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Issues with the Gender Binary in Public Paganism

Our community benefits from questioning what gender and/or sexuality are doing in a given context.  Asking is simple, but the answers often reveal themselves to be complicated, and loaded with values and assumptions in ways that are not initially apparent, particularly when the subject in question is related to religion.  For modern religions, like modern Paganism, there are no common, sacred documents that enshrine assignment and treatment of gender and sexuality, or the values encoded by the handling of these issues, which means that we must find our own way of expressing these values in meaningful ways for our community.  As different groups under the wide umbrella of modern Paganism find themselves presenting ritual and religion in public, this can cause those chosen ways to be exposed and discussed publicly, which opens them to public criticism, because these manifestations can affect members of our community in ways not anticipated by organisers.

This seems to have happened at the PantheaCon event in San Francisco in mid-February, 2011, when the Come As You Are (CAYA) coven’s Amazon Priestess Tribe held a public ritual at this event, but instituted a controversial door policy.  The group is part of the feminist Pagan tradition called Dianic Wicca by its founder, Z Budapest, and is women-centric, but the problem arose when attendees of the conference queued to go to the ritual, in celebration of the goddess Lilith, and were turned away at the door for being male, defined by the door check as anyone who was not female now and born female.    The conference does allow those holding rituals to choose to advertise their rituals as targeted at, and limited to, certain groups, but in this case the organisers decided to institute a door policy which only allowed for “women born as women”.

So let’s ask what gender is doing in this context, and what values are being encoded.

First, men are excluded.   In this context, male = not welcome, which isn’t exactly a public relations triumph for Dianic Wicca at a public conference.  One can only assume that trans men would be unwelcome, as they identify as men, and men were being turned away.  In this context, gender is doing exclusion, and it also denies men the opportunity to learn from the ritual and what the organisers were trying to convey.  At best, it leaves those who queued with a bad memory of being turned away at the last minute, after queuing and thus missing attendance at a different event.  More importantly, it misses an opportunity to share the goals and interpretations of Dianic Wicca with the men who attended the conference, which could have been a way to inform and engage with a wider circle of people than normally attending events organised by this tradition, creating opportunities for discourse that could benefit the community at large.  Personally, I think this is the purpose of most large conferences, anyway, as events that bring the community together, rather than divide us.

The next group of people excluded are male-to-female transsexuals.  This perhaps caused the most controversy following the conference, mainly because of what it says about Dianic attitudes towards trans people.  It is my understanding that trans women identified and disqualified themselves from attending the ritual when they became aware of the door policy, though we must of course understand that it is entirely possible for a trans woman to pass inspection by a gynaecologist, so without a DNA test of all participants, it’s impossible to say for certain if a trans woman was present.  Given that transsexuals are recognised by the modern medical establishment as being what they claim, people trapped in the wrong sex, it is difficult to understand the vigorous objections of Dianics to trans folk.

The issue of what this encodes from a Dianic perspective is a serious one, because Dianic Wicca says that trans women are not women, but men, and discriminates against them as such.  Z Budapest took time to make clear what she thought of trans women in the context of refusal to admit them on The Fruit of Pain blog:

“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.
We women need our own culture, our own resourcing, our own traditions.
You can tell these are men, They don’t care if women loose the Only tradition reclaimed after much research and practice ,the Dianic Tradition. Men simply want in. its their will. How dare us women not let them in and give away the ONLY spiritual home we have!
Men want to worship the Goddess? Why not put in the WORK and create your own trads. The order of ATTIS for example,(dormant since the 4rth century) used to be for trans gendered people, also the castrata, men who castrated themselves to be more like the Goddess.
Why are we the ONLY tradition they want? Go Gardnerian!Go Druid! Go Ecclectic!
Filled with women, and men. They would fit fine.
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.”

While Z Budapest is not the leader of the CAYA coven, she did found the Dianic Wiccan tradition, and is the author of the movement’s founding documents.  CAYA noticed that the door policy was causing some debate within the community, and made a public statement about the issues on their website:

CAYA defends Amazon Priestess Tribe’s membership as invitation-only and restricted to the female-born body, celebrating rites related to menstruation.  It makes it clear that there is ongoing debate about the door policy, gender and inclusiveness within the Amazon Priestess Tribe.  The issue here is that it reveals very publicly that many people involved in the movement still see trans women as unwelcome, with some encouragement by the founder of Dianic Wicca, leaving their clarification far short of welcoming trans people on their own terms.  This denies trans women equal treatment in their self-assigned gender, questioning the validity of their self-assignment, and raises questions about the participation of women with other medical issues around female fertility and menstruation, or indeed post-menopausal women.  This is particularly ironic, given the roots in second-wave feminism of Dianic Wicca, in which women were insisting on inclusion in society on their own terms.

Making this kind of statement at a public conference means that any trans woman who waited in a queue to attend a rite and were turned away, had to face public rejection of their gender, and may have had to out themselves suddenly as transsexual at the head of a queue.  This kind of insensitivity and public rejection is not conducive to the kind of community spirit that a Pagan conference is supposed to be designed to foster, and is causing people to question rituals at public conferences which are not open to all (paying!) attendees.  It also serves as a public statement by CAYA, the Amazon Priestess Tribe and indeed Dianism, that trans women are unwelcome, and any statement by any of these parties which falls short of strongly rejecting that position, in fact serves to affirm it.

One of the more important aspects of this exclusion is that it marginalizes trans women, who are already struggling with their acceptance in society, and it silences a voice that speaks of a type of experience by a woman, which may provide important perspectives in discourses about womanhood and femininity.  This seems antithetical to the goals of feminism, and seems particularly at odds with feminist Paganism.

The third set of people who would have been excluded is that of intersex people.  Personally, I see how intersex people are handled as a barometer for how liberal a group is, and how much attention it has been paying to the liberation movements of the last century or so.  Under the definition above, which is that attendees must be women, this excludes those people who are not male or female, but rather something in between.  As a society, we do not yet have a clear place for these people, and the difficulty of fitting them into the heavily gendered society in which we live highlights where we are applying gender boundaries in our society.  The definition of women applied here does not accept intersex people as women, and applies a strict gender binary of woman and not-woman, and excludes them.

One of the more important points this raises, is that of self-definition versus definition by other groups, and it is one of the most contentious.  If a transsexual identifies as a given gender, who is an organiser of a public ritual to say that the transsexual person does not have a right to do so?  Is there a place in a public Pagan space to answer the statement “I am a woman” with “No, you are not”?

PantheaCon was a public conference.  People paid to attend, and then queued to be assigned a gender arbitrarily  at the door by a stranger, and then were allowed to enter or told they could not, based on this assignment.

Is this defensible?  And to be honest, is this even defensible in private?  Could the organisations in which you celebrate and explore your spirituality accept an intersex person on their own terms?  How do you feel about that?

Any organisation devoted to exploring spiritual questions cannot succeed in this endeavour by ignoring diversity in the areas of sex, gender and sexuality, or by relegating them to involvement on anything less than their own terms.  Not only is separate not equal, but as the liberation movements taught us, but inclusion by someone else’s rules is not affirming of who we are, and is rather the perpetuation of a model than disempowers those whose contribution is minimised or ignored.  More importantly, the value of that answer is greatly reduced by its inability to take all of us into that answer, and in fact should probably be used to evaluate whether or not that process of seeking is legitimate.  I am part of the whole, and believe that the answers to spiritual questions which deny my existence, or the existence of others, must by their very nature be incorrect.  Until we start thinking in these terms in our religious and spiritual traditions, we will continue to pursue blind alleys, and to inflict what we find at the end of these alleys on people who do not deserve to be treated this way.  Perhaps inclusion and compassion would make a good starting point for the re-evaluation of spiritual and religious discourse?

I also include links to the various blogs that have been written on this subject.  I found them to be quite thought-provoking reading, and hope that more people will read them:

Wild Hunt Blog (1)

Wild Hunt Blog (2)

Guardian Op Ed

Femme Guy

Foxfetch – towards a transcentric Paganism

Pantheon on trans issues

Witch Mom Blog

Kenaz Filan

Cultural Inappropriation

CAYA’s public statement

Circle of Cerridwen wiki

Fruit of Pain blog (1)

Fruit of Pain Blog (2)


  1. Penny
    Posted April 19th 2011 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    Another issue I have with these things is the assumption they apply to all women. My gender identity is not very important to me and the mildly annoying blood loss every month is something I find it rather baffling and creepy to celebrate. Maybe I’m not a real woman either 🙂 I much prefer mixed gender groups to all female ones as the all female ones have a tendancy to do weird shit I don’t understand but am expected to on the grounds of my biology! I’ve never even been into assigning genders to gods, I prefer attributes like elements, patrons of things and being sacred to locations.

  2. Mo
    Posted April 22nd 2011 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    I’m coming to the conclusion that as long as we have this hang over of treating biological fertility as a founding sacred tenet of Pagan religion, then we are pretty well screwed. I think Z Budapest really illustrates that focussing on biological femaleness and motherhood does not make this any less oppressive ultimately – it’s still tied to a sentimentalized procreative ideology, and queers are just not invited, except as second class citizens. The question for me is why do we protect both bigots, and biological/genetic ideologies that in any other context we’d recognise as kinda fascist?

    I can see all sorts of functions for specialized cults, but a religion that seeks to exclude sections of humanity does not deserve the name religion in my view, and spirituality with exclusion clauses is I think treading a line which is disingenuous at best. Supposed spirituality with a niche for our little hard hearts is not transforming the world the way I want to see it transformed.

  3. Amy Hale
    Posted April 27th 2011 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    First, I find it quite disturbing that people are still trying to define “woman” by the procreative aspects of our bodies. Isn’t that a big part of what normally oppresses women throughout history and worldwide? I’m not a walking womb. And why do we even need to be so biologically reductive? Can’t there be a number of ways to be biologically female? Of course there are, but that’s not even the point, really. I think we should be beyond this.

    I think the other aspect of this whole debacle was the way in which religious freedom was being bandied about as a rhetorical strategy to support discrimination. It was used to turn the tables of discussion and to make those who were discriminated against to appear to be the baddies. There were a whole bunch of ways that discussion could have been framed, but that came across to me as a cheap shot.

  4. Lindsay River
    Posted May 4th 2011 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    Interesting article, thank you Brian. I also loved reading the comments above and the challenge to fertility focused paganism. I was glad (though hideously disappointed by her) to read the actual words that Zee Budapest had actually said about the exclusion. Mind you while this case shocked and angered me, and I would exclude from a conference a coven that itself wanted to exclude trans women from a ritual, I find Brian’s initial point that Dianics should in any case want to include men in their rituals to better explain Dianic Wicca rather off the point. It surprised me because I do expect men to understand why women, and I mean all women, trans and cisgendered, and intersex people who identify as women, might need ritual space together given the historic and current social injustices we jointly face because of our gender. No, being understood by people with a male identification is not the first aim of many female-identified pagans. Even without fetishising femaleness, for reasons of social experience we may have other, female-centred, tofu to fry. That is being said by someone (me) who works magically in a tradition that either functions without gender binaries at all or in shape/gender/shifting ways. I may not want to use female-only space myself, any more, but hell will I fight for its continued existence for all who identify as women, whatever their chromosomes or body conformation.

    Having got that over with, I’ll return to the nub of what Zee Budapest said which Brian helpfully quoted:

    “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”. Oh Zee, someone I was inspired by many moons ago. Like Brian, I find Zee’s position quite offensively shocking. I was born with a slight atypicality in the reproductive system which was corrected by surgery – but had it been instead that I had actually lacked a womb, or ovaries, or not been able to menstruate for some hormonal reason I would then have become a non-woman in Zee’s eyes? How glad I am that there are so many queer pagans rejecting gender binaries altogether, and an increasing number of trans pagan women for me to work with – in traditions that understand female as something more than can be narrowly constructed by the imperatives of biological determinism.