Thinking Outside the Gender Box
Posted: On WitchVox April 3rd. 2005
Gender polarity can be a highly charged subject among modern practitioners of magick and Witchcraft. It seems that because we inherently understand that the universe exists as movement between chaos and order, the polarization of apparent opposites comes naturally. However, a key to wisdom is attained through an understanding that creation lies between these extremes, not in alignment with one or the other. As such, an exploration of gender identity can be a tremendous source of healing and personal empowerment for neo-Pagans.
Neo-Pagans often strive to break through typical gender role stereotypes, only to find themselves faced with the same old "man hunts -- woman stays at home" imagery inherited from mainstream society. Often we hear that the God is a god of the hunt, a provider, a sexually aggressive force in nature. In contrast, we call upon the Goddess as our mother, as our caregiver who rules by the hearth at the center of home. These are generalizations, of course, and indeed we can trace historical reasons for them. They are also valid archetypal images. Yet in modern times, neo-Pagans are continually challenged to grow and develop their spiritual beliefs by building on prior knowledge, bending and changing. The neo-Pagan path is one of growth and learning, not pedantry. So in exploring our gender identity, neo-Pagans can create and discover new and powerful ways of relating to the divine and to one another.
No other human classification has as much impact upon one's life experience as one's perceived and assigned gender. When a child is born, the first question asked is invariably, "Is it a boy or a girl?" From there, society loads upon the individual a plethora of predetermined expectations for behavior. Any variation in the actual behavior from the assigned behavior for that particular gender is often fiercely discouraged, regardless of the naturalness of its occurrence.
Gender identification is a complex issue. A commonly held belief today is that if one has male genitalia one is male and if one has female genitalia one is female; it's all genetics. So what is the big gender question? The gender question is much more common than most people realize. In approximately one out of every 2000 births, the child is of indeterminate or intersexual identity. Most often the genitals of such children do not appear clearly as male or female. For example, the child may be born with an elongated clitoris looking like a penis, yet without a vaginal opening or testes. The child may be hermaphroditic, having genitals of both male and female types. Pediatric medicine invariably crashes in with surgery in an attempt to alter such children to more closely match the gender role that doctors and parents choose to assign. Certainly when a child's life or health is at risk, surgery is a blessing. Yet in the vast majority of these cases, the surgery is exclusively cosmetic.
Such variation is not the result of genetic defect. Although most of us in today's DNA-savvy world understand a female person as having XX chromosomes and a male person as having XY chromosomes, these chromosomes are not completely responsible for transferring male or female characteristics to a fetus. Most adults do not realize that at the early fetal stage, both genders have the same genitalia. The clitoris and the penis, as well as the ovaries and the testes, start out exactly the same, with the potential to develop into either. After this stage in fetal development, it is the secretion of hormones such as testosterone and adrenaline that trigger development of the genitals as well as other sexual characteristics. A variation in either the production of or the receptivity to such hormones will lead to a variation in genitals and further to a variation in gender identity and psychology. Although not commonly known, it is a fact that there are in society today males with XX chromosomes and females with XY chromosomes.
Gender identity, sexual identity and sexual orientation are terms used to further define one's gender experience. These concepts are not synonymous, nor are they mutually exclusive. Gender identity can be defined as how one sees oneself socially: man, woman or a combination of both. A person may have female genitalia and for all intents and purposes appear female to others, yet still prefer to relate socially to others as a male. Sexual orientation relates to which gender one is erotically attracted to, either a different gender (hetero) , the same gender (homo) or any gender (bi) . Sexual identity relates to how an individual sees oneself physically. For example, an individual may be born male, yet see himself as a female person. Some with this life experience may elect to change their bodies through hormonal treatment and surgery to match their internal sense of self. A person may express any variation of each of these in any combination. To discourage the free expression of identity and orientation by an individual is to impose horrific and often insurmountable burdens of conformity. There is much information on this complex subject outside the scope of this article.
Many individuals who have these types of life experience report that they do not feel they are either a male or a female. In terms of psychological makeup and self-identity, such individuals overwhelmingly report a sense of being a third gender, or somewhere in between the genders.
Examples of the "third gender" concept can be found throughout the history of world cultures. From North America, there were the Cheyenne "he man eh, " the Lakota "winkte" and the Navajo "nadle." Called berdache, or two-spirit, these individuals held a special role in social and religious ritual. From India and neighboring countries are the "hijras, " male transvestites, who are most often homosexual prostitutes. Although widely stigmatized in India today, they are still called upon to perform their ancient ritual function of singing and dancing in a house where a male child has been born. Many hijras claim that they are born with variant genitals, and that this is how they find their calling. Similar ritual transvestites can be found in traditional communities in Korea and Vietnam. Among some African peoples, such as the Zulu, only a transvestite person can perform oracles and other religious function.
Individuals whose natural inclination falls outside their cultural gender assignment have existed in all societies. Many times, such individuals have suffered intense and violent persecution. Joan of Arc, canonized today as a Christian saint, was burned at the stake as a religious heretic, not as a witch as commonly believed. In part, it was due to her insistence that she wear men's clothing that she was executed. Further, she maintained that her transvestitism was a religious duty. She not only dressed as a man but led troops of men into battle and won. During her trial, she was examined by other women to determine her virginity, and it was determined she was a virgin. She clearly had a gender identity outside her culture and physical assignment.
Yet also we have many examples of cultures in which individuals with such identities thrived and often had a special role within their cultures. It would seem that, as such individuals could function between gender roles, perhaps also such individuals could function between the spirit and physical world. So they were often looked to for shamanistic, spiritual, religious and magickal purposes.
Magick and Witchcraft have long been associated with "in-between" places. According to legend, the wise woman or wise man of the village would live at the edge of town, not quite in the wilderness, yet not quite at the center of society. Avalon is said to be just beyond the mist, existing in this world and yet also apart from it. The biosphere of our planet is a thin area along the Earth's surface reaching only the lower atmosphere. We exist between Earth and Sky.
This "in-betweeness" is demonstrated in abstract through our mental processes and spiritual awareness, as well as in physical experience. For example, meditation is a state of keen mental awareness, and yet also one of profound relaxation. The trance state of divination and astral journey can be as spontaneous as a dream, but such a state is an experience of the conscious mind. When we conceptualize a divine presence, people of many different religious backgrounds would likely agree that spirit transcends physical existence.
The basis of modern Wicca shoots clearly from Gerald Gardner, who through a series of publications in the late 1950s legitimized the term. The early Witchcraft movement in 1960s England established that sexual expression was a divine and sacred act, to be celebrated in a religious context. Yet clouded by homophobia, only strict gender role assignment was the norm in most Wicca covens at the time. In the early 1970s when the Craft gathered momentum in the United States among the feminist movement, many found gender role assignment anathema to the core of Craft philosophy that what occurs naturally is, in and of itself, an emanation of the divine.
It is evident that we have a natural and historical context for gender variation among peoples from all times and all cultures. Neo-Paganism celebrates nature. Neo-Paganism is in the spirit of pre-Christian Western culture. It behooves neo-Pagans to welcome gender-variant individuals and to explore their own gender identities. If we are afraid, that is where we must go. That is not to say that individuals comfortable with their gender identities should be pressured outside of their natures, but gender identity is not so clear-cut for any of us. Gender identity is a complex human abstract based on physical and cultural imprinting. We have more freedom for individual growth and expression in our society today than ever. Thinking outside of the gender box can be life enriching and is not a natural handicap.
Some neo-Pagan groups today embrace gender and sexual variance. Among the Radical Fairies group, made up mostly of gay men, individuals typically wear female clothing and celebrate their "feminine side."
A good way to explore gender identity is to hold a ritual "in drag." In such a rite, participants go all out and dress as their opposite gender, or as they would wish to dress as their opposite gender. Likewise, among healthy consenting adults, ritual homoerotic sensual experience can be performed. Same-gender groups can come together and practice noninvasive touch and close body proximity.
An individual may be challenged by such experiences or welcome them. In either case, the learning is invaluable. Again, in society today, no other factor has greater impact upon our life experience than our gender and sexual identity. We should all be comfortable and knowledgeable about something with such deep personal impact on our lives. We do not have to merely accept gender identity as a given but can fully test such constructs. When we do so, we find we can truly be our own person. We can incorporate the renowned wisdom inscribed over the entrance to the temple of Apollo in ancient Delphi, Greece: "Know thyself." The neo-Pagan, the magician, the Witch, all who dance between the worlds, let your dance carry you between the genders as well.
For more on these topics, see the following sources for this article:
Sex and Spirit, by Clifford Bishop
Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture, by Arthur Evans
Blossom of Bone: Reclaiming the Connections between Homoeroticism and the
Sacred, by Randy P. Conner
"Is It a Boy? Is It a Girl?" Discovery Sunday, Discovery Channel International Foundation for Gender Education, www.ifge.org
Copyright: This article originally appeared in "Widdershins" http://www.widdershins.org/vol7iss4/05.htm
copyright by the author