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Jottings: Queer Pagans or Queering Paganisms?

I’ve been involved in the UK Queer Pagan scene for a number of years now, but whenever I decide to try and write about this, I find myself reflecting on what for me is a core issue – what happens when “Queer” is placed next to Pagan? It strikes me that there are two – related but divergent – ways in which the phrase “Queer Pagan” can be thought through. Firstly, as a noun, “Queer Pagan” can be read as an umbrella term, encompassing a multitude of identity-positions where perhaps the only commonality is varying degrees of commitment to refusing/resisting the heteronormative gender binary. However, it’s the second usage of “Queer Pagan” which I want to focus on for now, where “queer” is a verb, signifying a radical process of disruption – where the focus shifts from Queer Pagan as an identity-position towards Queering-Paganism as process.

What does can it mean to “queer” something? Queering can be thought of a process of disrupting, disturbing and questioning the normal – that which is “taken-for-granted.” Queer sidles up to identities, ideologies; any category that have been taken to be timeless, solid and foundational and exposes gaps, fissures, resistances, instabilities, different possibilities and surprises. As Jeffrey J. Cohen says in Medieval Identity Machines – “Queering is at its heart a process of wonder.” (p38). I want that on a T-shirt.

Part of this commitment to challenge, to uncover the hidden, to look backstage and discover how productions are produced is the commitment to keep “queer” fuzzy and indeterminant. A recognition of the importance of not slipping back into an “us-them” binary which privileges a heroic “transgressive” queer subject against those still bound up in normative relations.

Michel Foucault

Someone asked me recently if Queer Paganism could be thought of as a “tradition”. It’s an interesting question, which for me highlights how Pagans tend to conceptualise different categories of praxis into “traditions”. It also begs a questioning of how the very concept of “Traditions” is used in Pagan discourse. “Tradition” is sometimes used to denote a commonality of praxis – which is to say that it often implies common practices, ideologies, political alliances – and often, there is an implication that this praxis is historically located – a kind of sense that what we do now was done by our ancestors, sort of thing. Tradition can be thought of (simplifying hugely) as an appeal to unity to varying degrees – and can act as a boundary in making distinctions between one approach to praxis and another. But for Queer Pagan(ism) such appeals to unity can only be, I think, of a temporary nature. One thing i see as central to Queer Paganism is a commitment to diversity and difference – which involves allowing a place for dissent – and the understanding that dissent is itself productive, rather than a failure. Equally, making a case for a historical Queer Paganism is also tricky – although we can talk (at length!) about celebrating queer ancestors, reading queerness into and out of histories, of uncovering the politics of dissent hidden behind monolithic accounts of the past – I don’t think that’s quite the same as rooting a Queer Pagan praxis in the deep, undifferentiated past, if only because I think of Queer Paganism as something new – queer theory and queer activism both emerged out of the 1990s.

If one can speak of “Queer Pagan Tradition” at all – then it is as something that is relational to particular alliances and networks. produced within and temporary to heterotopic spaces such as Queer Pagan Camp. Perhaps a sense of shared tradition emerges when Queer Pagans come together to laugh, celebrate, dance and argue, but outside of such spaces it recedes, dissolving like morning dew. I’d suggest that, rather than looking at tradition as a boundary which encloses particular practices (such as theologies, rituals etc.,) what seems to me to be of more concern within a Queer Pagan space is a commitment to an ethic of mutual care and reciprocity; to an invitation to play with boundaries and categories; to celebrate difference. Its this ethical openness – primarily towards sexual and gendered – but also other forms of difference which I see as central to understanding Queer Pagan approaches – that queer need not be a either/or choice made in opposition to other identities, but (depending on context/situation) possibly a “both/and” choice, or even a “neither/nor” choice. Opening to the possibilities of fluidity entails an acceptancy of multiple orientations and positions that shift according to particular contexts and situations.

If this is a tradition (in a loose sense), it’s one that is being passed around, rather than handed down. It’s focused towards what might be thought of as a politics of doing rather than being.

Judith Butler

This, for me, is related to queer theory’s attention to the exposure – and challenging – of how subjects are produced through binary identity categories – heteronormative ideologies, practices, values and assumptions. At the same time, queer theories have contributed to the perspective that identities (including, but not limited to sexual identities) can be thought of as fluid and changing – where selfhood (the “I” position) is not generation in opposition to an other – but discursively negotiated through others. Similarly, activist groups such as Queeruption have stressed the importance of a non-seperationist politics – for example, fuzzying the boundary between serious political work and frivolous personal play and attempting to break down the boundaries between “leaders” and “the led”. At QPC for instance, anyone can turn up and offer a workshop, a discussion, a public ritual, but this is done on the basis of sharing – workshop facilitators are not paid, nor are they accorded the status which at other events, tends to reinforce a distinction between leaders and consumers.

So, back to Queering-Paganism, something which may take the form of Wicca with added glitter, or ceremonial magic in high heels, but also examining/critiquing various strands of Pagan discourse from different queer perspectives. Thus far, such examinations have tended to focus on the ways in which Pagan discourses of sexuality & gender uphold the logic of the heteronormative gender binary in both practices and metaphysics. In America, there are signs that the constroversy sparked by the exclusion of transgendered Pagans at Pantheacon this year and in 2011 is also provoking a closer critique of Pagan discourses around sexuality, gender – and despite the surface rhetoric of being “inclusive” – how Pagan praxis actually works against this, producing seperations and boundaries. I see these projects as the beginnings of conversations that I hope will spiral outwards into wider areas (for example, last month I made a brief foray into queering Pagan representations of deities), asking provocative questions and opening up new possibilities for exploration.

With thanks to Gavin Brown for some provocative writing and conversation.

More Loltheorist fun at loltheorists.livejournal.com

4 comments

  1. Vron
    Posted March 10th 2012 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Great article. I particularly like this bit:

    “A recognition of the importance of not slipping back into an “us-them” binary which privileges a heroic “transgressive” queer subject against those still bound up in normative relations.”

    and

    “Queering is at its heart a process of wonder.”

    I want that T-shirt too. :-)

  2. Amy Hale
    Posted March 12th 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    I like Queering Paganism. I wonder if there was any particular motivation in wanting to see Queer Paganism as a “tradition.”? I would think that it is whatever Queer Pagans do. I fear that the push toward “traditionality”, in any of the senses you refer to here, can only further serve to confine people and practice. I’d think that a critique of tradition would be part of the queering process.

    • Phil Hine
      Posted March 12th 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      Amy

      I think the only “motivation” present in the question is that we are used to thinking about groups & practices in terms of them being related to one “tradition” or another. And yes, I think its high time that there was some critical reflection on “traditions” – some of us were discussing this at the weekend. For example, the way traditions are often represented as being monolithic and homogenous when they are clearly not. Despite the problematic features of the term though, it can have its uses, so long as you use it in a reflexive manner – indeed, one might say that a commitment to reflexivity is a Queer Pagan “tradition” insofar as its recognised as a neccesary element by a number of practitioners who identify as Queer/Pagan. What I was really trying to get across is that “tradition” – in the sense of praxis that emerges out of a historical process/context for Queer Pagans isn’t so much about stating commonly-held theological beliefs or particular rituals, but rather a kind of relational ethics; mutual care, consensus process, gift exchange (where practicable) rather than commodification, a commitment to difference – that whilst we may share some things, we’re not the same and we don’t have to agree on everything to be in the same gang. At least, that’s what important for me, anyway.

      • Phil Hine
        Posted March 12th 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        Amy

        For me an example of one of the ways that Queer Paganism (at least how QP is done at QPC) marks its difference from other Pagan “traditions” is in respect to politics. It’s not unusual to find Pagans & Occultists for whom politics is entirely removed from how they think about their own practice and beliefs – and that any kind of political discussion has no place within Paganism. This argument for instance. So one might argue, hypothetically, that a person can make an elective affinity to a particular mode of Pagan praxis regardless of where they stand regarding political activism/awareness. This, I’d say, would be a difficult position to argue successfully at QPC, where a significant proportion of the people who attend have been, or are involved in anticapitalist political activism to varying degrees. It’s not like you have to have been involved in Queeruption or the G8 protests to “fit in” at QPC, but rather, that it would be more difficult to make that elective identification with Queer Paganism without having some degree of recognition of the importance of political activism and countercultural resistance, regardless of whether or not you’ve faced a line of riot police whilst dressed as a roller-skating nun. So you might say that this is part of QPC’s “tradition”.