Is there a pagan community? PantheaCon’s current issues 2018 and my concerns.

This month, PantheaCon has been under scrutiny. A firestorm has erupted, dividing the community and showing us where the rifts are, perhaps rifts that have been here for a very long time. The Wild Hunt summarized the issue succinctly in this December 3 post (first three paragraphs).

Presenters were announced for the 2019 PantheaCon scheduled programming and segments of the community weren’t happy about two of those presenters. The trans community reported concerns with Max Dashu’s alleged stance against trans women participating in events intended to celebrate biologically-born women.[*] Pagans of color reported concerns with Witchdoctor Utu’s alleged cultural appropriation. In both instances, I want to emphasize “alleged” not just for legal reasons, but because there really are disputes about whether these allegations are even true or have, at least in part, been misrepresented and factually distorted.

[*] – Psst… please see updated note at the end of this post.

In response, the organizers at PantheaCon then un-invited the two controversial presenters. Yes– their presentations were accepted, announced to the public, and then in response to the reported concerns, un-invited publicly and neither will now be presenting at PantheaCon 2019.

PantheaCon has also issued a public statement here (undated) noting that it was “a mistake to include Max Dashu in the program” because having Dashu at the event could pose a safety issue for the trans community. Furthermore, “all trans-exclusionary advocates and those in close association with them will not be presenting at PantheaCon for the foreseeable future.”

A late November issue of pagan community notes from The Wild Hunt, here, reports that allegedly Witchdoctor Utu was un-invited from presenting at PantheaCon 2019 because of his “veneration of certain black ancestors and the Underground Railroad” that were construed as cultural appropriation (Witchdoctor Utu is not black). Yet let’s not overlook the public support Witchdoctor Utu has received from native practitioners of the tradition he practices, so really, the only conclusion anyone can take away from this is the community is divided. For another perspective, Irene McCalphin of Mammy Is Dead shared a beautiful, powerful, and poetic piece here, “Social Gaslighting and the Make Witches Great Again (MWGA): Love Letter to QTPOC Witches here inspired by what went down with the PantheaCon and Witchdoctor Utu controversy.

Further note that members from all camps on all sides have reported receiving death threats, hateful and demeaning even defamatory remarks, trolling, and doxxing. Several members of the pagan community who dared to take a public stand along one of those noted position lines then had to subsequently disable all their social media accounts because they began receiving death threats, hate, and harassment. I believe every one of those members who say they’ve received death threats and harassment because I get those too for the most asinine reasons– like, “I hate what you said about reiki/starseeds/hexes/the tarot and you’re a total ignorant stupid bitch I hope you die a miserable lonely death and watch out my coven is going to curse you fuck you bitch die die die.” Not kidding. So I’m not one bit surprised people are sending death threats over serious controversial issues like the ones presented here.

Earlier this year in March, I shared my own experiences with PantheaCon 2018 in a YouTube video here. Be sure to also check out the notes and links in the video description box for other points of view, the full story, and the aftermath following my posting of that video.

I’ve attended four PantheaCons in the past. One of the earliest times, I think maybe the first, if my memory serves me, I did not feel welcomed. I wasn’t really part of the pagan community, found out about the event, which was local, and decided to swing by last minute. I was coming straight from my day job office and made it to the evening’s (or late afternoon’s?) programming right after work, no time to change, no time to do anything, nor had it even occurred to me that it would have been necessary for a wardrobe change.

I was standing alone, minding my own business, really just the dork that I am focused on learning as much as I could from the events, when a group came up to me and asked if I was lost. Psst… by the way, this was well before the year of publication of Holistic Tarot. Fast forward through some back and forth banter and a guy in the group blurted out, “People like you don’t come to events like this, so you can understand why I’m just wondering why you’re really here. What’s your motivation?” He even pointed at the handbag I had on me, which took me off guard, and remarked about how pagans don’t carry purses like that (for the curious, it was a Ferragamo and in case that fact itself is being used to adjudicate my character, I didn’t buy it, it was a gift). “I hope you find whatever you’re looking for,” he said to me, smirking and implying insincerity.

I didn’t attend another PantheaCon for several years after. In the subsequent years, the experience was a mixed bag. Certain individuals were extraordinarily kind, welcoming, and did everything in their power to convey to me the sense that I belonged. The kindness, honesty, and just overall goodness of people cannot be downplayed. One time I left my wallet (full of cash, with all my IDs and cards) on the restaurant table, left, and made my way to the next workshop. A woman who saw this followed me all the way to my workshop– I was walking too fast for her to catch up in the halls– just to return the wallet to me. When I was lost (actually lost this time) and couldn’t find my room number, literally anyone I went up to would go out of their way to help me out, even go so far as to walk me to my next room and make the most cordial small talk all along the way. While half the suites were standoffish, I need to also emphasize that half the suites were amazing, welcoming, and immediately drew me in to their inner circles with open arms, smiles, and lots and lots of food.

When people ask for my opinion, I joke lightly that PantheaCon is like high school cafeteria seating all over again. You’ve got the cool cliques who strut around radiating with all their pagan coolness. You’ve got the lone wolves who stick to themselves and sit alone in the back corner of the workshop. And then you’ve got all the different types of cliques in between. The cliques are even divided the same way they were back in high school– by social interest…. and by race. I couldn’t help but notice that skin color was one of the dividing lines between cliques. Watch the feedback to this post– I’m not even going to be allowed to say that.

Now back to the DuQuette incident. From what I observed, the incident underscored the brokenness of the pagan community, with the controversy exacerbated because of hearsay. When DuQuette and I spoke directly with each other, everything was resolved in the matter of two e-mails. I have nothing but love for him and he was nothing but kindness and sensitivity to me. He told jokes that, isolated from the social context of where those jokes were being told, were intended to be harmless.

But those innocent jokes were being told to an audience that did not share his love for his Chinese students. Does that make sense? The jokes took on a sinister life of their own not because of him, but because of the latent energies in the room. His words alchemized with prevailing attitudes in the room and became racially charged. Had those attitudes not existed in that room that day, his words would not have been racially charged, no more so than the goodhearted jokes told among friends.

And speaking of gaslighting, a reference made earlier in one of the linked posts I shared, I was then told my feelings were wrong. That I was delusional and left the event with the wrong impression because of shadow issues and supposed personal insecurities I had to deal with on my own. That’s right. I was told my feeling about what a white guy said about Chinese people was wrong, whereas the feelings that white people in that same room felt about a white guy commenting on Chinese people was right. How can a feeling be wrong? You felt there was nothing wrong with those jokes. I’m not saying you’re wrong. But that’s just your opinion, man.

I also didn’t like how Asians were pitted against each other, as in, well this Asian person I know doesn’t share your opinion, and he agrees with the white people. Therefore you’re wrong, because this one single Asian person I found (who, by the way, self-ascribes as a white-washed Asian) agrees with the white people. But that’s a can of worms for another time.

I did also want to note briefly that some members of the Jewish community take offense to DuQuette wearing a kippah with a helicopter propeller on top of the cap and his self-identification, even though he does so in jest, as a rabbi, especially if he isn’t himself Jewish. I do not have any factual basis to go on for what DuQuette’s personal background is and am not informed enough to make any commentary one way or another about this matter, but I did want to put the note here since in the past I’ve been berated for voicing concerns about the Chinese thing but not voicing equal concerns about the Jewish thing. Honestly, it’s simply because I am not well-informed enough to comment.

Rather than come to me directly to ask me what I was saying about the event, DuQuette was being told what I was allegedly saying, reported to him by people who dislike me, so he got a distorted picture, responded in anger himself, and then what he said lashing out in anger was reported back to me (which by itself is also problematic… if you’re his friend and supporter, why are you running back to me to tell me all the horrible things he said?), which of course, riled up my anger and so I responded back in kind. Again, it wasn’t until he and I spoke directly to each other did we realize the mountain of misunderstandings in between us. In the blink of an eye, everything was settled with sincere love to go around. See, the incident didn’t become an Incident because of what he said or what I said… it became an Incident because of the rampant blaze of mob mentality across the online pagan network. And I speculate that’s what’s happening again, right now with this latest controversy.

Maybe I am being naive for presuming that the current controversy PantheaCon faces with regard to Max Dashu and Witchdoctor Utu is the result of misunderstandings and hearsay, too, and the matter could be resolved magically by putting the named parties into a room and making them talk to each other face to face, directly, with no third party he said she said interference in between. Maybe it’s wishful thinking to believe that if our leaders at the top could set aside their pride and vanity and demonstrate kindness and vulnerability to one another, they could spearhead the unity that the pagan community so desperately needs right now.

The other point I wanted to make for raising the DuQuette incident again is I was the one who reached out to speak directly with him. I took the initiative, not him, to be honest and share with him how I felt about the incident, how it made me feel, how the things he said subsequent to PantheaCon to others about how I didn’t know English, his “who is this woman??” remark, etc. and how those comments made me feel. And then he apologized, but also explained where he was coming from. And I got it. I got where he was coming from. Everything was resolved.

That would never have happened if I had not set aside my wounded pride and initiated the conversation with him. It saddens me immensely right now that in the Dashu and Utu controversies, no one is willing to set aside their wounded prides and reach out to the other side to say, hey, I’m hurting, you caused that hurt, and I’d like to better understand why you thought it was okay to hurt me.

Why would I insinuate that it should be the disenfranchised and the marginalized who initiates the conversation? Because it’s bigger than your own individually wounded pride. It’s about your team, your community. It’s about doing something that you feel like you shouldn’t have to do (a justified feeling) but doing it anyway so that you can actually create positive change for others like you.

I had not wanted to share this publicly, but I guess I will now. I made a conscious decision not to submit any workshop proposals to PantheaCon 2019 because at the pagan events I’ve attended, I was made to feel like Taoist magic and mystery traditions born out of esoteric Taoism and Buddhism when shared by someone like me are not pagan, are not witchy enough to be valued at an event like PantheaCon, and therefore my craft didn’t belong at PantheaCon. And yet in the same breath, when a white guy syncretizes my native craft with Wicca, suddenly it’s witchy and pagan enough for PantheaCon.

I have never been against non-Asians practicing Asian traditions or subscribing to Asian spiritual beliefs. (See, e.g., “Integrating the Culture-Specific I Share Into Your Path“). In fact, I get in trouble with my own ethnic community when I come out strongly against initiatory traditions that explicitly exclude non-Asians. (See, “Race, Culture, and Spirituality” or “Cultural Appropriation,” old Bell Chimes In videos I made.)

But I do start to back away when the most prominent voices of my tradition are white, being taught through the experience of someone who is white learning a craft born out of Asian heritage, and again, by itself, I don’t take any issue whatsoever with it. It’s only when that’s the only voice of leadership that is heard that it becomes problematic.

As for pagan figureheads and groups that exclude trans women from “female only” events, fundamentally, that is wrong, and yet it’s such a complex, emotional issue that is going to require both trans women and women born biologically female[*] who have a certain mentality about womanhood to come together, hear each other out, lovingly, and realize that they are safe in one another’s company.

The irony is both trans women and women born biologically female who tend to be most vocal against the inclusion of trans women in “female only” groups have experienced abuse, harassment, even violence at the hands of cis-gender heterosexual men and the reason they are now fighting with each other is because of their shared hostile experiences from cis-gender heterosexual men. I believe if trans women could reach across the aisle and let these women born biologically female know that they are safe in the company of trans women, then these women would in turn be able open their circles up wider, to be more inclusive, and thus assure the safety of trans women in their circles.

You often hear pagans make fun of the drama and controversies that erupt around PantheaCon each and every year, followed with eye rolls. I wish these people would take the controversies more seriously, because the persistent sting of these controversies are symptomatic of a dangerous social divide within a community that should be trying to stand with a united front.

All this is to ask the question: Is there a pagan community? Can members of a pagan community find solidarity and unity even when they each hold such differing creeds? How can we take offense to mainstream corporations and celebrities capitalizing on pagan practices or hate on trending witchy aesthetics when those claiming to be the serious practitioners of the craft can’t even get their shit together?

Circling back to the recent controversies compelling this post, I want to add one more thing. I may not know the long personal histories of all these figureheads in the PantheaCon circuits and there very well may be old conflicts I know nothing about. But I want to say that one PantheaCon organizer who doesn’t know me, has no reason to be an ally to me, was one of the most vocal warriors in support of me when I was feeling the most alone and isolated, who stood by me and reached out to me and made me feel important even when a whole lot of folks were telling me I was anything but important. That person took it upon herself to fight fights on behalf of those who didn’t want to put themselves in the spotlight, who took hits, received threats, hate, personal attacks, and even got doxxed for fighting other people’s fight. Maybe she’s a horrible human being like all these people are saying she is, I really don’t know. I can only tell you she stood up for me when I didn’t want to stand up for myself. She made me feel welcomed and important and valuable when no one else seated at the table bothered.

After I chose consciously not to be a part of PantheaCon 2019, because of the totality of my past experiences of exclusion at PantheaCon, I had said secretly to myself, the day that this person–the organizer I’m referring to–leads PantheaCon, is the day I’ll definitely submit proposals for the event and feel genuinely excited about participating.

And then a few days ago, she announced her resignation.

[*] Update 12/18/18, 4:44 pm: I genuinely did not know that use of the term “biologically born female” is construed as offensive and hurtful. I would never intend to use that terminology as a means to exclude by implication. I also did not know that “cis-gender” vs. “biologically born” and which terminology you chose to use was politically divisive–my deepest apologies for ignorance of the socio-political implications. My only thought behind using the terms was to try to report my outside bystander’s observations of the debates going on within the pagan community.  Beyond that, there should be no dispute or confusion whatsoever over my public stance of advocacy for trans inclusion in all spaces, period, full stop.

Update 12/19/18: This morning I took down the post from public access and a flood of folks have wanted to know why. I summed it up in a comment here:

I also just wanted at least 24 hours of peace and quiet. =)

Update 12/20/18: I’ve changed my mind (I can do that, right?) and have put the post back up for public access.

I did not remove or revise the original “born biologically female” wording I had put up (as many have demanded that I do) because while I respect and will always, always honor how other people want to be identified as, you do not get to dictate how I identify myself. You can tell me how to best respect you, what pronouns and what identifiers to use with you, and I will do my very best to listen and honor, but that is limited to your identification. You cannot cross the line and tell me how I should or should not be identifying myself. Let me ask you: Do you think it’s right for a mainland Communist Chinese to demand that I cease from self-identifying as Taiwanese and must call myself Chinese and my island China Taipei instead of Taiwan? How do you feel about an institutionalized governmental body censoring all literature from the people to ensure none of it includes self-identifiers from the people of the island as Taiwan or Taiwanese, and suppressing visuals of the Taiwanese flag? The analogy isn’t as off the mark as I know you want to argue it is.

18 thoughts on “Is there a pagan community? PantheaCon’s current issues 2018 and my concerns.

  1. SallyRose Robinson

    Very insightful indeed. I am sorry for the fact that you had to go through any of this and I don’t think you are wrong. I am sure the event didn’t start this way but evolved to this. I see it too and the community aspect is not as open as people might want to think it is. High School cafeteria is kinda spot on.
    Thank you for this piece.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Mrs T

    I don’t understand people. We are all different because we are. That should be celebrated. In some ways we are all the same. One planet, one people, we all survive together or we won’t survive at all. The pendulum of life will always swing from one extreme to another and I for one am a little tired of this extreme swing. Are we really not supposed to learn from each other and share meaning with each other for fear of “using” some teaching that wasn’t born into us? It seems as if the person with the biggest mouth is the person that gets “heard”. However, that doesn’t make that person right or even believed – it might just mean no one else can get a word in edgewise. I will choose to walk the middle path – a learning from my studies of Taoism (yep me a white person learned from Chinese scholars). Please people…open your hearts open your minds and grow up. Cliques weren’t cool in high school either.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I appreciate you taking this topic on the way you have in this article. These days it’s brave to do it. And it’s nice to hear someone have an adult point of view on the issues and how they could be better addressed.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. It hurts my heart to read this. The trans issue is very important to me. I’ve got people who are closer than blood family who are trans. That you were made to be less than by others pisses me off. And, if you remember, I’m one who intimated that you were “new” to Tarot simply because I hadn’t heard of you before HT. Which was asinine of me. I hear you here. I see you. I wish I had an answer.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I would agree with PantheaCon and anyone taking a stance against an organization that would exclude trans women from participating in womens’ circles. And I want to probe further and ask the question why would anyone think to exclude trans women from participating in womens’ circles? Can’t we try to understand the other side before immediately jumping to the conclusion that people are bigoted and hateful? And if we can probe to that deeper point of why anyone would want to exclude trans women in the first place, maybe we stand a chance of eradicating that sentiment altogether. That’s all I’m saying. ❤

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Arwen

    There are reasons for everything, I think. But…if I were to ask for a truly safe place for me, it would have to exclude women and men as I’ve been hurt by both. At some point, I think I have to take responsibility for my reactions as well as my healing. I think our community does itself a disservice undone areas. I’m o. My phone so this may not be clear. Hard to type it all out. Inclusiveness that becomes exclusiveness begets reclusiveness.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Arwen

      “in some areas” rather than “undone areas”. But yes we need to be able to talk things out. When we lead with our wounded selves, it’s hard to listen to another’s pain.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hellbound Heathen Livestreams (TheAgnosticWitch)

    Great article, I saw many of these concerns coming to the surface several years ago – actually I seen them in the wider “Pagan” community (for a lack of a better term), and it will implode eventually and there will be major splits – and it is a blessing that I have distanced myself from this community. I give PantheaCon maybe 2-3 more years?

    We have to be accepting and inclusive and this works both ways – not just one-way. I forgive all transgressions, not for them but for myself. I do not need to hold onto these “wrongs”.

    Our society as a whole is fracturing too, at an alarming rate and I am deeply concerned where it will end, I have an idea where it will end; which I deeply, deeply dread and I truly hope my insight is mistaken and that I am very wrong.

    Our common ground is our spirituality and the fact that we are all human – everything else is a distraction.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. In the mid 1990s, I spoke at a large British Pagan event on the need to consider disability within the Pagan Community. I received death threats and unpleasant mail, some of which had to be dealt with by the police. Things have moved on, and these considerations of disability have become standard now. How we adapt with flexibility and compassion as well as humanity to the issues that arise, is a measure of how mature our Pagan communities have become. The lack of a long generational community is part of the problem. People over 60-70 stand in the elder ranks of Paganism, but we have only had about 40-50 years of Pagan social organization. We hope and trust that we continue to mature, in order to meet and deal with thr challenges that arise: they all require humanity, not high handedness.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, that is enlightening to learn about, Caitlin. And it’s interesting how now in 2018, it’s unfathomable to me that what you were talking about back in the mid-90s could even be considered controversial! You’re also right that the lack of a long generational community is part of the problem. I’m still optimistic about our collective future! =)

      Like

  8. A Reader

    Hi Benebell;

    I am an avid reader of your work and always appreciate your insights although we don’t always agree on things. It’s not up to me what you do with your blog (take it up or leave it down), and I will say that you do make some statements/suggestions here I disagree with – but I appreciate where you’re coming from. I also appreciate your acknowledgement of the problematic nature of the term ‘biologically born women’ (which it sounds like you’ve already learned some about so I won’t get into here).

    With that said… I’m going to advocate you leave this post up for a simple reason — your statements that “there should be no dispute or confusion whatsoever over my public stance of advocacy for trans inclusion in all spaces, period, full stop” is a statement that should be preserved. Unfortunately, we live in a world where many disagree, where transmisogyny (a term coined by Julia Serano on the interweaving of misogyny and transphobia into specific forms of oppression and discrimination faced by trans women specifically, often involving denial of their femaleness) is rampant. While I see your suggestion that trans women ‘reach across the aisle’ and let transphobic cis-women know they’re safe in their presence as problematic (given that so often trans women are not safe in these and other spaces), I appreciate that it comes from a place of wanting people to be safe and not hurting and not excluded. And, ultimately, as I see it, it is meaningful to have a statement of support for trans women made publicly by someone with a public profile like yours.

    Like

  9. Anon

    Man, its bullshit that a local bay area taiwanese woman like yourself cannot teach about her traditions thats in the bay area at a bay area pagan convention and have it respected unless its a white person doing it.

    Like

  10. Jonathan Overlin

    As you found out (by being 1% out of sync), and will continue to find out- the trans mafia does not respect natal women, they see womanhood as something to be colonized in their privilege. Women’s history, violent repression, , sexual slavery, political struggles, 6000+ years of oppression means nothing to them. Context means nothing to them, their ‘feelz’ are the only legitimate reality. Strip away what it means to be female, and you strip away natal women’s right to self determine and self organize. Just because the Majority says this “Newspeak” is true, does not make it so.

    Like

  11. As an East Coast Pagan, I’ve only made it out to Pcon once. While I had a nice time and met some fine folks, I was struck by how prominent the politics of illiberal “social justice”/”grievance studies” (pick your term) were in that community. It was the year of the “Pantycon” kerfuffle [ https://www.patheos.com/blogs/agora/2015/03/the-zen-pagan-the-politically-incorrect-pagan/ ], and I was amazed at the high level of censoriousness in the community. It was enough to make be drop out of a Pcon community Facebook group after just a few months, after seeing someone else banned for expressing a quotidian conservative political view. (A view I didn’t agree with, to be clear.)

    I don’t know if it’s a West Coast / East Coast thing, or a camping festival vs. hotel convention thing — maybe being camped together in the rain/heat/whatever makes one more tolerant of one’s campmates, But while the Free Spirit Gathering and Starwood communities of which I’m a part have had their intramural fights (and I’ve been dead center of a few), they’re usually over mundane issues of interpersonal politics, or good old fashioned money squabbling; there’s a lot less identity-group fighting.

    I think there is Pagan community…but, based on small experience with it, I’m not sure Pcon is a good example of it.

    Anyway. Having stumbled on this post I will definitely be ordering a copy of The Tao of Craft, looks highly relevant to my interests. Blessed Be.

    Like

  12. Anonymous

    The Pagan Community that can be found within PantheaCon is alive and well. Full of Life and Love, awaiting with open arms to any who would enter. It is also a sad truth that to the left of this Community are folks that would burn it all down just to see it remade in a way they deem appropriate. Burn down all that those before them have built, instead of doing the heaviest of lifting to fully create the “perfect” space they crave. And to the right of the Community there stands a group of close minded biggoted a**holes that are the Few making it feel unsafe for our more vulnerable attendees. When both of those extreems start up they sound similar to each other, all mouth and no ears, all heart and no brain.

    Come find us in the Middle, we await with Open Arms, polite conversation and so much more….

    Like

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