Growing up in a San Francisco Bay Area suburb in the 1970’s, I was made painfully aware of just how strange I was in the eyes of other people. Oblivious to it myself, but strikingly obvious to nearly everyone around me, I was a queer child; soft, effeminate, disinterested in sports or violence, and drawn to art, beauty, nurturing, and nature. Up through the third grade I was consistently asked if I was a boy or a girl; most other children decidedly labeled me as an outcast. I was a weird child, and back then, weird was definitely not a popular value. (My flaming red hair also did nothing to help me blend in – I was the only ginger child that I knew, despite growing up in a city called Dublin.) My queerness was seen as a weakness, a defect. It is just as true in playgrounds as in shark-tanks: once they smell blood, the frenzy begins.
The proverbial “sticks and stones” may indeed be better suited to causing us physical harm than verbal attacks, as the childhood expression would attest, but words can slice deep, especially to a child, and harm the heart and mind. Words can insidiously slide behind our defenses and render us helpless. They can undermine our authority and cause us to question ourselves in a way that leaves us vulnerable, especially when those words are used to define us outside of our own terms. I was called many names. Queer. Faggot. Fairy. Before I could fully claim my own identity, these words carried pain. Now that I know who I am – on my terms – they carry power.
I am one of those people who asserts that all witches are queer. While the word has often been reserved for either insults or political empowerment, its actual definition makes it a perfect fit for those who would align themselves to a practice that is, shall we say, uniquely variant from the mainstream. Similar terms are used in both communities when describing our shared initiatory experiences. The queer community speaks of “coming out of the closet” as a metaphor for disclosing one’s queer identity, while Witches sometimes use the phrase “coming out of the broom closet” in reference to those instances in which we reveal our magical lives to those around us. In doing so, we may experience a specific type of backlash in which the minority view is seen as threatening the collective majority.
My experiences in coming out of the closet, both as a gay man and as a practitioner of Witchcraft, demonstrated to me just how much these two identities hold in common. Often, sexual-and-gender-variant people are accused of forcing our lifestyles upon “normal” folks for simply existing. Holding my partner’s hand in public, speaking in tones deemed “unmanly,” or even wearing certain colors invokes the ire of the patriarchal machine which has deemed non-conformity is a condition to be eradicated. In this, Witches too can perhaps find commonalty. How many of us, after sharing our magical natures, were told that we were “going through a phase,” or that we were “just doing it for attention?” As the “other,” we threaten the cult-like insistence that mainstream thought/gender/sexuality/religion is the only path of real value. That adherence to the mainstream is a position that is revealed to be based in fear when we consider the sheer lengths that the over-culture will go to in order to justify their particular brand of blind hatred and bigotry.
There is another common theme that both the sexual-and-gender-variant communities share with their Witchy siblings: self-importance. As peoples who are largely shunned and devalued, we have perhaps been given more opportunities than many of our “straight” peers to delve into the shadows of our personal identities. Whether we express ourselves wrapped in rainbow flags atop a float at a Pride parade or clad in robes (or sky!) within our magic circles, we are following the path of our own hearts, and not the one that society has laid out before us. In this regard, our actions are both brave as well as deliciously selfish; we make the conscious choice to be true to ourselves even though we know that in doing so we can become targets for abuse.
Queer history provides us with the perfect example of someone who consciously chooses their own identity: the dandy. Traditionally, the dandy was someone who would imitate the lifestyle of the aristocracy, despite coming from a middle-class background. In this, the historical dandy used aesthetics as a tool of self-empowerment.
Current queer culture likewise employs the use of self-creation. For us, much of life is about the choices we make, sometimes in opposition to what is expected of us. Growing up and immersing myself in queer culture taught me the queer-specific use of the word, “family,” to reference others who were also queer. Our personal experiences have often demonstrated to us that our own biological families might be hostile to our true natures, and so we would find ways of freeing ourselves from the negative entanglements of family and consciously choose our own: families based on support, acceptance, shared experience, and camaraderie. For some, this might mean moving away and starting a new life, sometimes even with a new name.
For transgender individuals, taking a new name (and by extension, identity) is something that most people wouldn’t find strange. But they are certainly not the only ones. Some cisgender people also do the same, as naming oneself can be a tremendous act of personal power. For some, it can be an act of protection, effectively distancing themselves from a troubled past and people whom we have tried so very hard to leave behind. For others, it can be an act of claiming power: choosing a new identity – or at least a hidden aspect of ourselves — and allowing that process to help shape how we act and move into our individual and collective futures.
This is most delightfully expressed in the practices of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence®, who are, according to their website, “a leading-edge Order of queer and trans nuns,” who believe all people deserve to express their uniqueness and beauty. It is customary within their order to take on a name to be used specifically in conjunction with their work. Names like “Sister Saddie Saddie Rabbi Lady,” “Sister Mae B. Hostel,” and “Sister Olive O’Sudden” reflect the irreverent humor that is hallmark of the Order and provide a sense of power and purpose to those who adopt them.
In Witchcraft it is often asserted that there is power in knowing something’s true name. When dealing with spirits, one of the first techniques taught is to obtain their name so that we might have a deeper and more authentic connection to them. In that same vein, it is customary to choose a new name for ourselves, which is then used as a magical tool. It is a working, directed upon the self to help empower and guide us on our spiritual journeys. In some traditions there are specific guidelines, such as taking the name of a deity or other mythological figure. In others, one might draw from any number of sources, such as tarot, astrology, aspects of nature, or even one’s individual experiences in trance. Regardless of the specific elements involved in its creation, the magical name is a psychological trigger that can assist in the changing of one’s magical consciousness. Far from a frivolous descent into fantasy or denial, the use of such a name can allow deeper aspects of the individual’s being to step into the forefront. When consciously engaged, this can be one of the most powerful tools in the Witch’s arsenal.
My own name represents some deeply spiritual transformative experiences I had in my youth, and the commitment I have made to shape my life in concert with them. It is a spell, an inner alignment as well as an outer point of focus. It is a name from another world and forces me to remember my relation to this one as a result. Identifying with a name that is very much unlike what is common has shifted my consciousness in unexpected ways. To some it might be a point of ridicule. But it has never been a value of the Craft (or, dare I say, of a queer lifestyle) to accept the judgements or limitations of others.
Whether it is as a gay man or as a Warlock, I choose to live out and proud. I’m not here for anyone’s approval. I will wear my weirdness with pride and ally with those who likewise share a love of the different, the other, the queer. “We are the weirdos, mister.” And together, we will shape ourselves into who we wish to become and change the world.