Gender Variance in Wicca
Our friends and family who do not identify in whole or in part with the gender identity that society attempts to impress upon them have made great progresses in society and so, naturally, issues of gender variance and gender identity are often topics of public discourse. Trans* visibility has increased with women like Laverne Cox and Jazz Jennings becoming household names and men like Ben Melzer making history as the first trans-man on the cover of Europe’s edition of Men’s Health and Aydian Dowling winning first runner-up in the the US counterpart’s cover contest. But along with the great gains made, so too, have there been terrible sorrows. Violence continues to disproportionately affect trans-men and -women, like the 20 who have been murdered in the United States as of August 10th. Therefore, it’s no surprise that gender identity would also become a focus in both greater Paganism and Traditional Wicca with increasing frequency. It should also be no wonder that I would find myself wanting to deconstruct the flawed and illogical arguments made by a few in Traditional Wicca to advocate for the lack of room for our trans* and gender-variant friends. And by deconstruct, I mean completely destroy three of the most pervasive.
The Tradition has always been about cis-gendered identities!/It’s Tradition!/You are fundamentally changing the tradition!
This argument reveals that the person expressing this point of view suffers from a fundamental lack of understanding of sex, gender, and identity.
Sex is the word used to describe the physical difference between males and females (but there are also intersex individuals). Sex describes one’s secondary sexual characteristics and in fact that’s what is used to determine sex at birth. Whereas gender is the social identity of “man” or “woman” (or other variances like non-binary, non-conforming, transgender, etc.) that describes one’s social role, behavior, manner of dress, and self-image, among other things. Despite what some misguided folks will claim, gender identities are not universal. Each society has very different ideas and ideals regarding what is masculine and what is feminine, who is a man and how to attain or demonstrate manhood, and who is a woman and how to attain or demonstrate womanhood. Gender identity has no litmus test; it is a social construct and therefore no more inherently natural than money or religious identity.
Therefore, to suggest that one must be born of the male sex to be a man and that one must be born of the female sex to be a woman (that is, everyone must be cisgender) is reflective of your own personal belief in Western society’s imposed binary gender construct. It is not something that is demonstrable in practice as evidenced by the myriad gender constructs and expressions we find throughout the world’s cultures across both time and space. And Wicca, as I was taught, is an orthopraxy. This means that Wiccans are bound together by a shared practice and not a uniform belief. Accepting trans* and gender non-conforming identities has nothing to do with our Tradition and everything to do with your beliefs on what is or who can be a woman or man.
Well then, it’s not about gender, it’s about sex!/Ours is a fertility religion that celebrates the mystery, polarity, union, and procreative power of the male and female sexes and so one should act in the capacity defined by our Tradition according to sex!
The tradition I learned does not prescribe behavior according to sex (male and female). There are roles and functions for men and women (gender) but the Tradition does not define who qualifies as a man or woman. Further, by suggesting that the sex of a person is paramount and must determine their role, you are suggesting that there is something inherently necessary about having male sex characteristics to be a man and female sex characteristics to be a woman. You are equating a person to their sexual characteristics, reproductive anatomy, and procreative capacity. Therefore, if the physical characteristics and procreative ability of the sexes are the foundational definition of what it means to be a woman or man in the Craft, then by that logic:
– infertile males and females must either not qualify as men and women, respectively, or must be lacking
– females who have had their uteruses (and males their testicles) removed or damaged must not qualify or must be lacking
– males who have breasts and females who do not must not qualify or must be lacking
Such is the necessary and logically-consistent result of harboring beliefs that sex must determine gender, role, and ability in the Craft. There is no alternative reading that is logically sound. What’s more, a definition of people relying solely on sex cannot account for the sheer complexity of nature. After all, where would intersex individuals fall in such a worldview? If someone shared anatomical organs with both males and females, how would you decide if they were a man or a woman? Why should it even be up to you to decide on that which Nature has created and that which another person lives?
This is not how Gerald B. Gardner or other Craft Elders would have thought or done!
Certainly, Gardner and the first generations of Wiccans had their ideas about it and it’s almost guaranteed that they would probably define man and woman using cisgender descriptions. But as evidenced by the fact that several of them would have refused admittance to homosexuals in their day on the grounds that homosexuals were aberrations and unfit or incapable of the practice of Witchcraft, clearly our fore-fathers and -mothers suffered from a lack of knowledge of the reality of sex, gender, sexuality, and the intersections of such realities with identity.
So while it is often wise to refer back to their wisdom on matters concerning the Craft, they are neither infallible nor unquestionable. They, like us, are products of their time. And as products of our time, we have learned much about Nature and Reality since their days and part of those revealed Mysteries includes the dispelling of the beliefs that heteronormative and cisgender identities are the only natural reality and that all else are aberrations, unnatural, and undesirable.
To adopt the anachronistic beliefs of our fore-parents would mean turning our backs on the wisdom and knowledge we have gained in the last six or seven decades. It would be no better–indeed no more wise–than adopting the belief that the Earth is flat because our spiritual forebearers believe it so. And as Witches, many of us are driven to learn more about Nature and Reality (i.e., Existence) and Its Mysteries, not ignore them to imitate the Dead.
If I have missed or not addressed other important arguments against the inclusion of trans* or gender non-conforming individuals or the lack of room for their involvement in the Craft, please share them with me. I welcome further discussion on the topic. Even more importantly, though, I am a cisgender gay man and while I do my best to educate myself on the realities and issues facing my trans* and gender non-conforming peers, I recognize that I may sometimes fail, so if I’ve misspoken or misrepresented something above and you wish correct me, please feel free.
And to learn more about the realities, daily lives, and issues that impact transgender and other gender non-conforming people, check out the following resources:
- GLAAD Transgender Resources
- GLAAD Transgender FAQ
- IAM: Trans People Speak
- The Trevor Project Support Center
- National Center for Transgender Equality