I did not attend PantheaCon this year, but since it ended I’ve been hearing bits and pieces of reports about an incident that took place at the “Lilith Rite” held by CAYA Coven’s group Amazon Priestess Tribe. Those reports were confirmed today when I read a blog post by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, “PantheaCon and Gender Matters.”
In his blog post, Lupus listed the program listings for both the rite and the group running it:
The Rite of Lilith
Amazon Priestess Tribe
Dark Queen, known to all as the One Who Would Not Be Conquered. Matron Goddess of fierce women who know their power. Sacred whore of antiquity, whose lust purifies and cleanses. Join the Amazon Priestess Tribe for an ecstatic, undulating, life-affirming ritual in honor of Lilith. This ritual will be skyclad to the degree you are comfortable, so please come prepared with a light wrap or blanket as needed.
Amazon Priestess Tribe
The Amazon Priestess Tribe is C[ome] A[s] Y[ou] A[re] Coven’s spiritual sisterhood of High Priestesses in the Amazon Dianic Tradition. Founded by Rabbit, this Tribe of “queens among queens” serves the Goddess by creating powerful, transformational, evocative rituals designed to honor the beauty, intellect, power, and wisdom of all women. Join us for women’s clothing-optional Sabbats in the East Bay. www.cayacoven.com
In his blog, Lupus gives the following report on the incident:
“The difficulty which emerged in this ritual was that a male, and several transwomen, wanted to attend the ritual, but were turned away at the door. If I understand correctly, those turned away did not interpret the program description given in the book as being something which would be exclusively available for participation to genetic females (or “women-born-women,” as some prefer), and were thus rather upset when they had cleared their schedules and waited in line to attend ending up having their admission refused. Given the legacy of transphobia and gender-based discrimination against trans people, this pushed a lot of buttons immediately for many of them, and quite understandably so.”
To the credit of all those involved (and those organizing PantheaCon) a time was made available the next day for a discussion of the incident. While it doesn’t seem from Lupus’s own account that much headway was made, it does seem laudable that people on both sides were willing to engage in a civil, open discussion.
As a priestess of Lilith, I have my own perspective on this incident. As someone who has done a fair amount of research on Her, had a fair amount of personal interaction with Her, and written a book about Her, I feel confident saying that I know Her well. I’m not here to police how others honor Her, but it is my responsibility to respond when something counter to Her nature is done in Her name. Even if I did not have the responsibility of “Lilith Public Relations,” my work with Her also involves serving Her community, and that community includes a lot of people who identify as transgender.
As I wrote in Lilith: Queen of the Desert, many of Lilith’s creation stories (of which there are several) imagine Her as a creature of hermaphroditic or androgynous roots. Rather than rehearsing all of that scholarship here, I want to turn to those that have worked with Lilith primarily in this vein. In the devotional section of my book, I was honored to have essays by transgendered people—people whom Lilith had mentored during their transitions. Here’s an excerpt from one of those essays by Raven Kaldera (Kaldera has also written about Lilith as a transgender deity in his own book Hermaphrodeities). This is taken from his piece “Scirocco Goddess”:
“When I read about Lilith, I found her source material to be filled with contradictions. Part of that was because she seemed to cross mythologies and cosmologies, turning up in a variety of Semitic-origin tales. Some things stood out, though, chillingly. I read that she was called the Hairy Goddess, covered in hair like an animal – a trait which stood out against all the more modern sensibilities of her being shown as a feminine, if aggressive, “pretty” demon. (But, of course, she’s one of the shapeshifting Gods, so she can look like whatever she wants, I’m sure.) I read the warnings about her overwhelming libido, and the hermaphroditic gender-switching children that she was supposed to have birthed by the hundreds – the incubi/succubi. I read about her gift of barrenness – coming between a couple at night in their own bed and making them both unable to breed. I recognized these traits, with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I knew that she had not been sent for no reason.
“When I hit puberty, my (heretofore female) body went crazy with a plethora of secondary sex characteristics. I grew breasts and grew hair on them, I got irregular and painful menses and clitoral growth, my hips broadened and my voice cracked and hair grew on my chin. I was shapeshifting into something weird and terrible and awe-inspiring. I would discover later that the name of my intersex condition was secondary congenital adrenal hyperplasia, but at the time all I knew was that my mother freaked out, took me to a series of doctors, got me put on estrogens, and told me that I had a “hormone problem”. It was hammered into my head: I must do everything in my power to stay female. My mother, who believed in female superiority and had said that she could never love a son, wanted to make sure that I was pointed in the right direction, permanently. (I was lucky that she was too much of a prude to ever ask to see my teenage genitalia, and I was too fearful to mention what was happening to them.)
“So in my twenties, I read the stories of Lilith, and something clicked in me on a deep level. I knew what it was to live in a female body that was hairy, infertile, and lustful (due to high testosterone levels that drove my libido up). The myth of Lilith was reflected in my medical condition … or, possibly, my medical condition was reflected in the myth of Lilith. I wonder, still, when I think about those uncomfortable interstices between human history and experience and divine Otherworldliness, how much of the wondrous experience of being a monster like me went into the stories of this ambivalent goddess who was likewise treated like a monster for so many centuries.”
Here’s an excerpt from another submission, “Chosen” by Aiden Fyre:
“As the goddess of lust and vitality, Lilith empowers us to seek and share pleasure. We honor Her when we bask in the pleasures of the flesh and give in to our desires. It is Her energy that courses through me when I allow passion to fuel me. Bridging the worlds of earth and sky, mind and body, Lilith has also helped me to delve deep into my convictions about sexuality.
“A shape-shifter and hermaphrodite, Lilith gives birth to transformation and change as a transmasculine deity. She, along with the transfeminine god, Shiva Ardhanarishvara, give me strength and permission to delve into the many facets within me and morph at will. As I flux between genders and inhabit the middle space between worlds, I feel Their influence and power. Without a doubt, it is this transcendence of gender and conventional sexuality that has defined who I am and directly impacted my relations with people and the work that I do.”
Even though Lilith doesn’t come to me in this form, I recognize Her in these accounts, some core reality of Her being in these deeply personal and honest writings. And yet, here’s the cruel irony: if the face of Lilith that these two devotees honor showed up to the PantheaCon ritual, She (It? They?) would have been turned away.
Thus, it seems particularly wrong to me that a Lilith Rite would exclude transgender people. To me, it’s the equivalent of barring alcohol from a Dionysus Rite because it was being run by a “dry” coven, only much worse. While many groups choose to work with a certain aspect of a deity that suits their own identity and goals, this can only be taken so far. Lilith Rituals in particular seem to embrace one aspect of her (the lusty, sexy, independent feminine) while disavowing another that might be messier (the hermaphrodite, the killer of children, the scourge of traditional society). If you don’t want transgender people to participate in your rite, then perhaps Lilith, goddess of outsiders and transformation, isn’t the best choice for your group.
This incident, however, also highlights larger issues the pagan community will need to consider. I should start by saying that I am not opposed to spiritual groups that choose to limit their membership based on some agreed upon criteria. For several years, I ran a coven that was de facto exclusively women. We just didn’t have any men, and we didn’t suffer for their absence. I am also not opposed to the idea that there are “Women’s Mysteries,” “Men’s Mysteries,” or “Queer Mysteries” for that matter, and that being in a spiritual group with people like you can be supportive and empowering.
In groups or rituals that limit themselves by gender, however, determining membership can become problematic. Not because it’s “sexist” to exclude one gender or the other, but rather because it assumes that everyone falls into one of two gender categories. It reinforces a binary of male/female, man/woman, even while it may be accepting of variant sexualities. Spaces, groups, or events that limit participation by gender may find themselves policing gender, deciding who “counts” as “real.”
In the collection Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation (ed. Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman), Telyn Kusalik’s essay “Identity, Scmidentity” takes up this issue. The essay addresses how “women only” spaces have dealt with transgender people:
“For decades there has been a vocal part of the feminist community which attempts (and often succeeds) in keeping transwomen out of women’s space on the grounds that they’re not actually “real” women. For most of this time there has also been a very vocal group of transfolk and allies protesting this exclusion. Both sides rely on identity-based arguments to support their case. The question, as debated and discussed, is whether or not transwomen are women.”
As Kusalik shrewdly argues, however, both sides often reach an impasse by making the debate about identity:
“But this debate doesn’t have to be about who is and is not a woman. These sorts of considerations become irrelevant if we start organizing our events, meetings, and working groups in terms of experience of sexism, rather than identity. I would venture that it is clear to all parties involved in the debate that most transwomen are perceived as women, and therefore experience sexism in many contexts. Even if a particular transwoman is being “read” as having other than female history by someone policing gendered inclusion, she can point to her real-life experiences of sexism as evidence that she belongs….I hope that we can move away from thinking about things in terms of identity and move toward a paradigm based upon experience.”
I love this final line and the possibility it holds. What would it really mean to base our thinking of ourselves and others on experience rather than expressions of identity? What would happen if groups like CAYA Coven’s Amazon Priestess Tribe embraced this new ideology? How would that change their definition of who “counts” as an Amazon? CAYA Coven’s website has a section in their FAQ on “Diversity.” Within this section, they list the following methodology:
“CAYA Coven is committed to honoring gender-diverse Deities.
“LGBT, Queer and gender-variant Deities are given places of honor at many rituals, as are non gendered Deities. We do not wish to limit the Divine.”
This is a laudable statement, one that many other groups would be better for adopting themselves. At the same time, it seems that the best way CAYA Coven can honor this commitment is to make space for “gender-variant” people in their rituals. Surely this is the best way to honor such Deities? Surely these “gender-variant” people might have deep experience and wisdom to bring to any ritual, regardless of the gender identity of the deity in question?
CAYA Coven also lists this statement:
“We believe in the power of women. We are grateful to our mothers for our miraculous births. We recognize that women have been greatly maligned in many different cultures and by most pervasive religions. Our feminist stance is not against honoring men or the divine masculine. Rather, we believe that our Coven’s commitment to feminism creates a crucial balance of power in a world where both women and men have been injured by patriarchy.”
Again, there’s much to agree with here. Women have been treated as second-class citizens for centuries, and there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done toward our equality and spiritual healing. Despite this, I can’t help but notice the binary thinking about gender present here. It seems to me that the people who have been “injured by patriarchy” more than anyone else are those that aren’t publicly recognized as either woman or man. Whether a transgendered person chooses to place themselves in a gendered category or not, they exist. And the “balance of power” single-sex groups claim to desire cannot be achieved without some consideration of those that shatter the gender binary. A commitment to feminism will always remain inauthentic if it merely reenacts oppression on an even more “maligned” group.
And if any divine figure can help us find our way through this new age of gender, it’s Lilith. She has much to teach us, if we will listen.
[Note: an electronic copy of this essay has been respectfully submitted to CAYA Coven]