Queer Time and Place – Magic, Ritual and Transgender Subculture
In search of a safe place
There seem to be several places in our culture where queer people congregate to find solace. Whether donning elaborate cosplay, losing themselves in the worlds of Science Fiction, online forums and gaming, drag and make-up, the need to escape the heteronormative binary and assume another form is a common drive for LGBTQ+ people.
Even among the queer community, trans* people face a particular vulnerability in the world. We contend with predators, fetishists, fake-allies, TERFs, transphobes, murderers and governments that dehumanise us as a way to justify our destruction. Our bodies are up for debate. Our sexuality is questioned and our very existence has been medicalized and pathologized.
This may be why witchcraft has enticed a significant portion of the queer and in particular Trans* community. For some, witchcraft is a belief system that affords them more freedom than the religion they grew up in. For others, it’s a rebellious resistance to the status quo that rules politics and society. For most, it offers a deep spiritual life without the dogma or patriarchy of religion.
Many find themselves called to the craft and others develop their practice at a young age before they even know what ritual means. Witches find their ways to witchcraft by so many routes and at any age but queer witches have special paths that lead them into magick.
My Trans Witchcraft
It wasn’t until I started my transition and had been on Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) for a few months that I took up ritual magick with any serious intention. I found the disconnect between my body and the emerging female consciousness within me to be too much for me to understand and I needed help. I had lost touch with the persona I had developed and was waiting for a new identity to emerge. I felt adrift, as if the person I had been was a distant shore and the new me a headland ahead in the mists of the future. I needed to reconcile the feminine growing inside of me with my physical being.
I needed new role models of strength and beauty. I yearned for the sisterhood I had previously been excluded from and through magic I found my Goddesses to be a comfort and source of immense strength. Persephone, Hekate and Aphrodite helped me realise my new-found reality. Magick helped me see the possibilities of my trans identity and reconcile the self hate, dysphoria and dysmorphia I have lived with for most of my life.
Mysteries of an Ancient Past
Dysphoria had plagued me as a nameless frustration throughout my life. It brought with it depression and self-destructive thoughts and behaviour. Julia Serano in her 2007 book, “Whipping Girl” gave me the language I needed to decipher feelings and thoughts inside of me. Susan Stryker in her book, “Transgender History ” published in 2008 (revised in 2017), armed me with the history I immediately felt connected with and provided the foundation on which to reconstruct my life. I no longer felt alone – the odd one out. There were more like me and there had been for millenia! Here I can draw a parallel with witchcraft because the very act of piecing together the history of witchcraft consists of discovery and demystification. As Christopher Penczak, renowned gay author of The Temple of Witchcraft series writes:
“The facts of witchcraft and ancient spiritual traditions are shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding because they were almost completely vanquished by the conquering forces of Europe. Everyone telling the story has a bias. Traditional researchers do not want to challenge what they “know” to be fact and dismiss any theories to the contrary.” Through this very act of investigation and discovery, each witch pieces together their own witchcraft, in a similar way to how we craft our queer identities. Within these highly individualized identities, witches and queer people alike set off in search of community.
The finding of other like-minded witches and groups whether online or in local covens and organisations shares the quality of seeking with people coming into their queerness. As witches often seek knowledge from teachers taking courses in the practicalities of witchcraft so we as queer people reach out to others for guidance and information. For queer witches and particularly trans* witches this can be fraught with difficulty. Finding safe spaces becomes an important aspect of community when you identify as trans* and knowing you are respected and supported is paramount. Therefore, at this crossroads of gender presentation and magical pursuit, queer witches face a unique set of requirements.
Is witchcraft a safe space for trans women and other trans* people?
The answer to this question is, “it’s complicated.” In the same way that feminism is struggling with the inclusion of intersectional and queer theory, witches have to face these issues as well. If your concept of witchcraft centres on paperclip thin, white, able bodied, largely middle-class cis women with a perfectly executed goth aesthetic, then this is a problem. Of course there are witches that fit this image and more power to them, but in reality the community is far more complex. Just as JK Rowling is mouthing off about her TERF second wave feminist exclusion of transwomen on her website and Twitter, the community Circle of Cerridwen recently announced on it`s website that it will not be attending the large pagan conference PantheaCon, stating “We are a coven that accepts, and loves, practitioners of all different backgrounds, particularly transgender and gender expansive practitioners.” They allege that PantheaCon staff and organisers have been hostile to trans delegates continuing, “it’s getting worse. We have seen continued excuses for exclusionary actions and behavior on the part of con staff and leadership, including hexing some of our own coven members.”
All the way back in 2011, The Guardian published a piece entitled, “Why won’t pagans accept trans women?” in which reported, “at a pagan gathering in February, the Pantheacon in San Jose, California, trans women were excluded from a Dianic ritual in honour of Lilith. Many of the defenders of this position – the veteran witch Z Budapest, for example – argue from an essentialist position (“you have to have sometimes in your life a womb, and ovaries and moon bleed and not die”)” This beleaguered convention will host its last event in 2020 after 26 years of operation according to The Wild Hunt. Reporting in October of 2019 that conference founder Glenn Turner disinvited Max Dashu in 2018, a speaker who, “was reportedly accused of creating an unsafe environment for the trans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming members of the community.” Turner writing on the Pantheacon website said that,
“It was a mistake to include Max Dashu in the program and I want to personally apologize to each of you…for my part in causing the fear, pain, and sense of exclusion that many of you felt.
A more recent 2018 piece the American LGBTQIA+ online magazine Them. reported on The Pussy Church of Modern Witchcraft gaining IRS Church 170(b)(1)(A)(i) tax exempt status in an article entitled, “This TERF Church Has Officially Been Declared a Place of Worship by the IRS”. The ‘about’ page on the website for the church states,
“The Pussy Church serves Women and Girls only, males are not permitted to participate, regardless of how they identify. We expressly reject the concepts of gender identity, transgenderism, and gender as being meaningful to defining what a Woman or Girl is.”
As the political battle over transgender rights heats up witchcraft communities need to decide whether they are inclusive of trans rights or not. Clearly, as these articles point out, a rift exists in modern witchcraft that needs to be addressed. As more and more trans women gravitate towards the craft, we need to know where we are safe and where our identities are going to be respected. Obviously, the rights of trans women are not universally granted but there are lots of indications that witchcraft is fast becoming an accepting environment for us to find a voice
Blood Magic and Trans Identity
One trans person who has found their voice is the RISD graduate, tattoo artist and witch Noel’le Longhaul . In an interview published by Broadly Vice entitled, “Meet the Trans Tattoo Artist Witch Using Their Ink as Power” the anarchist/artist/musician who uses they/them/she/her pronouns sees tattooing as ‘blood magic’ and talks about their experiences and identity as a trans witch,
“It was something that I had an intuitive relationship with as a really young person. I spent a lot of time alone when I was growing up—kids are very good at alienating trans kids very young because they can just tell that you’re not on the team and something else is going on. Experiencing that alienation through my peers at a very young age and stretching on into my adulthood, I turned to liminal spaces where I could find power in places that people were telling me I shouldn’t be looking for power. For me to identify with witchcraft is to identify with a centuries-old struggle against patriarchy. And the church. And whiteness.”
A Very Queer Goddess
In a 2015 Vice article, “How Witchcraft Is Empowering Queer and Trans Young People” Mey Rude, “a Latina witch was raised Catholic in Idaho” moved away from the church and into witchcraft after she came out as transgender. Her practice has grown out of her religious roots. “This means a lot of candles, shrines dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe (“She’s a very queer goddess,” Rude says), and traditional Mexican herbal remedies”. Mey says in the piece,
“There is no one way to be a witch, It’s a really freeing identity.”
Mey expands on her experience in her 2020 Buzzfeed piece entitled, “A Mexican Saint of Death Helped Guide Me Back to Life” where she talks about her relationship with the Mexican folk saint, Santa Muerte.
Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte is popular in Mexico for her protection of the poor and disenfranchised and has domain over healing, protection, and safe delivery to the afterlife. According to some of her adherents, her protection extends to homosexual, bisexual, and transgender communities in Mexico, since the queer community has outcast status from mainstream Mexican society. Many LGBTQIA+ people ask her for protection from violence, hatred, disease, and to help them in their search for love.
Following her suicide attempt in 2017, Mey found support in the Muerte, “After the hospital, I realized that if I wanted to stay alive I needed to find a new way to look at not only dying, but also living. Santa Muerte showed me that new way. I had gotten it in my mind that anything short of a perfect life was a wasted one. I thought I was fighting to save trans lives, but every year more and more of us die. I realized that no matter what I did, no matter how hard I fought, I couldn’t save everyone, and I thought that meant my life was pointless. In the mental hospital, and therapy after that, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to see my life as something worth living.”
She concludes, “I’m not afraid of death anymore, and more importantly, I’m not afraid of life. I know that one day I’ll die and I’m at peace with that. And until that day comes, I’ll face the world with courage, knowing Santa Muerte is protecting me, and that I’ve got a lot to do while I’m here.”
A Town Full of (Trans*) Witches
Lewis Raven Wallace the award-winning trans independent journalist reported in a 2017 survey piece on trans* people involved with magic published in Them. entitled “Trans and Intersex Witches Are Casting Out the Gender Binary.” He writes, after touching down in Asheville, which he described as a ‘a town full of witches’,
“When I asked folks where I could find trans witches to talk to in Asheville, more than one replied, “What kind of trans witch do you want to talk to?”
He goes on to report that, “A 2015 survey found that one in five trans people who had ever participated in a faith community experienced rejection in that space. And, while we don’t know much about trans people’s religious faiths, a Pew survey of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people found they are twice as likely to be part of non-Christian religions as straight people.”
Speaking with specifically trans* people, he discovered a number who have found a place in witchcraft, paganism and shamanism. Smith, who lives in Louisville, Kentucky whose practice is grounded in rootwork, or hoodoo, an African-American southern magic tradition. He says:
“When I came out and started hormones and became more in tune with myself, that was the key that unlocked my ability to manifest things, to receive it and be grateful for it. It was this circle: the deeper I go into myself, the better I am at connecting to the universe, and other humans, and the earth. That’s a lot easier now than it was before I knew that I was trans.”
Lewis concludes his report with, “Everyone I talked to for this story has survived and healed through magic, and each of them also feels this strong link to the past: to the witches, and those who were seen as witches, and to the many trans people whose stories we will never know.”
"As within so without, as above so below"
Transition is a journey of discovery or perhaps it is more accurate to say, rediscovery. In my case the loss of testosterone and the injection of a cocktail of birth-control, that constitutes the best available estrogen, has meant remaking myself. The inward journey and outward expression and effect of ritual magic is a metaphor for transition. Just as ritual goes within and and has manifestation in the world so through witchcraft, I found something powerful to help understand my femme identity both emotionally and physically. The obsession with physical change even among the trans community, myself included, is a small part of the equation of taking HRT. Just as magick can lift the veil on new worlds of an emotional journey, HRT opens up the narrowness of gender to expose a universe of feeling and understanding.
Trans* people have historically been seen as magical beings, whether it be ‘third-gender’ or ‘two-spirit’ being transgender is seen as providing special insight and power. According to Karla McLaren, in her Energetic Boundaries Study Guide, transgender people are almost always welcomed in individual communities, covens, study groups, and circles. Modern pagan practices welcome trans* practitioners for this reason with some obvious separatist exceptions. As long as there isn’t a preoccupation with ‘womyn born womyn’ or distinctions drawn from assignation at birth, we are accepted, revered even. The fact is that as a lesbian feminist femme trans woman, I have to tread carefully in spaces that were designed for me, whether it be in the LGBTQIA+ community, feminist or all women spaces. However, in magick, I have found a realm in which I not only feel comfortable but I have discovered a healing and self-affirming environment. It is my hope that others feel empowered to find their truth in whatever way they feel best suits them and know that magic is always there for them should they feel drawn to the craft.