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Gender is not a Zero-Sum Game

Gender is not a Zero Sum Game in Aleister Crowley's Gnostic Mass

by Sib. James Gordon

In the past forty-eight hours as outrage about the wording and explicit policy decisions concerning the way that some of our siblings are allowed to present in the EGC Mass have spread outward, I have seen a lot of hurt cisgender identifying people on the internet.

The people who have expressed the most hurt and disbelief, and in whom I have been disappointed, are not the transphobic people who hate the very idea of anyone presenting as a different gender.  I don’t expect transphobic people to have any understanding or sympathy.

The people who have shown hurt, publicly and privately, are the well-meaning, generally progressive, people who felt they had crafted a compromise that would work for everyone and are very upset that instead of being appreciated, they are being attacked.  Most of them literally can’t understand why it might be a problem that you cannot Priestess if you do not “primarily” identify as female, or Priest if you do not “primarily” identify as male.

In many ways, I understand.  I was once where you are. For most of my life I identified as cisgender and heterosexual male.  I remember, circa 2005, feeling very proud of my liberal, tolerant, cis/het self because we welcomed transpeople into the events I managed. I felt virtuous because I did this over the objections of some people who didn’t want to have them at all.  And I felt justified in being annoyed, frustrated that one of them could not pick a gender and stick to it. What was this business of being male at one moment and female the next? It was confusing. I don’t care what gender you are, but for the love of God pick one and stick to it!

The Issue

The policy may be found here. The issue is that the new guidance violates a longstanding de facto compromise within the OTO, even though it may adhere to the letter of the 2004 policy. 

It has been understood for at least the past two years, potentially longer, that you could seek ordination either as Priest or Priestess, but not both.  In overview the ruling makes sense. If you are transgender this means that you select whichever role matches the gender that you choose to present. The problem is that under the new guidance it is made more explicit that, if you choose to Priest you must identify “primarily,” as male, and if you choose to Priestess you must identify “primarily” as female.  Non binary people who do not identify “primarily” as either may only Deacon. 

Certainly it has been made clear that you can “pass.”  That if you don’t primarily identify as female, but look more or less female, don’t’ make waves, and don’t advertise that you won’t be expelled from Priestessing.  As long as you remain in the closet and aren’t honest and open about your identity, you won’t be persecuted.

Still this is not a theoretical issue.  This has been confirmed directly by Sabazius through our MOE representative, specifically, as disallowing one of our siblings who has been a novice Priestess for two years from continuing to progress.  This is not a “one person” issue. At least two other persons have reported that under this policy they should be disallowed from their chosen role in the mass.  Many more feel that the ethics of continuing to “pass” while others are suspended is unworkable.

I Was Ignorant.  And Self Righteous

I hadn’t really experienced being non-binary, and I still haven’t.  I don’t know what it feels like. But I have listened to people who are, and I am capable of understanding that just because I have not experienced something does not mean it does not exist.  That a pillar of privilege is the ability to minimize and trivialize experiences I have not had myself.

I don’t know what makes someone decide to be a Priest or Priestess.  I don’t know exactly what internal dictate  makes someone decide that they wish to experience the mass as Priestess if they normally present female, or normally present androgyne.  For what it’s worth I have no interest in either role and am drawn to the Deacon role, because the Deacon, as it was put recently “keeps one foot in the world,” and that is my identity. 

There is suspicion of course.  That someone who decides to Priestess when they present primarily as male is testing the “one choice” system, making a comment on its absurdity, rather than legitimately performing the Mass. I have been there, experienced the energy and I can assure you that is not the case.

Nevertheless it is obvious that there is a desire to see people able to be novice as both Priest and Priestess at the same time.

I’ve seen the knives come out on both sides.  People who feel they compromised well being exasperated.  “What do they want!? To be able to be both Priest and Priestess!?”  People who have always thought that transgender was just a form of attention seeking and being a special snowflake saying “Aha!  Now we see what they wanted all along! To be able to do both!” 

This leads to a feeling among the cis/het people who have granted recognition to transgender people, and feel virtuous because of it,  that this is ungenerous.  “What more do you want!? We’ve recognized you!”

I understand where you are coming from.  I recognize you genuinely feel that you have gone above and beyond and are getting it thrown in your face.

…But you’re wrong, as I was years ago.

I have heard phrased, subtly and not so subtly that wanting to perform both roles is “too much.”  Greedy. My question is why? If it someone’s will to deal with the energies of the Priestess one day, and the Priest the next, does that leave less energy for you when you do it?  Gender is not a zero sum game. If someone takes two genders it does not leave none for you. If it did, the answer would be simple. Since I only wish to Deacon, my sibling could take my maleness to perform the Priest role and their own femaleness to perform the Priestess.

That’s absurd of course.  But contemplating how silly that trade-off would be underscores the point.  If someone performs both roles, there is not any less left for you.

Binary is a False Proposition

The problem is that the cis/het world is offering a false proposition.  “There is male, or female, pick one or the other.” In fact gender is not binary.  Perhaps some people are indeed mostly masculine or mostly feminine. And some people feel neither energy.  But many people feel both in a different admixture or at different times. They cannot “pick one,” because they are not one or the other, but that does not mean they are neither. 

Gender is not even a binary in biology.  There are as my partner Rebecca Doll will pull out her Biology degree and tell you, chimeras, different expressions of gender, a wide fucked up world in which black and white mixes to grey, both in humans and in animals. 

You may see the choice to pick one which appears less at harmony with their life as a trick, a lie.  But internally I do not think I am wrong in saying that to disown that part of themselves in favor of expedience would be the trick, the lie.  Worse, because it would be a lie to themselves.  In any case it is an attack on their inseparable self.

The Mass Is Not About Gender

David Salisbury has spoken eloquently about why the Mass, and Crowley, are queer.  I could not hope to touch his knowledge on the subject or that of my Sib. Ayin / R.A.D. who has written at Thelemic Union, or other excellent writers like Frater Arretos.  What is clear to me is that the idea that the Priestess is about cis/het feminine energy is an idea imposed because cis/het people are looking at the role. 

Why do I, speaking from a cis/het perspective get to dictate that the Mass should be seen and experienced through my lens?  Or through controlling who may see the mass publicly decide what the “appropriate” interpretation is, so that the Mass is only ever seen as a stark yin-yang contrast?  Why does anyone? 

The mass presents two roles and two differing energies which it is easy for us to assign heteronormative values to.  That does not make the Mass heteronormative, it merely makes us unimaginative.

They Have Thought About It More Than You

If you are cisgender, and most especially if you are predominantly heterosexual, here is one thing I can guarantee about any non-binary or transgender person who presents the mass.

They Have Thought a Lot More About Gender Than You Have.

Cisgender people.  When did you last really give a good hard think and spend a day thinking about your gender identity?

Most of you have never gotten up not knowing what gender you were, never had people tell you to your face that you cannot possibly be the gender that you are, never had people tell you that you are “greedy” because you cannot pick a gender and just stick to it.  You have never had people invalidate your core understanding of yourself and shame you for experiencing your own will instead of accepting theirs.

If someone is standing in the Mass, and they are not presenting the gender role that they were assigned at birth, I guarantee they have thought about the energies accompanying that gender, what it means to be and feel that gender far more than you or I.  Their experience is not only legitimate, it may be far more powerful and nuanced for the attention given. Because no one comes to the place of choosing to present differently than society expects without deep and powerful introspection.

If You Feel That You Are “Recognizing” or “Granting Rights” to Trans And Non-Binary People You May Be a Bigot

Your privilege does not entitle you to police others. 

Gender identification is not yours to “recognize.”  It comes from within. You may be a good person for acknowledging it, but it is not largess you grant, not an indulgence you bestow.  It is a fundamental obligation of decency.

My grandfather was a casual bigot.  He was never unpleasant to a person of color.  As a Quaker he believed that they deserved rights.  He hired them, rented houses to them. But he would not have allowed his daughter to marry a person of color, nor would he invite them to his house to dine, or if he did so he would have seen it as “granting a privilege,” indulging them.

If you believe that you have been kind, indulgent, overly generous in being willing to give so much to people who are non-binary, you may be as much of a casual bigot as my grandfather, and as myself a decade or so ago.  I respect him and do not think he was a bad man. But he was wrong, ignorant, and narrow and so was I and so are you. 

The Core Issue is Transphobic Fear

That brings us to the final issue.  The repeated assurance that “you can do that in a private mass.”

Why?  Right there we have admitted there is no doctrinal or theological reason why someone cannot present any role in the mass to which their will leads them.  We have not said “in a private mass that is invalid.” How would it work that the sacraments are rightly performed in private but lose their virtue when witnessed in public.  It wouldn’t of course. The reason is that the order which is supposed to “fear not at all” fears “confusion.” Fears that if someone walks in and sees someone in a gender role that does not fit the heteronormative view of their body type that they will conclude we are all gay.

The price of this is erasure.  Non-binary siblings must be kept out of sight, hidden from view.  Would you like that? Is it any real surprise they are not jumping for joy that they are constrained to a gender-neutral role, forbidden to experience the energies of the Mass in public as any other novice may?

And against what are we protecting the outside world?  The assumption that they may get a “wrong idea,” upholds the concept that the Mass is appropriately heteronormative, that any other interpretation is deviant.  It betrays a rabid fear that the order which should ‘fear not at all,” will be seen as “too gay,” or “weird.” It is a policy that drips with fear.

Thank You For Listening

I don’t know if I have or can help, but this is my one, legitimate, attempt to give some guidance to every cis-het person who is where I was a decade and a half ago.

Some of the issue here is about listening.  My suspicion is that cis/het people made policy for non-binary people without ever actually listening to them and understanding what it really meant to be them, or absent that, simply accepting their experience.  Listening is a core solution to every problem.

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17 thoughts on “Gender is not a Zero-Sum Game

  1. Loved this. You’re right that we shouldn’t make people hide or fit into the binary. Something that do many of us are guilty of. You own that you were wrong before and have changed, I respect that.

  2. 1) Gender is a social construct pushed onto a person by the culture in which they exist. You do not choose your gender.
    2) Most people with gender dysphoria stop experiencing gender dysphoria as they get older and craft their own identities and minimize their reactions to the greater cultures expectations.
    3) Crowley experimented with various permutations of sexual magick.
    4) The Mass is sexual magick.
    5) So long as we are permitted to discuss the efficacy of the operation, I see know problems with allowing experimentation with the sexual dynamics of the Mass.

    PS. I find it amusing that the people who resurrected the bindings of gender, after the counter-cultures of the 70s & 80s tried to dismantle Gender (and other social constructs), would claim that they have thought about gender more. As one of those invested in this dismantling, it looks more like, when faced with the freedom to be anything, a large majority fearfully resurrected Gender’s corpses to feel the comforting weight of their shackles once again.

  3. The use of the qualifier ‘primarily’ makes the OTO policy more than essentially bigoted. It’s not a compromise, it’s an expression of a prejudiced false duality.

  4. Has no one ever considered how incredibly regressive this whole idea of gender identity really is? By identifying as non-binary, one is really saying that the boxes for what constitute what is masculine or feminine are so small and rigid that there can be an identity outside of them. Why aren’t we challenging the boundaries of the boxes instead?

    And we need to stop using intersex conditions as some sort of “proof” that biological sex exists on a spectrum. Most intersex conditions are still sex-based and the vast majority of people with these conditions still identify as male or female. Some also resent being used as a kind of “gotcha” in discussions regarding gender identity, and frankly I don’t blame them.

    1. As a transsexual (not transgender), I can agree with this. I have yet to find a “transgender” or “non-binary” identifying person acknowledge that just because they want to perform or express themselves outside of the traditionally accepted gender roles, it doesn’t mean that they are somehow inherently a different gender. Men can wear dresses. Women can work on cars. It’s like they were never told this sort of thing and are so entrenched in the social construct of gender presentation that they consider gender presentation and gender roles to be immutable and defining of one’s gender with the same fate and permanence as one’s physical makeup.

  5. Thanks for making your mental illness obvious to the world and making the Caliphate OTO an ever larger laughing stock. 93s.

  6. Penises don’t menstruate and Vaginas don’t make sperm. This deception should be to confound the profane, but if you are considering bringing it into the order then throw away your Francis King books. Gender is not a social construct but a biological one. The one has become two. The source of male energy is inorganic, saturnalian energy or Ptah for pattern, while female is Maat or material. This is the generative principle which is the source of our power. The sacred knowledge of sexuality is used and exploited for both heterosexual and homosexual magick. Perhaps a refresher course in hermetics is in order. This is a Solar-Phallic tradition and strict adhesion to that is the only thing that gives it power. This is a Jachin-Boaz issue, and not a boy-girl one. I doubt this is the will of the Secret Chiefs.

  7. Thelema and OTO Will die a death like Freemaonary if it does no change or evolve with time.
    Stick to your gender confined prison’s people.
    Luke Rhinehart should have been better follower of AC then you cis bigots.

  8. Thank you for this article. I am not a member of your organisation but have researched Crowley and read some of his texts. I wanted to share something that happened to me and I hope that’s ok. I’d also been confused about trans issues for a while but had what felt like an epiphany while reading Crowley’s ideas about living according to your will. I asked myself: who in the world truly lives according to their will? The group that immediately came to mind was trans and non-binary people. They assert their identity and – no matter how much others may try to reject that – they persist in enacting their will by living as their true selves; the embodiment of self-determination. It was like someone turned on the lights. I may well have misinterpreted some things (as I say, I’ve only scratched the surface) but this was a powerful moment for me and crystallised my thinking. I will continue in my learning and will follow how your organisation progresses in this matter with interest.

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