The Historical Role of the Publicly Stereotypical Witch

Gerald Gardner — one of the first publicly visible Witches in modern English history.

In recent news there has been a story making the rounds about a Maine resident, Phelan Moonsong, who wears a pair of horns on his head most of the time even when out in public.  Moonsong got the attention of reporters when he was able to get a copy of his driver’s license (which he uses as ID, as he chooses not to  drive) with a photo of him wearing his horns.

Here’s a link to one of the articles about it: http://news.nationalpost.com/news/religion/pagan-priest-wins-right-to-wear-goat-horns-in-licence-photo-arguing-they-are-his-spiritual-antenna

I’ve seen people, including Pagans, discussing this on Facebook and, not surprisingly, there are a lot of people who don’t like this.  They are of the opinion that people who dress in unusual ways, especially ones that might stereotypically identify the person as part of a minority group (in this case, a Pagan) are harming their own minority community.

This isn’t a new controversy in the Pagan community or in other minority communities.

Here’s something I wrote a while ago (ten years ago?) about the topic with regard to people who dress publicly as stereotypical Witches or Pagans.

I’m not a visibly “out of the broomcloset” Witch. I do wear a necklace with a religious symbol (usually a pentacle) but it’s inside my shirt. I rarely ever wear all-black, and I don’t have a tattoo. I don’t wear makeup (unless you count a bit of hair gel). If you saw me out in public you wouldn’t likely figure out that I’m a Witch.

But there are some Witches, Wiccans, or Pagans who do display their religious convictions visibly. People like Laurie Cabot in Salem, MA, who wears what most would call “ritual robes” (and all-black ones at that) all the time, who wears heavy Egyptian-influenced makeup with lots of eyeliner, who has enough jewelry on her person to make swimming a dangerous prospect. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, it was people like Gerald Gardner and Alex Sanders who sought out attention in the media, who quite happily posed for photos in very pagan garb and settings.

I’ve seen a lot of people complain about these “flamboyant in-your-face” types. Often those who make a point of dressing “witchy” or “goth” are seen as doing the Pagan community a disservice as a whole. They’re often assumed to be flighty, no-very-serious types who are just looking for attention.  I wonder… are Laurie Cabot, Gerald Gardner, and Alex Sanders also “flighty” then? They did the flamboyant thing long before the “goth” fad hit.

I’m also gay so I have THAT closet as well, which constantly builds itself up around you if you let it. “Coming out” isn’t a one-time thing — every new person you meet is another opportunity to “come out” if you want it to be. I’m not “visibly gay” either, but then all my family and friends know that I’m gay. It’s just not something that I bring up with strangers if it’s not an issue of discussion.

In the gay community there is a lot of the same discussion about whether drag queens are hurting or helping things by being flamboyant. Some argue that they promote stereotypes and this hurts us. Others point out that when it comes down to the dirty work of fighting for equality, it is often the flamboyant drag queens who kick things in gear and get it going. They are the front-line fighters, the ones who get us heard and seen. They were the ones who were battling the cops and the forces of oppression in the Stonewall riots in NYC in the late 1960s. The Stonewall riots are considered today to have been the major turning point for gay rights in the US, bringing gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and the transgendered out of the closet in a political way and marking the start of real change for equal rights.

In the Wiccan community, Gerald Gardner’s work seeking publicity in the 1950s and 1960s, along with the publication of his books “Witchcraft Today” and “The Meaning of Witchcraft,” serve very similar purposes to the Stonewall riots. He raised awareness for our community, which probably wouldn’t be anywhere as populous today if he hadn’t “spread the word” in his flamboyant way. Laurie Cabot, as well, helped make Salem the destination that it is now for many tourists and Witches. I’m not sure she would have been as successful if she’d looked like a typical “soccer mom” who blends in with the crowd.

The gay community has learned to embrace the drag queens as colourful characters to be indulged and embraced. The fact that they’re able to be as open as they are is a sign of the freedom gained by the gay community. Perhaps we in the Pagan community could learn from the history and example of the gay community and do the same with our flamboyant characters. Not everyone has to “show off” their religious affiliations, but then we should recognize the things those “flamboyant ones” have accomplished on our community’s behalf.

They’re not perfect, by any means, but I’d rather be known as a community that leans towards acceptance of diversity (we’re mostly polytheists, after all, aren’t we???) rather than a bunch of bitter recluses who begrudge others who choose to express themselves through dress and makeup.

What do others think? Is being “goth” and/or “openly Pagan” good or bad? In your opinion, does history punish communities for being more visible? How can we help our community learn from history and grow towards a more diverse and tolerant ideal?

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