Letter to a Young Gay Man on Celebrating Beltane
You asked about how a gay person can celebrate Beltane, as it’s about fertility.
It is such a standard image, no? Beltane being about the God and Goddess having sex or marrying. She in her long hair and coy long-legged femininity. He always tall, muscular, strong, looking conventionally masculine, holding her a loving embrace. I too attended rituals celebrating their happy union. And at midsummer, they stood together, a couple with their child, born from their Beltane coupling. Like you, I heard this described as fertility. And it did seem logical.
Oh, the apparent quandary! Like you, this is not the template of my own life, nor the image of my own desires. Even when desiring men I did not desire a family. And then, too, I desired women, and saw no celebration of woman-woman coupling. It was all well for someone to say, as some did ‘ah, but it’s the union of your internal male and female’. Thank you, Carl Gustav Jung, but no thank you. It is no comfort to me, for I look inside and I find no internal male. Even my strongest parts are all woman, and gladly so. Perhaps you, as a young gay man, desire your men as a man. Maybe you, like me, have no call to create an internal heterosexual nuclear family with wedding bells, bride and groom.
The Victorians and their 18th-century precursors gave us the word ‘fertility’ as a euphemism for sex. Sexual religion of the ancient world they coyly called ‘fertility religion.’ Greek and Roman carved phalluses were ‘fertility symbols.’ And so on. Tragically, the euphemism carried onto the pagan revival of the 20th century. Though general society got better at speaking frankly about sex, somehow in the books and language of paganism, no shift was made. Till, at long last, those of us meeting and falling in love with paganism in the 1980s and later, met the word ‘fertility’ in pagan books, and only imagined it could mean what it said: fertility, reproduction. As speaking about sex was by then not wrong, and certainly should not be in a life-affirming spirituality, we did not imagine it was a misguided carry-over euphemism. Sadly, it is.
The bodge, so to speak, is not so painful, or so obvious, for those who are straight. Amongst the heterosexuals, it is no more than a gentle blurring covering for lust, sex, arousal, and pleasure. Eventually, for most, heterosexual sex makes for a pregancy. But for those who are not, for the queer, this conflation seems to say that pagan religion today has no place for them, So, yes, my young friend, it disappoints me that many modern pagans have unwittingly adopted the Victorian euphemism ‘fertility’ for the truer, and equally sacred word, pleasure.
Beltane is and was the joy of desire of the body fulfilled in sex. The folklore tells us so, with boys and girls out in the woods, rummaging in the bushes, plucking flower, discovering the shy one who, now in the wild and in the night’s half-light, is not quite so coy. Come Corinna, let us go a-maying. Many a green gown was given on the night of May Day, we are told. What is this? The grass stains on a girls skirt after a roll in the grass: this is the green gown. So pervasive the image that it survived well into the 20th century as a taboo on women wearing green dresses (‘bad luck, dear, bad luck’).
Sex is, patently, not the same as fertility, even when conducted between fertile people of the opposite sex.
Truly. When unzipping the proverbial trousers, a straight man or woman is not usually doing so for the sake of making baby. And, it’s not even fertile sex most of the time, since for 26 days of every month a woman can’t conceive. It’s hard to disagree with the assertion that when even straight folks of childbearing age start the act of sex, their motive is desire, too.
The ecstasy of the spirit, the joy of the flesh, the fire of the loins, the surrender of the power, the enjoyment of power. The fingers creeping up the thigh; the unbuttoning of a shirt to reveal the shoulder, then the breast. It is pleasure, pleasure in the body, the craving, the need, the ravishing, the enveloping, the penetrating. Cries, sweat, panting, murmuring, it being just the most gorgeous thing. This, for the past 2000 years, the big taboo of the Western World for both sexes. And for the past 5000 years (yes, five thousand years) their own desire has been the big taboo for females. It is obvious to the point of triteness to point this out, of course. We all know that physicality is denigrated in Judeo-Christianity, and in, bless us, the binary dualism of the post-platonic ideas of the spiritual. To clarify, I mean that placement of ‘spiritual’ as the opposite of ‘physical’, Spirit as the opposite of Matter. Spirit up, flesh down. The sky versus the swamp, the angel versus the beast. It is bedded deep in us, pervasive and unquestioned. We use it without thinking: become more spiritual and less animal; strive to the higher planes, try to rise up out of your lower nature. And so on, and so on.
So, my young friend, at Beltane let us honour the acts of pleasure. Poor pleasure, so neglected in the discourse of spirituality.
Paganism, in Beltane, at its heart, finds a day of celebration of the body and its dance, its urges, and its magnificence. I affirm the consecration of the grass stain on the dress, the sacrifice of the carpet-burned knees, the choir of orgasm-cries. This is my ritual, this is the holiest of holies. At other times, I affirm other sacraments: the warmth of friendship, the stillness of acceptance, of birth, of death, of giving, of receiving. But at Beltane, I acknowledge the pleasure.
What of fertility, then? True, for the survival of the species, fertility is needed. And for all species who reproduce sexually, an urge to heteroxual copulation is needed to be encoded in the biological makeup. But so too, for fertility, is needed other qualities: a parental instinct to nurture the young, as well as a pair-bonding instinct for co-parenting. It also requires certain biological features to be in place: a functioning womb, sufficient sperm production, particular hormone levels in both partners. Fertility, to succeed, requires these other things as well. I do feel there needs to be a time to honour and celebrate all the spectrum of things that create the next generation of our species. It seems to me most appropriate to do so at the birth-celebrations of babies.
Perhaps it is as well to remember that the sex act which produces offspring, the ‘fertile’ sexual act, may not even the sexual act which the conceivers find most pleasurable. One or both may get more pleasure from oral sex, say, or, well anything else of the many things lovers enjoy. Or sex at a different time of the month. If one or both is bisexual, they may gain more pleasure, in some senses at least, from sex with a person who has a different gender than the one with whom they conceived. One or both may love or desire someone else. The sexual act of maximum fertility (ie which leads conception) may well not be the sexual act of maximum pleasure.
It might be wondered what might be so magnificent about sex that it actually warrants its own holiday. I mean, paganism does have an holiday for the ecstasy of eating and drinking (well, it does, actually). As mentioned above, it is, perhaps above all else, an affirmation of the body’s joy. Yes, it is a sacrement that flies in the face of world-denying spirituality. It affirms and glorifies something beautiful that has been shamed in humans. So, firstly, it is a day for the autonomous dancing song of the body electric (O Walt Whitman, you whom I love).
Sex is a dance of power. One has power over the other, a domination is presence. Each in different, shifting senses, dominates the other. In this, in tandem with it are all the surrenders. Even a dominating lover has a surrender into orgasm, and even a yearning submissive lover feels the power of knowing that the dominator will collapse in enfoldment at the point of climax. Each gives and receives differing powers, powers that flow into one another, rise up and command then subside for others to come forth.
It is also a sacrament of relationship. To have lust for another person is to want them – to want their body, the very fabric of them. An act that aims for union that is paradoxically both achieved and not achieved. Sex is a dance between the familiar and the strange. The dearly near and the awesome Other. Her body, made like mine, so close, and she feels like I have her, and, in the tender moments, she is dear to me as sister, mother, child. Closer than close, twin of my soul. Yet, yet. In a flash she is strange to me, her face like that of someone I cannot know, some naked creature somehow, inexplicably, entangled with my body (who is this and how did this happen?). Then she is mine again, darling, but I see her ecstasy takes her to somewhere a million miles from me. Then I hers again, but my ecstasy takes me a million miles from her. I flicker between knowing the beloved so well, and not at all.
And is not it so with anyone one is close to? Alternately familiar and unknown? I live by a commitment to live in compassionate connection, I share the world with others. But each person I meet, know, or encounter is somehow my nearest kin and, simultaneous, an unknown whose uknowability I must respect. I know that each person has joy, disappointment, suffering – yet with empathy I must not presume that horror that is the patronising phrase, ‘I know just how you feel.’ Every encounter challenges me to connect yet not presume sameness. In each face I find one like me, one utterly unlike me, one beloved, one strange. Connect, only connect, and let that dance, like the dance of sex, continue in the face of the ever-moving paradox.
In sex is a metaphor for every relationship. So, dear reader, at Beltane let us honour the acts of pleasure.
Sexual love is akin in many ways to my relationship with the divine. It is like being a priestess, it always feels to me. Or, to use another parlance, a devotee. My path asks me to see divinity in each person. Each of us is a god, each a goddess. How do I do that. Platitudinously, calmly, wisely? Only sometimes, my young friend, but not always. Infatuated desire many of us know well. We have, for the beloved, the look of love (as the song goes) we see them through what is often called rose-tinted glasses. ‘Everything she does is magic,’ sings Sting out of the 1980s Police album I used to bop along to in my teens. It’s standard to say that when we desire a person, we don’t see them accurately, we only see them wrongly, deludedly. What if that is not right? What if when we are enamoured and longing, we see the person as they really are – full of magic, every tiny thing adorable, every tiny thing excruciatingly desirable. What if the look of love is the true gaze? I would suggest it is. If you want to know how to really appreciate a fellow being, recall the way you regard a longed for lover. Regard the awe they inspire in you, the tenderness of which they in their very being, seem worthy. Thus does desire, visceral desire, give us a taste of what it is to see divinity in each being.
For this, and for all the other, yet-to-be discovered illuminations offered by desire and pleasure, let us give the feast of Beltane its due, untrammelled by the misleading euphemism of ‘fertility’.
Midsummer, which follow Beltane, is indeed abut being a householder (to borrow an Indian term) or, on a grander scale, to be a Sovereign, a ruler. With or without physical child, this can be. At midsummer one celebrates the ability to reign over one’s own domain, in balanced power and responsibility. It may include a family or a marriage to enjoy and be responsible for. It is also the responsibility for one’s flocks and fields, and one’s people: family, children, friends, employees, dependents. To be strong enough to give support and care to the weaker, the poorer, the lonelier.
But, ah, Beltane. Beltane is not all that, and need not even create a child for it to grow into this phase.
Let us give desire its due, and sexual pleasure its holy rites.