PCon 2011 and the Rite of Lilith: The rest of the story

The time has finally come for me to write down the entire story of what happened at PantheaCon 2011 and thereafter. I have spent the past several months wondering how to address this, musing over it, thinking about it, and practicing discernment about what I would share and with whom, in an effort to create greatest possible clarity while creating the most possible peace. In the end, at the encouragement of several Elders whom I respect, I am going to just offer complete transparency about this process of growth for me and CAYA Coven. This is long. If you stick with it, you will end up with a lot of really important information about the actual events of this past year from a firsthand source (me) who has been witness to many different pieces of the puzzle.

First, the backstory:

In 2007, I was ordained by Z Budapest in the Dianic Tradition. I have been, within my eclectic practice, engaged in Dianic circles since 2005, and I have been a feminist witch for my entire adult life. When I found my Dianic practice, it offered me a great deal of personal healing from past experiences, from body shame, from shame in my menstrual blood, and from fear of my power as a woman in a society that subtly and overtly conditions women to be fearful of power. The Dianic Tradition offered me a version of the Divine that looked like me, smelled like me, bled like me, and understood my worldview. I am deeply grateful for this work, as it helped me to grow in my confidence and personal sense of authority over my own life.

My journey from a personal practice in women-centered magic to High Priestesshood in the Dianic Tradition is another piece of data that bears explanation. Z Budapest has historically viewed ordination as the reward for work already completed, as opposed to an end destination for a series of classes. This is a crucial difference from other Mystery Traditions, which confer authority as a result of a period of study with a teacher. At the time I met Z, I had already founded CAYA Coven, and we had a membership of about 50 people. I was ordained on that basis, rather than as the result of taking a series of classes. I think it is important for me to share this, because many people have assumed that because I was ordained by Z, I was her student and am trained in her way of thinking. But to the contrary, Z has often made public and private statements to the effect that I arrived at her doorstep already trained, which is true. I trained myself, with hard work, study and first-hand experience in pagan leadership. I owe a lot to Z's books, to our friendship, and also to the books of many others, and to two significant teachers from my past whose names I do not release here because they maintain lives as private individuals. I do feel that I arrived at Z's doorstep ready to begin the lifetime journey of High Priestesshood, not as a student but as a colleague, friend, and one who enjoyed her writings in my formative years of the Craft.

Part of my commitment to lifelong learning about how to be an effective High Priestess has involved a strong amount of discernment about which policies, opinions, and practices of the Dianic Tradition best serve my worship of the Goddess, and which do not. When I look at the other Dianic High Priesteses in this lineage, I see a strong trend toward diversity. We are not all the same, we do not all share the same views, and we each bring our own flavor of practice to the Tradition. Not all of my Dianic colleagues practice the exact same way, above and beyond holding a central view of the Goddess as primary. Ask ten Dianics the same basic question about how we worship (or even if we would call it "worship"), and you'll get ten different answers. There is strength in that personalization. Though the difference of opinion can occasionally lead to conflict and disagreements, that seems natural in any living Tradition.

Fast forward to 2011: CAYA Coven has grown and now has some 500 members attending 6 different circles in two separate Covens in the Bay Area. I founded, and along with all other members, continue to develop the Wildflower Clergy Collective, which is our path of training in magical community service open via application to all women, men and those who wish not to identify based on gender who have completed our Dedicant classes and who are able to demonstrate the high level of preparedness and the supportive life environment we feel best befit the rigors of active service. We offer somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 circles per year, participate in several local community initiatives, and each have an extensive personal practice in addition to our public work. For 6 years now, we have welcomed all individuals to "Come As You Are" to our rites, and we mean it. We have enjoyed the company and presence of many individuals from diverse walks of life, paths, belief systems, and political backgrounds. Our Sabbats have always been open to all, regardless of gender, and our gender-focused full moon circles have always been open to all self-identified individuals, regardless of sex at birth. We have hosted transgender women and men in our Coven from the very beginning.

Within CAYA, there are also small, closed, invite-only affinity groups for the sake of specific personal work. These groups perform rituals and activities that they may or may not share with the public, as the groups see fit. These groups vary in theme. Some are gender-related, some are focused on other areas of personal development. One of these "inner court" groups is my Dianic lineage, the Amazon Priestess Tribe. This lineage is focused on the mysteries of the yoni, the woman's menstrual cycle as a lens for the life cycle, birth, croning, and personal healing. This Dianic group is a closed, safe, intimate place for the women in my Clergy to find, as I did, empowerment in our bodies just as they are. And it is/has been good work.

The Amazons, having attended numerous PantheaCon events and having witnessed and participated in many Dianic rites there, began proposing and offering Dianic rituals at PCon in 2009 with a rite to Artemis. In 2010 we offered a Dance of the 7 Veils. In 2011, we offered the Rite of Lilith. One key component of all the rituals the Amazons offer at PCon, and indeed all the rituals we do anytime, is that they are completely skyclad. We do not require all attendees to be entirely nude for our rites, but our priestesses are and it is strongly encouraged, as we feel there is a primal power in the naked female body that can be seen, heard, smelled, and felt in a visceral way when we gather to practice. We do not purport to be fully inclusive; we are not. However, we have chosen to share our rituals at places like PantheaCon in a spirit of generosity, without presumption. We do not think of our way as the only way nor even the best way. We are just sharing what we do with what we hope to be an enthusiastic population of fellow Dianic travelers at a large event where many different groups offer their practices to one another.

When I was writing the proposal for PCon 2011 about the Rite of Lilith, I made a crucial error in not specifying that this was a nude ritual designed for women. Although I used the terms "Amazon" and "skyclad" in my description of the rite, I take full personal responsibility that these terms are not universally clear. At the beginning of the rite, as we were figuring out some technical difficulties that caused a late start, I was approached by a member of PCon staff. He asked me if this was a rite for women, and I said yes. He replied that some men had gathered and wanted to attend, and would I please come and make an announcement about it. I agreed, and entered the hall where people were gathering. I saw that there were, indeed, men who were clearly dressed in men's clothing and who clearly live full-time as men waiting. I apologized for the delay, and also for the confusion. There was also one individual there whom I know personally, who does shift gender identity from time to time, and who was dressed that evening as a man. I said, "This is going to be a naked ritual for women. I am so sorry this was not clear in the program, but that is what it is. So, if you are not a woman, willing and able to be naked among other naked women, this is not the ritual for you. I appreciate that there is such wide interest here, and next year we will offer a more inclusive proposal. Thank you so much for understanding, and I am very sorry for any inconvenience." After I had made the announcement, we opened the doors and let anyone still in line enter the room. We did not check to make certain that all were cis-women (this, for those who might not know, is the more widely-accepted term for the phrase "woman-born-woman" which you may have heard in other contexts and which is considered offensive by many transgender people.) We did not ask any woman to remove more clothing than she was comfortable with. We believe there to have been at least one trans woman at the ritual, but we cannot be certain as she has never stepped forward amidst this conflict. Either way, we were prepared to host any woman who respectfully remained after I made the announcement.

Unbeknownst to me, several gender equality activists had pre-planned a protest at PantheaCon regarding the issue of gender-and-sex-exclusive spaces. Unbeknownst to me, this group had already contacted the Pagan Newswire Collective letting them know that they planned this action. Unbeknownst to me, they were outside protesting our ritual while we were figuring out our technical difficulties, and saying that we excluded trans women. THE AMAZONS HAVE NEVER TURNED A TRANS WOMAN AWAY AT THE DOOR OF ANY OUR RITUALS. We believe in personal integrity. We believe that in women's culture, if a woman sets a boundary about her preferences, other women will honor that boundary. We believe that if any woman is in need of healing and is prepared to participate respectfully, lovingly and kindly in a ritual for such, she should have it. We do not do penis-checks or pat-downs. WE DO ASK THAT ALL PARTICIPANTS AT AMAZON RITUALS BE ABLE TO BE NAKED AND ALLOW THEIR YONIS TO BE PRESENT IN THE RITUAL SPACE for the purpose of a particular type of visceral experience, much the same way others hearken to the witches rune and gather naked at their own rites for their own purposes. There are many women, both cis- and trans-, who struggle with public nudity. There are many women, cis- and trans-, for whom this type of ritual might be triggering. There are also many women, cis- and trans-, who do not feel called to this particular type of worship. We support thoughtfulness and personal responsibility in the matter of selecting the rituals that will be most personally helpful, creating the necessary boundaries for any specific type of work one feels called to do, and respecting the boundaries of others, whether we share those boundaries and agree with them or not.

Unbeknownst to me, at the same PantheaCon where we hosted our controversial ritual in a small, back-corner meeting room, there was a ritual happening upstairs in a main ballroom where any woman who was currently menstruating was not allowed to attend. Has that been mentioned, protested against, pointed out as cruel, violent, hateful, or unfair as often as our ritual has? No. In fact, it has barely come up. Apparently, it is not considered violent to make a woman stand aside due to her menstruation. Apparently, it is allowable to delineate space on the basis of biology if one practices some Traditions, but not others. Apparently, it is less offensive to exclude a bleeding woman than to celebrate her. Mind you, I respect this group's right to host a ritual that is authentic to their Tradition, even if it appears to be in direct conflict with one of my core spiritual beliefs in celebrating a woman's blood. I trust that there are many paths through this forest, and some of them are meant to remain Mysteries to me. However, I object to the disparity in public outrage that feels symptomatic of misogyny. [Editorial note: see comments section for an expanded view on this topic, thanks to Geoffrey.]

I think it is important to say here that I do not think the PantheaCon organizers or staff were at fault in any way for this incident. I imagine that the amount of angry correspondences they have received trumps mine by the hundreds, about this issue and any number of other issues that create strong emotions around this powerful event. I think the staff of PCon put together an amazing weekend with a truly awesome staff so that we can all enjoy ourselves and express ourselves. That is incredible, and I think it is a bargain at the admission price they charge for a Festival of this scope. I admire the fact that Glenn and her staff have managed to keep this event sustainable and strikingly diverse from year to year. I expressed an apology in an email to the PantheaCon staff after this all began to transpire, and I received a warm response that indicated they understand this to be a delicate situation, and they have handled many delicate situations over time. I really appreciate this Con, and its organizers, and its staff, having had countless positive experiences with many different members of the team. I am grateful that they chose this coming year's theme, "Unity in Diversity," with such responsiveness and care, and I look forward to seeing what programs get selected to iterate that theme.

After our ritual was over, the Amazons went about the rest of our Con as usual, attending workshops and rituals, socializing with friends from near and far, and enjoying ourselves. Unbeknownst to us, a storm was brewing and a meeting was held at which we were a primary focal point of the discussion due to our ritual and our request that the space be reserved for women's naked worship. At no point did a single organizer of that meeting seek us out, alert us that there were questions and issues that needed to be addressed, nor were we told that we were the cause of this stir. When Wendy Griffin appeared at that meeting, she asked the organizers why CAYA was not in attendance, and was told that "they could not find us to invite us."

I find that very difficult to believe. CAYA Coven usually occupies an entire wing of the hotel at PCon because we bring so many people. Literally, there are typically 50 of us there, wearing CAYA t-shirts, badges with our Coven's name on it, presenting rituals and workshops as CAYA members listed in the program. The main organizing staff at PCon knows many of us by name and face, and could easily have helped the meeting organizers find us had they been asked to do so. My business had a booth in the vendor room with my name attached to it that could have easily been found to give me a message to attend this meeting. There is absolutely no reason why anyone in the reasonably small DoubleTree building could not find one single one of us with the day's notice they had before this meeting. Instead, we were not invited to this meeting, where we would gladly have shared that we had turned no woman away from our ritual, that we were completely willing to engage in discussion about this topic, and that we would be happy to explain our approach to eclectic paganism as all-inclusive, meaning that even when conflicting views arise, we make space for them all and work through them together. Instead, by the time we were alerted that we were a major focal point of this meeting, it was almost over. And by the time the misreports of our "exclusionary ritual" hit the blogosphere and erupted in a huge game of Telephone, it was too late to counter fiction with fact in a way that even mattered to most. CAYA Coven was judged and sentenced without a fair trial in the minds of many people, all over the country, whether they knew us, spoke with us, had been in attendance at our ritual, or not.

And into this, Z arrived, and she came swinging. While I honor Z's many, many contributions to women's culture and feminine spirituality, I cannot condone speech that is filled with hate, neither against me nor on my behalf. I would not and have not communicated my opinions in those terms. I respect Z's right to hold whatever opinions, thoughts, and practices she chooses, and my expectation is that we are all given that freedom to do, think, speak, or feel as we choose. My reasons for creating specific sacred spaces are not merely rote from my Tradition; they are my own, and I believe each of us has the right to create our own sacred spaces as we wish.

When the Internet erupted, CAYA carefully worked on a statement that addressed our position and reflected our all-inclusive approach to this topic. Be warned- it is not bite-sized. We in CAYA Clergy all agreed that this was not a bite-sized issue, and that it deserved full explanation. For those who do not know, have not read that long statement, or who would prefer a quick view of its core: we hold the space, as a Coven, to respect each individual's right to worship exactly as he or she pleases and finds most rewarding. Full stop. We do not promise, nor attempt, to provide for all possible needs and every single possible practice with our limited capacity of volunteer Clergy. That would be impossible, though with sufficient growth in our population of mindful and magically-gifted individuals over time, we can easily see providing for a great many more needs. At this time, we do all we can to create safe spaces for a number of different types of practice in our 6 circles: public, private, gendered, non-gendered, multicultural and multi-focal, singular-in-focus and clearly-defined...each person in CAYA brings his or her own mix of ideas and practices to the table, and we work through the very real and sometimes difficult and always rewarding process of letting everyone come as they are, enjoy what we can offer if they want to, and find/make their own way in our community if it feels right to them. We do our best to create safe containers, and we don't do a lot of hand-holding beyond that point, because we're personal-responsibility-and-free-will-type people.

Of course, no one can please everyone, and both before and after CAYA issued our statement we received backlash. In the past year I have fielded dozens of e-mails calling me names, making wide assumptions of our practices or intent (often from people who know nothing about us and had not read our statement.) In one case, we were told we were "a bunch of self-righteous breeders who worship our wombs." In two incidences, I was sent death threats and in others, threats of violence, a la "one of these days we'll cross paths and then you'll get what's coming to you." It was really painful and disconcerting to be threatened with death and violence as someone's idea of justice for a situation that did not actually occur the way it was reported. It bespoke, to me, a massive appropriation of the violent rhetoric of patriarchal domination. "If you don't give me what I want, I'll hurt or kill you." Isn't that the battle cry of the rapist, the colonizer? This has no place in the kind of civil discourse I strive for, teach, and pray for on a regular basis.

Further, even after we issued our statement, in a still-kind-of-unbelievable situation, I was called in to the Berkeley City Council chambers in May by my councilman, Kris Worthington. Ironically, I have voted for this man in the past several City Council elections because I admire his bold and radical approach to local politics. Why was I called in to chambers? Because The Pagan Alliance had chosen to honor me as their 2011 Keeper of the Light in acknowledgement of my local efforts to be of support to the pagan community. He was trying to decide if he would pull the permits for their entire Festival the day before the event due to an unsubstantiated and unresearched complaint that I was a transphobic individual who was hosting exclusionary rituals on city property. He lectured me for the better part of a half hour about how important it is for us to accept the self-definition of all people(a position I wholeheartedly support), all the while using terms like "women-born-women" in his lecture (demonstrating that he was not actually as well-read in this area as he proclaimed to be). I explained to Mr. Worthington that all of CAYA's rituals were open to all, and that the Amazon rituals were actually performed in the nude as privately-organized, invitation-based religious events for women. I explained that CAYA had hosted trans women in our public rituals from the beginning, but reserved the right for any internal group to have private events around whatever criteria we felt most appropriate. I explained that our Amazon Mysteries surrounded the yoni and menstrual cycle, and that having both of these things was the pre-qualifier for entry into our private events. He said, "Oh." I asked him if he had visited our web site and read our statement on this subject after receiving this misinformation about me and my Coven. He said, "No." I said, "I am fairly certain that I am within my rights to A) practice my religion as I see fit in the United States of America, and B) offer invitation-based events on private property delineating any boundaries I choose that are within the scope of legal activities. What I am not certain of, Mr. Worthington, is if you are actually within your legal rights to have me here without doing the research to substantiate or dispel this complaint against me, or to pull the permits on this Festival without any proof that I have engaged in trans-phobic or hateful activities, which I have not." He said, "Weeelllll, sometimes people get angry without knowing all the facts." I said, "Tell me about it." and left. I really appreciate that Kris Worthington is outspoken and supportive of each and every person's right to self-define. I agree. I do wish, as I often wish with politicians, that he had checked his facts first.

The next day, the Festival was beautiful. I worked magic for this: that everyone in attendance would really be able to fully enjoy a lovely day of being pagan together. Even in the relatively liberal Bay Area, there are many folks whose jobs or other obligations keep them in the broom closet. Events like these are crucial for community building, and represent a rich Interfaith experience for all. I was informed that the Pagan Alliance had to provide extra funds for extra police presence, since I had received death threats. There were also threats that protesters would show up at the event which was now being billed in certain circles as a transphobic event (despite the fact that The Pagan Alliance is an organization committed to all forms of civil equity for all pagans, and Transgender SF, The Fellowship of the Spiral Path, and Circle of Dionysus were main supporters of the event, each of which holds a commitment to gender diversity and specifically commitment to trans issues at the core of their organization.) I, and CAYA are members of Fellowship of the Spiral Path, and we are supporters of the Circle of Dionysus. My partner and I performed music with the Circle of Dionysus at the Festival that day with 2 other CAYA members and several other CoD members. It ended up, after all that pre-fear, being a wonderful day. I received the Keeper of the Light sacra from previous KoL joi wolfwomyn, an outspoken, genuis, down-to-Earth trans-identified activist, a devoutly irreverent Discordian, and local/national witch-about-the-world who offers wisdom with humor and a heaping dose of reality. joi and I rode in the parade together with previous Keepers of the Light M. Macha NightMare, Don Frew, and Max Dashu. joi was dressed in a glittering tuxedo, I was in a white dress. We looked like a crazy wedding cake topper. Members of my Coven marched in the parade as well, wearing rabbit ears. Laughter really is the CAYA way, and the best medicine.

By this time, The Pagan Alliance was already planning their Conference on Gender and Paganism, which CAYA sponsored, provided volunteers for, and at which we offered a Ritual of Radical Forgiveness that I had written. I spent the summer pondering many different challenging questions: how could I ethically deal with a pagan community where death threats and unsubstantiated rumor were unfolding? How could I find ways to create a spiral of good in this situation that benefited all parties? How could I generate what I felt to be the correct energy of compassion, vulnerability, and openness for truly heartfelt discussion to be shared? How could I uphold my own commitment to providing sacred space for all, on their own terms, in the face of pressure from both gender equality activists and fellow Dianics to shut out the other side's needs? From these questions, I created this ritual and offered it. I also posted the outline and an explanation of it here on my blog. My good friend Ava Park of the Goddess Temple of Orange County has a phrase she uses in her teachings that I appreciate as a High Priestess. "Lead like water," she says, "always seeking the lowest point, the most natural channel."

In an effort to lead like water, I offered public apology for my error in describing the intended audience for the Rite of Lilith, and for any trouble or harm it has caused, in any direction or at any time, whether intended or otherwise. I also offered heartfelt forgiveness to all who had threatened me, called me names, or caused harm to me as a way to centralize healing for all. I did my magical best to create a wave of good. I stand by this ritual, its intention, and its enactment as the right thing to do. It was, in fact, the only thing I felt appropriate. Many different individuals from that event expressed their appreciation for it. Many who have denounced it were not present, so how would they know?

I am only now, on the other side of that magical and energetic shift, feeling ready to write this story down in its entirety. I have spent the past six months working through: working through the morass of public misinformation, working through challenging questions around my personal practices, working through anger toward those who wished me harm, working through resentment at those who sent private letters of support but never stepped up to support me publicly, working through the sadness of being denounced within certain segments of my Tradition for even entertaining the question of transgender women and men in consensual Dianic spaces, working through the bitterness of watching others expand their personal public relations and media presence by denouncing my Coven (again, most of whom have never attended a single one of our events or rituals). There was a lot of suffering in that working through. I believe that suffering tends to spill over onto others if not carried mindfully, and I have done my best to just minimize harm rather than lash out or get too fully into the mix in anger. Because I truly believe that solves nothing. I have been successful in my personal restraint more often than I have not, and I count that as growth.

So, where am I now, and where is CAYA now? CAYA proposed three rituals for PantheaCon 2012: one all-inclusive and two for self-identified men and women, respectively. The Amazons proposed one ritual: a naked ritual for women. I proposed one on my own: a devotional to Yeshe Tsogyal, one of the ancestresses in my personal pantheaon. I also proposed, along with Devin Hunter,a pan-Dianic, all-inclusive ritual for anyone who wants to experience the Dianic perspective of Goddess-as-Whole-and-Complete-Unto-Herself. I feel like we flung a bunch of possibilities toward the staff of PCon for the sake of greatest diversity, and I trust that they will figure out what fits best into mix, if any of them at all. If you plan to be there, and we have been accepted, consider giving CAYA rites a try even if you've been mad at us this whole time. You really stand to lose nothing by coming to see for yourself who we are and what we do.

As for me, I have deepened in my personal practices as a result of this experience. I am solidly continuing to acknowledge my long-held belief that every single person has the right to worship as they choose, whether I am interested, included, or not. And I am continuing to provide as many different types of ritual spaces as I am able, to meet the widest variety of needs.

May these words prove to be a source of goodness and benefit, and if they are lacking in any way, let that fall upon me. If there be any merit, it is because of the guidance of my divine indwelling spirit, and I am grateful. Blessed be.