Keep Paganism Weird

Ever been to Austin? If you have, you’ll recognize the title of this post, Keep Paganism Weird, as a variation of the city’s popular catch phrase. Plastered on buildings and bumper stickers is a reminder that Austin has a history of wild, weird culture, and that it’s important that the young’ins continue the cultural tradition into the future.

On my last night in South San Francisco, we were visited at our hotel by the fabulous, beautifully painted, perfectly pickled one, Titania Humperpickle. She is one of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

Witness her loveliness:

Sister Titania (pronounced with a soft “i,” as in tits, and a soft “a,” as in tah-tahs) identifies as a Pagan (it’s a big enough umbrella for her), but the Order isn’t rooted in one religious tradition. Anyone with a calling to slap on some heels, get painted, dress up in nun attire in order to do service workany kind of service work, mind you can become a Sister (after a long vetting process, of course).

I sat on the floor in the presence of a white-faced, platform-shoed nun, totally in awe. She brought with her a vial of Holy Glitter, which is glitter mixed with — I kid you not — the ashes of former Sisters, the ashes of some of the Order’s most cherished relics, and a few other delightfully magical things. She made a little bindi-esque dot of glitter on our foreheads as a sisterly blessings (see photo below). She told stories of the Order’s origin, of the stuggles of LGBT people over the years, and of the inspiring work being done by Sisters across the globe.

By the time she left, we were all grinning ear to ear. It was really wonderful.

The Sisters embody a kind of theatricality that I find completely refreshing. They take their work seriously, and they are intentional about their presentation (the white-face, itself, has a story), but they also bring with them a kind of whimsy that, honestly, you don’t see in every corner of the gay community.

Personally, I think we gays need to embrace the radically expressive elements of our community. We don’t all need need to be Martha Steward devotees in order to be gay. Gay can be more mismatched and fabulous than that. Gay can be weird, and sometimes it should be.

When I wrote the piece Pagan Is The New Gay, I looked at parallels in the how Pagans and LGBT’s (i.e The Alphabet People) struggle over their titles and categories. Perhaps there’s cause to search out parallels again.

The Sisters keep it weird. They challenge social norms, and they force us to reexamine what we assume about gender, about service, and about how presentation of persona is something that, to a greater or lesser degree, we all do. They are radical, and by being radical they make possible the space for something extraordinary to occur.

They are a shimmering ritual on heels.

Her heels are green and powerful, I promise.

Can we take cue from the Sisters in the Pagan community? Do we (do you? do I?) permit ourselves to be extravagant, weird, or over the top in our presentation, or would doing so feel like too big a risk?

LGBT people have worked so hard over the past ten, twenty years to be accepted by the mainstream culture, and in the process many have forgotten that it was a drag queen that threw the first brick at Stonewall. Is a similar thing happening with modern Pagans? Are we pulling back from the weird?

This morning I head to Denver’s Pagan Pride festival, and I have no sense of how weird or how tame it will be. I’ll be sure to report next week. But in the meantime, I ask you:

Do you want to keep Paganism weird?

[After you post your comment & share this post, visit the new BITG feature, Letters. Then, check out the BITG post written last year about another Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, The Day The Heathens Built A Chapel.]


20 responses to “Keep Paganism Weird”

  1. Daniel SnowKestral Avatar
    Daniel SnowKestral

    As a very Fey-Hearted Gay, I am proud to be wierd, to be eccentric, to be unusual. The Emerald Heart of Fey spirituality is to be natural in an of yourself, and to strive for authenticity and a continual, unfolding discovery of those “Aha! moments.” Tend, mend, blend, and “just be.” Or, as Allen Ginsburg once said, “Follow your inner moonlight. Don’t hide the madness.” Kudos on your experience with such lovely, expressive, and artistic souls who have the courage to know and be themselves. It was a delight to read and refreshed my Fey, Emerald Heart, Teo 🙂

  2. Sara Amis Avatar

    I made this comment when a friend linked to this article, and felt the need to make it here as well.

    At my baccalaureate in high school, I got an award for “Most Unusual Fashion Sense” and let me tell you, I *earned* it. But I did so by dressing in ways that I found interesting and aesthetically pleasing, including evoking the Jazz Age because that was the literature I liked. (Consider this was in rural north Georgia, ie Appalachia, in the mid-80s). I wasn’t trying to “challenge” people, “push boundaries” or have any kind of “presentation” (though people often reacted as if I were). I was amusing myself, mostly.

    At other times in my life, I’ve chosen to go “stealth”…stealth queer, or
    stealth Pagan. Suburban Mama with toddler in tow, dressed all
    respectable, wearing a pentacle. Like that. My motive there was NOT
    seeking acceptance. Interestingly, that’s what I do when I AM trying to
    shake people up a little. Subversion.

    I think there’s value in all of these approaches, and “we” as a group
    don’t have to decide. As if we could get everyone on the same page
    anyway. What we do need to do is realize that there is a “we,” and it’s
    inclusive of a lot of different people with different ideas about
    things, including how to dress, and We’re Okay With That. And it all
    works together if we let it.

    Also, in regard to what “Doesn’t matter” said…You need to do a little more research. There are a number of ancient societies in which boundary-crossers of various types (including gender-benders) not only existed in daily life, but held positions of high esteem. One of the ways to become a priest/ess of Inanna was to undergo a ceremony called the “overturning of the head” in which a woman became a man, or a man became a woman, by divine fiat. Other members of the priesthood dressed in combinations of male and female clothing. If we are really trying to revive aspects of those ancient societies, especially the ones that seem relevant to us today, I can’t think of a better one than raising this kind of boundary-crossing to the level of the sacred. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are right on.

  3. Anne Newkirk Niven Avatar
    Anne Newkirk Niven

    Howdy Teo,

    Thanks for this thoughtful and striking post.

    I strongly agree with your concept of welcoming all people (especially those rejected by mainstream culture for whatever reason) in the Pagan movement, but I have to disagree with the slogan. “Keeping it weird” seems to, by definition, to mean that if you are Pagan, you must *be* weird. I think it’s a lot more complicated than that.

    I think we can keep Paganism “weird” without making “weirdness” normative. (Accepted without bias, yes; *expected*, no.) I, for example, do not present as “weird.” I’m a CIS-, hetero woman, in a long term monogamous marriage, with three sons. I run a small business. I’m white in ancestry (back to the Mayflower on both sides), and I’m middle aged. Anyone seeing me at the grocery store wouldn’t see “weird.” Yet, I’m as Pagan as they come, and I don’t think being “weird” or “ordinary” has much to do with that.

    I think the identification of “Pagan = weird” keeps a lot of Pagan people like me *in* the Broom Closet, which I believe is harmful to Pagan Civil Rights.

    OF COURSE there must be room in Paganism for the “Stonewall drag queens” of our movement. But I’d prefer something more like “Keep Paganism Open to All.” Or, as the more progressive Christian churches are saying these days “Keep Paganism welcoming and Inclusive.”

    1. Eran Rathan Avatar

      I’m in much the same boat, Anne. Adult male professional, long-term monogamous relationship, two truly wonderful (and weird!) daughters – but where I work, religion (in ANY form, Christianity included) is explicitly not welcome. So I keep it low-key, and pretty much leave it to holiday greetings (“Happy Solstice”, “Have a good Yule”, etc.) Were I to engage in activism in the manner of the Sisters (and I humbly thank all of you for your service), I would not be able to work in my field in this state (Surveying in Maine is a VERY tight and VERY small community).

      I definitely appreciate that there is a time & a place for sacred weirdness (Hail Eris!), but I don’t think that it advances our causes as well as being seen as ‘normal’, everyday upstanding citizens. As much as I hate to say it, the Sisters will never be taken as seriously as, for example, Patrick McCollum. Like everything else, there needs to be some sort of balance.

  4. Kathy Engle-Dulac Avatar

    This post has my heart soaring! The group I’ve been blessed to be part of, Three Sheeps to The Wind, embraces and honors the Divinely weird, humorous, and bizarre. It is so wonderful to see others embarked on similar quests, especially when so many around us rest fully on their highly-formalized rituals (they work well for some, but are not the only options that exist!). Our group’s primary focus is on service, and our event invitations are almost always accompanied by the warning: “bring your sense of humor”. This stunning embodiment of the Divine, Sister Titania, makes my heart sing! Blessings of loving light and powerful conviction, to her and all of the Sisters. The world needs more people of strength reaching out to make this a brighter slice of heaven. Thank you for opening a door to allow me to “meet” her, and brightest blessings on both you and the Sisters!

  5. Ci Cyfarth Avatar
    Ci Cyfarth

    Useful side note: it may have been a transwoman, or a trans-activist who threw that shoe. Sylvia Riviera and Marsha P. Johnson are both names that come up a lot in that context.

    But yes, the Sisters make everything better. So much love for them.

  6. Jocelyne Berengaria Houghton Avatar

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful experience. What a blessing!

    Some of my favourite Pagans – and Queers – are the Radical Faeries, for the very reasons you write about in describing The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The Radical Faeries in Seattle put on a Beltane ritual at Ravenna Park, wherein a person in drag (not always a man) manifests the Goddess of this forested ravine in the middle of the city. Every time I have attended, it has been irreverent (while at the same time deeply reverent), fabulous and funny, profound and moving and transformative. In short. everything I love about the Beloved Community of Paganism(s).

    I say, keep it real and keep it weird!

  7. John Beckett Avatar

    Weird is good. Dysfunctional and irresponsible is not. As long as we know the difference, let’s keep it weird.

    1. dashifen Avatar

      Having been all three, I have to say the first is definitely preferred!

  8. Sister Krissy Avatar

    Thanks for this post. You’ve got me thinking again! I’ve been meaning to do a post of my own on the spirituality of the Sisters for some time now. We’re not a religious order, but I do believe that our vow to “promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt” is a spiritual precept. The irony is that this vow is not weird or funny at all. But we use humor as an effective way to carry out our mission. Anyhoo, it’s something I’ll probably be writing about on my blog next week:

  9. Nancy Avatar

    What a wonderful blessing to be visited by such a being on such an occasion! The world can be a pretty grim place – whimsy, silliness, and weirdness are vital for survival! All acts of love and pleasure, many of us believe, are sacred, and many cultures have had sacred clown figures in their mythologies. And let’s not forget that the word “weird” itself has deeply spiritual and magickal roots (and fruits). Weirdness shakes people’s worldview up, makes them think and wonder, exercizes their brains, pushes them forward. Perhaps those not involved in any kind of magickal work don’t need to embrace and display weirdness, but I think it’s pretty important for those of us who do such work, and it’s always been part of the work we do for the community – “expect the unexpected, and whenever possible, *be* the unexpected.”

  10. Haeleron Avatar

    No, we are never past this kind of thing. The court ALWAYS needs the jester who speaks the truth. This has existed, even in the ancient’s time. Un-comforting the comfortable promotes change, which is direly needed in today’s society, especially on the social, religious and spiritual fronts. Think past what you see on they surface, for that leads and shows enlightenment.

  11. Meredith Avatar

    Thank you so much (both for this article and for “The Day The Heathens Built A Chapel.”) Keeping paganism weird does so many positive things for our community; your articles bring up several of them in wonderfully easy to understand ways. I love our flexibility, communication skills, inclusivity, and our willingness to be present rather than functioning on autopilot. I think the Sisters (and all of our weird ones) wake us up to many things. That is a service in and of itself.

  12. Doesn't matter Avatar
    Doesn’t matter

    Aren’t we past this sort of thing? The ancients did not live this way in their daily lives; certain festivals provided an opportunity to vent weirdness, but daily life was focused on the simple concerns of work, family, community, worship. I don’t see how we would benefit, either as a community or as individuals, as Pagans or as gays, by encouraging people to be just generally “weird.” If this guy wants to play dress-up and adopt a (fake) woman/child/wood nymph persona, let him carry on, but really? Hold it up as an example?

    1. Eric Riley Avatar

      Absolutely hold it up as an example. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is probably one of the most stable organizations of religious service I have seen come out of alternative religious traditions. Their role of sacred fool is an old and valuable one. They are hilarious, and also utterly serious in their mission. I can think of no other religious group in existence that so thoroughly embodies the principles of “Mirth and Reverence” more than the Sisters.

      I think too often in religion we get stuck on the seriousness of our beliefs. We don’t look for the aspect of “play” enough. Life is not a drab ritual. It is an exuberant, radiant, expression of joy and relishing the power of having physical form. And that in itself is holy.

    2. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Hi, “Doesn’t matter.” Thanks for being a part of the conversation here.
      The Sisters present themselves as a kind of campy art form, and art is transformative. You may choose to dismiss them, but I speak from experience when I say that they bring joy with them wherever they go.
      I appreciate that you value the Old Ways, but innovation and expressiveness are (I think) virtues in any age.

    3. Sister Krissy Avatar

      Greetings! I’m Sister Krissy with the Portland Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in Portland, OR. I assure that I am not fake. I am very real. As is Kurt, and Lazarus, and the other names that I often go by. They are all real and express a part of me. I’m also not a fake nun. I don’t pretend to be a nun. I don’t dress up “like” a nun. I am a nun. I took public vows of service to my community and, like all Sisters, to promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt. Those are big words. Promulgate means to announce. So we’re here to announce joy. Expiate means to fix or repair. We’re here to fix guilt. But what kind of guilt? Stigmatic guilt is guilt that is placed on us by outside sources. Sources like government, society, church, family, school. They have labeled us as fags, or dykes, or trannys, or sluts, or any other labels that have been placed onto us. We’re here to tell you that you’re not defined by the labels that other people place on you. You’re loved, and you’re worth loving, just the way you are, no exceptions. Period! And we’re here to remind you of that every chance we get. Personally, I don’t think that’s a message that we’re “past,” and if you take a look out there, I think we possibly need that message now as much as we ever did. Glittery blessings to you!

      1. Kathy Engle-Dulac Avatar

        *happy sigh* Sister Krissy, thank you for your service! Blessings of light and love to you and your Sisters.

    4. Lupa GreenWolf Avatar
      Lupa GreenWolf

      Most every culture has had its eccentrics, not just the equivalent of Halloween where one day a year everyone dresses in weird costumes, but full-time weirdoes. They find different niches in their respective cultures, but to say that “the ancients” (whatever the hell THAT means) only limited their weirdness to particular days in every single case is to ignore the individual approaches to eccentricity that each culture and community has had over time.

    5. Lo Avatar

      You’re a hetero, cis person, aren’t you? Sigh.

      The ancients fought their own battles– it just so happens that many of theirs are different from ours, and many of ours are no ones but ours. And who gets to define fake? You, a single flawed human out of billions? Or the gods? And who are you to speak for them as well?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.