What lies ahead looks like what I have seen before

As I was reading this article about the incoming Cabinet appointees, I couldn’t help thinking that I see what is ahead of us. It looks a lot like a place where I have been before.

I came out in 1987, in Reagan’s America. Only a handful of states had non-discrimination laws for employment or housing. No one even dreamed of legal same-sex marriages. A major epidemic had taken hold because the Federal government thought it only affected gays and drug addicts, who frankly deserved to get sick.

It was a common fear for children to be disowned by their parents or forced into therapy for coming out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. It was common for people to lie to themselves and their spouses and live lives that looked like everyday American families, but were really a kind of silent hell.

For Trans people – well, it’s hard for me to even imagine. There was so little hope for support from home, school, work – so little awareness and so little sympathy for their identity that they knew in their hearts.

For LGBTQ people of color, who faced multiple intersections of discrimination around sexuality, race, ethnicity, and religion – the challenges and complications went far beyond what I ever experienced.

And so many brave and beautiful souls persevered.


It won’t look like it did before. The 1980’s didn’t look quite like the 1950’s, even if that’s what many in power aspired to achieve. LGBT communities had become established during the freer years of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Anita Bryant took her anti-gay crusade around and succeeded in getting quite a few places to roll back anti-discrimination laws (including St Paul, MN, my home at the time I came out). But the community still existed and grew stronger in spite of the disasters it faced.

The “Moral Majority” was in full swing – as was the “Satanic Panic”. There was a backlash against the open religious exploration of the 1960’s as well as the increasing secularism of American culture. Here, too, the counterculture was established enough that it held on, even if it was only in casual, personal ways. Neopaganism continued to develop, although it took on a “New Age” cast that was more about self-improvement than creation of an alternative spiritual community.


I was too young to really understand it at the time, but the 1980’s were also a time when environmental progress was rolled back. The move toward energy conservation through the 1970’s was reversed. Protected lands were opened to logging, drilling and mining. The EPA was weakened in favor of “business friendly” policies allowing more pollution. See more about Reagan’s environmental record here

The 1980’s saw a dramatic step up in the War on Drugs, which meant increasing incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders. Of course this had a racial component – much of the enforcement was in communities of color, even when drug use was just as prevalent in primarily white communities. See more about the War on Drugs here.

It was also the time when standards of honesty and integrity of the press was eroded. Reagan played a critical role in rolling back the “Fairness Doctrine” and other safeguards to hold media responsible for their reporting. This deregulation, along with the proliferation of cable news and then the internet news sites, has led to most news outlets being highly partisan and in many cases portraying opinion and sometimes even lies as news. See more about the changes to media in the 1980’s here.



We seem to be facing all these social currents again (or, in some cases, still): Anti-LGBTQ legal actions; Religious xenophobia and fear; Environmental protections being rolled back; An increase in racialized policing; A news media system that continues to fail in bringing reliable and balanced information to the American public.

I hope the cultural shifts of the past 20 years around all these issues will be enough to hold us together through the next decade. I am worried that if I get fired from my job because of my sexuality or my religion, the Federal legal system is not likely to help me out. I am even more worried about the climate of religious and ethnic discrimination that seems to be rising. And I am most worried about the fragile balance of the environment and the climate, which already seems to be on the verge of tipping.

My Big Gay Pagan Agenda

It used to be a common refrain from the Religious Right that we as a country shouldn’t give in to the Gay Agenda. With the increasing acceptance of different sexual and gender identities, that phrase was starting to seem rather silly.

But I am here to admit that with the changes that seem to be facing us, trying to move past despair and fear, I am starting to make up an agenda. Unfortunately, most of these are not things I can do on my own. These are all things we need to pull together to accomplish, and as of January 20, 2017, we can count on very little help from the federal government to support any of these goals.

This isn’t a complete list of what I want, but it’s some of the more realistic areas where we can take action in the political climate going forward.

So, in the spirit of being the change that scares the crap out of the religious right, here is My Big Gay Pagan Agenda.


My Big Gay Pagan Legislative Wish List:

Enact laws to ban Conversion/Reparative Therapy (State and Local)

Conversion Therapy is a damaging and debunked practice that attempts to “convert” people with same sex attractions to heterosexuality. Our new VP, Mike Pence, is an advocate for this infamous practice. Several states (California, Illinois, New Jersey, Vermont, and Oregon) have already banned this. If you can push your state and local politicians to enact a ban, I heartily encourage this. http://www.hrc.org/resources/the-lies-and-dangers-of-reparative-therapy


Enact laws to ban “Gay Panic” and “Trans Panic” legal defenses (State)

At this point only California has banned the use of “gay panic” and “trans panic” defenses in cases of murder and assault. In the rest of the country, a bad reaction to someone’s sexual or gender identity can be used as an argument for justification or mitigating circumstances for the crime. We need to acknowledge that this is pure discrimination and malice. It should not be allowed as a defense in crimes against LGBTQ people. http://lgbtbar.org/what-we-do/programs/gay-and-trans-panic-defense/


Enact laws to protect LGBTQ people from employment and housing discrimination (State and Local)

A lot of people thought that after same sex marriage went nationwide, the Gay Agenda had been completed. Far from it. In many states, people can be legally fired from their jobs or kicked out of their homes because they are LGBTQ. Efforts to push a national bill through Congress have been stalled and we are almost certainly not to see any progress with the incoming Congress. The game is at the state level. If you live in any of the states that do not have such protections, put the pressure on your elected officials. https://www.aclu.org/map/non-discrimination-laws-state-state-information-map


Change policies to de-escalate police violence against Communities of Color

This is a huge and complex issue, but Campaign Zero has a lot of concrete and useful suggestions about ways to change and de-escalate policing that too often ends in the deaths of people who pose no significant threat, and are very often not even involved in criminal activity at all. http://www.joincampaignzero.org/#vision


I wish I could add issues around environmental protection and immigration reform, but those are questions handled federally, and I’m afraid there’s little hope for progress there, only a wish that the most radical proposals fall apart or are opposed so vigorously that they can’t move forward.


My Big Gay Pagan Personal Wish List:

Be Out

Visibility helps, when it comes to sexual and gender identity and when it comes to religious diversity. People are less likely to support discriminatory policies if they know that it would hurt their friends, family, and neighbors. I know not everyone feels safe doing this, and different places can have different levels of safety (out with friends and family, but not at work, for example), but try pushing the envelope. Talk about and normalize your family or romantic situation. Challenge gender stereotyping and gender essentialism. Respectfully challenge the idea that “we all believe in the same god”. Talk about the sacredness of natural places.


Strengthen our support and solidarity networks

Don’t let despair prevent you from connecting with friends, local groups, and support networks. I found this article below from Gods and Radicals to be very thought-provoking and full of ideas to keep moving forward, even if/when there are new repressive actions from the government. Although I don’t advocate illegal actions at this time, I think it’s very important to ask ourselves where the line is. Mass deportations? Religious tests for US travel? Suppression of the press? The justice system turning a blind eye to racial violence?



Stand up against harassment and violence

As has been reported in many parts of the country, violence and intimidation against Muslims, immigrant communities, and many other groups have been on the rise since the success of the Republican nominee’s campaign. Many people are noting that bigotry has been emboldened.



Support the resolve of Sanctuary Cities

My home city of Chicago is a Sanctuary City, which will not cooperate with Immigration enforcement and will not even request the immigration status of people who interact with police. Otherwise law-abiding citizens who are undocumented are not subject to local law enforcement. The incoming administration has threatened to take away federal funding for such cities who defy the new immigration enforcement protocols.

More information on Sanctuary Cities


Support organizations that advocate for the embattled groups and the environment

I’m sure any of these organization will be happy to receive donations of time and/or money. Again, this is a very incomplete list.


Campaign Zero


Lady Liberty League

Lambda Legal

Mercy for Animals


Pagan Pride organizations

Planned Parenthood

Sierra Club

Southern Poverty Law Center

Wilderness Society

Immigrants’ rights groups, trans advocates, food pantries and homeless shelters, anti-defamation leagues, local LGBTQ organizations, Muslim aid societies, independent press organizations


My Big Gay Personal Challenges:

I am introverted by nature, but I am pushing myself to feed and strengthen my support networks at this time. I will continue to grow my involvement with Brotherhood of the Phoenix, an organization for men who love men (gay, bi, trans, queer). This Brotherhood can be a resource and support for the vulnerable among us.

I have limited financial resources, but I will try to help support organizations doing good work in whatever way possible – publicity, volunteering, etc.

I need to remain strong, physically and mentally. Friends and strangers may need a sympathetic ear. They may also need someone to help protect them from abuse or harassment, which is a far more physically demanding challenge.

I am going to seek out a self-defense class at some point in the near future. I am not a person who has a background in physical confrontation, but I fear there may be a time when such confrontation comes to me. I need to be more prepared than I am today.

One of my gifts is that I love to cook for people. Food is an immediate way to give people a bit of support, and it provides an occasion for gatherings and network building. I need to continue to use that gift.

I will continue to refine this Agenda and to keep myself strong enough that I will not be overwhelmed by the challenges ahead.

Ecstasis Event October 8th – Brotherhood of the Phoenix

In the cosmology of the Brotherhood of the Phoenix, we are in the season of the Divine Androgyne. I think the Androgyne has many things to teach us about accepting parts of ourselves and finding a way to keep a dynamic balance, particularly in times of change.

Ecstasis is our celebration of the Androgyne, and it is open to people of all genders and sexual identities (ages 18 and over). Because it is open to everyone, we typically get a nice crowd, filled with our friends and supporters. I would like to welcome you, too. It is the evening of October 8th, at a location just west of Chicago’s Loop. We will have a ritual followed by a potluck. Find more details at one of the links below.

Facebook Event Page

Event information on the Brotherhood of the Phoenix website

Attacks Against LGBTQ Spaces

For years, I was a regular at one of the largest, and most visible gay nightclubs in Chicago’s “Boys Town”. I had a whole group of friends that I made there, and several nights each week, I would be there for hours. I was also a frequent visitor to many of the other local dance clubs, as well as a regular attendee of festivals, street fairs, and the Pride Parade.

In spite of the festive atmosphere, dance music, and colorful décor, large gay clubs – and LGBTQ bars in general – represent not just a constant party, but a “safe” place to embrace identity. It was a place where same sex attraction and affection is embraced, and unfortunately for most people, safe places for such expression are rare in everyday life. In a place like Chicago, there are a number of organizations that provide alternatives for people who aren’t interested in drinking or loud music, but even so, bars and nightclubs remain the most visible presences of the LGBTQ community in many places.

This creation of safe space can be very imperfect, and not all LGBTQ identities are equally accepted and celebrated in particular places. We all still live in this culture, and being LGBTQ doesn’t immediately erase racism, sexism, transphobia, ethnic and religious biases. Many gay clubs can be a hostile place for men who are older, overweight, “femme”, or who otherwise don’t fit into narrow stereotypes of “hot gay guys”. I wish the “coming out” process just erased those ugly attitudes, but I’ve been around too long and seen too much to believe that. But, for all these problems, they represent a striving for that safe space, imperfect as they may be in practice.


I did not know any of the victims of the attack in Orlando. I have never even been to Florida. But the setting of this attack is very familiar to me. In part, this familiarity is why this tragedy struck me so hard. The shooter chose this place specifically because it was an LGBTQ identified place. He wanted to destroy these people, this place, these lives, these expressions. Their very existence offended him and he struck out with the most effective tools of destruction that he had on hand.

And he was effective, horrifyingly so. Armed with multiple firearms, he killed 50 people and injured 53 more. He was more effective than his long line of predecessors, from the arsonist at the Second Story Bar in New Orleans in 1973, to the serial bomber Eric Robert Rudolph in 1996, to the heavily armed young man from Indiana who was apprehended on his way to Pride celebrations in LA on the very same day as the Orlando tragedy.

These attackers are drawn to those who openly express their sexuality, their love, their community. They set out to destroy those people and those expressions. It’s a pattern that repeats, even now as we think that our country has gone through a revolution in thinking about same sex relationships and gay/lesbian identity (when it comes to Trans identities, I think we’re still in the early stages of revolution there).


I rarely go to large nightclubs anymore, and I haven’t been to the Pride Parade for the past couple years. My tolerance for crowds has shrunk dramatically over recent years. That is no longer my world, but for years, it was. It was something I needed – something that provided community, acceptance of my identity, a chance to connect.

This attack, and this whole pattern of attacks, is deeply personal. I have stood in the spot of those victims, tuned out to the potential danger, feeling safe. This attacker has succeeded, not only in cutting short those beautiful lives, but terrorizing the rest of us, and sowing the seeds of distrust in places that we perceive as safe. I don’t want to “give in” and allow the terrorism to take hold. I will try not to allow that.

For me, those types of places no longer fill the need I once felt, so I don’t feel the need to run out just to conquer the fear. The outpouring of support for the LGBTQ community over this has been enormous, and for that I am grateful. Gay clubs will get plenty of support in the near future.

What I feel like we need, even more than that, is to bring safe spaces to express love, sexuality, and gender plurality into more places in the world. LGBTQ identities and expressions need to be celebrated and defended, again and again.

Queerness and Othering: Identity vs. Description

My friend Theo at the Queerwitch blog wrote a piece about the use of “Queer” as a identity and a descriptor. I appreciate the perspective on this question, one that I think about frequently. I was writing some of my thoughts as a comment, and then, well, it turned into a rather long blog post of my own.

I don’t entirely trust in the objective power of description, especially when it comes to questions of social identity. I’m not saying these descriptive categories aren’t useful – they certainly can be when we are trying to understand our community. But they can also be a problem.

Racial categories can be slippery. In this country for example, with our fraught racial history, we often think of race in terms of Black and White, with Asians sometimes acknowledged as a population. Who falls into which category has changed over time. Those with a quarter or even an eighth part of Black ancestry were considered Black, even though clearly a majority of their genetic makeup may have been from European roots. And that doesn’t even address the shifting preferences for the terms “Negro”, “Colored”, “Black” and “African American”. Irish, Italian, and Jewish people were not really considered White by Americans in the 19th and early 20th century, until each of those identities were later folded into the White American identity. I sometimes wonder if actual Caucasians, as in a people from the Caucasus, who often have olive skin and dark hair, would be considered White in 19th century America. Latin and Hispanic people pose an even more complex set of issues. Many Latin American and Caribbean countries are as racially diverse as the United States, and yet often people of entirely European descent or entirely African descent are called Latino/a as a racial identity, rather than an ethnic/cultural/linguistic identity.

Clearly, the rules change around racial categories.

Religious identity is even slipperier. Is religious identity based on belief, as most Protestant Christians would assert? Is it based on birth and the religion of your parents, or even a specific parent (i.e. Judaism is inherited through the mother)? Can you shop for Churches in the American way, and pick your religion like you would pick a car or refrigerator? Do you need to follow certain rituals to claim your religious identity? Once you choose, can you change your mind (an offense punishable by death in many branches of Islam, for example)? How about all the different traditions that claim that they are the true followers of a religion/prophet/tradition, while others are false – while competing groups may make the exact same exclusive claim to the same identity?

The ability to use descriptive categories that may contradict the chosen identity of those who are being identified is a position of power, of privilege. Governments, institutions, poll takers, businesses, media outlets – they are the ones that choose the categories, the boxes to check on the multiple choice forms. Sometimes, there is an attempt to accurately and inoffensively use “descriptions”, even as they realize that self-identity may be more complicated. This process can be useful, certainly, but it still has the problem of putting people into categories that the categorized may not agree with.

So that brings us back around to the label “queer”. The reclaiming of the insult started in the 1980’s and became a part of common discourse in academia in the 1990’s. Advocates of the word claim (rightly) that it provides a catch-all term for gay, lesbian, bi, trans, intersex, and a list of other non-traditional/non-straight gender and sexual identities. It is inclusive of many “others”.

On the other hand, for many gay men and lesbians of my generation (I’m in my mid-forties) and older often object to being called queer. It is still the insult that we learned about when we were younger. Theo refers to an article from the HuffPost presenting one such perspective. The use of the term may not be “triggering” as Theo surmises – that terminology is definitely from a younger generation – but it still may offend. If some preacher on the street condemns the “Sodomites” or “perverts”, I may find being described this way as offensive, even if it’s not associated with a personal incident of abuse. It is the terminology of an entire hate-filled worldview and I refuse to allow them to choose my descriptions.

Now for me, I sometimes identify myself as queer, and I really appreciate being thought of as part of a queer community. I like a community that embraces trans, genderqueer and poly identities. I like a community open to discussions about kink and asexuality. I feel privileged to be considered part of a diverse and fascinating group. I have embraced the “otherness” that is part of me, and not just because of my sexuality.

This is not the perspective of many of the gay men and lesbians who are voicing this objection to being called queer. The thinking for many of my peers is that being attracted to a person of the same sex was just an uncontrollable characteristic, like having blue eyes or being left handed. It should not count to make someone other – it should not make them queer. They want their sexual identity “normalized” – to be considered just one of the many characteristics that are in the range of the “regular”.

If you ever have the occasion to look at gay men’s dating ads, they often include phrases like “just a regular guy”, or even more telling “straight-acting”. There are also gay men who go out of their way to say they’re “not stereotypical”, which usually means they embody the stereotype of a “normal” man of their age, race and class, rather than what they think of as a stereotype of a gay man. It almost never means that they actually defy stereotypes.

It has always struck me that “normal” and “regular” are unappealing descriptions to embrace. Perhaps it’s good to be normal in some ways – like having your blood pressure in the “normal” range, but I can’t embrace it as a social aspiration. But this is my perspective, and perhaps my own bias of preferring the company of people who are more unusual. But I should be more generous. I suspect nearly everyone has something unusual about them, but they shouldn’t be encouraged to hide it in order to appear “normal”.

Challenge Gender Essentialism

My friend Theo has a new blog called Queerwitch, which is well worth checking out. A recent post is a rant (of sorts) against gender essentialism. I whole-heartedly agree with this critique.

If you’re a little lost on what the term means, there’s actually a nice write up here. That author has some great insights about how it affects sexuality and relationships, but gender essentialism can creep into almost everything.


There are so many examples of needless stress on gender identification that we encounter in our daily life. One subject that has gotten a lot of attention lately is the “boys’ toys” vs. “girls’ toys”. It seems pretty obvious to me that you should let your child play with whatever toy interests them, regardless of gender assignment.


Here’s a helpful meme that I stole from somewhere


Why is it that on so many forms, from the vital to the mundane, one of the first questions asked is “M/F”, with no opportunity to avoid answering, or to provide any nuance? I can understand why your doctor’s office may ask – it may be relevant to certain medical conditions – but they should be ready to accommodate an answer that is more nuanced than these two simple categories. But why exactly is this important for a Drivers License or a Sweepstakes entry? Why is it the first question that people ask when someone has a new baby? How exactly is sex/gender important in those situations?


There is a vegan author of some note. I have met her and she is a very pleasant person. I own one of her books. I love that her work is to make veganism more mainstream and accessible. She has a podcast that I started listening to, but I had to stop. Virtually every guest, every person that she spoke about was praised as “a perfect Lady” or “a real man’s man”, or some such gender-based compliment and descriptor. It began to really annoy me. This constant refrain of praise of people because they manifest some type of gendered ideal began to wear on me. If that is so praiseworthy, then isn’t the implication that people who don’t fit into her nice gender roles are somehow less praiseworthy? I’m fairly sure that wasn’t her conscious intent, but the messaging around gender was so persistent.


Even people who should be more aware of gender issues – LGB people, self-described Feminists – do this kind of gender coding and shaming. There’s a horrible meme going around now showing a bearded, plaid-wearing man (a “lumbersexual” in certain circles). The punchline includes something like “if you don’t know how to change a tire, then you have to shave”.


Is Conchita going to change a tire?

I don’t even think that people realize how ridiculous it is that they are somehow offended that some guy with a beard may not fit their expectations of “manly” skills. A skill like changing a tire has absolutely nothing to do with gender and it definitely has nothing to do with facial hair (and frankly it has nothing to do with being a lumberjack). What is the point in policing this?


I have already written about respecting people’s self identity around gender and sexual identity. This is a closely related topic. Trans people frequently deal with gender based shaming and harassment. Some people feel the need to police gender identities and frankly, there’s no real justification other than the harasser’s preconceived ideas and invasive sense of entitlement to pass judgment on others. The issue of public bathrooms can be huge – and not because trans people are causing trouble in any way.


If you are tempted to tell someone to be more “ladylike” or to “man up”. Stop yourself and think. If you are correcting this person, does it have to be about policing their gender? Would that behavior be acceptable in a person of a different gender identity? If the problem really is about behavior and not a gender expectation, then frame the comment appropriately – and fairly. If you are making decisions for yourself or others and you are basing it on “women like this activity” or “men like this activity”, stop for a moment and think. Isn’t it possible that people may have broader interests that aren’t just defined by sex and gender? Do yourself and those around you a favor and let go of those narrow confines.

Some thoughts about the Brotherhood of the Phoenix

Between writing about the Brotherhood of the Phoenix on my blog (and dealing with the questions and comments) and meeting some of the Seekers looking at our tradition with their questions, I wanted to address a few misconceptions about the Brotherhood of the Phoenix.

Keep in mind, I am not one of the leaders or founders of the Brotherhood of the Phoenix. I am speaking for myself here, and according to my observations. This is not an official Brotherhood statement. I have run these thoughts past some of the other Brothers and they agreed with the ideas presented here.


Is the Brotherhood an ancient tradition?

We are influenced by various traditions and histories. We look to certain spiritual heroes and ancestors. But we do not claim to be inheritors of any ancient lineage. To us, in this time and space, what it means to be a man who loves men is the result of a certain set of cultural circumstances that form our gender and sexual identities. The cultural advantages and limitations of being a “man” do not necessarily translate to other cultures and other times. The cultural meanings of being “homosexual”, “gay”, “bisexual” or “queer” are also specific to this time and this place.

We are an emergent tradition – one that fits a need to serve a specific population. We feel that the binary male-female fertility rites that formed the centerpiece of certain Neopagan traditions do not feel central to our experience. We seek out (and have found) powers and deities that resonate with our own experiences and stages of life.  We are not a Reconstructionist tradition – we realize that those from the past, and particularly those in ancient cultures, would not see or experience deity through the particular lens that we have.


Does the Brotherhood limit member participation in other religious traditions?

I personally know of Brothers who have personal practices that includes Norse, Kemetic, Greco-Roman, Celtic, Hindu and Buddhist traditions. We have Ceremonial Magicians and those who practice traditional Witchcraft and Hoodoo. We even have those who come to our rituals who consider themselves practicing Christians. Nothing in the Brotherhood requires our participants to renounce or abandon their own beliefs or practices. Since our celebrations don’t tend to coincide with other Neopagan observances, we don’t usually force Brothers to choose between commitments.


Does the Brotherhood exclude participation from friends and visitors?

Yes, we do limit many of our events and membership to the Brotherhood to self-defined “men who love men”. A couple years ago, I discussed my own thought process about this limitation here.

At least twice per year (and likely more often in the future), we invite all people aged 18 and over to participate in our public rituals, regardless of gender or sexual identity, and these rituals are some of our most well attended events. We also do outreach to the larger community. For example, we will be leading one of the public rituals at Chicagoland Pagan Pride this year. We do reach out to a larger community and we are glad to engage in a constructive way with those outside of our group.


Are Brotherhood events a place to hook up?

Brothers and seekers at our events come together for spiritual teaching and experience. We also offer fellowship and some social time – particularly during our potlucks that happen after our public rituals. We offer a place to meet others that you may not encounter otherwise. But the goal is not specifically about dating or sexual encounters. In fact, one of the core values of this organization is that we see value in one another beyond dating and outside of the often competitive and objectifying world of sexual desirability.

This is not to say that dating and sexual partnering doesn’t happen – it does and we don’t have any rules against it. We don’t exclude it. But it is not the purpose of the gatherings or the Brotherhood.


Will the Brotherhood be my new best friends?

You will probably meet some people at Brotherhood events that are not like people you would meet in other contexts. They are interested, or at least open to, Neopagan spirituality. Some of them will be free-spirited and quick to encourage and show affection. Some of them may have quirky commonalities with you. But remember that here, just like anywhere else, true friendship must be earned.

If you approach with an open heart and a willingness to be honest and share, you will be in a better place to allow bonding to flourish. But remember that we are all individuals with our own interests, tastes, commitments, tolerances, and sets of existing friends. Friendship bonding outside of Brotherhood events may not happen.


If you want to see what the Brotherhood is, please visit our website, our Facebook page, attend one of our events, and check out our blog posts featuring writing by Brothers. Feel free to reach out to us with questions. But mostly, we encourage you to come to one of our public rituals, if you are able (posted on the webpage and Facebook). The experience that we create will be the most powerful statement about who we are and what we do.

Manifesting the Elder – Brotherhood of the Phoenix

A feature of the public rituals of the Brotherhood of the Phoenix is when one of the Brothers manifests one of the eight faces of the Queer God. Earlier this month, for the first time, I was the one who took this role. It was a big step for me, and one that only came after training and preparation. Eight months ago, I said it was something that scared me – both in terms of having the God speak through me and being the center of attention in that context. As it turned out, the former was a great help with the latter, since the presentation was not entirely “me”. I felt suffused with the calm energy of the Elder, which guided me through it.

The whole thing went surprisingly well and the message was well received by those who attended. I wrote up some of the presentation, which is now shared on the Brotherhood’s website.

Reflections of the Elder

Respecting Self-Identity

When I was in college, it was a common topic of conversation among my gay and lesbian friends to gossip and guess about which other students were really gay. Since many of us had gone through a coming out process, it was probably a natural part of this to wonder who else was keeping a secret, and who was going to come out next. Certain friends would become somewhat obsessive about a particular person that they were sure was ready to come out. They may have even tried to make friends with them, not from a genuine interest in the person’s friendship, but from a more missionary intention to make them come out.

Another aspect of this was that when a person came out as bisexual, there was an assumption from many people that they were really gay or lesbian and that the bisexual identity was a stepping stone to coming out as gay or lesbian. It didn’t take me too long to figure out that sometimes this idea was true and that in many other cases, people were truly bisexual – attracted to both women and men.

For a while, I was one of the coordinators of our campus gay and lesbian group, which functioned as a combination of support, social, and activist purposes. We often had confidential “coming out” sessions where people came together to talk about their experiences and challenges.

One of the changes that I helped to initiate was the inclusion of Bisexual into the name of the group, and to make sure that those with a bisexual identity were included. I wish we were more aware of trans issues at the time, but it wasn’t on the radar, so to speak, in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

It became clear to me that the habit of speculating and gossiping about whether someone was really gay or lesbian was a useless exercise. We don’t really know what is in someone else’s heart and mind. For me to say that I do know is simply hubris on my part. It is no achievement for me to “trick” someone into coming out. It is my part to respect their identity and respect their process of self-exploration. It is my part to be honest about who I am, and through that maybe communicate that it’s OK to come out. And maybe, if they have it in them, and if they feel comfortable, they can challenge their own identity and become honest with themselves.


It seems that sexual and gender identities are now acknowledged to be far more complex than 25 years ago. There are trans, intersex, and genderqueer identities. There are pansexual and asexual identities. There are different flavors of kink and polyamory. All these variables also interact and intersect with racial, ethnic, class, religious and other cultural identities. It’s not just a question of straight vs. gay, and not even the question of the Kinsey scale. Identity politics today include shifting spectrums in all directions.

And I think my personal lesson about self-identity is as true now as ever. I let people identify themselves. It doesn’t do much good to anyone involved if I am stuck on my understanding of their identity, when theirs is quite different. This will never lead to a relationship of trust or respect. This will never lead to honesty.


We had another instance this week of a Pagan elder who is being called out for transphobia. This has happened periodically in the past few years. A few years ago, there was a stir because a famous Dianic priestess excluded trans women from their women-only event at a large Pagan conference. The trans women were not “women-born women”. Of course this came off as a statement that they were not “real” women, so they were excluded.

This time, a well-known priestess in a Yoruba tradition reacted to this false news story by saying “Bruce Jenner is an old drag queen” and “Bruce Jenner get over your self. You can dress in all the fabric you want and you will never be a real woman.”

I understand the outrage at the derogatory comments about Serena Williams that were attributed to Caitlyn Jenner. It is racist and misogynistic that people insult Serena Williams for not being feminine enough or even calling her a man. She has a woman’s body – the body of a strong, accomplished, athletic woman. The gender-shaming aimed at her in the media is ridiculous.

But the story is false. Caitlyn Jenner never said anything like this. Caitlyn Jenner didn’t claim to be more feminine than Serena Williams. Even after this Elder knew it was a false story, there was no real apology for the personal insults to Caitlyn Jenner and the online comments (in a public Facebook post) were not taken down.

In some circles, there does seem to be a pressure to universally praise Caitlyn Jenner. I am not quite in that camp. She has some political views that I find very problematic. I can’t say that I’m a fan of the type of reality television that has kept her in the spotlight over the last number of years. The presentation of her “coming out” as trans was very focused on a change in appearance – one that is the result of expensive surgeries and the best makeup artists, stylists, and photographers that money can buy.

On the other hand, her transformation has brought light to trans issues and identities in a broad cultural context. She has sometimes shown herself to be thoughtful about what a trans identity means to those who don’t have her advantages. A lot of good has come from her willingness to take the spotlight.


But whatever you think of her personally, I come back to my lesson. Caitlyn Jenner has the right to choose and to explore her own identity. It is not our place to second guess it or pretend that we know her identity better than she does. We do not know what is in her mind and her heart.

By calling her by her old name, by calling her a “drag queen” (by definition a man dressing in women’s clothes), by saying she will never be a “real” woman, this Elder asserts that she knows this person’s gender better than she knows it herself.

This lesson is equally true of all people who are exploring and redefining their sexual and gender identity. We must respect others and their process and their identity. We will never arrive at respect if we think we understand better than they do. We will never help them with their own process. We will never encourage honesty and self-discovery.

A Letter of Encouragement

My college gave me a writing assignment. Yes, I graduated long ago, and it’s not for any college credits. It is meant to be kept in a binder in a resource center for the LGBTQ students, to represent the voices of alumni. Here is more about the request. This is what I came up with, and I thought I would share it here.


October 2015
Chicago, IL

Dear Student,

When I started at Macalester in 1987, it was a long time ago and the world was different for LGBTQ people. It was Reagan’s America, with its great cultural Conservative backlash. AIDS was still a virtual death sentence, with the earliest drug therapies just being approved and having imperfect and mixed results. And I had been teetering on the edge of coming out as gay through high school.

Macalester offered me a soft landing as I came out within months of arriving. There was a supportive and active group for LGB people at the time, and I consider myself incredibly lucky to be there during that time of my own growth. For that I am forever grateful.

And I love what has happened since then in terms of the ongoing inclusiveness. I love that Queer, Trans and a whole range of different identities have emerged and been embraced by Macalester. I love that the faculty and staff members with LGBTQ identities are visible and part of the institution. I love that LGBTQ People of Color are more visible and their identities and stories are embraced.

Even though I have never seen one at work, I love the idea of the Identity Collectives, which seem to help people talk through challenges and be supportive of one another while they explore who they are, and especially who they are away from family and interacting with people of different backgrounds.

But with the wonderful things that Macalester can offer, it is still a relatively small community, and one filled with quirky and sometimes awkward personalities. Even on the most supportive campus, you are going to have drama, heartbreak, struggles to feel understood. This is part of the process of figuring out who you are becoming. And that is a beautiful thing.

As wonderful as Macalester can be, there is also the idea there is a Mac bubble and that out in the “real world”, people may not be as accepting. I did worry about that when I was there, and I’m sure many students may wonder about that, too. Maybe you’ve figured out your place at Mac, but what happens when you have to face life beyond that.

First, realize that Mac is real life, at least one version of it. And every place you go from now on will have a somewhat different version of real life, each just as real as the other. Gone are the days when everyone had to fit into a mold of getting a job, getting married, and having children to have a “real life”.

If you teach English in Vietnam or you write a novel while you have two part-time jobs to pay the rent, if you go to graduate school or start your own small business, if you work at Whole Foods or Dunn Brothers, if you become a stock broker or a school teacher – these are all “real life” and every one comes with certain advantages and certain challenges. Living on your own, living with a roommate, moving in with the love of your life – these can all be great and they can be a royal pain to deal with.

But my point is, as heavy as it may be after Macalester, you will be the one making the choices – where to live, where to work, what goals are important now, and which ones can wait. Those big decisions force a thousand other smaller ones.
Macalester experience will help you with the process of thinking certain things through. You will be able to recognize when friends or organizations are really committed to diversity or environmental responsibility and when they’re just giving these issues lip service. And hopefully, you will be able to find friends and colleagues who will recognize and support who you are and who you want to become. They are really out there, sometime in the most unexpected places.

When I was a student, I was sometimes socially awkward, often angry, and even went through a couple major depressive episodes. At times, I blamed Macalester for this, or perhaps for not helping me out more than they did. It certainly is true that the mental health resources that the students have today may have benefited me, and they were not in place back then.

Now, in my mid-forties, I consider myself to be in a good place. I have lived in Chicago for over 20 years now, and it wasn’t until I had been here almost 10 years that I found a group of friends as funky and smart, creative and open-minded as the people I knew at Macalester. Maybe I should have been better about holding onto those wonderful Macalester people, but I had to go and figure out parts of myself first before I really appreciated what I had there and what I left behind.

Macalester people may be really different from you, but for the most part, they will take the time to actually listen when you bring a perspective that is different. Appreciate that while you are there, and when you connect with Macalester people after you have moved on to your next place, because believe me, you will find that in many places in our society, people won’t take the time to really listen.

This was supposed to be a letter of encouragement. I hope that it works to encourage you, in some small way, to appreciate what you have at Macalester and to not be afraid of what comes next. My years since Macalester have been filled with things I never would have imagined when I was a student. My career, my main relationship, my friends, and my hobbies are not at all what I might have pictured, but on most days, I count myself happy and lucky.

All my best,