My kid is transitioning, but he’s not trans. He’s genderqueer. He doesn’t mind being called “trans,” because it’s accurate, but he identifies as something different.
For some, this is a brain breaker. I don’t blame them or vilify them for that. One has to be flexible with definitions in order to approach these (seemingly) subtle, nuanced uses of identity language, and we aren’t often taught how to be flexible in this way. One also has to be completely willing to respect another person’s authority and sovereignty over their own self-identification.
This is where it gets really tricky for some of us.
In response to my last post, When Pagan Discourse Becomes Reality TV, Daniel Grey, author of the blog Sage and Starshine, wrote the following comment. When I read it, something in my brain opened up. Daniel draws a great comparison between the plight of a genderqueer person and that of a polytheist distancing themselves from “Pagan”:
Teo, I admit that I didn’t give this story much more than a passing glance when it first broke. I don’t know Star, nor do I read her blog, so when I heard that she no longer identified as Pagan I couldn’t see how that was possibly my business. The negative reactions I’ve seen – confusion, hurt, betrayal, even anger – have left me feeling sorely uncomfortable. My stomach’s been in a twist today as I’ve read my Twitter feed and skimmed a few blog responses, and I think I’ve finally pinned down what’s been bothering me.
I’m genderqueer – I’m not sure if you knew that, Teo, especially since we started conversing after I adopted my male monicker for most of my online Pagan life. I feel comfortable as a Daniel, but that’s not the only label that fits me. I still go by my birth name irl; I still use female pronouns with many folks; I have actually become more comfortable presenting as femme and have experienced less gender dysphoria since embracing the “Daniel” part of me. However, I still have dysphoria. I’m still not cis. And at a certain point, all I can do is shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know what a woman is exactly, only that I’m not that.”
But what is a woman? What is the definition of a woman? We know it’s not biologic, or physical, or genetic. We know it’s not just being socialized as a girl. There are as many definitions of “woman” as there are individual who identify as such – and there are plenty of definitions that include people like me. I have the body. I have the upbringing. I pass as woman. But I’m not.
When we’re talking about people – especially the squishy, wibbly-wobbly bits like gender, or religion – then this is how definitions work. There’s a polyvalent logic which says that gender is not binary, that religion doesn’t have to be black or white. Things are complicated and paradoxical and incredibly, ultimately personal. Just because someone similar to myself embraces the label “woman” with open arms and finds that label wonderfully affirming doesn’t negate my own experiences of not-woman-ness. Just because I do call myself Pagan and consider the term very open and loose (and not at all equivalent to “just Wicca”) doesn’t mean that I don’t respect folks who have declined the label for their own use.
What bothers me most about the fact there’s even a controversy around Star’s statements is that whether or not one agrees with her definition of Pagan is, in my opinion, completely irrelevant. Part of the core of my social justice philosophy is that people deserve to have their personal agency respected and protected. It doesn’t matter if I disagree with what they do with that agency (until they start interfering with someone else’s agency) – what matters is that it’s theirs. We have the right to protect our own sovereignty and have that respected. And if someone doesn’t respect that… well, that’s really, really problematic.
These questions that Daniel asks — what is a woman? what is the definition of a woman? — have come up in Pagan circles over the past several years. They make some people very uncomfortable. Substitute “Pagan” for “woman,” and you’re looking at the conversations that have been spreading across the Pagan blogosphere all week.
With my kid, I have no problem accepting genderqueer. It’s how he identifies, and I love him. I also recognize that his decision is an invitation into dialogue. His self-identification calls me into a place of contemplation about my own identity, about the presumptions we all make about gender, and about our cultural rigidity around labels.
He does that all through a very natural and organic act of self-identification, and I enter into that contemplative place because it feels like the compassionate thing to do.
I wonder –
What is it that makes people uncomfortable about this flexibility of definition, either around gender or religion? What is it that leads us to want to firm up our identities, or to hold court around the identities of others? If we find ourself getting defensive, is it because we feel personally threatened by another’s fluidity, or is it because we recognize that this other in our midst is threatening the societal structures and institutions we’ve come to accept as the “norm”?
How can Pagans think about/approach/relate to these polytheists who don’t identify as Pagan? Can we, as I do with my kid, who I love completely, choose to see their act of self-identification as an invitation into deeper contemplation, or will we feel threatened?