Why the Pantheacon Gender Controversy Persists

For the second year running, some attendees at Pantheacon have become involved in protests, sit-ins, and a whole lot of blog posts about gender issues.

I am not going to weigh in on Z Budapest, etc. I was not there. But I was reading a post on Religion Bulletin the other day titled “Yogis and the Politics of Offense,”  by Matt Sheedy, that suggested a reason for the size and persistence of this particular Pantheacon kerfuffle.

Reading past the yogis and the “Shit Yogis Say” parody video, I came to this paragraph:

When groups are new and not well defined, and where the boundaries of their self-understanding are generally recognized to be unstable, the work of critique becomes that much easier since it focuses the conversation on tangible matters that can be discussed and debated. As many scholars are aware, this instability and contingency is true of all religious formations, yet it remains an uphill battle to speak of older traditions in the same way—unless of course one’s goal is to cause offense in the first place.

Contemporary Paganism in all its forms is “not well defined.” Our boundaries are not merely porous, they are vaporous. You could do a “Shit Pagans Say” video — and maybe someone has — but a lot of Pagans probably would say that it just critiques the fluff bunnies or something, that none of “that stuff” is really central to their spiritual practice.

On the other hand, the author writes,

Whenever the social practices of a group are presented as the essence of that group as a social whole, there is a risk of causing offense. For something to be considered “offensive” in a categorical sense, however, it must involve more than hurt feelings on the part of an individual. There must be some notion of a “social whole” in the first place and, what is more, those things that are being lampooned must be considered central to the self-understanding of the group in question.

Sheedy argues that another video, “Shit Girls Say,” is indeed offensive because it addresses a social whole, whereas “Shit Yogis Say” does not.

If “girls” constitute a social whole, then certainly “women” do as well.  There is a general assumption of what constitutes “women.” Some people insist that self-identified transwomen, for example,  can also be included. But there is a boundary, and the argument is about who is inside it and who is not. There is something worth struggling over — as long as Paganism(s) valorize women-only ritual and female religious leadership.

UPDATE, Feb. 28: Gus diZerega writes the most reasonable blog post on this whole issue from a Pagan-politics standpoint that I have seen.

To summarize, the protest against Z’s genetic-women only ritual was political.  Its advocates were making a statement about how they believe the entire Pagan community should act: not simply not to condemn, not simply to accept other ways, but to modify their ways so as to include a group that wanted such affirmation even while they were free to practice in their own way within a largely accepting environment.  Sometimes this is necessary to do, as with a hypothetical case of having the community ban a group practicing ritual child abuse. But most of the time this is not necessary.

I am asking different questions, but I applaud Gus for making that point. Wicca, in particular, has always been a small-l libertarian, “live and let live,” do-it-yourself religion. I hate to see one group demanding that another group change its ways to accommodate them based on a self-proclaimed moral authority.

15 thoughts on “Why the Pantheacon Gender Controversy Persists

  1. Thirty years ago “women-only ritual and female religious leadership” may have been valorized, but (as a white het male pagan since the mid-80’s) I don’t think that has been the case for a few decades now. I was not at Pantheacon but I do know that there is a general tendency of each generation to feel it needs to usurp those before it, as attested by Hesiod’s Theogeny on down.

    Each group of young people feels the need to establish its own turf, and one of the simplest ways to do so is by objecting to and holding a moral beach-head against “the establishment,” however that might be defined. As an elder with some credibility, objections to Z Budapest’s unfortunate phrase “genetic women” is a large and slow target.

    I see this kerfuffle as nothing more than young people trying to establish their credentials by asserting a novel theory of gender inclusiveness as a pagan norm, whether historical practice supports it or not.

    “There are always two parties,” as Emerson notes: “the establishment and the movement.” This is mostly just young people crying out “look at me” to establish their own place in the son. All teenagers have a psychic need to kill their parents, and this seems to me an expected variation on that.

    • There is something of what you say in the comments on Jonathan Korman’s lengthy blog post about Pantheacon, gender, etc.

      People are busy beating terminological issues into bloody lumps.

      But as you say, there might be a generational aspect too, especially in the attack on Z Budapest. I remember during my first year of graduate school thinking that at least some scholarship was just “cutting Mom and Dad off at the knees,” as much to be different — with different terms and different conceptual lenses — as to be better, whatever “better” means in religious studies.

  2. Thanks for this post. I’m new to blogging, and at times I get pretty excited when I think of things I can criticize within a (highly diverse and multifarious) faith (that I don’t even technically “believe in” anyway), sans consideration of Sheedy’s points. My philosophy professor used to stress that you generally have to interpret opposing viewpoints in the most charitable light (realistically) for your argument to be valid. You don’t see much of that in non-academic circles.

  3. Once again, the problem at Pantheacon is not because transwomen were excluded from the ritual– but that Z listed her event in language that included ALL women but then she told certain kinds of women that they were not included. There are a multitude of ways in which the ritual could have been framed to make it clear that women who have wombs were the targeted group, without using exclusionary language for those who do not have wombs– which, by logic would include anyone who was born female but had a hysterectomy. But Z doesn’t care about that. She was, as we all know, intent on offering an insult to a growing group of pagan women that she does not approve of.

    Z uses extremely hateful language when she speaks of transwomen. She uses terms that translate to the n” word in loathsomeness, that mock their identity and their humanity. She also includes transmen– men who were born in female-shaped bodies– in her list of “women” despite the fact that such folk do not identify as female at all.

    This issue has less than nothing to do with generation gaps and everything to do with a person who has stopped doing any kind of personal growth.

    • Step back from Z Budapest for a moment. So where are you on the “social whole” issue? Can it explain why there are nearly 9,000 Google hits on “Z Budapest Pantheacon”?

  4. Thank you for this post, Chas. I entirely agree that this issue is at heart about determining the boundaries of community — an issue that besets both new and old religions, especially when those boundaries are blurry and permeable.

    I was at Pantheacon both last year and this year, and have been trying to figure out where exactly I stand on this issue, in addition to being an observer. I reject the hypothesis that this is about trans-generational conflict, as there were Pagans of several generations in the group that chose to sit in silent meditation outside the “Sacred Body of Woman (Self-Blessing)” ritual. I do think it is about changing definitions of gender-based identity, with some being rooted in gender essentialism, and others cleaving to a more recent paradigm in which self-identification and performance are the core aspects of identity.

    Essentialism was the more prevalent way of constructing gender at the beginning of the period of Paganism’s great expansion in the US — roughly 1968 – 1980. We can see the same kinds of arguments among Second Wave feminists, whose emergence is more or less contemporaneous with the expansion of Paganism and goddess spirituality in the US.

    That paradigm began to shift in the 1980s as a result of deconstructionism, performance theory, and postcolonialism and their effects on social movements. We see the contrast between these two paradigms in the clash between gender essentialists and queer theorists (to borrow academic terms) at Pantheacon. While one is an older paradigm and the other is more recent, it’s not strictly about the bashing of elders by young people, but about the struggle over which way of constructing identity is morally right.

    While I generally embrace social constructionism over essentialism, I also admit to feeling some empathy for old-school feminists who say that women’s struggle for self-determination, which is far from resolved (just read the headlines in the right-wing political debates) is easily obscured by extending the argument to those who identify as women while not sharing the same biological imperatives. In current political debates, it is women’s *bodies* that are at the center of the controversy — women’s rights to abortion, contraception and freedom from male dominance.

    This struggle has implications for other aspects of identity in modern Paganisms — e.g. ethnic identification, another zone of ongoing contention. Generally, US Paganisms have tended to opt for the broadest, most universalist view; but that may also be changing as re-discovered ideologies of racial and ethnic separatism are beginning to influence some forms of Paganism.

    While I honor the right of Dianic Witches and ethnic varietals of Paganism to determine where they draw boundaries, ultimately I find essentialisms of all sorts to be troubling.

  5. Thanks for your analysis, Sabina. But while this conflict should not be seen merely as a clash of generations, there have been some generational aspects — people saying that Z Budapest’s work is done, and she should just go away. (I paraphrase.) Nevertheless, investigating identity construction in contemporary Paganism will continue to be fruitful.

  6. This conflict has been intensely painful, and it predates its eruption at Pantheacon by decades. It was fought in the GLBT media and community, then in academia, and is not resolved yet. I don’t see essentialism as the key issue (and disagree with people on both sides about this framing, in different ways). I talk about that somewhat in this blog post about my experience of being forced to take a stand in the very uncomfortable space between.


    I have avoided talking about this issue which has been, frankly, radioactive. But i guess i will have to have my say, but it will take time to put my thoughts together. Unfortunately the hurricane that is this controversy, factions demand immediate response and covering all angles at once. It can’t be done. There are many angles and complexities. We’ll see how it goes.

  7. I’m an old school Second Wave feminist and lapsed Dianic. Gender essentialism and Marxism were major influences on my brand of feminist analysis from when I read Sisterhood is Powerful in 1969 until the 1980s. I began to discard gender essentialism on the time line Sabina gives, but not because of deconstructionism, performance theory or postcolonialism, because I wasn’t reading any of that stuff.

    I just kept watching and listening and thinking about the implications of my politics. I gradually concluded that gender essentialism was not supported by biology or the social sciences, that it forced human beings into Procrustean categories, that as a concept it was as culturally and temporally limited as “negritude”, and in the end, it was oppressive. And I didn’t become a conscious feminist to oppress people.

    The arguments over whether transgendered people should be welcome in women’s space reminds of the feelings some born Jews, especially of earlier generations, have had about whether converts (“Jews by choice” is the PC term) are real Jews or not. The “not” camp cited the importance of growing up in the minority culture in order to acquire its mores and values, and doubts that people from the dominator culture can be trusted under pressure. “Wait till you have your first serious fight. He/she will call you a dirty Jew.” People may have strongly held feelings against admitting the outsider into a community, based on life experience and perceived level of threat and oppression that the community faces. Those feelings are not necessarily invalid or unenlightened.

    • The category “Jew,” like the category “women,” has clearly marked boundaries most of the time.

      As you can see, I have added to the original post to acknowledge Gus diZerega’s thoughts, which I think are valuable.

      I ask, given that Wicca is do-it-yourself religion, why pushing in where you are not invited is so important. The history of the religion has always been about starting your own group if one rejects you — clear back to Alex Sanders and the original Gardnerians in the 1950s. They would not have him, so he started his own tradition and claimed that it was older, better, etc.

      So why this urge to exert moral authority via vigils, Internet tantrums, etc.? Why create resistance when one could just as easily flow around the obstacle? Our religion is not a zero-sum game, where if I win, you must lose. If you are not invited to one party, throw your own with more people, better music, and more fun.

      Why is it so important to hold the moral high ground and declare that you are better and that “those people” are hate-speech-spewing bigots?

      Going back to my original speculation, is it because Wicca, in particular, emphasizes the Goddess(es) and therefore it is more important to be “in Her image”?

  8. I’ve been listening for a while now and this is the first time I’ve spoken anywhere on the topic of gender, ritual and what should be done via Pantheacon 2012. I was not there either. I only now feel compelled to speak because I wanted to say that this is the best response I’ve seen to date and support this stance.

  9. Pingback: The Wild Hunt » Gender, Transgender, Politics, and our Beloved Community

  10. As an old school Dianic and also matriarch/priestess of a multi-generational family tradition, I am pained by this entire discussion. I am saddened that Z lost her cool last year. Sometimes even good people use hurtful language when they feel that their needs and values are being threatened. Sometimes, we elders don’t always know what the politically correct term for a group is. I, too, am sorry that the trans community was offended, but as a priestess and ritual designer, I know that group cohesiveness and energy is vital to a ritual’s success. The energy of shared visceral experience is of the utmost importance in Dianic ritual. In this instance, biology matters more than spirit which it energizes. In terms of gender, I am a cis woman if that is the correct term, and mother of 5 children. I was also masuclinized in my mother’s womb and look and feel anomalous as even when I was pregnant I would be called sir in the grocery checkout line. I developed facial hair at age 11 and it remains after thousands of dollars of removal treatments. Although as A child I acted like a boy, I also had female interests as well. My baseline childhood identity was “girl” although I was called freak even within my family. I have been in loving relationships with both males and females. In my 20s, I strongly considered gender reassignment surgery but realized that I didn’t want to sacrifice half of what I am for the sake of social acceptance. I do strongly feel the pain of my trans sisters and brothers who have ultimately been forced to choose. Rituals must be devised and performed to heal the trauma of growing up and living in a body that feels wrong, but that healing isn’t to be found in a cis woman only ritual as it is specifically focused on actual body experiences. I send unconditional love to all of our wonderful community and deep hope for mutual understanding.

  11. Deborah: But rejection of gender essentialism can be seen as supporting disapproval of gender reassignment surgery. I mean – if some (many? most?) people are gender-ambiguous, surely that means that there is less need to go around chopping up genitals? Your position can at least be taken that way.

    Speaking personally, I am a big, masculine-looking, middle-aged, heterosexual male, yet as a child I always wanted to be a girl, and even sometimes pretended to be one. It was something to do with dislike of team sports and fighting. There have been cases in the UK media recently of parents wanting gender reassignment surgery for prepubescent children, which positively horrifies me.

    You know what – I have no sympathy for either side in this dispute. ZB is exactly the sort of person I would cross the road to avoid. I have rather more sympathy for the transexuals. However, I have only known two transexuals, and their problems with gender identity were simply the tips of icebergs of enormous personality disorders – one of them eventually converted to Islam, and started undergoing skin-darkening, race-change surgery.

    I guess my take-home message is that I’m really, REALLY glad I’m not involved with organised Paganism, in which I have to get into disputes of this sort. It sounds too much like being Christian.

  12. Rombald: When I say that I no longer believe in gender essentialism, I mean that I think that there is such a range of individual difference, and such difficulty in separating nature from nurture from gestational influences, that it isn’t a very useful or predictive way of looking at human behavior on the whole.

    Although I have never felt uncomfortable in my own gender identity, my physical appearance and bearing are intermediate enough that strangers used to frequently take me for a man, a transvestite, or a mtf transsexual. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people in the Pagan community believe I am trans.

    When I first made the acquaintance of a few transsexuals (as they were called in those days) in the 1970s, I had a hard time relating to their expressed feelings of being stuck in the wrong body, since I couldn’t imagine myself having that problem. I also had some scepticism that this was a diagnosis invented by psychologists and surgeons for the purpose of making money, and that it was over diagnosed. Having since gotten to know about a dozen TSes, pre-op, post-op, and in both directions, I haven’t lost my suspicion that the condition is over diagnosed. However, I don’t doubt the sincerity of transgendered people reporting on their own experiences, and if they believe that hormone treatments and surgery make them happier, who am I to judge?

    As to organized Paganism, if you want to go to women’s rituals that welcome trans women, they happen, and if you didn’t want to be involved in this particular controversy at Pcon, there were at least a dozen other rituals and activities happening in the same time slot.

    I’m a Thelemite, which basically means, “Do your own thing and let other people get on with doing theirs.” In this context, I think that would mean, if someone insults you or your friends, you can certainly demand an apology, and if they don’t give it, offer them the cut direct and encourage your friends to do the same. If someone is offering a workshop or ritual that excludes a class of people, and you think the exclusion is unwarranted, organize a workshop or ritual that includes those people, or a panel discussion to educate others about the issue. If a bunch of people sitting or standing outside a ritual you want to go to are expressing their disapproval of the ritual, ignore them and walk right in.

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