Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Lilith Rite at Pantheacon 2011 Redux

At Pantheacon 2011,  there was a controversial "Lilith Rite" which turned away several men, transfolk and anyone who wasn't "woman born woman." Recently Yeshe Rabbit, High Priestess and founder of the CAYA (Come As You Are) Coven, posted her take on that rite and on the kerfluffle which ensued afterwards. In that post Rabbit discusses her affiliation with Dianic Witchcraft:
In 2007, I was ordained by Z Budapest in the Dianic Tradition. I have been, within my eclectic practice, engaged in Dianic circles since 2005, and I have been a feminist witch for my entire adult life. When I found my Dianic practice, it offered me a great deal of personal healing from past experiences, from body shame, from shame in my menstrual blood, and from fear of my power as a woman in a society that subtly and overtly conditions women to be fearful of power. The Dianic Tradition offered me a version of the Divine that looked like me, smelled like me, bled like me, and understood my worldview. I am deeply grateful for this work, as it helped me to grow in my confidence and personal sense of authority over my own life.
I am glad that Rabbit found a coven which helped her to deal with body shame and offered her healing from past experiences. I also think that most transgender women are quite familiar with body shame and have had to find healing from some pretty nasty past experiences.  They might not bleed like her, but  that doesn't mean that transwomen have not bled for their femininity.  (And if you think this society subtly and overtly demeans and disempowers women, you ought to get a load of what it does to male-bodied people who are too "feminine." Your trans-sisters might just teach the Dianics a thing or two about the ways one survives, or fails to survive, in a culture which wants to reduce you to your genitals).
Within CAYA, there are also small, closed, invite-only affinity groups for the sake of specific personal work. These groups perform rituals and activities that they may or may not share with the public, as the groups see fit. These groups vary in theme. Some are gender-related, some are focused on other areas of personal development. One of these "inner court" groups is my Dianic lineage, the Amazon Priestess Tribe. This lineage is focused on the mysteries of the yoni, the woman's menstrual cycle as a lens for the life cycle, birth, croning, and personal healing. This Dianic group is a closed, safe, intimate place for the women in my Clergy to find, as I did, empowerment in our bodies just as they are. And it is/has been good work.
I would think that there would be no shortage of opportunities for women to be identified by their genitals: as a drunk fratboy once laughingly told me: "What do you call the useless skin around a pussy? A woman." I was even under the impression that one of the great achievements of feminism was the way in which it opened doors for female-bodied people to be accepted as leaders outside the traditional genital-centered roles of concubine, wife and mother.  But if the Amazon Priestess Tribe wishes to reclaim this and contemplate the "mysteries of the yoni," who am I to argue? I am not part of their target market and I've always accepted the need for private "safe spaces" where people of an affinity group can seek healing and empowerment.  (I am less comfortable with these private spaces being advertised as part of the public offerings at an open convention, but more on that later).
One key component of all the rituals the Amazons offer at PCon, and indeed all the rituals we do anytime, is that they are completely skyclad. We do not require all attendees to be entirely nude for our rites, but our priestesses are and it is strongly encouraged, as we feel there is a primal power in the naked female body that can be seen, heard, smelled, and felt in a visceral way when we gather to practice. We do not purport to be fully inclusive; we are not. However, we have chosen to share our rituals at places like PantheaCon in a spirit of generosity, without presumption. We do not think of our way as the only way nor even the best way. We are just sharing what we do with what we hope to be an enthusiastic population of fellow Dianic travelers at a large event where many different groups offer their practices to one another.
I can appreciate Rabbit's sentiments here: I can even appreciate how a room full of naked women might not feel comfortable with a male-bodied person leering at the naked boobies. But if you are going to share "in a spirit of generosity, without presumption," you're going to have to share with anyone who wants to come in.  If you wish to restrict entry to an official event offered as a public Pantheacon ritual, you are putting the organizers in a most uncomfortable position.

As I said before, I firmly respect the rights of an affinity group to create "safe space."  I'd never dream of trying to force my way into "People of Color Space," nor would I think that the organizers of said event were racists because they were discriminating against whites. But I can imagine an event where a very light-skinned person of color was turned away from that space and then went to the organizers to air hir grievances.  Should the volunteers running Pantheacon be tasked with judging who is or is not a PoC? And should they be faced with the legal liability which they might incur for taking on that role? (CAYA might get a lawsuit dismissed on the grounds of "Freedom of Religion:" the organizers of a 4,000+ person interfaith convention would have a much harder and more expensive time proving that trans-exclusion, white-exclusion, gay-exclusion, etc. was a core part of their spiritual beliefs).

Let's bring another factor to the table: in our society, cisgendered women have more power and cultural capital than transgendered women.  They have an easier time finding employment; they are less subject to random acts of violence from strangers; they are less likely to lose families and friends in their quest to live in accordance with their gender.  In excluding transgendered women from this ritual, the Amazon Priestess Tribe isn't acting like the PoC Space asking white folks not to attend: they're acting like the European Traditionalist Pagan group telling Jews and blacks that they are unwelcome.  If Dianics want to accept their power, they might want to start by acknowledging their privileged position in this particular argument.
Unbeknownst to me, several gender equality activists had pre-planned a protest at PantheaCon regarding the issue of gender-and-sex-exclusive spaces. Unbeknownst to me, this group had already contacted the Pagan Newswire Collective letting them know that they planned this action. Unbeknownst to me, they were outside protesting our ritual while we were figuring out our technical difficulties, and saying that we excluded trans women. THE AMAZONS HAVE NEVER TURNED A TRANS WOMAN AWAY AT THE DOOR OF ANY OUR RITUALS. We believe in personal integrity. We believe that in women's culture, if a woman sets a boundary about her preferences, other women will honor that boundary. We believe that if any woman is in need of healing and is prepared to participate respectfully, lovingly and kindly in a ritual for such, she should have it. We do not do penis-checks or pat-downs. WE DO ASK THAT ALL PARTICIPANTS AT AMAZON RITUALS BE ABLE TO BE NAKED AND ALLOW THEIR YONIS TO BE PRESENT IN THE RITUAL SPACE for the purpose of a particular type of visceral experience, much the same way others hearken to the witches rune and gather naked at their own rites for their own purposes. 
I wonder why Rabbit did not make this clear until now.  In CAYA's March 2011 "Response to the topic of PCon, Gender, & the Amazon Rite of Lilith"
Under the umbrella of CAYA, the Amazon Priestess Tribe is a private Tradition that offers public and private rituals and ceremonies based on the menstrual lifecycle of female-born-women in order to meet that particular need in our community. Not all women of CAYA participate in the Amazon Priestess Tribe, which formed as a result of a shared affinity between several female-born-women with the goal of creating healing and personal empowerment through the lens of the menstrual lifecycle.
Dagda, another attendee at Pantheacon, who did not attend the ritual but who was one of the "gender equality activists"whom Rabbit mentioned, said at the time:
We did find out second-hand on Sunday that at a particular ritual on Saturday (that had not been billed as a women-born-women only ritual in the program) several transgendered women and a man were asked to leave by the organizers of the event. Another woman went to complain to the con-ops about it, and this group was then told that for their next even, they had to allow anyone who identifies as a woman in. We weren’t sure what sparked it, but it was another act by individuals that really just made us feel awed and amazed.
At present the circumstances surrounding this event remain unclear (and I'd welcome comments from attendees who could shed some more light on the subject).  That being said, I must admit that I am uncomfortable with what looks very much like an attempt to foist blame off on the rabble-rousers who came in spoiling for a fight.  It looks uncomfortably like comments from well-meaning southern folks about the outsiders who came to their peaceful towns to stir up trouble amongst folks who got along just fine with their own water fountains and lunch counters.
Unbeknownst to me, at the same PantheaCon where we hosted our controversial ritual in a small, back-corner meeting room, there was a ritual happening upstairs in a main ballroom where any woman who was currently menstruating was not allowed to attend. Has that been mentioned, protested against, pointed out as cruel, violent, hateful, or unfair as often as our ritual has? No. In fact, it has barely come up. Apparently, it is not considered violent to make a woman stand aside due to her menstruation. Apparently, it is allowable to delineate space on the basis of biology if one practices some Traditions, but not others. Apparently, it is less offensive to exclude a bleeding woman than to celebrate her. Mind you, I respect this group's right to host a ritual that is authentic to their Tradition, even if it appears to be in direct conflict with one of my core spiritual beliefs in celebrating a woman's blood. I trust that there are many paths through this forest, and some of them are meant to remain Mysteries to me. However, I object to the disparity in public outrage that feels symptomatic of misogyny. [Editorial note: see comments section for an expanded view on this topic, thanks to Geoffrey.]
Others within the comments clarified that the rite in question was a Vodou ceremony dedicated to Damballah, a lwa who does not like the smell of blood. Menstruating women should not salute Damballah because of that: neither should anybody with an open sore or bleeding wound. This does not mean that those people cannot attend a fet - or even officiate at one.  It merely means that they cannot salute Damballah while they are bleeding.  Speaking as someone with a bit of knowledge on the topic, I can assure you that this has nothing to do with misogyny or with menstruating women being "unclean."
And into this, Z arrived, and she came swinging. While I honor Z's many, many contributions to women's culture and feminine spirituality, I cannot condone speech that is filled with hate, neither against me nor on my behalf. I would not and have not communicated my opinions in those terms. I respect Z's right to hold whatever opinions, thoughts, and practices she chooses, and my expectation is that we are all given that freedom to do, think, speak, or feel as we choose.
Budapest certainly has the right to speak her mind or to hold whatever opinions she may wish. But others have the right to hold her accountable for statements like
This struggle has been going since the Women’s Mysteries first appeared. These individuals selfishly never think about the following: if women allow men to be incorporated into Dianic Mysteries,What will women own on their own? Nothing! Again! Transies who attack us only care about themselves.
But if you claim to be one of us, you have to have sometimes in your life a womb, and overies and MOON bleed and not die.
Women are born not made by men on operating tables.
Until such time as Budapest offers an apology for her hurtful comments - or at least shows some sign that she thinks of transwomen as human beings worthy of the respect given to any other human being - I would not speak at any event where she was also presenting: I would also encourage organizers to shun her as they would shun anyone else given to intemperate, hateful speech about disempowered minorities.  I recognize her contributions to Paganism and to feminism, but would add that they only serve to make her descent into hate mongering more profound and more tragic. Rather than serving as an excuse for her misstatements, they only serve to highlight their ugliness and bigotry.
Of course, no one can please everyone, and both before and after CAYA issued our statement we received backlash. In the past year I have fielded dozens of e-mails calling me names, making wide assumptions of our practices or intent (often from people who know nothing about us and had not read our statement.) In one case, we were told we were "a bunch of self-righteous breeders who worship our wombs." In two incidences, I was sent death threats and in others, threats of violence, a la "one of these days we'll cross paths and then you'll get what's coming to you." It was really painful and disconcerting to be threatened with death and violence as someone's idea of justice for a situation that did not actually occur the way it was reported. It bespoke, to me, a massive appropriation of the violent rhetoric of patriarchal domination. "If you don't give me what I want, I'll hurt or kill you." Isn't that the battle cry of the rapist, the colonizer? This has no place in the kind of civil discourse I strive for, teach, and pray for on a regular basis.
Let me make it clear that while Budapest's words were hurtful, they didn't descend to this level.  If the people sending these threats and insults are reading this, do me a favor and find another cause, since you're making mine look bad.  What's more, I would urge Rabbit to name names and show emails with headers, so the community at large knows exactly who is responsible for this and can protect themselves accordingly.  This kind of rhetoric is not OK no matter what the individual sending it has contributed to the community in the past or how well-regarded they are.  I'm critical of the way this was handled, but I'm far more critical of people who think this kind of happy horseshit is an appropriate response.
So, where am I now, and where is CAYA now? CAYA proposed three rituals for PantheaCon 2012: one all-inclusive and two for self-identified men and women, respectively. The Amazons proposed one ritual: a naked ritual for women. I proposed one on my own: a devotional to Yeshe Tsogyal, one of the ancestresses in my personal pantheaon. I also proposed, along with Devin Hunter,a pan-Dianic, all-inclusive ritual for anyone who wants to experience the Dianic perspective of Goddess-as-Whole-and-Complete-Unto-Herself. I feel like we flung a bunch of possibilities toward the staff of PCon for the sake of greatest diversity, and I trust that they will figure out what fits best into mix, if any of them at all. If you plan to be there, and we have been accepted, consider giving CAYA rites a try even if you've been mad at us this whole time. You really stand to lose nothing by coming to see for yourself who we are and what we do.
I bear no personal grudge against CAYA: while I doubt that I will be making Pantheacon 2012 I'd have no objection to attending a CAYA event.  (As a third-gendered person I'd feel out of place at an event dedicated solely to men or women, but that's neither here nor there).  I would suggest that the Amazon Priestess Tribe think long and hard about what they gain from offering at Pantheacon a ritual which is open only to cisgendered women - and about the pain, resentment and misunderstanding this ritual is likely to cause, be it a public or a private event.