Again, the Chapel of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Brooklyn was packed to the rafters by enthusiastic Pagans, eager for the second installment of the Pagan Way Anniversary Lecture Series. Inspired by Michael Lloyd’s descriptions in Bull of Heaven: the Mythic Life of Eddie Buczynski and the Rise of the New York Pagan, of the original Pagan Way Lecture Series sponsored by Herman Slater forty years ago, in November 1972, at the same First UU church: Pagan community leader Gary Suto conceived the idea of an anniversary event. He contacted Rev. Jude Geiger of the First Unitarian Universalist Brooklyn, and organized the series with the assistance of Brian Brewer and Matthew Sawicki (in some rare cases, showcasing Pagans actually present at the 1972 talks), in a collaboration between the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn; the New York Pagan Alliance; and the NYC Pagan community. Very excited by this exercise in community-building, education, and outreach, NYC Pagans are making these lectures the rave of Pagan Town. Tuesday, November 20, 2012, saw Lady Rhea, Witch-Queen of New York and the co-founder of the Minoan Sisterhood, and Gary Suto, High Priest in the Minoan Brotherhood and the founder of the New York Open Gay Men’s Pagan Circle, deliver a talk entitled “Male/ Female Polarities in Paganism: Do We Need Them?”
Mr. Suto began by reading from Herman Slater’s Book of Pagan Rituals (Volume 1), written in 1978: “We give honor to many Gods in the Pagan Way. It must be immediately realized that these many Gods are the Many Forms of the One God, the great force that lies beyond all creation…The apparent form of the One that we may understand, is the Truth of polarity. Everything is dual; everything has two poles; everything has its pair of opposites. Opposites are identical in nature, but different in degree. The great truth we express in the form of the male/ female aspect of polarity, the God and Goddess. In terms of a creation theory, the One is both male and female, being all things. As creation comes about through the conjunction of the male and the female, the One immediately may be represented by a second level consisting of male and female figures, the God and Goddess. The God and Goddess are not mere symbols of the God, except as everything is symbolic. They are representatives in the physical universe of principles that are as near to the One that we may experience and still remain human.”
In short (as Mr. Suto pointed out), one of the initial great controversies in the early Craft and Paganism, with its intense emphasis on female/ male polarity, challenged by early-scene homosexuals like Herman Slater and Eddie Buczynski, and embraced by LGBT Pagans today: the fluidity and Magickal Power of gender-variant identity.
A couple of inadvertent, sometimes quite tragic, events coincided with this second lecture in the Anniversary Series: what no one quite realized at the time of the lecture’s scheduling (as Rev. Jude noted in his Introduction), was that Nov. 20th was also the date of the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, honored in vigils the world over in memory of the many Transgendered Individuals across the globe who have suffered injustice, brutality, and even murder for their gender-variant status. It was the consensus of the assembled that this coincidence in events, between the Transgender Day of Remembrance and this NYC Pagan lecture addressing a gender-fluid Pagan future was an interesting intercession of the universe. As well (as Rev. Jude noted), the Ali Forney Center of NYC, which provides emergency housing for homeless LGBTQ youth, had its in-take shelter decimated by Hurricane Sandy. In an assistance to the desperate efforts to get this vital program up-and-running again, a collection is being taken for the Ali Forney Center at each lecture presented; Rev. Jude will let us know at the end how much has been raised. Again, the coincidence of this tragedy and the timing of this Pagan Talk on the frequently Sacred nature of Homoerotic Spirituality struck many.
In her opening remarks, Lady Rhea first recalled growing up as a good Italian Catholic girl in the Bronx, in the ’50s and ’60s. She remembered a girl who was- – so gender-non-conforming in some deeply impossible-to-hide way, that she was ostracized throughout the neighborhood. Lady Rhea remembered the courage that she felt, the day that she gathered strength enough to say “hello” to this girl, in a humane and decent manner. According to Lady Rhea, this girl later killed herself, because she couldn’t handle the hatred, abuse, contempt, and violence directed against her for being “gender-different.”
After this sobering introduction, Lady Rhea went on to recall herself as a twenty-year-old, a nice Italian Catholic girl from the Bronx, who met Herman Slater when she wandered into The Warlock Shop one day. Herman explained to her the Pagan Way Meetings held at Lady Vivienne’s home each Sunday afternoon, to provide a place for Pagan Community. He invited her to attend. “Will there be Satanists there?” was 20 year-old Lady Rhea’s response. According to Lady Rhea, “No, toots,” was Herman Slater’s answer.
Well, Lady Rhea showed up at Lady Vivienne’s home (Lady Vivienne was, by the way, in attendance for the lecture), “scared to death,” as she put it (yet somehow, she showed up, didn’t she?) As Lady Rhea said, she walked in, and never walked out.
A Priest met her at the door with a flamboyant “Well, HELLLOOOO!!!” She remembers that she saw a Circle cast for the first time; and it transformed her life. She never looked back, she said: it was nothing but forward for her, after that- and now it’s 40 years later for her, a Witch-Queen of NYC. (She later attended the original Pagan Way lectures, where she saw Eddie Buczynski present on his Welsh Tradition of Witchcraft.)
She described that period (the early ’70s; the same period brought to life in Michael Lloyd’s Bull of Heaven) as one of the “most Magickal Times in NYC”; “there was literally Magick flying all over the place.” But what impressed her the most was that (at least in the bohemian Witch-Circles in which she fell), it was Gay and Straight hanging out together- a revolutionary thing, in the recent wake of Stonewall and the start of Gay Liberation. In learning about other Gods in this new and liberated environment, Lady Rhea learned new aspects of herself and new ways that it was possible to be. And yet- it is conceded, now- there was a resistance amongst “Traditional” Witches at the time to consider Gays as “equal” Witches, so heavy was the emphasis on “Female/ Male” polarity in the Craft. As Lady Rhea explained it, Traditional Gardnerian Circles at the time were very much “Man/ Woman/ Man/ Woman,” so the Homosexual or Bisexual Witch or Seeker who showed up was obliged to squeeze themselves into this alien paradigm (mirroring, ironically, the greater society’s demands that Gays surrender to gender-conformity).
For Out-and-Proud Homosexuals like Eddie Buczynski and Herman Slater, this Pagan marginalization was frequently too much to bear, and so Eddie began to strike off on his own, creating the Gay Magickal Traditions that did not exist for him. Lady Rhea recalled Eddie as the “most embracing and inspiring of teachers,” telling her that she must be a “Priest not just to Pagans, but to all People.” She noted that after Eddie formed the Minoan Brotherhood (a Mystery Tradition for Gay Men), he invited her and her lover Carol Bulzone to co-create the Minoan Sisterhood. Lady Rhea explained how the Sisterhood was open to all women, Lesbian or Straight or Transexual, and shared some delightful stories about the Brotherhood and the Sisterhood coming together for the Great Sabbats, with the Brothers performing plays for the Sisters. “For the first time in New York,” she said, “there was a Coven for Gay Men, and a Coven for Gay Women.”
A Buddhist as well as a Witch, Lady Rhea ended her initial remarks with the story of Tara, “She Who Saves.” An aspect of the Buddha contemplating earthly incarnation, Tara determined that She would be born on earth a woman as opposed to a man. The first incarnation of Buddha-as-a-Woman, Tara demonstrates the Buddhist wisdom, that “these ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ appellations are hollow,” they are “dressings” to the Sacred Divinity, and as such, a distraction from True Enlightenment.
Gary Suto then began his remarks, noting that since the earliest times, and in cultures across the globe, gender-variant individuals had often been accorded special status for an innate incorporation of both the Female and the Male, and that Homoerotic relationships could be considered as Sacred as those of the Hetero-Normative variety. Mr. Suto referred to the works of Alain Danielou, a Frenchman who lived in India with his male lover. For two decades, he studied the culture and language of India, assisting in the translation of ancient texts and documenting ancient temples. (His book Gods of Love and Ecstasy examines the similarities between Hindu Shiva and Greek Dionysos.) With his lover, a professional photographer able to document this, Mr. Danielou discovered many Homoerotic statues and reliefs; tragically, however, according to his book Queer Myth, Symbol, and Spirit, a campaign was conducted throughout India from the ’20s to the ’40s, “to erase all positive references to transgenderism and same-sex desire in Indian, especially Hindu, culture.” Squads were sent “to destroy the erotic representations, particularly those depicting homoeroticism and lesbianism, carved into Hindu temples dating from the eleventh century, as part of a program to encourage both Indians and non-Indians to believe that such behaviors were the result of foreign, namely Euro-Western, influence.” A culture that (according to Mr. Danielou) could embrace the Homoerotic as well as the Heteroerotic, had the Homoerotic vandalized beyond recognition.
Mr. Suto next addressed the well-known Homoerotic proclivities of the Greek Gods, inviting those in the audience to share what Homoerotic Hellenic relationships they could think of; “Apollo and Hyacinthus” was a quick response. Mr. Suto then introduced Blossom of Bone: Reclaiming the Connections Between Homoeroticism and the Sacred, by Randy P. Conner (generally considered by most LGBT Pagans to be the most excellent source on Sacred Homosexuality and Transgenderism currently available). Noting that “no matter how hard some people try, they can not eradicate centuries of spiritual practice,” Mr. Suto pointed out that, “Every continent has Gods in their ancient civilization, and every civilization has had worshippers that varied from being heterosexual.” Mr. Suto presented some of the more notable instances in Mr. Conner’s book, including his belief that at some point in the Paleolithic, “certain shamans came to be looked upon as individuals belonging to a third or alternative gender,” representing (to quote Joseph Campbell) a “sphere of spiritual power transcending the male-female polarity.”
Mr. Suto covered Mr. Conner’s account of the Galli, the worshippers of the Goddess Cybele and Her consort Attis, Whose cult extended from Anatolia to Rome. The Galli (some of them known to us by name) were noted for the gender-variation in their appearance and behavior, and appear to have engaged in same-sex eroticism. Citing Danielou and Conner, Suto considered “queer, bisexual, transgender, and cross-dressing Gods across all Pantheons.” In Egyptian and Hindu mythologies, “reproduction is not an activity limited to heterosexual couples, at least not in the realm of the Gods”: hence Set’s giving birth to Horus’ child, Set generally “depicted as a gender-variant male,” associated with the lettuce plant and the flint knife (also associated with eunuchs). In Welsh mythology, we see the story of Math, who transforms two men into animals of opposite gender, causing them to mate and reproduce. In the “very masculine religions of Santeria and the Norse pantheon,” we find cross-dressing stories featuring Chango and Thor.
Inanna’s Blessing to Him-Her: “I shall harbor you and your kind, you shall be my children, and I shall make you my priests- When you robe yourselves in my robes, I shall dance in your feet and sing in your throats.” One of the more charming gender-variant stories that Mr. Suto shared, was the Sumerian tale of Asushunamir, “Him-Her, a being that is both Male and Female, whose face is brilliant and is clothed in stars,” created by the God Enki to be a companion to the Goddess Inanna.
For those who have never had the pleasure of meeting either Lady Rhea or Gary Suto, not only are they both knowledgable and thoughtful, but they are also both very amusing. Once tragic stories of Gay teen suicides and the vandalization of Homoerotic temple statuary were over, their talk was frequently quite humorous and fun. Lady Rhea in particular has a wonderfully sly Italian wit, and brought the house down with some of her punch-lines. (“So she hates me now” was the killer-conclusion to one story involving a kind-of well-known Witch, who is apparently still a little “hung-up” on strict “Female/ Male” definitions.) As Lady Rhea and Gary have known each other for years (Lady Rhea initiated Gary into Eddie Buczynski’s Wica Tradition), watching them together was a bit like enjoying a Pagan “Say goodnight, Gracie” comedy-routine.
As the evening’s conclusion, Lady Rhea led a meditation for those who didn’t “fit in,” but whose struggles to make a space for themselves in which they did “fit in” made it easier for those who came after them. Lady Rhea made the interesting observation that, as a Lesbian in New York State, “I have more rights than as a Wiccan.” (Lady Rhea married her wife of twenty years as soon as Gay Marriage was legal in New York.) “Because we [meaning, Gay people] fought for equality, and fought for our rights, Gays and Lesbians now have more respect than Wiccans and Pagans.” Community Priestess Courtney Weber offered her opinion that Transgenderism will be the next Mystery confronted by, and incorporated into, modern Paganism; Lady Rhea pointed out that a Male/ Female dynamic was not necessary for Magickal Ritual, as we each have within ourselves the Divine Female and the Divine Male, indeed, the entire Universe. Gary discussed some of his work and experience in building Gay Male Magickal Community in NYC, as well as LGBT Magickal Pagan Community. Mr. Suto finished by asking the audience to consider what, if any, things they ever did to challenge other people’s gender expectations, such as wearing a bright, “feminine” color if one was a “man,” for instance. “Do you think it might make you freer, if you did,” he asked.
Thanks to Rev. Jude of the First UU Church, Brooklyn, and to Gary Suto, Brian Brewer, Matthew Sawicki, and the New York Pagan Alliance, for putting these wonderful events together, and to the presenters who turn out to share their stories and wisdom!