W – Wimmin’s Religion (PBP week 46)

There’s been a lot of controversy in the pagan world about inclusion and exclusion and if one’s identity is defined by genetics, physiology, or something more elusive.

This all stems, as I’m sure some of you know, from a Dianic Wiccan group’s rituals at Pantheacon the last couple of years. In a public ritual, advertised as for women only, some women were turned away for not meeting the group’s criteria of womanhood. (It actually stems from deeper problems with our community, but this is what seems to have gotten the pot bubbling this time around.)

This is all old news, I guess, to many in the pagan blogosphere. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot, as I’m of two minds. I figure it’s time for me to speak up and add my voice to the fray.

First, and most importantly, I believe that gender is a useless descriptor – a false dilemma created by society to tell us which roles we should play based on what shape our bodies take. I believe that we have four equally important elements that make us who we are: heart and soul, body and mind. Of these, only the body has a sex and that biological sex is much more complicated than it appears on the surface. Even on the most basic chromosomal level, not everyone is XX or XY. One just can’t put people into convenient little pink and blue boxes based on outward impressions.

But I get that I’m in the minority opinion when I say gender is meaningless. I get that it could very well by my privilege that allows me to see things this way. I am a cis woman which, for those unfamiliar with the term, means that though I have many “masculine” traits as well as “feminine” ones, I am psychologically OK with the gender assigned to me. This gives me the privilege of being able to ignore the issue if I choose. The social norm is with me. But there are a lot of people who don’t have that option. The women turned away from the Pantheacon rituals, for example, were trans*. Meaning their anatomy at birth, and thus the gender assigned to them, was different from what they knew themselves to be.

Gender identity is important to the vast majority of people. While it is a social construct, it is one that is impossible to avoid. And it can be a life or death matter for those who are constantly being told their identity is at best mistaken, at worst a lie.

What all that boils down to for me is the fact that I believe the people running the rituals in question were being bigoted. Neither they, nor I, have the right to tell someone else who she “really” is. If someone tells me she is a woman I’m going to trust her word – she knows herself far better than anyone on the outside can.

But.

I also believe in a group’s right to set limits on who participates in their rituals. In fact, I think exclusivity is not only permitted, I believe it is absolutely necessary in many cases for meaningful spiritual experiences.

I am a devotee of Dionysos, who famously had rites dedicated to Him that were forbidden to men. Pentheus and many others suffered terrible death for daring to view what they should not have.

Dionysos is also the most gender fluid of the Gods. While undeniably masculine in many ways, in others He plays with the idea of gender in ways that had to make the defenders of the status quo very uncomfortable: wearing female garb and hairstyle, taking a receptive role in some sexual encounters, and basically not seeming to care a whole lot about being “manly.”

Dionysos likes to liberate us from these assigned roles. He gave women who were housebound for most of the year the freedom to run wild on the hillside. He gives those of us who spend our lives trying to live up to what others want of us be the freedom to relax and be who we are truly meant to be.

So what about Pentheus?

It is my belief, and I have absolutely no evidence to back this up, that if a trans* woman were to join in the Bacchic rites, the God would have no problem with it. The other women, however, might not have been so accepting. I suppose it could have depended on whether they knew her, saw her living her life as a woman – which was unlikely as this would have been even more dangerous then than it is now – or whether she was a stranger to them, or someone who was closeted. It’s likely they would have been like the Dianics at Pantheacon and sent her packing. But the God, I believe, would have been welcoming to Her.

Pentheus, on the other hand, was not a woman by anyone’s definition. He was, in addition, a representative of the status quo the rites were rebelling against and an enemy of Dionysos. He did not belong.

Exclusivity, in my opinion, is necessary when dealing with religious mysteries. A mystery is something that one can only understand through experience, and not everyone can have every experience. If when someone speaks of “women’s mysteries,” they only mean menstruation, childbirth and menopause, they need to be clear about that. There are a lot of women who would get nothing from such a ritual.  (I personally think it’s an unfortunate definition that limits all of us to our reproductive biology.  Something women have been trying to get away from for a very long time.)

If they just say their ritual if “for women” then I’m going to assume they are addressing the myriad of experiences unique to being female in a world that places more value on maleness.

I’m all for exclusive rituals for women, for trans* people, for people of color, for GLBT* people, for diabled people, for any group that shares unique experiences that they wish to explore.  (I’ll even support the right of privileged groups to come together and celebrate their privilege, though I wouldn’t approve.  Free speech and assembly and all that.)

I think maybe a large public gathering focused on inclusiveness and pagan ecumenicism, like Pantheacon, is the wrong forum for such a thing.