I spoke with Melissa Murry late Friday afternoon at PSG, after her workshop presentation. This was her second year at the Pagan Spirit Gathering [PSG], her first year was a joyful experience. She was concerned with the advance website ritual listing, though it was unclear then that it was a ‘main’ ritual. She expressed to Selena in advance of PSG that this was serious enough to consider canceling her registration. Selena helped her schedule a late submission workshop on transgendered history in response.
*Note, from the PSG website: [ A Dianic Women’s Ritual for Summer Solstice – Ruth Barrett
As a community of women who bleed, will bleed, or have bled our sacred bloods, we celebrate the Summer Solstice in a Dianic ritual that celebrates ourselves and honors the mythic cycle of the Goddess as She transitions from Maiden to fertile Mother/ Amazon/ Creatrix/ Manifester/ Maker. She uses her sacred uterine bloods to manifest tangible and intangible reality. We, in Her image celebrate our ability to heal, transform, and create our lives in this season of Her sacred fire. The ritual will also include a working around female reproductive rights. Think about in advance: As Creatrix in your own life, how do you use your sacred bloods? How do you feed and tend your creative fire? In honor of our sacred bloods and the summer solstice, please wear red as all or a part of your ritual garb. Bring drums and percussion toys if you have them. This ritual is for female born and raised women and girls. Facilitated by Ruth Barrett and women of the PSG community. ]
What led you to call Circle Sanctuary?
Melissa: I was concerned with the terminology used in the description of the Women’s Ritual as for women who bleed, who have bled, or who will bleed. That is the definition that was used, but that does not define all cisgender women. It is new definition that was created and used after Pantheacon to narrowly define the definition of women while the term “woman” is a broad term used in our culture to define self identified women. This is used to inadvertently define cisgender women, and it can be offensive because that use excludes trans-women who identify as women also.
Is it an unclear definition, what is there about it that causes concern?
The definition of that ritual was excluding women from PSG, but in the description for the ritual it was put forward as created and for all the women of PSG. I felt that there was an invisibility that was going to be created for transgendered women, like myself, who don’t fall within that definition.
So you objected to the limiting and exclusive definition of who the ritual was for, combined with the reference to the inclusive language describing a ‘community of women”.
Yes. I contacted Selena through the PSG website. Several people talked to me and eventually Selena called me, and we had over a four-hour conversation about the matter. I can speak to what I took away from the conversation, but there was some confusion over the concern. I understood the Pagan spirit Gathering was an inclusive event, and felt the exclusion of a group of women was not in line with the spirit of PSG. Nor was it in accord with the values I believed Circle Sanctuary to have.
In the conversation, I was informed that this was not about exclusion, but that people were being excluded. This ritual was about honoring the diversity within PSG, even though such an exclusionary definition had not been used in the 31 years of past PSG experience. It was explained it was an exclusionary ritual but was included as part of the diversity of PSG regardless of its exclusionary nature.
Was this explained in terms of other programming definitions?
I was rather confused about all this because I thought in honoring and being respectful of diversity this was something that was not inclusive or respectful. You know everyone is excluded from some events at some point, but my point was this was the ‘main’ women’s ritual. It was explained that this was not the ‘main’ women’s ritual, even though that is what it is called in the program. It was offered at a time opposite the men’s ritual, which was inclusive by the way. There was a separation of programming for men and women, and so those of us who didn’t fall into either of those definitions within the language that was used to exclude people were going to be left without a place to go during that time. We were left to feel ostracized and made to feel outside the community of women. That is really the heart of where my pain comes from. I think that it may have been an experiment, as Selena later described it. It may have been something they wanted to try, but I think with the discussion of this issue that has been going on in our larger community there is the potential of really hurting people. I don’t believe that is not what PSG is about, and I hope this is not done again in the future. That is definitely my objective in participating in this dialog.
Your workshop today was something added in by PSG as an opportunity to educate in relation to this
It was one of the things we talked about. From my understanding, Selena thought that was the ‘solution’ to the issue. I did not understand this to be the stopping point of the concerns I raised. This was something, at that late time before the event started, to have some sort of education and maybe mediate possible hurt feeling surrounding the ritual. It was made very clear to me the ritual and its description and exclusionary definition would not be changed. This was something offered to maybe mediate any unfairness that this ritual represented to many of us.
Was that enough to mediate the hurt you felt?
No, as the time for the ritual approached, I was overwhelmed with the pain of the experience. I really didn’t predict how painful it would be. I sat in my camp and the women were getting ready. I was there with my camp mate, and she chose to not attend because she didn’t want to go where I couldn’t go. I almost burst into tears three times and finally ended up crying. It was very painful.
Has Circle informed you of any policy or planning changes after the events of this week?
No they have not. My feeling is that there is an effort to really whitewash this and do damage control. For myself, and the people who I have talked to, the only thing that is acceptable is public rituals that are inclusive and not discriminatory, and that really is non-negotiable. A statement of policy that commits to inclusiveness is really the thing that can resolve this issue. If that is not done, the potential exists to tear apart this community here at PSG.
Will Ruth be addressing this issue?
Ruth is doing a workshop tomorrow, “Guiding others in personal ritual making” , however I don’t see that as having anything to do with this particular issue. When I spoke with Ruth today, I got the acknowledgement that she made a mistake in this ritual when we were talking by ourselves. A mistake in the format of the ritual. In our dialog, in talking with Ruth, she is wanting to debate Dianic, “Budapestian“, tradition and perspective on gender and where they are coming from as far as their mysteries. That has nothing to do with what has happened here. I support them having a space to do their mysteries. I do not support them having a place of exclusion in a public format, at a public Pagan gathering. That is where the pain, and the hurt, and the division is coming into it.
Does the fact this is taking place at a paid for admittance event rather than say a public park make a difference?
Circle Sanctuary is a 501c3 organization. And as that it is a private organization but they also contain a public Pagan ministry. They do a lot of support work surrounding justice issues and this is a civil rights issue. Regardless of the semantics around whether this is a public space, because that is just a perspective. I see it as a public space. The ritual was promoted on the Circle Sanctuary website. Anyone can submit a registration, pay the money, and attend. By that definition ir is a public space. It may have a cutoff for registration and outsiders may be prevented access at the gate, but many public events have those restrictions.
Was your workshop about this issue?
We decided at my workshop, that the workshop was best used for its intended subject, a discussion of the Pagan transgendered tribe, their roles and history, rather than a direct discussion of this issue. It was a place to educate people and hopefully that education will help put people in a place to have constructive dialog. I didn’t seek to boycott or protest this ritual, this was not about that. It is a civil rights issue but I am coming at this from a different view-point than some who may be a little bit more aggressive, and coming from a different place. There is no right or wrong. When feminists, and feminist witches protested in the 70’s they used the same tactics to create visibility. There wasn’t a lot of women who came from a loving perspective because women were being murdered, brutalized, and silenced while trying to claim their power. For people to say that protesting is not fair, or that it is a “penetration” and “how dare they! “ is absurd. This confrontation is the same thing, and it is through non violent means. It is a civil rights issue.
Tomorrow there is a press event, correct?
It is my understanding that anyone is invited to dialog and ask questions. It is not just for the news people. If they have a perspective, and want to talk about this, it can be their chance. I hope this takes place because it is not just about Selena, Ruth, and myself. It affects the whole community. It is my understanding this may have begun as a news conference because they wanted to address the press after the event was mostly over, as part of damage control. The community became aware of my pain, after my statement in the morning meeting, and it became visible. I think the event tomorrow has evolved.
As a historian, I know we can’t change the past. I hope we have learned here that the hurt and the healing that has happened really does affect us all. I hope the outcome of this is a policy of inclusiveness in future public rituals
The following day, Saturday, June 23rd, a press conference took place. As the full recording represents, it was more a press ‘briefing’ with nearly 45 minute of ‘statements’ before only two press questions were responded to. Two community members made statements.
On Thursday afternoon, June 20th, I spoke with Shauna Aura Knight, about her feelings on the mornings statement read by Melissa. Shauna is a shamanic ecstatic priestess, a servant of spiritual community, a writer, artist, designer, and event planner working in the Chicago area. Shauna chose not to attend the previous nights “women’s” ritual. There was no organized boycott of the ritual however informal reports of attendance indicate there was approximately half the attendance of the women’s rite held in 2011, facilitated by Shauna.
You rose, along with most of the morning meeting audience, in support of a person expressing their pain this morning, why?
Over the past few years I have been working to understand the various transgender, queer gender issues. I am what is called cisgender, I am female born, female bodied. I am comfortable with that. What I have noticed is that there are people in our community who are struggling a lot with their gender and their pain. They find themselves born into a body that does not fit their concept of themselves. It took me a while to understand that, but once I did, I really wanted to make my rituals in Chicago to be more gender inclusive.
I have worked to move away from God and Goddess binary centered rituals unless there are lots of options offered, so everyone feels safe. I have specifically worked to ensure that all genders are welcome. I have had many members of the transgendered community email me privately and say that, “I have been to your rituals and I really appreciate your rituals. These are the only rituals in the city where I feel safe.”
It is not only how you invite and welcome people, but it is in how you approach deity?
Right, I work with gendered deities but for my own theology I am more of a pantheist. For example if I work with Freya, Freya is all about female, about female body, female sexuality among many other things, but she is also not about female because she is also about the greater whole. And that is just about my theology, how I am working with these deities. At Beltain a year ago I worked with the nine Muses, instead of let’s work on this great heterosexual rite of reproduction, lets work with inspiration and the energies of the Muses. What I was very clear about was we are going to work with the Muses, but guess what?, They had no specific gender. I had Male muses, Female muses, and Queer gender Muses. It worked out really well.
I rose up in support because I just didn’t feel it was right for trans women to be excluded from the ritual. I still am not sure, in my work, how I want to handle for myself, the idea of bi-gendered work. In the sense of having a “Men’s” ritual and a “Women’s” ritual. Because there is no option then for those who do not consider themselves of either gender. They are an extreme minority, but I also want to make a space for them. Last year, when I was asked to facilitate the PSG women’s ritual, I very specifically asked , “Can I invite people who did not specifically identify with either gender?”, and the answer was yes. I would not have agreed to do it if I had not been able to welcome them. There are the issues raised at Pantheacon, so that was important to me. This year it was important for me to support the transgendered community members at PSG.
Do you support people to privately do whatever rituals they want, for whomever they want?
Sure. I would support a Dianic group who wants to have female bodied, female born rituals for their own workings. I would support a transgendered only groups doing their own workings. There is a group in Chicago for Gay, bisexual, and transgendered men, who love men, doing great work. How can you be offended by them wanting their own space? Absolutely not! For me, the challenge at PSG is there are very few ‘main’ rituals. For intense content there are basically the opening ritual, Men’s and Women’s rituals, and the Main community ritual. It did not feel good to me that the transgendered women, in this case, had nowhere to go. They were not included, so I did not attend. I did not feel comfortable supporting it with my presence. I did not feel that I would be standing within my integrity if I went.
I observed many people attending PSG did not understand this ritual presentation as an issue before it took place, is that what you perceived?
Yes, and I find myself as an unlikely ambassador in Chicago for the inclusion of transgendered people. Many ask me, “Why do you say, ‘all genders’ , isn’t there only two?” That is what I thought a few years ago and after I have met, worked with, and lived with several transgendered people, my views have changed. I know I don’t always understand or connect with all the issues a transgendered person may encounter. I do understand, as a heavily built woman, sometimes not liking my own body or feeling betrayed by my body. There is where I can find compassion. What we really need is more education, particularly in the Midwest, surrounding these issues.
*Note; I and Judith Olson Linde facilitated the main community ritual, Saturday night at PSG.