Crystal Blanton of the Pagan Newswire Collective recently interviewed me via e-mail for an article she is writing on the upcoming Pagan Alliance conference on Gender. I thought I'd post the full text of my answers here, since I worked hard on them and am sure they cannot be included entirely.
Name and position you would want to be used?
Yeshe Rabbit, Presiding HPS of CAYA Coven
What role are you playing in the upcoming Pagan Alliance event?
My Coven, CAYA, is a sponsor for the event, and as the 2011 Pagan Alliance Keeper of the Light, I will be in attendance. I am also one of the presenters. I will be offering, with other members of CAYA, a Ritual of Radical Forgiveness, designed to help everyone come together in heartfelt compassion, regardless of whether they agree, share similar experiences, or feel dubious about one another's views.
Why do you feel this event is important?
This is an important event because it is the first time that a pagan organization as large and active as The Pagan Alliance is giving thorough time and space for us to work communally on a challenging topic in safety and mutual concern. This is a polarizing topic, a controversial topic, and a topic that arouses a lot of emotions. When we engage the topic of gender in the private sphere with people who share our opinions, it leaves us little room to experience the challenges that might expand our opinions. We just soak in the warm, comfy pool of self-affirmation of our own views. When we engage the topic of gender in the wider, non-pagan public sphere, an unhelpful defensiveness can creep into the discourse because we do not trust that everyone involved in the discussion actually cares about our personal feelings and experiences--after all, "they" don't know us or owe us anything. We might feel misunderstood or anxious to make ourselves vulnerable. We might fail to open up. This event provides the structure of classes and workshops to offer many different perspectives, as well as social forum in which to meet others, discuss what we have shared and learned, and hopefully come to an appropriate place of respectful common ground.
How has the previous year of controversy and discussions effected the Pagan community at large and your personal Pagan community?
(Laughs) How has it NOT affected EVERYONE? Seriously, I could go on and on...this has been a year of tremendous growth for the entire pagan community. Interestingly, I feel that although the core issue of this debate has been gender, the larger issue that has emerged is actually about the need to establish effective social contracts. It's no longer possible for pagans to really remain insular, isolated, and uninvolved with one another. In the past, we were forced or had the choice to remain anonymous and separate. But now, due to this galvanizing issue and also due to the emergence of many pagans savvy with new media, we are being asked by the Powers that be to connect on a deeper level. We can't just get away with the polite, sterile niceties of "Merry meet" and "Blessed be" in our real-time or online relationships with other pagans any more. We actually need to learn how to effectively talk with one another and listen to one another, and to establish a common protocol of courtesy and kindness.
The issue of gender has provided a unique lens through which we can analyze our social interactions. For example, before PantheaCon 2011, I did not know there was a term more appropriate than "women-born-women." I did not know this term was offensive to anyone, having heard it used widely and without incident for many years. I did not know that the term "cisgender" existed. This is not because I had a closed mind or closed eyes; it just, literally, had never crossed my screen before. I went to a liberal college in my younger days, I studied women's studies...still, I did not know about these terms or their importance. I believe many people shared this ignorance. As I watched the debate unfolding online, I saw how many otherwise well-meaning people were unknowingly angering gender equality activists with their choices of terms. It was frustrating to watch people try honestly to be kind or fair and then get slapped because they didn't know how to communicate their thoughts in an unoffensive way. It was equally frustrating to watch otherwise-respected pagans issue forth hate speech and hysterical commentary from a place of fear, especially leaders we have counted on to model good example and maintain cool heads in times of turmoil. We saw (at least, I know I saw) many instances of individuals on all sides of the debate lashing out in anger and rage without actually knowing all the data or without the consciousness that there was a real human being on the other end of their big, angry rant. I, personally, received death threats, threats of violence, long letters shaming me and CAYA Coven (often for things that had not actually happened), and a HUGE onslaught of really inappropriate commentary that was vicious, cruel, and unhelpful to the already-escalated situation. All from people who claim to abide by the Rede or Law of Three, but clearly do not when their heads are hot. It was bloody and painful, as war always is. And war is actually never the best solution. It bespeaks a fear of weakness where the greatest strength would be vulnerability and softness. I think many of us know that, but forgot it. We need to remember.
The issue of gender inequality in the pagan community addresses a problem, to be sure: a problem of education, understanding, privilege, and biological determinism. But the issue that really showed itself to be the disease of which the gender issue is but one symptom was that of a lack of shared set of guidelines with which we can approach challenging topics together safely, compassionately, and mindfully. Obviously, without a single common Tradition, we are all able to enjoy greater diversity. No one wants us to lose that precious diversity. But without a commonly agreed-upon code of conduct for our process of exploring our similarities and differences, we are doomed to either fight with one another until we return to isolationism, or else skim over deeper matters because of fear of retribution. My hope is that all parties learned from this experience that compassion and gentleness are key in approaching topics or issues that we don't understand or agree with, if we are to have any hope of mutual support for our individual paths. In short, kindness matters.
On the Coven level, The Amazon Priestesses have been a private, invite-only Tradition for a few years now, so that has not changed. However, we decided to close membership entirely for the coming year so that we can regroup, focus on our ongoing growth and personal work in the Blood Mysteries, and heal from the vitriol that was directed at us from many far corners of the globe. On the larger front of CAYA Coven, we had an opportunity to publicly re-affirm our already-existing commitment to gender diversity and inclusiveness in our rituals and our Wildflower Clergy training program. On the personal level, I am working on a project called The Daughters of Lilith, which will be a free, monthly phone-in conference for transgender and cisgender women all over the country to call in and get to know one another, establish common bonds of sisterhood, and find our way toward wholeness together. I also have other projects in the works of a personal nature addressing the concept of ethics in paganism, with an eye toward creating more safe spaces for these kinds of challenging conversations to unfold to everyone's mutual benefit and growth.
What do you hope to get out of the upcoming event?
I hope, personally, that I and everyone who attends the event has a wonderful time, grows and learns a lot, and feels that they have both been heard and have heard others, profoundly. I pray that the existence of this event and others like it that may yet emerge signifies a new dawn of potential understanding and healing for every pagan who has struggled with gender-related violence, mockery, or prejudice. My heart lifts with that hope.