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You most likely know that Asheville, NC is widely thought of as a queer haven in the South. A recent headline boldly claimed it may be the “Most LGBT-Friendly City in the U.S.” There are even 83% more gay and lesbian people who live in Asheville compared with an average American city. Living up to this reputation means filling some big rainbow striped shoes, but if anyone can do it, we can.
Despite all the love however, it’s not uncommon to hear about LGBTQ folks being harassed. In 2012 a gay couple was violently assaulted walking downtown. Some have left and headed to the West coast and elsewhere because of the backlash they’ve received. One friend who recently moved wrote to me, “Get out of the south. Asheville is not what it’s talked up to be. I don’t feel comfortable in this city being Gay, can’t imagine being in your shoes!”
Those of us who do stick around, particularly trans folks like myself, know important battles still have to be fought to make the communities that define Asheville live up to it’s glowing promise of inclusion. And it’s not just Bible thumping, Trump supporting Christians who need to be challenged.
This years Asheville Beltane festival was not trans inclusive, at least initially. I was at the center of a several week long painful fight that led to it becoming fully inclusive just a few days before it started. In the end, a community was left divided, friendships were ruined, a slew of hurtful and ignorant remarks were made and the event was almost canceled. It was another reminder of how anti-LGBTQ hostility doesn’t only come from the right. Oddly enough, it all happened in this Southern city of pride, at a spiritual festival organized by liberal progressives.
According to the Asheville Beltane Facebook event the festival is “a celebration of flowers, wreaths, and joy! Also fertility, fire, and passion! The wheel of the year turns now to the Goddess of Spring, the God of the Sun, and the Magician, Bridger of Worlds!” It attracts around 100 people annually and has existed in Asheville for over 10 years.
To several of the organizers’ surprise, long time event organizers Alexandra Tait and Jeremy Schewe were staunchly opposed to including trans folks in the men’s and women’s ceremonies. And because the team of six people had not clarified and posted a policy on this beforehand it led to the whole drama playing out in public in the Facebook event. The episode became a textbook example of how to re-marginalize and oppress an already marginalized group.
As it unfolded I was subjected to wide variety of exclusionary comments like this one: “I place a higher importance on honoring magic, ritual and spiritual tradition over someone’s feelings getting hurt because they felt excluded. If someone is making this big of a deal over not being included in the only way THEY see fit — then perhaps it is because they ALREADY feel excluded to begin with and are in projection mode.” New Age transphobia?
Organizer Rob Lenfesty commented to me that I could go to the men’s circle, “To be fair, I believe that a trans woman who was born male and has ejaculated would, by the existing rules, be fully welcome in the men’s circle and vice versa.” Unbelievable. While Rob said he personally would not choose to organize the festival that way, he repeatedly defended the other organizers choice to do so because they were doing it based on “fertility.” He said “I do not believe it actually stands against my values” in regards to the exclusion of trans folks based on Alexandra and Jeremy’s reasoning.
As opposed to joining the actual women’s or men’s ceremonies, organizer Alexandra Tait said that trans folks could “tie the ribbons, frolic and tend the Bonfire.” The mystery ceremonies were for “male bodied” and “women bodied” people only. She clearly stated that trans folks were not allowed. She advised folks who don’t want the “real” Beltane experience to “celebrate your belly buttons” instead, citing fellow organizer Trey Crispen.
Tait even said that trans women are not women in one of her comments.
One commenter questioned my motives for wanting to attend the festival. She also asked if I did this sort of thing for every event I went to. I said, “Do you ask these type of questions of everyone who was invited to the Facebook event and thought it was interesting and wanted to attend?” Her intrusive line of questioning seemed odd and to imply some sort of ulterior motive.
Another person repeatedly attacked and harassed me in the Facebook event calling me “vicious,” “violent,” “ignorant,” “aggressive” and “angry.” She accused me of dishonoring the ceremony and wanting to “blowup and insult” it. She said I have a phobia of straight people. She said I was “spewing venom” and demanding that the ritual be erased for “my own sexual preference.”
And then after witnessing all of these horrible comments and knowing that I had clearly stated I had no interest in attending the event, organizer and chef Trey Crispen had the audacity to message me this,“I was hoping to invite you to dinner Saturday night with Jeremy and Alexandra…I strongly believe you would find a safe space in and among these people.” Wow. The level of ignorance and senselessness that would lead someone to say that is astounding given what had just transpired. I was dumbfounded. I’m also told that Trey seemed to be confused as to why they couldn’t just exclude trans folks from the event.
All of this stemmed from me posting a simple question in the Facebook event, “Is this festival trans inclusive?”
Transphobia on the Left
Hatred, awkward comments and transphobia on the left are nothing new to me. I’ve written extensively about transphobia in radical left spaces and prominent progressive organizations.
In 2013 I broke the story about serious transphobia in well known environmentalist Derrick Jensen’s group Deep Green Resistance. Their ideology stems out of a lesbian separatist movement that denies the existence of trans people. Co-founder Lierre Keith has written that trans people were invented out of the porn culture of the 70s. The popular evolutionary consciousness blog Reality Sandwich published a very disturbing article filled with hateful and ignorant statements against trans folks and defended it. Liberal writer and poet Anne Lamott tweeted transphobic statements about Caitlyn Jenner when she came out. Noted Buddhist Feminist scholar Rita Gross has displayed a serious ignorance of trans issues. There are too many to cite all of them.
The same lesbian separatist ideology that shapes Deep Green Resistance co-founders Lierre Keith and Derrick Jensen is what motivated Asheville Beltane organizer Alexandra Tait to staunchly oppose the full inclusion of trans folks in the festival. It’s called Trans Exclusive Radical Feminism (TERF). TERF’s are a small but vocal contingent of the left that find common ground with the most conservative and hateful groups who are against trans people. They draw from their same ideas and reasoning as well. Tait echoed right wing ideology with comments like this: “There has to be a safe space and container for natural born women to be with other natural born women.”
I immediately knew that Tait was a TERF when, in her early comments, she wrote “trans woman” in quotes. That’s what people do who don’t believe trans people are real. And again, she eventually came right out and said that trans women are not women.
While Alexandra Tait’s exclusionary views stemmed from TERF ideology, the other organizer against trans inclusion, Jeremy Schewe, apparently just couldn’t wrap his mind around the existence of trans people. Despite lengthy conversations with several people he was unable to grasp how being transgender is a real phenomenon. He wouldn’t budge.
This illustration by Tikva Wolf was posted in the Facebook event during the whole debacle and captures perfectly how silly it is to have to defend the existence of trans people.
Tradition or Transphobia?
Alexandra Tait couched her exclusionary TERF views in ancient tradition, ritual and fertility rites. Myself and others were quick to point out that many other Beltane festivals are trans inclusive. I asked “Does anyone believe that Alexandra really, really wants to include trans folks but cannot because of some ancient tradition or rule?” The answer is, of course not. Folks who want to include trans people in Beltane or anything else, include us. It’s simple. Those who do not, find a wide variety of excuses to exclude us.
Any Beltane festival in 2017 is also mix of a wide variety of traditions that have evolved and been shaped over hundreds of years. One person responded,
“Like others have said, we’re not sacrificing the May Queen anymore, or even requiring she be a virgin! If we insist on keeping trans women out, we’re being the same as the Bible literalists who are anti-gay marriage but still eat shellfish. Everyone who is upset about the “loss of tradition”, I am really curious to know why the Queen being cis is so much more important than her being virginal?”
From another commenter:
“All traditions are made up…Beltane was originally a gathering of farmers to bless their live stock and celebrate spring. The way we celebrate here is a patchwork quilt of different “traditions” from multiple cultures. There is very little “Ancient” about it. Since Beltane is supposed to serve the community, let the community decide how it wants Beltane to serve it.”
According to Alexandra Tait and Jeremy Schewe, trans folks could attend the festival, they just could not participate in the men’s and women’s ceremonies. Of course, by excluding trans folks from one part of the event they effectively excluded us from the entire event. Why would we feel welcome in a space that treated us like second class citizens? Why would we want to share community with people like that?
Some folks also said that trans men and women should go to the 3rd space alternative for gender non-binary folks. However, having someone who identifies as a trans man or woman go to a separate space is like asking a Jewish woman to go to a separate group than the other women. It’s inherently discriminatory.
Asheville Stands Up
At first I was fighting this fight mostly alone, and it required a lot of time and emotional labor. Despite claims that I was “angry” or “vicious,” nothing could be further from the truth. I responded respectfully and civilly to every comment in the Facebook group. I tried to educate and inform at every step. One person even said: “I thank you for taking a difficult stand, and for speaking with such clarity and non-blaming, non-judgmental, language.”
As the drama played out in the Facebook event over the course of a week, more allies stepped up and spoke out. Numerous people wrote very insightful, poignant and powerful responses to the disgusting diatribes they were witnessing.
“I am deeply saddened and disappointed to learn that this event is not trans-inclusive. I cannot continue to support this event.”
“Having been to this event and in the Men’s Circle I do not see any negative consequences of allowing people to align with their soul guided gender orientation. I believe the magic shared in these circles is only powered by the way we walk the road, not by what person is or is not privy to the mystery shared there.”
“This is a serious issue and bothers me a good bit period if it’s true that person isn’t not allowed to participate based on the gender of their identity, that’s a big problem”
“Oh my god. I am so sorry. I apologize on behalf of all of this. You did not ask to be in this role. I have tremendous respect and appreciation for you.”
“Thank’s for your persistence Be. This is not just about trans rights but a metaphor for queer rights and inclusion everywhere. I am really saddened to see how these seemingly liberal folks can’t open heir minds just a tad to include trans folks.”
“Marginalized people have to go through enough in normal life without being expected to show up as second-class citizens to an event in attempts to educate the people who should be educating themselves.”
“This post is so gross, and I’m shocked at how well it was received. It clearly uses pagan and feminist language to defend trans-exclusion. Thinking like this is what is creating transphobia.”
This comment wins the day:
“If it’s just sour-faced, self-appointed “priestesses” claiming that they know some secret of what magic does and doesn’t do when faced with our binary views of what our bodies versus our spirits say about us, why don’t *they* do some private, genital-specific rituals off on their own? Fuck this nonsense. I’d rather stay home. It all seems so self-important and uptight.”
A Rainbow Victory
A persistent voice for inclusion were organizers Taylor Johnson and Kathryn Grover. They were facing significant pressure from long time organizers Alexandra and Jeremy as well as trying to manage an event that was publicly spiraling out of control. For some organizers friendships were at stake, for others, professional relationships were also in the mix. Without this factor I’m confident all of the other organizers aside from Alexandra and Jeremy would have been fine with trans inclusion. The tight knit relationships played a significant role.
It’s important to note that this years transformation had it’s roots in a principled stand taken by former Beltane queen Liat Batshira. When she brought up the issue of trans inclusion last year she was told “those people belong at Short Mountain.” She protested that excluding trans folks would mean leaving out friends and important community members. So, she boycotted the women’s ceremonies and started the 3rd space alternative group. She stated, “I felt like if not all women were welcome in the queens tent I didn’t want to be part of it.”
When Kathryn posted a strong statement of support in the Facebook event for trans inclusion this year it was undoubtedly building on Liat’s efforts from last year. Kathryn worked diligently behind the scenes to make Beltane inclusive. She stated,
“I am intensely debating your and my shared viewpoint currently within the organizing team. I want you to know that as an organizer I am strongly advocating for women- all women- to be more than welcome in the women’s circle. I support you and agree and am working hard to change minds behind the scenes so that the Asheville Regional Beltane lives up to its name. To be clear, as an organizer, I feel strongly that a trans woman is a woman as much as I am. I want you in the queens tent.”
In the end, several organizers would lose friends permanently for taking a stand.
Taylor also fought diligently to make this event inclusive and lost friends in the process. After countless hours of tireless work with no foreseeable conclusion in sight he finally put his foot down as the lease holder of the land and said it will 100% be trans inclusive no matter what. At that point and after all the heated debate, Alexandra and Jeremey stepped out and decided to have their own separate trans-exclusionary Beltane at a later date.
With Alexandra and Jeremy out the others were free to publish a fully inclusive statement. The creation of the statement was a group effort between Kathryn, Kai and Taylor.
We believe in crafting a culture of Asheville Regional Beltane that represents the present Asheville Region. This absolutely and without question includes our trans brothers and sisters, as well as folks who are gender-queer, gender-fluid, agender, two-spirit, intersex, and any and all other identities. By including people of all identities, we are creating a new branch of the Beltane lineage.
We state here and now, that Asheville Regional Beltane will move forward with its full heart embracing the reality that ALL people belong in whatever circle(s) they identify with. Each person has the right to participate in whatever ceremony(ies) they choose, having read our policy stated below. We believe unequivocally that a person who identifies as a woman is welcome in the women’s circle, and a person who identifies as a man is welcome in the men’s circle. We state strongly that the energy of the binary magic we create is enhanced and enlivened by having all types of people present, each following the energetic calling of their highest and most potent selves.
It took several weeks of fighting and dozens and dozens of comments but in the end trans inclusion won out.
I’m told that no trans folks actually attended the event although there were several people in the third space for those who are gender non-conforming.
This experience made my life in Asheville even more difficult. The background community I relied on is now tainted. I no longer feel comfortable in many of the spaces I used to. I stopped going to the events, workshops and gatherings I would have otherwise gone to. It added another layer of tension, awkwardness and uncertainty to my life that I didn’t need. I don’t know who is friend or foe, even amongst the folks who are supposed to be my friends. No longer can I just assume that the majority of people in my scene are supportive. For some, I’m the one who “ruined Beltane.” Ugh.
Some organizers lost friends and their relationship to community and the festival also changed. It divided us for sure. Many have lost interest in organizing or even attending the Beltane festival. The queer community on Short Mountain does a fabulously gay/queer/inclusive celebration every year. More and more people in Asheville have expressed interest in this gathering.
For me personally it’s another lost opportunity to gather in community. It’s a huge loss. I’ve fought so hard to be able to have these types of experiences. It’s more missed fun, joy, love and connection. It’s devastating.
On the positive, the Beltane event and other Asheville events are much more likely to be trans inclusive from now on. This experience was a huge wake up call for many. There is so much more awareness of how important trans inclusion is in our communities.
I want to end with something I posted in the Facebook event:
“Events like these can be so important for trans folks given the everyday exclusion we face. It just hurts more when the transformative communities also exclude us because there are so few spaces for us to be comfortable in. Getting shut out of an event like this is not just an isolated thing for trans folks. It happens in a context of intense exclusion in life in general. But the people at Beltane are supposedly my friends, are progressive, “spiritual” and more aware. So, it sucks when this stuff happens with a supposedly inclusive community.
I’m excluded from most all jobs, there’s only a handful of cities I feel comfortable living in, I always have to check or am worried if a business or service provider is trans friendly, getting a lease is always a concern, I don’t travel much, I fear even getting pulled over, I’m shut out from many spaces, every new activity or event I go to I have to seriously think about it and wonder if it will be alright, I receive lots of weird comments, I’m the only trans person wherever I go, my existence is constantly questioned and debated, laws are passed to prevent me from using the restroom, people portray trans folks as predators, we are discriminated against in every area of life…
I’d wish that these festivals and events could be a reprieve from the harsh reality of being trans but sometimes they are part of the problem.”