Oh, My Pop Culture Goddess: Transgender Issues in Wicca and Paganism

1zn4ljlBefore Gail Simone wrote Alysia Yeoh as the first trans character in mainstream DC Comics, Neil Gaiman briefly introduced another trans character in the Sandman story A Game of You. Trans woman Wanda Mann is arguably one of the first trans characters in comic books, and, while I utterly love her character, the way she is portrayed is definitely extremely problematic. However, this is not meant to be a post discussing Wanda’s overall portrayal as a trans character. Instead, what I want to focus on is the exchange between Wanda and the witch Thessaly, and how their interactions relate to the current issues that trans people face within the Wicca and Pagan communities.

In A Game of You, the main character of this particular story, Barbie, is trapped in the Land of Dreaming by a nefarious creature called the cuckoo. Wanda, Barbie’s best friend, and several of her neighbors, including Thessaly and the young lesbian couple Foxglove and Hazel, were also affected by the cuckoo. They were all infected with bad dreams that could have killed them, but Thessaly’s training as a witch allowed her to save them. Wanda, Foxglove, and Hazel want to travel to the Land of Dreaming to save Barbie; Thessaly wants to go as well, but mostly to seek revenge on the cuckoo that tried to kill her. Thessaly claims there are only two ways to enter a person’s dreams: to ask the Dream King, who she doubts would help them, and to go by the Moon’s way. The Moon’s way involves using menstrual blood from Foxglove for the ritual. In this ritual Thessaly specifically displays cissexism.

Foxglove: Huh? Why me?

Thessaly: Because you’re menstruating. No one else here is. Hazel’s pregnant, Wanda’s a man… and I haven’t menstruated for a long time.

On top of this, when the path is finally made for them by the Triune Moon Goddess, Wanda wants to come with the other women to help Barbie, but Thessaly tells her she can’t.

Thessaly: This isn’t your route. It can’t be. I’m sorry.

Thessaly seems to be pretty clear here that Wanda, despite identifying as a woman, is not a woman. This seems to be enforced by the ritual she does; the spiritual forces she calls upon would not allow Wanda to be incorporated because she is not biologically female.

sandman32thessalyI had read this comic before, but it was given to me as a gift this last Christmas, and I started to reread it then. Not too many months before this, I began exploring Wicca and Paganism for a variety of reasons. Together these two things cause me to ask the question: is transphobia a problem in Paganism and Wicca? I do not claim to be any kind of an expert, as I am very much a beginner, and in part I am doing this post because I want to hear the thoughts of our Wiccan and Pagan followers.

When I first started exploring Wicca and Paganism I fell in love with the female spirituality and female images that are incorporated in many people’s practices. As a Christian who had been largely denied those things in my religion, I was extremely pleased to find them in Wicca and Paganism. However, as I read more, I began to be concerned about some things, like the fact that the potential to give birth seemed to be regarded as extremely important to being female, the heteronormativity that constantly seems to be the focus of much of the worship surrounding the God and Goddess, and such a large focus on biological gender that I was concerned about transphobia.

To my relief, some of my concerns were put to rest, at least in part (as I said, I still have much to fully understand). For example, despite certain rituals or holidays emphasizing the ability to produce life, much of Paganism and Wicca celebrates other aspects of femininity and does not, in general, attempt to boil women down to the biological functions. For queer practitioners, things are a little more complicated. Lazarus Kyraphia is a gay man who is a member of the Alexandrian Wiccan coven, an initiate of the Antinoian mysterious through the Ekklesia Antinooa, and has done graduate coursework towards a Masters of Applied Theology. He explains that much of traditional Paganism and Wicca has roots in homophobia. He writes:

I know that some Queer Pagans have been turned off to Wicca and gone in search of other Pagan paths that they feel better reflect their experiences as LGBT people because they feel that the God and Goddess of Wicca express a heterosexist experience.  In all fairness, there might be some validity to this opinion.  After all, there is a real history of homophobia within Traditionalist Wicca.

He goes on to explain, however, that in recent years the Pagan and Wiccan community avatar_cac06ef98a87_512has been very accepting of homosexual people, and that there has been a large effort made by queer Pagans and Wiccans to reinterpret or re-imagine the gods or rituals in a way that is open to all queer people. For example, Artemis’s disinterest in men could cause her to be read as a lesbian, or even asexual, since she seemed uninterested in sex in general. Kyraphia particularly mentions the Horned God, and how traditionally, horned gods never seemed to care about who they slept with. He even mentions interpreting the interplay between the God and Goddess has more to do with fertility and polarity then heterosexuality.

So while many of my initial concerns were addressed, I still had worries about the state of the Pagan trans community. Most of the discussion I could find about transgender Pagans and Wiccans was focused on PantheaCon 2011 and the Dianic Wicca. At the convention, a Dianic Wiccan group led by Z. Budapest specified that all women were welcome to join their ritual, but then denied trans women access. Z. Budapest explained why trans women were not allowed (warning for transphobia):

This struggle has been going since the Women’s Mysteries first appeared. These individuals selfishly never think about the following: if women allow men to be incorporated into Dianic Mysteries, What will women own on their own? Nothing! Again! 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, They don’t care if women loose the Only tradition reclaimed after much research and practice ,the Dianic Tradition. Men simply want in. its their will. How dare us women not let them in and give away the ONLY spiritual home we have!
Men want to worship the Goddess? Why not put in the WORK and create your own trads. The order of ATTIS for example,(dormant since the 4rth century) used to be for trans gendered people, also the castrata, men who castrated themselves to be more like the Goddess.
Why are we the ONLY tradition they want? Go Gardnerian! Go Druid! Go Ecclectic!
Filled with women, and men. They would fit fine.
But if you claim to be one of us, you have to have sometimes in your life a womb, and overies and MOON bleed and not die.
Women are born not made by men on operating tables. [sic] (source)

From the research I have done, the inclusion of trans people has become a huge issue today in the Pagan and Wiccan community, and for the most part, the people I have seen discussing the issue are very much supporters of trans practitioners. Although transphobic practitioners like Z. Budapest appear to be in the minority, transphobia is still a problem.

dianic university

I don’t think that there is anything in Paganism or Wicca that could cause it to be more or less transphobic than any other religion. And I don’t see why trans individuals cannot be allowed to reinterpret Wiccan and Pagan beliefs in the same way that queer people have. On one blog post about Gender Essentialism in Paganism and Wicca, one commenter mentioned that there were groups already doing just that. They explain:

The presence of a hard and fast gender binary in Wicca was kind of a turn off for me. In the Radical Faeries in DC we expanded this concept into recognizing God-Forms as Male, Female, Both, and Neither. When theology fails you, change your theology. (source)

Paganism and Wicca seem to be, at their core, very accepting religions, even though there may still be problems. One of the things that upset me in A Game of You is that Thessaly’s transphobic beliefs seemed to be affirmed by the universe. The ritual and Goddess she called upon seemed to support her opinion that Wanda is not “really” a woman. But while Wanda’s portrayal still has problems, I was extremely pleased with the end of the comic. Sadly, Wanda dies, but afterward Barbie dreams of her with Death. In her dream, Wanda is shown as and recognized as a woman. So in the end, Thessaly is shown to be wrong—whatever forces that govern the universe recognize what Wanda already knew about herself, that she is a woman, regardless of her birth sex or her body’s biological functions. Just as Wanda was recognized by the universe as the woman she always knew herself to be, I hope Paganism and Wicca also come to recognize trans individuals as the gender they know themselves to be.

wanda1

8 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Goddess: Transgender Issues in Wicca and Paganism

  1. YES.
    thank you, well-researched article. In my eyes, the focus on gender is definitely an issue with Wicca. It’s most prominent in BTW (British Traditional Wicca) and the Gardnerian and associated traditions, though even more eclectic and liberal varieties have an emphasis on a gendered polarity that I, as a gay man, ultimately find alienating. (The same thing happened when I tried to get really into Taoism.) Despite the emphasis on heterosexual symbolism in the standard Wiccan mythos (The Great Rite, typical baseline narrative behind the Wiccan Wheel of the Year/Sabbat cycle, etc), I’ve found most standard ecelctic Pagan/Wiccan groups very open to members of the LGBTQ+ community. I’ve even been to a Yule ritual where a (trans)woman strega helped lead.
    Some practitioners have definitely carved out queer-friendly, or even queer-centric traditions of their own. There are certainly lesbian possibilites in Dianic Wicca (though of course there is still the issue of transphobia that you pointed out), and for queer men, the Radical Faeries, The Brotherhood of the Phoenix (http://brotherhoodofthephoenix.org/about_us/faq/#general) and The Minoan Brotherhood (http://www.minoan-brotherhood.org/, also has a women’s counterpart, The Minoan Sisterhood). Also that Ekklesia Antinoou you mentioned; just read about it a few days ago. It was founded by a metagender practitioner! (that is a term that was new to me)
    As for me, I’ve shifted to a practice and worldview that is (I’d like to think!) somewhat more shamanic than Wiccan. Instead of a cosmic, complementary duality, I prefer to see a broader, more diverse cosmological picture that focuses on a greater plurality and multiplicity of stories, myths, deities, spirits, and powers.

  2. Thanks for writing this article. 🙂

    In terms of comic characters there has also been Coagula/Kate Godwin in Doom Patrol (written by a transgender woman no less) and Lord Fanny in The Invisibles. While Lord fanny’s depiction is sometimes problematic feeling, to me it seemed that being trans was something she could draw on as a source of power for her shaminism.

    In terms of the issue of transphobia in wicca, it’s definitely very real. A lot of the ideals of Dianic Wiccan are really appealing to me (no gender polarity as a source) so it’s such a shame that the founder is a bigot. It means that it doesn’t really feel safe for me to try and investigate in person which groups might be welcoming and which might be hateful.

    There are a number of arguments that often lead to transphobic exclusion from pagan women’s spaces which try to acknowlede trans women as women but not as females. A lot of them revolve around ideas about the prescence of a penis interfering with yoni magic or trans women not being able to understand, care about, or perform womb magic.

    Two points about terminology: While of course you may hear or meet some trans people who disagree, I really find the terms birth sex and biologically female to be outdated and problematic. Everyone is biological, and I wasn’t any less female when I was born than I am now. In my opinion, assigned sex is a good substitute for birth sex, as it helps to place the ‘error’ or incongruity on society’s perception of my body, rather than on my body itself.

    Greate article!

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  4. Wonderful article and an eye-opener. Sadly this reflects some of my thoughts on Wicca since it first caught my interest. I have always thought that Dianic has been such a tolerant practice and never thought Z would ever say such a thing. This is NOT ok.

    Personally I think the God/desses and religion / spirituality is human(e) centered. If we find things in the world that isn’t covered by our ideology, then our ideas should be changed. I believe the Gods / Goddesses to be pluralistic despite their dualistic guise. Much is actually more about interpretation than anything else. I have adopted a more shamanistic approach to spirituality than there seems to be in general Wicca (or maybe I just haven’t seen it yet). Everything in this world is sacred and if someone thinks they can create religion and then make it a No-Homer’s club, that only shows their own ignorance. The Divine will always meet with Their followers. Like when lightening strikes. It’s inevitable.

  5. My apologies for coming to this post so very late, but it’s a really important set of questions you’ve raised, so thank you for doing so!

    I am P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, the founder of the Ekklesía Antínoou, and the metagender person of which your commentator polyglotpisces mentioned above. I don’t want to advertise for the group or what we do unless you’re interested in that, but in any case, I thought an introduction would be useful! 😉

    Just a small clarification on the PantheaCon 2011 ritual: it was hosted/lead by the Amazon Priestess Tribe (now known as the Bloodroot Honey Priestess Tribe, renamed due to the difficulties this incident caused), a sub-tradition within Come As You Are Coven in the Bay Area. The founder of Come As You Are Coven, Lady Yeshe Rabbit, is an old friend of mine, and her and her group are sworn tribal allies of the Ekklesía Antínoou through the ritual of Communalia. Lady Yeshe was initiated by Z. Budapest a while back (in ’07 or so, if memory serves), but as a result of the fallout from this event, she broke away from the Dianic tradition and together with Devin Hunter and his group founded the PanDianic tradition, which is open to people of all genders, in 2012 (or it might have been 2013, I can’t quite remember now). Z. Budapest did not lead the ritual in 2011, nor was she affiliated with it; she only was a vocal commentator on it (on a blog post written at a blog dedicated to Lilith) afterwards, and she was then quoted frequently as a result. The following year, she gave her last PantheaCon ritual, in which she (non-)apologized for her remarks the previous year, had an exclusionary ritual, and both a group facilitated by T. Thorn Coyle, and another coalition including Lady Yeshe, Devin Hunter, and several others had protests of her ritual and her exclusionary tactics; Thorn’s group was there to silently protest the exclusion, while the other group decided to stand in between and try to honor the good things each person/group has done, but not favor one or the other. Opinions were divided on the Z. ritual itself, the Thorn protest, and the other coalition counter-protest/attempt at mediation, needless to say.

    In any case, it’s important to get the details–no matter how nit-picky and nuanced they may be!–right on this, so that bad ideas don’t continue to persist. Come As You Are Coven have fully apologized for the difficulties in this instance, and in addition to breaking from the Dianic tradition, also now have a further sub-tradition called Beyond the Binary and and Rainbow Moon Circles which are inclusive of people of all (and especially gender-variant) gender identities. They’re wonderful folks, actually, and I will be collaborating with these newer groups quite a bit in the years to come to do some trans* and gender-variant/gender-diverse work, which I hope there will be more of in the future! 😉

    Again, thank you for writing this, and I apologize for the length of my response!

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  8. thank you sooo so much for this article. i’m a nonbinary person who really wants to get into wicca, but the whole strict binary-ism that seems to be deeply rooted in many people’s practices really really sets me off. it makes me feel like i cant be a “real” wiccan. i’m glad i’m not the only one who hates how much the sex and gender binaries are pushed in the generally accepted lore of the god and goddess.

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