Asking for Initiation…Working Through Gender Problems.

One thing that has gone unremarked upon in my extended absence is the fact that I have asked for initiation into Hartwood Grove’s coven proper.

It…wasn’t really how I’d thought it would happen.  I’d decided ages ago that I would ask for initiation when the official year and a day of Hartwood Grove ended, which was at the end of October 2011.  I’d talked to Z. about my readiness for initiation soon afterwards, but wasn’t really fussing to ask for initiation.  After all, Z. and Y. have clearly stated that they would not perform initiations between Samhain and Imbolc, so there really was no rush.  But then after the Yule ritual after everyone but T. and I had left, Z. said something kind of prodding, so I responded “Well, I was going to wait for spring to ask, but Z….can I be initiated?”  And that was that.

Anticlimactic, really.

I did have to e-mail Y. and ask him too, and then it took us FOREVER to schedule time to all get together for a preliminary interview, and I still have yet to perform a circle for them…but the ball is rolling.

Funnily enough, though, I’m still struggling with why I want to become an initiated Gardnerian.  I mean, it was sort of always this idea I had.  I still remember reading a description of the various traditions in some 101 book, coming across Gardnerian and thinking “I’d like to be in that tradition.”  But my ego isn’t so vast that I can’t admit that part of the attraction was that Gardnerian Wicca was the first popular form, and I wanted to go directly to the tap to drink, so to speak.  I was probably all of 14 or 15 at the time.

Now I’m a good bit older and–I would hope–wiser.  I’ve been crafting my own path and refining my own beliefs and relationships for a long time now, and learning even more about healthy group dynamics and the power of consent.  And there’s actually a lot about Gardnerian Wicca that I don’t like.

I think I’m going to spend something of a miniseries of posts describing some of the things I’ve observed about Gardnerian Wicca that I’ve got some discomfort about and trying to articulate my problems with them.  To begin, I’d like to meditate on the extreme focus on gender in this tradition.

Now, I’m sure that part of my sensitivity to gender treatment is due to the fact that I grew up as a Catholic girl, and there’s not a great role for women in the Catholic faith.  Sure, you’ve got the nuns and sisters…but these women–close to God as they are–cannot confer His sacraments.  They’ll always have to go to a priest to confess their own sins, even if they are Brides of Christ himself, all because they lack a penis.  (Don’t get me started on the birth control issue.)  Catholic women will always be on the outside looking in, so part of the attraction I felt towards Paganism was that I could be a participant instead of an observer.

In Gardnerian Wicca, I’m worried that something similar is in effect, though with the opposing genders.  Z. has said several times that in a Gardnerian coven, the High Priestess has the final say in a contentious decision.  This takes me aback every time I hear it for a couple reasons, the most important being that I hear a little voice asking “why not the High Priest?”  Even if the pair share everything about a coven, this one little thing that a Priest can never do just he’s a man automatically creates a hierarchy in which women outrank men.

Now, Z. and Y. have both told me that, in practice, this distinction is more of a fail safe than anything else, that the High Priest and the High Priestess make joint decisions and so on…but there have also been small things I’ve quietly observed which make me think otherwise.  For instance, almost all the literature presenting our groups has language like “The group’s high priestess, Z….Her high priest Y.”  To me, this construct figures two main players:  the group and the High Priestess.  The group can have a High Priestess, but there is no group ownership of the High Priest.  Instead, the Priestess has that ownership, and the ownership sets up a bit of a hierarchy.  The hierarchy is perhaps more subtle, but it is there.

In other Gardnerian practices, that hierarchy is more overt.  Most troubling is the fact that the “Hard-Gards” of the Long Island line hold that a woman, the High Priestess, must confer initiations in order for them to be considered valid.  I don’t understand this one at all.  Why can’t a High Priest initiate?  What is it about the possession of a penis that prevents him from moving the energy needed in an initiation?  And doesn’t this blatantly ignore the fact that Gerald Gardner himself performed initiations without a priestess present?

Going deeper into the gender issues is the fact that the Gardnerians try so hard to keep their covens gender balanced and keep magical working pairs male/female dyads.  This is already becoming an issue in Hartwood Grove.  Though we had physically looked gender-balanced for quite some time, usually having three active male-bodied participants and three active female-bodied participants for most functions (the one ‘extra’ female-bodied member rarely being able to attend a meeting), things have changed.  Two of the men have since left the group either permanently or temporarily and we’ve added another female-bodied person.

Since we only have one male-bodied person in the groups at the moment, Z. has said that she really wouldn’t even consider teaching an interested person if they were female.  That strikes me as patently unfair.  I’ve been in groups and led ritual where we had a certain person take up the role of high priest simply because they were male, but they were horrible at it–scattered, disinterested, you name it.  It would have been a much better choice to allow an interested, involved person to take on that role even if they were not male-identified.  So why would I turn away an interested, enthusiastic party just because she was female-identified…or worse, pass over the enthusiastic student for a problematic one just because the problematic one was of a certain gender.  That’s almost akin to hiring an underqualified white applicant over a qualified black applicant simply because you did not want to hire a black person.  It’s wrong.

Even on a practical level, its problematic.   It’s a given fact that there are far, far more women interested in Paganism than men and that Pagan men are often drawn to paths other than Wicca.  Excluding an entire gender until you have more of the other one means that the group won’t grow…and that’s a problem when you’ve just got four or five people in a group.  All it takes is a couple people fighting or even just an unassociated life change (like a move) and all of a sudden the group evaporates.  As much as I don’t want to say it, “new blood” will sustain a group, and it should be welcomed and celebrated in whatever form it comes in!

The other–and perhaps more important–problem is that I think that this specific group is falling into the problem of tying gender with bodies too closely.  For example, our newer member V. is a female-bodied person who does prefer female pronouns and has a husband…but she also has female lovers and identifies herself as gender queer.  And, frankly, I have to admit that her energy is not entirely ‘female’, especially when I compare it with Z. or T.’s energy.  And then there’s me.  Though I identify as female and am not on the genderqueer spectrum in any other aspect of my life, I feel that my magical energy IS on the spectrum.  In college, there was no question that I was the High Priest of my group, even though there were plenty of male participants.

I admit that adding magical energy to the genderqueer spectrum does complicate matters, as it certainly isn’t as easy for anyone–even the practitioner–to immediately identify.  Yet, I know that I could probably partner quite well with T., for example, as I find that she complements areas I’m weak in (and vice versa), but V.?  Don’t get me wrong…I love her tremendously and I’m starting to think of her as one of my best friends, but we’d be horrible magical partners.  We’re too much alike.  But because we both have breasts and vaginas, we’re being whitewashed as magically feminine.  And there’s no easy way to address that.

I’m not saying that we’re not trying to be inclusive.  When I brought up my concerns regarding gender (especially as it pertains to new members), Z. did say that a “dyke” woman would be a special case.  Unfortunately, I’m worried that this still links how we relate to gender too closely with physical presentation.  Assuming that Z. was using the word to describe a woman physically displaying masculine traits and not as a blanket term for lesbians, her “exception to the rule” is still problematic.  Every single woman I have known who actively embraces the word “dyke” as part of her identity does “read” to others as appearing or comporting herself more masculinely, but these dykes certainly do not not consider themselves to be not-a-woman or even genderqueer.  They are women, and they actively embrace being women.  Their magical energies may be different, of course, but there’s no real way to determine that except individually.  And yet Z. immediately latched on to the dyke as potentially being a female man in the circle.

That’s a problem for me, and I don’t know how to address it.  Right now, I’m resigned to accepting it and learning more.  Maybe it will make sense later.  Or maybe it will be my generation that works to create this change in the system.  I suppose we will just see.

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