Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Ancestral Home Calling


'It will be forever
my sea bird turn
and dip
horizon call
in cold air that
fossilises the ossuary
of my mind
like old seaweed,
chalk boned, this land,
hag-stone hearted,
just a taste
on my ancestor's tongues
dissolved, like salt,
into my tongue
till I am saliva-rich
with all their dead tastes.
A ninth wave carries
pebble song,
sea-grit,
half-remembered gods,
worn smooth glass,
lost hairpin,
dreams.'

-Lee Morgan, 2013

Monday, November 4, 2013

Why Call It 'Traditional' Witchcraft?

I know, it sounds weird to anyone who knows me, right? We don't really come across as 'traditional' people in the normal sense. I've had a lot of questions about why I still use the term 'Traditional Witchcraft' so I thought I'd explain.

Most people associate the term 'traditional' with traditional values. But I keep the term 'traditional' because I believe our link to the past is more complicated than past = conservative, future = liberal. I don't see our world as some kind of straightforward evolution toward perfection as the term 'progressive' would suggest. Many of the values of indigenous cultures, for instance, would appear very 'radical' by comparison to today's mores and yet they existed deep into the past.

 I believe there are positives and negatives to the past, just as there are with the present world. Some things we have to learn from the past and some things are better today. The problem is that the past is often high-jacked by people with a conservative agenda.

Conservatives like to think of themselves as 'conserving' the best of the past but most conservatism isn't actually like that. Instead it serves to protect entrenched patterns of privilege that protect elites but do little to support the ancient folk-ways and traditions that could be seen to carry many of the wisdoms of the past.

I believe folk-wisdom from the past to be highly valuable. I see in it a kind of collective wisdom that belongs to no one person but is the accumulated wisdom of many generations. In our highly individualist Western society (once again, individualism has both positive and negative manifestations in our world) we usually come to everything from the past with an unconscious kind of arrogance about us. An assumption that we today represent the pinnacle of knowledge and wisdom that mankind has ever obtained too and everything that came before exists solely to be ransacked for our use before we've taken the time to understand it. I don't believe that traditional magical practices should be encountered on their own terms (at least initially) because I believe that a magic worker from the past was necessarily better at what they did than I am, but because I believe that all the accumulated wisdom behind a practice passed down for generations knows better than I do!

This is why I believe in taking time to study before jumping into a practice. It isn't because I believe that intellect trumps experiential immersion or intuition, it's more because I see this as a way of paying respect to the material I'm working with. Studying the magical practices and beliefs of the past is my form of homage to that collective wisdom. Yes, I have some pretty revolutionary ideas when it comes to current politics and social values, no I don't think that my ability to use the internet and read lots of books makes me a stronger sorcerer than someone born into a culture who had a fully reddened magical practices passed down to them at their parent's knee which carried the accumulated, unbroken wisdom of countless generations! And let's face it, even if it did turn out that we 'knew better' it wouldn't do most of us modern Westerners any bloody harm to have engaged in that exercise in humility.

This of course doesn't mean that I think everything was better in the past. Now is certainly the best time to be a woman, queer, or one of numerous racial groups that are looked on far more positively in the West today. It may occur to some people to ask why we should expect 'wisdom' from people that held all these other unenlightened views, beat their wives with sticks (no bigger than the thumb for the Victorian lady, thanks) executed homosexuals and owned slaves. A good question if you asked it! To which I have two main answers.

One is that power abuses primarily belong, in any era, to the groups in power. The folk magic practices that find their way into my 'Traditional Witchcraft' were seldom developed by the groups actually engaging in creating that world or benefiting from its spoils. They themselves were usually the rural poor and often used magic to try to gain some power in a world where they had little. But! (I hear you say) there is a significant contribution from learned magical traditions in modern Traditional Witchcraft, what about them! Why are they so wise? Well, to be honest, I don't think that the same generalisations I've made about folk magic can be extended to a tradition once it is passed through books. I am primarily interested in the learned material that filtered back into folk magic, the little snippets of grimoire magic that were absorbed into cunning practice. If it didn't filter into folk magic and remained in a grimoire I tend to class it as 'ceremonial magic' rather than witchcraft or cunning craft. This being said, the question still must be addressed.

Although I do believe our views on these matter are better and more humane than those  held a couple of hundred years ago, I don't believe that this is due to any fundamental superiority on our behalf. Our forebears led much tougher lives than we do today, most of us can't even imagine what it would be like to live so near the knife's edge as many did and I think it's pretty clear that living a gentler life, not being brutalised yourself, helps in the development of compassion. If ever since childhood you were witnessing hangings and knew that you could starve at any time and there'd be no welfare to help you out, then that would significantly effect how much you felt you had the luxury to care for others. And I do think luxury is the right word. Today we feel secure enough in a lot of places to put thought into how people are doing in other parts of the world. Some of our ancestors had enough to worry about on the home front. They might not have started rallies over in Wales to end slavery in the Americas but they didn't have the TV and internet and they probably did far more to help out their neighbours than most of us do today.

It is also noteworthy that today we do a good job at tolerating inhumanity in return for comforts (just as our forebears did) as long as it's kept out of our line of sight and perpetrated in the Third World. So, in a nutshell, our ancestors weren't perfect and neither are we, but I believe the very harshness of their reality by comparison to today is precisely why they knew their shit when it came to magic. There are also plenty of things about the way magic was practiced traditionally that have their own radicalism about them when compared to today's culture. Let me explain...

History, as we know, is written but he victor. Groups that have power use narratives of history to hold onto that power. Conservative viewpoints will choose a highly selective vision of the past to cling to when they push their 'traditional values'. My vision of what classes as 'traditional' in witchcraft is just as selective. The only difference is that I'm not exactly part of a dominant power elite and I am also entirely self conscious and honest about what I'm doing. Yes, I select aspects of the past I wish to honour as 'traditional', such as the magical culture, and reject others, such as the persecution of homosexuality. No problem getting that out there at all.

It is acknowledged that history is written by the victor, but we seldom acknowledge how every group, ideology or religion does its own myth making. We all need myth. Myth is part of what gives life meaning. It's only bad if we pass it off as history and thus deny alternate stories.

I've often heard Traditional Craft be accused of a kind of 'mythic history', because some people claim that 'witchcraft' was always a negative and that even Cunning Folk would reject the association with this pejorative word. So, therefore, any association with the word is by nature modern rather than traditional.

I have a couple of problems with that argument. One is that, yes, witchcraft was a word that described a capital crime in the past. So it's almost a no-brainer to say that people weren't all lining up to have that word associated with them. To give so much priority to whether or not they owned a particular word is to ignore the richness of the myth that goes with the word. I would be more interested in who was sending the fetch, going to weird spirit meetings with animal and part-animal others, meeting spirits at crossroads stiles and wells, casting spells, collecting bones and brewing potions and consciousness altering ointments and prophesying events, and entering the Hollow Hills to commune with the faeries, rather than who was brave (or stupid) enough to slap the word 'witch' on what they were doing.

My second problem is I think this argument can potentially ignore the fact that all history is to some extent mythic and creative. The history that is accepted by the establishment is always a partial picture, as is the history accepted by the fringe-dwellers like myself. This is inevitable because we only ever have partial records and the vast majority of actual truth is lost to time. What aspects we choose to emphasis will always make a big difference to picture that emerges. As witches, however, we are often more self-aware when it comes to the Stories that define our lives. We need myth as much as we need history, but we cannot afford to let someone else pass myth off as history without our awareness.

In summation, I use the term 'traditional' because I believe that we have things to learn from the magical practices of our forebears. I believe this to be the case because these people lived close to the land, they lived generally in one land all their lives and were born into connection with place and people, the practices and even just the beliefs about the spirit-world they were passed is not just the wisdom of one or two people but of potentially thousands and these people often had to rely on magic for life and death matters. I don't believe that people who were living so close to subsistence would have wasted time on practices that didn't get them immediate practical results. This stuff was tried and tested in the fire of immediate human need. 

This even goes for the use of Christian or heretical Christian motifs and symbols. I believe they used them because they worked for them in some way, or that those ideas were close enough to something older that it made an appropriate gloss. Before I reject something outright from a knee-jerk response I'd rather respect it enough to try it and see why it was used. I don't believe they were stupid and impressionable or didn't know what they were doing when semi-Christian folk magic developed in Europe. I think they were instead a pragmatic and omnivorous magical people/s who absorbed useful things but at a much slower and steadier rate than modern cultural appropriation and eclecticism.

I use the word 'witchcraft' in there with 'traditional' because I believe it's the best word in English to convey what we do. I believe it conveys the sense of the ecstatic, night-flying, spirit-walking, animal-turning, hedge-crossing, spell-casting, spirit-talking, dead-seeing, curse-throwing, root-working, herbal healing, magical practitioner. Whether or not people wanted to avoid getting killed and might not have used it in the past doesn't erase the whole picture of the history of the word and what it's come to mean today, and I think that whole picture is important.

Images from: http://www.templeilluminatus.com/group/the_witches_kitchen?groupUrl=the_witches_kitchen&xg_source=activity&id=6363372%3AGroup%3A1747624&page=3




Monday, September 2, 2013

Can Witchcraft be Revolutionary?


Today I want to ponder a question that to some people might seem too obvious to require much pondering: can the practice of witchcraft have revolutionary potential?

I have usually been of the opinion that there is something inherently 'revolutionary' about witchcraft, in the sense that by its nature it is always of the outside, the Other, something that stirs up and makes breaks in the status quo. Unless one saw some kind of value in disturbing the balance of power, what would be the point reclaiming a word that has traditionally had negative connotations? In claiming the word 'witch' there exists an inherent willingness to challenge the validity of that negative and question powerful people and institutions who gave the word those connotations.

This being said, considering we are talking about the 'owning' of a word that very few others have wanted to own historically we must be open to questions. Religious witchcraft (as in Wicca and other witchcraft traditions that class witchcraft as a religion) has built up such a strong mythos around the idea of the witch as a sympathetic rebel figure that it seems initially difficult to argue with such a premise. But because I think the topic is worth discussing I will start by tableing my own assumptions and premises.

When it comes to the way something like witchcraft and politics (and by that I mean power relations of any kind) intersect I believe three things very strongly:

1. Forces that many consider 'unseen' or even 'subtle' (though both these terms could be contested) have a real and tangible effect on events in this world.

2. Whilst these forces and powers that might be deemed 'beyond reason' are potent and real, ideas also matter intensely. Ideas do not just occupy a cold, calculating space, they are capable of inflaming the whole person when engaged with dynamically.

3. Massive and unprecedented change/evolution is always possible at any time no matter how late in the game. Possibilities are infinite and sorcery attempts to increase the odds in a particular direction.

Now as these are my beliefs on the matter they are also the 'premise' behind which I come up with my conclusions. I point this out because a great deal of argument goes on via the inter-web, some of it very self defeating and defeatist where people reach the conclusion that nothing positive can be done to affect the direction in which the world is heading. Of course those conclusions are influenced strongly by an unspoken premise. If your premise is that possibilities are limited by what you yourself have witnessed during your life time then your ability to reach any other conclusion is severely limited. Your ability to sorcerously exploit possibility is also curtailed.

So, in a nutshell I am not an optimist, I'm a sorcerer. And I don't like to mentally close down an avenue before I've even tried to exploit it. It's just not good business.

With those facts about me noted we return to the original question, a question that I believe contains two sides. One is whether witchcraft is inherently revolutionary and the other of whether it has the potential to be revolutionary.

To begin with point one I think the answer will largely depend on what we mean by 'revolutionary' and by witchcraft. If by revolutionary we mean something that can be directly shown to contribute to fomenting revolution and overthrowing power structures, then probably not. Witchcraft by its nature is not something that works in the open or creates causal evidence that can be studied by historians. Historically speaking witchcraft was malefic magic, that is, the practice of sorcery that was deemed evil. Now I include the word 'deemed' advisedly because the difference between an act of evil, an act of self defence, an act of vigilantism or even political overthrow (I'm thinking here of the North Berwick Coven's attempt to sink King James' ship) is pretty much which side you're on. The definition of 'evil' as 'to do harm' is frankly ridiculous in a time when accused witches were routinely being executed and all manner of legal harm doing was openly tolerated. There were in that era, as there are today, forms of harm doing that we consider positive and socially acceptable. Who gets to define what kind of harm will be considered evil and what will be considered positive depends very much on who is in power.

For instance, a cunning man who strikes back or out at another magical practitioner deemed a witch, is seen as engaging in 'curse reversal' or 'curse breaking', although there are many stories of those acts doing harm to the witch they are seldom classed as malefic, because by nature of being classed as absolute evil harm done to the witch is placed in a different context socially. What classes as maleficium and therefore what classes as a witch is highly relative to the power structure in that society.

So in short the definition of witch as a performer of evil magic and cunning folk as being those who counter-curse and cure, very much rests on structures of power that are used to organise harm-doing in a society and regulate when it is acceptable. To be a witch was to immediately fall down on the side of 'any harm you do to others is unacceptable by nature, any good you do to others cannot be defined as good and any harm done to you does not class as  harmful.' This is the ultimate position of non-privelege!

Could occupying that place in society in the past have been a revolutionary act? Well, other than the North Berwick Coven's attempt on the King's life and Isobel Gowdie's claims to have struck out at the family of the local Lord there aren't many examples that come to mind of revolutionary behaviour in historical British Witchcraft if you take the macro vision of revolution. But if instead you think of 'revolutionary' in terms of regular, small but perhaps potent countering of the dominant ideology through one's daily behaviour, then many people accused of witchcraft and even a lot of cunning folk would qualify as revolutionary in some of their actions. They would be so simply through offering an alternative to mainstream medicinal and religious consolations.

The degree of 'revolutionary' content to being a witch in historical times would have to be said to increase dramatically if someone actually owned the word 'witch' for themselves. At the very moment of doing so they were implicitly questioning the basis behind who gets to decide what harm-acts are harmful, who gets to decide who and what is evil, and placing themselves outside of the dominant paradigm of their era.

Which leads us to the question: how revolutionary is claiming the word 'witch' today? I personally claim the word for a host of reason even though I'm aware that many of my magical practitioner forebears may have rejected the term for obvious reasons. I claim the word because I believe it would have been applied to me in the past and because I question the basis upon which harm-doing was given value or negative value in the past. I also claim it because I believe that mythic symbols of great power and resonance still exist behind the figure of the witch and all the things associated with witchcraft in the popular mind. I also believe that it is right that the word still carries some discomfort with it, I believe that true hedge riding between the worlds ought to make people uncomfortable. It ought to come along with such a feeling of ambiguity that one isn't sure whether that person ought to be trusted due to our difficulty with classifying them - these to me are signs of power.

To claim the word 'witch' under those circumstances I therefore believe is a revolutionary act. But to claim the word but try to make it acceptable is simply to pull it within the hedge and make witchcraft mainstream rather than radicalise anything. For this reason I do not believe that witchcraft forms the suitable basis for a mass movement. But if you return to my premises above you will see that I don't believe one needs to organise a mass movement of visible individuals to affect outcomes in this world, I believe in the power of unseen forces and ideas and in those areas occultists can be very powerful. Though few will ever recognise or be able to quantify our influence.

Making a group Other in some way, is always a system of control, it allows what is Same to exist, without the Othered group there can be no Same and so human social cohesion has tended to rest on this brutal process of exclusion. I don't think this is something that can be changed at its heart, every civilisation will always put certain behaviours or people outside its walls. It could be said however that the measure of a civilisation is how many things it feels the need to Other, how it treats its Other and how we manage our fear in relation to it. It is natural for humans to fear what is Other, but it is us as a society who decides how we will respond to that. So in this sense I certainly don't want to be persecuted for being a witch, but nor do I want the word to conjure images of unicorns, glitter and group hugs, because then it will have lost its revolutionary edge and jumped inside the hedge of the acceptable.

It could be said that we live in an era that needs its witches and its occultists, because what we need now is ideas and unseen forces to move the hearts of men and women towards change, ideas and experiences that catch the human soul on fire. I believe that witchcraft can still be revolutionary today, not because I think it should be a mass movement where lots of people become witches, but because the ideas, the art, and the seeming intangible influences that come forth from the shadows have always had their part to play in questioning and challenging (implicitly or explicitly) the dominant ideologies and power nexus and the all important perspective of providing a glimpse of the world as seen through the eyes of the Other. What if we could give the forest guardian or the faerie who lives inside an ancient oak scheduled for destruction a voice in this world? We would of course be laughed at and mocked in the same way the very concept of faeries has been trivialised ever since our post-industrial minds stopped feeling healthy fear of Nature. Mockery is simply another form of Othering which often today takes the place of hatred, when we attempt to give voice to that which is silent from the perspective of the majority.

That nexus is more complex, the forms of Othering inflicted on those who attempt to step outside that consensual reality nexus are different from the past, yet insidious, but as sorcerers I believe we have all the tools to see through them to the core of their nature and combat them. I believe our ability to act and the partially hidden but still revolutionary nature of the calling of witchcraft remains undimmed.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Haunted Books



When I first set out to write ‘Wooing theEcho’ I thought I was just writing a simple book. My conscious aim was to write a book about magic that would leave people wondering: could this really happen? I wanted the kind of magic that the book would deal with to be the kind that an occultist would recognize as within the realms of ‘radical possibility’. Rather than escaping to a world where the impossible happens, I wanted the reader to come away finding reality itself more magical.

The story was meant to be about a young man struggling with a haunting, trying to understand his ghosts, and finding magic, real magic, as an antidote to his feelings of alienation. Over several books the story would chart his growth and development as a person and as a student of the occult arts. Kind of like a much more adult version of Harry Potter, -except with magic that would border more closely on being ‘believable’. So of course I drew on real esoteric traditions, including folkloric witchcraft to create this suspension of disbelief. There are a lot of modern movies and books about witches, werewolves and vampires but all of them so fanciful they are not meant to encourage the audience to believe they are meant only for escapism. Not only that, most of them have lost touch with the richness of our true folkloric heritage.

In short I wanted to write a very adult faerie tale – taking us back into the deep roots of European folkloric traditions of witchcraft and away from the twee quality that the supernatural genre has acquired of late.

Throughout the books there are numerous descriptions of magical workings and rituals, including scenes where various gods and spirits appear. As I went along I began to link certain characters to the witchcraft gods such as the Witch Master, Dame Fate and the Rose Queen. Quite soon something began to happen a little reminiscent of the uncanny incidents ascribed to the ‘Scottish Play’. The events in the books began to impact events in this world. My experience with writing these books has opened my eyes to the space of the uncanny that stories occupy in our lives everyday, like water to a fish we are swimming in stories every day and we forget to notice them. Narrative interpenetrates every aspect of our lives and all forms of real magic depend on it or utilise its power. 

It wasn’t long before the story, its characters and underlying mythic themes came to life in very tangible ways for me. Not only did I start to dream about the characters who would inform me of what their ‘future’ should hold, but other friends dreamed about them and sometimes it wasn’t easy to tell if they were the character from the book or being ‘gloved’ by a spirit or god they were aligned to mythically in the book. The characters have become what is known in the western Occult tradition as ‘egregores’ or thought-forms.

 Many of the rituals in the books come from real life witchcraft and all of the content is drawn from genuine folklore so I guess it’s hardly surprising that these books are haunted. Since I began writing them we have experienced people turning up with the same name and fetch animal as one of the characters or spontaneously revealing the same secrets as something that no one else had read which I’d already written. The synchronicities have kept on coming for over a decade now, as these thought-forms have continued to gather power. It is now time to share these stories with a wider audience.

Recently a friend experienced a semi-initiatory vision of great importance brought on by a response to reading something that occurred in one of the books in this series. It seems that I have knocked at a door, offered an egregore-mask of types to spirits and they’ve answered, driving the direction of the story to their own ends. It is an exercise in what I call 'story sorcery'.

All I can say is that I realize now that the Christopher Penrose books are haunted. I have a lot of experience as an occultist but I’ve never done a working of this scope, a working that has so far spanned over a decade, beginning when I was twenty-one and stretching into my thirties. When book nine comes to its conclusion I don’t even know what shape it will take, but I do know that whatever it wants to be is happening through me in the same way that children happen through you, you don’t get to control them or create them in your own image. You just have to hold them and provide for them and then step back to let them flower.

This is my statement about the kind of 'story sorcery' that this series of books represents:

As an artist what you aim to do is loosen parameters so that you can show your audience into the antechamber of a new way of being. You aim to induct them, slowly at first, into new ways of being so that their scope of ways of knowing joy is made wider. You don’t do this in a shy or inhibited, cynical manner, you do it with gusto and an open heart. Or why do it at all?

We The Artists, those of The Art, are not here to change and replace your ways of being or your modes of pleasure. We are here to show you all the options, the many shades of delights tinged with agonies that exist around the edges and the shadows of things. Without us and the pleasures and dangers of genuine Art our society will lose its colours and subside into beige shades of mass-produced twee.

This is my invitation to you to come and sample The Haunted Books of the Christopher Penrose series. 

Photograph by Rebecca Flynn

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Witchcraft and Personal Power

I recently read a wonderful blog post on 'shining' and the way we see what it means to shine in our society (found here). It got me thinking about power in the Craft. Now, for anyone who is familiar with my work they will know that I use the word 'power' to mean what most people mean by 'energy' - occult potency, vitality, the ability to affect change, as well as many of the things that are usually meant by the word 'power'. What it very seldom means when I use it, however, is power over someone or something else. Now before you think that this is leading to a whiter than white 'how I'm so nice and never sorcerously affect anyone without their permission' sort of post let me explain my reasons for this statement.

In reading the above mentioned blog post I started thinking about why I consider power to be something that one cannot gain via domination of someone else and where essentially I think it comes from. I realised that what was at the heart of this belief for me was not morality but a belief that all sorcery of true power must reach beyond the confines of the ego. When we compare ourselves to somebody else, deciding we are lesser or greater than them, when we attempt to gain control over them or to place ourselves as someone else's inferior we are acting within socially defined human constructs. A witch does not draw their essential power, or essential sense of self from any agreed on human convention or structure. One agrees to participate in many such structures, one may even recognise some of them as valid structures, but one does not gain one's fundamental power from them.

A witch's power has an Otherworldly source, and therefore to preoccupy ourselves with dominating others in this world, in petty verbal disputes for instance, or even by taking pride in intimidating others is to lose focus of this fact. To worry about feeling less special or important than someone else, even perhaps resenting them for their personal power, luck force, or gifts, is all to source our power from finite mundane sources. By doing so we have immediately bought into a power structure was created by society and will likely have many limitations.

In such a context there will always be jostling, a sense of there not being enough, a sense of competition, of others as merely something that gets in the way of you obtaining the quantity of someone else's time or admiration that you might like. But when one sources one's power from the infinite expanses of power that exist outside of the ego cage and all temporal power constructs, one does not have to win a race against some other person, there is only one's self and how well one goes about becoming that. The true achievement of the occultist is the becoming of one's true self.

A witch's journey is never to impress someone else or to be better than someone else, such things are at best distractions. A witch's way of finding power is far more mysterious and hidden. There is a certain something that he or she is meant to become, a blossoming that is occurring within, a fate they must be true to. How they perform in relation to that inner truth is what matters, not how they perform in relation to some other person. This is the true power, the true centre that cannot be assailed by others. This is the power that cannot be moved or broken. Even if the whole of society were to turn on that person as one and decry them as wrong and flawed they could not be moved from their centre of power. No human being ever bestowed it on them, and so no human can ever take it away.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Words that Gender

Art by Zhan Ni Li
This week a dear friend asked me which gender pronoun I would like to be known as, and my eyes filled up with tears. He wasn't asking me if I felt the need to force everyone to obey this decree, come out all over again, run a 'take two' on the seven layers of hell required to get everyone to swap over in the first place, or the sickening comparative ease with which everyone reverted when I went off hormones. He was just asking how I would like to be known by him. When it was that simple I found the question startlingly easy to answer.

Although not living as officially transgender anymore I've been through all the key experiences, and back again (for complex reasons). And the deep sense of relief I felt at the idea that I could simply elect to define my own identity in relation to this friend without embarking on the epic social trials involved in asserting this identity across the board made me start thinking about a few things.

I have realised for a while that gender queer people (and I tend to prefer the more ambiguous term queer these days) tend to stir up and bring to the surface sides of other people that aren't usually visible. Perhaps this is actually the key to part of our power and purpose? But more on that later. Today I thought I would compile, both for my own catharsis and the interest of others some of the responses to my gender status I have received from others, both whilst living trans and when discussing it with people afterwards. This anonymous list of comments and observations is not meant to vilify or blame the people involved but simply to raise our awareness about the way we view gender. Some of these comments I found hurtful, others are of less concern but I include them because I find all of them revealing in some way, revealing of deeper assumptions about gender.

I was told after surgery by someone close to me that without either breasts or a penis I had rendered myself 'useless' to people of either sex.

I was regularly told by a whole assortment of people that if I 'wanted to be a man' I would need to speak with more authority, square off, come across more assertive/aggressive, wear different clothing and that my sexual interest in other men greatly undermined my claim to some form of masculinity. I am still regularly told by a female friend that she is more of a 'man' than I am due to my lack of obvious physical strength and interest in cars.

I was told by a female friend that they realised they had started to view me as male because they had started to do acts of service for me, such as clean up after me, and treat me as 'alpha'.

'If you are interested in men anyway why can't you just be a straight woman?'

But you realise it was never really real anyway? You were only ever acting and tricking people, you can't ever be anything other than a woman. (from a professional counsellor)

'Good luck with your battle against patriarchal dominance then' - a comment received at the end of a counselling session from a trained psychologist, a session during which I had never mentioned any kind of political or feminist motivation and he had introduced this assumption that I was attempting to wrest power from the patriarchy.

Me: 'How come you call that trans woman her but you struggle to call me he?'
Other person: 'Well she got the man bits cut off.'
Me: 'Oh okay, so being a woman is achieved just by getting rid of something?'
Other person: 'Well yeah, that and what you look like.'
Me: 'And being a man?'
Other person: 'Well that's all about what you've got."

'You'd be great to use for a cabin boy fantasy where the guy discovers you're a girl while trying to bone the cabin boy.'

'Why do you have such a problem with the feminine? I can see the goddess in you and she is beautiful.'

In a lascivious sort of manner from a male: 'You're obviously just uptight and need to loosen up a bit.'

'Having a baby will cure you.'

'You shouldn't really have a problem with being female. What you should have a problem with is the discourse that tells you that being female has to mean a certain thing. If you could just open your mind about the potentials of womanhood you wouldn't have this problem anymore.'

Insistence even from close friends of ascribing female terminology to me even after I've asked for them not to do it.

From a heterosexual male: 'I don't understand why you'd reject being female. Women have so much power over men and you'd lose all that.'

From a gay guy: 'Any guy that got with you was not gay. He had to bisexual. Any truly gay man couldn't go anywhere near someone who was still had some... you know... female bits.'

'I totally don't see how the male genitals have ever been socially or consciously viewed in a more positive light than the female genitals. No, women have no more excuse for writing poems to them or having hang ups about them than men do. I've experienced no difference.' -from a straight, male mental health professional.


This is a just a sample of things that spring to mind, many of which have stayed with me for many years. Most of which the people who said them probably don't even remember saying. I write them here not to punish or embarrass the people who said them but to draw attention to the underpinning cultural assumptions that blazon forth in coloured lights when someone discusses gender with an FTM person. You can see the projections aimed at the trans person, the assumption that you envy male privilege, even the refusal of women to grant you male gender because they see it as lifting you above them. Or more disturbingly still the willingness of some women to accept that it lifts you above them and do it anyway. You see the fetish-ising of the trans body as object, the assumption of motherhood as a natural state for all biological females, and even the deeply homophobic assumption that interest in other men makes you less masculine and makes it unclear whether you can even be classed as a male.

It would be nice to think that things have changed since then but many of these example are recent.

Some of you may realise that these people 'got it wrong' and rush to find out how you can 'get it right'. Others will have their nose put out of joint (irritation at the need to be politically correct is one common response to asking for a different pronoun) asserting to themselves that they can't possibly be expected to know the 'right' thing to say. But there are other options. Indeed no one is forced to be politically correct, no one HAS to consider their language, and more importantly the assumptions behind it, to assist in preserving my feelings or those of other gender queer people.

However, if you genuinely care about someone's feelings it can be a great opportunity to look deeply into your own programming about gender. I don't see the people who made these comments as some terrible enemy to whom I am the victim. Some of them were 'joking'. Some of them have been victims of gender stereotyping and my ambiguity has merely allowed for those hurts to rise to the surface. The women that subconsciously deny me my gender of choice may do so as a way of denying male privilege, something they are all too aware of. The woman who does not deny but submits has been taught to do so for so long that she may see no other way of relations between a woman and someone elected as 'male'. A vertical power relationship is assumed and in this inherently abusive model exists so much of the trauma around the gender topic.

Most people do not deny a trans person the gender that feels right for them to hurt that person but because they themselves are hurt in relation to gender.

The gay male who virulently refuses to allow that any gay man could have sex with a trans man may do so because of a lifetime of pressure to be having sex with people with a vagina and he isn't going to take it anymore. He is going to assert his right to say 'I like cock'. And good for him. But while he is there he might like to consider the way the same prejudices that are used to gender people in our society designate him as lesser than a heterosexual man. The heterosexual man who fetishises the trans body as a girl in boys clothes fantasy implies that a 'use' must be ascribed to the biologically female body - one that serves the needs of the straight male. But how else has society taught him to relate to gender? In his own way he too has been boxed and enclosed by gender stricture.

And perhaps this is one of the deeper spiritual purposes of the transgendered, the queer, the two-spirited. We force confrontation with the liminal, we bring sometimes uncomfortable internalised material to the surface for people, and hopefully can facilitate its healing, via our own woundedness. If people can begin to accept, if not altogether welcome, the usefulness of discomfort then we will be halfway to valuing people like me - not to mention our own hidden ambiguities.

I don't hope for a world where people will use more politically correct terms to be seen as savvy and sophisticated or to avoid copping an earful. I long for a world where the desire to extend freedom of identity to others is natural and instinctual. Where we will claim the same freedom for ourselves where necessary and from that internal healing act with unforced compassion and felicity with others. Where, like my friend did for me, we don't wish to limit someone's self expression within the parameters of a materialistic world. But instead acknowledge the multiplicity that dwells within each being, the many possible genders, the many ages, regional and cultural expressions, the non human or animal skins, even, that are potentially part of an identity and allow each the personal sovereignty to elect the words that will define them in the eyes of other humans. Because really, when we look deeply we may feel discomfort at a world that refuses to stay simple, concrete, black and white, but we really lose nothing from extending this freedom to others and what we potentially gain in return is a glimpse of our own unconditioned state.




Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Deed Without a Name

Have a book out is exciting and stressful in equal measures. I certainly didn't expect to be contacted so frequently or so quickly by people reading my work all over the world. I also received a review recently that I'm extremely happy about. Like most first time authors I feel I've learned so much from other people's reviews and critiques and of course the parts that readers found most useful. I am always writing and have enjoyed the fact that this book took so long to come out because it has allowed me to gather research for my next one. Thank you to everyone who has already bought my book or sent letters telling me how much they got out of it.