Thursday, August 25, 2011

More on the Broom Closet: for Freeman Presson

One of the things which I've noted about American Neopaganism is its emphasis on the importance of being public.  Groups like Pagan Pride Day "foster pride in Pagan identity through education, activism, charity and community.  Pagan writers offer  advice on "coming out of the Broom Closet" and otherwise becoming a public representative of Ye Olde Religione.  This is particularly interesting as its most immediate antecedents, British Traditional Witchcraft and Gardnerian Wicca, were far less interested in - and were in fact often hostile to - public scrutiny.

Yet alongside this demand that Neopagans identify themselves to the world is another recurring theme: the Evil Fundamentalist Christians want to burn us all at the stake.  When I noted this obsession on Wild Hunt, Apuleius Platonicus replied "Yeah, we're so obsessed with our history and with clear and present threats to our survival. It's weird."  (Alas, the comment was closed before I could find out exactly what sorts of "clear and present threats" Apuleius was experiencing.  Thanks loads, Charlton "Chuck" Hall of Mindful Family Therapy and The Culture Artist Organization, for making legal threats against the Pagan Portal's editor after she called you "rude").

Given all these concerns about the dangers of being a Witch, I had to ask a question which I haven't heard raised all that often - "Why should Witches go public with their religion?"  I know the Christians are expected to bear witness to the nations, and are told that Jesus blesses those who are persecuted for the faith.  But I have not run into any pre-Christian indigenous traditions which placed a particular premium on martydom, or which expected believers to publicly affirm their faith and to share it with nonbelievers, even if said nonbelievers were potentially hostile.

So what's going on here? Toward answering that conundrum, here's a response from Freeman Presson, an active and public Pagan in Birmingham, Alabama.  He commented on an earlier post: I thought I'd bring the discussion here so I could respond at more length.
Maybe because I'm raising my kid in it and don't want him feeling like he has to hide what we do. 
Maybe because I actually believe that funny shit about religious liberty. At the same time, I'm not going around shoving it into random people's faces, either.
The Pagan community in Birmingham, Alabama, has been increasingly public and visible for the last decade, and there's really been very little flak about it, compared to what one might expect based on some people's rhetoric. Whoops, now I'm agreeing with you! Ha.
I'm going to start with Presson's last paragraph, because it shines light on a few important points.  One of them is that it appears reasonably safe to be a public Pagan in Birmingham, Alabama.  This might shock some people, given Birmingham's checked history.  Those who have lived in the southern United States may be less surprised.  Atlanta, Birmingham, and many other large and midsize southern cities have surprisingly active magical and alternative scenes.  (I lived in Athens, Georgia for several years: even in the early 90s there was a thriving Pagan community there).

Unfortunately, the rural South - and for that matter, the rest of the rural United States - is frequently less friendly to Pagans and other "weirdos."  This is by no means a given: many rural folk are happy to live and let live and couldn't give a damn what you smoke, drink, fuck or worship so long as you do it on your own land and own time.  But if they decide they don't want you around - see the Maetreum of Cybele, Magna Mater's ongoing battles with the Town of Catskill, New York -  they can make your life absolute hell.  And as far as "that funny shit about religious liberty" goes, I'm reminded of something a Satanist friend of mine once said: "you have the right to everything you can take and defend by force."

And when there are children involved, the situation gets even more complicated.  I'm absolutely sympathetic to Presson's desire that his child not grow up feeling he has to be ashamed of his faith. Yet I'm also reminded of another Patheos blogger, Eric Scott.  When Scott was a youth his parents kept their Alexandrian Wiccan faith hidden from him.  As he said in a recent post:
The West Memphis Three put a very different face on my parents' decision. Because the jury didn't know what an actual esbat was - because the trappings of my religion could be dressed up as something vicious and angry - Damien Echols was sentenced to death. This didn't happen sometime in the distant past; this happened when I was six years old.
What's really burned into my mind is this: if you walk into my parents' house, you will find shelves full of books on the occult, hundreds of them. You will find a cabinet with ritual implements, including athames and a sword. You will, in short, find far more "trappings of the occult" than the prosecution ever introduced against the West Memphis Three.
I'm saying that this was the first time I realized it could have been us.
Suddenly a lot of things about my childhood make a lot more sense.
What I'm getting at here is this: the decision to go in or out of the Broom Closet is a personal one and should be made depending on individual and family circumstances.  I am not entirely sure that "out" should be the default or even the preferred setting. Some of our most public figures are among our greatest embarrassments.  Nor do I think there is any sin in discretion: one may be out under a craft name yet keep that identity hidden from those who don't need to know or those who might do you harm should they discover your religion.

Another important distinction Freeman drew was between being open about his religion and "shoving it into random people's faces."  If you're wandering around your local Wal-Mart dressed up in bad Renfaire garb and introducing yourself as "High Priest Sebaceous Smegma," you are not being laughed at because you are a Pagan.  You are being laughed at because you are a doofus.  I don't know Freeman and his wife well, although they have been Facebook friends for some time.  But from what I have seen of the Pressons, they are most assuredly not doofii.   This may go a very long way toward explaining why their career as public Pagans has been to date a relatively uneventful one.


Anonymous said...

I think the best reasons to be out of the broom of the closet are that it helps normalize us to non-Pagans, helping to remove prejudice based on fear of the unknown, and putting us in charge of our own public identity rather than letting conservative Christians and media stereotype shape our narrative.

I don't agree that some of our most public figures are some of our greatest embarrassments and those two examples you linked to are not well-known. Rather, I would look to Patrick McCollum, Selena Fox, and Margot Adler as fine examples of Pagans that are better known to the general culture.

Of course it is a personal decision and one that may carry risk, but social change doesn't usually come without risk and sacrifice.

Anonymous said...

I often suspect that many of the persecution fears of neo-pagans are blown way out of proportion to reality (because that makes us feel more special? I don't know), while I acknowledge that there are truly some places where it's dangerous to be out as pagan. Which is exactly why I choose NOT to live in such places! While I too don't go around shoving it down anyone's throats, I do prefer not to have to lie or hide anything about myself, it's just easier that way. So I have always lived in places that are generally liberal, and have always acted calm and rational when discussing my religion with others, which has kept me safe and not-discriminated-against from New England, to Montana, to the Pacific Northwest.

Anonymous said...

Geeze, that first phrase is awful. I'm gonna need more coffee.

Anonymous said...

"[Y]ou are not being laughed at because you are a Pagan. You are being laughed at because you are a doofus." I know this is going to come in handy. I will credit you if there's a place for a footnote ;-)

I completely agree with your statement that being public has to be a very personal decision.

FernWise said...

For me, nothing in most neopagan paths requires or calls for being public. OTOH, there is some thing about being American that promotes being public about everything.

PaganMomBlog said...

We are actually talking about this on Twitter at the moment and someone linked this post. I love what you had to say. Should being public be a choice? Absolutely. I would just rather people be private out of the issue that they are private people. Not because they have to fear for their or their families safety.

The best thing about being public is, we no longer contribute to fear of what Pagans are. People fear what they don't know, if we can normalize we can eliminate some of the fear others have. The Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians all had Temples, so why do we scoff so much at the idea of a public pagan Temple? What would be so terrible about a public place to attend without commitment? And a public place that is available just as easily as any other synagogue, church, or temple?

Times are a changing. Younger generations are going to have different needs. It's time we looked at normalizing ourselves to set the stage for them. At least in my humble opinion anyway :)

Sheta said...

I have two points.

I myself lived in Athens, Georgia between 1986 and 1988 (when I was in my 20s). It can hardly be called a typical example of southern attitudes. Athens is a college town with an enormous live-and-let-live attitude. You can get away with any style or spirituality there, and honestly no one cares. Athens was my initial true foray into alternative spirituality with intent to change my life, and it did. It remains my second-favorite place I've ever lived.

Contrast that with Houston, the fourth largest city in the U.S. and where I've lived for the past 15 years. Sure, you can find metaphysical stores, at least one or two, down in the bohemian sector of town known as "Montrose." But for every pagan or magician in this city of over 5m people, there are at least 1000 who are fundamentalist Christian. Austin is even more liberal (another college town), but you have to remember that this is the state that gave power to the Bushes and to Rick Perry (though certainly not by my vote).

All things considered, I keep my mouth shut in this area. I have no need or desire to trumpet my occult leanings, and even less of a desire to catch shit about them. I agree that it's easy to be open where it seems safe to be open, and that it's not a true test of one's dedication to one's openness. But I had to throw in my 2c, because, really, Athens is as liberal as any town you can find in the south.

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