Today, May 2, 2011, is the first International Pagan Coming Out Day. Not unlike National Coming Out Day, held in the U.S. (and increasingly worldwide) yearly on October 11, this is a day that is supposed to be favored for people coming out to their friends, families, and co-workers as pagan. If I understand correctly, it is to be a yearly event. Pagan Pride festivals often occur during the summer months, so to have this occasion precede them seems very sensible; the same is not true of LGBTQ Pride events, which generally take place in June, but Coming Out Day takes place in October.
Some have suggested that they feel the wider pagan movement has appropriated the coming out experience of queer people in creating this particular occasion. While I think there is some truth to that, at the same time, there are many things about which people have to “come out” in their lives. Indeed, the realization that many parents have to accept that their (straight) children are sexual beings is a coming out of sorts, complete with the “You just don’t understand!” and the rebelliousness, the thoughts that some things are “phases,” the uncomfortability that many parents have at their children’s sexual maturity and its attendant desires, and the potential embarrassments it can cause at family dinners and in public…There’s any number of coming out experiences that people of all types undergo. And, in many ways, the queer situation and the pagan one are comparable: pagans are just as apt to lose their legal rights, and things like jobs or custody of children, due to the revelation of their paganism as queer people are in losing their jobs, housing, and even their physical safety when it is revealed that they are queer…and, both the threats and actualities of bodily harm have occurred with many pagans in certain communities. So, there is certainly a lot of common ground.
I’ve written recently on Patheos.com about “coming out theology” and whether or not paganism needs it, and I think that “coming out theology” in a more general sense might be worth questioning within paganism. Many of us with Christian coworkers, for example, may not like to hear all about church activities at work, especially if it is not relevant to the work situation nor of interest to us personally; why, therefore, should we expect that the revelation that we are pagan would be of any interest or relevance to our coworkers either? I think it does have to be asked.
But, one of the things which the International Pagan Coming Out Day organizers have suggested would be a good thing to do on this day is to share our own stories of coming out as pagan. I think that’s something I can certainly do…though by no means is my story a typical one, and it may even be something that the I.P.C.O.D. organizers may not approve of, strictly speaking, as you will see in due course. It is, however, my own truth and my own position, and as such I can do nothing but convey it as clearly as possible for those who care to know more about it.
In terms of my family life, I am pretty much out as pagan to all of my immediate family–some don’t know the exact details, and despite many of them having copies of the books I have written and published listed on these pages, and even having read bits of them, none really understand it fully, and have generally not asked further questions on the matter. It’s just “a thing” to them, and perhaps one amongst many things that makes me very strange in comparison to the rest of my family, but there it is. I can’t think of too many people that I would consider good friends at this stage, with whom I have regular contact, that doesn’t know I’m pagan; and in fact, a great many of my closest friends with whom I associate regularly in person at present are pagan themselves, of a variety of stripes.
When I began studying polytheism at 15, I was in hiding. My mom was happy that I was spending all of my money reading books rather than doing any number of other things teenagers do that cost money and are illegal, but I was in hiding about my religion for many years, secreting away the makeshift altar I had created, putting other books over the books that said “PAGAN” or “WITCH” prominently on the covers as I was reading them around others, and so forth. The atmosphere at the time (the early 90s) where I lived (rural Washington state, with a large Christian conservative population) was one not conducive to people saying they were pagan, and the messages I was getting in a lot of materials I was reading suggested that secrecy and discretion were the rule and the expected norm, and that persecution would follow if revelation occurred. I didn’t get to fully practice paganism until I went away to college, though I was a crypto-pagan for three years before that. I spoke of it to some friends at school. Samain of my senior year of high school (which is to say, November 1), I made a horned headdress and wore it all day at school, and though some said “Halloween was yesterday,” I told everyone I met that no it wasn’t necessarily, and that what I was doing was perfectly allowable. One of my teachers said “You need to take that off and respect my religion, because my religion says that what you’re doing is demonic.” I replied by saying “You need to respect my religion, which says that this is perfectly fine.” And that was that. Yes, it was from a certain viewpoint silly and stupid and the epitome of adolescent snotty-nosed know-it-all rebellion (not to mention very poorly informed)…but that wasn’t why I was doing it. Everyone has their obnoxious phase when it comes to religion, or sexuality, and I think that was mine…
My first “coming out” experience was of a religious nature, however. My mother’s family, for the majority of my childhood, was Catholic, and the sacrament of confirmation wasn’t done in the parish they attended until rather late in adolescence–usually between the ages of 16 and 18, and it was not done yearly. The year I could have been confirmed did not arrive until I was 17 and about to be a senior in high school. I had not been attending church for a very long time at that point because I knew it wasn’t for me. Then, mom brought home the confirmation packet for me one Sunday, and said the classes would be starting that week. I was very nervous, and had to get some good spiritual advice (and one of my first tarot readings) from a very new age friend of mine at the time on what to do…she said that I’d need to “come out” soon, and I mentioned the “not being Catholic” thing and she said “But there may be more to it than that,” and I said, “I suspect you’re right!” (And she was!) So, a day or so later, I asked to speak with my mom, and told her that I didn’t want to be Catholic; I didn’t say “I’m pagan,” but coming out as “not Catholic” was a huge deal. She was all right with it…but not entirely. I had to write a letter to the priest telling him of my decision, and both he and my mom seemed to be all right initially. However, throughout that year, my mom forced me to go to church on certain occasions (my younger brother was in the passion play, etc.), and the priest was saying rather unflattering things about me behind my back. Having had several serious medical episodes which could have had me killed or seriously debilitated afterwards, and hearing that the priest would visit me but he never did, somewhat put the possibility of me ever taking Catholicism seriously as a spiritual refuge in my late teenage years to rest. My stepfather, through whom my family had become Catholic in the first place, once berated me for not going to church and decried me for being an atheist–the irony being that he did so while the rest of the family was at church and he should have been with them. They all assumed I had become an atheist, which wasn’t the case at all…far from it, in fact, since the number of gods I acknowledge had more than doubled! Several years later, when I came out as queer to my mother, one of the things she said in the process was “I could deal with you not being Catholic; I think I can deal with this.” And of course, it is my mother who often accompanies me to Shinto things these days, and has not been in a Catholic church for many years…imagine that!
The professional field in which I’ve trained, however, and in which I’m seeking employment, does not look particularly well on pagans, even though there are an ever-increasing number of us going into the field of higher educational teaching and research. Things may change drastically when the previous generation of scholars begins to retire or die, however; but until then, things are not ideal. While I cannot say with any certainty that I’d be fired if my employers (the few there have been) knew of my religion, it might cause them to question me on some matters, or for particular editors and publications to consider my work with suspicion. I did reveal to the vice president of one college that I work for on an adjunct basis at present last year, in a casual conversation, that I am considered clergy in the pagan religion in which I practice…and, strangely enough, my classes have been offered less frequently in the aftermath…and while I cannot say there is a direct correlation, I am suspicious about one. Potential employers as well would probably do better to not know before hiring me, and thus I try to keep a low profile on my religion until I can secure more permanent employment.
And, this was a major quandary for me in 2008. A flood of inspiration, right around this time of the year (from April 20 through May 5, and then from May 22 to June 9) caused more than 100 of the 130 poems in The Phillupic Hymns to be written, and for this I was very excited. When I began writing that year, I didn’t expect that I would be publishing a book. But, after the first 50 poems were written during that first period from late April to early May, I asked the advice of a magically/occult-inclined woman I had met at an academic conference whether or not she thought I should publish the poems under my own name or a pen-name. I had made a vow to myself a few years before that I’d never write anything that I wasn’t willing to sign my legal name to, and had maintained that standard up through 2008…and it was possibly a mistake to have done so. The woman I consulted suggested that I write under the pen-name, and that I could always claim it officially once I’ve been employed. This is what I plan to do, when my permanent employment does emerge.
The pen-name, of course, is the one attached to my books and to this blog: P. Sufenas Virius Lupus. It was a name I had taken within the Ekklesía Antínoou in honor of several people from the ancient cultus of Antinous (and other deities) which I felt reflected aspects I was interested in, and in one case that reflected a kind of “past life memory” (the only such vivid and definite occasion of this I’ve had, which ended up having information contained in it that was later confirmed by both deliberate research and strange happenstance). As a result, I feel it is a name that does actually reflect and represent me very well indeed; the simple fact that it isn’t the name I was given by my parents and that is recognized legally doesn’t make it any less valid or authentic. And, many pagan writers have names that are not their original or legal names, so it is a long-standing tradition.
[Just for the record, the people who have said in various places on the internet that I am somehow inauthentic or flawed or not fully honest because I do not use my "real name" can take their worthless and irrelevant opinions on the matter and cram them somewhere physiologically uncomfortable--if they have a problem with my work in a substantive sense, they can critique it and have an open argument or debate on such matters with me. If they have nothing upon which to question or critique my work other than my use of a name that is not my legal name, it is actually quite baseless to make any fuss over it. As I am not doing anything to oppress or cause harm to pagans in the meantime, the sometimes-employed tactic of "outing" used amongst queer activists is not at all appropriate, nor appreciated, I feel.]
The fact is, self-representation, even under one’s own name, is something that is often highly invested in personae, which is to say, “masks” of various sorts. I don’t subscribe to the belief that there is a “true self” and a number of “false selves”; I am not even a very large fan of there being any such being as the “self.” I will not say that one part of my life that has certain requirements and expectations and safety needs and rules is less authentic or less valuable or “less me” than any other part of my life. There are some facades and routines in my life that I have to maintain in order to take part in certain activities–some of them I like and enjoy and embrace fully, while others I am not at all happy about nor content with and wish I didn’t have to do. But, they’re all “me,” and I’m very happy to be involved in them, both as necessary and as desired and as chosen. I look forward to a time in which I will be able to attach my legal name to all of my writings, but that time is sadly not now, and I think it is more valuable in the meantime to continue doing those writings (including this blog) and producing publications than it is to not be doing them at all, which would be the other option.
In fact, it was that option that I had to seriously debate back in 2008 when I was considering creating The Phillupic Hymns as a book. I could “come out” fully, and risk never getting a job, or never being allowed to publish on certain topics or in certain important and essential publications for at least twenty years, and possibly for life; or, I could “come out” as someone else (though still myself), under a different name, and carry on the public work that I felt was needed in relation to Antinous and to the many other gods whom I honor and serve. You know what choice I made, and I think it was not only a good choice, but the best and most right choice for that time, and up through the present and the near future as well.
The International Pagan Coming Out Day organizers have said that it is up to each person to make their own decisions in this regard, and to have a sense of their own safety and their own needs for particular levels of “outness” on this matter. It is good that they recognize this, and I hope that anyone who thinks they know better than any individual knows for their own self what the right level of outness is seriously thinks twice about their own privilege and assumptions before violating someone else’s right to privacy, conscience, and self-determination of their own public personae.
So, to those who are able to come out and to celebrate their paganity–I hope it is a joyful and wonderful event to do so! To those who are not able to do so, my prayers and wishes for strength and my sense of solidarity with you is held deeply in my heart, and I stand with you in whatever struggles you face in relation to this matter.
In the meantime, there is a lot of work that P. Sufenas Virius Lupus needs to get done, and so I plan to be moving on to carry out more of that in the immediate future…