Members of Central New York’s LGBT community find a safe haven in Paganism.
By Melissa Daniels
John Crandall woke up every day on a Westcott Street bench. For three months, the 16-year-old sat on the sidewalk homeless and cold.
After one rainy night, Crandall, in pajama pants and a T-shirt, stirred in his sleep as a woman wearing a pentacle tried to rouse him. She bought him a bagel and orange juice and took him to Seven Rays Bookstore, where he got a job shelving books for $50 a week.
The Pagan high priestess who found Crandall on Westcott took him in and, with the help of her husband, raised him for three years. They helped him get back on his feet and taught him the Pagan belief system.
Crandall joins a number of LGBT community members who’ve adopted Pagan beliefs and practices. Paganism serves as a safe haven — a community free of judgments and stereotypes of one’s sexuality.
Now Crandall, a Syracuse University senior and president of Pride Union, serves as a legally recognized minister-in-training in the Allee Shadow tradition. He wears the pentacle ring, a reminder of where he came from and the belief system that helped put his life back together.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when I got thrown out, I discovered my spirituality,” Crandall said. But a higher calling to Paganism wasn’t his only life-altering discovery. Through Paganism and what he learned from the community, Crandall came to terms with his homosexuality.
Following a common Pagan ritual, he spent the first year writing a “mirror book,” or journal, identifying personal struggles and setting a time line to overcome them. This deep self-exploration allowed Crandall to feel comfortable in his own skin.
“A lot of Pagan traditions encourage self-exploration, and coming out is very similar. Well, am I gay? How do I feel about that? How do other people feel about that? Is the gay community for me? Is activism for me?” he said. “That same process of questioning is what inspires my religious belief.” Finding a belief system that fits one’s personality is key to accessing his or her spirituality, Crandall said. An accepting outlook lies at the core of Paganism: “harm none, do what you will.”
With that guiding principle, some Pagans don’t judge people based on their sexuality, which is viewed as a personal choice, so the stigma is a non-issue.
For Crandall, reading Greek and Celtic stories featuring strong male figures helped him deal with his passive-aggressive tendencies. “You are responsible for your actions, thoughts, words, and behaviors, unless someone’s holding a gun to your head,” he explained.
He added that the witchcraft and Wiccan communities in Boston and Northern California are two groups where he also feels welcome. Both communities express a level of political activism because the Pagan community respects the feminine and masculine alongside each other. They’re passionate about women’s and transgendered people’s rights.
A Pagan uncomfortable with someone’s sexuality is unable to judge others during a ritual, because part of the ceremony involves complete focus on the task at hand, Crandall said. Setting personal issues aside allows people to see past their preconceptions, and maybe even change their minds. “We’ve had people come into the group that have been anti-LGBT, and there’s been no problems because they respect me, I respect them, and their personal beliefs are their personal beliefs,” Crandall said. “And sometimes over time their personal beliefs have changed because of their interactions with us.”
Teresa Chapin, co-founder of the Church of the Greenwood in Central New York, said Pagans can empathize with the struggles of the LGBT community. “When you get down south, down in the Bible Belt, there’s still a lot of discrimination,” Chapin said. “A lot of Pagans, even in New York, are afraid to come out of the broom closet, as we call it, because they’ll lose jobs, they can lose their kids in custody battles, when people start throwing the witch part around.”
The open and accepting atmosphere of the Pagan community allows members to empower themselves. That individuality influences the way Pagans practice their beliefs. They can choose to worship Gods of their choice, whether that includes a monotheistic approach, dualism of the God and the Goddess, or polytheism. Each community observes its own practices, beliefs, and ideas specific to its history, and those rituals determine who the group welcomes into the coven.
“There’s a saying: trying to organize Pagans is like trying to herd cats,” Chapin said. She thinks there will never be one central Pagan authority because Pagans are too strong-minded and strong-willed.
For some covens, this includes barring gay men from becoming priests or not allowing transgendered women to practice, as many groups are fertility-oriented and strict in their beliefs.
KiaMarie Wolfe, a transgendered woman, discovered Paganism in the late 1970s. The belief system was more hetero-oriented then, as Wicca played a driving force in the Pagan community. “You couldn’t be a priestess unless you had a womb,” Wolfe said.
But as American culture became more accepting, Wolfe said Pagans began to embrace “different” people and started welcoming the LGBT community. Wolfe led her own coven for five years and still strives to invite outsiders into the group.
To many Pagans, life is about celebration. They view love and pleasure as acts unto the Gods. Such beliefs remove the limitations found in other religions, and allow an LGBT person to feel what they’re doing isn’t wrong or different, but a festivity.
“Whether you’re with a girl or with a guy or whatever, it’s a non-issue,” Wolfe said. “Being gay or lesbian can be a celebration, an uninhibited celebration, because you’re not harming anyone.”
The history of transgendered people lies not only in Paganism, but also traces to cultures across the world. The idea that a soul can possess both a masculine and feminine side is prominent in Pagan belief systems. It’s a concept that helped Wolfe become more comfortable with herself and within the Pagan community.
The belief in transgendered powers extends beyond Paganism. Among Native Americans, the transgendered berdache bore the responsibility of giving funeral rights to the dead. The duty fell to them, as they were seen as people who could walk between the physical and spirit worlds, Wolfe said. Many religions believe the spirit hovers around the body for three days after death, with someone in tune to both worlds to guide them.
Both Chapin and Wolfe organize Central New York’s Pagan Pride Day, an annual festival that brings together the local Pagan groups for workshops and rituals. With jewelry, crafts, and food, along with information on different covens, Pagans introduce their beliefs to other members of the community.
Each year, Wolfe leads the festival’s drum circle. The musical output of the circle, Wolfe said, is greater than each person’s individual input — a truly collaborative effort. People play their part to create a powerful sound, sending positive energies into the air. “Drumming is a good analogy of how with Paganism, it doesn’t matter what color you are, [what] your sexual preferences are,” Wolfe said.
In dark and uncertain times, like Crandall’s days spent living on the streets, the Pagan community promises hope. A community like Paganism, stripped of judgment, stereotype, and fear, enables people to disregard the social stigmas to which some groups inadvertently subscribe.
“There’s so many things people can take away, but there’s some that they can’t,” Wolfe said. “Spirituality, they can’t take that away.”