Do you have to be a freak to be a Pagan?

This is an old post, in internet-time at least, and I intended to comment on it sooner, but then decided not to, but then I keep thinking about it.

One of the first posts on the Gods and Radicals blog was “Respectability Politics: Act Like The System so that The System Will Listen?” That spawned a lot of “Yeah! Let your freak flag fly! We don’t need to be respectable!” type responses.

This is a problem that I’ve run into before in Pagan circles, so I’m sure it will come up again.

Shucks, it’s a problem I ran into in middle school! In my middle school, the “cool kids” were the freaks. They did drugs, rode skateboards, dressed like Kurt Cobain, listened to grunge music (though some of them were “goths” instead and listened Korn and Marilyn Manson while wearing black trench coats), had tattoos and piercings, had sex, made bad grades, and got in trouble at school a lot.

I didn’t fit in with them because I made straight A’s and was in honors and AP classes, and never got in trouble at school.

I also didn’t fit in with any of the kids in my honors classes because I dressed like Kurt Cobain and listened to grunge music and wasn’t a Christian. That last one was especially important. I remember getting into a debate in my AP Government class where I was the only one in the whole class who thought it was wrong to have prayer in school. So forget about making friends with any of those people.

In middle and high school I literally didn’t have any friends. I was the only kid in the entire cafeteria to eat lunch alone in the back. I couldn’t sit at any of the tables because I didn’t fit in with any of the cliques. I was too freaky to be respectable and too respectable to be freaky.

I thought that adults grew out of that middle school mentality, but sometimes when I see what goes on in the Pagan Community, it looks like a lot of people don’t. Being Pagan now is rolled into the whole package of being one of the freaky, rebellious, “cool kids”. If you have a college degree (in something other than a liberal art) and a “respectable” career and own a home in the suburbs and are married, you’re a sellout just like those kids in middle school who made straight A’s and never got in trouble.

One thing that really bothers me is when people conflate “freak” and “Pagan” so much that it seems like being a freak is more important than believing in and worshiping the gods. I know a lot of people who go to Burning Man, and they seem to think that’s some kind of Pagan event. Yes, there’s overlap between the communities, but going to Burning Man doesn’t make you pagan. Being polyamorous doesn’t make you pagan. Being an artist doesn’t make you pagan. Having a bunch of tattoos doesn’t make you pagan. I’m not saying it disqualifies you either, but most of the freaks I know aren’t pagans in any sense of the word, besides being freaks.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a freak. I just think that being a freak and being a pagan are two different things that don’t necessarily always have to go together.

It seems like a similar thing goes on in the gay community. When gay marriage became legal, my Facebook was filled with people angry that people are happy about it, because marriage itself is an oppressive institution, and gay people shouldn’t try to be “respectable” now and get married. Now there are legal battles going on about whether gay people can adopt children, and I’m sure the same thing will happen, because parenting is too mainstream as well.

You know, not all gay men look like Mr. Slave or Big Gay Al from South Park. My husband’s brother is gay, and has been with his husband for something like 20 years, and when they re-legalized gay marriage in California where they live, they got legally married. My husband and I went to the courthouse with them when they got married along with several other same-sex couples. It was nice. Lots of happy people around.

You would never be able to tell either of my brother-in-laws are gay just by looking at them. They just look like normal, middle-aged men. Does that make them any less gay? You’d think that two men living together and having sex with each would be Gay Enough.

I guess what really strikes me as ironic is that when you’re already a member of a marginalized community, the community itself gets all upset if you don’t conform to the stereotype that mainstream society has about your community. That doesn’t seem helpful to me. That post from Gods and Radicals has a picture of the cover of The Truth about Witchcraft Today with a picture of a woman in a business suit on the cover. The purpose of that cover is to show that even a woman who wears a business suit can be a witch. What’s the problem with that? Do Wiccans really need to wear goth makeup and crystals all the time?

I’ve already been an outsider my whole life. Unlike most pagans, I was never a Christian to begin with. I could always feel the gods and spirits around, even before I knew what they were. I already feel like I’m enough of a weirdo without forcing myself to do things I’m not interested in doing just because that’s stereotype that pagans are supposed to conform to.

When I discovered paganism in college, I thought at last I have found a community I can belong to, but so often it turns out to be just like trying to sit with the “cool kids” at lunch who looked down on me for taking honors classes instead of skipping school, even if the kids in honors classes also hated me for being in league with Satan.

And now I’m afraid that if I get any comments on this, it will probably be from people who are angry at me for saying that pagans can’t be freaks and should be more respectable. That’s not what I mean. I don’t think pagans have to be “respectable” either. Jason was totally right that mainstream society is never going to respect us no matter what we do. I’ve known that since second or third grade.

What I wonder about is if pagans will ever get to the point where we respect each other and quit with the constant, “Are you pagan enough?” bickering.

It doesn’t help that paganism is often defined by what it’s not rather than what it is, so the question of “Are you pagan enough?” is difficult when “pagan” doesn’t have a precise definition. To a lot of people it seems to mean “Not Christian.” Maybe since Christianity is conflated with conservative, traditional, hetero-normative values, that anyone who doesn’t fit into that mold is pushed into Paganism. So then being pagan is conflated with being everything that Christianity is not, so if you’re not freaky enough, then you’re not pagan enough.

You know, Jesus wasn’t exactly a conservative, mainstream kind of guy and probably wouldn’t get along well with a lot of the people calling themselves Christians now. Meanwhile, pagan pantheons have gods like Zeus and Tyr right alongside gods like Dionysus and Loki.

Oh well, by now I’m pretty used to eating lunch by myself.

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4 thoughts on “Do you have to be a freak to be a Pagan?

  1. Probably the worst aspect of Pagan and Heathen communities is the reactionary mentality- it can be to one extreme or the other- Saying “everyone must be as mainstream or normal as possible” is wrong but so is “everyone must be artsy/alternative-y” etc. Be yourself and do what fits with your personality, values, interests etc. Now we can be honest and say, that some choices we make can get more or less social approval points depending on what setting we are in. I think the problem sometimes people aren’t honest about that- for example, it actually can take a fair amount of privilege, access to certain information, money or simply living in a liberal area to participate in some “alternative” subcultures- being able to be openly Pagan/polytheist/heathen, openly polyamorous/kinky, being able to pursue an artistic, academic or activist-based lifestyle or career (yes, many people who are artists and activists by vocation are low-income, but they often have good social networks & access to resources that make their poverty suck less than do less bohemian poor people.) Some professional type jobs allow more personal freedom of expression, others do not. People of color and/or low-income/working class folks who make “alternative-y” lifestyle choices of various kinds often have to take on more risks to their personal safety, discrimination and so forth.

  2. Reblogged this on The Lefthander's Path and commented:
    Probably the worst aspect of Pagan and Heathen communities is the reactionary mentality- it can be to one extreme or the other- Saying “everyone must be as mainstream or normal as possible” is wrong but so is “everyone must be artsy/alternative-y” etc. Be yourself and do what fits with your personality, values, interests etc. Now we can be honest and say, that some choices we make can get more or less social approval points depending on what setting we are in. I think the problem sometimes people aren’t honest about that- for example, it actually can take a fair amount of privilege, access to certain information, money or simply living in a liberal area to participate in some “alternative” subcultures- being able to be openly Pagan/polytheist/heathen, openly polyamorous/kinky, being able to pursue an artistic, academic or activist-based lifestyle or career (yes, many people who are artists and activists by vocation are low-income, but they often have good social networks & access to resources that make their poverty suck less than do less bohemian poor people.) Some professional type jobs allow more personal freedom of expression, others do not. People of color and/or low-income/working class folks who make “alternative-y” lifestyle choices of various kinds often have to take on more risks to their personal safety, discrimination and so forth.

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