Originally posted to God Made The Rainbow on 20th August, 2008
Too often today it seems like it is almost nigh on impossible to be both queer and religious. Most conventional religious structure have their conservative elements that preach the fire and brimstone cliché to enforce their rules and prop up strict yet artificial relationship dynamics, hiding their homophobia and transphobia behind a screen of ‘morality’ and ‘family values’. Most queers see religious structures through purely political eyes, seeing them as institutions that uphold patriarchy and power, and consequently often reject such systems and any spiritual benefits that faith can offer them. So it often strikes people by surprise when I describe my somewhat anarchic queer politics with the ancient spiritual tradition of paganism. Paganism as such is almost as hard to define as the term ‘queer’ (which can mean anything from a broad descriptive term meaning any non-straight identity, to specific politics relating sexuality and gender, depending on who you ask), but in a vague attempt at a definition of paganism; it is a spiritual system, not a religion, based upon reverence for creation, respect for its creator, and self improvement through spirituality and the search for enlightenment. It is often caricatured as being a new-age ‘hippy’ religion, based upon people dancing naked under a full moon, but is in fact a beautiful and serious practice with a deep foundation in wisdom from ancient earth based religions, Eastern philosophy and western theology.
I view paganism as an anarchist system; there is no hierarchy, no organised structure (unless you ‘opt-in’ to one), and no dogma to blindly follow; and beyond the central tenet of the vow to ‘harm none’ as part of your practice, no set rules to follow. For me, it is also a social-constructionist ‘religion’; I draw heavily on the Buddhist concept of Maya (माया), of illusion (or sometimes more appropriately, delusion), which encourages us to examine and challenge what seem like set ‘rules’ of our society; those based in spirituality and faith but also those of gender and sexuality. As a queer, I often have to question the concepts of what is ‘natural’, since the most homophobic arguments seem to stem form the idea that queers somehow deviate from a ‘natural’ heterosexual norm. I also find myself swimming through references to nature when studying paganism. It is a common criticism of paganism that, although pagans don’t buy into the fundamentally controlling concept of ‘hell’ and ‘evil’, they often equate things that are ‘natural’ with being good and things that are ‘unnatural’ as being wrong. It is important to have your wits about you when that sort of reasoning is around, because what people perceive as ‘natural’ differs wildly, and creates a atmosphere ripe for bigotry. Fortunately, modern pagans seem incredibly accepting and open to people of different sexualities and gender; perhaps due to the political situation in which paganism was popularised.
Paganism was popularised in the 1950’s and 60’s, at the start of the sexual revolution, by Gerald Gardner and his contempories; and as such is often mentioned with feminist spirituality, especially due to the prolific works of feminist pagans like Starhawk. Gardner’s highly influential brand of paganism, Wicca, split the divine into two gender forms, the G-d and the G-ddess. This is important as it created a space where people can accept and revere the feminine aspect of the divine, away from the androgynous but increasingly male-orientated G-d of patriarchal Abrahamic religions. This is an important gain for the reduction of patriarchal oppression in spiritual systems and ‘organised religion’, but it is somewhat unsettlingly ‘straight’, when examined from a queer perspective. Indeed, most mythology surrounding the G-d and the G-ddess paints the G-ddess as being both the ultra-feminine mother and the lover of the ultra- masculine G-d. It is fortunate, however, that it is accepted in pagan circles that the binary gendered deities are simply human constructs, built as an aspect of an androgynous divinity (usually referred to as ‘Spirit’), that are used to help humans have a better understanding of the divine as an omni-gendered being. A person could easily choose queer deities from any culture, such as the bisexual god Zeus, the gender-bending Krishna, or androgynous Shiva; and revere them as equally legitimate aspects of the divine; such is the ecumenical mood of most pagan practitioners.
I believe that the flexible nature of paganism and its keen focus on liberation will mean that it as a spiritual system will be at the forefront of queer liberation, as well as the liberation of other minorities, as it has done for feminist spirituality. I would like to see the increased questioning of the binary gendered system; I feel that the usefulness of such a system decreases with every gain for feminism. I certainly do not want paganism to be left behind as the system that once was revolutionary, but is now stuck with a binary gendered divinity with an increasingly backward view of the female gender as Earth-mother only, with no space for gender non-conformism. I do however feel optimistic that social as well as spiritual liberation is at the heart of pagan philosophy, and acceptance of queer people is strong, as the G-ddess is paraphrased in the popular Charge of the G-ddess: “And you shall be free from slavery… and let my worship be in the heart that rejoices, for all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals”.
Jess is an anarcho-queer activist who currently teaches about the environment and sustainability in Bradford. Follow her at @charliethescarf.