On The No-Gender Drag

“Reading this may cause you to think “Oh, I see where they’re trying to get. They’re a trans person. It’s all over the media now. I’m well informed” and although you’re not mistaken (I am talking about misplaced gender roles and you could easily be right) this one specifically is not about trans identity. It’s about something that’s even less talked about and understood.”

From Nathan There

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Photo by Ahmed Carter

“As far as I’m concerned, being any gender is a drag.” – Patti Smit

Ever since I was a young child I felt something’s inherently different about me. I never felt I could fit this invisible but already established role I was supposed to fulfill. Humanity chose to shove people in these tight boxes so they can feel comfortable and experience the sensation of something recognizable (consequently safe). This can stretch to several categories of human conditions but here I’m talking about one in particular: the chart which people are obligated to follow when it comes to identity and gender. Reading this may cause you to think “Oh, I see where they’re trying to get. They’re a trans person. It’s all over the media now. I’m well informed” and although you’re not mistaken (I am talking about misplaced gender roles and you could easily be right) this one specifically is not about trans identity. It’s about something that’s even less talked about and understood. I’m talking about non-binary gender. Now, while you may think I will try and give you a crash course on the matter, even if I educate a bit here and there, this time I’ll tell you about something palpable.

When I was about seven, I had my first kiss. It wasn’t very glamorous, it wasn’t particularly memorable. It was a regular kiss between a seven year old child and a girl about the same age. It didn’t feel right or wrong, so I jumped to the next girl, then the next one until I was seventeen, never quite filling a void I could feel existed within me. At first, as taught by Brazilian culture, I assumed it was something to do with my sexual tastes. This is tricky, so I’ll elaborate: society burdens us with the assumptions and choices of our ancestors. If your society is structured to believe that blue is for boys and pink is for girls, you’re undoubtedly expected to abide by these rules. In this case, binary rules. So, if you’re a “boy” (Which specifically here means having a penis – assigned male at birth), and you like pink, then you’re a sissy at first. If you happen to identify as a female, the burden is not lifted, so you are still a sissy boy, with just further need of attention. If you’re a girl you’re not even entitled to have an opinion so let’s not get into male privileges just yet. So, back to my past – this void lead me to believe I was gay. And being a gay boy in the 90s was the most dreaded thing in Brazil. You’re not a capital letters MAN (Male) and you are not just unlucky to be born under the fragile gender (Female) – you’re choosing to misbehave, you’re choosing to go by the pink book. That’s just despicable, so you can imagine I was terrified.

At the age of seventeen, I kissed my first boys (Yes, two. That’s a story for another time), this way I could follow the role I understood I was obligated to follow: the gay one. That didn’t quite feel right either because it was crystal clear to me I was into girls too. I assumed I was bisexual and felt content with that even though I could feel there was something still uncanny about myself and I couldn’t quite grasp it. By that, I don’t mean bisexuality is something out of fairy tales. I just understood, later on, it does not apply to me.

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Photo by Douglas Barros

Now fast forward to a few years later (Yes. I quoted Alanis Morissette. I’m entitled to have musical preferences). I started reading, debating, and I became an activist on the matter of human and animal rights, understanding that I should raise awareness to the issues I fought for. Then I came across a concept that literally changed my whole perspective on life and shaped the way I would understand myself from that point on. In an article about Judith Butler, I read the terms queer and gender performativity. At first, I couldn’t quite grasp it, but that is expected. My body and mind were always colonized, so I had to strip myself from the prefabs of past generations to actually understand what I was reading, and when I did… everything changed. It was a mirror. Not the hazy one I always saw my shapes and colours reflected on but a true mirror. I existed. It was the most freeing experience I have ever felt so far and I would understand more and more about myself and the restraints I put myself under all the years prior to that moment. I wasn’t bisexual because I had no gender to identify with nor needed to. That is an amazing feeling if you ask me.

After a few years of tweaking this and that on my understanding of my life and my relations with others, I understood that my sexual tastes are entitled to be fluid and that does not constrain me inside any “sexual orientation” category. So, if I decide to exclusively have sex with women from now on that can’t make me straight because I’m not a man, or lesbian because I’m not a woman. Consequently, if I choose otherwise, same idea applies but in reverse. OK? Ok. The thing is, there is such a thing as gender performativity. People still perceive me as a male, no matter what I say or do so I have implications on that matter. The fact that I am conformed under certain male performativities (eventual beard, no makeup, pants and tank tops, some normative male mannerisms and the fact that I view myself as a cisgender person) makes people question my gender. While this is reinforced by the media, the problem is further structural rather than individual. If the media allowed people like me to exist through narrative and storytelling, if the fact that we are non-binary was not treated as exotic or eccentric (in other words, sensationalist material), if through narrative we were given stories outside our identities or if non-binary people were cast to play non-binary characters, society would be acknowledging me. Making normative people’s inability to fit a person in a gender into jokes or belittling non-binary people’s experiences contributes to this invisibility, and therefore to a confusing and negative journey throughout life.

My experience led me into some conclusions – First, I understand that no theory or self-perception must ignore my “male” privileges. For this reason, I can’t pull the “non-binary card” to bend situations in which others can’t grasp non-binary concepts. Example: I’m not either man or woman, but I can’t go into the “lady’s room” under this premise. They’re not obligated to understand me as anything else other than a male performative person and a potential rapist. Male oppression. Not difficult to understand at all. Second, it’s my understanding that non-binary people are not oppressed. The LGBTQI+ community is oppressed. I’m not killed for being non-binary. I don’t lose my job for being non-binary. I don’t get raped, molested and abused for being non-binary. I don’t get beaten up or excluded or shunned or threatened in any way for being non-binary. I suffer all of the above because I fall under the category of LGBTQI+. This oppression is towards our community and engulfs all of us. That’s why I’m oppressed, not because I’m non-binary. And that’s actually a blessing. Although invisibility is a form of oppression, when people start talking about us, we’ll probably get there. Third, there is such a thing as non-binary invisibility. That is the reason why people don’t understand my gender (and why I must understand I enjoy male privileges) and it is also the reason why my gender is oppression free (To an extent. I only mean by that what I discussed in the second topic). Fourth, being non-binary is an innate sense within a person. It’s not a lifestyle choice, a trend or a phase. It’s something that resonates inside you and makes sense when you put the pieces together. In my case, I understand how gender roles are burdened upon people, I understand some people are gladly abiding by and fitting into those categories and I understand that they’re not inherently bad per se (its praxis is). I just can’t relate to the category. In most cases, other people’s perception of my
gender won’t be something that bothers me in any sense (sometimes even the opposite). Sometimes it will but not because I can relate to it, but because I understand their concept and/or can apply the experience of the concept negatively in my life. For instance, you can call me a sissy and I’ll enjoy it, but I can understand how belittling being called a “good girl” can be while being a bottom during sex, because of the way women are belittled (even in oppressed niches such as the LGBTQI+ community).

All in all, the subtleties between gender, gender identity and gender performativity must be understood and stressed enough before people can understand non-binary existences, maybe even fitting into one of the multiple categories this gender understanding comprehends. But that’s for another time.

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Nathan There

2Nathan is a musician from Brazil, a queer non-binary vegetarian person with interest in game design, tattooing, and combating social disparity issues.


The Pre-Sale for Anthony Rella’s Circling The Star is here.

When Deities Say “No” to Apolitical Polytheism

While the New Right discussion has most recently dredged it up, everyone who combines a religious affiliation with Left politics hears it eventually. Apparently, because we prioritize both areas of concern, we must therefore be putting politics first. (Ironically enough, while our coreligionists make that claim, we often face the opposite accusation from political comrades.)

Of course, that begs the question: why should left-wing and religious concerns be at odds? Many Pagan leftists have reiterated lately that everything involving more than one person is, in some sense, political by definition. Others have denied any strict delineation between the religious and political components of their worldviews. I also might observe that when right-wing or reactionary politics get injected into Pagan theology, their proponents might get told they’re wrong, but they don’t get called “fake Pagans.” Not uncommonly, our detractors suggest that the mere existence of the Pagan Left somehow impedes the revival of polytheism itself. Sure, I think that right-wing politics and redbaiting are absolutely wrong, but I’d certainly never question someone’s religious sincerity on those grounds. I’d prefer to be extended the same courtesy, particularly from people who accuse us at Gods&Radicals of attempted censorship. It seems to me that there’s less a backlash against “bringing politics into polytheism” per se than against bringing in leftist, as opposed to rightist or liberal, politics.

(And again, there’s a category difference between censorship and asking Pagans to stigmatize the practice of discrimination. Public criticism isn’t censorship; for that matter, neither is no-platforming. Censorship means using violence, the threat thereof, or a direct position of power over someone to prevent them from disseminating their ideas. Anything short of that is just disagreement, and even if G&R wanted to censor our critics – we don’t – we lack the logistical ability to censor anybody, conspiracy theories aside. It’s not as if we’re a government agency with police powers.)

As a devotional polytheist, I don’t think that the gods’ multiple and divergent agendas cleanly line up with any worshiper’s ideology, my own included. I don’t promote a set of generalized or supposedly-universal spiritual values. Instead, I have specific deities whom I serve in particular ways. Am I putting my communism “first?” Without looking at the actual relational content of my religious life, there would be no way to coherently say. So, let’s take a look – after all, to my mind, my devotional situation actually requires some sort of political engagement.


“[Gallai] wear effeminately nursed hair and dress in soft clothes. They can barely hold their heads up on their limp necks. Then, having made themselves alien to masculinity, swept up by playing flutes, they call their Goddess to fill them with an unholy spirit so as to seemingly predict the future to idle men. What sort of monstrous and unnatural thing is this?”

– Julius Firmicus Maternus

 

“Transies who attack us only care about themselves. We women need our own culture, our own resourcing, our own traditions. You can tell these are men…Women are born not made by men on operating tables.”

– Z. Budapest

I am a galla. I belong to Kybele, Mother of the Gods, and Attis. I’ve taken vows to serve them however they prefer. That’s my unshakable priority.

Not everybody can be a galla. A cisgender person couldn’t, nor could a trans man. Being a galla requires a transfeminine identity. (Theologically, this involves the devotee’s relationship to the apotheosis of Attis.) After all, my deities’ spheres of patronage include the transgender community. Kybele collectively adopted us thousands of years ago, and my individual spirituality needs that context to work. One consequence of that is the importance of venerating the non-biological ancestors who constitute all the previous generations of trans people.

Further, I find myself charged with work going past prayer and cultus (though certainly including those!). Kybele’s children aren’t all ancestors yet, and Matar has conveyed to me that serving her implies serving trans people, too. Necessarily, that includes supporting other trans people’s material as well as spiritual and social needs. The ways trans people inhabit our bodies are often painful but always sacred. Every trans woman and nonbinary transfemme moves through the world echoing Attis’s own divine physicality. So when prominent and powerful people call those holy bodies little more than walking rape machines, trying to punish us for existing as we are, how apolitical could I in good faith allow myself to be? When Paganism contains leaders who theologize that rhetoric, how could I not challenge it without dishonoring my deities?


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I last entered a Christian church on November 20th last year. The pastor had offered his sanctuary to a small advocacy group for their annual Trans Day of Remembrance vigil. As I stood there, candle in hand, reading aloud the names of some of the newest trans ancestors, I silently recited a prayer over and over. The TDOR list includes just the ones whose deaths were reported as murders and classed as hate-motivated, just the ones whom the police identified as trans, just the ones whose bodies have been found. Even without factoring in the many driven to suicide, everybody involved knows the official list represents a small portion of those actually killed. Despite these restrictions, I still can’t recall a year when the number of names didn’t hit triple digits. I venerate the trans dead alone every day, and once a year with everyone I know. This is part of my polytheism.

Anti-trans violence, of course, is neither bad luck nor a natural disaster. The nexus of racism, patriarchy, and capitalism that impoverishes trans communities also exposes Black, Indigenous, and Latina trans women to the most intense violence in the LGBT world. The patriarchal gender system and lack of legal jobs that disproportionately lead transfeminine people into sex work also criminalize that work, partly causing astronomical rates of incarceration (plus plus pushing up the work’s danger level). The gentrification in Seattle, where I live, that leaves so many trans people unhoused also gives us the third-highest rate of anti-LGBT hate violence in the US. The right-wing Christian organizations that cause parents to kick trans kids out also push laws that criminalize trans bathroom use and slander us as rapists.

That’s the shape of American trans people’s reality. These conditions kill some of us and prevent many more from living free and fulfilled. They are Kybele’s children’s needs.

My religious mission demands I address them. I can’t pretend they’re not political.


“With the realization that what we saw as personal problems were in fact social ones, we have come to understand that the solutions must also be social ones.”

– Chicago Women’s Liberation Union

Sure, I could ignore my community’s material conditions, but Kybele and Attis deserve gallai who don’t choose ignorance. Honest engagement requires analyzing these problems as they actually exist. They are structural, economic, and political. Personally, I’d connect the particular strain on trans people to society-wide systems that organize power and resources – capitalism, racism, and patriarchy. My opinion is that the best empirical understanding of those systems says that they’re about who does what work and who enjoys the benefits created by that work. Various divisions of labor have led to a class system, where some people make a living by skimming a chunk off the top of what working people create. Those people are a ruling class of business owners. They enforce their exploitative and unaccountable power through both organized violence and sophisticated propaganda. That’s capitalism. Further, capitalism keeps certain kinds of work – housework, emotional labor, most sex – out of the money economy and mostly makes women and femmes do it. That’s patriarchy. Under patriarchy, your gender isn’t just a question of your own identity. It’s equally a matter of whether or not others, in a given situation, expect you to do that unpaid gendered work. Trans women and nonbinary transfemmes get expected to do that work in an extra-exploited way. The enormous levels of violence (emotional, social, physical, and spiritual) that get thrown at us serve to keep us in line, doing that extra-exploited work. Marxist feminism means figuring out ways to fix all that.

Obviously, plenty of people disagree with that description of society. And while I believe it’s empirically true, my deities certainly never sat me down and said “read Silvia Federici.”

You may well think that’s 100% off the mark and incorrect. However, once we’re talking about whether my specific ideas are the most accurate ones, we’ve already conceded the point: politics won’t be dodged. If you think my politics are wrong, then all that means is that yours differ. I’d never expect my coreligionists to become communists en masse just because I’m one. No one else on the Pagan Left asks for that, either. Hell, I don’t even demand it of the people with whom I do secular activism.

But, my religious commitments and desire to piously serve my deities don’t permit me to eschew some sort of political consciousness. I take polytheism seriously. Therefore, I can’t ignore Kybele and Attis’s imperative to address the trans population’s needs, material ones included. Thus, I have to know and address those needs as they really are. More often than not, what they are is political.

My deities come first. That’s why I’m an organizer. That’s why I lack the option of deferring to “civility” or some supposedly-apolitical polytheist unity. Racist and male-supremacist discrimination is already happening in Paganism and polytheism. Attis and Kybele want and deserve gallai who won’t leave that alone.

The Pagan Left’s critics wish we’d just focus on rebuilding the cultus of the gods. Because I take that same mandate seriously, I’m with the Pagan Left. The gods don’t automatically align their plans with conservative polytheists’ comfort zones. From time to time, deities do, in fact, decide to be patrons of acutely oppressed populations. Mine are among those, so I do politics.

And that is what living polytheism looks like.

 


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Sophia Burns

Sophia Burns is a galla, vowed to serve Attis and Kybele, and a Greco-Phrygian polytheist. After coming out in the small-town South, she moved to Seattle, where she is active in the trans lesbian community. Other than writing for Gods&Radicals, Sophia’s activities include political organizing, attending nursing school, and spending time with her partners, friends, and chosen family. This fall, she will lead a ritual at Many Gods West.

Sophia Burns is one of the authors appearing in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here.