I was so involved in leading two workshops at Pantheacon and connecting with out-of-town friends that I was oblivious to the concerns that were raised about the exclusion of transwomen from one of the rituals. So I cannot address what actually happened, but will refer people to Jason Pitzl-Waters' ``Wild Hunt'' blog for various accounts.
But people who know I came to Paganism through a Dianic--an all-woman--tradition have begun asking me questions, and I've been thinking long and hard about what to say. So first of all I want to address my own personal issues around femininity and feminism.
I was born in 1944, right when all the Rosie the Riveters were building Liberty ships at the Richmond, California shipyard. My mom was not one of them as she was pregnant and married to my dad, who was serving in the U.S. Navy. She was probably too conventional to have considered such an option anyway.
When I look at the photos of me as a baby and toddler, I see a pretty child with big eyes and a square little face framed with ringlets. When I got a little older, long braids replaced the ringlets, and most often I was photographed in a navy blue jumper over a white blouse that was the uniform of the all-girl's school I attended.
I remember when my mother was the president of the mother's club at the coed parochial school attended by my brother and sisters. The school had student crossing guards, but mom wouldn't let girls participate. ``The job of the male in our sociey is the protection of women,'' she pontificated. I remember thinking this was silly and unfair, but I didn't dare question her decision.
I grew very tall very early. Within months of my 13th birthday, I was 6 feet tall, although the rest of the changes of puberty took a few more years to arrive. I didn't feel pretty or feminine at all. In fact, my alcoholic and abusive father constantly told me I was so awkward, so clumsy, so unfeminine and so ugly that ``no man is every going to want you.'' He also insisted that it was a waste of money to educate me as ``the best you'll ever do is be a clerk in a 10-cents store.'' When I was about 9 or 10 he got drunk one night, grabbed me, and chopped off my braids right next to my head for reasons I never understood. But I felt deprived of the one thing that made me feel feminine in any way.
So I had very little confidence in my femininity, although I knew I was a girl, and felt it was the right thing that I was born into a female body. There were things I wanted to do that were restricted to boys, and I guess I pretty much accepted those restrictions as par for the course. I wore girls' jeans that zipped up the side and was unhappy that I had to have a boy's bike so it could be handed down to my brother, who would never be humiliated by having to ride one intended for a girl.
I liked a lot of the things that girls were told they could do: my grandmother taught me to bake bread, knit and embroider, and I loved picking out fabric and sewing not only my own clothes but also theater costumes. Because I was a nerdy Mariner Girl Scout, I had the chance to learn and do some things that most girls never had a chance to do: even now I remember Morse code and how to box a compass and navigate by dead reckoning, and some of the happiest moments of my life are from the 100-mile hike I took over the High Divide in Olympic National Park. But they were all done within the context of Girl Scouting, and, in retrospect, I doubt I would have had the opportunity to do any of those things on my own. I think maybe if my culturally conservative parents had paid attention to some of these activities, they might not have approved. But the aegis of Girl Scouting made these activities palatable, or at least gave my parents an excuse to ignore them.
I learned well those lessons from my dad about how unacceptable I was. As a result I always felt awkward and clumsy and disentitled to the things that were associated with feminine beauty. Even now I dress badly, at least by my fashionista daughter's standards, and the only thing I've ever figured out to do with my long hair is braid it and pin it on top of my head. I buy makeup every year or two, put it on once, and feel so ridiculous and awkward that this is as far as it goes.
Puberty came late, as I said earlier, and I was still waiting for a bra when many of my classmates already had voluptuous bosoms. Although I didn't realize it at the time it was the cause, the Von Willebrand's Disease bleeding disorder I inherited from my father made menarche and all the cycles after that horrible, messy, and endless.
I was quite certain that I would fail at other things associated with my female biology. I was truly shocked (and so very pleased) that I got pregnant so easily, but figured it went with my whole not-a-very-good-female body that all my babies had to be delivered by C-section. I married when I was young, and, in retrospect, I think some of the reasons for that ill-considered marriage were that it would validate me as a woman that some man would want after all.
When I was in my final year as an undergraduate, I was engaged. I can remember sitting in my classes toying with my engagement ring as I tried to sort out the turmoil that was raging within. I so desperately wanted to be ``normal'' and married to what we used to call ``a good Catholic boy.'' At the same time, I was a very able student, drawn to the life of the intellect, and I knew I didn't want my most important discussions to be about the centerpieces for the Mother's Club tea. There were only two lay female professors at my school that I ever saw, and I knew I didn't want to be like either of them: eccentric single women who were even more physically awkward and less feminine than I felt I was.
I did both marry and go on to graduate school, but left school once I got pregnant for the first time. I fell totally in love with my babies and had the luxury of being at home with them in their early years. At the same time, the issues of second-wave feminism came to me and I began to question and chafe at the restrictions that were placed on me because of my gender. I didn't see any female doctors, lawyers, judges, police officers, scientists, letter carriers, highway flaggers, mechanics or priests and I began to wonder why not.
Fast forward to many years later, and my entry to the Pagan world. Like so many other women (and more than a few men), I came from Catholicism, and an utter sense of frustration with what I perceived as the institutional misogyny of the church. I'd had it with men in dresses telling me what to think and do, how to conduct my reproductive life, and what my role in the Church and society ought to be. I left in a rather dramatic fashion, somewhat akin to Nora's slamming the door in Ibsen's ``Doll's House.'' Maybe some other time I'll tell that story.
When I found a Pagan women's group I was enchanted. I remember walking into a ritual and seeing held up as sacred images that reflected my life and experience as a woman. I realized that any experience I'd had of unconditional love came to me from my grandmother, and that the image of the bearded old man on a cloud had always felt disconnected from me.
Eventually I discovered there were circles and covens and groves and groups in which men participated with women. I knew I didn't want to do this as I had old old habits of deference to male authority in a religious context, and that was something I did not want to carry forward from Catholicism to my Pagan life.
Increasingly the emphasis in the group I attended was on Artemis/Diana and the women in the group began calling themselves Amazons. This didn't feel quite right to me, but I went along with it for a while because I knew I didn't want to go back to Rome, and was not yet ready to share my Pagan spirituality with men.
And then one night the uber-leader of the Dianic movement with which I was connected started holding forth on transwomen, calling them men who had mutilated themselves so they could come into our space and take over. This struck me as both preposterous and deeply insulting to those who'd made that terribly painful journey.
In my circle I started to hear the phrase ``women-born-women'' and, even worse to my eyes and ears, the leader started insisting we refer to ourselves as ``womyn'' or even ``wombyn.'' (The spelling offended me almost as much as the sentiment).
Then I went to a large weekend all-women's retreat and was told to put my hand on my womb and feel the goddess within as some kind of spiritual connection to my sisters. But because of the von Willebrand's Disease, I'd had to have a hysterectomy well before my 30th birthday, so I was apparently lacking something that was necessary for this brand of spiritual sisterhood. I confronted the leader who said ``oh well then, you can just put your hand on your womb space instead.''
``WTF'' wasn't yet part of my vocabulary, but the phrase would have perfectly described my response. And all my old insecurities rose up again. I apparently wasn't enough of a woman to be a good Dianic. That's the message all the womb talk gave to me.
Eventually I left that group and was one of the founding members of the coven to which I presently belong. It is an all-women group, but we don't define who or what constitutes a woman. Those who self-identify as female have come to our group. And we also frequently interact with the Pagan Alliance, standing beside our brother Pagans for rituals, festivals, and service projects. My friendship with many of them has become dear to my heart. And so is my cherished friendship with women who may not have begun life in a body with a conventional female configuration.
So I've been thinking about what happened at P'con this year, and can only offer commentary drawn on my own experience. What I call the ``transphobia'' of a large segment of the Dianic community both infuriates me and breaks my heart. And, in a funny way, it reminds me of the gay-marriage debate.
I've never been able to understand the argument that letting same-sex couples marry detracts from the institution of marriage. It's not like there's a finite amount of marriage out there and same-sex couples are going to suck the marrow out of it.
Likewise, my understanding of the sacred in terms of a female presence cannot be exhausted by the participaton of those who didn't start life with the same genital configuration I have.
When I think about it, gender essentialism seems to me to be a kind of blasphemy. When I talk about my understanding of the sacred, I say that the Goddess as I perceive her crooks her finger at me and invites me to come and participate in the messy, scary, awkward, exhilarating process of life as co-creatrix. The Goddess is Changing Woman and so am I. I think about this when I make art, when I bake bread, when I plant seeds or sing a song, or gather together 5-gallon plastic buckets so my coven sisters and I can drum up a wild ruckus under the moon. That invitation doesn't specify how the genitals have to be configured.
My father tried to define what was feminine to me and told me over and over again that I could never measure up. So how can I dare convey that message to anyone else? It's a message so filled with hurt and contempt that it undercuts everything I hold so dear in my Pagan life.
At Pantheacon I generally lead a art-making workshop on yoni self-portraits. The first year I offered it, the Pantheacon organizers were a little apprehensive as I asked for four ironing boards and four irons, and I think they feared we were going to do some kind of scary kinky stuff. But now it's almost become a Pantheacon institution and I got many queries this year about why I didn't offer it this time.
In this workshop we use fabrics to create an image that tells a story about how we feel about this part of our bodies that has often been an occasion of shame, fear, harm, joy, sensual delight for us. Every woman has a different story and every woman has used different imagery over the years. It seems to me there would be no problem with a transwoman's participation in this workshop. This workshop is conducted in sacred space, and we generally tell stories about the images we create, and listen respectfully to one another. What is said in this workshop stays in this workshop.
Over the years it's provided women with a safe space to talk about things they might not have had a chance to share in other contexts. Some of the women have liked doing this so much that they come back year after year.
I'm not sure what effect the raging debate will have on Pantheacon next year. Certainly Paganism as I think of it is the big-tent religion with room for all. Many who come to us are refugees from the Abrahamic faiths, whose unique gifts and talents were scorned and even dishonored. How can we say to them they're not women enough to dance with us in our sacred spiral dance?
I'm wondering why there is such a concern about gender these days? Have you tried to buy a toy or an article of clothing for a baby lately? Everything is so strongly gendered that it's nearly impossble to find something that's gender neutral. What kind of anxiety about social change does this address?
My kids--sons and daughters--all had trucks and dolls and none of them seems the worse for it. My eldest son came home from the hospital wrapped in a pink receiving blanket, in a little nightgown printed with rosebuds that matched the pink in his soft baby cheeks and everyone thought he looked wonderful and never raised an eyebrow.
Certainly what separatist Amazons want to do on their own time and in their own space is their business. But they should not bring exclusionary events to public multi-tradition gatherings such as Pantheacon. The fee I pay as part of my registration for Pantheacon pays for the conference rooms that are used for workshops and rituals. And, frankly, I'm not prepared to help support a ritual to which there's some sort of gender bonafides that must be satisfied.
Yes I believe there is a place for all-women and all-male workshops and rituals at Pantheacon. But the people who wish to attend are themselves the arbiters of whether they are male or female enough to participate.
So that's my two cents worth. Your mileage may vary.