Reflections from the 1st Annual Conference on Earth-Based, Nature-Centered, Polytheistic & Indigenous Faiths

This past Saturday the 1st Annual Conference on Earth-Based, Nature-Centered, Polytheistic & Indigenous Faiths was held in California at the Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco. Organized by the Pagan Alliance, and co-sponsored the Circle of DionysosSolar Cross Temple,Institute for Transpersonal Psychology, CAYA coven and the Earth Medicine Alliance, the theme for the one-day conference was “Gender & Earth-Based Spiritualities” and featured Vicki Noble as keynote speaker. While sparked by issues arising from an incident of transgender exclusion at a public women-only ritual during the 2011 PantheaCon in San Jose, the conference itself opened itself up to a much wider-ranging discussion concerning gender within modern Paganism. Here are some reflections shared with me by conference chair and Pagan Alliance president JoHanna White.

joi wolfwomyn and Vicki Noble. Photo by Greg Harder.

joi wolfwomyn and Vicki Noble. Photo by Greg Harder.

“The Conference went remarkably well. It was well attended for a first year Conference on a cold day in SF. There was an incredible list of presenters: Judy Grahn and Dianne Jenett, Vicki Noble, Charlie Glickman, Veronica Monet, T. Thorn Coyle as well as many interested attendees such as M. Macha Nightmare, a number of Radical Faeries, students from ITP, PSR, etc. We had 5 cameras taping various lectures and performances and we hope to put out some online videos and a dvd within the next few months. Two documentarians, one filming for Ssex Bbox, and another working on a forthcoming documentary on sex, spirituality, and culture, shot video of talks at the Conference.

In her introductory remarks, joi wolfwomyn asked folks to treat eachother with respect and really listen to the different perspectives brought out in the day and that energy of respect really carried forward into the entire day of programming and events. Vicki Noble’s keynote integrated both her personal experience as a feminist separatist as well as her acknowledgement of the multitude of genders that exist and our need to respect the diversity of gender. Her statement on separatism was that it can be through having separate spaces that members of marginalized groups can become stronger and return to the larger community with the confidence and commitment to make real and positive change. The Conference had a number of workshops and presentations on 3rd and 4th genders throughout the world and was a wonderful sampling of the diversity of our community. CAYA’s co-sponsorship (along with ITP, Solar Cross, Earth Medicine Alliance, and Circle of Dionysos) on the event pushed us over a threshold where we were able to offer scholarships to many transfolk, low-income attendees, and disabled persons. Making this conference accessible to many. Hurrah!

We had some lovely seasonal Pomegranate mimosas (one of my best ideas of the year, I think) Hail Persephone and all that jazz and a beautiful food spread for attendees. Members of the Circle of Dionysos put on an amazing cabaret during the luncheon that included a costumed Sinnerjee depicted Loki doing “Every Other God a Greek.”an original composition (to the tune of Do Re Mi from The Sound of Music) by Origynal Sinnerjee, a musician depicting Freyr sang traditional Pagan songs in Finnish and Icelandic, as well as a drag Cybele monologue, an original song about Sirens a la lesbian separatists. The cabaret was overwhelmingly well received.

I had a great time and we’re looking forward to next year. We will likely continue to address Gender and Earth-based spirituality (due to overwhelming requests/suggestions from folk at the Conference), but will be bringing in some new tracks.”

In addition to White’s impressions, T. Thorn Coyle, who presented at the conference, shares her experiences in a just-posted column for

T. Thorn Coyle at the conference. Photo: Greg Harder.

T. Thorn Coyle at the conference. Photo: Greg Harder.

“The 1st Annual Conference on Earth-Based, Nature-Centered, Polytheistic & Indigenous Faiths with the theme of Earth-Based Spiritualities & Gender left me with an intriguing mix of thoughts. I feel grateful that the Pagan Allianceput in the time, energy, and money to organize the conference, and am proud that Solar Cross Temple helped to sponsor it. Talking about gender in the context of Paganism feels very important to me. The sense I was left with after Saturday was that while we only scratched the surface of the topic, an elephant in the room was barely addressed, and more dialogue is necessary, goodwill was present amongst those attending, and that counts for a lot.

Many things felt heartening to me about the day: a variety of gender expressions walking through the hallways; seeing second wave feminists I cut my teeth on presenting at a Pagan conference; meeting a human rights activist from the Organisation Intersex International and wanting to talk more theology; the insightful comments and ideas that people shared with each other during my presentation on genderqueer theology; talks with people in between sessions”

While Coyle felt that the “whole subject of gender, normativity, fluidity, and polarity felt like it needs a lot more breathing room,” she applauded the Pagan Alliance “for seeing a need, and moving to address it.”

During this year’s conference Lady Yeshe Rabbit, High Priestess of CAYA Coven, whose Amazon Priestess Tribe’s Rite of Lilith at PantheaCon 2011 provided the setting of transgender exclusion that ultimately led to this day, led a Ritual of Radical Forgiveness. At her blog, Lady Yeshe Rabbit explains the rationale for the ritual, and shares the ritual itself for those who couldn’t be there.

Lady Yeshe Rabbit at the conference. Photo: Greg Harder.

Lady Yeshe Rabbit at the conference. Photo: Greg Harder.

CAYA’s commitment to gender diversity includes a commitment to creating public circles for all to practice ritual together, circles for all who self-identify as a particular gender, and private, closed circles for those who continue to identify with their gender at birth for the sake of healing and deep personal work. It is not an easy place to be. On the one hand, intellectually-sound and impassioned arguments exist for the full inclusion of all self-identified men and women in all gendered spaces they choose. These arguments are well-reasoned, clear, loving and radical- all very much in keeping with CAYA’s core philosophies. On the other hand, there are mysteries and wisdom paths that are associated with embodying a certain gender from birth and the lifetime of acculturation to that gender, as well as physical experiences associated with coming of age in that particular body. These are primal, powerful, visceral and also radical- very much in keeping with CAYA’s core philosophies.

I do not think anyone in CAYA or outside of CAYA has the final answers on how this integration of diverse and sometimes opposing viewpoints can happen effectively to the highest benefit of the greater pagan community. Certainly it won’t happen overnight. Certainly it requires delicacy, patience, and good faith.

Our hope in offering a Ritual of Radical Forgiveness at the conference was to magically and sympathetically put to rest the discord around the topic of the past year and to acknowledge that there is pain and challenge on all sides of this issue. It is our prayer that, moving forward, everyone who has a strong and powerful opinion on this topic or experience of their gender reality will be able to at least co-exist in mutual harmony, respect for one another’s right to hold their views and practices as best befits them, and non-violence in our language and actions toward one another. The religious right would love to see us tear one another apart. It would mean they don’t have to lift a finger in order to cripplingly disempower us. I, for one, will not allow that to happen if I have any say in the matter whatsoever. My intent is to create respectful unity around our spiritual diversity and thus protect it with my own intentions, prayers, words and actions. To that end, here is the ritual outline, for those who were not able to attend. The ritual was received very well by the 25-30 participants who attended, and while it is not a final step to end all conflict, it felt like a powerful step in the right direction toward peace and wholeness within our extended community.”

The results of this conference are a first step, something acknowledged by all who attended. As intimated by JoHanna White, next year’s conference will also focus on gender in order to continue the important conversations started here. A date of September 8th, 2012 has been set. For more coverage, please see the follow up post from the PNC-Bay Area bureau.

As I said earlier this year, I have few illusions that all problems will be “solved,” but I do think what we are witnessing here is historic, and will change us in ways we can’t envision now. CAYA’s Amazon Priestess Tribe’s Rite of Lilith acted as a catalyst for a long-overdue conversation about the role of gender, and transgender individuals, within modern Paganism. If you look at how quickly modern Paganism has grown in the span of a single generation, particularly in the United States, it shouldn’t surprise anyone. When Margot Adler’s “Drawing Down the Moon” was initially published in 1979, gay and lesbian Pagans were just emerging from decades of silence and marginalization within our interconnected communities, now, 32 years later, we’re having serious discussions about “Gay Paganism’s Second Wave.” In such an atmosphere, the issue of how we treat, respect, and integrate transgendered individuals was destined to stop being a fringe topic dealt with only in passing, or in isolated corners, and demand a wider discussion.

I think a collective future of “transcentric imagery, gods and goddess with the wide variety of trans bodies,” alongside and complementing the more prevalent cisgendered representations, will become a reality far quicker than any of us might realize, and that modern Paganism, a movement so ready to accept change, challenges, and differences, yet still remain identifiable and vital, will ultimately benefit from it. The collective maturity and willingness to dialog seen at this conference is a credit to our family of faiths, and when future historians look back at this gathering, it will be rightfully seen as a milestone in how we all approach the topic of gender within our interconnected communities.