An Intersectional Experience

“I recognised the similarities between sexism and ableism. We are weak and need a strong man to help us even if we think we don’t. The man will know better.”

From Pieter van Diepen

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Dear world,

I was born and raised a white male in a stable middle class family as the second of two boys. It was society that made me into a straight cis-male, It did not fully fit but neither did the alternatives, after getting a bachelors degree in civil engineering I was at the pinnacle of privilege. At that time I was not aware of it. Now 10 years later I am. It took a stroke rendering me incapable to work and nerve pain to recognize my privilege when I am walking. I no longer identify as a cis hetero male but society still views me as such. That is not an issue for me because I identify as indifferent to all those concepts.

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Being pragmatic fits my male sex according to society. I’d like to share some experiences I got since I lost most of my privilege. Because of the pain, I have to use a wheelchair. To me, using a wheelchair is like using a bike for an able-bodied person; I can go further and carry more stuff. Sadly, society doesn’t treat me like a more active person like they do with cyclists. Instead, they treat me as if I’m a 10 year old child that needs to be taken care of. Last summer, I had the strongest example:

I was at a free music festival where I have been going since it started. I always enjoyed the atmosphere, until last year when “adults” were drinking more and getting obnoxious. So I was a bit anxious when I went last summer. Sadly my suspicions were confirmed. I went early so people would still be sober enough to have a normal conversation. I take medication so I stopped drinking alcohol after my stroke, and coping with an ableist society is hard enough when people don’t have the emphatic capability of a toddler. It was a nice day, I talked with some nice sober people and tried to avoid people that try to use me as a token to show the world how nice they are for being nice to a person with a disability. I was more focused on avoiding annoying non interesting people that find me exotic. I tried to connect to people that look interesting to me, or who I already know to be interesting or nice. I found some interesting people that I apparently already knew and saw some nice shows. I can still walk for 5 minutes and walked behind my wheelchair on the uneven grassy field and would sit down at the show. When I want to see I can stand up but I prefer to sit in a spot with good sound quality.

Around midnight I had used up most of my energy and went to sit at the empty dance floor next to the drum-n-bass artist. I had my hoody over my eyes because the lights drain my energy, which was already at a low, and even with my eyes closed the flashes were too strong. I was sitting there experiencing the sound when a woman tapped me on the shoulder, I looked up, she shouted too loud in my ear asking if everything was okay. I confirmed, she stepped away but kept glancing in my direction. I ignored her and covered my eyes again.

A bit later someone tapped on my shoulder again, this time it was a woman I had spoken to a couple of times in the last decade. She had had too much to drink, first she shouted too loud in my ear about how much fun she was having. I nodded and hoped she would move back to her friends. She instead turned to me again. I was sitting in my wheelchair with my back to some boards, she was standing in front of me and bent over close to my face, I tried to move away but I could not move the chair. I leaned back as far as possible but she kept coming closer. I panicked and screamed at her that she had to move away or I would head-but her. She startled, which gave me the opening to stand up. I can’t use my left side and in crowded uneven areas I have to hold on to my wheelchair for balance, she moved closer again and tried to come close to my face with her face. Because I am 1.95 meters tall, she could not reach, but she put an arm around my neck and pulled me down. That’s when I saw no other way out than to to tap her on the forehead with my forehead. That startled her enough to move away from me and towards some friends. I immediately moved behind my wheelchair to walk away. The guy that was standing between me and the way out asked if everything was okay. I screamed at him: keep her away from me. He moved a bit so I could leave and I walked out of the tent. When passing a security person I told him: if anybody is going to bother me I will start a fight. He nodded and looked away.

So, I moved out of the tent and sat down outside where I could still hear the music. This was going to be the last show, since the main show had already ended. People were all heading to the exit and ignored me, so I could gather my thoughts. A friend walked by but I didn’t feel like interacting with people, so I was glad that he kept going when we both nodded as a sign of recognition. That is how I wanted my interactions to be like for the last hour. I got up and moved to a different part of the terrain.. When I was almost there I heard my name. It was someone from the organization that asked me to make make a memorial stone earlier that day, this time there were 2 security people with him, he told me that they had seen me use violence and because of that they asked me to leave. I agreed that all violence is wrong and that part of the policy is to respond like this, so I walked with them to the exit. While doing so I explained what happened, they said they knew her personally and were surprised that she would behave like this. It did not sound so strange to me because she has a history of erratic behavior and substance abuse. But they ensured me that they would talk with her. It all went very civilized and they even went to exchange some of the festival coins for a mug.

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The Accessible Icon Project

On my way home I almost drove into a pole because I was not focused. And had to stop a couple of times to cry. Luckily I was in the comfort of my own tiny disability car driving on the cycling lanes that are abundant in the Netherlands. When I got home I had to cry some more because I realized this exactly was the thing that had been corroding my self-esteem for 5 years. Ever since I started using a wheelchair in public people have been taking away my agency.

When I told my experience to a friend she said this is an example of intersectionality[1]; in the wheelchair I am the vulnerable person and I’m susceptible to harassment, but when I’m standing, the woman is the vulnerable person. So my trauma was not acknowledged by security because I was standing when I told them. I told some other people and most responded in a supporting manner, but one did a bit of a victim blaming trick. That’s something people say when I complain about random people forcing their help on me just because I’m in a wheelchair, maybe I should put up a sign. In this case, the person asked if I was clear enough about not wanting to be interacted with (ignoring the fact that it was not OK to ignore someone’s request to keep distance).

People take away my agency all the time and cross my personal boundaries by grabbing the wheelchair. Even when I am not sitting in it it feels like they are touching me when they grab my wheelchair without consent.

I thought this was my first experience with sexual harassment, but I have been kissed on the mouth by random women whilst sitting in the wheelchair before. To me it is harassment to touch my face without consent. This did not happen once in the 30 years I had been walking and 3 times in the 5 since I have been riding my chair.

A more clear example of overlapping oppression was the time I asked a female student to put my wheelchair in the train. I had chosen her to do it because I know that the person that helps me will have a good feeling about themselves for doing so. So I don’t offer the macho people this opportunity. It’s not hard to do if you know how it is done, so I explained and we waited for the train.
 I had asked her not because I can’t do it myself, but because when I do it myself there are almost always people that grab my chair when my back is turned while I step into the train. And when I turn around there is someone clumsily holding my chair and I have to tell them to put it down because I can’t pull it into the train while they are holding it. Also that they should ask permission before grabbing other peoples belongings. I avoided this frustration by partly accepting the victim position. After the train stopped, I got in she, walked behind me while pulling the chair inside, but while she was doing it the conductor grabbed the chair and pulled it from her hands to put it in the train. We had to wait for him because he was at an odd angle.

Then I recognised the similarities between sexism and ableism- we are weak and need a strong man to help us even if we think we don’t. The man will know better. And because of that, afterward we will be thankful.

NO.

So I’ve made this sticker that clearly states my feeling:

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[1] Intersectionality is the best fitting theory for the stacking of problems people can experience. Intersecting identities can cause overlapping symptoms. My case is confusing because there are mostly positive (intended) prejudices around my identities (male= strong / person in wheelchair= innocent). It would still have gone different if I had only one identity. Because of my different positions of privilege, I do not fit in the visualization of intersectionality and I started thinking of alternatives, which is not starting from the identity, but from the prejudice intersecting shapes instead of lines.

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Pieter van Diepen

29893251_10156225620998544_526601187_oPieter started to get involved in activism after joining many protest marches as if they were guided tours. After befriending activists, joining in protests became more of a social than a political activity.

Now he has started to raise awareness for the unrecognised oppressed; the people with physical disabilities, and the invisible oppressed; people with invisinle disabilities including mental illnesses. This could be the start of a new movement: anarcho-capabalism.


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The Landscape of Desire: Unweaving Threads

Shay Woodall: “I’d like to take a moment to discuss sexuality and gender, particularly discourse from the cis gay and lesbian community.”

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Photos by Laura Cantal

“I won’t date you if you’re trans, or a POC, or fat, or disabled, or neurodivergent. Sorry it’s just a preference”. How many of you have heard or seen this in your lives or on dating/hookup apps and sites?

In this first of three essays I’d like to take a moment to explore the landscape of power and desire by examining various strands of the kyriarchal matrix. This topic is very close to many trans people’s hearts because we, like so many of those on the margins of the acceptable, are often told that we are unlovable, that our bodies are perverse, and that our gender is merely a trick to ensnare cis folks and violate their consent. I hope this inspires some real self-reflection and brings all of us into deeper relationship with ourselves and others.

As always, the writing here reflects my own intersections and my best understanding of these topics at the moment. Thank you, as well as to all the comrades who gave feedback on earlier drafts of this essay.

I. Theorizing Sexuality and Gender

Before we can really delve into how we theorize sexuality we first need to define what it is. That might seem an easy thing to do, after all human sexuality is “simply” how people experience and express themselves as sexual beings. Yet underneath this seeming truism lurks a complicated mess. Is sexuality something that we are (the identity model)? Is it something that we do (the behavior model)? Are we born with our sexuality as-is or is sexuality linked to social structures and culture (nature vs nurture)?

The overarching view of sexuality and gender in society is that there are only men and women and people can be attracted to only one or the other, possibly both, but always heterosexuality is normative[i]. This dominant paradigm of sexuality and gender is underpinned by the kyriarchal matrix. Patriarchy (particularly cissexism and heterosexism), white supremacy, colonialism, capitalism, ableism and more all weave together to weigh in on how we view ourselves and especially our capacity for relationships, sexual or otherwise. It informs who and what we find attractive, how we create and maintain relationships, and so much more. Let’s look at some, though hardly all, of these kyriarchal strands:

1. Patriarchy. Women are often granted sexuality only insofar as it lends itself to the “male gaze”[ii] and the desire of men. Women don’t have sexuality in our own right, instead our sexuality exists only for the consumption and commodification of men in heterosexual matrimony. Our sexuality is, in short, viewed and treated as property.

As a case study let’s look at the phenomenon of “frigid women” which came to prominence at the turn of the 20th century (though the idea is much older). Sigmund Freud came up with the idea that cis women first associate sexual pleasure with clitoral stimulation and later in life must transfer that to vaginal stimulation and if they don’t they suffer from “penis envy” (and thus masculinization). This idea would be developed by psychoanalysts and sexologists who would go on to depict a woman’s inability to sufficiently enjoy sex with their husbands as a sexual disorder that should be pathologized and treated. It’s also part of what motivates oppression against aspec folks now, given that their very existence disrupts the idea of sexuality as consumption.

2. Heterosexism. A couple of years ago there was a push from the cis gay and lesbian community to exclude the T (trans) from LGBT. Which is strange given that heterosexism, cissexism, and biological essentialism are all inextricably bound. The dominant model of gender and sex is binary, grouping people into two distinct largely opposite categories of “male/men/masculine” and “female/women/feminine”. Considering this view of gender and sex is binary only three possibilities for sexuality emerge: heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual. When the scope of gender and sex is widened however to include the full range of human diversity such a model becomes obsolete.

Another interesting point emerges from this as well because gender becomes framed through a heterosexist gaze. Take for example that gay men aren’t just oppressed for being attracted to other men, society treats gay men as *emasculated* (and thus not performing “masculinity” correctly). Lesbians are often treated and seen as “masculine” with corrective r*pe being used to “feminize” lesbians (thus lesbians aren’t performing “femininity” correctly). Sexuality through this lens becomes a performance of the “proper” gendered order and violence, often sexual in nature, becomes a tool for enforcing that order. Going further, sexuality as a performance of proper “gender” seeps its way into otherwise queer relationships by seeking to reproduce in part heterosexist logic (the butch/femme and top/bottom dichotomy in lesbian and gay communities).

The existence of trans and non-binary genders complicates the discourse arising from cis lesbian and gay communities. Those who police the boundaries of what is and isn’t “queer” (aka: gatekeepers) appropriate queerness to mean only certain ways of being against the normative order and not others. As Susan Stryker notes in the Transgender Studies Reader vol 1:

“Like recent feminism and feminist scholarship, queer politics and queer studies also remain invested, to a significant extent, in an underlying conceptual framework that is problematized by transgender phenomena. “Sexual object choice,” the very concept used to distinguish “hetero” from “homo” sexuality, loses coherence to the precise extent that the “sex” of the “object” is called into question, particularly in relation to the object’s “gender.” Queer studies, though putatively antiheteronormative, sometimes fails to acknowledge that same-sex object choice is not the only way to differ from heterosexist cultural norms, that transgender phenomena can also be antiheteronormative, or that transgender phenomena constitute an axis of difference that cannot be subsumed to an object-choice model of antiheteronormativity. As a result, queer studies sometimes perpetuates what might be called “homonormativity,” that is, a privileging of homosexual ways of differing from heterosocial norms, and an antipathy (or at least an unthinking blindness) toward other modes of queer difference.”

3. Capitalism. In Caliban and the Witch Silvia Federici argues that capitalism developed in response to peasant revolts in medieval Europe to curtail the growing popularity of communalism. Federici writes: “capitalism was the counter-revolution that destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle—possibilities which, if realized, might have spared us immense destruction of lives and the natural environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide”.

As part of this process gender became a “specification of class relations”. That is to say class is stratified by various hierarchies and gender was animated by capitalist logic to divide labor and wealth within the working class itself. Or as Federici summarizes:

“The expropriation of European workers from their means of subsistence, and the enslavement of Native Americans and Africans to the mines and plantations of the New World, were not the only means by which a world proletariat was formed and ‘accumulated.’ This process required the transformation of the body into a work-machine, and the subjugation of women to the reproduction of the work-force. Most of all, it required the destruction of the power of women which, in Europe as in America, was achieved through the extermination of witches. Primitive accumulation, then, was not simply the accumulation and concentration of exploitable workers and capital. It was also an accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class, whereby hierarchies built upon gender, as well as “race” and age became constitutive of class rule and the formation of the modern proletariat.”

Sexuality in light of this view and anti-capitalist critique can be seen as a further “specification of class relations”, one in which the reproductive capacity of those in relationship (and individually) are seen as paramount for the continued production of an exploited underclass. The capitalist logic here goes so far as to create laws regulating sexuality, from laws governing marriage to abortion to sex work and more.

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4. White Supremacy. As we’ve seen from previous sections sexuality and sexual violence are animated in support of a system (or systems) of exploitation and oppression. When white supremacy and colonialism enters the conversation the violence of the system is compounded in soul crushing ways. Gender and sexuality are racialized and exist as much within the matrix of white supremacy as within patriarchy and capitalism.

With the advent of modern racism, race became enshrined as an essential characteristic and hierarchies of “humanness” thus justified the exploitation of racialized bodies, lands, and resources. The sexuality of people of color is often seen as inherently violent and/or uniquely promiscuous because of how race is produced in a modern context. Sexuality becomes a way to create and reinforce racial stratifications and hierarchies.

The sexuality of people of color is often reduced under a white gaze to one of hypersexualization or desexualition for white consumption. The jezebel stereotype for example relies on the idea that black women are inherently hypersexual and that Asian men are often seen as emasculated and unsexual. Or consider that Jewish women in the Shoah[iii] were forcibly sterilized and subjected to regular sexual violence. Sexuality for people of color is inherently racialized and through the logics of white supremacy considered inherently deviant and thus subject to surveillance and policing (whether through codified laws or through normative cultural values).

5. Animacy Hierarchies. In Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect, author Mel Y. Chen offers a poignant discussion of the concept of animacy. In a nutshell, animacy is a concept from linguistics that describes how “sentient” or “alive” a noun is. This concept however can be broadened past the realm of linguistics to the ways in which a given body is “invested” with humanness or animateness. Cognitive linguist Mutsumi Yamamato describes animacy as:

“The concept of “animacy” can be regarded as some kind of assumed cognitive scale extending from human through animal to inanimate. In addition to the life concept itself, concepts related to the life concept—such as locomotion, sentiency, etc.—can also be incorporated into the cognitive domain of “animacy.” …A common reflection of “animacy” in a language is a distinction between animate and inanimate, and analogically between human and non-human in some measure. However, animacy is not simply a matter of the semantic feature [+-alive], and its linguistic manifestation is somewhat complicated. Our cognition of animacy and the extent to which we invest a certain body (or body of entities) with humanness or animateness influence various levels of human language a great deal.”

Sexuality (along with gender, race, ability, etc.) reveals underlying schema about what is considered more “alive” more “human” and the agency thus granted to varying body’s sexuality. Consider that plants, in being lower in animacy hierarchies compared to animals and humans, have their sexuality discussed in largely mechanical terms devoid of the passion, the animateness, that we might discuss the sexuality of other beings. Likewise, human sexuality outside of the normative follows much the same pattern, with intersections and social positioning interacting to affect the animacy of a given body’s sexuality.

In many of the examples discussing sexuality so far, we’ve seen a hiearchialization set up between “normative” sexuality and “deviant” sexuality albeit through differing but intertwined system logics. Sexuality of the deviant is more attuned to a state of being “animal” than human, more “dead” than “alive”, and through the essentializing of identity these logics combine to frame deviant sexuality as static, and justifies exploitation and oppression on those grounds. The process of queering, breaking down binary and normative structures, can be seen as a returning of animacy to the body and the phenomenon of sexuality that body is engaged in.

II. Re-imagining Sexuality

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In the previous section I teased out various threads that weave together to underpin our understanding of sexuality, yet these threads aren’t truly separate from each other. They weave in and out diverging at points only to link up later. The importance of intersectional critique is its ability to disrupt “ontological priorities”. That is intersectionality allows us to examine the complicated weaving of oppression and systems without positing any as a “first cause”, instead choosing to see these strands as reflexively[iv] informing each other.

Unfortunately, I’ve given a lot of critique but not so much in the way of solutions and that will hold true for the rest of this article. Given the complexity of sexuality and its centrality to the human condition there aren’t “one size fits all” solutions. But I do have some suggestions for directions we might travel to heal this:

1. Self Examination. Sexuality isn’t static because we aren’t static. We are constantly changing and growing and our sexuality does the same. Unfortunately, we and our sexualities didn’t develop in a vacuum devoid of wider social power systems. By critically examining our sexuality and “preferences”, we can weed out the bits of the oppressor buried deep inside and allow ourselves to really bloom.

2. Revolution. All solutions run up against a limit: the system we live under can’t be merely reformed. You can’t take oppression out of an inherently exploitative system. The system *must* be destroyed and we must dream new ways of living into existence.

3. Relationship Anarchy. Its common for our relationships to mirror in microcosm the macrocosm of oppressive structures that permeate our lives. Anarchism at its core is a rejection of hierarchical power structures and this applies in our personal relationships as much as it does to wider society. While a full and detailed account of relationship anarchy is beyond the scope of this article I’d like to point readers to a series of excellent essays addressing this topic: Focus on Relationships, Time, Touch, and Talk, Using the 3-Ts, and The Big Picture.

4. Radical Self Love. We often internalize the hierarchies of desire and the structures animating them. Whether we are trans, non-binary, intersex, cis, people of color, disabled, neurodivergent, fat, or anything else, we are lovable. Our bodies do not have to meet arbitrary standards to be worthy. When we fight body terrorism we engage in radical self love and, at the threat of being cliché, love can change the world.

In the end our liberation occurs in the liminal places, at the edges of the “acceptable”, in the cracks of the “whole”. Let’s dream a new world into being.


[i] Normativity is the process by which society raises some phenomenon as the “default” and assigns it a privileged status of “good”. By virtue of this process it creates a counter of deviance from the normative, labeling it “bad”, and punishing deviation from the norm.

[ii] The “male gaze”, “heteronormative gaze”, and others are subsets of “gaze theory” and here articulated in conversation with ideas first developed by Michael Foucault. The “gaze” is a relationship into which someone enters that limits perception of a given topic or person and thus what knowledge can be formed. Gazes are created by systems of power and surveillance and can be likened to a set of glasses that block out certain perspectives.

[iii] While Jewish identity in relation to white supremacy is much more complicated in a modern context, Jewish people were unequivocally racialized during the Shoah as non-white.

[iv] Reflexivity is the idea that cause and effect share a circular type relationship, that there is no “first cause”. In the opening to part I of this essay I raised the nature vs nurture debate around sexuality. The answer is that these are reflexive and its that idea which underpins this entire essay and its analysis.


Shay Woodall

shayShay Woodall is a Jewish Priestess and Pagan working to weave a queer and decolonized magic with radical politics. You can find her work here.


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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.

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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” …

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Consider the implicit sexism of this image. (Source: “The Council Of Cernunnos” by Emily Ballet)
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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:

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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.