Oh, Sorry…I’m a Faggot

I‘m gay, or so they say.  Others call me a faggot, a queer, a homosexual. Sometimes, I use these words to describe myself, too. I’m really fond of using faggot. I like the way it sounds. I like being a muscular, hairy, deep-voiced punk guy who doesn’t fit other people’s expectations of what a gay man’s supposed to be, and when a woman flirts with me or a guy tries to engage me in a conversation about ‘chicks,’ I growl a bit and say,

“Oh. sorry. I’m a faggot.”

Occasionally they’ll argue with me.

No, you’re not!”

That’s not funny, bro.”

Or whatever.  This is often funny, sometimes not, especially when they try to convince me otherwise.  It happened a lot more when I was younger, women grabbing my crotch or rubbing their breasts in my face, men assuring me that I just hadn’t met the right sort of woman. As I’ve gotten older and more aware of my power, I tolerate these reactions much less, but they still irritate me.

I enjoy messing with people’s perceptions of what a ‘gay’ person is supposed to be. We’re supposed to be flamboyant, or enjoy shopping, supposed to have fashion sense and like certain kinds of music. We’re supposed to shave certain places, live for the gym and spend lots of money on our homes. Or, alternatively, to be a complete failure at life, shoot meth into our anuses,  have long strings of abusive relationships and die an early death from AIDS.

I fit none of those, of course. And certain aspects of my personality and presentation fit more the expectations of what a ‘straight’ man is.  Because of this, I’ve been been accused of ‘internalised homophobia,’ failing to liberate myself from societal expectations of “heteronormative masculinity.” I don’t ‘fag out’ enough, my refusal to buy expensive clothes is a sign of self-hatred, or my utter cluelessness about pop-culture shows my disdain for other gays and thus myself.

Gay, you see, is an ‘identity,’ one I often fail to perform to the collective groupthink of the gay or straight ‘community.’

Queer is another identity which I adopt but don’t perform very well. I am too male-presenting, not non-binary enough, and too ‘exclusive’ in my choice of sexual partners to qualify for my queer card for some people. Yet at the same time, I don’t fit into what most consider middle-class white gay man behavior, so that’s another category where I’m often seen as an imposter.

Why call myself gay, then? Or queer? Or adopt the derogatory ‘faggot’ when describing myself?

Sometimes it’s to make up for my lack of conformity to social expectation. Not ‘coming across as gay’ gets me in awkward positions with both men and women. Because I don’t correctly ‘signal,’ it’s easier to get that out in the open before I have to explain it to a woman who’s propositioned me or a man who attempts to include me in discussions about his sexual activities:

 Oh, Sorry…I’m a faggot.

Identifying as ‘gay’ gave me something else, though.  It gave me a feeling of community. Because I have sex with men and not with women–and because men in America mostly have sex with women instead of men–being ‘gay’ made me feel like I was somehow in solidarity with all the other gays in the world. I liked to imagine I shared similar traits, feelings, experiences, emotions, sufferings, and joys with all these other people I’d never met.

Some gay men do share similar experiences that straight men and women don’t. Most straight men and women don’t have to scan their general vicinity before kissing someone they love in public. Most heterosexual couples don’t fear getting attacked or spat on while holding hands in the streets. That fear and alienation is definitely shared amongst many gay men, and also lesbians, and bisexual folks, and trans people. And because it’s common to all those groups, you imagine a sense of community, forged by pain and trauma and the need to feel not alone in the world.

This sense of community certainly helps you get through much of the alienation of society. Imagining that there are thousands and thousands of others who know what it’s like to fear and love as you do? That gives you the sense that there’s nothing actually wrong with what you’re doing. And in gay bars or queer spaces, as well as in cities and especially during Pride parades, that imagined community manifests for a few hours.  Thousands of people ‘just like you’ celebrate how they’re not like like others, and you feel safe, full of hope, and most of all, not different from everyone else.

Such moments become a break from the relentless trauma of being not-like-the-others. They can be so welcoming, so comforting, and so relieving that you forget that the whole thing is imaginary. You also forget it’s a really tragic thing to have a ‘community’ founded on pain, suffering, and the sorts of people you prefer to have sex with.

As I mentioned, I actually have little in common with most gays, and the differences between us are sharpest when it comes to politics and economics (and music, but that’s another matter entirely). I don’t think anyone should register their sexual partnerships with the government (marriage), I don’t want to own a home on stolen indigenous land, I don’t want a government to protect me or punish people who hurt me.

Actually, I don’t want to identify by who I have sex with, either. My lovers are amazing and wonderful people, but what we do together doesn’t actually make me part of a community of people doing the same thing.

This hit me particularly last month. I had a first date with a really amazing guy (who’s now a lover who I like lots).  We went for pho and then coffee and while he waited for his ride we made out on the sidewalk of a Florida strip mall. We both looked around us to make sure it was safe, but he had another reason to worry. He is Black, I am white.  I was just a faggot; he’s a Black faggot, doubly fucked when it comes to both straights and gays.

In fact, there are many, many white gays who don’t have sex with Black men. Or if they do, they heavily racialize their sexual relationships (I recently learned “BBC” doesn’t just stand for the UK propaganda engine). Scroll through any dating app and you’ll see “I only like white guys. Sorry, just a preference.”

I have nothing in common with those men. Also, I refuse to be part of an imaginary community where their racism and exclusion is still included and something I’m supposed to be okay with because they’re gays like me.

Being ‘gay’ doesn’t accurately define me–it only describes something I do. It’s not something actually inherent to me, regardless of how much scientists and gay activists try to prove I have some gay gene that forces me to love men instead of women. Also, gay is an identity only useful in describing how I am different from others. Those others are the ‘majority,’ and I’m a minority. And gay is supposed to explain why I suffer more than others.

Worse, that sense of community? The idea I’ve got some kinship to others who love people of the same gender? It isn’t just imaginary. It’s an illusion that’s easily manipulated by the powerful. According to politicians, ideologues, advertisers, and the media, being gay is supposed to make me do stuff.

I’m supposed to furiously vote against one particular candidate in the American election and vote excitedly for another. It’s supposed to make me support foreign wars against Arabs and Muslims, elicit my support against both immigrants and conservatives, celebrate that the military will now accept me, and desire to buy certain things and hate certain others.

This pressure to conform to gayness, to an illusory community, doesn’t just come from the outside, but it gets repeated by other gays. Gays tell me I’m betraying gays by not voting, taking the side of people who want to kill me by not supporting the military, spitting in the face of all the gays who came before by not supporting marriage.

That identity built on shared suffering, one I once thought was liberating and included me in a vast community? It becomes a bludgeon that others use against me, to limit me, define me, and most of all control me.

Do I need to identify as gay?  Not really. It does little for me at all, and it certainly doesn’t describe much else about me except who I have sex with. As an adjective, it gives me hints at what sort of bars I’m likely to be safe kissing another man in while drunk. And it’s useful to signal to others that I’m potentially sexually available.  But all that can just as easily be accomplished without the shorthand of sexual identity and without the false myth of community.

There are other false myths of community that likewise do me no good, both those that have been used as protest and those created by the powerful. For instance, I’ve never identified as ‘polyamorous,’ even though all my relations would fit into that category. Why accept the idea that my way of loving needs a label?  “American” also comes to mind pretty quickly. Nothing good has ever come of that one.

Even the stuff I believe doesn’t really describe me. I’m a Pagan, but not like lots of other Pagans. I’m a polytheist, but definitely nothing like some of them. And I’m a Marxist and an anarchist, but I’m not like lots of either of those categories either.

But where should I get my identity from, then?

Myself.

I’m human–I possess the same skills of creation as everyone else on this planet. I can name myself, and change that name at will. I can decide who I am, and change my mind the next day or even the next minute. The need of other people to pin me down, label, box, and shelve me shouldn’t be my concern. And I don’t think I’ll let it be.

If I’m not part of an imagined community based on shared suffering though, where do I belong?

Everywhere.

The earth cannot be owned, no gates can last forever. Nations and races are human illusions just like gender and sexuality, just names we came up with to exclude some and preference others. I can and do choose who I fight alongside, who I support and who I reject, who I hold close and who I push away.

But if you’re a boorish lout or a handsy drunk woman, I’m definitely gonna growl at you and say,

“Oh, sorry…I’m a faggot.”

Because the look of shock on your face will be pretty funny.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd WildermuthRhyd’s the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He has sex with men, drinks lots of tea, and misses Europe a lot.

Also, he writes here and elsewhere.

Pagan Anarchism, as well as our other great publications, can be ordered here.

How “Gods Before Politics” Perpetuates Privilege

(A version of this essay was previously published at allergicpagan.com.)

“Ever and always, the Gods come before politics.” — John Beckett

What does “political” mean?

There’s been a lot of argument on the Pagan internet lately about whether Paganism and Polytheism are political, per se, or whether we need to have political-free zones in Paganism.

Some of the confusion has to do with definitions.  When people hear “politics”, they tend to think of political candidates, elections, and voting.  And they think about people arguing about political candidates, elections, and voting.  And, really, who wants to have that at your next Lughnasadh ritual or in your devotional ritual to Lugh?

But politics is a lot more than elections and voting.  It’s even more than signing petitions, boycotting products, and marching in the streets.  Politics is about power: who gets to use it and when and how.  Politics is how we decide who has power … and who doesn’t.  Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.”  If we flip that around, we see that politics is how we peacefully (more or less) resolve the question of who gets to exercise power over whom.

When politics is understood in this way, then it’s easier to see that there is really no place or zone that is free of politics.  Not the marketplace.  Not school.  Not church.  And not your Pagan and Polytheist circles.

Why?  Because all of these places are permeated by complex power relationships, and in all of these places, we are either working to reform these power relationships or we are reinforcing the status quo by our passivity.  You’re either doing one or the other.  There’s no escaping it.  And if you’re not doing it consciously, then it’s happening implicitly, in the background of all your words and actions.

Privilege makes politics invisible

And this is why statements like “Gods before politics” reinforce white, male, hetero-, and cis- privilege.  And this is why the notion that there should be non-political spaces in Paganism is so insidious.  The idea can sound very reasonable — especially when it is delivered in a calm and equanimous fashion to others similarly situated.   So much of privileged talk is like this.  While those who are less privileged seem to be railing about invisible powers.

It’s easy to say there should be non-political spaces when your existence is not perpetually under threat by virtue of your difference, by virtue of your conformity to white, male, hetero-, cis-normativity.  But if you are female, if you are a person of color, if you are queer, or gay, or lesbian, or if you are trans, or if you are disabled, then there is no such thing as a non-political space for you.  Because almost everywhere you go, you are being told implicitly, if not explicitly, that you do not belong, that you do not have the same rights as others, that the exercise of power over you by privileged others is right and justified and deity-sanctioned.

Ginger Drekisdottir explained this well in an article here on G&R entitled, “Paganism is Personal, and that’s what makes it Political”:

“There are groups in Western society which are systematically oppressed: women, people of colour, LGBT people, disabled people, the list sadly goes on and on. These groups are […] oppressed through the very structures which make up our society […]

“For members of these oppressed groups, our daily lives can often be a struggle just to survive, a struggle to carve out a space to live, a constant fight to demand that our lives have just as much value as others. We live these fights just through carrying on with our normal lives, every time we go out to the shops or to see friends, through carrying on breathing; as well as through our activism.

“[…] for oppressed people it is these continued struggles in the face of systems of oppression which make our personal lives political. Yes many of us do activism, engage in demonstrations, engage in direct actions or even the dreaded party politics I mentioned above; but continuing to exist in the light of a system saying that you are lesser, that your life is worth less than others simply because of who you are is just as political. We can’t just shed these aspects of our identities when we step into a space, even a Pagan space.”

In a recent post, entitled “Why the Gods Come Before Politics”, John Beckett responded to Drekisdottir, arguing for the possibility of non-political spaces in Pagan and Polytheist circles.  Interestingly, in the process of trying to make his point, Beckett actually disproves it when he says that “there are limits”.  He writes:

“There is no place for racism in Paganism and polytheism – Stephen McNallen is not welcome at any circle I lead. There is no place for transphobia in Paganism and polytheism – Ruth Barrett is not welcome at any circle I lead.”

That is a political position, an explicit one.  And every time Beckett holds a circle and explicitly or implicitly communicates that racism and transphobia are not welcome in his circle, he is being political.

Consider another recent example, when the Pagan Federation of Ireland was recently asked by a couple of Odinists for help finding a Pagan clergy member to marry them “who only performs heterosexual ceremonies and refrains from marrying those of mixed races,” and the Pagan Federation responded:

“We are most happy to report that none of our clergy subscribe to your views on mixed race or gay marriage, and so we cannot assist you in your upcoming visit to Ireland.
“F**k off.
“Yours very sincerely, Everyone at Pagan Federation Ireland.”

That was a political action.  If the Pagan Federation had helped the Odinists find a racist, homophobic clergy-person to conduct their wedding, that would have been a political action too.  And (pay attention now) if the Pagan Federation had just ignored the request, that would have been a political action too.

The next time someone tells you their Paganism is not political (or the next time you think it yourself), ask whether they would welcome a Neo-Nazi to their ritual or place a swastika on their altar.  If the answer is “no”, then ask them why.  Their answer will inevitably be political — because it has to do with who has power and who does not.  If they say “yes”, then ask how they think a Black person would feel at their ritual or standing before their altar, and whether they care, and why or why not.  That answer will inevitably be political too.  We are being political whether we are conscious of it or not.

Is your Pagan circle explicitly open to LGBTs?  Is so, congratulations, your circle is political.  If not, shame on you, but your circle is political too — it’s implicitly political.  Has your Polytheist group declared that Black Lives Matter?  If so, good job, your group is political.  If not, you need to wake up, but your group is still political.

The luxury of being “non-political”

Only a white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied person like me, or like John Beckett, could really believe that such non-political spaces exist.  As Kiya Nicoll wrote in the comments to Drekisdottir’s essay:

“When I observe someone saying ‘This is not a political space’ what I hear is ‘I have never had to think about whether or not my sort of person is welcome to show up.'”

Only people like Beckett and me have the privilege or the luxury of being (or seeming to be) non-political.  We have that luxury because every aspect of society is structured so as to make us feel empowered and diminish our discomfort.  We have that privilege because the people who exercise power in our society look like us, and act like us, and love like us.  And because of that, we can believe in the myth of non-political spaces.  Other people don’t have that privilege.  What I perceive as politically neutral spaces are in fact highly adversarial spaces for people who do not look like me or love like me.

(Not to mention, we have the luxury of being “non-political” only because two generations of Pagans have fought for our political right to be Pagan and openly so.  We still have a lot of work to do to secure our rights as Pagans, but we’ve come a long way.  If we we couldn’t hold open Pagan circles or if Christianity were the national religion, I wonder how “non-political” Pagans would be then!)

It’s true that there is no political test for Paganism.  There are Pagans who Democrats and Republicans and Greens.  There are liberal and progressive Pagans and conservative and right-wing Pagans.  There are anarchist Pagans and there are libertarian Pagans.  But saying there is no political test for Paganism is not the same thing as saying Paganism is not political.  Your Pagan tradition may not tell you how to answer specific political questions of the day, but there is no escaping those questions.

If you’re not being consciously and intentionally political, then you being unconsciously and non-intentionally political.  And I think there are good reason, good Pagan reasons, for favoring the former over the latter, for favoring conscious activism over unconscious conformity to the status quo.  In fact, I think the definition of an “activist” is simply someone who performs their politics actively and explicitly, rather than passively and implicitly.

Beckett writes, “Good religion has both an internal focus (becoming better people) and an external focus (building a better world).”  He’s right about that.  Where he’s wrong is thinking that one of these is political and the other isn’t.  Both inner work and external activism are political.  Being political isn’t just about working to change the world; it’s also about working to change ourselves too.  And some of that work has to do with recognizing our privilege and learning how to use it for good, rather than perpetuating the status quo.

change

The politics of the gods

Beckett is right that we all need to do spiritual work, to stay connected to our source.  If activists don’t engage in self-care, if we don’t stay connected to the source of our inspiration and energy, then we burn out.  But it’s not a question of whether to perform devotions to our gods or get out in the street and march.  We need both, obviously.  But if you think you’re not being political when your praying to your gods, then you’re deluding yourself.  Think about it … What are you praying for?  Are you asking for help to make the world a more just and peaceful place?  Or are you only praying for more divine favors for yourself, to keep what you have, and get more for yourself?  If it’s the former, then you’re being political.  If it’s the latter, you’re being political, too — just in a bad way.

And what about our gods?  Do your gods bear an uncanny resemblance to you?  If your gods are Black or queer, then your choice of gods is political, because it is a challenge to the status quo.  And if you’re white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, and able-bodied, and your gods are too, well then, your choice of gods is also political.  If it’s because you’re avoiding cultural appropriation, that’s political.  But if it’s because it’s what you were drawn to, then that’s political too, implicitly.  And if you tell me your gods chose you, not the other way around, and that their resemblance to you is purely coincidental … well, I would invite you to look more closely at that.

Consider these images, which were among the first that came up when I Googled “Pagan god” …

il_fullxfull.411443169_6ark
Consider the implicit sexism of this image. (Source: “The Council Of Cernunnos” by Emily Ballet)
duo
Why are images like the one on the left ubiquitous in Paganism, but not images like the one on the right? (Sources: Left: “The Tree of Life” by Laura Zollar; Right: “Pagan Gods – Wincest” by Milla1990)

Our choice of gods is a highly political act.  I wonder why so many Pagans can be critical of the actions of the Abrahamic god, and yet seemingly uncritical when it comes to Pagan gods.  As “timberwraith” wrote in response to Beckett’s post, just because a god is more powerful than us, does not make it more virtuous or more just:

“[…] the Abrahamic god is deeply flawed at best. So, that begs the question of how many other gods are questionable in their values and conduct, the degree to which they value human life, and their preference in followers. […]

“The Abrahamic god has been a source of active and violent oppression of queer people for ages. I’m not about to give any other deity automatic respect as a divine guru of awesomeness. Just because people label an aware, non-biological entity as a ‘god’ doesn’t mean I’m going to automatically kiss their supposedly divine bottom. […]

“If the gods are truly individuals, some will behave like complete rotters, some will behave with care and empathy, and a large swath will fall between those possible modes of conduct. Respect should only be applied to those individuals who deserve such consideration. That means one must actively evaluate the nature and persona of said individuals…and that inevitably involves politics, for politics, by definition, concerns the flow and conduct of power, and allegiances formed in the context of power. If god-like entities hold greater power than those of an embodied existence, then said power differential indicates that the realm of the political applies.”

Beckett quotes Abraham Lincoln as saying, “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side,” to support his argument for putting the Gods before politics.  But — and this is critical — Lincoln’s conception of “God” was of an infallibly just and virtuous being.  The pagan gods, in contrast, are not described in this way.  In fact, they are often ambivalent and sometimes antagonistic to human cares.  As I’ve written before:

“If the myths are to be believed on any level, the gods are just as flawed as human beings — they just have more power.  Why bow down to power, if it is not paired with virtue?”

The notion that the pagan gods are embodiments of virtue seems like a very Christian conception of deity.  Compare Beckett’s statement, “Ever and always, the Gods come before politics”, with the one below:

jesusisking

Now, if one of these statements bothers you and the other doesn’t, you have to ask: What it is about the Pagan gods that you think puts them, and not Jesus, above politics?

I admit, I’m just starting to understand how privileged the statements like “gods before politics” is.  And when I first read Drekisdottir’s essay, I didn’t really get it.  So I shouldn’t be too hard to Beckett.  But people like him and me need to get this.  We need to see that when we are supposedly being “non-political” we are nevertheless reinforcing structures of power that privilege us and hurt others — and that is political.  The myth of non-political Pagan spaces acts as a blindfold for many of us in the Pagan community — especially those of us Pagans who are privileged.  It perpetuates implicit racism, patriarchy, and hetero- and cis-normativity — all of which continue to exist in our Pagan spaces, whether we see it or not (especially if we don’t).  And if we’re not consciously and actively working to see it and deal with it, then we’re passively helping to sweep it back under the rug.