I believe in accessibility, pluralism and openness in spiritual work. It is a basic idea behind the Pagan movement – recognition of the validity of many paths and a celebration of and respect for different traditions.
So a question creeps in. Why am I seeking to participate in a group that is exclusive? The Brotherhood of the Phoenix is by definition for men who love men. In most contexts, I don’t think I would be comfortable joining organizations that exclude women or people of different sexual identities. But I do think that in this specific context, exclusivity allows the Brotherhood to pursue some spiritual goals that would be difficult otherwise.
First, to be clear, the Brotherhood is certainly not a men’s club by the old definition. There aren’t titans of industry smoking cigars and making handshake agreements away from the prying eyes of the masses. Alternately, it’s not a wild gay sex orgy club, either. I am not yet initiated into the Brotherhood, so I will not pretend to understand everything that it is, but what I have seen is this: The Brotherhood is a context for men who love men to be together to explore and deepen the spiritual questions that are specific to us. It is specifically neo-pagan, but there is not required dogma or belief to join. There is certainly intellectual content, but it is also about creating a common experience.
The clergy and mentors who design the rituals use ideas of ritual and magic to create a shared mental and physical space away from pressures of daily life and where everyone present can have a special experience. There is story-telling, and dancing. There are symbols used, and breathing exercises. There are prayers, candles and sharing of food. These spiritual experiences bring the group together in a concrete way that reinforces respect and community.
It would be nice to believe that men who love men are just like everyone else, and don’t need any specially tuned spiritual work. In truth, that isn’t the case in our society. Gay, bi, queer and trans men still need to forge their identity in context where mentors and role models are uncommon or even deliberately suppressed. In many places this has changed and there is a greater openness, but the openness far from universal. There are plenty of conservative religious places in our country. Even in places that are relatively accepting of LGBTQ people, there still can be a pervasive expectation and assumption for children that they are straight until proven otherwise. The necessity of reaching inside to find an identity, rather than just accepting roles assigned by convention, is a common experience for men who love men.
For many men who do “come out” and begin to explore gay communities, they often first encounter places like bars and dance clubs, which can be lonely places that are often tuned more for alcohol consumption and sexual objectification than for finding true friends or finding deeper meaning in life. The “coming out” process can be like a second adolescence, with all the awkwardness that implies, including gossip, insecurities and embarrassments. Deep connection and spiritual meaning can be difficult to find.
As I mentioned in my last post, Paganism was a major spiritual home for feminists from the 1970’s and 1980’s who valued the expressions of feminine divine power and the fact that women were welcomed into leadership positions. But men also needed to re-evaluate themselves in light of the feminist movement, and a men’s movement developed, to consciously develop a new idea of what it means to be a man once the patriarchal/male dominated cultural structures are taken away.
Within certain Pagan traditions, for example Wicca, there is also a tradition of using a very heterosexual lens on fertility magic and a mythology around the uniting of the Goddess and God to create life. Although these traditions certainly don’t exclude gay, bi, queer and trans men, this kind of mythology and magic doesn’t really have the same resonance for obvious reasons.
So in response to these needs, spiritual groups have sprung up in various places aimed at the specific needs of men who love men, and many of them have somewhat different characters depending on the people involved. The Brotherhood of the Phoenix is a Chicago-based organization. I have really enjoyed learning about their particular outlook. The eight holidays of the year are celebrated with public rituals that each have a theme based on aspects of life for the men who are members. They correspond to times of life from birth to the elder years, but they also correspond to aspects of the self to be understood and embraced.
The structure and experiences are very well thought out and the group is lucky to have quite a few knowledgeable and dedicated clergy and mentors to guide the group.