the ground is shifting under Pagan gender

You may have heard by now about the continuing, repeating controversy about PantheaCon and rituals excluding transwomen, or more specifically the one led by Z Budapest this year.

I wrote about this subject a year ago, and if you followed the subject then (involving PantheaCon again) you’ll know that it was about a lot more than rituals designed for people with specific bodies. I’m not going to requote the hurtful, insulting, deeply wounding and ideologically driven outburst of Z Budapest, which she posted in response to criticism of women being turned away at the door because they were trans. You can find it quoted on various blogs, and it was, as T Thorn Coyle described it, hate speech, an aggressive and devaluing attack against an entire group of people for what they simply are.

I can’t say that I had high expectations of Budapest, but I now realize that something in me could not quite believe that a year later she would not have retracted, acknowledged or apologized for her public attack on transwomen. Either that, or organizers of events would take on board that we really do have a moral problem here. Instead she apparently returned to PantheaCon and held a ritual for “all women present”, with the appended proviso “genetic women only”. And when you figure in that this was a return to the scene of the first controversy, and that there had been no apology for her written attack on transwomen, that’s pretty much like those charming signs they used to hang in pub windows: “no blacks, no Irish”. Inevitably it would look like: “I can do this, and I don’t even have to explain my previous behaviour”.

Inevitably people would ask: why did PantheaCon let her do this? And while running such an enormous and dynamic festival is a challenge which I’m sure the organizers do incredibly and with amazing hard work, it’s a question they will have to answer. Doing the work of making things happen is never a thankful task, and I think people should hear their story, but the talk is going to have to come and the question is serious. The talk can’t wait another year.

In addition to the questions, anger and scrutiny raised by this, I’ve heard a lot of excusing, wavering, and holding back, a lot of defending Budapest for her “right to express her beliefs”, her “freedom of religion”, the right to exclusive space etc. There were a number who felt the need to “hold neutral space” between Budapest’s ritual and those sitting in silent meditation (not even “protest”) outside, the latter led by T Thorn Coyle. I can’t help feeling that this “holding of space” was misguided. Surely it is injustice that needs healing, not the recognition of it? Inevitably these “holding neutral space” actions would look like attempts at protecting Budapest from the silent meditators, which just appears perverse and bizarre. This also seems confirmed by this account, whatever the intentions or perceptions of the “holders”.

As for the suggested defenses and justifications of Z Budapest holding her ritual in the way she did, where she did, these really miss the point, and buy into the justifications which Budapest blew pretty definitively with her all too revealing outburst last year. This wasn’t about separate space, the sanctity and autonomy of a tradition, or religious freedom. That last one particularly makes me cringe, like where have I heard religious freedom used as a justification for  denying equality before? Too often is the answer. I fear there is just a little muddled thinking and moral cowardice in some of the appeals for peace and healing at the expense of the disempowered and wronged. We need to stand up for transfolk, not attempt to explain how someone with a lot of clout might have their own perspective when they act out their prejudice.

A witness of the meditation outside the ritual can be found here. The accounts of the situation that I personally found most thoughtful and clear were those of Thorn Coyle here, here and here.

I have never been to PantheaCon and am unlikely to go anytime soon, as I am about 5,000 miles away, but these events and issues hit deeper and further than geographical location. I feel a sense of heaviness and sadness from the human failure that has been put in focus by events at PantheaCon two years running, and by Z Budapest’s abusiveness. But the fact that this has raised awareness, and produced shock and response from the international Pagan community also bears hope with it.

I know some people would find this statement melodramatic, but I feel that these events signal the end of an era, one which has dragged on too long. Equally something new has made its presence felt.

These events and personalities will pass, but dreams with a fresher sense of freedom and justice and equality have proven themselves alive.

Rosa Parks isn’t moving from the front of the bus.

Athena. Attic red-figure lekythos: photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen - used under creative commons 2.5 license

[addition 26th February 2012: an open letter to PantheaCon by Jonathan Korman, which you can sign in endorsement if you agree, can be found here]

A free e-book that may be of interest:  Gender and Transgender in Modern Paganism



  1. It just seems to be a few who will push to exclude us. The real trouble is the ones who go along with that. One person stands up and says, “No, you cannot be here, you are a man” and others could tell her she is wrong- but don’t, even if they would have tolerated us themselves.

  2. Please consider, however, that those of us who held a “neutral” space did so because the issue was already becoming convoluted; this was not about protesting or supporting any ritual (which is one perception of the vigil that had already begun to be spun around the con) but about supporting the women who chose to attend AS WELL as those who stood to act as counterpoint to Z’s hateful rhetoric. Regardless of the fact that some have misinterpreted our actions (just as some has misinterpreted Thorn’s actions) does not detract from the fact that these actions have helped to shine a spotlight on an important issue and now the conversation is becoming a prominent one. This, I feel, is a huge success.

    • thank you for your comment Storm, I didn’t have any doubt of the good intentions of the various people “holding the center” (or however it is best described), and I hope the results are positive.

      I was not there. I would not have known how to support the women attending the ritual without also supporting Z in the context of her behaviour and apparent beliefs. From what I read from Thorn, it really sounded to me like she was holding centre already, but I was not there to feel the dynamics unfolding.

      I thank you for being present and trying to do the right thing by your own lights.

      best wishes


      • sorry, that wasn’t all clearly worded. What I meant to say was that I would not have known how to show support for cis-women wishing to attend the ritual for their own needs, without also implicitly seeming to show support for Z Budapest and her objectionable behaviour and beliefs, which I cannot in any way support. Though in fact it seemed to me that Thorn was actually supporting everyone with her meditation, but not Z’s behaviour, and was correct to be explicit and upfront about this. So I think Thorn managed it, and I really take my hat off to her for that.

  3. I am okay with exclusive spaces even though I don’t entirely agree with them. Hold a cis woman only ritual. I can live with you doing that. I don’t think that trans-gender individuals should even want to attend a ritual led by someone who doesn’t view them as women (or in some cases men). I will disagree with you for similar reasons why I disagree with folkish people. What I can’t abide is hate speech. Z’s words were inexcusable. You can want a space or event for women physically born women if you want or you can have a ritual or group for people of a certain ancestry for all I care but don’t be hateful about it. I mean even some folkish groups can give less hateful reasons (all ancestral paths are meaningful and people should look to their own ancestry… blah blah blah). I honestly don’t think this would have been all that big of a deal if it hadn’t been for the hate speech.

  4. Pingback: The Wild Hunt » Gender, Transgender, Politics, and our Beloved Community

  5. I thought I should add that though I feel a sense of heaviness and sadness (as stated in my post) at the failure demonstrated by events, I feel no ambiguity about who has been wronged and how clear the violations have been. Despite people at times saying that things are “not cut and dried” I feel some things are very clear – the most important things. To be clear on these moral issues is of utmost importance to me. The disrespect and disregard of the trans community and of trans individuals has been the central and original factor of this “controversy”, a disrespect which has not been addressed yet, and which is reflected in untold abuses, hardships and dangers that transfolk face in life outside the Pagan community. I sincerely hope that the Pagan community will not abdicate its moral choices with regard to the trans community and trans rights, and not bury these for another year for the sake of a soothed consensus, or something equally vacuous. We have choices, and some of them are really not that complex. Thanks for listening.

  6. Again, Einar you are ahead of me and I concur. I personally don’t agree with separating people from ritual for any reason (unless they are violent or criminal), but it is within a group’s right to do so. It is called freedom of religion. If you want a ritual that is exclusive for lesbian, trans-women, cis-males, etc. you can, and no one seems to get up in arms about them excluding others.

    I understand that the hate speech was inappropriate, no matter what group you are referring to. That should be addressed with education on gender, because those words were quite frankly very ignorant of the reality of gender.

    Yet, that should not be a reason to forcibly include a group that was intentionally excluded (for whatever reason that may be, it shouldn’t matter – I find a lot of traditions don’t make sense for why the exclude, i.e. while menstruating. But they are accepted so they shouldn’t be treated as something different or an exception to the rule).

  7. Thank you for how clearly you’ve stated these often ignored points. I’ve read a lot of posts about the merits of exclusionary ritual, Z’s contributions to paganism, the overall inclusiveness of Pantheacon… as if those were the important questions. I’ve read almost nothing that looks at the complete lack of respect given the transgendered community by allowing this to happen AGAIN. Speaking as someone who has identified as a Dianic witch for decades, I see no actual grey area here – this was discrimination backed by hate speech. That it involved a beloved elder makes it sadder, but it doesn’t make more acceptable. And while I’m certain that the women who participated in Z’s ritual needed that healing energy, I expect the women excluded from it needed that healing as well, and their needs count.

    • thanks Shelley, I appreciate your feedback. I have to admit to feeling disheartened and disillusioned by so many comments on the net, though I do believe things are changing and shifting, just not through trying to rebury issues. I know last year I discussed this with another Dianic who was outraged by Z’s remarks, and also felt that they were actually pretty well in tune with Z’s beliefs (which she didn’t agree with). I totally applaud your standing up for an intellectual and moral integrity which I feel we owe each other, and most especially at this time to the trans community.

  8. Pingback: looking back on lilithgate | Summer Thunder

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