“… my own feelings of pointed outrage expressed in a meme without proper context are at risk of becoming a kind of “pitchforks and torches” rage, devoid of the truth behind the roots.” – Courtney Weber
YES, THIS. When this meme was presented two days ago, with the idea that I should join a social justice “action” by posting it as my profile pic for a week, I was uncomfortable because although the people posting are people I love and respect in their activism, I was not being given any context. I had to do quite a bit of research to figure out who the elders were who had triggered this outrage right at this moment. No one wants to “name names” out of some desire, seemingly, to protect some parties to the blow up through anonymity. Unfortunately, that makes it difficult for those of us who like to have informed opinions.
But one friend was willing, off the record, to tell me what had triggered the outrage. Two witches who have been teachers and leaders in some provinces of American neopaganism (avoiding the word elder as I’ll come to that later) signed on to a change.org petition to take the T out of LGBT – as in, requesting that the major LGBT rights advocacy organizations stop advocating for transgender civil rights. This is a huge act, because the text of the petition was quite ugly, advocating throwing trans rights and trans people under the bus so that by disassociation the LGB communities could gain more ground, since they wouldn’t have to contend with trans haters any more. As a statement of politically expedient strategy, it was cynically brilliant. As a civil rights manifesto, it was a complete failure of course. And as a public position for a Pagan leader and teacher? Hold that thought. We’ll be back.
At approximately the same time, a third such figure posted a bit of a rant on her Facebook page about the Kaitlyn Jenner “woman of the year” award or whatever it was, given by a magazine that should give any feminist the dry heaves anyway. This third Pagan teacher and leader wrote of her disgust that women such as Serena Williams didn’t get recognized, and that Ms. Jenner seems to think the hardest thing about being a woman is dealing with the makeup and clothing demands. When this person was called on the antitrans ugliness of what she’d said, since she had stated that Ms. Jenner is not a real woman, she agreed to look at the issue and learn and discuss with the council of elders in her tradition to talk about gender and power issues. I thought that was a reasonable reaction from someone who didn’t get it, when not getting it was pointed out, a good place to start. I am not ready to start waving the pitchforks until we see where she goes with that. I was told I should still be angry at her because she is not having that discussion with members of the trans community….but how do I know that? How does she know that? One thing about gender is that you can present, and people assume. I have no way of knowing who belongs to her circle. It is not for me to judge the process of a group of which I know nothing. I can wait to find out more.
Now, I want to unpack this whole thing a bit. There are some definitional issues that need to be explored. Who or what is an elder and what is their relationship to the community? What is the role of social pressure in generating “actions” and is it legitimate? How can our community find ways to set norms for behavior that uphold what little bit of shared belief or ethic we may have between us? (I will address some but not all of this in this essay, but I do believe we need to look at all of these issues as our community grows.)
So to go back to the first instance, of the two people who signed the anti trans petition. I will name them because I know them, and the anonymity feels bizarrely dishonest. They are Ruth Barrett, Dianic priestess, and Macha Nightmare, formerly of Reclaiming. I know neither of them well, but as I cross Macha’s circle by belonging to the Covenant of the Goddess (hence the deep thought I’ve been giving to bias by Pagans lately) I wound up being part of the chorus for the Goddess Alive! ritual at the Parliament of World Religions last month. I won’t say that I learned about their deep selves. I will say that they were good to work with, centered in their power, and doing a service to the interfaith community that was difficult for them to pull together due to personal and practical challenges. They were busy being priestesses and leaders in other words. In that moment, did I respect them? Very much. Did that make either of them *my* elder? Um, nope, absolutely not. We hardly know each other, and even within that ritual choices were made that made it clear to me that I have different ideas on some rather large issues. So, these are two leaders with whom I disagree on some key issues. Big deal. I was not comfortable with some choices made , but I didn’t figure out why or what I should have done until later. Such is life.
There seems to be general agreement that elders in paganism don’t have to be very old, although we all snicker at the idea of the self-appointed teenage “High Priestess” syndrome. Elders do…what? They teach, they lead. They work hard at offering service to the world and the Pagan community. They develop credibility by their service, by living lives that are shaped by their understanding of what it means to be a Priestess of God Herself (I am not leaving out men, by the way – in my coven’s practice we are all Priestesses, regardless of sex or gender identity, and therefore all such identities are welcome in our circle.) Some elders teach, some advocate, some lead, some form groups, some are public, some are private. They are considered elders because they have stuck with it for a long time, because many others have found their teachings and practices valuable, and/or because they are well known in some part of the Pagan world.
Not all Pagans believe the same things. I am not Dianic, and don’t buy into a lot of their stuff, including the trans exclusionary attitudes and actions. (No one should be surprised that a Dianic priestess who has been trans exclusionist in the past did it again.) Nor am I a black reconstructionist, although I know less of what that involves. That makes these people not my elders already, before this current tempest. But by dint of labor over time, and their choices to be public, these folks have gained the status of elder in the wider community as well as within their denominations.
So, what do they owe us, or we owe them? I think that is the heart of this matter. I do not buy into this celebrity idea that somehow we know people we’ve never met, like Caitlin Jenner for instance, and that they owe us something because we are the voyeurs to their lives. But in case you haven’t noticed yet….we never get to stop learning. Elders too. Teachers and leaders undertake those roles because we have growth and learning to do and those roles are part of that path. Not all elders are always right and wise, even within the boundaries of their own group – coven, “tradition”, mystery school, social justice group, whatever. The High Priestess who initiated me was awesome, wise, a powerful magician, psychic, and ritualist. She was also a Cancer who had trouble letting go of things, sometimes to the point where harm was done. She made some decisions for her group with which priestesses who she had trained did not agree one bit. Some of our relationships were very strained at the end of her coven’s life. Do I love her still? Do I honor what I’ve learned from her, even the part where my learnings came from her mistakes? Of course I do. She was my elder and my teacher and my friend, and had no obligation to be perfect in order to deserve my love and respect.
Do elders of all denominations have an obligation to represent their faith communities well, in the sense of demonstrating what it means to speak and act from that particular idea of center? Well, one would hope. But Christians have Pat Robertson and Pagans have Christian Day and the racist crowd in the Covenant of the Goddess. One elder in our local community has gone on record stating that she has intentionally tried to destroy someone’s livelihood because she doesn’t like him, although she has never had a constructive conversation with him about her concerns. This is well known to a lot of people, but she is still loved and treated as a leader. Me? I offer love and compassion for the shadows that drive such cruelty, but she will not be my leader ever again.
And that is where the circle comes around again in this. I am responsible for my actions and choices. Elders are responsible for theirs. You can’t really take elder hood away, as it forms by accretion over time. We can only affect choices in the now. In this type of situation where I have reservations about an elders’ ethics or ability to behave in the way I want my teachers and leaders to behave, I only get to decide what I will do, not what anyone else does. If a leader loses followers, that person is no longer a leader. My choice lies in not following; telling other people not to follow disrespects their free agency , and proclaiming that a certain person is “not an elder” is not my role. Who am I to judge, to weigh the hearts of these strangers and publicly declare them lacking?
I have increasingly been framing my ethics very simply. Her Law is love poured out on the earth. So what would that look like in this situation? I think it looks like reaching out to these elders and saying, I cannot support you in this. I think you have a lot of learning to do about feminism that comes from a place of love and inclusion. I hope you are able to change the way you are behaving, because we need less hate in the world. Whether you choose to undertake that work is not up to me, but until you do I won’t be able to support your leadership. I love you and see your beauty and all you have done for our world, but this thing I do not choose to learn from you. I choose to offer love, and work for change, and I hope you will too. But you don’t owe me any of that. You aren’t MY elder, you are first your own work and a child of the Divine. Even when you blow it, and boy oh boy have you blown it this time, you deserve love and compassion. And I am willing to wait and see what you choose to do, if anything, to change your course of action, because I hope all of us can be supported by loving community while we grow. In the meantime, I will not follow you on this path you walk which leads to cruelty.
My meme would say, “May we all be responsible. May we all continue to learn how to love.”
(Addendum: Macha revoked her signature on the petition and repudiated its contents yesterday. I honor her for owning her mistake and taking a positive step. <3)