International Pagan Coming-Out Day: A Word of Caution
Today, May 2, is International Pagan Coming Out Day. For those who choose to reveal your beliefs to others, I congratulate you. You have made the choice to reveal your religious beliefs to you family, friends, and colleagues, and I wish you all the best. This should be a happy occasion for all involved.
I use the word ‘should be’ because even though things are much better for minority religions today than they were 25 years ago when I came out- it still isn’t genuinely equitable. In fact, in today’s atmosphere of overt religious intolerance, active fundamentalist aggression, and regressive laws that discriminate against women, gay people, and ‘non-conformist’ faith groups, I’d venture to say that things are actually worse. But my own story took place 25 years ago. Here’s what happened.
I was serving in the US Air Force, and already had 8 years under my belt- and about 7 of metaphysical training- including with the Rosicrucian Order and with a group of Brit-Trads that had a circle in Germany. I had already run into discrimination- including hostile questions and treatment from Christian colleagues and command staff, numerous unannounced inspections of my barracks room at previous bases, religious tracts tucked into my books, and disregard for my desire to be treated equitably. I joined the SCA when I got stationed in Germany (real castles to play in!), and found fellow Pagans who had the same difficulties. This seemed widespread enough, so I started a small round-robin news letter called the “Farwander Fellowship” (which later became the Pagan Military Network). I advertised for it in the European Stars and Stripes, and thought nothing of it. I had people from all over the European Theater join it. (This was before the internet.)
A curious reporter from the Army and Air Force times decided to interview me and a couple of fellow Pagans, and I was the subject of a Stars and Stripes interview along with my local Pagan friends. We spoke of our desire for equal treatment, and pointed out that Wicca was listed in the Military Chaplain’s handbook as a legitimate faith. Yet, we could not have “Pagan” or “Wicca” on our dogtags. The article ran on Thanksgiving weekend, so we figured it would be buried in the holiday noise. How wrong we were. The story made the AP wire, Paul Harvey mentioned it on his ‘the rest of the story’ newscast, and used my name- and things exploded. The pro-vs. con arguments ran for weeks in the “Letters” section. Hysterical Christians feared that we would ‘desecrate’ the chapels if we used their facilities. I became the target of ‘prayer warriors’, had my property damaged, and at my next base, my career was totally sabotaged. That article was the beginning of the end, and although it did lead to military Pagans being given equal rights as religious practitioners- including the VA finally permitting the Pentacle as a headstone- it cost me my career. I returned home crushed, depressed, and having to move back in with my family. That was probably worse than anything, especially my father taunting me with, ‘I told you so!’
Would I do it again? To be honest, I am not sure. Being the target of imprecatory prayer, threats, and sheer unadulterated hatred is not my idea of fun. I did get support from fellow Pagans, including some relatively famous ones, but being overseas, I was essentially on my own. And my own family was less than supportive. They say that what does not destroy you only makes you stronger, and bitter experience confirms this. I returned briefly to the public sphere helping build my local community- but again, got totally blindsided- this time by an aspiring Pagan ‘leader’ who went after anyone considered a rival. I saw that as a sign that perhaps it was time to put all aspirations of public Paganism behind me, and retire from public life.
Actions have consequences. And I use my own story as a cautionary tale- not to discourage any who choose to go public with their beliefs, but to counterbalance the sometimes giddy joy that accompanies such an event. Yes, you’re out of that closet. Yes, you are free of doubt. Yes, you can openly worship and practice your faith. But in some ways, that makes you more vulnerable than ever. Do you have a strong circle of friends and family to stand by you? This is vital. Perhaps if I did- if I had not been isolated at my last base (including being permanently placed on the graveyard shift), if I had the same level of inexpensive communication home as today’s service people do (this was before the Internet, and we were at the mercy of the local phone companies, who gouged the crap out of us), I might have fared better.
I am happy that things are easier for today’s Pagans. The Internet is a bastion of great places for all Pagans to go, local groups are thriving (except, sadly, in my community), and even the US Armed Forces permit us to be open about our beliefs. But never forget that there are people who would like to see us silenced, just as they’d like to see people who are gay or otherwise not like them silenced, too. There are still states that are stuck in the 19th century where custody cases are involved, and police forces who have not been schooled about what is legitimate Pagan activity and what is not. There are companies that do not look kindly upon people who are outliers. And there are people whose fear is more powerful than your tolerance.
Today, I am contentedly agnostic. I have shed all the trappings, rituals, and hardware, and am a [21st Century] Magus. My life is simple and uncluttered. (Well, mostly. I still have too many books.) Mages do not have to be True Believers, and I am discovering that it is probably better that they are not. This permits greater flexibility in both practice and understanding, and helps weed out the crap. I do not wear my status on my sleeve (or tattooed on my body), and it rarely comes up in conversation. I have no urge to publicly practice, be a ‘Spokes-Pagan’ (or Spokes-Magus!), lead any community, or any of that. I cannot say that I am ‘in the closet’- such a place no longer exists for me. But I now choose not to make my beliefs obvious. Those who matter do not mind, and those who mind do not matter.
Stay safe out there, fellow Pagans. Blessings Be.