One Pagan Steps Out of the Broom Closet
by L. Lisa Harris
In days past, stepping out of the broom closet meant sitting at the dinner table and blurting out, “Mom, I’m a witch,” then waiting for her to accept the fact and ask you questions, or faint dead away. She might tell you it was a phase you were going though or refuse to talk to you for a period of time. As a general rule, if it wasn’t accepted, it never left the dinner table. It just wouldn’t do to air the family’s dirty laundry to the neighbors (what would they think?).
Today, it could still be as simple as telling a trusted co-worker that you go to circle, instead of church, or explaining to a potential significant other why there is 7-inch dagger on a small table next to your bed. You might even be lucky enough to be outed by your 9-year-old child, who in an argument with a neighborhood kid yells, “Yeah, well, my mom’s a witch, and I’m going to go get her right now.”
However, with the advent of the Internet, one’s “witchiness” (along with anything else of interest) can be world news in a matter of seconds, as I quickly learned. The speed at which such information can travel and how far it can get can be quite surprising, even for one who is “out of the broom closet.” You can give in an interview to the local paper, and the next thing you know, you’re getting e-mail from Australia.
My adventure in pagan PR and world news began early last winter when I received a phone call from Steve Maynard of the Tacoma News Tribune advising me that he was planning to do a feature story on the Earth Centered Spirituality Group at the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church in Tacoma, which I have facilitated for the past two and a half years. Steve covers religion for the paper and was slowly but surely making progress with his editor in getting earth-centered events covered on the religion page. We both knew he had a long way to go before he would be permitted to treat our group as the paper did other religious groups when, last Easter season, his editor would not allow him to use the word “pagan” when he was describing a UU church service in which elders read children stories of how four traditions (pagan, Hebrew, Christian and Unitarian) celebrated the Easter season.
I was expecting his feature story to be on the religion page, as we were just beginning to get calendar space in the Saturday edition in that section. Imagine my surprise when he told me that it was going to be the cover for the “Sound Life” magazine section and that there was also going to be a photo layout. He was even going to use the words “pagan” and “witch.” For a moment, I couldn’t believe it. All the months of pestering him and sending press releases and information had paid off. We were going to be taken seriously. We were going to have a chance to let Western Washington know what we were and what we weren’t. I was elated.
But on the drive home from work, I asked myself, “What was I thinking?” A nice little column on the religion page was one thing, but to be on the magazine cover of a Sunday edition was another matter. I have been “out” with my family and friends for 13 years and even wear a triple moon pentacle at work, where I have no problem educating those who would malign others’ religion out of ignorance. But when I thought about the conservative Christian parents of the girls I coach in softball and volleyball on the South Hill of Puyallup reading in the Sunday paper about their coach being a witch, something in my stomach did a double back-flip with a twist. I had visions of girls being pulled from the team by parents who didn’t want them corrupted by that “tool of Satan,” other kids not being allowed to play with my daughter and picketers throwing rocks in front of the church. Steve and I had been working towards this for almost a year and a half, so it was no small matter that I found myself reconsidering the wisdom of the situation.
Most witches I know would meditate or cast a circle and ask the Goddess for guidance when dealing with an important situation like this. My goddess never waits for me to do that. I’ve learned to deal with it. She likes to slip into the passenger seat of my car when I’m trying to drive home at the end of a busy day or corner me when I’m in the bathroom and can’t get up and leave because my pants are around my ankles. This time she chose the car, and she really let me have it. “You’re the one that wanted to be a warrior. Now you’re given a chance to battle ignorance and you’re afraid? Don’t be a wimp! Get out there and act like a priestess, not a weenie!” I don’t recommend dedicating yourself to the Morrigane unless you’re the type of person who can stand up to a drill sergeant without flinching. Of course, as I remember it, I didn’t have a lot of say in the matter. She chose me.
About the time I was feeling completely unworthy, my cell phone rang. It was my daughter letting me know that she was home from school. “Honey, how would you feel if the next article about me was in a bigger paper than the last one?” I asked.
“Um, okay, why?” she replied, her mouth overly full of partially chewed banana. I explained that it would be a front page spread and my picture was likely to be in it. More chewing, and another “Um, okay” followed the sound of the fridge being rummaged through. I asked her what her friends would think if they saw the article, and she assured me that her friends don’t read anything other than the horoscopes, music reviews and comics.
“How would you feel if one of your friends wouldn’t hang out with you anymore because your mom’s a witch?”
“I don’t think that would happen,” she said.
“But what if it did?” I pushed.
She swallowed the rest of her banana, which I’m sure was not properly chewed, and in her best exasperated-adolescent voice said, “Well, that wouldn’t make them very good friends, now, would it? Can I go over to Morgan’s?” So much for the girl being traumatized by it. That was one excuse gone. I reminded her to chew with her mouth closed and take smaller bites, then hung up the phone.
The next call came in right on schedule, from Hubby, who was on his break at work. “Hi, honey, how would you feel if all the guys in the break room at work read in the paper that I’m a witch?” I asked, thinking that there was no point in beating around the bush since he only had 10 minutes to talk.
His response was immediate and enthusiastic, “Cool!” he said. “When will it come out? I’d love for some of those dumb, right-wing conservative jerks I argue politics with to see it, so that I can yank their chain.” When he found out it would be in the Sunday edition, he was extremely disappointed he wouldn’t be there at work to watch the looks on his co-workers’ faces when they read it. It would have been amusing, since I used to work in the same place and know all of them. Great, Hubby wasn’t going to be an excuse either. I was going to have to go through with it.
The next step was to set up interviews and photo opportunities. The interviews weren’t going to be a problem. I’d been talking to Steve for over a year and a half and had sent him volumes of information. How much was there that he could possibly ask? I found out that there was plenty. It seemed that the more information I gave him, the more questions he had. He found that the more people he talked to and the more research he did, the more disagreement on basic issues he found. After a month of spending my lunch hours, breaks and time after work talking to Steve, I still couldn’t come up with answers to some questions other than, “Well, if you ask 30 people that question, you’ll likely get 30 different answers.”
I could hear him shaking his head on the other end of the phone line, but he kept with it. He interviewed Ph.D.s, ministers, theologians, authors and other high priestesses in the local community. He attended Tarot classes and rune workshops that we put on in order to get a better understanding of what our group does and interviewed several people at those classes to get a feel for the local community.
The photo editor wanted to photograph a ritual. “We don’t allow photographers at our rituals,” I explained. When I offered to set something up with people who didn’t mind being photographed, he told me that at the paper they “don’t like things that are staged.” “Great!” I muttered to myself. I already had a Brigid ritual to write, a class on the runes to put together and lines to memorize for a Candlemas ritual that another group was putting on. I knew that the only way the layout was going to work would be to put on a real working with participants who didn’t mind being photographed. I made the offer of a special ritual, with a real working, and once he was convinced it wouldn’t be “staged” and I had his agreement the photographer would not disrupt the flow of the ritual, the date was set. I put out a call to the local pagan e-mail lists for volunteers who didn’t mind being photographed.
Getting the volunteers was much easier than I had imagined, and I was rather pleased with how things were working out. The difficult part, I discovered, was going to be finding a ritual that wouldn’t expose material that many in the pagan community would consider “inappropriate” for public use or that would offend or exclude anyone. I soon discovered that what some considered “outer court” material, suitable for any public occasion, others considered “oath-bound.” I was also faced with the fact that just because something is published and sitting on a shelf at Borders doesn’t mean that it isn’t considered oath-bound by one tradition or another. I suddenly had to worry about being pagan politically correct.
Then there were the personal preferences of those who were going to be in the circle. My Wiccan friends didn’t want a Wiccan ritual “performed” for the media. Some of the pagans didn’t want to be confused with witches, the neo-pagans didn’t want to be confused with “New Agers,” my Brit-trad friends didn’t want to be mistakenly identified as Unitarians, and some of the Unitarians didn’t want to be labeled at all. I had 17 ritualists with 17 different ideas of what would and wouldn’t be appropriate.
As I sat at my computer, staring out the window at the woods out back, I thought to myself, “If my close friends and those who trust me to present paganism to the media are this fired up, what about all the pagans who are going to read this in the paper and had no say in the matter? What are they going to think?” Suddenly I went from feeling like a champion of those who suffer religious oppression to feeling like someone not worthy of the task. I had lost count of the number of people who thought that no reporter could be trusted and that I was making a huge mistake. But I had been talking to Steve for a long time. I knew him. I knew what he wanted to accomplish and trusted him to do right by us. I thought I was doing a good thing, and it seemed that it just ticked everyone off. Visions of angry pagans wanting my hide were added to the already scary ones of crosses burning on my lawn or windows being broken at the church by those who fear us. More doubt filled my mind. I tried to brush it away as quickly as I could. I really wasn’t up for a bathroom visit from a ticked-off goddess. I was starting to get a headache.
Two glasses of wine later, I had decided that we would use only published material, to which I would make some changes so that no tradition’s sacred material would be exposed to the media. The ritual would be a working for community understanding, which seemed fitting for a media event. I scanned my bookshelves, literally sagging under the weight of what my hubby considers my “excessive” book collection, hoping that something would present itself.
I noticed my old dog-eared copy of The Spiral Dance sticking out a bit farther than the other books on the shelf. “Starhawk! She knows how to deal with the public and fight for the cause. I don’t really think she’d mind if I borrowed a few things,” I told myself. I found a ritual written by Alan Acacia titled “A Circle for Healing During Struggle,” which fit in perfectly with what we were planning. I modified it to be less priestess-centered and to have the quarters read their parts themselves. I picked out some nice invocations to the God and Goddess, and soon I had a basic ritual ready to go.
The ritual was beautiful, so beautiful in fact that I forgave my friend Dana without even giving her a hard time for calling me a “circle Nazi” in rehearsal. Everyone showed up in festive clothing and colorful robes. People who came to sit and watch but didn’t want to risk being “outed” by being in the circle were drawn in; they just couldn’t stay out. The quarter callers performed their parts perfectly, the candles all stayed lit, and our sound and lighting person hit every musical cue. We passed a small cauldron, which was later lit, around the room, so that each person in turn could hold it and speak aloud what they hoped to accomplish with the ritual. Everyone was so eloquent and sincere and came up with such wonderful, positive wishes that the reporter was frantic trying to copy them all down. We danced a spiral to raise energy, and everyone in that room could feel a strong, palpable force, even the photographer. We had been asked prior to the ritual to send healing energy to a critically ill girl who was on a respirator in a children’s hospital, so we added that to our ritual working and sent it all flying out of the circle in a powerful stream of golden light. Afterwards, everyone in the circle had a look on his or her face as if they had just had amazing sex. I’d call that good energy.
At 4 a.m. on February 8, after weeks of worries and what ifs, I drove down the hill to the mini-mart to get a copy of the paper. I took a deep breath, readying myself in case it wasn’t really there or my trust in the reporter had been misplaced. On the cover of the “Sound Life” section was a full color picture of the ritualists with their outstretched arms, adorned with rings, bracelets and colorful robes, sending healing energy to the ill girl, and the headline “Pagans at Peace.” The light bouncing off of the sanctuary wall in the background looked just like a ball of gold light being tossed out to the universe. There were pictures of the rune workshop and flaming cauldrons. I must say it was possibly the best article I have ever seen on paganism in the mainstream press. Steve had even quoted Christian clergy to explain what attracts seekers to witchcraft and paganism. Yes, there were some things left out, and a couple of people didn’t think that the press should have made it sound like all pagans share a common set of beliefs. All I could do was say, “Well done, Steve. Thank you.” (To see the story, check out “NEW !!! UUAT In the News” under http//members.nbci.com/uuatearth/.)
There were no picketers in front of the UU church that morning. No threatening messages had been left on the answering machine there or at home. Everyone in the church was excited about the article, and some new people even showed up because of it. A friend who works in a local hospital arrived at work to find the article pinned to the bulletin board and a request for pagan clergy posted. The hospital staff had taken notice of the article section that spoke of pagan hospital patients not having access to clergy services. Now there is a group in Pierce County putting together a program to get pagan clergy registered with local hospitals.
The article made it around the globe in a few hours, thanks to the Internet mailings lists and bulletin boards. It made at least two appearances in the “Wren’s Nest” section of The Witches Voice Web site, and I received congratulations from Circle Sanctuary. Soon I started receiving e-mail messages from all over the world. One told me how the article came at a perfect time to show to a judge in a child custody battle in which the mother’s Wiccan religion was being used against her. Another letter told of a case where a young girl was missing and the local media had blamed it on the fact that she had visited a Web site on Wicca. The story went out on the Howard-Scripps News Service and was reprinted in several other newspapers, sparking a whole new batch of letters, all with similar stories and gratitude to Steve for portraying us in a positive light, not just as a media curiosity at Halloween, as many newspapers do.
When it was apparent that nothing bad was going to happen because of the article, I was almost disappointed. I wasn’t going to have to do battle against ignorance or have an exciting and dangerous story to tell in Widdershins. I came to realize, though, that I did have a story to tell. It isn’t about confrontation or hate. It is about battling my own fear and self-doubt. It is a story of a group of people who came together, regardless of personal risk, to accomplish a goal for the greater community. It is the story of a little girl who got off of a respirator and is back home with her family, who incidentally are not pagan.