GENDER BALANCE IN MODERN PAGANISM
This is a short presentation I (littlecitywitch) prepared for the 2012 Canadian National Pagan Conference (aka Gaia Gathering), which happened over the last 4 days at the University of Toronto. The prompt I was given is as follows:
“How much of an issue is gender balance in our Canadian Pagan scene? Where is the pendulum swinging these days? Are we really a female dominated community? Are the opportunities equal for men and women? Are the Gods and Goddesses worshipped equally? Do they need to be?”
And here is my response to that. Trans folks, genderqueer folks, everyone whose gender defies the restrictive norms of our society - please let me know if I have fucked up anywhere in this writing. I am doin’ my best and am always learning.
Hi everyone! I’m going to start by introducing myself – my name is Aradia Rosa James, and I’ve been a witch and pagan for fourteen years. I identify as a queer cisgendered woman. To briefly brush up on these terms, for those of you that aren’t familiar with them, ‘queer’ refers to sexual minorities which are not heterosexual, heteronormative, or gender-binary. ‘Cis’ is a prefix that means my gender identity conforms with my sex – I was female assigned at birth, and I continue to identify in that way.
I’ve given a lot of thought lately to the concept of balance, and particularly the notion of ‘gender balance. It seems that in the larger pagan community the phrase is usually used to indicate equal portions of male and female. Popular conceptions of male and female qualities tag along, and we end up with derivative dichotomies between passive and active, dark and light, etc, even though these qualities are not inherently gendered. Ancient and modern paganisms draw upon a pool of archetypes that are both beautiful and useful in our religious and magical lives – that of the moon goddess and the sun god, the assertive male warrior figure and the silent and wise female, in touch with deep unconscious knowledge. These archetypes and symbols are not inherently incorrect – indeed, I believe they have their place, as a few key ingredients in a large and diverse melting pot – but I posit that they derive from a false binary which drives and dominates much of the conversation on gender in contemporary paganism.
The binary of male/female is held up by essentialist notions of what male and female are, at an essential, basic, level. In relation to the topic at hand, essentialist modes of thinking assert that ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’ can be pinned down to a list of exact, ‘essential’ characteristics. Taking this idea a bit further, it asserts that all male-gendered people experience maleness in the same way, and the same grandiose sweeping statement is made for females. When it comes to gender, essentialist ideas can be quickly called into question by the experience of people whose genders do not, or have not always fit into a neat split between one or the other. For instance, my experience of my femaleness is very different from someone who is trans* or genderfluid, and it differs even from that of other cisgendered females.
By arguing against essentialism and stating that ‘man’ and ‘woman’ do not exist in a concrete form, we can break apart the construct of the binary. None of us are only ‘man’ or ‘woman,’ just as ‘natural’ cannot truly be separated from ‘artificial’; we are both and everything in between; we are all composites, a mish-mash of various influences and characteristics, hybrids – or, as Donna Haraway would say, cyborgs. The cyborg moves away from oppositional modes of thinking, acknowledges diversity, and paves the way for acceptance of many modes of being. The cyborg has the capacity to see balance everywhere, and to see gender balance in a way that is not hinged upon acceptance of a male/female dichotomy as being the ultimate expression of balance through gender.
Where do we draw the lines between male and female? Why? I bet the more people you ask, the more answers you will get. The male/female binary in much of paganism seems to be informed by the logic of biological determinism, or the idea that our biological sex determines our overall disposition and inclinations. An extension of this idea would be that all people who are assigned female at birth are in touch with their emotions and their spirituality, and have access to a deeper spiritual subconscious. We can see this idea reflected in a lot of modern pagan symbolism, as tropes born of biological determinism persist in our spiritual and magical practices. This kind of thought has the potential to alienate many pagans, regardless of gender or sexuality. It is also, of course, deeply limiting.
One problem with the male/female binary which overwhelms gender representations in modern paganism is that it is, by and large, the only representation of ‘gender balance,’ or indeed, often ‘balance’ at all. It’s important that we move away from seeing male and female as two extremes, two different points on a scale, and believe that only when they are equal is ‘balance’ achieved. As compassionate pagans in today’s world, it’s vital that we come together and question the ethos from which this assumption was born. It is a heteronormative and undoubtedly cisgendered worldview.
Why is conversation about gender in today’s paganism dominated by notions of male/female dichotomies? Why does male plus female have to equal balance? Why do we place so much emphasis on balance between perceived opposites? Though these notions are certainly endemic in all aspects of contemporary Western society, in the pagan community these ideas have perhaps trickled down from British Traditional Wicca, with its emphasis on a male/female binary. This form of Wicca is valid in its own right, though it’s certainly not where everyone feels at home – and its emphasis on gender as binary plays a large role in that. It is one expression of many, yet it continues to dominate notions of gender balance in most forms of modern paganism, and in the larger pagan community as a whole, especially in North America. Alternative narratives concerning gender and more inclusive notions of gender balance are emerging in discussions in small groups of political radicals, activists, and anarchists. This is a fantastic development, but when will these discussions reach a larger community of pagans, and when will we as a larger community begin to step outside the notion of the male/female gender binary as normative, and all other notions of gender as deviant, weird, or unusual?
As a community, we should not only be concerned with equal opportunities for men and women. We should work to become more aware of and inclusive of the experience of gender non-conforming people, such as individuals who may identify as trans, genderfluid, genderqueer, or anything else. We as a community need to reframe the question of what gender balance means and how it is expressed. We can begin to do this by broadening our conceptions of gender and balance. By actively engaging in that discussion, we can begin to pave the way to allow gender non-conforming pagans to feel secure and safe in pagan spaces, and create avenues for their voices to be heard.
I’ve been having thoughts like this in my head, but I hadn’t yet managed to get them written out. I think this piece hits all of the important points on the issue.