Some Thoughts on Privilege and Paganism

privilegeThere's been a lot of discussion about privilege in the Pagan community following Pantheacon. Or rather Pantheacon just happened to be the place where the conversation came to the surface more, because the conversation has been happening for a while now. And such conversations are important because ideally it brings to light the inequities in the community. I'm a middle class white man that has the fortune of living in a first world country with running water, heat, and a number of other resources that are available to me. The level of privilege that I have is staggering and likely I'm not even fully aware of it. Yet what I am aware of is that there are other people that don't have that same level of privilege, who for reasons of gender or skin color or whatever else don't have the same level of access to resources, education, and opportunities that I have, and also face more situations where their appearance is used to judge them.

I feel that one of the ways I can leverage my privilege is to turn around and use it for the greater good. I'm not doing this out of a sense of white guilt, but rather because I don't believe that inequity of any sort should continue to flourish. And while my actions can't make everything right, I feel that what I can do is help make people more aware of the issues as well as continue to educate myself. One of the reasons Immanion Press has published several anthologies focused on issues of privilege as it applies to occultism and Paganism is because by doing so other people get their voice heard and hopefully they are inspired to continue writing and discussing because they recognize why it is so important.

And while I don't think addressing privilege in Paganism will make everything right, I think it's a start. If you want to make change happen, start with your community and build from there. That kind of change is slow, but it also builds momentum. I know that whatever change I facilitate will best occur by working with what I know.

In a lot of ways, it's interesting to observe the Pagan community and how it is dealing with the issue of privilege. Pagans, by and large, like to think of themselves as progressive people. And yet its clear that privilege still operates on certain levels. At this year's Pantheacon the Pagans and Privilege panel had to be held in a hospitality suite and the People of Color hospitality suite got a lot of resistance from the Pantheacon staff. At the same time the conversations are happening, and people are becoming more aware of the issues. Change is happening, as long as we are willing to continue to make it happen by confronting the issues and how they effect all of us as a community, and as individuals.

Is there Privilege in being out of the closet?

Is there privilege in being out of the closet? Lupa posted a recent entry where she argues that people who can choose to decloset and argue that other people should come out of the closet don't realize that they have privilege. Specifically she notes:

you have the option to decloset (or not) and can decide whether you feel you can handle whatever negative consequences may occur without having it made for you.

She goes on to criticize decloseted people who think closeted people should come out (and I suppose this would include me):

Moreover, it’s a dick move to criticize people who stay closeted to any degree, or their reasons for doing so. Not every decloseted person attacks their closeted associates, but some do. I have seen many people over the years complain about people not decloseting, whether that was the broom closet or the queer closet or whatever closet others were using for protection, I’ve seen them called traitors, and I’ve seen the blame for continuing discrimination against everyone else laid at their feet for not standing up and being visible. I’ve seen pagans say “You should have nothing to hide if you’re strong in your faith”. I’ve seen radical queers tell closeted queers that all they’re doing is milking the “benefits” of the closet and not taking the full brunt of queerphobia. I’ve seen closeted people being told that by staying in the closet, they’re actively supporting the bigots themselves.

In my most recent post about coming out of the closet I wrote (amongst other things): "When you don’t stand up, you essentially are condoning the way things are, and the intolerance and prejudice that comes with it." I think Lupa has a point when she says:

Privilege isn’t a criticism of the fact that you HAVE something; it’s a reminder that not everyone ELSE has what you have, and that affects the options each of you have access to in a given situation. The criticism comes when you forget that imbalance, and act in spite of it, and thereby harm those without your privilege.

So is it unfair to the closeted when someone like myself says what I wrote in the previous post? Yes and no. On the one hand it comes off as unfair to the people who feel they can't come out of the closet because of the consequences that could occur. They get criticized by someone who is out of the closet and are told they aren't doing enough. That's pretty presumptuous of the person whose out of the closet. That person is judging those people for not getting out of the closet. That's essentially what's being said when its argued that a decloseted person has privilege. And if you look at it from that angle, there's validity to it.

The people in the closet have my empathy, because I've been there. I remember as a teenager being asked by my mom a number of times if I practiced it and I denied it each time because I was afraid of the consequences. And when I was forced out of the closet, my fears came true. There were negative consequences. But here's why I wrote what I wrote and why I think it doesn't come from a place of privilege.

I get that some people don't feel they can come out of the closet and I understand the reasons for why they feel that way. But as someone who was forced out of the closet, and then chose to stay out, I have to say that being out of the closet isn't privilege. In graduate school I had two fellow grad students anonymously cyber bully me in part because of my beliefs. And when I worked in a corporate setting I always had to wonder what would happen if people googled my name, because I'd written about my spiritual practices with my given name. And in all honesty, there have been times where I wish I could change that because it would make life easier if I'd used a pseudonym and stayed in the closet. But I can't and I realize that if I did, I'd be leaving it to someone else to carry that responsibility. Even now me being out of the closet isn't all that wonderful. I'm self-employed, and I live and work in a fairly "liberal" area of the country, but that doesn't mean I don't get nervous or even uncomfortable when I find out that potential prospects have looked me up. Most of the people I've worked with don't seem to care, but I can guarantee that if I lived in a more conservative area they likely would care more and you better believe I feel lucky to be living here.

Being out of the closet isn't a cake walk. And it isn't privilege. It's hard and it comes with responsibility. Would I like it if people in the closet came out? Yes I would. There is strength in numbers. But I understand why it doesn't happen. The pain of being rejected by family and friend is harsh. The persecution and prejudice that can be faced is hard. And maybe I am in a place of privilege (as a decloseted person) because I wrote that people who stay in the closet are essentially condoning the way things are. Not everyone has what I have. Fair enough. But neither has everyone faced what I have, or what I continue to face as a result of being out of the closet. Being out of the closet isn't comfortable and when you minimize that, when you paint a brush over the people who are decloseted and make assumptions about what they face as a result of being decloseted, that's unfair too.

To anyone who's in the closet and feels that I've judged them, I apologize. You have your reasons for staying in the closet and they aren't wrong. They are valid reasons and I get it. I don't judge you for staying in the closet and I take back my statement that you're condoning the way things are. I don't think that's the case, but understand that when I write about this issue, its not from a place of empowerment and privilege. It's from a place of frustration and hardship, and that's true for anyone else who's come out of the closet.

To the people who've come out of the closet, I salute you. You've made a choice and chosen to face the potential complications that come with it. But there is hope that if we continue to raise awareness and visibility in a respectful way that we can make a space that is more tolerant and accepting as a result. And that's why I'm out of the closet.

Further thoughts on being out of the closet

Last week I wrote about why its important to be out of the closet. Since writing it, I've reflected further on the importance on being out of the closet, as have others. In this blog post that the author wrote in response to mine. As he notes there is a risk run with being out of the closet. Being out of the closet about your beliefs, sexuality, or whatever else can have negative consequences, and although it'd be nice to believe that the world is a tolerant place, the truth is that it isn't always a nice place. There will always be some people who will say, in ignorance and stupidity, that some people should stay in the closet. They make statements like that because they occupy a position of privilege. They've never had to face persecution for their beliefs or other choices. They are part of a majority, and they smugly pass judgement on issues they don't really understand.

As the author of the other blog entry notes, its important to stand up and be counted especially when you don't fit into the dominant culture. It's a social responsibility and a method of social transformation that pushes for the world to be a more tolerant, and easier place to live in. When you don't stand up, you essentially are condoning the way things are, and the intolerance and prejudice that comes with it. And it's not easy to stand up, to be out of the closet, but its importance because it raises awareness and it calls on us to be excellent to each other. It calls on us to be better to each other, to aspire for a more tolerant world that accepts people of different walks of life, with the understanding that while you might not make those particular choices, each person has a right to make the life choices s/he has made and be able to live those choices without fear of being persecuted for them.

Yesterday, I came across an entry that had been written in May of 2011 about the fact that entries about Pagan authors and pagan culture are deleted fairly frequently on wikipedia because not enough "reliable" resources have been written about the topic. The author of that post notes " Not enough sources they consider ‘reliable’ have written about Paganistan, which is short hand for saying the mainstream press hasn’t written much about us and the other sources listed aren’t reliable for one reason or another" Now it could be argued that much ado is being made about very little, but I'd argue that if anything when a subculture tries to carve out its own space in dominant culture and in media outlets of dominant culture there is always some kind of push back. Cara, the author of the second entry I linked to notes:

One of the reasons Pagan articles get put onto the fast track to deletion is that they lack sources Wikipedia considers reliable, which then makes the entire topic ‘not worthy of note.’  After all, if it was worth noting, people would write about it, right?

On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with this policy as it helps ensure that the articles and sources are solid.  When this policy is put into practice with under-reported minority groups such as modern Pagans, that’s where the unintentional discrimination happens.

That unintentional, and in some cases, intentional discrimination is why its important to come out of the closet and stay out. Change doesn't occur when people hide for fear of persecution or discrimination.

In my last post on this topic I mentioned I'd been outed by my friend's family to my mom when I was 18. She didn't handle it well. She told me I had to either move out or burn my books. I opted at the time to burn my books (only the ones I'd already read). I did it because I didn't have a job, I was in high school and I had half a tank of gas in my car. I didn't have a lot of options open to me, but it was a hard experience to realize I had to burn my books because my mom's Christian fundamentalism wouldn't tolerate my choice to believe in magic. I promised myself, after that experience, that I wouldn't hide. And later that year, when the step-father of the aforementioned friend teamed up with the father of that friend to call me on the phone and threaten to kill me for my beliefs, I didn't back down. I called the police and I let them know that their attempts to attack me weren't going to work. They backed down, probably because both of them were drunk and acting out their prejudice. But I learned a valuable lesson from it. You stand up and you be proud and you don't let ignorant idiots like that think they can get away with pulling stupid shit.

Even to this day I can't talk with my mom about my books or my beliefs, and even the rest of my family prefers to avoid talking about it. They just want this partial experience of me, of who I am, instead of really getting to know the real me. It's their choice, and their loss, because I can't not be me. I can't just hide in the closet because it makes someone else's life a bit more convenient. I won't inflict my choices on someone else, but I don't hide who I am to just make someone else happier. That's not how acceptance is won and when you are in a minority keeping silent to curry the favor of the majority doesn't get you very far. It just keeps you in a place that's convenient for them. So I'm out of the closet and to anyone who thinks I should be in a closet, all I really have to say is "Must be nice to be a bigot."

Edit: Another post can be found here about an issue occurring in South Carolina which highlights discrimination against Pagans in a school setting.