Monday, May 18, 2015

Toxicity and Male Aggression at the Gaia Gathering, and in the Edmonton pagan community

And with Sable Aradia

So when I was invited to speak at the Gaia Gathering, the only Canadian pagan conference, by another local pagan leader, I was very hesitant. I'm always willing to donate my time and energy to creating community of course, but the Edmonton scene has always been problematic, with no signs of correcting itself. There is a deep reluctance to address any of its serious issues and improve the local pagan community, especially in regards to victimization. With one of the panels this year on feminism and another on Guarding the Guardians, one would hope that the boys were open to making spaces safer and more comfortable for women, but alas. That is simply not on the menu. Indeed, to even attempt to complain is met with mystified stares at best, and jeers at worst. The sheer incompetence and exploitation of the conference itself was another concern. I am totally supportive of the idea of a national pagan conference, even held in different cities every year. So much so in fact, I even volunteered the first year myself as the local experienced event planner and community liaison, since the inaugural event was held in Edmonton. However, as the other planners were all from Toronto at the time, I had so many problems with their entitlement and other issues that I had to bow out entirely. They have not seemed to have learnt much in the decade they have been in operation. A few easily noted examples...

I was thrilled to meet the female keynote speaker, Sable Aradia. I would have loved to hear more from her on the topic of her seminar, but her toss out session right at the beginning seemed to cue the local power males into believing it wasn't a keynote address but a workshop. To be fair, only they seemed to think that, though. Women remained respectfully silent nearly the entire time. Yes, there is always a problem to buttonholing women, but it has been proven in so many studies that men taking over space means women retreat and are unheard. The argument to change that is usually, again, the onus on the women to "Speak up! Lean in!" But somehow, the reverse is almost never applied. Like "Shut up, and let the woman speak. It's her we came to see, not you." Which is what most of the women felt like, but are trained not to challenge or make a fuss. Even if more women spoke up, it might have seemed like a more equitable ratio, but with the constant interruption from the entitled men, most of us felt like too much time was already taken up with comments from the (men in the) audience, and we didn't feel like sharing. I'm pretty darn aggressive, but even I felt like my one tiny comment, heckled immediately by the men, was a mistake. Normally, I couldn't care less. I'm kinda used to it. However, I am one of the few local women who is a peer to the high profile males. If they are not used to respecting the opinions of others, they should at least accept that I am closer to them in status. In this community, I do expect some degree of consideration for my expertise and experience. But nope. One male even asked for my thoughts *specifically* to announce that I was wrong. Not to hear what I had to say. Not to edify or contemplate my viewpoint, which he actually *requested* of me. Not that my interpretation was wrong *in his training*. But that I was just wrong. Is there a name for men who do that, or that particular action? Mansplaining, I think...

As a guest, Sable's needs were also not met. Particularly egregious in consideration of the pagan Hospitality laws, which most paths follow in some variation. A vegan, she was wolfing down some much needed nourishment just before her address. It made the entire session late, but we were informed that she hadn't eaten in two days. I trust that was an exaggeration, because the alternative is too offensive to contemplate. When she made a slight comment on the fact after arriving, instead of humble and shame-filled apologies from those of the organizers who were there, she was actually heckled. Heckled. "You should learn to eat what's in front of you!" She choose to ignore that aggressive shouting down and continue on with her lecture, but I know I felt the violence in that statement. Your needs are nothing. You are here to serve only. You are expendable. Being invited to a city that you don't know, and need others to assist you in, and not providing basic needs like FOOD, is an injury. Throwing it back in their face is most certainly an insult. Adding insult to injury. It's like asking an orthodox rabbi to speak at a dinner, not providing him with anything, and then force him to carve the pork for it. There were other vegans there, too, which is not uncommon among pagans, who also couldn't locate food. Like me, who had no car with which to fetch some. Why on earth would anyone plan a conference where they knew that even a keynote would be unable to have her needs met?  It still astounds and appalls me.

I have also never, EVER been invited to speak at an event and then been required to pay for the privilege. I've been doing these for 30 years now, and I have never asked for cash compensation, as is keeping with tradition. My expertise and knowledge are clearly valued enough to be asked to impart them, and so I have made time out of my schedule to spend hours sharing, which I am honoured to do. However, it is apparently the policy of this conference to insist that invited presenters PAY to get in. To the event they are contributing to. When the conference is making money off of the audience members coming to see them. When I insisted that I wouldn't participate under those conditions to the male who invited me, I was angrily told I wasn't 'building community". Since I'm not a money grubber by any stretch, the attempt to shame me into paying for my own lecture was a total flop. I am able to deal with male violence in that circumstance, but it's most distasteful. However, this isn't just about the invited guests. The volunteers, the actual staff putting in their time and sweat equity to make the thing run, are *also* supposed to pay. Even when they are spending all their time at their posts, and none in the workshops that they are so keen to see. All the volunteers I saw were women, and some from several hours out of town. (To be fair, I never asked if they got a reduced rate, but since I wasn't told I could have one, I assume they couldn't as well.) I cannot begin to express my shock and repugnance at such exploitation. When challenged, I was told that this is the standard model for this event. Well, I've organized and participated in lots of national conventions and events, and I can tell you: you're doing it wrong. Volunteers donate their valuable time so *you don't have to pay staff.* That's the carrot for them. Lower income for example, can donate time instead of money, and still get a chance to participate! I know you might have cash flow problems,but siphoning off money from them for the privilege is total exploitation, and tells everyone that their time dedicated to this is just not valuable enough. (Eventually I was compted, but only because I made such an argument for it. I doubt anyone else made such a fuss over the principle, and I wouldn't have been able to attend anyway otherwise. I certainly don't have that kind of cash...)

A male of my acquaintance also offered me a shoulder to cry on, since my last year has been one of the worst in my life. He promised he was a good listener, and as my troubles do have something to do with the local community, I overcame my usual reluctance and shared some choice bits. Here's a tip, men: suggesting that the person violated should have known better is both not good listening AND victim blaming. Again. More violence is not what one expects or needs in spiritual circles. All that talk of healing energy is just crap, right?

Being high profile in anything is always a risk. Targeting for women is even more of a problem now than before the 'net. I remember a few years ago when I brought up how local Wiccans had gone out of their way to stalk and harm me and my family. I had all my documentation and proof, and presented it to the local coven for their consideration. Of course, the boys involved were local heroes! Who did great work! I know you don't want to deal with such pillars of the community being criminals, but one would still hope that truth and justice was an ideal for pagans to aspire to. But no. I was shut down faster than a choir boy accusing a Catholic priest, bizarrely told that their 'mediation' was an option, and despite all the emails and proofs right in front of them, unceremoniously removed from lists and uninvited to events I was already scheduled to appear at. Because boat rocking. Mediation of course meaning that more than one party is at fault, or that some 'misunderstanding' is the source of the violence against them. Because two sides! Even though the proof is right there... Victim blaming at it's finest. There's a reason this is the first time you've seen me a local event in ages, dudes... (This a-hole applied to me out of the blue to be an apprentice. I turned him down rather harshly after he confused me with someone else he didn't like and started hurling abuse at me. He apologized, citing non-neuronormative, and I forgave him. But he's been posting crap ever since. And everyone in the city seems okay with that. I mean, how do you 'mediate" that? These people are just awful.)

The panel I was invited to speak at, Pagans in Politics, as an actual expert, was no better. My male co-presenter often interrupted me, told me *I* had to let others finish (though that never applied to him), and actually dismissed completely my experience with the Greens and Elizabeth May, saying to my face that I had an "idealized" version. It was an utterly classic form of silencing women. Even though I've been involved for years at the highest levels and know everyone personally; his opinion, based on pulling it out of his ass, was to be the deciding one. I could have pushed it, but I already had to shove my way into the conversation, because this man was swaying the group with his obviously deep knowledge of the subject. My insistence on actually being heard as a woman who knew what was going on was somehow disruptive to the group, doncha know. Look. Just because you have an opinion doesn't mean it's right or based in reality. That's why you might want to listen to someone who is actually in the know before you form or maintain that opinion. And no. Its not of the same value, then, and we don't have to insist that it is. That's why you asked me there: because I know what I'm talking about. And shutting me down, in public, in a group I was supposed to be co-hosting, was deliberately disrespectful, antagonizing, disempowering, and downright rude. (I got it on video. Keep in mind the man was constantly interrupting female speakers all weekend, because he owns this town. And I was doing my best to control my Fist of Death as it was... He was remarkably silent during Kerr's keynote address. Hhmmm...)

Kerr and me!
I had to leave both nights early, because it was just too overwhelming to deal with. And again, it most certainly isn't all men, or everyone at the conference. Kerr Cuhulain, whom I have known about for decades and really wanted to connect with, is a high profile pagan who has done so much work in the Canadian and international community, and is one of the most delightful, humble, hard working, grounded and knowledgeable spiritual leaders I have ever had the fortune to meet. I was thrilled to have the opportunity for some serious face time, and very much look forward to a vivacious and fruitful long term relationship between our two organizations. I may even hang at his Mother House for a while and study under his group. So that at least was worth it...

I find the dismissal, exploitation and social violence of this event and community actually shocking, since I'm not really expecting it. It hurts way more than in my other circles. We're all supposed to be love and trust, right? How does that work if the men in particular dominate all the conversations, dismiss women and their opinions or their needs or their contributions, and then natter on about the Goddess? Even in metaphoric terms, she's still female, and is represented in the women physically around you. That you are exploiting, dismissing, and dominating.

The local community in Edmonton finds ANY criticism to be 'negative energy", and punishes those who bring it up, by censure and virtual excommunication. Thus ensuring that these toxic practices are doomed to continue, rather than be exposed, examined, and corrected. So many local witches and pagans have become 'solitary'; not because they wished it, but because they have felt harmed, endangered, unwelcome, exploited, or downright victimized, in both informal and formal manifestations of the community. I've heard many whispered stories that I'm not the only one. Since it's so incestuous, there is no recourse when such problems occur, and victims are then forced to explore their faith entirely on their own. Yes, there are always bad apples. Yes, no community is ever totally safe or warm and fuzzy. However, to deliberately not patrol oneself, ignore and punish those who point out problems or complain, and pretend instead there is a bubble of "light and love" around you and all you do is monumentally naive at best, and abusive at worst. The "Community" pillar of paganism demands improvement, as does the "Self" one. Neither of these are currently under serious scrutiny in Edmonton. Do we have to wait until all the local enablers of these kinds of behaviors die or move away? It does seem to be perpetuating itself, since this has been going on for decades now - and from what I saw this weekend, no end is in sight.

70's chic? Or just a terrible place to have this. Sable and I agree on the latter. Number 12 bus, the only one to get there, is a bitch, too...  And of course, no bike racks. Another blow to accessibility! Yay!

As for the conference, there was much talk of this being the last Gaia Gathering. It has been misinterpreted as being no longer necessary for the Canadian community, but the real problem is not having local buy-in, one of the first issues I warned them about, and they clearly still haven't solved. To say it was sparsely attended would be generous. When I organize things like this, I get hundreds of folks showing up. And I expect as much from a "national conference." From accessibility issues: one awkward bus route and no bike racks, to *still* not having a viable local billeting option for most conventioneers, to the utterly awful decor and lack of refreshments for everyone, Sable and I had a long discussion about it on the Sunday, and we were largely on the same page about the problems of the conference. We agreed that it has always been a necessity, and need it to continue in some proper form. I personally can't decide if I want this version to pass away, and revive the idea in a few years, or make yet another attempt to help them solve these problems so that we have continuity. We really do need this to help create and maintain communities, scholarship, and legitimacy all over the country. I rather hope they can finally start making this a more robust event, but since I have yet to see those results after ten years, my expectations for change in this, too, are also dim...