[Author’s Note: The Fayetteville Goddess Festival is a long-running event held in Fayetteville, Arkansas and hosted by the Omni Center for Peace. Started in 1990 as the Women’s Festival and Conference at the University of Arkansas, the Festival was forced to cut ties to the University in 2000 amid rumors that University officials were displeased by the presence of a lesbian workshop at the Festival. The most recent Fayetteville Goddess Festival took place March 17-26, 2017 and featured concerts, rituals, and daily workshops. Some of these workshops were restricted by age and self-identified gender, which did not seem to be the source of controversy.]
There has been a lot of discussion over the last week or so about the Fayetteville Goddess Festival, and I wanted to add something new to the conversation, partly because I’ve addressed several of the key elements in the past on my blog. I’ve already written about anti-feminism within Paganism, which this incident exemplifies. I’ve also written about the toxicity of gender identity politics within Paganism, which this incident will probably be remembered for. What I want to comment on is something more insidious, something that has crept up unawares while we covertly debate the points and counterpoints of biology versus identity.
What happened in Fayetteville involved a workshop entitled “The Disappearing L,” about lesbian erasure, which was cancelled after transgender activists complained. Apparently they objected to the words “biological female” in the workshop description, both the words themselves and the meaning of those words. They felt strongly that individuals born with penises who identified as lesbian should be included at a lesbian event. Festival organizers offered to replace “biological female” with “cisgender,” to sponsor “educational opportunities” (I’m not sure what that means), to make a public apology for offering the workshop in the first place, and to banish the workshop to a location away from the Festival. Trans activists were not satisfied with these concessions and demanded that the workshop be cancelled altogether. They backed up their demands with a scheduled formal protest at the Festival.
The workshop was cancelled. The apology was issued. Another apology was issued. The workshop description of “The Disappearing L” was erased in the program by people who evidently have no understanding of irony. Trans activists were still unplacated and started a petition to get the lead Festival organizer fired from her job.
So that’s the background. What I want to discuss here is the context in which the lesbian erasure workshop occurred, a Pagan context in which authoritarian tactics are becoming normalized as Pagan interaction. Because they’re not normal. They’re not religious. They’re not spiritual. They don’t reflect enlightenment and they don’t demonstrate reverence for the Goddess.
After the Panthea-Con gathering erupted in a protest in 2012 (a protest rephrased in classic millennial newspeak as a “meditation”), Dianic Witches became effectively no-platformed at many Pagan gatherings. Destruction of the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, ostensibly not a religious event, became a focal point for Pagan activism because the religious activities that occurred there did not center trans women. Letters and phone calls to Pagan organizations targeted priestess Ruth Barrett for exclusion in all Pagan events, and a campaign ensued to get her fired from Cherry Hill Seminary.
The following activities have become business-as-usual at Pagan events, all of them targeting religious leaders and rival religious groups:
- Demands for censorship
- Dehumanizing name calling (“TERF”)
- Organized campaigns to get people fired from their jobs for spiritual activities
These things are beginning to seem normal, and they’re not. Not in a religious context. There has always been an uneasy relationship between religion and politics, at least in the United States. Religious Right leaders say their biggest obstacle in their takeover of the Republican Party was the initial recalcitrance of the churches, who worried that involvement in politics was “unspiritual.” Billy Graham complained in his autobiography that he was continually pulled into political causes against his desires and better judgment.
In the usually left-leaning Pagan communities, overt political participation also required some nudging, since people on a spiritual path are not naturally drawn to politics. Leaders such as Starhawk argued persuasively that Pagans must become politically involved in opposition to government and corporate policies that threaten our core values. Z Budapest’s formation of a women’s religion, when women are subjugated universally through religion, was intrinsically a political act. I myself have taken part in protests for gay rights and against male violence. I have supported boycotts in favor of farm workers. I have written countless letters and made countless phone calls to elected officials and worked to get good people elected into office.
But I have never taken part in organized political activity against a religious group or gathering. Nor have I tacitly supported such activity by my silence.
A good deal of the political targeting of religious groups and people under the cloak of spirituality, at least on the Pagan front, has come from transgender activists and their “cis” allies. The Fayetteville incident is a case in point. Coercive censorship tactics directed at feminists and lesbians are the focus of most trans politics, at least for now, but that will change. There are signs that liberals are collectively approaching “peak trans,” a term coined in 2011 by blogger Radicalfeministcrafts to describe that point where gender identity politics becomes so crazy and so abusive that its core tenets become subject to scrutiny.
But here’s the thing: discrediting gender identity philosophy is not going to erase these heavy-handed tactics. They’ve become normalized. Censorship of religious philosophy. No-platforming of religious leaders. Discrimination in employment based on religion. Boycotting of businesses based on their participation in spiritual gatherings. Petitions targeting individuals. Are these things spiritual? Do they enhance or destroy spiritual energy? Do they elicit favor from the Goddess? Are they okay when they’re directed at women? At feminists? At lesbians? And most importantly, are we going to continue to tolerate these destructive actions within a religious framework?
It is time for ALL people and organizations who flatter themselves that they are leaders in Pagan communities to come forward and explicitly condemn these tactics. They may have a place in some contexts, but not in a religious one. Spiritual leadership is not about the books you’ve written or the number of followers you have or the initiations you boast of or the degrees you’ve earned: it’s about the courage and integrity you demonstrate when negativity dominates and things are becoming difficult. Precious few of our celebrated priests and priestesses have shown this courage and integrity. Please come forward, now.
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