By Jenny Peacock, 2008
Let me tell you the story of a Druid camp I went to one Beltaine not so many moons ago.
The site was on a river bend and the stars glittered at night. People were friendly and glad to be outdoors. In the evenings, around a roaring fire, they told stories and made music. A talented and bardic crowd; the camp was run by a Druidic couple, both with long flowing hair. He had a long flowing beard too, and a cloak of feathers, she sported a large brooch and dress of velvet. Most of the people at the camp were in boy/ girl couples and had children with them. Not my usual magical crew. Still, I thought – it’s good to be open to possibilities.
The main ritual over the long weekend was a celebration for the first of May. In preparation, all the men were asked to repair to the great outdoors and take part in physical games together; tug of war, wrestling and the like. All the women were asked to repair to the great indoors, a marquee tent, and make flower garlands and learn to belly dance.
I was so covered in dismay the hairs on the back of my neck began to prickle. Surely not, I thought. I was younger then and I passed well enough – blonde, femme and dressed in pink and green. I mean – you couldn’t tell I was queer from the outside. But I didn’t feel as if I could belong there. Those kind Druid people, who wanted to be together in community under the night skies, and who showed me their hunting knives and their Lord of the Rings replica jewellery; what exactly did they think they were they doing? All the men to an outdoor space and physical prowess, all the women to an indoor space and physical adornment…. I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. Had none of them heard of feminism or gender stereotyping?
In the marquee tent the circle of women was asked to speak about what “the goddess” meant to them, sitting in the round as they wove flower stalks together. Mother, nurturer, menstruating milk and honey, lover to the wild god… hmmn, the company seemed unlikely to go for a man/woman goat/fish hermaphrodite. So, I picked something less gender queer for starters. I spoke about those goddesses who are lovers of women, Sumerian Inanna and her lover Ninshubur for instance. Vigorous nodding resulted. But I noticed several women move further away from me in the dancing that followed. On the plus side, a number of others thawed right out. These women were the ones who’d kept an eye on me at the fire the night before in relation to their men folk. It seemed I was sucking on the bitter lemon of a history vacuum – all that consciousness raising gone before, and yet here it was to do all over again.
Someone in the circle said that gay people were welcome at the camp, and they meant it. Was I losing the plot? I’m not often in purely heterosexual circles in any area of my life these days. Perhaps I had simply forgotten what it was like? But my sense of suffocation and dismay felt something more, something fundamental.
After the belly dancing and tug-of-war was over, the women were invited to go together and dig a hole in the ground. The men, it was explained, would place a great pole in the hole dug by the women, raising a Maypole for the dance at dusk. I didn’t take part in the hole-digging. I could not spend my Beltaine being a ritual hole.
These modern Druid people, dreaming of a Celtic society-that-was, a time when women overflowed with flowers and childbearing and men made war over cattle; what was going on? I could not deny this magic meant something to the people taking part. I watched their faces glowing as they danced around the Maypole together, making the ribbons weave in and out. It was going to be a boy/girl, boy/girl affair, but I spoke up on that (and yes I danced the dance) and a less polarised circle ensued. Magic based in heterosexual fertility and gender division, mapped onto the season of Spring; well, it’s a magic with its own potency for sure. And if the people participating were content, who was I to object? But, I did. I do.
Some of your children will be queer, I thought. Indeed perhaps some of your young girls may prefer tug-of-war, and some of your young boys, belly-dancing, whatever their sexuality (go straight sissies and tomboys!) In this new religion, a simple physical delight in non-stereotyped pursuits is in danger of being framed as “less spiritual”. What space then for the spirituality of same-sex desire or gender variance? Where will your lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex children fit? Will they dig holes or raise poles?
I think every Pagan or Neo-Pagan group, large or small, should be asking itself these questions. The reality is that very few of them are. Religions and their ritual forms often prescribe for people how they should inhabit and experience gender and sexuality. In history, as today, many if not most, religious and spiritual spaces create hierarchies of gendered and sexed spiritual bodies. We all know the Pope believes homosexuality is a sin. The Church of Rome is still a powerful force in the world. Modern Paganisms like to think of themselves as free of the oppressive tendencies of certain forms of Christianity or Islam or Judaism. But are they? I was so very happy to be returning to my separatist queer magical community after that camp by the river bend. And when you need a separatist space, you know it’s bad out there…
For me, it is not enough to be told I am welcome as a queer person into a spiritual space that is fundamentally structured as heterosexual. So I am not a Reconstructionist. Oh, I’m interested in history, very interested; but I don’t want to live in an ancient past. Modern paganisms are modern for a reason. We are talking no anaesthetic, unlimited childbearing, not being able to read or write and lice, lots of lice people. I don’t want to erase the fundamental struggles of the last one hundred years and fifty years for female emancipation, for the recognition of same sex desire, for a greater understanding of the experience of being trans, all in my search for a closer spiritual relationship with the natural world. I want to delight in those hard fought, hard won social transformations and incorporate them into my queer pagan magic. So all hail to the man/woman goat/fish hermaphrodite goddess and hir many and marvellous brethren!