Responsible ritual announcing

I’ve been thinking a lot about conversations around a ritual at last week’s Pantheacon that turned away both transgender women and men at the door without previously making it clear that it was a limited-access ritual. (Two posts with background and links to additional comments can be found here and here.)

[It’s worth noting that other rituals at the event were somewhat more explicit about limitations: my quick count through the program found 4 rituals identified as for women only, 2 identified as for men only, a couple with age limitations, and one ritual with additional limitations: all-white clothing and that participants not be bleeding (either via menstruation or cuts/scrapes)]

My thoughts on this are complex, both because of some of my own deeply held beliefs about ritual, and because I’ve had several years of doing Pagan event organizing. And also because of the knowledge that gender identity, the creation of women-only spaces (and how one defines who can participate in them) are both complex topics, and ones where there’s a lot of history, and many people on various angles of the conversation who have strong feelings, many of whom have felt hurt, left out, or otherwise not listened to at various points in the debates on the topic.

My first belief is that when we are talking about participatory religious ritual, that touches about transformation of the self, vulnerability within community or before the Gods, or anything else of that kind, that a fundamental right of the potential participants is to decide whether or not to participate in that ritual at that time. That means providing sufficient information to make an informed decision.

My second belief is the idea of religious group practice as a haptocracy, a word I coined from the Greek hapto or ‘to work’. In other words, the idea that the people doing the largest work to make something happen get the most say in how it happens. The people doing the work to plan and facilitate the ritual don’t stop being participants because they’re planning the thing: they still get to decide if there are circumstances in which they would not be comfortable participating.

Based on these two principles, I do clearly believe that if a group of people want to put on the effort of a ritual, they get to decide who can come. Those choices have a wide variety of consequences and results – but they still get to choose.

Likewise, people who might be interested in attending get to decide if they want to be in that space in that way, given the stated limits, requirements, or other description.

The question of limited access:

I’ve thought a lot about the question of women-only and women-centered spaces since college, as you’d expect from someone who attended one of the Seven Sisters colleges (and one of the four that’s still an independent women’s college – the Seven Sisters were originally the women’s college equivalent of the Ivy League schools.)

My thoughts about *that* are even more complex: I didn’t pick my college because it was a women’s college, but I found benefits there that I hadn’t thought to look for, in ways that conversations with people from co-ed schools sometimes made painfully clear.

We can’t go back, and see what I’d have come out like if I’d gone to a different school (nor adjust for all sorts of other details: would I have met people enough like the wonderful friends I made there somewhere else to change me in the same ways? Who knows.) But I have to believe, from subjective experience of my life (which, really, is all I’ve got) that I’m a different person, and I believe a better person, for the experience.

(I’ll note that, among other things, college was my first real opportunity to see a wide variety of ways that women could be spiritual leaders in community settings: all of the ‘there all the time’ chaplains were women. I knew that women could do these things in various ways in different religions – but that college gave me a chance to see how different people went at the question while working with the same basic community.)

So, I’d also be rather a hypocrite if I didn’t think that limited access rituals and other experiences might not do the same thing in other settings – whether that’s a small ongoing religious group, or a one-time event.

At the same time, my social circles – and the folks I have done or do ritual with – include a number of people who do not fit tidily into society’s male/female gender duality. Some of my friends are transgender, some identify as genderqueer, some have other specific terms, or preferences. While I’m both cis-gender and heterosexual by internal wiring, I tend not to want to hang out in places where my friends are not welcome.

The real problem:

As with a number of my other rants about group religious work, the real problem here is what information should be provided in advance, and how. While the description of the ritual in this case did include a few words that are a clue to people familiar with a particular approach, it neither explicitly said “Women only”, nor defined what was meant by women.

I do know people who find mixed gender religious spaces somewhere between threatening and uncomfortable. (And more who, while they might not go quite that far, find they can relax and be at ease in a different way in women-only spaces than in mixed gender ones, and who like having the option at times.) However, I also know women who very deliberately avoid women-only identified spaces, because they have been abused by women in the past, and mixed gender spaces feel much safer to them.

There is no one solution that is going to work equally well for both these groups of people.

(Even before you get into the complex question of defining what ‘women-only’ space actually means, and how to do that usefully for the context in question.)

Which is, in a nutshell, why I support the idea of groups doing the stuff that works for them, being clear about what they’re doing and who’s welcome, and supporting a wide range of diverse options within a larger community conversation and context. It’s not perfect, and it’s certainly got its own challenges on all sorts of practical levels. But it’s the only thing I can see that’s actually viable.

So, what does it mean to be clear?

It means a number of things.

Groups must be open and honest about any limits. This means spelling them out in clear, unambiguous language, up front.

While this can be be challenging to do in a limited space (such as in a printed program), technology in this day and age makes it easier to provide additional information in other formats (i.e. a group could give a brief limit in the program, and then offer further clarification in an online setting, as I’ve recommended doing with accessibility issues in the past.)

Groups also need to do their due diligence in planning:

Certain topics are hot buttons – often deservedly – in the larger community. At this point, it should probably not surprise anyone familiar with the larger community that gender-limits on ritual (whatever the reason) can be tricky to handle well.

It’s always a good move to be clear about what you want to convey, and to run it by people outside the core planning group to make sure it does that. If the people doing the planning aren’t very familiar with the larger community, that’s a good time to run it by widely-travelled friends in the larger community, the larger event programming chair or committee, etc.

Ongoing groups also have an obligation to ongoing reassessment.

As people, we continue to change, and grow, and learn. Our society continues to change, and grow, and learn. All of this changes how we talk about, and make decisions about, a wide range of topics.

We’ve seen this very rapidly in the area of gender identity and a wide range of pluralism and diversity issues in general over the last ten or fifteen years. As a result, a definition or phrasing that worked five years ago might not be the best choice now. Specific events in a community may suggest particular care around a given issue or phrasing. All sorts of things.

I use a rule of thumb that suggests that designing policies and communication to avoid problems in the past is a good starting place. (Plus, of course, any ones that you can see might become an issue.)

I do also think that groups with large-scale limits have a particular obligation to regular self-analysis to understand where those limits are coming from, and whether they’re still serving a useful role. While, as noted above, I do understand the desire of some people for gender-limited spaces, I’m also very aware that sometimes those limits come from uncertainty, fear of the unknown, or discomfort of other kinds, that don’t actually serve a useful purpose. Knowing which it is can lead to some new growth and maybe changes down the road that allow a group to include more potential attendees or members.

Recognise that limits will turn some people off:

Just as limits might bring you people interested in that shared space, it will also turn some people away. Groups who choose specific limits can do a lot to help with how that comes across in the larger community in several ways.

So what helps?

Be really clear on what the limit is supposed to do: It could be very legitimate and meaningful to create a ritual that is about the mysteries of pregnancy and giving birth to a child.

But that’s not a general women’s mystery, in the sense that it’s an experience shared by all women.

That’s a mystery that specific people with a particular genetic and biological makeup experience, if they choose to and if their bodies cooperate. It leaves out biological women who don’t ever want to be pregnant. It leaves out adoptive mothers. It leaves out people who haven’t been through pregnancy yet. It may be incredibly painful to those who have become pregnant and miscarried. (And, has been pointed out in some of these discussions, there are transmen who’ve been pregnant and given birth in their past, even though they no longer identify as a woman.)

Besides, do you really want to do ritual with groups who can’t get the “what we’re focusing on” and “who gets to do that with us” language close enough together to make sense together? I don’t.

Be clear and unambiguous about the limits in ways people can determine for themselves without having to track down someone planning the event and ask. (Which is a pain in the neck at best, and hard and embarrassing at worst: no one likes hearing “Not for you” in a one-on-one conversation if they can avoid it, and most people don’t like saying it, either.)

If you can’t make a limit sufficiently clear in a way that a reasonable person being turned away would not find overly offensive, you should probably be reconsidering that limit and/or how public that event should be.

If possible, suggest options and alternatives. I do this pretty regularly from the coven perspective (where only a very limited number of people are a potential fit). When I have to say “Sorry, no” to someone, I try to also offer a couple of other suggestions of places that they might check out instead.

And above all, give information in advance: so that people can make informed decisions without wasting their time, energy, preparation, etc. Wasting people’s time just to turn them away is just flat out rude and it’s totally unnecessary.

Conclusion:

As I said, this is in many ways a very complex issue, made more so by the fact that people have vastly different life experiences, interests, and areas of focus. It can be absurdly easy to tread on a sensitive topic if you don’t know it’s there.

That does not, however, remove the obligation to try to do it better, and with more caring, or the benefit that comes from offering options that include the largest possible range of people for the work and focus at hand.

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  • I’ve rarely seen this issue discussed with such intelligence, compassion and practicality. As a cismale who spent a lot of time in queer & pagan spaces in the past, it’s a splendid thing to see.

  • Thank you so much for the compliment! It’s such a complicated issue.

    (Comments from friends also lead me to think I’ll be doing another post – I hope in the next day or two – about some of the issues from the larger event organisational side. For various reasons, that’s a bit more complex for me to write, so I want to make sure I can do it clearly before I post.)