Wiccans in British Columbia, and an example of mediocre framing

I’ve been quiet lately because I was trying to get ready for an exciting trip with family, but I’ve come down with an annoying infection and am not allowed to travel. It’s proving pretty stubborn, so I’m resting a lot. I hope to be back to my usual hijinks in a week or so.

In the meantime, here’s an interesting story about how corrections officials in British Columbia initially arranged to try to hire a Wiccan chaplain, but the decision was reversed by a higher official – or at least it is on hold pending further review. The government official’s office insists he supports freedom of religion, but that “the government is not convinced all services offered through the chaplaincy program reflect an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.”

The article’s coverage isn’t too bad – although one of the Wiccans quoted makes the cardinal mistake of bad framing by saying that people have an unfairly “negative image” of Wicca. We don’t know whether or not she was prompted, but denying that we are “devil worshippers” is generally the wrong tack to take. The counter-characterization as “tree-huggers,” is only marginally better, but it’s at least more neutral and vaguely true, even if commonly used as an insult.

Remember, if you’re going to speak to the media, be prepared. Think about your framing. Don’t bring up ridiculous ideas and prejudices. If you’re confronted with them, downplay them and return to your positive message.

Friendly Fire

Before the recent community kerfuffle, I was talking about the Pagan blood libel and how that affects the experience of being Pagan and Wiccan today. I want to share a couple of my own experiences to try to convey just a bit of what it’s like.

My partner and I were at a social event with people I’ll call A and B. A has been a friend of LitSpouse for over a decade; B is A’s relatively recently-married spouse, whom we don’t know as well. LitSpouse, A, and B are all in the military.

In the course of other conversation, I mentioned how someone I love, C, had been having a hard time recently because she’s in the broom closet. In that situation, when others treat her as if she’s Christian – talking about her relationship with the Christian god and so on – it causes mixed feelings and a lot of frustration.

B started saying that the others meant well. I acknowledged that and said neither of us was anti-Christian. But some of the actions others have taken – including a Christian spontaneously laying hands on C and praying over her out loud in public without asking first – are simply insensitive and intrusive.

B proceeded to say that since most of the country is Christian, it’s “a reasonable assumption” for people to think that C’s Christian. I pointed out that regardless of reasonableness, it’s rude, and maybe they should ask. She might be umpteen things besides Christian, and no matter what she is, she might not want to be prayed over.

I pointed out that I don’t just tell people I’ll cast a spell on them (or start doing it in public!), and that all I’m asking for is the same level of regard in return. B kept defending this and started saying that we’d just have to “agree to disagree.”

I was frustrated. Finally I said that he simply doesn’t understand how hard it is to be part of a tiny minority religion. Nobody is threatening his religion, or treating him badly because of it, and that changes the context for things like this.

He really didn’t get that. Finally I gave him an example: a preacher on the religious right had recently said (again) that the practice of Witchcraft ought to be outlawed in the military.

B looked me right in the eye and said, “But you’re not in the military, so why should that bother you?”

I was speechless. I have done some martial arts, so I know what it feels like to hit the ground so hard your wind is knocked out of you. That’s exactly how I felt.

There he sat, in his uniform, with his spouse and my spouse in their uniforms, asking me why hate speech directed at my religion and at a fundamental freedom enshrined in the document that he swore to defend “bothers” me.

I was visibly furious. I explained that Christian conservatives want to make Wicca illegal entirely, and they think they can use the military as a leverage point to make that happen. (They’ve only been trying since the mid-1980s, after all.) Then I got very quiet so that I didn’t have a real outburst. I almost left, and if I hadn’t valued LitSpouse’s friendship with A so much, I probably would have.

B realized he’d screwed up and started to back and fill, saying something about how maybe he should have left the subject alone because I obviously have “a deeply held feeling” about this.

I snapped, “It’s not a deeply held feeling, it’s a Constitutional right.”

You could have heard a pin drop.

Spouse and A gradually worked on patching up the social situation by making conversation, and the party broke up shortly thereafter. When I walked out, I was still shaking.

I don’t make a habit of taking offense. But I really think there are some things that should make people stop and think. Defending hate speech is one of those things.

And yes, I think “Your religion should be illegal” is hate speech. My religion is part of my identity and my way of life; you can’t separate me from it. Especially when the people who want to ban my religion also perpetuate vicious, dangerous lies about me and my coreligionists and see excluding us from public life as only the first step to eradicating us entirely, saying that is another way of saying “People like you shouldn’t be allowed to exist.”

I’m lucky: I haven’t had to face too much crap in person about being Wiccan. I don’t have to deal with it in a lot of ways other people do. Maybe that made me overconfident that most people would be reasonably decent about this.

But these were my friends, people I thought I knew, who I thought I could trust. They knew I was recently ordained. Heck, they had been invited to my ordination party less than a month before this happened. In light of this, I guess I’m glad they hadn’t attended.

I thought they might at least try to exercise a modicum of imagination and empathy, or even begin to believe that they don’t fully understand how my experiences are different from theirs. I was so utterly unprepared for this. It took me by surprise and made it hurt a lot more than if it had come from someone else.

This is one of the hard realities of being Wiccan: You’re always at risk of friendly fire.

The Pagan Blood Libel and the Bad Jackie test

Trigger Warning: imagined threats of kidnap, abuse, and murder involving both adults and children

In the course of my interview with her, Vanessa asked me more than once why I think Pagan oppression occurs. I gave answers that I think are pretty common: ignorance, fear of the unknown, fear of the other. But I also felt it was vital to point out that people aren’t just misinformed about Paganism because they haven’t had reason to look it up, people are ill informed about Paganism because of campaigns of active mis-information, dis-information, and outright defamation.

I try to be hopeful about these things. I want to think that the Satanic Panics of the ’80s and ’90s won’t recur; I want to think that the freeing of the West Memphis 3 shows that our society is starting to recognize what went wrong and move to correct it; I want to think that if Pagans continue to present themselves to the world as reasonable people, these outrageous, ridiculous, and deeply insulting myths will fade away.

But they don’t. I was reminded of this by a couple of things that popped up in my social media. Jason at the Wild Hunt carefully explained that he has no plans to kidnap your man, and Star found yet another list of dangerous “holy days” promulgated by people who are still talking about Satanic Ritual Abuse as if it was more than an imagined boogeyman. Let’s face it: these things keep having currency in part because there are still people who are profiting from peddling this defamatory nonsense. But the peddlers are only a small part of the problem.

Fred Clark explained part of the phenomenon as the Bad Jackie problem: basically, when confronted with evidence or testimony that such-and-such fantastical weird or evil thing doesn’t exist, some people somehow choose to go on believing in it. So we don’t just have the people who are peddling hateful lies for profit – although they’re enough of a problem – we have the people who actively partake of those lies in the face of the truth and by so doing propagate them.

For Pagans, the fact that the world has so very many Bad Jackies who continue to cling to the blood libel of Paganism has very real consequences. Many of these urban myths don’t: if a thousand Jackies want to check the gas pump handle for HIV-tainted needles before filling up their car, fine; they waste 10 seconds of their own time. Usually, the consequences rebound upon themselves or will make no noticeable difference in the overall state of things.

But believing that a certain group of people are actively dangerous leads others to treat those people – me! – differently.

I’m glad Fred is talking about this. I think I disagree with him about the extent to which these kinds of choices are conscious, but it’s important to identify them as choices. A lot of this conversation comes out of his subculture, and he can address that better than I can, and he has more interesting posts about how people prefer to believe in a world with such monsters in it. Sometimes sitting back and analyzing these things, especially arguing about it over a beverage, can be fascinating.

But I don’t always have the luxury of simply trying to understand the phenomenon because I have to live with the results. Part of processing how I have experienced and coped with anti-Pagan prejudice – whether it results directly from the Pagan blood libel or not – has made me want to translate some of those feelings into action.

On a personal level, no more jokes. It’s not funny to joke about whether I use my ritual knife for such-and-such a nefarious purpose, or whether my Sabbat will endanger any animals. I’m not going to pretend that it is any more. Social considerations of politeness will no longer stop me from calling people on that kind of crap, because it’s outrageous, and hurtful, and it needs to stop. If that makes me the kind of humorless bore who doesn’t want to be the butt of offensive jokes about horrific crimes, well, then I’m that kind of humorless bore.

On a broader level, it means things like pushing back against the “demonic possession narrative” as Jason points out. It may mean pushing back against misperceptions about divination, about symbols, about wearing black and going to the woods at night.

But I don’t know very much about how to do that well. This is a place where I would really like to get more advice from people who have experience countering this kind of defamation.

What I do know is that if you pay attention to Hecate’s rules on framing, this is the one time you should talk about what Pagans are not. But it still means you shouldn’t pile on other examples in an attempt to debunk as much as possible at one time; Pagans get so little media exposure that we need to counter the specific problem at hand and make a positive statement. In speaking to the public, the point is to challenge the frame and try to reframe, rather than accepting the frame and debating around it.

This is where I think the Bad Jackie idea comes in. When you work to counter the frame, put it in terms that highlight exactly how ridiculous and contrived the libel or defamation is. “You believe what?” Make it dismissible: how can you believe that in the face of an official FBI debunking? In the face of common sense? In the face of reality?

If you can’t change the minds of the Bad Jackies, at least make it obvious that they’re the ones who are out of touch with reality and at some level choose to stay there.

What do you think? Is that a helpful way to think about this? Is it a good place to start? And how else should we do anti-defamation work well?

The myth of nonsectarianism

Sometimes someone has to say that the emperor has no clothes. Here goes:

There is no such thing as nonsectarian prayer.

“Nonsectarian” is a polite euphemism for “generically Christian,” and more specifically “generically Protestant, but probably acceptable to nearly all followers of Abrahamic religions.” That’s it; that’s all it means. It’s not an acceptable alternative to “sectarian” prayer because it somehow magically includes everyone. That alternative doesn’t exist.

It’s not possible to give a prayer that doesn’t exclude someone.

The act of praying is exclusionary: most atheists don’t pray.

The mode of praying is exclusionary: some people pray by putting on specific garments; some pray by dancing; some pray by kneeling; some pray by making burnt offerings; some pray by creating artworks; and on and on. Simply standing or sitting with bowed head and folded hands while someone says words is a specific kind of prayer that is primarily practiced by a specific type of religion.

It doesn’t matter that that group is broad and varied. It doesn’t matter that that group is hegemonic in this country. It’s a specific act associated with a specific religion, and if that’s not the definition of sectarian, I don’t know what is.

As for content, most prayers begin by stating who or what they are addressing. Some don’t; they remain in a prayer equivalent of passive voice by saying “We pray that…. and for ….” Theologically, this is a cop-out. It’s the equivalent of those ads you get from the local cable company that read “To our neighbor at…” It’s like playing Pin the Prayer on the Deity: stand with your eyes closed and pray in as vague a fashion as possible, desperately hoping that your words and intent will bump into a kindly power as they wing their way blindly into the universe.

Worse yet, it’s a cop-out that doesn’t fool anybody. At most, it allows people to substitute their own mental image of whomever or whatever they want to address their prayer to. But recognizing that prayer may be directed to many different sources which can’t be condensed into a unified thing is undermining the very idea of a universal prayer. It makes the exercise at best a simulacrum of unity – at the price of already having excluded people – and at worst a farce.

When a recipient is addressed, that by definition excludes people. Not everyone prays to the same deity, and plenty of people don’t pray to someone or something that can be addressed as simply “God” or “Lord.”

The inimitable Byron Ballard wrote about her experience with this in a different setting:

When that wonderful interfaith group came together on the first anniversary of the World Trade Center/Pentagon horrors, we tried our best to come up with a prayer that everyone was comfortable hearing and saying.

And we couldn’t do it.  Well-meaning and well-mannered as we all were, there simply wasn’t a way of creating a generic prayer.

Byron is right. That group didn’t fail because they didn’t try hard enough, they failed because it’s impossible. The opposite of sectarian isn’t “nonsectarian,” it’s secular.

The only places where the myth of nonsectarianism can have credence are places where there’s enough similarity of religious belief and practice to render something like “God” meaningful. In intra-Christian work, nonsectarian prayer can exist; the Catholic priest and the Lutheran and Baptist pastors all agree not to to pray to Mary, not to say “sola scriptura,” and not to say “accept Jesus into your hearts right now.” That’s nonsectarian with respect to the subdivisions of Christianity. It’s still sectarian because it’s specific to the Christian sect.

If you’re in a group that is Christian by definition, go right ahead with nonsectarian Christian prayer. But once you start talking about – or praying in – public situations, open to all, then by definition in this country you are not talking about a wholly Christian population.

It’s true that since the Abrahamic religions are all basically monotheistic faiths that primarily address the divine in masculine terms, it is linguistically possible to write prayers that do not violate any of the fundamental tenets of these religions. I leave it to members of those religions to decide how comfortable they are with prayers like that on theological grounds.

But I guarantee you that if an Arab Christian started out a “nonsectarian” prayer addressing the divine as Allah, which Arab Christians have done for as long as there has been Christianity, the conservative echo chamber would explode with furor over how this supposedly “nonsectarian” prayer was actually evidence of a secret Muslim desire to institute shariah law. “Nonsectarian” has a lot of unmentioned implicit assumptions built in which highlight the ways that it is actually very sectarian, and very much about specific kinds of privilege and power.

When those implicit assumptions go unchallenged, it helps create a sense that the hegemonic group is more inclusive than it actually is. This backfires because it reinforces the power of the hegemons – who, as I observed above, will not relinquish power over the definition of the group that subtly privileges them above all other “nonsectarians.” Then the people who are still excluded – the atheists, the agnostics, the polytheists, the goddess-worshippers, and anyone who won’t play along with the pretend notion that everyone is talking to the same deity – are faced with an even larger, more powerful group.

The idea of “nonsectarian” prayer is nothing more nor less than an invisible set of clothes created and worn by hegemonic Protestant Christianity to excuse and defend it getting to have a privileged place in public discourse, most notably in the prayers given in the context of government business.

The threads are spun out of the artificially-created notion that there is something substantive which can be called “Judeo-Christian” religion. The cloth is woven in front of amazed onlookers by pseudo-generic Christians who have concealed their actual agendas in the frame of the loom which shapes the very warp and weft of their fantasy. It is dyed in the colors of imagined inclusiveness with the assistance of some members of minorities. And it is tailored to fit and flatter only the most privileged of the hegemons.

Others can either shape themselves to fit it – usually doing violence to the unique parts of themselves, their beliefs, and their practices – or they can explain how it doesn’t fit. But because of the wonderful consensus-inducing coating on the fibers, the fact that anybody who doesn’t fit will have parts of themselves show through the gaps in the invisible suit is always put down to their problems, rather than the nature of the suit, much less the fact that it doesn’t exist.

One of the reasons people are so reluctant to acknowledge that the nonsectarian minister emperor isn’t wearing any clothes is that we all want to think that if we work at getting along, we can make it happen. So “nonsectarian” becomes the religious and political version of “Intent is Magic!” If you say a prayer nicely enough, everybody will agree with it.

But part of having an adult, realistic conversation about religion in America today is being aware that, as Stephen Prothero put it, God is not one. He’s not even a he. I’m honest enough to acknowledge that not everyone practices religion in the same way I do. I’m asking for others to recognize the same.

I don’t care whether you have the best intentions in the world; when you are put in a position of speaking for government and you make me feel belittled, othered, and excluded, I am hurt by it. That’s wrong, and that’s one of many things the First Amendment is supposed to prevent. Especially when that exclusion conveys the stamp of governmental approval.

It’s time for the idea of “nonsectarian” prayer as an acceptable, non-exclusionary form of government-sponsored observance to be recognized for what it is: nonsense.

The emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

Nonsectarian prayer doesn’t exist.

Christian Privilege

Here’s a very interesting reflection on the nature of Christian privilege that includes an “invisible knapsack” type list of specific examples of privilege. I recently thought about constructing a list like this, but ultimately decided not to; it would be too easy for someone with Christian privilege to dismiss a list like that as merely me complaining – see #18.

So I’m very glad to see it done, and done pretty well. I have problems with some of the way the list is put together – a couple of items nearly duplicate each other, while other items combine really important things that I think ought to be separated. And I wonder if the author was thinking mostly from the perspective of Muslims; there are a couple of pieces of privilege that I share, but not because I’m Christian, and on the other hand there are some particular things about fear of being outed as Pagan that didn’t really make the list.

Still, it’s a very good example of someone examining her own privilege with a careful eye, and it makes it a lot easier for people with less privilege to help explain what that privilege (or lack thereof) is like, and I thank the author from the bottom of my heart.

What do you think? How would you change that list?


4th of July: Preparing for the long haul

Many people have commented or emailed me to offer their support and assistance with regard to the difficulty I’m having being recognized as clergy. I cannot thank everyone enough; simply knowing that I’m not alone makes a tremendous difference, and the information I’m getting is helping me get a better picture of the general situation about this issue in Virginia.

I want to keep everyone updated, but I’m not going to have news immediately. So what’s the best way to stay in touch with people who want to know about this issue and might be interested in helping in the future? I’ll obviously be posting about it here, but I expect this will take some time (see below), and I’ll also be posting about plenty of other things.

So what’s better? An email list? A Twitter hashtag? Tell me what you want in comments and I’ll do my best to make it happen.

Because this is going to take time. And I’m going to need help – including your help.

As my dear friend Hecate has brilliantly explained, this is not a simple matter, so the first reason it’s taking time is that I really need legal advice. I have requests in with the ACLU and AU, but they get a lot of requests. The ACLU says it usually takes “several weeks” to get back to people about possible advice.

In the meantime, several people have urged me to simply go to a jurisdiction that is known to be more accepting of Pagan credentials. I am seriously considering that option; if I had a couple who wanted me to officiate at their wedding immediately, I would certainly do that, and I understand why many people would take that easier path.

But, as Hecate said, this time it’s personal. Arlington is my home jurisdiction; it’s where I live, and where I do a lot of my ministry, and where I hope to do more ministry in the future. Here in Arlington is one of the places where there are – finally – pentacles on military headstones. I don’t see why I should have to go somewhere else, and I might be just stubborn enough to stand on principle on this issue.

As another dear friend has pointed out, rights that are recognized or not based on where you go or who you ask aren’t really rights; they’re privileges granted or withheld at the whim of those with power.

And perhaps I have some advantages that will allow me to challenge this where other Pagans and Wiccans haven’t: I don’t have a job to lose; I don’t have kids to be bullied in school or taken away in a custody battle; I may have the time and energy for this. If I can stand up to this, and I can find people willing to help me, then putting those advantages to work trying to make sure that Pagans get equal treatment under law may be a way to give back.

None of this means that I’m spoiling for a fight. I sincerely hope this can be resolved without litigation. If this is a misunderstanding, let’s correct it. If it is the case that Arlington county applies its rules in ways that are significantly different from other counties and discriminate against minority religions, let’s see if we can get the rules changed. This is where things like public awareness and letter-writing and so on can be vital, where you – you as an individual – can really make a difference.

But it’s going to take time. Shortly after the refusal, I went to Theodore Roosevelt Island, one of my favorite places in the DC area, and a place I consider my “home” park, my favorite place to be in a more natural setting, to ground and breathe and watch the river and feel the sun. And suddenly I saw an animal I’d never seen there before: a turtle.

I laughed, and I sighed a little, and I looked up at the sky and down at the ground, and said “Alright, I hear you. You’re telling me this is going to take time.” That’s not really what I wanted to hear right then, but nature and my deities tend to tell me what I need to hear, rather than what I want to hear.

So this 4th of July I’m sitting at Columbia‘s feet contemplating what may be a long journey. Like so many other things she symbolizes, freedom of religion is a beautiful promise that we have to work out here in messy reality. In her “shining city on a swamp” we build dreams of justice on the imperfect foundation of law, created as it is through often ugly but still vitally important politcs. It’s a difficult process, and it will take time, and it will take help.

You tell me: what’s the best way to stay in touch so that we can walk this path together?

Virginia refuses to recognize me as clergy

Update: Virginia did eventually recognize me as clergy!

The Arlington County Court refused to grant me the right to perform marriages in Virginia, apparently on  the grounds that my “congregation” does not own a building.

I presented my certificate of ordination and documentation of the 501c3 status of the Order of the White Moon, which ordained me. Since my Order is incorporated in California, the secretary asked me if I had a congregation in Virginia; I said yes. She asked me to list the address of the congregation, and I said that we don’t have a building. She asked, “So, what, you just meet in each other’s homes?” I said yes, we meet in each other’s homes, or out of doors (Wicca is, after all, an earth-based religion, but I thought that mentioning that would only be prejudicial to my situation).

She left and came back with the Clerk of Court, Paul Ferguson. Mr. Ferguson said that they were not going to approve me. I asked if it was because we don’t have a building. He said, “Yes, you don’t have a building, and there were a few other things.” I asked him if he would give me a written list of the reasons I was being denied. He refused; he offered to show me the relevant section (Sec 20-23) of the Virginia Code. I assured him that I had read the Code, and asked again if he would give me more specific reasons I was being denied. He said that approving these applications was at his “discretion” and that he didn’t “feel” I met the qualifications, but he wouldn’t tell me how. He told me that I could apply to another court in another county but that he thought they would probably give me the same answer.

Has property ownership now become the measure of what constitutes a “real” religion in Virginia, or at least in Arlington County? Or is this another example of anti-Pagan discrimination at work?

Patchwork enforcement and a history of discrimination

Virginia is one of the few states in the US that requires clergy members to register with a circuit court in order to be able to perform valid marriages. The requirements in Sec 20-23 of the Code state that the minister must present proof of ordination and “of his being in regular communion” with the organization that ordained him.

These requirements are apparently interpreted in widely varying ways across various circuits in Virginia, as different courts’ websites list different types of documentation – or none – that may be required. For courts that openly state they require more than just proof of ordination, the way they ask for information gives tremendous privilege to traditionally-organized, i.e., Christian, groups. And if granting these applications really is up to the “discretion” of the Clerk of Court, there is wide scope for potential discrimination against minority religions with or without the fig leaf of requiring a “location” and other organizational trappings potentially beyond the reach of minority religious organizations.

This problem goes back more than a decade; in 1999, the ACLU helped another Wiccan priestess get her application in this situation approved.

I think it’s not unreasonable that I am concerned about what kind of documentation will satisfy the court. I serve multiple groups, one of which meets in a designated location, but since it is an open circle, the people who attend are mostly not members of my ordaining organization. If I provide documentation of this group meeting in a specific location, will the court then ask how many people attend, and how often we meet? What will they require to conclude that I am “really” a High Priestess in a “real” religion?

Why this matters

This is about more than performing weddings. This decision has a chilling effect on me trying to function as clergy in other ways; if the Court will not recognize me as legitimate clergy in this situation, will my right to confidentiality be protected? How can I assure people who come to me for counseling that their communications with me are protected by clergy privilege?

And since this is one of the two major forms of government approval used by a wide range of institutions and organizations to determine whether someone is a “real” clergy member, it can impact my ability to reach out to those who have particular needs: people in hospitals, the military, and prisons all need clergy services, but those institutions are much more likely to deny me the ability to minister to the people involved if I can’t say that I’m approved by the State of Virginia to perform marriages.

And although I might have my application granted if I tried another court, that does nothing to resolve the doubt cast on my status by the court with jurisdiction over where I live and do most of my ministry. If another court approved me, it would only serve to highlight the irregular and potentially biased variations in granting recognition across jurisdictions.

What you can do

I currently plan to gather additional supporting documentation and reapply, and if I am denied again, to ask whether I can appeal to a judge of the court. I am also currently seeking advice from the ACLU, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and the Lady Liberty League. Here’s what you can do to help:

First, get the word out. The more Pagans pull together, the better our chances of being recognized as “legitimate” in these kinds of situations.

If you are a Pagan clergyperson in Virginia and you have applied to perform marriages, please write to me at literatahurley@gmail.com. If you were approved, I’d like to know when you were approved, in what court, with what paperwork, and what questions they asked, both written and verbal. People who have been declined, please tell me that too. The more information I have for comparison the better.

I would also like to be able to present letters of support from other Pagan clergy and potentially from Pagan organizations that ordain people, especially ones that ordain people all over the country. If you’re interested, please contact me. And if you have other ideas about how to help, please  speak up!

People who aren’t in Virginia, please provide spiritual and magical support. Pray and send energy that I am able to gather the evidence I need and make a convincing argument, that the court will grant my new application swiftly, and that I may stay positive and be patient throughout this whole process.

I sincerely hope that together we can ensure this is the last time a Pagan in Virginia has her credentials questioned and her status as clergy denied.

Unequal Rites

The magnificent Board Administration Team at The Slacktiverse suggested “Unequal Rites” as the title for their cross-post of my story about being refused clergy status in Virginia. I’m going to borrow that title here to share just a little bit more personal reflection about why what seems like no big deal – the ability to sign marriage licenses – matters so much to me and, I think, to the Pagan community.

I had mixed feelings about getting the ability to sign marriage licenses because I don’t think that the government should require couples to get married by someone else, whether that person is clergy or a justice of the peace or whatever. I think that marriage or handfasting is a bond formed by the couple themselves; for the government’s purposes they should tell the government that they have formed – or dissolved – such a bond, but in my religious and personal understanding, the couple themselves are the ones responsible. They don’t need me to “marry” them. I don’t want to have any “power vested in me” by the State of Virginia.

But I do want to be able to help people meet the government requirements for this important event. Our society isn’t going to move in the direction I would prefer anytime soon, and in the meantime, people want to be married/handfasted, and they want government recognition of that status. This is an important life cycle event, and while some people will go the civil route, most people continue to expect the religious ceremony to grant them the legal status also.

I concluded that I would treat my role in “marrying” people as being a kind of court reporter: for its own reasons, which I disagree with, the government only allows certain people to sign marriage licenses. I decided that in applying for the right to sign marriage licenses, I was jumping through hoops in order to help people in the Pagan community meet government requirements. (As I noted in the previous piece, it’s also a vital part of being recognized by other institutions as “real” clergy, which is crucially important to me.)

And it’s also important, I think, that this is one of the things that forces people who might not otherwise participate actively in religion to interface with clergy. Like it or not, the civil ceremony is still seen as a less-desirable backup option, so getting married causes all sorts of people – spiritual but not religious, solitary practitioner, whatever – to seek out a clergy person with compatible beliefs and practices. By being such a clergy person, I can potentially serve a lot more people than are members of my Order, or my coven, or any other group.

The Supreme Court has ruled that we have a fundamental right to marry. (Loving v Virginia – yes, the same state of Virginia which I am currently struggling with!) We are slowly but surely moving towards extending marriage equality to people regardless of gender. But this is about more than the simple legal status of marriage; it’s also about how that status is conferred.

Pagans shouldn’t have to go to Christian clergy in order to be married. They shouldn’t have their religion denigrated by the government so that they have to go the “alternate route” of having a civil ceremony as well if they don’t want to.

Having our rights means having our rites.

Temerity, the CBN, and rights

Maybe I jinxed myself.

While I was traveling, small parties were randomly seated together at larger tables for breakfast. At about the same time as my post on the temerity of my existence went up, I was eating breakfast with another group that included someone who works for the Christian Broadcasting Network.

When I heard that, I went quiet for a minute, and tried to conceal quite how nervous this fact made me. The CBN was founded by Pat Robertson – you know, “pagans (sic) caused 9/11,” along with feminists and QUILTBAG people – that Pat Robertson. It continues to be a major vehicle for Pat and his particular brand of right-wing religion and politics, including arguing that America is a “Christian nation” and that Christians are an oppressed minority. (Notice the oxymoron there.) See Right Wing Watch for examples.

The CBN doesn’t just accidentally feature people who say nasty things about my religion and people like me. It doesn’t just have a few commenters who express their own opinions that Wicca should be illegal and that I’m a demon-possessed baby-killer, even though the network disagrees. It actively seeks out and actively promotes propaganda and even hate speech against my religion and people like me. CBN and the people who work for it lie, maliciously, aggressively, and work to make it impossible for people like me to exist.

These are the people who are actively spreading fear of the Satanazis.

How do you sit at table and make polite conversation with someone who works for an organization like that?

I managed it, mostly by not saying much. I thought about my previous post, and I wondered what would happen if I “outed” myself. Would I really be able to change their perspective? Or would they simply think how amazing it is that a demon-possessed baby-killer like me was able to “appear” so normal? What would they do?

I feel like this is somehow the flip side of what I wrote about previously. There are some people who simply will not be convinced that I’m a normal person, or that I deserve the same First Amendment rights as everyone else, no matter what I do. That’s discouraging, and it can be frightening when I come face-to-face with it.

Common wisdom likes to assume that all problems can be solved if people of good will would just get together and hash out the issues honestly. In Washington, this results in the “cargo cult of bipartisanship.” In issues of privilege, it leads to endless requirements for the people with less privilege, or whose rights are being denied, to do outreach and education and make efforts for good will, on the assumption that if we just do enough, others will see the truth and be convinced. That we can all “meet in the middle.”

Even more poisonously, it leads to arguments that the less-privileged shouldn’t assume that everyone who is oppressing them is a mean bastard. For example, one person pleaded with QUILTBAG people to recognize that the people who vote against marriage equality aren’t at all the same as that mean pastor who wants to put QUILTBAG people in concentration camps.

But as Fred Clark wrote, you can’t deny someone their rights and be nice about it.

More importantly, you can’t actively participate in malicious defamation, slander, and propaganda and be nice about it.

At the level of people like the CBN, this isn’t about simply learning that the people you oppose are human. It’s definitely not about that for the less-privileged. I already knew that the people who work for the CBN are human; they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like I do, they think they’re nice and polite, they travel and socialize just like I do. But they refuse to admit that I’m human, or that I deserve the same rights as they do.

So while I continue on with the temerity of existing in hopes of making a dent in favor of Pagans, I’m also working against this kind of malice and the mistreatment and discrimination it engenders. They’re two sides of the same coin, but neither can replace the other.

The Temerity of My Existence

The phenomenon of the persecuted hegemon serves notice to people like me that the temerity of my existence is simply too much to tolerate.

Sometimes I wonder whether I’m “playing the victim” when I am upset about the amount of discrimination and defamation that Pagans face. I let the “tone arguments” get to me and I wonder if it’s all my imagination, or if I’m just trying to score points in the Oppression Olympics. I live in a fairly cosmopolitan area with a thriving Pagan community, so I have the luxury to wonder about these things.

And then I spend time in a more homogenous area where the persecuted hegemons don’t even realize how much power they wield or how much harm they do on a daily basis. I realize that, as P. Sufenas Virius Lupus put it, “By being exactly who and what I am, I qualify in the minds of at least some people as their very worst nightmare.”

(TW: animal abuse, anti-QUILTBAG slurs, potential spiritual abuse)

A friend hears that I’m busy doing ritual this weekend and casually jokes that maybe my pets should be afraid. (As a deeply devoted pet parent, it’s hard to convey exactly how horrendously offensive that is. It’s also the contemporary Pagan equivalent of the blood libel, and as the most enduring legacy of the Satanic Panic of the 90s it continues to be a major point of harassment and defamation today.)

People casually toss off remarks about how the world’s going to hell and it’s all because of those dirty-hippie-liberal-lesbian-queers who don’t even have the common decency to go to church. They allege that everything wrong in the world would be fixed if we could just have (Christian, naturally) prayer in schools and go back to the “good old days” of a mythical past. (As someone with socialist leanings, the idea of a return to the 1950s where persecution focused on political positions is not exactly reassuring.)

People assume that my co-religionists are Christian not just in how they express their good wishes (“I’ll pray for you, and God bless you”) but in ways that actively intrude on others’ spiritual life – they start praying over people without asking, or discuss how so-and-so’s faith in Jesus will get her through her difficult situation. They don’t even think to consider the possibility that someone else is not Christian, let alone ask what that person prefers.

(end TW)

In other words, people casually other me and defame me to my face, engaging in near-hate-speech and outright hate speech as if it were popularly accepted opinion and perfectly acceptable. (Within their circle, they may be right about the first part.) That’s when I stop wondering whether it’s my imagination.

In these kinds of situations, I am faced with the very temerity of my existence: how dare I be non-Christian, non-straight, non-conservative, how dare I insist that I have the same fundamental rights that they do when I am definitively Other.

When confronted by the temerity of my existence, it becomes all the more important to me to be who and what I am. I don’t always “out” myself, and I don’t always respond with arguments. I don’t always call people on their privilege or their claims to hegemonic control over society. Sometimes I do. Sometimes it’s hard enough just to be myself and keep functioning to accomplish some other goal.

But I have to hope that simply by being myself I contribute to confronting them with the temerity of my existence: I will not stop being who and what I am simply because they disapprove, or because they don’t realize it. I hope that sometimes it matters that I show that I have rights to be myself. Sometimes I hope I contribute to the kind of transformation that happens when someone realizes that they know a member of a stereotyped group, and that person completely blows the stereotype out of the water, or that their “worst nightmare” isn’t so bad after all. Sometimes it’s a little bit of both. Sometimes I have to hope that it’s just laying the groundwork for those kinds of developments in the future.

Through all of it I try to hang on to the fact that when I am confronted with the temerity of my existence, I am in return contributing in a small way to afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. I have to hope so, because it’s hard enough just to be me.