The Gay Roots of the Pagan Revival

It is a little known fact that many of the early pioneers of the Pagan revival in England were gay: Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, who came up with the idea of the League of Nations, was a gay man, and had close connections with the Bloomsbury group, and was a friend of E M Forster and Edward Carpenter, both of whom were gay.

Back in the late 19th century, he advocated the revival of the Greek view of life, including Paganism and same-sex love.

Edward Carpenter, a gay Pagan vegetarian socialist poet around at the same time, also advocated a return to nature and wildness, and corresponded with Walt Whitman for a time. His vision of the socialist utopia sounds very Pagan:

Carpenter began to believe that Socialism should not only concern itself with man’s outward economic conditions, but also affect a profound change in human consciousness. In this new stage of society Carpenter argued that mankind would return to a primordial state of simple joy:

“The meaning of the old religions will come back to him. On the high tops once more gathering he will celebrate with naked dances the glory of the human form and the great processions of the stars, or greet the bright horn of the young moon.” (Edward Carpenter (1889) Civilisation: its cause and cure

Edward Carpenter was an enthusiastic advocate of Nature as a place of freedom, and following him, his friend E. M. Forster made the hero of his novel Maurice feel “at one with the forests and the night” as soon as he had made the decision to adopt an actively gay lifestyle. Harry Hay, founder of the Radical Faeries, who was a Carpenter enthusiast, also stressed the importance of communing with Nature.

Research carried out by Rebecca Beattie into the literary roots of the Pagan revival has also uncovered a bisexual woman who was enthusiastic about ancient paganism, Nature, and the countryside: Sylvia Townsend Warner, author of Lolly Willowes.

We can in fact trace influences between authors: the Transcendentalists: Emerson, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, and Walt Whitman in America, corresponding with Rabindranath Tagore, W B Yeats, Edward Carpenter, and Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson. Carpenter then influenced D H Lawrence and E M Forster, who were fascinated with nature mysticism, and all these ideas fed into the Pagan revival.

These early pioneers were forgotten in the later Pagan revival of the fifties, sixties, and seventies, and it was only in  the late nineties that Pagans began to be interested in them again.

Full Moon by Nidan [CC0 Public Domain] on Pixabay

Full Moon by Nidan [CC0 Public Domain] on Pixabay

Paganism and LGBT people

Paganism is an umbrella term that includes a number of different traditions. The most widely known ones are Wicca (Pagan witchcraft), Druidry (Celtic nature worship), and Heathenry (Norse and Saxon traditions).

There are also a number of different groups reconstructing ancient Pagan religions, such as Religio RomanaLietuva, and Kemeticism.

Because these traditions mostly arose out of post-Enlightenment culture, they are generally inclusive towards LGBT people and friendly towards people of other religions and no religion.

Ancient pagans were also tolerant towards both same-sex love and gender variance. Paganism celebrates wildness, sexuality, the beauty of Nature, and the sheer joy of being alive.

However, while the vast majority of Pagans are not homophobic, they can sometimes be heterocentric.

Those of us who are LGBT and Pagan, together with our allies, are working to recover the ancient pagan traditions of the gender-variant shaman Divine Androgyne, deities of same-sex love, and to discover or invent new symbols for the diversity of LGBT experience.

The Pagan community also supports marriage equality, and we see the struggle for LGBT equality and the recovery of LGBT stories, mythology, and ritual as complementary efforts.

Currently, Pagans in opposite-sex relationships in England and Wales cannot have a legal wedding, except at one venue, the Glastonbury Goddess Temple. This is because buildings are what get licensed as wedding venues in England and Wales, and Pagans don’t own any buildings.

So, even when same-sex marriage became available in England and Wales, Pagans – much as we would want to – were still unable to perform any wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples that would have any legal standing. We can still do same-sex handfastings (just as we have always done) but they won’t have any legal standing.

In Scotland, Pagans in both opposite-sex and same-sex relationships can have a legal wedding, because people are licensed as celebrants, and the wedding can be performed anywhere you want. So when same-sex marriage became available in Scotland, Pagan celebrants were then able to perform same-sex weddings.

The Scottish Pagan Federation actively campaigned for equal marriage in Scotland, along with the Unitarians, Quakers, Liberal Jews, and other groups.

In Wicca (the Pagan tradition I have practised for 25 years), there is some discussion around creating LGBTQ-inclusive rituals, because many Wiccans honour a specific pair of deities (male and female).

Some covens focus on the mythology of the divine couple to the exclusion of other mythology, and this can be alienating for LGBTQ Wiccans (including myself).

However, many Wiccans are keen to create rituals that include everyone, and explore other ideas.

If we look back into the Pagan past, we can see many queer deities, such as Odin, Vertumnus, Pan, Artemis, the Pales, and so on. There is a tradition of the Divine Androgyne in Wicca.

It is not difficult to tweak the rituals slightly to make them more LGBTQ-inclusive, and this is also great for heterosexuals who find the gender binary paradigm rather tedious.

In Heathenry, there is the practice of seiðr, a shamanic practice which can involve gender-bending and same-sex love, and many LGBTQ people are attracted to Heathenry as a result.

There is a long tradition in indigenous cultures of gender-variant shamans and same-sex love. Traditional societies often regard queer people as being especially able to step over the threshold between the seen and unseen worlds, hence the traditional link between being fey and being queer.

Paganism is largely an open-source religion, where people are free to create their own rituals, drawing on the glittering variety of mythology and symbolism available from past and present, so it is an ideal setting for LGBTQ people to explore our spirituality, because it is mostly welcoming and inclusive.

A previous version of this article was originally published in Gay Star News in 2013 (I have updated it to reflect the fact that same-sex marriage is now legal in England, Wales, and Scotland, and that Pagan weddings are now available at one venue in England). The original is now only available from The Wayback Machine.


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