Coming Out Witchy, and Other Links on Spirituality and Trauma

“My gender is witch,” proclaimed poet Charlie Bondhus, concluding a masterful set of published and new works he read at the LGBT Center in NYC last month. (Witch? Which? Switch!) In four words he summed up the elusive quality of our overlapping identities: queer, magician, writer. All involve a commitment to phenomena that may be immeasurable by outsiders and therefore vulnerable to challenge. Am I making this up? And who decided that creativity was a slur, anyway?

Little Red Tarot columnist Andi Grace explores the real obstacles to public witchiness in her latest post, “Coming out of the woo closet: Facing shame, stigma and historical trauma”. They write:

[T]he woo closet is the forces that keep us from being open about the way that magical, energetic, psychic, extra-sensory or spiritual forces nourish and guide us. To my mind, the woo closet is very old and is one of the most powerful spells (or cluster of spells) that keeps us from stepping into our truth and power.

I see the woo closet as being composed of several parts: historical trauma that has roots in the witch burnings, the stigmatization of neuro atypical mental states, and also the legacy and present day impacts of colonization–specifically as it relates to spirituality and conceptions of knowledge and knowing…

…If we accept that our bodies carry trauma from previous generations then we must also accept that unless we find ways to heal that trauma, we will carry it with us in our bodies and spirits. What this means is that, in a very real and tangible way, my body fears for its life in coming out as a witch and this manifests as anxiety, defensive self-judgement and deeply woven feelings of shame. The feeling of fear that I have when being honest that I can see and feel spirits, isn’t one that is just in my head. It’s in my bones and my spirit and it’s literally been burnt and drowned into my memory. And no, it won’t just go away with positive thinking, though that is one small piece of the magic needed to turn the tide of this spell…

…A fundamental mechanism of colonization is devaluing ways of knowing that don’t fit into empirical knowledge systems. This devaluation is used to undermine the sovereignty of indigenous people and ultimately to steal land, resources and labour. It has also been used to justify cultural, spiritual and physical genocide. Much of western science and higher education models are based on the assumption that empirical, measurable “truth” and linear understandings of time are more valid than understandings that do not fit into this box

…The legacy of colonization and witch hunts has lead many people to believe that things like energy, visions, dream work, astrology, herbalism, tarot and magic are bogus and manipulative pseudosciences that should be disregarded with righteous fervor. Sure, we should be discerning (particularly with regards to oppression and appropriation) and yes some people are lying manipulators, but that doesn’t mean we should just dismiss whole systems of knowledge that have long and rich histories with tremendous learning and guidance to offer us.

Andi Grace’s piece includes useful guidelines and resources for folks with European ancestry to recover pre-Enlightenment ways of knowing, without being appropriative and colonialist in a different way toward nonwhite indigenous cultures. Here, for me, is where trauma and my political ideals get their wires crossed.

I agree completely with the critique of appropriation. But I feel this gut-level resistance to claiming a bond with my ancestors (bad-ass Polish witches, no doubt) because abuse and abandonment have largely severed my ties to my biological family. My mother is the product of multi-generational child abuse and mental illness. I blame my ancestors for our destroyed relationship; I don’t want to summon their spirits! My father is a nice guy but was absent from my life until I was 30. We’re becoming friends, but time will tell whether we ever have that sense of relying on one another like a true family. Perhaps this is where the writer magic comes in: I may have to invent a trustworthy ancestor who can be my guide through Eastern European hexery.


[Baba Yaga and the skulls of her enemies. Source]








Turning to what’s new in the Christian blogosphere, I was struck by this article at the Feminist Newswire, “‘The Least of These’: Black Children, Sexual Abuse, and Theological Malpractice”. Author Ahmad Greene-Hayes, a Ph.D student of religion at Princeton, is the founder of Children of Combahee, a new initiative to end child sexual abuse in black churches. He argues that “respectability politics” combined with homophobic and patriarchal theology in the black church create an environment where secret predators can thrive. Churches’ model of sexual morality/deviance should shift away from upholding rigid gender roles, and toward prioritizing consent and safety–a paradigm that admittedly the Bible does not always support, but here is a case where we must talk back to the Bible.

Black church people have used silence as a means of protection from white racial-sexual terrorists. To mitigate the effects of white supremacist violence, many African Americans do not address intracommunal violence, and in some instances extracommunal violence, because they do not want to portray the race in a negative light or they want to be race loyal, or even race first, everything later. These patterns are deadly and send a loud message that racial justice takes precedence over the justice that every individual deserves in regards to their bodies and psyches—regardless of age, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, religion, or any other marginalized identity.

The inability (or unwillingness) to address sexual violence as an evil that pervades home, church and community is steeped in larger cultural “norms,” though abnormal, of cogitatively dissociating one’s lived experience—in Black flesh—from one’s embodied and experienced sexuality. In other words, the inability to address violence and trauma as it relates to Black sexuality can be traced back to the plantation where rape and torture were codified by law and the theologies of the master class. In some ways, the contemporary Black church—which grew out of enslavement—mirrors the plantation of times past, and survivors are pushing the church to consider its reinscription of master tactics—that is , attempts to abuse, silence, marginalize, shame, victimize, and dehumanize marginal subjects, or as Jesus said, “the least of these.”

For white people reading this analysis, the takeaway message (in my opinion) should be that we can’t fight child abuse without fighting racism. The black church’s code of silence and internalization of toxic mainstream gender roles are an understandable survival strategy for an embattled minority. We have to do our part to end that battle.

Finally, here’s a comprehensive article from the progressive blog Religion Dispatches about campus Christian organization InterVarsity’s recent decision to oust all LGBTQ and affirming staff members. “Inside InterVarsity’s Purge: Trauma and Termination at the Premier Evangelical Student Org” is written by journalist Deborah Jian Lee, author of the well-reviewed book Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women & Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism (Beacon, 2015).

InterVarsity has rolled out a policy that calls for staff who disagree with its theological position to come forward and quit by November 11. If staff members disagree, the national campus ministry stated in a letter to staff, “we trust that they will alert their supervisors and conclude their work [within two weeks].” (The policy does not apply to students, though students who disagree cannot be leaders, and it includes dictates against divorce, pornography and pre-marital sex.)

Supporters of InterVarsity’s decision see the policy as a commitment to “orthodox” theology, while critics call it a “purge.” The news, first reported by TIME on October 6, has unleashed protests from droves of InterVarsity students, alumni, influential InterVarsity Press authors and Christian leaders, many of whom have released petitions calling for the organization to revoke the policy. Within InterVarsity, a number of LGBTQ and ally staff, including Vasquez, have formed “the Queer Collective,” which for months has been pressing executive leaders for unity amid theological differences. They have elevated stories of LGBTQ-affirming people in the organization and documented the mental health impact of LGBTQ exclusion.

Despite their advocacy, InterVarsity announced its policy in a manner that Queer Collective leaders see as severe and punitive. For example, InterVarsity created a “helpline” for staff who felt unsure about the organization’s theological position, but the “helpline” only offered “limited confidentiality,” according to a July email sent to staff workers by then-interim president Jim Lundgren and president-elect Tom Lin. If a staff worker announced their disagreement with InterVarsity’s position and did not declare this to their supervisor, “[the helpline] resource person [would] inform the supervisor.” This, and reports by other staff workers who say they have been questioned about their beliefs, seems to contradict InterVarsity’s claim that it is relying solely on the self-declaration of LGBTQ-affirming staff.

Despite the ministry’s disclosure of the helpline process, “to call something a ‘helpline’ as a place of support and also make it a place of whistleblowing—that’s not just harmful, but also unethical,” said Teresa Pasquale Mateus, LCSW, author of Sacred Wounds: A Path to Healing from Spiritual Trauma. Mateus sees patterns of spiritual abuse in some of InterVarsity’s treatment of LGBTQ-affirming staff and students and warns of serious emotional “collateral damage” in the aftermath of “the purge.” Already, members of the Queer Collective and other InterVarsity insiders say that every day raises new concerns about emotional trauma, unemployment, resignations, disaffiliations, and the future of InterVarsity.

This fracture reflects the larger rupture over sexuality taking place across the evangelical movement…

Lee goes on to describe InterVarsity’s inconsistent treatment of LGBTQ students and staff, their refusal to repudiate the discredited practice of “ex-gay therapy”, and despite all this, the difficulty of turning one’s back on the diverse and passionate Christian community that IV represents for many people.

Leaving isn’t so simple. To many like Vasquez, evangelicals are their people. As Alexis Garretson, a George Mason University senior who identifies as queer and LGBTQ-affirming explained, InterVarsity is actually the friendliest of the campus fellowship options. If students left InterVarsity for greener pastures, they’d have to leave Christian community altogether. “LGBTQ Christians fiercely believe in the faith we have,” explained Garretson. “Asking us to leave goes against our identity.”

To staff workers who have worked for InterVarsity for years and sometimes decades, leaving the ministry means losing both their livelihood and the entire community they’ve built for themselves over the years, sometimes since their own college days. After all, InterVarsity isn’t just a student club, it’s a family. “People here just loved me from the first moment I got here,” Scripps College junior and LGBTQ-affirming InterVarsity member Rachel Geller told me. InterVarsity goes the extra mile to welcome new students, surrounding freshmen with an immediate posse of friends at the start of college, following up with relentless evangelical zeal.

It’s also a lifestyle. Much like the Greek system, the activities are all-consuming: Bible studies, fellowship, dance parties, retreats, prayer meetings, dorm gatherings, group lunches, study dates and so much more. To feel this sense of love and belonging so fiercely every day is intoxicating, students and staff say. It’s what leads so many students to graduate college, join the 1,300 member staff, and build their lives around the organization’s mission. For Vasquez, “InterVarsity was the air I breathed.”

Perhaps the most consequential reason LGBTQ-affirming staff workers want to remain in the fold emerges from their concern that once they leave, LGBTQ newcomers will be isolated in a community that publicly welcomes them but privately misunderstands their most fundamental needs.

Is it just my love-avoidance that makes this description seem a little cultish? Be that as it may, it seems to me that similar reasons keep people connected to abusive partners: to protect the children, or to avoid what seems like the greater trauma of losing an entire family network. Building up new love relationships takes time and courage. Leaving is a leap into the void, at least in the beginning. Some of us decide we’re ready to make it, but woe be to those who pushed us off that cliff.

Sacred Wounds and Rescuing Jesus are going on my very long Amazon wishlist now.




October Links Roundup: Did I Shave My Legs for This?

Hello, readers. As you can see, things have been busy around here, and the dishes (and emails to myself with “blog about this!”) have piled up. We return this month with some links about gender roles and personal grooming.

This piece about body-hair positivity, from the feminist website, got a number of sympathetic comments and personal confessions when I shared it on Facebook this month. The article by Eleonor Botoman features a video from the fashion magazine Allure, in which several young women of different ethnicities share the shaming messages they received about body hair and their journey to accept themselves au naturel.

No girl should be placed in the position of sitting in her mother’s bathroom with a razor because someone (a fashion magazine, friends or family) told them that removing body hair will make them more beautiful. Girls as young as eleven shouldn’t feel insecure about wearing shorts in the summertime because their mom said no or be teased for having darker hair and have to spend hours shaving from head to toe in order to avoid more bullying.

These girls realized that they were wasting so much time keeping up with this ritual. They found self-love through the act of simply stopping and setting down the razor, choosing to spend their time doing other things they enjoyed instead. Letting go of social conventions brought on this new kind of self-acceptance for every natural part of their body.

If you go onto social media and you see a girl post an image with visible body hair (armpit hair, a mustache, pubic hair, you name it), there’s always this massive wave of backlash of comments (usually from male users) as they call her ugly, manly, gross, unhygienic. It’s ridiculous. It’s not like these girls are kicking puppies. As Monica puts it, “I’m literally doing nothing,” so why do people keep reacting in this angry way? It’s just hair! The problem is not a sanitary one. It’s because these women present themselves with visible body hair and disrupt the flawless-is-sexy narrative.

If you’re the kind of girl who enjoys body hair removal, who finds something soothing in taking the time to shave in the shower, then do it! But if you feel like you’re wasting time or don’t want to keep enduring the pain of razor bumps or getting your hair ripped off, then don’t feel pressured to keep removing your body hair! Don’t conform to someone else’s idea of beauty! We need to love our bodies with all of its hair, bumps and stretch marks.

I was that 11-year-old girl, disgusted with my legs because of their pallor and fuzziness, afraid to wear shorts or skirts without uncomfortable stockings. But that was nothing compared to mustache shame. Good Lord, if I could take back the thousands of dollars I spent in my teens and twenties to have my facial hair ripped out with hot wax or electrocuted with needles, I could afford to advertise my novel in every gay magazine in America!

I could have just shaved with a razor, as I do now, but I abhorred the idea for many years because I thought only guys shaved their faces. It would be admitting gender failure, if only to myself. Though the Allure video doesn’t talk about this, the body-hair stigma for women seems intimately connected to society’s policing of the binary. When I was going through puberty, I wish someone could have said to me–and more importantly, to the adults and schoolmates who shamed my ‘stache–that there is such a thing as genderqueer and it is okay.

If, like me, you’ve ever tormented yourself pointlessly with the question, “Am I really nonbinary or do I just hate wearing nylons?”, Ozy’s blog Thing of Things is for you. Ozy is assigned female at birth, identifies as nonbinary, and uses “they” pronouns. In this recent post, “Some Questions for FTMs, Answered”, they take on the argument, common in some cis-feminist circles, that women who transition are mis-identifying their problem as gender dysphoria when it’s really sexism-fatigue. In an ideal world where women’s social roles and safety were not constrained by gender, would any of us still need to reject our womanhood? The end point of this argument is that we should fight to create that ideal world, rather than a world where female-to-male transition or NB identity are normalized.

Ozy’s response is clever, thoughtful, and multifaceted, and is based on the principle that we should respect people’s diverse experiences of selfhood without making them justify it according to a one-size-fits-all ideology. The whole thing is worth a read. I’m highlighting this part because I recognized a quirk of my own life in it. I also feel more comfortable recently with my girly aspects since I started identifying as NB. (The boldfaced part of the quote is a question from the original article to which Ozy is replying.)

What if there was no such thing as hormones or surgeries and you had to just live your life as a lesbian, how would your life be different?

Well, I used to live my life as a queer woman, so here are the differences I’ve observed:

The closest thing to being seen as nonbinary, if you’re presenting as a cis woman, is to be seen as a butch woman, so I made a lot of effort to be seen as a butch woman. I didn’t wear skirts or colors. I didn’t complain when I was in pain. I didn’t admit to liking Disney movies. I was very clear that typically feminine things were stupid, that most girls were stupid, and that I liked hanging out with men and my exceptional non-stupid female friends.

(It always confuses people when I tell them I conformed more to my assigned gender after transition.)

To be clear, this wasn’t conscious. I had no idea what a trans person was, back when I was trying to be a girl. I thought of myself as a woman. But on a subconscious level, I still valued not being either of the binary genders, and if the closest thing I could get to that was being a gender-non-conforming woman, then by God I would watch as many action movies and wear as much black as necessary to make this happen.

And then I transitioned and about six months into my transition– around the point where I realized that this really wasn’t going to go away and I could be nonbinary as long as I wanted– by some mysterious coincidence colors reappeared in my wardrobe, Alan Menken reappeared on my playlists, and I started whining like hell whenever I had a stomachache.

So there you go. I’d much rather not detransition. I think being a gender-non-conforming women should be left to people who actually want to be gender-non-conforming and actually want to be women, instead of to people who are putting up with it because it’s the closest you can get to being nonbinary.

The queer feminist website Autostraddle published this roundtable discussion, “What We Mean When We Say ‘Femme'”, to explore and celebrate the diverse ways that queer people define themselves with this word. One question they asked was whether emotional labor and caregiving is part of your femme identity. Visual artist, educator, and storyteller Rudy Loewe answered with a resounding yes: “It’s allowing a particular kind of tenderness to be part of your identity.” By contrast, beauty blogger Aja (Fit for a Femme) said something closer to my own perspective: “I associate being femme more with vigilance than with emotional labor or self-care. That’s the energy I put into the world and that I feel from other femmes. The emotional force in my life comes from the quality of relationships I seek, not from being femme.” I also related to Erin’s punchy description, though I lack her mechanical skills:

Honestly, my femme experience is entirely tied to my appearance and not at all how I would identify my personality. I say Utility Femme, which to me means I CONTAIN MULTITUDES. Like I’ll be made up and then wear some sensible shoes, or I’ll make sure I have on like eight necklaces and then definitely be able to replace your car’s front bumper. So to me, it feels less like a brand and more like an aesthetic. But you know what? When I see other femmes and femmes with femmes it makes me want to get in a car and drive with the windows down while I blast an air horn out the driver’s side because of how pumped it gets me. 

I don’t associate femme with emotional labor at all, and actually, I don’t really associate femme with tenderness! I equate Femme with being able to ruin someone’s life IN A GOOD WAY if you wanted to, this bubbling-just-beneath-the-surface strength. Not that strength and tenderness are mutually exclusive, but maybe it’s that their approach feels different.

Meanwhile, Cecelia’s words about femme and witchcraft challenged me to rethink my instinctive aversion to the words “emotional labor and care work”. There is a way of being a caring femme that is not codependent, though it is hard to find models for it in our patriarchal culture.

When I broke up with femininity and embraced femme, I felt strong and confident and powerful, but I was left with certain desires that I couldn’t find room for in myself. What was I supposed to do with my desire to nurture, to care, and to love something deeply?

This is why magic and other healing practices are so necessary to how I identify as femme. I use witchy things to care for myself and show other people that I care for them. Reading someone’s tarot is a way to remind them (and myself) that vulnerability is a measure of growth and strength. Lighting a candle and saying a spell for another femme is a strategy that reminds me how important it is to comfort and protect each other. When I didn’t have a personal understanding of the word femme and only understood my caring process through the traditional femininity I inherited, I felt fragile and lost. The differentiation between the two is, in many ways, totally arbitrary — but by taking the word femme on as a project, I was forced to actively investigate and take apart the ways that traditional femininity lived in my body. Claiming femme made me feel like an agent of my own experience, not a passenger.

What does femme mean to you, readers?