Nah, it probably won’t.
Nah, it probably won’t.
In the category of problematic faves, murder ballads shine an ambiguous light on intimate partner violence. The best songs honestly mirror this reality more than they glorify it, but the artist can never control how the listener receives the message. Is Johnny Cash repentant or bragging in “Delia’s Gone”? What is the nature of my enjoyment of the stone-cold amorality of Lyle Lovett’s “Lights of L.A. County”? I can participate in the man’s revenge fantasy, and somehow at the same time feel relief, from a female perspective, that the artist has acknowledged the constant danger under which we live. The song does not force me to choose.
Modern country-western divas have started talking back to the genre by writing murder ballads about battered women’s revenge. The Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” and Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” are the comedy and tragedy masks hanging over this theater. However, flipping the gender of songs like “Banks of the Ohio” is an individual solution to a collective problem. Male-on-female murder ballads take place in the context of men’s violent entitlement to women’s bodies and attention. It’ll take more than a girl with a gun to even things out.
This week at the entertainment website A Beautiful Perspective, Noah Berlatsky, one of my favorite pop-culture columnists, profiled singer-songwriter Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff. Her innovative songs draw on on her Puerto Rican roots and the populist political tradition of folk music. In 2014’s “The Body Electric”, Segarra responds directly to “Delia” and “Banks of the Ohio”, not with a revenge fantasy of her own, but with a new narrative of female solidarity and survival. The gorgeous video shows a woman of color resurrected from the drowning river like Botticelli’s Venus, and a time-reversed sequence of a shower of bullets being gathered up and transformed into a baby in her arms.
I had the pleasure of hearing K. Dymek perform their poetry when they were hosting Northampton Poetry’s Tuesday night slam at The Deuce, our local World War II veterans’ club. K. is a gender-fluid writer and artist who has been published in the online journal Slamchop and in Huimin Wan’s experimental anthology Could You Please Pass the Poem. This selection from K.’s chapbook Anatomy Lessons mirrored my own awkward yearning for a gender transformation that defies definition in conventional terms. Contact them at email@example.com to purchase a copy.
How Not to Come Out to Your Grandmother
She tells me not to curse because it’s “unladylike”
like that’s something that would stop me,
like that wouldn’t, in fact, encourage
F-Bombs to launch themselves from my fricative-hungry lips;
I’m feeling smart-ass,
“Good thing I’m not a lady, then…”
Yes you are, she paints
my ribcage raw & pink–
I am my own worst antagonist at this point,
purchasing pain with the prolongation of this conversation
I retort, “No I’m actually part boy”
in my smile voice,
in my, this-is-all-an-elaborate-joke-or-is-it voice,
testing the waters.
No you’re not, the waters snap back.
“How would you know?” I challenge, rather than ask,
Which is when her sister cuts in with:
You don’t got a thingy!
But I’ve got momentum now;
I tell her, “Yeah, I got a little one, grew in when I was thirteen,”
like it’s the truth,
like it’s okay that I’m stealing someone else’s story to get
the level of comprehension I am looking for here,
like the truth isn’t vastly more complicated:
a confusing and, at times, painful thing,
writhing beneath my skin
desperate to break through…
She huffs in dismissal but maybe
I’ve planted a seed of doubt?
I hang onto that like a falsehood matters,
like I haven’t taken this too far already
exchanging half-truths like I can rewrite my body,
like a penis would complete it.
Lots of good, mostly unrelated, stuff this month! If, like me, you are on the lookout for diverse imagery in Tarot decks, you may have been disheartened by the narrow range of femme body types in typical artwork. The Gaian Tarot is an exception among decks that have mainstream popularity. In too many others, the idealized femme characters are white, young, and thin as any Hallmark-card fairy.
Cathou, a new contributor to the blog Little Red Tarot, writes about this issue in her inaugural column, “Queering Tarot in a fat liberation perspective”. Queerness and fatness, as political identities, challenge power structures that privilege some demographics over others (e.g. cis-hetero, thin, abled) via appearance and beauty standards. “Queerness is so much more than sexuality and gender identity. Queerness renders it impossible not to look at how bodies are constructed and coded.” Tarot has a similar radical potential, in that it is anti-hegemonic. There is no one creed, pope, or scripture of Tarot. It “weaves stories in ways that don’t need to rely on dominant discourses: no literature, no psychology, no philosophy is required.” However, when deck creators are not conscious and critical of our society’s oppressive body-coding, Tarot replicates problematic stereotypes:
An old person is associated with wisdom and a child with innocence. A fat woman is associated with fertility or abundance. A visibly trans body is associated with fluidity or overcoming all binaries. All disabled bodies are referring to obstacles and overcoming them: in a wheelchair because you’re stuck, blind because you’re either in denial or able to follow your third eye, and so on. Black women represent wildness, Native American people an archaic wisdom, Arab women lust or a Scheherazade of some sort, and it goes on.
Who’s wonderful? Adam Rippon is wonderful! The first openly gay U.S. athlete to compete in the Winter Olympics, he won a bronze medal in the 2018 games. Rippon’s ease and brilliance on the ice are matched by his quick wit and charm (and political snark) on the Internet. He famously snubbed Vice President Mike Pence at the ceremonies, to protest the politician’s support for psychologically destructive “gay conversion” therapy. And did I mention that he’s beautiful? He wore bondage suspenders to the Oscars, for goodness sake. Adam, I surrender to you.
The progressive evangelical magazine Sojourners has been cautious about supporting LGBTQ rights, trying to maintain a space for Christians who are left-of-center on economics and the environment but not ready to endorse the sexual revolution. In our polarized nation, it’s doubtful whether there are many such Christians remaining. So, fortunately, Sojo has manned up and given a platform to Austen Hartke, creator of the “Transgender and Christian” YouTube series, to educate their readers about “6 Common Ways Christians Stereotype Transgender People”. His article is responding to an anti-trans essay by Christian writer Nancy Pearcey. The comments are about 80% supportive to 20% transphobic, which is better than I expected. All of Austen’s points are great; I’m quoting this one because we also often hear it from the trans-exclusive “feminist” Left:
Misconception: If we don’t claim gender based on our physical sex characteristics, then we end up perpetuating social stereotypes about what makes a man or a woman.
In her article, Pearcey argues that when we don’t take our self-concept of gender from our physical sex characteristics, we have no other solid foundation on which to base it. She laments, “To discover whether you identify as a man, you must first define manhood,” which may push us to conform to stereotypes: “Do you act stereotypically masculine? Then you must be a man.”
Pearcey gives examples of young people who questioned their gender because of the original way they expressed themselves. For one teenager, the problem was that he was sensitive and gentle, and that he enjoyed spending time with girls rather than boys. Because our society sees this kind of gender expression as feminine, this teenager wondered if he might be transgender. Pearcey reports that after he saw more examples of men who were gentle and enjoyed activities we associate with women, he realized that he did identify as male. She uses this example as proof of a number of transgender kids who could be convinced to accept their assigned sex if we could only get rid of those pesky gender stereotypes.
In making this claim, Pearcey leaves out two things. First, she appears not to know the difference between gender identity and gender expression. While gender identity is something internal and intrinsic, gender expression is the way we visually articulate our sense of masculinity or femininity or androgyny to the world. Our gender expression includes our clothing, hair, voice, and mannerisms, among other things. This distinction helps everyone, regardless of whether you’re transgender or cisgender, to understand that you can be just as much of a man if you have long hair and enjoy The Great British Bake-Off, and you can be just as much a woman if you shave your head and ride a motorcycle. While this distinction can be complex, there are many transgender young people who understand this difference, and who are still very sure about their gender identity. Just because the examples Pearcey used eventually identified with their assigned sex doesn’t mean that all other people will.
For the past sixty years or so, Christians have been a major driving force behind gender stereotypes. One only has to Google “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” to realize that too often we’ve been the ones telling people that they’re “not man enough” or “not woman enough.” Pearcey suggests that we shouldn’t base our ideas about gender on cultural stereotypes, and I totally agree! Now, if only we could stop using our Christian megaphone to amplify those same stereotypes, we’d be another step forward.
I discover everything important 30 years too late. This month it’s hair metal. The avant-garde literary journal DIAGRAM has chosen “March Shredness” for the theme of its annual music-criticism bracket. Go here to vote for your favorite videos and read semi-ironic nostalgic essays about them by literary rock stars like Amorak Huey and Ander Monson. In some ways, the genre flips the old devil-sign finger at gender stereotypes, with those perm-haired boys in mascara throttling their phallic guitars. Boring toxic masculinity is also very much on view, with the obligatory shots of lubricious models as rewards for the male singers’ rock-godliness. But I will forgive much for the campy sweetness of LA Guns’ “Ballad of Jayne”. So much leather! So much schmaltz!
Following up on a legal issue I blogged about last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit just ruled in Zarda v. Altitude Express that sexual orientation is covered by the ban on “sex” discrimination in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This is yuge, to quote the Cheeto-in-Chief. According to BuzzFeed reporter Dominic Holden:
A federal appeals court on Monday ruled that a 1964 civil rights law bans anti-gay workplace discrimination. The decision rebukes the Trump administration — which had argued against a gay worker in the case — and hands progressives a win in their strategy to protect LGBT employees with a drumbeat of lawsuits.
The dispute hinges on whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex, also bans workplace discrimination due to sexual orientation.
The Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled Monday, “We now hold that sexual orientation discrimination constitutes a form of discrimination ‘because of . . . sex,’ in violation of Title VII.” In doing so, the court overruled a lower court — and a precedent from two previous court cases — and remanded the case to be litigated in light of their reading of Title VII.
The decision holds national implications due to its high tier in the judicial system, and because it’s seen as a litmus test of the Trump administration’s ability — or inability — to curb LGBT rights through court activism. The Justice Department had injected itself into the case even though it wasn’t a party to the lawsuit and doesn’t normally involve itself in private employment disputes.
The case was heard in New York City by all 13 judges in the 2nd Circuit, known as an en banc hearing, which leaves the Supreme Court as the only avenue for a potential appeal.
The ruling comes soon after another major gay-rights ruling in 2017, thereby giving momentum to the argument that anti-gay discrimination is prohibited even without a federal law that explicitly says so.
In reaching its decision Monday, the court pointed out that anti-gay discrimination would not exist “but for” a person’s sex. That is to say, gays, lesbians, and bisexuals would not experience this type of unequal treatment had they been born a different gender, or were attracted to a different sex.
On another subject close to my heart, speculative fiction writer Ada Hoffman has written a standout essay on “Autism and Emotional Labour”, parsing the complexities of respecting and asserting boundaries across the autistic/neurotypical divide:
Emotional labour is the mental and emotional work we do to maintain relationships with other people, whether that relationship is an intimate one, or simply coexisting with strangers in a public place…
…Autism makes many forms of emotional labour difficult!
Many of the complaints that NTs have about autistic people boil down to the fact that autistic people are not doing enough emotional labour for them. Whether it’s little things like not making the right facial expressions to put people at ease, or big and intimate things like not knowing how to express affection the right way in a relationship.
As autistic (or autistic-friendly) feminists, how can we ask for reciprocal emotional labour in a way that doesn’t toss autistic people to the curb?
…I’m going to talk about forms of emotional labour that are more difficult for many autistic people, but also about forms that many of us are good at – and I’m also going to talk about special forms of emotional labour that are only ever asked of disabled people.
Then I’m going to talk about some ways we might fix some of this.
I can’t summarize all her excellent recommendations here, but I’ll highlight a couple of points I haven’t seen in other pieces on the topic. Hoffman notes that autistic people are actually extra skilled at some forms of emotional labor, and should get more credit for this. Examples: educating others on their special topic, being orderly, being great listeners, taking time to research and understand the rules of their environment. Moreover, neurotypical people don’t always appreciate the extra emotional labor that Aspies do to fit into ordinary social situations. But regardless of our neurotype, mutuality is essential for good relationships. We may do different kinds of emotional labor for each other, but we each have to do some. When we find that our needs are incompatible with what the other person can give, it doesn’t mean that either of us is wrong.
Finally, to end this long post on an entertaining note, the humor magazine Cracked makes an oddly convincing case for reading Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Jack in “Titanic” as transmasculine. In “The Much Better Movie Hiding in Titanic”, Ryan Menezes notes Jack’s androgynous clean-shaven look (out of character for a homeless bohemian in the era before electric razors); the fact that he’s never shown shirtless and his chest is blocked from view during sex; and the drag-costuming feel of the scene where Kathy Bates’ character dresses him in a tux for dinner in first class.
Now look at the additional layer this brings to the climax. Women and children board lifeboats first, which means Jack can theoretically board with Rose, but only by coming out to the crew. Could Jack do that if it meant saving their lives? And if so, is there even a way to do it without causing a riot and maybe even getting shot? I repeat: This would be a way better movie.
Jack makes the choice to stay behind. Then Rose abandons her lifeboat and returns to the ship, which would do nothing to help the situation, unless it’s to try to convince Jack to admit the truth and board the next lifeboat with her. It winds up being moot. Everything goes to hell right after that, and the two end up in the water together. Jack tells Rose to grow up and have babies — if she does choose to marry a man and have a family, that’s fine — and to promise to go on living and “never” give up. Because Cal and her mother weren’t her only issues, so she must pledge to deal with them all, for she will surely feel suicidal again.
Maybe, if only in a version of the story that never left James Cameron’s head, what came next was a reveal that brought all of that subtext to the surface. Old Rose could have said, “A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets,” and then gone on to say (or show in flashback) exactly what that secret was. It would have been the boldest twist in blockbuster cinema, and Titanic would have gone down as a whole other kind of milestone. “But,” James Cameron would presumably have thought, “will this movie make $2 billion at the box office?”
Fan-fiction writers, take note!
Happy Valentine’s Day and a blessed Ash Wednesday to my readers. For the first time since 1945, the holidays fall on the same date. I wrote the poem below in 2014, when they were one day apart. This blog template has trouble with indents, so imagine that the second line of each stanza is indented. Or buy a copy of Bullies in Love and read it in proper format!
I’m giving up being female for Lent. Hit me with some pronouns, let’s see which one feels right.
To Roses You Shall Return
When I see petals on the pavement
on the day after Ash Wednesday
May there be a pause in my hearing of tongues
of torn-out girls
When crinkled crimson holds the kiss
of boot heels
May I walk on
no trail of barefoot flight
Let there be no broken lips
or shadow of palms
Pierced in spring
let me infer only the generous florist
Scattering the currency of coupling
on the stony path to his fragrant store
Remember that you are dust
and to dust you shall return
When you see ashes on my forehead
on the day before Valentine’s Day
Will your torched ancestors still whisper
of riders in spotless robes
Will the flooded firstborn mouths
give up their bubble songs
When you see my face marked
by the dirt cross I chose
Will you only bend deeper
to the slap of your imitation sacrifice
Will you stuff your crone’s mouth with roots
as ordered by pig-roast priests
Tell me the seven wounds of roses
let our arms become the burnt horizon
Let our foreheads be graves where laughing girls
paint their sisters’ legs with mud
Almighty and everlasting God
you hate nothing you have made
The Biblical author of Proverbs 25:21-22 (also quoted by St. Paul in Romans 12:20) makes the curious statement, “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you.” This adds some bite, shall we say, to contemporary mainstream Christian teachings on forgiveness. We’re more familiar with St. Paul’s warning against revenge, immediately preceding this quote. But this striking image suggests that the most potent payback is being forced to see one’s self in the light of God’s truth. Instead of returning evil for evil, we can let our own purity of heart be a mirror against which their hatred bounces and reflects back on them. To put it another way, if my abusers really faced the trauma that motivated their misdeeds, that would hurt worse (and more constructively) than anything bad I could say about them on the Internet.
So says former U.S. Olympic gymnast Rachael Denhollander, the first of 150 victims to go public about being sexually abused by team doctor Larry Nassar. Denhollander, a conservative Christian, delivered a powerful and eloquent victim-impact statement at Nassar’s sentencing last month. Read it at CNN.com. Among her memorable quotes: “I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me—though I extend that to you as well.”
She tells her story in the Christianity Today article, “My Larry Nassar Testimony Went Viral. But There’s More to the Gospel Than Forgiveness.” Sadly, Denhollander also became a pariah in her own church because she didn’t limit her call-out to secular sex offenders. Nor did she mince words about how bad theology can enable abusers.
Given your concerns that Christians can use God’s call to forgive as a weapon against survivors, did you feel at all apprehensive telling Nassar that you forgive him?
I did to an extent, because forgiveness can really be misapplied. Taken within the context of my statement, with the call for justice and with what I have done to couple forgiveness and justice, it should not be misunderstood. But I have found it very interesting, to be honest, that every single Christian publication or speaker that has mentioned my statement has only ever focused on the aspect of forgiveness. Very few, if any of them, have recognized what else came with that statement, which was a swift and intentional pursuit of God’s justice. Both of those are biblical concepts. Both of those represent Christ. We do not do well when we focus on only one of them…
…The damage of sexual assault is extreme and it is lifelong. As much as someone forgives their abuser, as much hope as is found in the gospel, we don’t get complete restoration this side of heaven. It does not happen—that’s why the hope of heaven is so glorious. But the suffering here on earth is very real, and it does not go away simply because you forgive and release bitterness. These women are going to live, myself included, with lifelong consequences of the sexual assault, and the vast majority of this never needed to happen.
What does it mean to you that you forgive Larry Nassar?
It means that I trust in God’s justice and I release bitterness and anger and a desire for personal vengeance. It does not mean that I minimize or mitigate or excuse what he has done. It does not mean that I pursue justice on earth any less zealously. It simply means that I release personal vengeance against him, and I trust God’s justice, whether he chooses to mete that out purely, eternally, or both in heaven and on earth.
A beautiful example of repentance and risky honesty is this January post on Mormon writer Josh Weed’s blog, “Turning a Unicorn Into a Bat: The Post in Which We Announce the End of Our Marriage”. I was not previously aware of this author, and discovered this post via the Twitter feed of Matthew Vines (God and the Gay Christian). Apparently, for several years, Weed and his wife Lolly have been writing about living in a mixed-orientation marriage: she is straight, and he has always known he was gay but tried to follow church teachings. However, they had the discernment and courage to realize that this was not working. As part of this confession, Weed apologizes to the LGBTQ community for upholding a theology that leads many queer Christians to the brink of suicide (himself included), and for being a public example that was used to bully other people into “ex-gay” lifestyles:
We’re sorry to any gay Mormon who even had a moment’s pause as they tried to make the breathtakingly difficult decision that I am now making—to love myself fully for exactly what God made me—because of our post. We’re sorry for any degree that our existence, and the publicity of our supposedly successful marriage made you feel “less than” as you made your own terribly difficult choices. And we’re sorry if our story made it easier for people in your life to reject you and your difficult path as being wrong. If this is you, we want you to know: you were right. You did the correct, brave thing. You are ahead of me in the sense that you have progressed through things I have yet to progress through. You listened to your gut and to God and did a brave, brave thing. Now I’m following your example.
We’re sorry to any gay Mormon who received criticism, backlash, or hatred as a result of our story. It wasn’t long after our post that we began to get messages from the LGBTQIA community, letting us know that their loved ones were using our blog post to pressure them to get married to a person of the opposite gender—sometimes even disowning them, saying things like, “if these two can do it, so can you.” Our hearts broke as we learned of the ways our story was used a battering ram by fearful, uninformed parents and loved ones, desperate to get their children to act in the ways they thought were best. One person wrote—and I’ll never get the horror of this out of my head for the rest of my life—saying that he went to see his family for Thanksgiving during his second year of college, where he was an out gay man who openly had a boyfriend. When he got home, his father pulled up our story on the computer and then physically assaulted him, beating him as he had often done during his childhood, saying “if this guy could avoid being a faggot, so could you!”
We’re sorry to anybody who felt a measure of false peace because of our story. There are many people who have good hearts, who were grappling with the issue of homosexuality before we came out, and who were having difficulty reconciling the church they loved with the things they knew about their gay loved ones. Our coming out post gave a false hope: “See? I just knew there had to be a way for gay people to stay true to their faith by denying themselves and live a happy, healthy life!” We’re sorry to perhaps send you back to the state of confusion you were in before you saw our story—but at the same time, that state of confusion is necessary. Something is wrong. It really doesn’t add up. As I have said in thousands of prayers over the last half-decade as I have come to know more and more LGBTQIA individuals and the ways they have been hurt, as well as have realized the impossibility of a God that would set up a “plan” that is totally impossible for a huge segment of His children to participate in, all within a church whose policies and positions assert that that is exactly what God has done: something is wrong. Something is very, very wrong with how things are currently set up. I don’t know yet what is right. But, Father, something is so incredibly wrong.
We’re sorry to any LGBTQIA person who was given false hope by our story, or who used our story as part of the basis for their life-decisions. We honor your decisions, whatever they are, and we’re sorry for any way in which our current trajectory might be unsettling or alarming.
I, Josh, am sorry to the many LGBTQIA people over the years that I subconsciously saw myself as different than. I am no different than you, and any degree to which I held on to the idea that I could be gay without being gay was, I see now, a manifestation of lingering internalized homophobia born of decades of being told this part of me was evil. It was an effort to belong to the “in-group” (heterosexual members of the Mormon Church) that I was actually not a part of.
I also love their solution to the problem of sexual incompatibility. To keep family continuity for their four daughters, they’re buying a multi-family homestead where Josh and Lolly will be able to live near each other with their future partners. Now that’s queer in the best way!
In the same post, Josh mentions listening to Imagine Dragons’ song “Thunder” to give him strength for this decision–one of my son’s very favorite songs, too. Now I have another reason to feel good about being a fan. Billboard magazine has the story in “Mormonism & LGBT Youth: Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds on His Documentary”:
In Believer, a Sundance-bound documentary that he executive-produced, Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds confronts the way Mormonism treats LGBTQ youth.
What inspired this doc?
We were going to make a documentary about Fremont Street in Las Vegas, [where] I grew up. But [director] Don Argott wouldn’t let me do it without diving into my life. He was living in my home, documenting me and my family, and that opened up old wounds. My dad’s brother is gay and Mormon — he was shamed in his community. Teaching that being gay is a sin is so damaging; it sparked me to take action.
Over at Little Red Tarot, the latest entry in Siobhan’s “Difficult Cards” series explores the light and shadow sides of the Hierophant, the Major Arcana card that represents religious tradition and institutions. The Hierophant can represent the “10,000 Things”, Taoism’s phrase for the multiplicity of entities and concepts that arose from the generative Nothingness of the Tao. As such, we might associate the card with the tribal divisions and stifling structures of organized religion. But the card can also point us to look beyond those things to the unnameable sacredness they try to translate into human terms. It can warn us that de-institutionalizing faith is no safeguard against universal flaws in human nature–the guru’s will to power, the spiritual person’s pride.
All religion seeks to bridge the gap between the mundane and that which is ‘holy’, spiritual, or transcendent. To talk only about structure, items, dogma, or beliefs is to miss half of this card. To talk about or master (as the Hierophant does) matters of spirit, we attempt, even when it’s futile to do so, to articulate that which precedes the physical world. The ether, the void, Tao, “No-thingness”.
“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao…”
All and nothing. The Hierophant affixes the two.
In my post “Problems of Lineage and Magic” earlier this month, I began to explore the concept of ancestor work through the “decolonization” framework that’s developing in the politically progessive witchy community. I’ve begun taking this four-week online course from White Awake called “Before We Were White: Ceremony and Recovery for Anti-Racist Action”. Organizers Eleanor Hancock and Darcy Ottey describe it as a class for “white-identified people seeking greater emotional resilience in their work against racism and for a sustainable future. Together we will explore how ceremonial practice and a strong ancestral identity help us challenge white supremacy as whole people.”
So, despite my loud-and-proud estrangement from my biological family, I’m cautiously investigating the shadow side of my rootlessness. Maybe there’s a level of unburdening from ancestral trauma that can’t happen until I go towards the ancestors and find out what they need me to resolve. Maybe, also, I should look at the role of my mother’s ethnic and class anxiety–dare I say, internalized anti-Semitism–in my past distaste for the parochialism of Judaism and my flight towards the seemingly universal cosmopolitan individualism of Christianity. In theory the post-tribal freedom and egalitarianism of the Jesus movement and the Enlightenment still appeal to me; in practice Western Christianity and Western rationality have frequently given cover to a new tribalism of cisgender white men.
All right, then, if we’re celebrating particularity, which lineage or geographical place is the framework for my ancestral recovery? Ethnically, on both sides, I’m an Eastern European Jew. My mother’s family emigrated to America in the early 20th century (good move, guys!!) from Poland, though I believe they came from Lithuania before that.
This is where it gets tricky. Polish indigenous magic and folk traditions come from the land where my ancestors lived, but do they come from my people? Are the Poles and Slavs ethnically distinct from the diaspora Jews? Are the Jews a race? (Certain people in Poland infamously thought we were…) I’m not sure whether the Slavic pagan deities are allies of Polish Jews, or of the goyim who threw us out.
Judaism, meanwhile, defined itself from the beginning as opposing all forms of folk magic or worship of local spirits. Tearing down pagan altars was a full-time job for the Hebrew prophets. I feel a stronger connection to Jewish material culture and traditions–folk tales, family rituals, recipes, Yiddish songs, immigrant narratives–than to anything Polish. This the actual heritage of my biological relatives. To the extent that I have any experience of inter-generational oral tradition, this is it. However, the religion is inherently contrary to the witchy project into which I would pour these memories.
Jews also have, shall we say, a troubled history with ethnicity- or land-based identity! The decolonization mindset tells white folks, who have a bad wannabe-Indian habit, to “stay in our lane” and reconstruct the indigenous folkways of our own ethnicity instead. I respect that as a negative command: don’t make up a stereotypical, commodified version of tribal practices and pollute the cultural stream for actual Native people trying to preserve their heritage. But I’m not sure about the positive command to foreground your own ethnic background as a determinant of your spirituality. As Myke Johnson asks in her paper “Wanting to Be Indian: When Spiritual Searching Turns Into Cultural Theft”, one of the resources for our White Awake class:
I believe that finding and sharing our own ancestral resources might be one step, but then what? If White people turn to our own ancestral traditions, how are we being different from racist segregationists? How do we recognize our interrelatedness with all peoples, as well as the brokenness between us?
Look at where a religion of sacred land and ethnicity has brought the Jews today. Atrocities are being committed by the hawkish Israelis who find Biblical mandate for taking back “their” homeland from the Palestinians. (I support a two-state solution.) The decolonization framework of Christian imperialists versus grassroots pagans breaks down when it comes to Jewish political history. We lost our roots in the homeland because we were colonized by pagan Romans and crusading Christians, but to reclaim those roots, we have become oppressive colonizers. Enlightenment individualism suddenly doesn’t look half bad.
I don’t know what the answer is, but I’d like to see the literature address this question. Meanwhile, I’m off to Google “Jewish folk magic”. Tonight is a Super Blue Blood Full Moon, a good time to ask my ancestors for guidance.
Grandma Nettie and toddler Jendi playing the piano, c.1974. She passed away when I was 6, taking her kugel recipe to the grave. I think her default advice would be “Use more schmaltz!”
Via the Little Red Tarot e-newsletter, I learned of this interesting academic research project on the intersections of queerness, spirituality, art, and politics:
Australian academic seeking practicing artists who identify as queer/non-binary/LGBTQIA+ and identify as witches for inclusion in thesis: Contemporary Queer Artists and the Resurgence of Witchcraft as Resistance. Participants must be over 18 and willing to fill out a 16 question survey covering both their art and witchcraft practice. All personal information will be kept private. To take part, email Brooke at firstname.lastname@example.org
Brooke Haba, the researcher, gave me permission to post some excerpts from my survey responses. If your identity fits the description, do get in touch and fill out the questionnaire. I found it to be a useful self-examination of my evolving spirituality.
How do you feel [your art practice and your witchcraft practice] intersect?
Both require faith that what Western culture calls “imaginary” is important and real. For me, fiction-writing and spirituality both involve the cultivation of an inner listening that receives messages from noncorporeal beings. Asking my novel characters for fashion advice isn’t any more or less absurd than invoking Baba Yaga to heal my reproductive health problems. (Both of which really worked, FYI.)
I use Tarot spreads or card draws to center myself at the beginning of a writing session, and to suggest plot developments or unexpected images for a scene. I’ve done gratitude and prosperity rituals for my book launch.
In what ways would your art differ if you were not a witch?
I might still be afraid that writing gay erotica imperils my mortal soul.
Does your queer identity relate to your witchcraft practice?
Only in the sense that both depend on believing my own intuition, regardless of what anyone else thinks. Being self-referenced, as the psychologists say. Trusting that my will and my perceptions are the foundation of my reality.
Is witchcraft a form of resistance in the current political climate?
I think it can be, but like any religion or ideology, it isn’t necessarily on the right side (whatever we imagine that to be). Humans are clever monkeys. Any system can get corrupted by our instinct to seek status and domination.
Grassroots witchcraft in America may have the advantage of being decentralized, politically marginal, and lacking large financial investments. Christianity began with radical resistance to empire, but over the centuries, became enmeshed with the political and economic status quo. The tradition accreted as many oppressive concepts as liberating ones. Modern witchcraft currently doesn’t have that baggage to overcome. So it may naturally attract anti-fascist, pro-equality folks. But we should never be complacent that alternative spirituality is any guarantee of authenticity or righteousness. Our biggest temptation could be consumerism—performative witchcraft on Instagram, having all the right swag instead of thinking about what communities our money supports.
Is queer identity a form of resistance in the current political climate?
That’s easier for me to answer YES. Sometimes I tell myself that my gender-questioning obsession is self-indulgent and stupid, like, “Really? You first decide to come out in the Trump administration?” But that’s me, nothing motivates me like the chance to piss someone off!
But seriously, I’m privileged to be as safe as a queer person can be: I pass for female, I’m self-employed, I’m white, and I live in a town where my son can go to Drag Queen Story Hour at the synagogue. If I can’t come out, who can?
Honestly, the only folks around here who are likely to give me grief about trans stuff are some older lesbian-feminist separatists who feel their struggles are erased by the blurring of the gender binary. I really feel this infighting is deadly, not only to us gender-nonconforming folks, but to everyone in the progressive resistance. Divide and conquer, you know. So yes, even against the old-guard Left, calling yourself “queer” is a useful form of resistance because it is an intersectional term—it reminds us to value solidarity in all our diversity, not settle for a world where single-issue groups fight for the crumbs left behind by the One Percent.
What does witchcraft offer that other spiritual perspectives lack? Do you see witchcraft as a spiritual path?
For me, it is certainly a spiritual path. I can’t imagine what else it could be. Without gratitude for the great mysteries of existence, without accountability to the nonhuman web of life, isn’t it just technology—imposing our will on events by manipulating so-called inert matter?
What it offers me is a redirection from dogma to practice and present-time awareness, not unlike the Buddhist and Jewish traditions that are also part of our family background.
I also see witchcraft as a way to integrate my adult self, who thrives on independence, analytical thinking, and political consciousness, and my child self, who is embodied and creative and has always known herself to be surrounded with invisible allies. The modern liberal church is this weird mix of an infantilizing authority structure and a skeptical intellectual culture that dismisses miracles and magic as childish.
Who/what inspires your art practice?
Anyone who is taking a risk to be creative and authentic, in any genre—putting their ego on the line and pushing through fears of abandonment and failure.
Born in Zimbabwe, Ndaba Sibanda is the author of several poetry collections, including Of the Saliva and the Tongue and Cutting-edge Cache, both published last year. Visit his Amazon page for a full list of publications, check out his website, and follow him on Twitter @loveoclockn. As a subscriber to our Winning Writers newsletter, he keeps me posted with his latest awards and writings, including these new poems, which he has kindly allowed me to publish here. Sibanda’s work often tackles topics of political corruption and injustice.
Is There Dignity In That Immensity?
she said: if that’s greatness
then it`s also big dumbness
at the centre of a storm
was a disheartening slur
does a fooling fortress
feel a people’s distress?
an outcry from Haiti?
an immigrant’s dignity?
at the centre of a storm
was a demeaning affront
aimed at amplifying inferiorities
and shutting out minorities
at the centre of a storm
was a disparaging injury
aimed at scarring ethnicities
and massaging supremacies
was there an outpouring of rage
from African nations and all?
in contemptuous terms
supremacy became diplomacy
who knew that immigration
was degradation in a great nation?
who knew that protection
wasn’t other people`s right?
who knew that being an immigrant
was no assimilation but a crime?
what was Africa’s contribution?
was that not ungrateful dumbness?
what could be a poor immigrant’s input?
maybe the question was: who wasn’t one?
As If They Didn’t Know
was our unkind king frog
nocturnal in nature?
they asked when
he had been ferried away
he spent most of the day
snoozing in his citadel
hidden amongst gold
and lies and loot
was our unkind king frog
gregarious in nature?
they asked when
he was unable to croak
he travelled with countless frogs
to many foreign ponds and lakes
he liked lounging in the exotic
meadows and wetlands too
did our unkind king frog
have a sensual soprano voice?
as if they didn’t know
he was active in the evenings
and at night: inflating his throat
pouch about the urgent need
to protect our lakes and ponds
did our unkind king frog
protect our lakes and ponds?
as if they didn’t know
Over the Thanksgiving holiday I watched two children’s films, one old and one new, that brought up strong feelings and questions regarding the importance placed on biological lineage in fantasy stories. Around the same time, in the private Facebook group for Andi Grace’s excellent Hawthorn Heart course on boundary-setting, I entered into a tough but fruitful conversation about what it means to “decolonize” our spiritual practices. And now I will attempt to tie those things together.
The old film was the 1979 animated version of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a movie that gave me a spiritual awakening when I saw it on TV at age 6. This film set me off on my journey through Christianity, though I was so uneducated in religious matters that I didn’t realize it was a Christian allegory for another 6 years. I’ve long maintained that this is the definitive screen adaptation of the Narnia books, without remembering how primitive the animation was. The backgrounds aren’t even in the same style as the figures! Yet its bare-bones quality has a purity of emotion and scruffy Britishness that gets lost, in my opinion, in the color-saturated live-action Disney movies of the 2000s. Aslan is simply but powerfully drawn, like an Orthodox icon. And the White Witch’s grandiosity and mood swings bear an uncanny resemblance to my bio mother’s mannerisms.
Leaving aside the substitutionary atonement message, which makes no sense to me now, I clearly see how the film satisfied my yearnings for a loving male protector. For many years, I thought I had to buy into the entire Christian authority structure in order to enter that embrace. These days, I feel relatively secure that I can reach out to the God I encountered in Aslan and leave aside the problematic theology, but this winnowing process takes effort that’s sometimes beyond my strength.
Because rewatching the film made me grieve both my lost home in orthodoxy and my family trauma, I was prompted to think critically about the children’s royal succession as “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve”. Fairy tales and Christianity both developed their core motifs in an era of hereditary nobility. It’s become standard to carry over these ideas even though they don’t fit our contemporary political values of democracy and free choice in relationships. Chosen ones, from Lucy Pevensie to Harry Potter, become heroic protagonists or magic-wielders through their blood lineage. There’s also a colonialist flavor to the idea that the British children are the natural rulers of Narnia, a land where there’s apparently no one else from their ethnicity (or species?). Can we rethink the inheritance trope in fantasy, please?
The new Disney/Pixar film “Coco” is light-years away from the Narnia film in terms of animated wizardry and beauty. It’s about Miguel, a tween boy in a Mexican village, who dreams of becoming a famous musician, but his family won’t let him play. They are against music because Miguel’s great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife and child to pursue his musical career…or so they think. Miguel journeys to the Land of the Dead on Dia de los Muertos to meet his ancestors and find a solution to his family conflict. No spoilers, but in the end, he doesn’t have to choose between his dreams and his family. (Lucky him.)
I cried a lot at this film, and I still cry every time Shane asks me to read the picture books based on it. It’s beautiful, it ends happily, and it’s entirely about people of color celebrating their culture.
I also cried because I wish I had a place in the world like Miguel does. I cried for people whose lineage is disrupted by family estrangement, infertility, closed adoptions, diaspora, and colonization, who are erased from a story like this. What if you haven’t been allowed to know your ancestors? How would you find healing from family conflict, and blessing for your vocation?
The “woke” witch community talks a lot about decolonization, the opposite of cultural appropriation. White and Western spiritual practitioners have historically acted entitled to adopt practices from communities of color–Native American rituals, indigenous concepts like “spirit animal”, Haitian voodoo, African-American folk magic, and so forth. There’s been similar criticism that yoga in America has split off the physical exercises from their Indian religious roots. At the site Decolonizing Yoga, Indian-American writer Susanna Barkataki explains why this is a problem: “Did you know that Yoga and Ayurveda were banned in India under British rule and colonization? The practices millions of Westerners now turn to for alternative health and wellness therapies were intentionally eradicated from parts of India to the point that lineages were broken and thousand-year old traditions lost.” Decolonization isn’t so much about ethnic ownership of spirituality, as it is about accountability for the fact that white people violently disrupted POCs’ ability to practice their own traditions, and then we turned around and adopted those traditions as exotic and authentic.
So, I’m on board with that, in theory. But I chafed against it emotionally. In my childhood, I wasn’t free to decide what was true and good, or what my identity and life path should be. Everyone in the family had to be loyal to my mother’s version of reality. When I converted from Judaism to Christianity in my 20s, I wanted to switch from a worldview where truth was determined by tribal allegiance, to one where the individual’s encounter with the Holy Spirit was paramount. In the decolonization conversation, it felt like a step backward for my trauma healing, to be told that my bloodline dictated which gods I could worship. I didn’t want to be forced back into relationship with my biological family, living or dead–people who wouldn’t have lifted their leg to piss on me if I was on fire.
I threw this idea out there to the Hawthorn Heart group, knowing it would be controversial. My initial language put some folks on the defensive and they rightly called me out about asking for the “right” to utilize other cultures. I’m glad I was able to hear this and I thanked the nonwhite folks for doing the work of correcting me, because that can be exhausting! Everyone on the thread was very kind and helpful, even when they were angry. They shared some amazing insights and links that dramatically shifted my feelings about ancestor work.
One member noted that white people’s alienation from our specific ethnic lineage (Polish, Celtic, etc.) was also a casualty of colonialism. To succeed in America, we became folded into the ever-shifting construct of “whiteness” and lost our connections to our ancestors; then, lonely for roots, we idealized nonwhite “tribal” cultures and tried to force our way in. They pointed me to this article at White Awake, “The Vast and Beautiful World of Indigenous Europe”, by white/Native American author Lyla June:
I have come to believe that if we do not wholly love our ancestors, then we do not truly know who they are. For instance, I get very offended when people call Native Americans “good-for-nothing drunks.” Because by saying this, people don’t take into account the centuries of attempted genocide, rape and drugging of Native American people. They don’t see the beauty of who we were before the onslaught. And now, I am offended when people call European descendants “privileged good-for-nothing pilgrims.” Because by saying this, people do not take into account the thousands of years that European peoples were raped, tortured and enslaved. They do not understand the beauty of who we were before the onslaught. They do not understand that even though we have free will and the ability to choose how we live our life, it is very hard to overcome inter-generational trauma. What happens in our formative years and what our parents teach us at that time can be very hard to reverse.
They estimate that 8-9 million European women were burned alive, drowned alive, dismembered alive, beaten, raped and otherwise tortured as so-called, “witches.” It is obvious to me now that these women were not witches, but were the Medicine People of Old Europe. They were the women who understood the herbal medicines, the ones who prayed with stones, the ones who passed on sacred chants, the ones who whispered to me that night in the hoghan. This all-out warfare on Indigenous European women, not only harmed them, but had a profound effect on the men who loved them. Their husbands, sons and brothers. Nothing makes a man go mad like watching the women of his family get burned alive. If the men respond to this hatred with hatred, the hatred is passed on. And who can blame them? While peace and love is the correct response to hatred, it is not the easy response by any means.
The Indigenous Cultures of Europe also sustained forced assimilation by the Roman Empire and other hegemonic forces. In fact, it was only a few decades ago that any Welsh child caught speaking Welsh in school would have a block of wood tied to their neck. The words “WN” were there-inscribed, standing for “welsh not.” This kind of public humiliation will sound very familiar to any Native Americans reading this who attended U.S. Government boarding schools.
Moreover, our indigenous European ancestors faced horrific epidemics of biblical proportions. In the 1300s, two-thirds of Indigenous Europeans were wiped from the face of the earth. The Black Death, or Bubonic Plague, ravaged entire villages with massive lymph sores that filled with puss until they burst open. Sound familiar?
The parallels between the genocide of Indigenous Europeans and Native Americans are astounding. It boggles my mind that more people don’t see how we are the same people, who have undergone the same spiritual assault.
To start my researches, other Hawthorn Heart members linked me to the Eastern European sacred folk music album Rosna by Laboratorium Pieśni, and Atava Garcia Swiecicki’s Naropa University thesis Journey Into My Polish Indigenous Mind. Our conversation touched on shadow work, another theme of the online course. Someone ventured the insight that decolonization included owning those ancestors who were perpetrators of personal or racial trauma. We don’t have to have a personal relationship with their spirits in our magic, but we can’t dis-identify with their legacy completely. But neither should we give them too much power to cut us off from the good things in our heritage.
For the first time, I feel excited about exploring where I came from. And I also feel long-suppressed grief that our family story is so full of gaps, or worse. I’ve been running away from the pain by declaring that these people are nothing to me. But really, is there anything more Jewish than a legacy of lacunae? I am part of a long tradition of diaspora, fragmentation, and self-reinvention. Baba Yaga, ora pro nobis.