I already knew it was going to be amazing to be in San Francisco over the Solstice season, and the prospect of an unchained Pagan bonfire on Ocean Beach after two days of Radical Faerie space was already exciting enough. Let alone one, as a commenter pointed out, held while Mercury is in retrograde and there’s a lunar eclipse.

Even then, though, I certainly did not expect to abruptly decide to join the people who were taking all their clothes off and scampering into the Pacific Ocean. (The thought process basically went: “I live in freaking Montreal. How many chances am I going to run naked into the water on the Winter Solstice that don’t involve a hot tub?”)

Anyway, it’s a beautiful season of synchronicity in my life right now, and I’ve been taking advantage of it to think about the uses of gender and sacred androgyny in my Pagan practice, and a few issues arising from it. I won’t expand too much on that practice itself at present*. But here are a few recent things I had really interesting and valuable discussions of during those four days.

I’ve found that, as in all things, it’s super important to consider my cissexual privilege in doing sacred androgyny work. Two different trans friends made more or less the same observation within a few days, in slightly different contexts, that encouraging people to think outside the gender binary plays way differently if you’re speaking to cis or genderqueer people than if you’re speaking to trans people (particularly transsexual people who identify clearly as men or as women).

The boy I like mused that he has a lot of the same things in common with me that make me identify as genderqueer, but that’s not a word that would work for him. We are both guys, but for me when people call that identity into question, it makes me feel good — correctly gendered — whereas for him, naturally, it makes him feel ungendered. And moreover, in his case, ungendering him is hegemonic — there’s an entire overwhelming power structure dedicated to ungendering him and calling his gender as a man into question, where the same is not true for me — I have to fight for my male identity to be problematized.

(Let’s make clear that this is not the same thing as cis people who are preoccupied with their gender being called into question. No matter how worried a cis man is about being manly, nobody is ever going to refuse to call him “he” or by the right name if he doesn’t measure up, nor is there an entire social power structure dedicated to denying and dismissing his male gender. There is a huge difference between not being considered manly enough and not being considered male.)

It’s not difficult to see how this comes into play in sacred androgyny work. Another friend, who has practised extensively with Reclaiming and was very involved in the community in the UK before he came to Canada, recounted an unhappy experience he had with a workshop on gender and spirituality led by the well-loved Reclaiming/Radical Faerie leader Donald Engstrom. Participants were encouraged to describe their gender without using the words “male,” “female,” “masculine,” or “feminine.” (This workshop is described on page 141 of The Twelve Wild Swans by Starhawk and Hilary Valentine.)

This sort of sacred androgyny/sacred third-gender work would be highly valuable for cis people and genderqueer people, and it’s easy to see why. We are scarcely ever encouraged in society to call our gender into question in this way, whether we do ourselves or not; normatively-gendered people have much to learn from this kind of work, and genderqueer people could find themselves finally centred and emphasized in spiritual practice.

But it completely didn’t work for my friend. Why? Because he has his gender called into question every day anyway, and non-consensually.

For the rest of the group, this work was transgressing social stricture. For him and the other trans person in the group, it reinforced that stricture.

Moreover, once the workshop is complete, everyone else can simply reassert their binary gender, if they want, and expect that to be immediately respected by everyone just as a matter of course. But trans people can expect to have any assertion of androgyny or non-normativity used against them.

And not just socially: there’s a sordid history of gatekeeping medical professionals using any gender-atypical traits (feminine traits in trans men, masculine traits in trans women) — any at all, from interests to dress to “choosing a name that is too androgynous” — as an excuse to deny transition-related medical care.

It’s important to recognize that trans people, as for so many issues, are in a double bind in this department. Some time ago on a forum I use, a trans man complained of someone using his knitting as an excuse to deny that he is a man. “And yet,” a trans woman sighed, “people keep calling me a man no matter how much I knit.”

As a cissexual person, this is not a problem I have to face. Certainly, I can do many non-manly and un-manly things, and I might get harassed or attacked for them, but nobody is ever going to use them as an excuse to refuse to use my right name or pronouns or to deny me official documents or medically necessary health care because of them.

What this means is that the impact of any exploration of androgyny/third-gender/etc., including in sacred contexts, has a far different impact on trans people than it does on cis or genderqueer ones.

Moreover, third-gender approaches have a hard history for binary-identified trans people. Far too often, tropes like “in between” or “man-woman” or “the best of both worlds” – although some may well find them useful and appealing for themselves – are used both to objectify trans people and to deny the validity of their identities.

Now let me reiterate: sacred androgyny or third-gender work is very good and valuable for lots of people, myself included. It has a long tradition in numerous cultures and in modern Neopagan practice, notably in Radical Faerie traditions, as sacred work that values queer and genderqueer people and offers them a special spiritual role. Today, cis people may find it a mind-expanding experience, and genderqueer people may find, finally, a ritual space that resonates with them. But like many things, it can impact others differently.

Its impact on trans people must be taken into account in ritual design. It must never be imposed on people non-consensually (just like everything else gender-related, or religion-related for that matter). Queer, trans, and genderqueer people should never be used as walking avatars of sacred third-gender to enlighten the cis or straight people with, unless they freely choose that role.

And it should never be assumed that a trans person is, for that reason, interested in sacred androgyny or third-gender. A trans person may well prefer to participate in male or female mysteries instead; or for that matter, may prefer to participate in third-gender mysteries not because he or she is trans, but because he or she is queer, or non-normative with regard to the gender with which he or she identifies. Especially in the latter event, it will be crucial that ritual designers preparing for this kind of exploration do the work to make sure that it is truly a safe space, that how people identify will be respected, that any exploration of third-gender they choose to do will not be used to non-consensually ungender them afterwards, that trans and third-gender are not assimilated to each other (unless that is how the person understands themself).

Sadly, in many times and places we’re still confronting out-and-out exclusion of trans people from divine practice. Nevertheless, as concerned Pagans who are in fact working for a better and more human understanding of the divine gift that is the richness of gender in the world, we must be highly vigilant and make very sure that when we do this work, we do not reinforce the same ungendering, disempowering, non-consensual structures we are, after all, fighting against.

Next up: what your femme boy learned about the Sacred Masculine at Solstice.

*Two highly useful books on sacred androgyny/third-gender are Hermaphrodeities by Raven Kaldera, which is written from a chiefly trans/genderqueer/intersex standpoint, and Queer Spirits by Will Roscoe (especially the first of its three sections), which is written from a chiefly cissexual queer men’s standpoint. As I’ve made clear, they should be treated as sources on third-gender work, not as generally applicable to all queer or trans people in general.