my own prayers. I think that's all right with me.

This post took all day to write. I'm left thinking about whether I envy people who can bash out a blog post in an hour and forget about it. Probably, but then I wouldn't have thought about this as deeply as I have. Sacrifice is meaningful even when it arises from circumstances you wouldn't choose - and maybe more so.

*Gnosticism reverses many familiar Christian interpretations - many Gnostics see the snake in the Garden of Eden as an avatar of Sophia, and Eve as a saint who chose wisdom rather than ignorance.