Tag Archives: gender

First, let’s get confused (Rune Cards)

Standard

Here’s my first reading with the Rune Cards.

—1—
2—–3

I’m going to look at the card image alone first and will then consult the little white book (LWB) that comes with the deck. I’m giving the Anglo-Saxon rune names first, followed by the Elder Futhark names (if applicable) in parenthesis, if only so I can learn all names. The images are borrowed from another website that I sadly haven’t bookmarked, so I can’t tell you the source.

1. Where am I in terms of my spirituality right now?Aurochs / Ur (Uruz)

Two big drinking horns lie on a table, together with a die that has the rune of “ur” carved on it. One of the drinking horns has metal decorations at the rim and point, the other is left plain. A male aurochs stands in the background, facing the left and looking slightly to the front. (Actually, the animal looks more like a buffalo than an actual aurochs, but for now I’m willing to accept that as artistic license.)

The opening of the decorated drinking horn is facing the viewer, looking a bit like an entrance to a cave or something. That makes me think of the oft-quoted tunnel-like passage that many shamanic journeyers encounter at the beginnings of their journeys (particularly to the Lower World). From the outside, it’s just a drinking horn, but there’s no telling where the inside passage leads. The fact that there are two entrances also suggests that choosing one (the right one?) might be of importance here. And the die makes me think that consulting an oracle (or, if you prefer that view, making a choice by a random method) might just be the way to go.

The aurochs itself makes me think of wild cattle and the role they played for our ancestors (I’m only referring to what is now roughly considered European territory here because that’s the cultural background of the runes and the illustrations of this deck. That’s not supposed to suggest that aurochs or other wild cattle weren’t present elsewhere.). Aurochs were hunted (I assume that all parts of their bodies were used for food, clothing, and tools)  and paintings of them appear in several prehistoric caves, such as Lascaux or Chauvet. All in all, it makes me think of a very early time in human history, and different ways of connecting to that ancestry (such as shamanic journeying, experiential archeology, scientific research, etc.). And that suggests that there is always more than one method to reach the goal of connecting, and that most likely a combination of them will bring the best (= most useful, most reliable, most respectful) results.

The fact that the animal depicted on the card is not actually an aurochs makes me think that I need to keep checking the “facts” of whatever I’m told is the “truth” about any spiritual path. While a bison or buffalo is probably closer to an aurochs than a Holstein dairy cow, it’s still not the same, and the difference may indeed matter. So this is not about just believing everything, even if it comes from an “expert” but to do my own research and verification process to get confirmation of something.

So, let’s see what the LWB has to add to that. The rune poem given for Ur consists of four stanzas and centers on the value of strength and the will to fight, as well as on the need to temper it with courage, determination, wisdom and cunning. In other words, “Those who have strength but lack strategy will become the captive of others.”

The divinatory meanings mention assertive strength again (not necessarily physical strength, though) and also speak of the need to conserve strength, to rest and recuperate.

All in all, I would say this card is about allowing for some time until I actively go into that cave/tunnel again (that is, before I take any further steps, especially on a shamanic path). Instead, some reflection of whose values and “truths” I want to take on as mine seems to be in order. And that makes a lot of sense, because I’m still busy shedding all the expectations of my former workplace and related environments and reconnecting to my “roots” (mostly of my own life history for now).

2. What’s the next step for me? What should I do?Weapon / Yr

This shows a scene of hands-on battle. There are a lot of helmets, swords, arrows, a few shields, and some faces contorted in yelling. Bolts of lighting strike down from the night sky, ravens (or crows) fly above the battlefield, and a big battle axe with the “yr” rune engraved on it is held up in the foreground of the picture.

I know that thunder(bolts) are associated with the hammer-wielding Northern god Thor, but I’m not sure that the ravens aren’t borrowed from Celtic/Irish mythology here (as related to the war goddesses Badb and Morrígan). However, Wikipedia tells me that “the word [for raven] was frequently used in combinations as a kenning for bloodshed and battle,” so I might be mistaken here.

The battle looks like a scene of much chaos, violence and fear to me, and it’s certainly not a scene that I’d happily enter. I’m in no way the type to engage in physical battle (although I believe I would be able to defend myself against a physical one-on-one attack), and even shy away from peaceful demonstrations or big concerts because I never trust “the masses” around me to be on my side when push comes to shove. However, the battle axe with the rune suggests a guiding principle which might just give structure (if not sense) to the chaos. The lightning bolts make me think of divine intervention, for better or worse, and suggest there might be a bigger plan to all of it, even if I can’t see it from my current point of view.

Besides the idea that finding my own guiding principles probably is a good idea before I enter any “battle” I’m not quite sure what this card is telling me to do.

Let’s see if the LWB can shed some light on this. The rune poem praises the use of the axe-hammer as a piece of war-gear and suggests it is a useful thing to have with you on a journey. The divinatory meanings for the card list several verbs that describe violent destruction of a thing or person and state that the “enemy could be an opponent or an illness, or anything that could be harmful to you.”

Right now, this seems to underline the wild aspect of the Ur card, so perhaps my reading of that as waiting some more before action takes place isn’t quite right? I hope the third card will clarify this matter some more!

3. What should I avoid?Ing (Ingwaz)

A big fire burns upon an otherwise snow-covered hill surrounded by a forest in the night. Its flames merge with a Green Man-like face made of what looks like oak leaves.

The depiction of a god or land spirit (I think that Ing is another name of Freyr, but I need to check that later on) makes this card different from the other two that only used things that are on the more material side of things (or symbols for deities like the flashes of lightning). In terms of something not to do as my next step I would think this means I’m not supposed to attempt any direct spirit communication at this point.

Okay, let’s check Wikipedia first. Ing, or Yngvi, is indeed an older name for the god Freyr. From what little I already know about the Northern deities, Freyr is a Vanir god and embodies a fertile masculinity that is much tied to the land and to sunshine and prosperity. Thor, on the other hand, is an Aesir god who is associated more with battle, protection, and physical strength. In other words, there are two different kinds of masculinity that appear as “do” and “don’t” for me in this reading.

That alone is rather interesting, since masculinity has indeed been an issue for me in the more recent past. Not only has my partner transitioned into an everyday life as someone who is almost always read as a “man” (despite his remaining self-identification as a third-gender butch), I have also been read as an “unfeminine” woman, especially in work-related contexts (despite my remaining self-identification as a queer femme). I have struggled (and continue to do so) with how the way his gender is perceived now changes the way my gender is perceived by others (no matter that the changes of his gender as I perceive it away from the rest world have actually been minimal – although that kind of separation is of course an illusion possible only for the sake of the argument). As a result, I’ve come to the realization that outside perception plays a much bigger role in one’s gender reality than I initially thought, and that includes the perception of the gender of the people we’re with. While this is all really fascinating in an academic way, it still means that I’m rather unsure of how to deal with this in my practical life.

I’m also wondering if this emphasis on traditionally “masculine” aspects is just a feature of this reading, or if it is part and parcel of Northern Tradition Paganism as such. I have touched on my own gender issues before, so I’ll just say here that it would be a problem for me if femininity and masculinity in Northern Tradition Paganism were divided along the same old lines of warrior and homemaker/caretaker.

But before I continue to draw the different parts of the reading together to make sense of them all, let’s see what the LWB has to say about the Ing card. Once again, I’m not sure how “purely” Northern the story of the Lord (Ing) and Lady (his sister Eostre) and Ing going to sleep over winter and being roused again by burning holly is (Wikipedia says that Freyr’s sister is Freya, not Eostre, and a superficial Google search finds no relation of Freyr to holly). In fact, the whole “Lord and Lady” business sounds awfully Wiccan to me (although, admittedly, Freyr and Freya actually mean Lord and Lady), and holly is mostly mentioned in relation to the twice-yearly fight of the Holly King and Oak King. At any rate, the LWB rune poem mentions Ing as a hero, and someone who traveled over water. It also lists a lot of positive associations along the lines of hope, optimism, fertility, rebirth, etc.

Well, that doesn’t help me much, I’m afraid. I think I shall continue with my own takes for now.

So let’s go back to whats actually on the cards. One thing that stands out to me is the very similar shape of the Ur and Yr runes. Yr looks like Ur with an extra line down. If I leave everything aside that I have read about the runes/cards during the assembly of this reading, I would say that it could be an extra grounding line. In that metaphor, Ur is the idea, the potential and Yr is the application, the manifestation of it. Nevertheless, the Yr and Ing cards are similar in how they show mostly sky (and spirit) and only a little bit of the earth/ground…

Well.

I think we can safely say that I’ve successfully managed to confuse myself to the point of wanting to scratch the reading in its entirety. I guess that what happens when I mix up research and divination to a point that goes beyond checking a fact that I already have in the back of my mind or looking up the translation of an idiom. The part that confuses me most is the battle scene of Yr as my “do” of this reading because I really can’t relate to that imagery at this point in my life. I don’t want to jump headfirst into any kind of battle, but I want to reflect and heal and go slowly instead.

I did learn a few things about this deck and about the runes as such during this reading, though, and that’s always a good thing. I realized that my usual way of reading cards (or other oracles) probably isn’t working very well with this deck as long as I want to use it to learn the runes as such, because what I see in the images is not what I read about the runes and what I would associate with the rune names, the respective stanzas of the rune poem translations, or the rune shapes themselves. I’m not giving up on the approach of doing both things at the same time (reading with this deck and learning the runes as such) just yet, but if future readings turn out to be equally confusing, I might have to do just that. In that case, I might have to decide whether to take this deck as a paper version of the runes (and ignore the images – which would beg the question why I would then use an illustrated deck) or to use the deck as I use my other oracle decks (and ignore the runes – which would lead me to wonder if it’s possible to learn the runes in some other way and still not get distracted by their presence in this oracle).

For now, I’d be grateful for any input on this reading by any of you. Maybe you know more about the runes and can give me some useful pointers about how to interpret what I drew here? Or maybe you see something in the card images that has escaped my attention? All reading methods are welcome!

G is for Gender (of humans and deities)

Standard

This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project. It’s the second one for the letter G.
I’ve announced this post a few times already, and now I’m finally sitting down to write it. Parts of my thoughts about gender have already been included in these previous posts:

D is for Dualities (and why so many of them aren’t very useful)
F is for Female. Feminine. Feminism. Femme. … Fertility?

Despite (or maybe because?) having a Master’s degree in Gender Studies, I still don’t get the idea of gender as a duality, let alone a binary. Sure, I experience (and categorize) some people as more masculine or more feminine than others, and I myself feel more masculine or feminine in certain situations, but that really doesn’t mean much for anyone outside my head.

Franklin Roosevelt in gender-neutral children's clothes of the time (1884)

Because gender isn’t at all a simple thing about two kinds of bodies or even two kinds of energies. What is considered masculine or feminine is so different throughout history and cultures that I can only laugh at anyone’s claims that anything about gender is “natural.” Even if we stick to one culture and one time in history, what is considered feminine or masculine still isn’t the same all over the board, and class and race/ethnicity are just two things that influence gender. To give you just a few examples: Pink used to be a boys’ color in Europe/Northern America up until the 1940s (because it was a pastel version of red, which was considered a masculine color). The most manly thing for an stereotypically Jewish man to do wasn’t (and probably isn’t) to go and prove his physical strength but to become a scholar. Anatomy is pretty much irrelevant in some Native American nations which assigned gender by way of the social role and skill sets (sorry, but you need to log in to view the link) someone took up.

Even if we limit our understanding of a “natural” gender difference to our physical bodies, things are a lot more complicated than bathroom doors suggest. Physical gender (aka physical sex) is made up from a combination of chromosomes, gonads, hormones, genitalia, and secondary sex characteristics like the amount and placement of body hair or the presence or absence of breasts. Not to mention brain chemistry that has become so popular recently for pinpointing gender differences to somewhere within our bodies. And yes, any of these parts may or may not conform to a certain human-made standard of “normalcy” for someone “male” or “female.” Actual humans are born with widely varied combinations of the factors contributing to physical gender. And we all develop from an embryonal state that is the same for each of us. (I strongly recommend Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body for a potentially mind-blowing biological perspective and lots more details.) Our gender is assigned to us at birth, usually by the judgment of the midwife, doctor, or nurse of what they see between the newborn’s legs. If that seems too ambiguous to them, further tests may be made to look for chromosomes or other biological “evidence” for the gender of this person. And let’s not forget the variance that occurs even among people who are genetically female (or male). Not every woman has breasts of a size that would fill even the smallest bra available (and I’m not just talking about women who’ve had mastectomies as part of their cancer treatment). Not every man has a penis of a size that would fill even the smallest condom available (and I’m not just talking about men who’ve had accidents that reduced the size of their genitalia). Not every woman is able to get pregnant and give birth, and not every man is able to sire a child. Few people would seriously argue that either of them wasn’t a “real” woman or man.

And we haven’t even talked about people of any anatomy who enjoy wearing skirts and nail polish and wielding power tools and discussing astrophysics and still fully identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Or those who enjoy wearing flannel shirts and big boots and cooking five-course meals for their loved ones and needlecrafts who also embrace what their birth certificate always said about their gender. Nor have we talked about those who were assigned one of the two commonly acknowledged genders at birth and have eventually come to the conclusion that the other of those two commonly acknowledged genders would actually be a better fit for them socially, and/or in the way their body looks, and who then go on to legally change the gender on their official documents and/or and physically change their bodies to fit better with the gender they identify with. This includes but isn’t limited to transsexual/transgender people (male-to-female or transwomen, female-to-male or transmen), some third-gender folk, some Two-Spirit individuals, and some genderqueer people.

It should be obvious by now why I would argue that gender is one of those dualities that don’t make much sense because there aren’t any clear ways to accurately and usefully measure it or to even agree on what actually belongs to “gender.” And that’s without even getting into the “nature vs. nurture” debate.

"Thomas Beatie" by Marc Quinn, 2008

All of this has been the reality of my experience of gender within and around me for the majority of my life. The first intersex individual among my friends came out to us fifteen years ago. Many of my friends and some of my lovers/partners have been (are) transgender and I’ve witnessed their social, legal, and/or physical transitions first hand. And they are just the most obvious examples of the gender variety I’ve seen, felt, and lived for at least half of my life. This is what’s normal to me (and I haven’t even started on people’s sexual variations that intersect with all this gender variety!). It’s normal to me that people are able change aspects of their gender presentation, including their bodies, more or less drastically (and with more or less legal/medical support). It’s normal to me that no human interest or capability is inherently masculine or feminine, let alone male or female (ever since Thomas Beatie the point should have been made even to the greater public that sometimes men do in fact get pregnant and give birth). I should probably also say that it is normal to me that I can also clearly see differences in individual capabilities or interests, and that I also see the influence of larger forces like education, society, and media onto how accessible some of these interests/skills are to specific individuals or groups of individuals (aka sexism et al.).

Of course, I carry over this experience and understanding of gender into my search for a spiritual tradition (or non-tradition) that makes enough sense to me to claim it as my own. And that is where I get stuck all the time. I just can’t seem to find a tradition that sees gender like I do.

Wicca (which I encountered first because it’s so omnipresent in neo-Pagan writing) has its binary God and Goddess. It was pretty clear from the beginning that I wasn’t even going there, because I certainly won’t stick a knife into a cup to symbolize the union of gender energies by way of alluding to penis-in-vagina intercourse. Not even for me as a butch-loving femme did this seem like a good representation of gender because my femininity/femmeness can be just as active and penetrative as anyone’s masculinity and/or butchness, both on a literal and a symbolical level. Besides that, the whole two-gender system of it all didn’t make much sense to me.

Other polytheistic pantheons have a larger amount male and female deities, but none of them quite fit in with a femaleness like mine that wasn’t defined by the presence or absence of fertility/physical children. But at least there were several men and women to spread characteristics around a bit. There were even “virgin” goddesses like Athena or Artemis who weren’t mainly concerned with housekeeping and bearing children. There also were “monstrous” female deities like Kali. But still. I never quite found what I was looking for. I still felt left out. I also never quite found the same kind of masculinity I saw in my butch partners in any deity (male or female), but I’ll admit I didn’t spend all too much time on male deities to begin with.

I already described my experience with looking for queerness and gender variance among deities by way of reading Raven Kaldera’s Hermaphrodeities. Let’s sum it up with: it wasn’t helpful at all.

So what’s a person to do who seems to have a pretty androgynous mind, a queer-feminist consciousness, and a female/feminine body that she likes equally well when bellydancing as when assembling furniture and wh experiences only society dysphoria when it comes to gender?

For a long time I thought I needed just get used to the necessity of putting everything Pagan through my ever-present culture filter that translates things into queerspeak for me until I could at least accept a little corner of it. Or, if that wasn’t enough, that I needed to invent my very own non-tradition and mix up a queerly Pagan worldview of my own.

However, recently I’ve felt given in to explore Heathenry/Asatru/Northern Tradition Paganism a little more in-depth. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve found myself to be especially interested in the female jötnar (giants) and their not-quite-so domestic femaleness. I don’t have any conclusions to make about this, however, as this exploration is still very much in its ongoing early phases.

And then I read something in another blog a few days ago, not much more than a remark in passing, that almost made me smack my head in sudden understanding.

The gender of Gods, I believe, is part of the metaphor, the story that we humans create to fit them into our worldview.

Duh! Of course! You should think I forgot my entire Gender Studies education the way I apparently haven’t been able to realize this for myself: the way humans have talked and portrayed the gender of deities is of course heavily influenced by what we even have words for. Why would we think and speak differently about divine genders than we would about human ones? And why would our perception of deities and their gender not be subject to change the same way that our understanding and perception of human gender changes?

Zeus giving birth to Athena

Maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss all deities that are reported to have had heterosexual relationships when there are also so many stories of the exact same deities changing gender, shapeshifting into animals or humans, and giving birth to children out of bodyparts like their armpits or foreheads?! Maybe I shouldn’t take the surviving lore as “all that there is” and at least accept the possibility that deities may look different in reality (that is, in my own eyes, if I should ever be able to look at them directly) than the pictures other humans have created of them, and that they may end up being a lot more varied in their gender expressions as well? Why on earth did I ever buy into mainstream Pagan illustrations like that and simply accepted them as objective truth?! Why, oh why, did I ever think that deities couldn’t be as varied in the ways they embodied their gender as us humans (and probably more so)?! Honestly, this is all a rather embarrassing realization for me, not because I finally have it but because it took me so long to get to this point. Haven’t I read enough about “UPG” (unverified personal gnosis) and “PCPG” (peer-corroborated personal gnosis) to know there’s more to deities (especially Heathen ones) than the surviving lore? But for some reason, the connection never clicked with my thoughts about gender. Until now.

I’m not quite sure where that leaves me, but I already sense an interest to look at mythology again, this time with a queer eye for any traces of gender “normalization” (I can’t quite explain right now how that works, but it’s not as simple as nodding wisely at the point where Loki changes into a mare…). And I definitely want to examine my own assumptions about divine gender some more to see where I did my own “normalizing.” And maybe I can even try and see what happens to my thinking about deities when I don’t take their gender as one of their main defining characteristics and instead look for personalities. I think I now have some very interesting reading (and writing?) ahead of me!

——-

Bonus link list:

Other people have also written about gender during the Pagan Blog Project. Here are some links to articles I liked so far, to sort of conclude the topic of gender (for now).

Pixiecraft: “Gods, Goddess, and Gender from one’s Grrrl’s Perspective
Per Sebek: “G is for Gender, Queerness, and the Gods
Adventures on the Dusken Path: “Fertility (And how it’s kinda exclusive)”
Walk Softly, Witch: “D is for Duality. Or: Fuck you, Aristotle”
Máris Pai: “D… is for Debacle”
Armed Venus: “Pagan Blog Project D is for Diversity (edited)”

——-

Edited to add (14 April 2012):
The spelling of “Thomas Beatie” has been corrected and a link to his homepage added within the text.

F is for Female. Feminine. Feminism. Femme. … Fertility?

Standard

This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project. It’s the first one for the letter F.

For a long time, I couldn’t even think of a blog-worthy F topic, but today yesterday I suddenly knew what I wanted to talk about. In a way, this is a first part of a future blog post on gender, but since that one is going to be quite substantial anyway, I thought it couldn’t hurt to split it up a bit.

I also need to add a disclaimer before we begin. My very broad generalizations about different pantheons and deities and about all kinds of subcultures here are not meant as accurate, objective reports but as highly subjective descriptions of what I saw and felt and otherwise perceived to exist. So if you experienced something different, that’s probably just as true as what I talk about here. Furthermore, my claims that I didn’t find a deity with certain attributes does not mean that I claim there actually is none. Just that I didn’t come across it.

When I was a kid, I lived in a world where gender wasn’t anything that placed any boundaries on what any of us could do. Sure, we (my sister and two neighbor kids who were also sisters) were girls, but that wasn’t an issue because for the most part there weren’t any boys around, so it became a meaningless category in our daily interactions. I never heard I couldn’t do this or I should do that because I was a girl. I was a person, and I was interested in some things and not so interested in others, and that was that.

This changed when I grew into a very awkward and terribly shy teenager who never seemed to be as much a girl as the rest of them – but without a solid tomboy identity to make up for that. I just landed in “gender-neutral land” somehow, and I wasn’t very happy there – for one, it was a damn lonely place to be! It also was hard to feel good about being different when all I wanted was to be normal like the other girls. But no matter how hard I tried, I mostly remained a “girl failure.” Much of my ideas about being a girl at that age were tied in with being attractive to boys and managing to find someone to “date.” That never happened. The only “Do you want to go out with me? Check [_] yes [_] no [_] maybe” letter I ever got was a joke. I truly didn’t understand the rules of all the little “girls vs. boys” games, and I didn’t even like any boy in particular. No one ever expressed an interest in holding hands with me, let alone kiss me, and so I completely skipped that phase of early romance and “relationship” experimentation that everybody else seemed to go through.

Nina Hagen, early years

When I was 14, I decided I had enough of that. Over a period of a few months, I consciously remade myself from that shy, uncool wannabe-popular girl into a punk(ish) one – one who was outspoken and rebellious, one who didn’t have to be “pretty” anymore (which is not to say that the local punk scene came with its own beauty norms – but they were less emphasized), and one who was valuable as herself and not just by way of being some boy’s girlfriend. What a relief! I finally started liking myself again. I was still somewhat of an outsider, even in the punk/leftist circles I hung out in, but at least I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb anymore. (Eventually I got my first “real” kiss from someone I barely liked at 15, motivated by sheer fed-up-ness with my state of “un-kissed-ness.” After that, I often made out with boys at parties, which was usually nice, and had two major and mostly unrequited crushes, but I never even called someone my boyfriend until I was about 18 or 19 – and even that lasted only a few weeks.) This was also a time of strong emotional bondings with a series of best friends (all of them girls), many of whom seemed to be much more important than any crush or fling I had. My strongest emotional relationships were always with other girls.

Around the same time as my initial make-over, I started reading about anarchism, antifascism, feminism and other radical leftist politics, and I read pretty much everything about these topics I could find (remember, there wasn’t any Internet for us back in the 1980s). Feminism led to some first encounters with witchcraft/paganism as a current form of spirituality/belief/practice as I read feminist perspectives on witch persecutions and folk healers, moon rituals and modern witchcraft. My best friends and I naively romanticized “witches” as strong female rebellious role models. To me, paganism/witchcraft seemed to be a female-ruled world, despite the fact that my best friend’s boyfriend also read tarot (by the way, he was the one who tried to tell me that true happiness was only possible for male/female couples due to the need for gender opposites to come together yin and yang-like). That female-centered world appealed to me, but I didn’t translate that interest into a spiritual practice (beyond drawing pentagrams onto my spiral notepads at school as a graphic shorthand for “rebellious, cool, misunderstood WOMAN who will kick your ass if you disrespect her”).

For a while, I still flirted with some aspects of feminism that now seem at least vaguely spiritual to me. However, soon after the newness of menstruation had worn off (I started bleeding rather late, at around 15), I stopped believing this was something “magical” and “mystical” that connected me to all the women on the planet, and all the women of history and our fabulous ability to bear children. I just didn’t feel particularly powerful during that time of the month, and I also didn’t I suffer horribly, so my actual menstruation was mildly annoying at worst and a complete non-issue at best. And I certainly didn’t feel delighted about my potential fertility when I started having sex with boys! On the contrary: by then I didn’t even think I wanted children at some later point in life anymore.

Fast forward a few years to my early twenties when I came out as a lesbian (my first but not my last coming-out). As a consequence of that, I encountered feminist spirituality again (again, mostly in theory), if only as something that was “around” in the lesbian-feminist subculture I was in touch with. In this world, spiritual or not, women were better than men on principle, inherently peaceful and more connected to nature, etc. (and lesbians were also better than straight women because we didn’t “sleep with the enemy”). For a while, that was a great thing to believe in, because it made being female and lesbian into something cool and even superior, especially as a counterpoint to the countless occurences of sexism and homophobia in my life. It was great to have a space where women could do everything they wanted (unless “men” and “the patriarchy” violently kept us from doing so) and where women’s strengths and capabilities were not only acknowledged but even celebrated. Or, rather, some of our capabilities were.

I quickly realized that a quick mind and a sharp tongue didn’t win me many friends among my fellow feminists if I used it to criticize them. More than once I was accused of “being dominating” in conversations, which always carried a subtext of “you behave like a man!” (which of course was a very harsh insult for the kind of feminists we were back then). I even left a feminist magazine collective due to my unwillingness to stop believing (and pointing out) that sometimes(!) there is a whole lot of power in claiming to be a poor victim in need of being saved and protected. And don’t even mention my re-awakened desire to spend time with some select men who really, honestly didn’t seem like sexist assholes and potential rapists to me. Given all of that, it seemed pretty clear pretty soon that I wasn’t quite getting with the program of female superiority and ever-peaceful sisterhood.

My sex life was mostly non-existent during that time. I kept having unrequited crushes on the least feminine women I could find, but somehow the sisterlyness of it all (not to mention the seemingly inevitable connection of sex and abuse) didn’t spark my desire much. Needless to say, the issue of fertility or motherhood was now even further from my mind than it was when I still occasionally slept with men. Even though I thought for a while that pregnancy and giving birth seemed like a fascinating thing to experience physically (if only you didn’t end up with a baby to deal with), it was pretty clear I’d never use that potential ability of my female body to bring a new human being into this world.

Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly in "Bound" (1996)

Fast forward again, to my mid-20s when another coming-out of mine took place: I started identifying as a (lesbian) femme, at first somewhat embarrassedly, but quickly with a lot of defiant pride. I had finally seen the error of my ways: I didn’t want to be one of those tough, sporty women with short-cropped hair and men’s clothes – I just wanted them! And I wanted to wear skirts and/or make-up and/or nail-polish with my big boots and big mouth while I did so. I wanted to be the “girl” to their “boy.” So I embarked on a dedicated mission to rediscover, reclaim, reconstruct, and celebrate many aspects of femininity for myself – this time as a conscious choice instead of the default-by-way-of-genitalia. As every glance at the butch objects of my desire affirmed, our gender expressions were in no way an automatic result of anatomy. Gender became something flexible, something we were able to change in subtle or drastic ways, depending on our needs and wants. I was finally free to explore femininity as something detached from heterosexuality and sexism. Femininity stopped being something I couldn’t achieve no matter how hard I tried, and it stopped being something that made me into a (potential) victim. Instead, it became something that made me strong on many levels. I could finally prove that I, too, could be pretty – even beautiful – if I wanted to. I could feel and be desirable to the ones I desired in return, not in spite of being who I was but because of it. Suddenly, it was easy and pleasurable, and that included sex. Doing my femininity for someone who didn’t take it for granted just because I was female made a world of difference. Finally, gender polarities made sense to me and became something that felt good to me because I had a choice about them (the polarities never again became binaries, though, because I saw so much gender variance around me that any idea of stuffing all of that back into only two boxes seemed both ridiculous and cruel). It was a glorious adventure for many years.

Eventually, in my early 30s, I slowly became interested in spirituality again. I read lots of stuff, mostly from the neo-pagan corners of the Western world. And, inevitably, I came across gender duality again. Goddess and God. Or even, goddesses and gods. Sometimes a singular Goddess. But there were no “femme” deities or any kind of queer, femme role model of pagan spirituality that I could find. I looked for suitable female deities first. But the ones I found (I looked mostly at the Greek and Roman pantheons, but also at the little bits I knew about the Hindu, Norse, or Egyptian ones) all seemed to be about being some god’s wife and the mother of several children – unless they were some kind of monstrous, scary killer or something. Anything else they did seemed secondary to their relationships in the way they were described in the mythology I read.

That made it hard for me to identify with any of them. I didn’t see my gender and relationships and way of life mirrored in the relationships within the various pantheons I read about. I couldn’t relate to all the family business – not because my experience in my family of origin had been so terrible, but because my life was simply structured around completely different ideas of living together and taking care of each other (the theoretically interested amongst my readers may find Judith ‘Jack’ Halberstam’s article What’s that Smell? Queer Temporalities and Subcultural Lives an interesting source for a few more thoughts on this, especially the first page of the online version). Reproduction and physical fertility just weren’t defining issues in my life. Not having a child isn’t a one-time choice that then changes your life irrevocably (as opposed to having one). It’s not even an issue I think about anymore, unless someone asks me if I want to have children sometime, or assures me that my “biological clock” will start ticking soon (yeah, right…), or otherwise let me know that being a woman at a fertile age who doesn’t even want a baby is somehow monstrous in its own right.

Which also made it difficult to impossible to identify with the Maiden/Mother/Crone idea that seems to ubiquituos in much of Paganism, especially anything Wicca-influenced. At 30+ and after , I really was no maiden anymore, no matter how drawn out my youth had been in some ways (again, see Halberstam’s article linked above). I was no mother and had no intentions of becoming one – my physical fertility seemed basically wasted in me. I also didn’t identify with the Mother archetype on a less literal level: I’d been creating things and taking care of them all my life, and it seemed absurd to me to restrict this aspect to a certain age/phase. And I wasn’t old or experienced enough to be a Crone, although I liked the idea of finally becoming free of all that fertility-associated stuff after menopause. That seemed a time where women could become people in their own right again (because, interestingly, the Crone never read as “grandmother” to me).

And the monsters? The Harpies, the bad witches and evil fairy stepmothers, Medusa, the sirens, banshees, or female vampires? Well, I flirted with the idea of monstrous femininity quite a bit because it seemed a good way to get away from cultural ideas that “women are the peaceful gender” and “women can’t be dangerous.” It also worked well as something that tied me back to punk, where femaleness also sometimes found “monstrous” expressions. Feminine monsters broke the rules. They were destructive, dangerous, and usually pretty strong. But they also often got killed off at some point or another. And despite my tendency to embrace my own monstrosity and destructiveness, I didn’t really feel drawn to all the death and doom these mythological creatures seemed to embody. I was a terribly optimist, after all.

So, next in my search, I turned to Raven Kaldera’s Hermaphrodeities, to see if a queer author had anything useful to offer to me. But I only ended up pissed off beyond belief because it seemed that the only role available to someone like me was that of Babalon, the sacred whore and consort to intersex/transgender Baphomet. If that’s what floats your boat as a femme, fine (really!), but it didn’t float mine. By then, I was sick and tired of being reduced to being “sexy” and “supportive” to my butch and transgender partners and friends – often sadly by them as well. And on top of that, Kaldera went and even claimed Aphrodite as intersex/transgender because there is a story where she has a beard. Great. Now every single way of being non-conventionally female (not to mention crossing gender boundaries) suddenly got ripped out of my femme hands and taken over to “trans*/intersex land.” I was furious. Wasn’t there a single goddamn female goddess who existed outside of a heteronormative paradigm that was left for me?! As a consequence, I stopped even looking at deity-related stuff for a long time. (Note: I realize that Kaldera didn’t even intend to address female femmes unless they were also transwomen. It still hurt to be excluded from his world, because he seemed to be able to include just about anyone else on the queer spectrum. And even if all this is just selective reading/memory which would be proven as incomplete by a rereading of the book, my emotions back then were still as real as they get.)

For a while, I did fine with the shamanic/animistic idea of Animal and Plant Spirits, for and with whom gender didn’t seem to be so much of an issue. But even in the shamanic worldviews I encountered, there were Mother Earth and Father Sky, and a female Moon and a male Sun (which still don’t sit right with me, even if that’s only due to the fact that in my native language German the moon is grammatically male and the sun is female). The Universe was still pretty heterosexually organized, even if some Native American cultures I heard about didn’t seem to assign gender based on anatomy but based on the social role that was taken up.

But even those concepts didn’t seem to include me. I don’t see myself as taking up “the” male role socially, nor am I taking up “the” female one. Both of the roles, in whatever society, always seem limiting to me, and my own interests, behavior, and feelings never fit into any of the given options. Not even if a change of social gender is one of them. Because I don’t feel “male” one day and “female” the next. I don’t perceive myself to be changing my gender that much. I look female for all intents and purposes, but I don’t quite feel that way. I mostly do my femmeness as extremely low-femininity these days, at least in terms of looks. My behavior, however, often seems to be relatively “masculine” if the reactions of people at work are any indication. Still, I am worlds away from being butch or even androgynous. I may put on nail polish one day, sew myself a new skirt, and maybe even cook dinner, but that doesn’t make me feel more “female” than I do on a day where I put on a pair of old jeans, paint a wall, and eat the dinner my partner has cooked. To me, this is all still “femme,” even if only for lack of a better term. (Nope, “human” won’t do because gender isn’t irrelevant to me.) Sometimes it seems I have come full circle to gender-neutrality, especially since my femme gender is massively tied to my desire, and there hasn’t been much desire for anything lately. Oh, and did I mention my queer and third-gender-identified transgender butch partner who has been shapeshifting himself for about 1.5 years now? Which doesn’t make finding a Pagan tradition – or non-tradition – that has room for both of us in all our incarnations any easier.

Also, my desire to find even a single goddess with whom I felt a connection that didn’t immediately bring up a string of reservations never quite went away. The only deity that somehow stuck with me a bit was Kali. While she seemed to be heterosexual as well, that didn’t seem to define her so much. I felt drawn to her destructive aspect, the literal blood and bones. She didn’t seem to care about being pretty for anyone but was fierce and strong instead. And she was still unarguably female. After a while, I could even start to accept her mother aspect. Not that I even dared to try getting in touch with her, mind you. There were too many issues of cultural appropriation, my ignorance about and lack of connection with Hinduism, and plain old caution involved for me to feel ready to go any deeper than looking up some basic information on the Internet and print out one or two pictures of her. She may or may not have been the being I encountered on one of my early shamanic journeys, but that was a one-time occurrence (I haven’t tried meeting that being again, though). So I sort of admire her from afar, trying to make up my mind about how to proceed from here. And, of course, she’s also firmly located in “monster” territory…

As a consequence of all of this mess, I still have a hard time seeing myself practice any deity-centered spirituality. I can’t quite relate to any pantheon, because the pantheons I’ve glimpsed at look too much like a world that holds little similarity to the one I inhabit (and I seem to believe that humans and the deities they believe in are and should be much alike in many respects). Sure, “official” lore may not hold all the realities of what deities did and do, but it is a powerful narrative and it’s hard to come across anything else at all.

I’m having much of the same problems even with non-deity-centered Pagan worldviews. Doing a fertility ritual for the Earth by way of simulating or having heterosexual intercourse seems utterly alien and absurd to me (ask Anne Fausto-Sterling or any other biologist worth their salt about the ridiculousness of thinking about natural gender in male/female terms only).There has to be another way to acknowledge and celebrate cycles of growth and death, and the return of spring. Alas, I haven’t found it yet…

Well, I could go on, but I think I made my points for today. (Besides, I have to leave some aspects of the topic for my post on gender in one of the G weeks, right?)

So, does anyone have any suggestions for a Pagan(ish) spiritual worldview that has room for non-reproduction-centered concepts of femaleness and femininity? For understandings of gender that aren’t limited to men, women, and the ones that change from one into the other socially? I’d be extremely interested to hear about all that I may have missed in my own explorations so far!

B is for Kate Bornstein

Standard

Kate Bornstein is one of my heroes and also one of my role models for being human.

I encountered her first in 1998 when I bought an advance uncorrected proof copy of her fabulous book My Gender Workbook: How to become a real man, a real woman, the real you, or something else entirely in a second hand bookshop in San Francisco.

As I took the Gender Aptitude Test (the link points to an archived version of the digitalized test so unfortunately you can’t get any results – but it’s still worth reading if you don’t know it), I found that I landed in the “Gender Freak” category. I was surprised, relieved, and very intrigued. I was surprised because as someone who was assigned female at birth and at that point identified as a lesbian femme who was mainly attracted to butches, I was used to being considered more “normally” gendered than my butch lovers and friends, including by said butch lovers and friends. I was relieved because the test finally confirmed my own feeling that I wasn’t as “normally” gendered as I may have looked to many people. And I was intrigued because I wanted to know how Kate Bornstein had managed to “get” me so thoroughly and what else she had to say.

And she does have a lot of really worthwhile things to say. I later read her books Gender Outlaw: On men, women, and the rest of us (1995), Nearly Roadkill: an infobahn erotic adventure (1996), which she wrote together with Caitlin Sullivan, Hello Cruel World: 101 alternatives to suicide for teens, freaks, and other outlaws (2006). All of these are very different from each other, and yet they are all Bornstein all the way.

But where’s the link to spirituality/paganism?, you ask.

Easy. With Hello, Cruel World, Bornstein has written a deeply spiritual book (by the way, here’s an interview with her so you can get an idea of what the book all about). I’m not sure that’s what she meant to do, but that’s what she accomplished. Not only does she hide the concept for a new tarot deck in Hello, Cruel World and dedicates one of the alternatives to Rachel Pollack of (mostly) tarot fame (I swear I’m going to make that deck eventually, although I still hope that by some strange twist of the Universe she’ll find the time and strength to create her own tarot deck + book and have Diane Di Massa create the artwork for it without having to take this time and energy from whatever else she’s doing). Not only does she sprinkle “zen mode” versions for many of the alternatives throughout the book, many of which deal with delightful paradoxes to ponder. Not only does she recommend several spiritual and pagan-ish methods of running a diagnostic checkup in another alternative (“since outlaws don’t always have access to traditional Western medicine or religious advice”). No, she also shows in very simple words on only a few small pages how binary concepts such as man/woman, gay/straight, normal/abnormal, black/white, crazy/sane, friend/enemy, etc. a) don’t work to accuartely describe humans and b) hurt and limit everyone they’re applied to. (Come to think of it, “binary” would have been a really good B topic as well…). She has also shown me that one can be kind without ever becoming any less of a fierce radical.

I’m realizing that this post doesn’t really do her justice because I’m not even able to say why she is such a wonderful person to have happened to this planet. I’ll still just leave it at this because it’s all I can do today. If I’m only a third as awesome as she is by the time I’m in my sixties, I’ll be a very happy Cat indeed who will have done a good handful of things that have made the world a better place.

I’m currently looking forward to her autobiography A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today which is due to come out in May 2012. And as I was looking up her blog and her twitter feed and the tumblr dedicated to her today to provide the curious among you with some further links to Bornstein goodness, I found that there will be an update of the Gender Workbook. Tweet-sized contributions are explicitly welcome. I might go full circle with this and send in some snippets of my own.

New Deck: International Icon Tarot (with Happy Squirrel card)

Standard

It’s time to choose another deck! Since I’m a bit late this week and since I’ll be at my mother’s next weekend, my week will run from Sunday to Sunday/Monday this time.

This is what the random number generator offers:

Since I’ll be travelling, the Shining Tribe Tarot is out, due to its massive companion book. The Light and Shadow Tarot looks great but may need more time and attention than I’ll be able to give it next week. Therefore, the International Icon Tarot it is. (You may remember it from this post.)

I think I first came across this deck when I was going through Aeclectic Tarot‘s massive review archives in search for the deck to reconnect me with tarot after a break of 10+ years. The International Icon wasn’t that deck, though (the honor went to the World Spirit Tarot). The next thing I remember is reading about some AT members with huge tarot collections who used this deck for a year-long period of reading with one deck only (the idea became known as the “One Deck Wonder”). Even later, I finally bought my copy from another AT member.

When I received it, I was surprised at how big the cards seemed. Don’t get me wrong, they’re comfortable to handle as they are, but since there isn’t much detail in the images, I somehow expected the cards to be smaller. I still think that making them the size of, say, the Vanessa Tarot or some other smallish deck would be perfect.

I love the range and use of color in the International Icon Tarot. I can imagine relying a lot on the moods of the colors in my readings with the deck. I also appreciate the lack of gender or race markers (Western culture is still present, but a lot less than in the RWS deck this is based on). The most pronounced gender cues are in the cards that feature both men and women, in the Queens, and a small handful of other cards. Come to think of it, I may just do another analysis of gender representation with this deck – its supposed neutrality seems like an interesting angle to start from.

Some extra love is of course reserved for the Happy Squirrel card (about which you can read everything you ever wanted to know here and here), which was included as a reference to Matt Groening’s The Simpsons (you can see a storyboard of the episode here). I love squirrels, and I love Lisa Simpson, and I love having a serious tarot deck that references The Simpsons.

Should I decide to let my family know of my interest in tarot while I’m visiting, the International Icon is probably the single most non-threatening deck there is. Could be interesting to see what my nephew and niece think of it, too. But I’m not sure I’ll feel like opening that particular can of worms this time, although it is about time I told my family (I don’t expect any huge drama, because none of my closest relatives is actually religious, but rather a skepticism that could make me feel even more unlike them, which isn’t necessarily something I want to emphasize too much). We’ll see.

Let’s get back for a moment to the idea of making a tarot deck that looks like the people from the restroom doors got together with some other airport signage. It seems there has been at least one other attempt to do so. However, International Icon Tarot creator Robin Ator initially used shapes cut from paper for his images (and later realized the deck digitally), whereas John Coulthart has limited himself to using (nearly) nothing but “international symbol pictograms or dingbat sets” in his work.