Not Your Snails, Not Your Oysters

It was a stressy Sunday at Ye Olde Montrose Forge, primarily due to various plastered patrons throwing and/or crashing into things. (Me: “Why is everyone here drunk?” Also Me: “Because you work in a bar, idiot.”) However, one particular incident involving a couple of customers – let’s call them Carlisle (to protect his anonymity) and Spartacus (because I can’t remember his real name) — has stuck in my craw, and I want to talk about it, because it highlights how easily male privilege can be abused, even in an all-male scenario.

Carlisle comes into the store to say hi. We’re amicably chatting away at the front counter, when Spartacus enters and inserts himself into the conversation – and by “inserts,” I mean he literally positions himself between us. We keep talking, and a few minutes later, Spartacus reaches over and starts stroking Carlisle’s beard. Carlisle jerks back and politely but firmly asks him not to do that. Spartacus asks what the problem is, and Carlisle replies that he prefers not to be touched by people he doesn’t know. Spartacus glares at him and asks if he’s racist.

Now that is some Ed Sheeran-level entitlement right there: “I’m a NICE GUY, and if you don’t want me invading your personal space, there is something wrong with YOU.”  But Carlisle holds his ground and reiterates that he just doesn’t like it when people he doesn’t know try to touch him. Spartacus sputters and huffs for a bit, then pretends to see someone he knows by the main bar and sweeps out of the store in a rustle of taffeta.

Thing is, Spartacus knows he crosses boundaries, and he has traps in place designed to shame people into allowing him to continue the behavior. That is emphatically not okay – in fact, that is borderline predatory. This was not the first time I’ve seen Spartacus get grabby with a relative stranger, although it was the first time I’ve seen him get shut down, which is empowering. But it’s also disheartening, in that I see so many gay men (myself included at times) accept unwanted advances, because “Hey, we’re all guys here”; because it’s easier to grit our teeth and wait for the situation to pass instead of standing up for ourselves and risk a confrontation with someone who is going to make the whole thing our fault anyway. I mean, did you see what we were wearing? We were totally asking for it.

This is also emphatically not okay.

Long story short, my people: Don’t fucking touch without permission, and don’t feel guilty about not letting yourself be touched without permission. We may be mired in patriarchal rape culture, but we have no business taking advantage of it, or pretend it doesn’t exist.

The Amazing Appropriated Race

Over the past week, I’ve grown angrier and angrier about Rachel Dolezal pretending to be black. At some point I realized I was taking the whole thing personally, which is weird, because a) I’m not black, and b) I was never in the running to be president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. So, y’know, it’s not like she robbed me of the title.

But then I thought about it some more, and eventually a light bulb fizzled on, and I was all, “OH, right. Phantom penis.” And I finally understood why I was so pissed off.

I should probably explain that last part.

Several years ago, a buddy and I decided to start a social group for gay male Pagans in the Houston area. We wanted to gauge interest before planning anything, so we posted a message in a local Yahoo! group (remember those?) to see if there were any other gay dudes around who might want to participate. A couple did, which was nifty, but the majority of responses we received were divided between heterosexual men accusing us of being exclusionary, and heterosexual women calling themselves “hag fags” [Ed. note: They meant “fag hags,” which, hi, is almost but not quite as offensive] who announced that they would be joining us, regardless of whether or not we wanted them there.

My favorite response, though, came from a cisgendered woman — let’s call her Viola — who informed us that she qualified for membership because she was a gay man trapped in a woman’s body. We did our best to explain that, no, that did not actually make her a gay man, and Viola replied (I swear to the Gods I’m not making this up) that she had an invisible, “phantom limb” penis that got her into all sorts of trouble. Because you know how gay men are. Thinking with their dicks or whatever. Like she does. On the inside.

And on that note, allow me to relate a true story of a gay man trapped in a woman’s body.

Back in college, my friend Kathleen sat a few of us down and let us know that she was transgendered and would be transitioning to male. In return, we let her know that we’d already figured that out, on account of her unusually large collection of books on gender reassignment, and the fact that she’d been living as a man for about a year and a half. So Kathleen became Georges, and then he fell in love with a cisgendered gay man, and they’ve been together ever since. And the rest of us were all, “We’re confused, but you’re happy, so it’s all good.”

To review…

Georges: “I was born physically female, but I am actually male, and I went through several costly and painful surgeries in order to be true to myself and comfortable in my own skin.”

Viola: “I am capitalizing on my hetero privilege to violate other people’s safe space.”

A subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless.

So anyway, yeah, that’s why I’m all discombobulated over Dolezal.

I get having an identity discordant with one’s anatomical and/or biological makeup. Really, I do, if only because I know way too many Furries — selfhood is polymorphic, The End. But if owning that identify means contributing to the marginalization of the community to which you claim to belong, then honestly, you’re a whole lot more part of the dominant culture than you’d like everyone else to believe.

The Worst Review Is No Review

Sponsorship, as we say in the rooms, is a vital component of 12-Step recovery, a sponsor being someone who has worked the Steps and can guide others through them. (The whole thing is very shamanic, and I should really write a post about that one of these days.) I was beyond excited when I was finally able to be a sponsor, and almost immediately I had two sponsees under me. And before the first week of working with them was out, I called my own sponsor and tearfully apologized for every time I ever mouthed off or refused to follow his suggestions.

Alcoholics are a willful people, and left to our own devices, we are about as likely to take direction as we are to say, “No more for me, thanks,” at last call. As such, sponsorship involves watching the newly sober run headfirst into brick walls (usually with “Caution: Brick Wall” signs taped to them), fall down, get up, and smack into the same walls again. I’m thinking specifically of this guy, let’s call him Olaf, who came up to me after a meeting one night and asked me to sponsor him. I responded with a tentative yes and told him to call me every day for a week to check in and let me know how he was doing.

He dutifully phoned the following day, and over the course of the next week, he sent a couple of texts but did not call back. Eventually, we arranged a time to meet up, where he informed me that he’d already worked the Steps during his 72 hours in rehab and did not need to repeat them. I submitted that working through them again and unpacking them at a slower pace couldn’t hurt. He looked at me like I had three heads.

We met a couple of more times after that and made about as much headway, and then he stopped calling completely. He did get in touch about a month later, to let me know he’d relapsed but wanted to start over. “Great,” I said, “Call me every day for the next week.”

I never heard from him again.

In relating this story, please, please know I’m not positioning myself as some kind of recovery guru, or that I believe my way of staying sober is the only way to stay sober; it may work for me, but that does not mean it will work for everyone else without fail. I tell people this when they ask me to sponsor them, and I also tell them what I will expect from them, and I explain that not every sponsor/sponsee relationship is a good fit, so if it’s not working, either one of us has the right to say so and step away with no hard feelings. And I tell seekers the same things when they want to apprentice with me and the Co-Witches. Here are The Rules: If you are unable or unwilling to follow The Rules, then you need to find a place with Rules that are more amenable to you. No harm, no foul, and I’ll even help you look.

I bring this up because of a recent blog post by hermeticist Nick Farrell. The post, titled “Ten Tips for Young Occultists,” seems to be getting a pretty negative reception (at least from what I can tell, but in all transparency, I didn’t poke around that much). I understand the strong reactions to Farrell’s list, but at the same time, my first thought in going through it myself was, “Man, I wish I could’ve had Olaf read this.” The list reminded me a lot  of some of the blunt but effective slogans that get bandied about in recovery circles. In fact, for your consideration, I’ve paired up Farrell’s talking points up with corresponding recovery quotes, the gists of which are remarkably similar:

1. Realise you know nothing. “Nobody ever found recovery as a result of an intellectual awakening.”

2. Stop talking. “Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth.”

3. Listen. “The mind is like a parachute: It works better when it’s open.”

4. Do not use questions to assert your own ignorance. “Ask how we did it and do what we did. How does it work? It works just fine.”

5. Realise that you are unimportant. “I’m just another bozo on the bus.”

6. You can learn a lot from some real cunts. “The good news is there is a solution; the bad news is we’re it.”

7. A good teacher does not really care what you say, they are more interested in what you do. “Easy does it, but do it.”

8. You will project your weaknesses onto your teacher. “An alcoholic is an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.”

9. Don’t just sit there help. “If you want to stay sober, make the coffee.”

10. Never challenge the leader. “When all else fails, follow directions.”

Again, I see how the list could rub readers the wrong way, but as shown above, there’s certainly precedence, and again again, not every teacher/sponsor/adept is the right person to shepherd along every student/sponsee/novice. If you read Farrell’s post and think, “Wow, what a douche-fountain,” I wouldn’t recommend studying with him, because neither one of you will get anything out of it. On the other hand, if you read the post and think, “Challenge accepted,” then I smell a mutually beneficial relationship in your future. Whatever works best for you is whatever works best for you. Or, to throw one more recovery slogan into the mix, “Take what works and leave the rest.”

So with that all wrapped up and bowed, I want to discuss something I came across yesterday, namely an open rebuttal to Farrell’s post. The author is, to put it gently, the opposite of a fan, and he did his best to take Farrell to task. Which is fine, really: Land of the Free and all that. But what bothered me about his counterarguments was the condemnation of Farrell’s tips as “advocating spiritual abuse.” Freedom of speech/artistic expression/whatever aside, that’s really brushing against the near side of not okay.

I’ve been through spiritual abuse. It was a long, long time ago, back when I was a naïve and impressionable baby Pagan, and granted, I figured out what was going on and got out of the situation before my psyche was irreparably damaged. But I will say that it crept up on me under the guise of benevolence, and it wasn’t just a matter of a grumpy instructor not letting me talk in class.

Could Farrell’s tips be applied abusively? Absolutely. And so could the 12 Steps, and the 10 Commandments, and the Wiccan Rede, and the Golden Rule. Are any of these guidelines, in and of themselves, actively advocating or encouraging spiritual abuse? Fuck no. And it’s important to understand and accept that, because when we start slapping “abuse” labels on the things we simply don’t agree with, not only are we minimizing the experiences of actual abuse victims, but the real abusers get to slither around our community unnoticed. And when we make unfounded accusations of abuse because we’re riled and can’t come up with more accurate language, there can be devastating consequences, as anyone who survived the 1980s Satanic Panic can attest.

Here’s the long and short of it, guys: If you see something online, or in a book, or pasted to the side of a building that gets your hackles up, unless it legitimately poses a threat to the basic human rights and personal well-being of you or anyone else, leave it be. Ignore it. Don’t create a Streisand Effect by drawing additional attention to it. If asked about it, shrug your shoulders and say, “not really my thing, sorry,” then move on to a more interesting subject. I guarantee you’ll see better results than you will through burning effigies, even if those results turn out to be nothing more than peace of mind and a few hops towards serenity.

Oh, and one last thing, without jokes or unsolicited advice: The most horrifying thing I ever witnessed within the greater occult community was a self-proclaimed Initiate of the Mysteries bragging about having her neighbors investigated on allegations of child abuse. The bragging stopped once it came to light that her own High Priest was a convicted child molester.

I speak for no one save myself, but I’ll take no talking in class over that any day.