Sunday, November 29, 2009

Echoes of a past life: Healing Darkness

Here's another piece from the Queer Pagans 'Zine: the longest one I wrote. It covers a lot of ground, touching on some pivotal moments in my spiritual journey. It's interesting to me that I chose not to identify the specific goddess archetype I felt I was interacting with until the last portion of this piece. Although I felt devoted to Hecate/Hekate, it became less and less important to me that the spiritual energy I experienced bore any name tied to a specific pantheon. My spiritual practice yielded more information about this divine force than my attempted research of the historical record of the ancient Hellenes or medieval witches. It's also ironically funny to me that as far removed as I now feel from the Neo-Pagan path and its community, the tattoo of Hecate's wheel that I had etched into my arm in this period is still there begging explanation from those who see it and ask about it. Anyway, the word "God" is much shorter and less suspicious, and if it causes its own kind of confusion, these days I much prefer it to the more exotic and complicatedly capitalized constructions of these earlier words. Note: I've added a few parenthetical details here and there in this piece to flesh out details, noted in italics.

Healing Darkness: A Meditation in Three Parts
By Ian Scott Horst
from QP #15, Halloween 9994 [Fall 1994]

Part 1: Vows and Promises

Of all the God/dess, one came to me first, and for that I will be ever grateful.

A friend of mine lay dying. He was thin, and his skin seemed tight and brittle. I tried talking to him, but I wasn't sure he heard me. His gaze was no longer full of the man I knew, but something focused far away from where I sat, holding his flaccid hand.

It would make a great story to say that as we sat there, a goddess descended into the hospital room, bore him aloft, and held me in her healing embrace. But it was not like that at all.

He died a couple days later and his family repossessed his body, shunned his gay friends and lovers at his funeral, and tried to throw his lover out of their apartment.

John's death happened at a time when I was trying to figure out a lot of things for myself. I found myself outliving some important friends and many treasured beliefs and unsure of my footing. The spiritual crisis I had been dodging for several years descended upon me, forcing me to examine who I was, what I was doing, what I wanted, why I was.

The short version of the story is that I discovered Paganism, and immersed myself it it, this new part of myself aware and longing for satiety. But I didn't understand a lot of things: while the Divine presence was easy enough to feel alone under a Full Moon in Prospect Park, it was harder to pull from the myths and rituals of the traditions I was trying to understand.

Then I discovered Her. As John [Moroney -ish]'s death became a part of my life, I realized that death is always a part of life. In fact, without death there is no life. Without the darkness there is no lightness. I meditated on these things and pondered what happens in the crossroads.

And all of a sudden, that which had felt abstract about Paganism became real. And suddenly She touched me in such a way as to convince me of Her beingness. And Her touch was not sweetness and light, no, but the darkness of sleep and the night, the power of She Who Changes.

Her darkness was not the darkness of evil or the macabre. I was not tempted to trade my chalice for a skull goblet or festoon myself with black lipstick. But She was about death, about understanding its place in life, about accepting its challenge, about the balance which is the natural order of things.

And although the truths She taught me began to heal me from the wounds I had suffered, Her presence began to be a bit more than I could bear. To consider death at every turn, to marvel at its purpose, to wonder at its finality, to embrace its inevitability; these were not easy things.

And so I conceived of a plan: I volunteered to perform a public ritual [for New York New Moon, an open circle--ish]. She Herself had taught it to me: a re-creation of Her crossroads, a place to meet Her, to appease Her, to open to Her healing touch, to offer and to learn.

I would organize this ritual, I would introduce Her to anyone who came, and then I would say goodbye to Her, ridding myself of what was beginning to feel like a burden.

It was the first public ritual I ever led, and it was a great success. Many people came, and to the surprise of those of us who organized it, it raised tremendous power; power which I felt but had no idea what to do with. When it was over many people came up to me to say how grateful they were.

The following weekend I went to a Pagan gathering [the Earthspirit Community's Twilight Covening--ish]. Also attending were many of the people who had organized and attended the ritual. But there was problem, my friends said. One woman had had a traumatic experience in the ritual. An old health problem had resurfaced, and she felt that the poorly grounded energy of the ritual was responsible. I apologized for my inexperience. But no, it's not just that, I was told. This woman thinks that she has been cursed by Her, the Goddess invoked at the crossroads in the circle. Would I, they wanted to know. please ask Her to remove the whammy that this woman had received.

And so I went alone to cast a circle, to recreate the crossroads, to call Her down, to perform the ritual I thought I was free of.

Exhausted from the gathering, and in choking clouds of incense I called Her. She came. And She spoke to me. She told me that it was an illusion to think I could be free of Her. I must embrace Her, and only then would I find healing and what I sought. Each dark of the moon, she made me swore, I would call her. I would honor Her. I would recreate Her crossroads, burn Her a black candle, sing Her healing song. She would be my friend and companion. She would be the night that I carried with me into the day.

No I was not free to refuse. I made the promise, the vow. And I waited for morning.

Part 2: Crows

I called it, in my journal, crow-woman, but it never felt comfortable around my neck. And maybe that was the point.

I bought it because I had been working, I thought, with Her crows. It had yellow and red and black beads, and three black crow feathers dangling from it. And a dozen withered black crows' feet spaced between the beads: grim amputated curling claws. It was a necklace. It had been made out west, by an Indian, I was told. It was much too intense a thing to be called jewelry.

I waited for it to come alive. I carried it to our dark moon rituals, where we called Her to come to us. I waited for its whisper. The scratch of its talons on my flesh when I put it around my neck made my skin crawl, but it remained silent.

When I went to the mountains of North Carolina one autumn, the whisper came. It said: take me along. And so I packed crow-woman with my ritual essentials and flew off -- no black bird but silver steel -- to a gay spiritual retreat.

Let me say here only that the retreat [Gay Spirit Visions --ish] was life-changing: an exploration of gay spiritual consciousness and a lesson in personal self-worth and affirmation.

At the retreat I met a man, whose full name I now struggle to call to my mind. He was called Raven. He had pale pale skin and jet black hair. He was an Indian, he said. He was not beautiful to me, but he was strangely magnetic and compelling; hos face bore traces of many burdens. He was one of the organizers of the retreat, and he had much cause over the weekend to speak to the hundred or so of us gathered there.

One of the climaxes of the retreat was a dance around the fire to the beat of drums. The beat was not wild and free, but carefully measured. And I could hear it from the distance as I walked the path from my cabin toward the central hall, the high mountain night wrapped dark around.

And in a spot of light -- my memory does not tell me if it was moonlight or starlight or flashlight -- I heard a whisper. It said: "give it to him."

When I hear a whisper in that part of my mind I usually try to dissuade it. If the whisper responds "OK, do what you want," I know it to be one of those little voices called self-doubt that are best ignored.

But the whisper said, "Yes, I'm sure. You know who I am and I say give it to him." By this time I knew what He was talking about, who he was talking about, and Who He was whispering to me in the mountain night.

So I turned around and went back to my cabin, and pulled the necklace from its black cloth wrapping. And I returned along the path to the fire. There gay men in various stages of trance and undress writhed in the orange light of a crackling fire.

I went up to Raven and said that I needed to talk to him. The whoops of the dancers and the pounding of the drums made us strain to hear.

I said, "I don't understand this. But I have to give you something," and I held up the necklace, its wrinkled claws dark and shiny in the firelight. "I have this god who follows me around. I don't know why, really, but I think he's Eleggua, an African deity. Anyway, he said that I have to give this to you. It's not old or anything. But it is sacred, and I have never learned to use it."

He looked at me oddly, as anyone in that situation would. But he took the necklace. He told me that he had heard of the god I was talking about. He said his teacher was a Heyoka, the Lakota word for trickster. He said to me, "You know this is a very heavy thing to give to me."

I could only nod and shrug.

He thanked me gravely, and returned to the fire. I returned after a while to my cabin. I felt like something had happened that I didn't quite understand. Something karmic had passed, it was clear, but mostly I felt that I had done a justice to crow-woman, freeing a sacred object whose power needed to be undestood from an unfortunate fate as a trinket bought and sold for money.

In the remaining day of the retreat Raven and I did not talk, in fact, I would say he avoided me. My own burdens seemed oddly lightened, though, and I experienced in the gathering's final ritual an important revelation (the reporting of which I'll leave to another time} which has strengthened me since.

But I learned, finally, the message that Her crows bring.

More than a year passed. I was unable to return for the retreat's annual gathering. Already it was Spring and I received a mailing from the retreat's organizers about a memorial gathering. A memorial for Raven, who had died of AIDS in the winter passed.

The crows are black, and their voices are loud and shrill. They fly in flocks, dark and shiny. Wrinkled and curved talons curl around branches, around bone. Their beaks are sharp, singing songs that cannot be sung. The crows fly carrying Her message. Their burden is unbearable, yet it must be borne.

Pay attention to the crows.

Part 3: Hekate, She Oh Mother, She

Her season is High Autumn. Amidst the falling leave, the shortening days and the chilling air, we speak of the veil between the worlds growing thin. At this time the dead walk the earth as our memories are stirred. At this time She calls to Her children to embrace Her, to walk with Her for a season.

My coven [called the Coven of the Middle Pillar--ish] was planning our ritual for Halloween, for Samhain, for Her holiday, and it was this we leanred when we needed Her presence in a more real, more dramatic way. We realized that one of us would have to agree to take Her on for Her season: that is, to open ourselves to Her, to invite Her to stay with us, speak through us, to change us. And so the crows cawed.

The second year it was my turn to embrace Her, and like my predecessor, when the time came I put on the snake rings that were Her symbol.

In one week I called to Her in three rituals; in each one invoking Her presence in me for the duration of the ritual and for the season. Despite my vow of three years before, I was no prepared for the intensity of the experience. Despite the fact that my coven had formed around our mutual devotion to Her, I was not prepared for the vividness of living with Her in that way. There were many surprises.

What happened was that everything in my life was put on the crossroads. As though a jeweller examining facets through a glass, I was given cause to examine each and every facet of my life. Some I left at the crossroads. Some I gathered up. A flaw here or there led me in search of correction. A particular flicker led me to prideful satisfaction. Fortunately the deaths in my life proved only metaphorical this time, though many of them were painful, as change is wont to be, necessary thing that it is.

And so the winter passed into spring, and the changes began to sprout roots, to depeen.

And then in a whirling moment, the unexpected. It was another ritual. Though I carried Her in my breast, it was not She whose name we called. But I remember being in a trance, moving, maybe singing; dancing among my covenmates also moving, making noise, all of us directed to that inner place where we find our link to Her.

And a voice began to whisper in my head: "Now is the time," it said. "The time has come for changes. This is the crossroads, now, and you must choose." And I found myself ripping snake rings off my fingers. And snapping pentacle chains off my nexk. And She released me.

She, Hekate. Oh Mother, She.

She let me go. She flung me out of her dark embrace, changed, healed. And I realized a time in my life had ended, a season of trial and change passed. I went for a kind if psychic reading, and the man who listened to the whipser of spirits told me to wear more white clothing. He saw me leaving a veiled black figure behind. My path now feels different than before, and while this year I will not don Her black veils and robes, nor light Her black candles, I can never forget that I owe who I have become to Her dark whispers.

On the surface of things Hekate's message is very simple: Without death there is no life. That is, life feeds on life; in order for new life to come into the world, old life must end, and pass its spark of life-force on. The truth of this is revealed in as simple an act as eating, when one being (animal or vegetable) consumes the lifeforce of another -- vegetable or animal -- in order to sustain its own life force. But what this reveals about us, people, queer people, you, me, is the divine part: We're part of a sacred dance of the stars: the life force that fires suns is the same that grows cucumbers and animates our bodies. In this knowledge is a healing gift. The mud and the crows and my dead friends (and yours) and me and you we're all the same, really, the spiral dance of our atoms showing, in miraculous imagining, Her presence in all things, and bearing, in the richness of its season fruit of grace and balance and patience and inner peace.

But words are only signs. Words and symbols are not the things themselves, nor their true knowing, and these words, while shared, are certainly mine and not yours, and this is why Hekate is mistress of magic, the only real way to understand Her voice. Go to Her Crossroads and dare to listen. And in the tears and trials and wonders, may you find... yourself.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Steve Rose, gay hero

I ran across this photo when trying to do some research on the mind-control-cult-masquerading-as-political-party once known as the New Alliance Party and now more or less known as a faction of the Independence Party here in New York. It shows a one-time roommate of mine, Steve Rose, with his boyfriend at the time--Tato--at a "Dump Koch" rally in the mid or late 1980s. It was on a website of former members of the NAP on a page labelled "People exploited by the NAP." By the time this photo had been taken, my friendship with Steve had ended; I wasn't really a part of his life in his final years when he succumbed to AIDS. But the picture has brought back so many memories of Steve and what an amazing guy he was. I wanted to put down some memories of him because he's one of those unsung heroes of an earlier time: somebody whose heart was in this amazing place but whose struggle ended not with victory or even recognition but with the tragic anonymity of so many gay men of that earlier time.

Steve Rose grew up in upstate New York, in the small town of Chittenango. He was close to his mother, but as someone who knew he was gay from an early age always described his hometown as a hotbed of ignorance and intolerance. His best friend committed suicide as a teen; Steve believed it was because he couldn't handle his own awareness of being gay in such a hostile environment. He moved to New York City in the late 1970s. I don't know where he went to nursing school, but he become an RN at Harlem Hospital. He wanted more than anything to help people; and he loved his job taking care of people there. He used to tell me about cleaning up homeless junkies in humanizing a way that made me think he felt kinship with other castoffs from society.

Steve loved the city; and he loved the freedom it gave him as a gay man. He told me a LOT of stories about his sex life in those heady days. He loved the bars and discos, the baths, the piers, the cars, the trucks, the late-night streets. It was Candyland to him. He was brash, extroverted, and shameless. Somewhere in the late seventies he met and moved in with Albert Torres, who was a few years older than Steve, but devoted to him. They lived together in Inwood/Washington Heights for many years.

Steve joined the Gay Activists Alliance, one of two main gay political groups in NYC in the late 1970s. GAA was the militant group engaging in factional warfare with the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights--CLGR--the more established group which seemed to them more accomodationist and mainstream. GAA was hugely involved in the noisy protests against the filming of William Friedkin's 1980 slasher movie "Cruising" in Greenwich Village.

It's hard to remember that earlier time of gay invisibility, but the community was outraged that gay invisibility in populture culture was about to be replaced with a depiction of gay society as a dangerous, doomed world of murderers and perverts. You can hear the whistles the protesters used to attempt to disrupt the filming of the movie in at least one scene: they were left in by Friedkin and provide a kind of haunting ghostly testament to a flashpoint of old gay activism.

Round about then the Revolutionary Socialist League, a split from the International Socialists in the U.S. with a reputation for direct action (that some would call adventurism), had begun a campaign of work in the gay community. It had won a minority faction of a gay socialist group in California called the Red Flag Union (once the Lavender and Red Union: the majority faction merged with the Spartacist League), and it was eager to create a left-wing pole in the burgeoning gay liberation movement. The RSL started to "intervene" in GAA. "Intervention" was the term used by left-wing sects for having an orientation to a certain political arena, or, if possible, joining a sympathetic coalition and attempting to win adherents to the party program. This is where I enter the story as well: though I was not yet in New York at the time, the RSL's work with GAA was a strong factor in my joing the RSL in 1979 or so.

Anyway, Steve was a true radical. It was clear to him that rights were not won by begging, but by fighting. He was attracted to the RSL's support for militancy, and eventually to the RSL's brand of unorthodox revolutionary Leninism. He was not an intellectual: he struggled with Marxist literature and concepts. His upstate NY education had not exposed him to the history and geography crucial to the arguments of the left, but he knew what he stood for. He loved the RSL's militancy: he loved its stand against the KKK and neo-nazis. GAA exploded; splitting into left and right-wing factions before ultimately disbanding: the left becoming sympathetic to the RSL. I believe Bruce Glauber was the principle RSL member leading the intervention. Although most of the GAA guys only remained peripherally around the RSL, Steve and Albert and at least one other joined the League outright.

I moved to New York in 1981. My skill designing printed materials for the Chicago branch had come to the attention of the national office, and the main guy who designed the RSL's newspaper together, The Torch/La Antorcha, himself an SDS veteran, wanted to give it a rest. I was brought to New York to be the Art Director of the paper.

Steve and I immediately hit it off. We were both big guys, and more or less the same age, if I recall. We became friends. I was looking for someone to show me the ropes of gay and political life in the big city, and Steve showed me his world. Although I had been out for several years, and had spent a number of years in the organized left, I felt shy and inexperienced in the gay world. Steve opened my eyes, and I'm so grateful to have had the experience of that pre-AIDS gay world before it was gone. I'll never forget the year we went to the Halloween parade in drag together: he looked like a hooker and I looked like an out-of-place midwestern schoolteacher on her one night out. There are numerous photos in some Japanese business men's photo albums documenting that night. As fun as it was to hang out with Steve socially, he was a dynamic presence at demonstrations, and a great contributor to internal discussions in the League.

This photo is probably from 1983 or 1984. Note the rat tail. That's me on the left, and Steve on the right.

Steve had his share of demons. Heavy most of his life, he discovered bulimia could solve all his problems, at least temporarily. He used to consume two packages of pasta and two jars of sauce and four liters of Pepsi every night; half way through and again at the end it would all be upchucked into the toilet. Being skinnier made him even more extroverted and gave him a kind of sexual swagger: his appetite for men was as voracious as his appetite for food, and Albert didn't really have a problem with recreational sex. (He had a "tummy tuck" after the success of his bulimia, though there was some horrible episode of lots of bleeding. Anyway as the years went by he got big again.)

Steve's favorite song was Bette Midler's "The Rose." He used to say the lyric "[It's] the soul afraid of dyin' that never learns to live" made him not want to become someone trapped in a life of fear and regret.

Albert was an alcoholic, and after a long period of abstention descended into a fairly unpleasant period of insobriety. He was hit by a car in the village and while he recovered, his life was never the same. Somewhere in there Steve and Albert broke up, and Steve and I became roommates in an apartment overlooking the George Washington Bridge.

It proved to be a bad match: by then our friendship had developed a kind of competitive edge. On my part I had some complicated love/hate issues; and he began dating a friend of mine which brought up some jealousy. What had been a fairly intense friendship became a fairly toxic living situation, and it didn't last long. Somewhere in 1984, Steve moved back in with Albert and I moved off to Brooklyn.

Albert had gotten sick. Make that Sick. By then AIDS had a name but not a lot more. As I recall he didn't live that long after he got sick. Steve was devastated.

AIDS was a challenge, a gauntlet. It changed all of our lives, even those who remained healthy. I found myself drifting away from radical politics; by 1986 I stopped being active with the League. Steve by then had also left. We were no longer really friends. I wandered into him every once in a while in the Village. He seemed no longer his former brash self. The last time I saw him he was with Tato, and he had just joined the New Alliance Party. He seemed a little defeated: we both knew better, from experience, of what a nest of snakes the NAP actually was.

I guess I was surprised but not shocked. The NAP had succesfully created a working-class and multi-ethnic aura about itself, unlike the more orthodox left which was mostly white and not very proletarian. At the time NAP recruited through a mental healthcare center where the message was very attractive to someone like Steve: If your mind is fucked up it's not your fault, it's the system: you're being oppressed and you should fight back (by joing the New Alliance Party). NAP cult originator Fred Newman's called this "social therapy."

The orthodox left was dying anyway, and Steve couldn't stand to not be fighting. He hated Ed Koch, and loved the fact the NAP was heavily involved in the Dump Koch movement. If I recall the details correctly, he was the RN on the scene when the Rev. Al Sharpton was stabbed at a 1991 anti-racism demonstration in Brooklyn.

By then Steve himself had AIDS; he died in 1991 or 1992. I ran into Tato once on the street, who was heartbroken.

Steve deserved better than what he got. He showed me that it was possible to live life joyfully and freely without worrying what other people thought: to challenge convention and to be true to what's inside you. He was brave, even foolhardy. But without fighters like him, the last decades of increasing social acceptance of gay people wouldn't have happened. It's important for those of us who remember those who have gone to keep their names alive. We owe it to them.

My Great Great Grandfather

I've written elsewhere about the journey of my father's father's family from Russia to the United States. Here's a little bit about my father's mother's family. It's the most "American" branch of the family: unlike the immigrant Volga-Germans, German-Germans, Irish, and secret Jews comprising the rest of my ancestors, the Scott wing seems to have come to these shores before there was an actual United States. I was recently sent a box of old photos from my grandmother's estate--she's been gone a long time but these were floating around somewhere--and included is this amazing photo of my great great grandfather William W. Scott, of Vicksburg, Michigan. He's shown in his Union Army uniform in 1865. I don't have a lot of documentation of any of my family roots, but I know at least that William Scott was born in Indiana in 1844, and died in 1918. He was married to Maria Decker, and among his children was my grandmother Dorothy's father, Clinton R. Scott, a dentist in Marcellus, Michigan (who married Dora Kimble--sometimes spelled Kimball), born in 1868.

It's amazing to see this young man of 20 or 21, just before starting his family, perhaps on discharge from service in the cataclysm of the Civil War.

Here's another photo, undated, but apparently in some sort of parade in the 1910s. On the back is pencilled in "Dr. W. W. Scott".

The Scotts had lots of children. I'm sure my distant cousins are legion. I don't know when they settled in that part of Michigan: but my father was born there and my grandmother didn't leave there until the 1950s. My grandmother herself was one of many siblings: I met her oldest sister Ruth once, the beloved daughter of the family who died in the late 1960s or early 1970s, in a nursing home in California. The photos of the Scott children in the early 1900s show pampered middle-class children in tree-lined small town idle. My great aunt Frances Scott, gramma's sister, was a photographer--and more-or-less out lesbian--in Mill Valley, California from the 1950s through her passing in the 1980s. It makes me wonder, given this family blessing, what it would have been like to be gay in William W. Scott's generation: was it always a suppressed and hidden inner struggle, or were there blue-coated brothers in some former secret army of lovers?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Sarah Palin nation

More disturbing video from the know-nothing mob: white resentment, fear, bad thinking, Fox-news induced ignorance, mindless adulation of celebrity. It's hard to watch, but is it good or bad that all these "independent" minded white people continue to dance so close to the fine line between fascist and crazy?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Echoes of a past life: She/The

On one of the gay blogs I follow, Joe.My.God, there is a lot of hostility to religion. A lot of this is justified in that certain religious organizations have been in the forefront of organizing attempts to deny rights to lesbians and gays. But such a negative experience with religion is really not my own experience. Granted, I grew up in a liberal, largely secular atmosphere, in northern urban centers. But it's clear to me that many people have ceded spirituality to the fundamentalists, accepting their limited and intolerant views as being the true representations of religion rather than something else altogether. Fundamentalists may think they're being "truer" to the spirit of their religion than people who view religion more progressively, but this is only true if you believe that burning witches at the stake, stoning "sinners," or waging genocidal war under the banner of God are fair expressions of religion. But it's not the time of the Old Testament, or the flight from Mecca, or the Spanish inquisition, and the sun will rise tomorrow without the mass sacrifices of humans on stone pyramids. Thankfully, human values have evolved, just as our own views as people evolve over the course of our own lives.

This piece is another from the Queer Pagans zine. It's an attempt to define what God is, from a time when I was trying to move from what could be called book-learned polytheism to experience-taught monotheism. I remember the day my friend Cayte and I had this amazingly profound discussion when we both realized that all our of NeoPagan friends thought we were all being polytheists when we had both come to a realization that that was, for us, a superficial understanding of the world and a kind of impossibility. I offer this up now as a reminder that God, that religion, are not what the forces of reaction and hatred say they are. Their cartoon vision of judgment and sin and hatred and punishment might brighten their own worlds, but it need not darken our own. Let us drown our own baby in their dirty bathwater at our own risk.

Anyway, it's difficult to describe things that can only be experienced. But I think I give it a pretty good try.

by Ian Scott Horst
from QP #14, Harvest 9994 [Late-summer 1994]

It is an obvious fact that the human heart beats to its rhythms whether our minds tell it to or not. If you look inward and try to still the beating, it will return. Some might believe that it is the awesome electrical hardware of human anatomy that keeps the heart beating; the miraculous machine of brain, blood, lungs and body. The conclusion of such a belief is that the heart beats because of what is inside us. Yet external stimulation is absolutely essential to its steady and continued rhythm. Without the beauty of things outside our bodies, and without the proximity of other beating hearts, our own hearts grow thick and dull; hardening until eventually ceasing. Gaze at an orange sunset over the Hudson river and you wil feel your heart come to life and renew itself. So we might also say that the heart beats because of what is outside us.

My heart beats to the same rhythm as yours, though we do not always listen together, nor are the beats aligned to precisely the same moments, nor does the beat move us each in the same way. My cats have hearts that beat faster than mine, and intenal and external realities vastly different than mine. But they lie close to me, occasionally gazing into my eyes with recognition, absorbing the warmth of my heartbeats and offering the warmth of theirs in return.

I own a smooth black stone that fits neatly in my palm. It is wonderfully cool and perfectly shaped. I do not think that inside this stone there is a beating heart; tough I will not crack it open to find out. But when the stone fits into my palm and my fingers close around it the sound and feel of my own heartbeat become clear from the din of life's sensation. The gift of the stone is the boundary that enables one small part of infinity to be found and named.

There are god/desses of stones. And of hearts. And of cats. And of rhythms. There are god/desses whose names ring in my ears and fall flat in yours.

We Queer Pagans seek to understand the god/desses. We seek to align our lives with their miraculous and rewarding presences. We invoke them, we pray to them, we find them becoming near to us and as present in our lives as our shadows.

But sometimes these god/desses are not enough. Sometimes their miraculous personalities are too limited; each mythos too restricted; each shape both inadequate and too complex.

It is at that moment then that I ask you to find the space between the palm and the stone. Find the rhythm with which all heartbeats mesh. Find the world in which all things exist: both the ones you can see and the ones you can't; the ones you know of and the parts unknown.

This God/dess I worship by a simple and common name, as ubiquitous as She is. I call Her The. And I call Her, The God/dess, to be here now. And my invocation cannot fail.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Echoes of a past life: Learning to Be an Edgewalker

Somewhere between being a revolutionary and today I got religion. To the dismay of my family, rather than knocking on the doors of churches and seeing whether I felt welcome, I took another left turn and explored the world of Goddess worship, or Neo-Paganism, especially a vaguely-feminist vaguely free-thinking unorthodox form of Wicca, the re-created "Witchcraft as nature religion" that had been codified by English occultist Gerald Brousseau Gardner in the mid-twentieth century. I ultimately found a lot to dislike about Wicca, and it proved to be only a station on a longer spiritual journey. But my years exploring, studying, practicing, and innovating Neo-Pagan ritual became a transformational experience.

After a couple years involvement I joined with some co-practitioners and created a group in New York City called "Queer Pagans." It was about the time of post ACT-UP "Queer Nation" activism, and while I have some misgivings now about what "Queer" has come to mean--and how it has come to almost denigrate mere gay male identity--at the time it seemed like a miraculously inclusive and liberating word. We tried to incorporate that inclusive and liberating spirit, and held open rituals, mostly at New York's Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, that regularly drew dozens and on at least one occasion hundreds of participants. The rituals drew gay men, lesbians, transsexuals and transgendered people, and all sorts of people along the "LGBT" spectrum. Along with the open ceremonies, we published a zine. It started out mostly as a calendar, but expanded into a small showcase of "Queer Pagan" theory. I designed it on a Mac staying late after work; wrote much of it, and collected other writings from friends and co-thinkers. We even managed to get it professionally xeroxed. Before QP collapsed for a variety of reasons--rather quickly but mercifully without drama or accusation--I found myself in the midst of an explosion of creativity.

As with my early political writings, re-reading the QP zine there's plenty to find that seems dated or, well, almost cloyingly ingenuous. I was certainly a true believer. But there's a lot here I'm proud of: I wanted to communicate not some kind of religious orthodoxy but the authenticity of spiritual experience: the conviction that mystical experiences, that faith--no, certainty--in God's presence in the world, that deep ancient wisdom was something free for the taking, not off library or bookstore shelves, but by living life and daring to explore and play with otherwise dusty ideas on the solid earth of the real world.

Here's one of my articles; many more to come later.

Learning to Be an Edgewalker
by ian scott horst
reprinted from QP #13, Sun & Rainbow 9994 [Mid-Summer, 1994]

It occurred to me the other day that from a certain vantage point, the story of my life would make a lurid and bizarre tale. Its telling would be fantastically picaresque: episodes laying shock upon shock, revealing me to be a denizen of a kind of secret society, a connoiseur of perverse comraderies and purveyor of dubious morality and eccentricity.

So OK, it's true that my friends and I used to call each other "comrade" and were once pursued in a high-speed car chase through the highways of suburban Chicago by a gang of swastikaed Neo-Nazis. It's true that for a handful of months I was a member of a political group organized into anonymous cells where none of us knew each other's real names or phone numbers: we would meet at six in the morning to pass out subversive flyers to factory workers It's true that for a year, twice a month at midnight, I would venture alone deep into Prospect Park to call forth the spirits. It's true that I went to a gay club where the bathroom had bathtubs for urinals and bathers in the bathtubs (well, ok, I only went there twice, and that room wasn't to my taste). It's true that me and my friends get together now in rituals where we wear the oddest clothes and whirl in circles and talk to the air, and shake and mumble uncontrollably, and listen to voices no one else can hear.

But really, I work for a living. I have a nice apartment and I pay my rent. I only have pierced ears, and my tattoo is very discreetly above the line of even very short sleeved shirts. I don't smoke, don't drink to excess, don't do drugs. Hell, I don't even watch much TV. (Well, OK, maybe I do have more CDs than anyone else I know.) Like most people, I hope one day to retire in style and comfort; I'd love to visit Hawaii, and I return my Publishers Clearinghouse entries when I remember to. And all my stories -- and the ones above are just a teeny portion of them -- at the time didn't seem so extraordinary. They just sort of, well, happened along the way.

But in retrospect, I see a kind of razor's edge that I have walked along. And by this I mean not just a path along a thin edge between social underworld and the dominant culture, but also a shining and compelling sharpness with a hypnotic fascination. I remember once as a very young child finding a razor blade in the bathroom wastebasket. It was a grown-up thing, and its edge was smooth and sharp, tempered by unimaginable forces into a tool that would be willfully used and then discarded with no afterthought. I remember feeling the uncontrollable need to understand its mystery: I ran my finger along the blade, amazed to find thick red blood bubble to the surface of my fingertip. And at the moment where my soft flesh met the wonderfully smooth steel I felt no pain.

So you see, we do make mistakes.

What I am getting at here is not just some trite cliche about learning through experience. That, of course, is the human condition. Nor am I offering a cautionary tale about thrill-seeking. What I am saying is that those of us who, by virtue of our twin membership in the Pagan and queer worlds, are learning to find the edge and walk it, and in so doing are making magic.

Here's another story. At the most recent Queer Pagans ritual, we asked participants to bring somthing symbolically male and something symbolically female to ritually place on the altars. Some people would have expected a stack of phallic wands wound have been piled upon God's altar while a stack of holed objects would have materialized on Goddess's. That is, after all, what the Pagan books tell us toplace at such moments. But it wasn't that way at all. There was not a dick-like object placed, nor anything resembling a vagina. I brought flowers for the God altar, saying that flowers were short-lived and beautiful and intense like a male orgasm. I brought a rock for Goddess, saying it was solid and real like the earth. And every participant's offering was like that. None of them were symbols from books: they were pieces of people's lives; a transsexual woman even offered her estrogen pills. You see, the God/dess is indeed within, and to the queer Pagans in that circle, this was only obvious.

I would now no more address my friends "comrade" than I would pull a razor through my skin. The knowledge given to me by these particular experiences remains with me, by the edge has turned away in another direction. My wretched youthful political affinities have been set aside, transformed by the telling into a chapter in my personal mythology. But by the same token, I continue to explore my sexuality in ways that my day-job peers might find shocking, and I continue to listen for voices and whisper to both the mysterious and visible forces of nature. The metaphorical razor's edge continues to compel and hypnotize. As near as I can tell now, the difference is that today, understanding its nature, I seek to wield the razor as well.

Magic involves consciousness. Starhawk calls it the art of changing consciousness at will. I used to find this definition unglamourous. Today I feind it awesome and profound, hinting at possibilities I can scarcely grasp and barely struggle to name. History begins to teach us that queer people have always found and walked this edge, grasping for this magical meaning. The walk is sometimes decadent and self-destructive and sometimes it is liberating and revolutionary. But it is magic and, walker, you will be changed.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Anti-American Art

Here, from an English-language Chinese magazine cover of 1965, is another propaganda image. An unarmed South Vietnamese woman single-handedly grabs the rifles of two ghostly-pale caricatures of US soldiers while anti-war protesters rage in the background. Her steely-eyed countenounce reflects determination and bravery. From the early days of the Vietnam war this image seems more allegorical than later images, which came to focus on the large number of American aircraft downed over Vietnam.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Afolabi, Ibaye

I received very sad news today that a fellow Santeria priest has left this world. Clay Keck, who as an initiated priest of Yemaya was known as Afolabi, and as a proud Queer Jew was known as Shloma Rosenberg, passed on yesterday, November 8, after suffering a medical emergency. I believe Afolabi was older than I in ocha but younger than I in birth years.

We never met in person: I knew him only through e-mail conversations which we had over the course of many years since my early days in the religion. I ran across him first on "Orisha List," before I realized how counter-productive virtual forums on the religion could be. I found him to be knowledgeable and wise, with a wild eccentric streak (see photo) that was a singular gift from Yemaya Herself. As another gay, non-hispanic practitioner of the religion (with a soft spot for leftwing politics) I felt a sense of connection with him even though our paths never directly crossed. He owned a Magick shop in Michigan, and was gifted with an incredible creative ability. He initiated many many godchildren into the religion.

Some of Afolabi's writings can be read at his website. My heart goes out to his family in life and in ocha, his lovers, his godchildren, and his friends. May God bless him; he will be missed in this world.

Thanks, Obatala

Thirteen years ago I woke up on a thin straw mat on a hard concrete floor. It was one of the most transformative days of my life; I was initiated that day as a priest of Obatala, the santeria orisha of creation and wisdom. The ceremony went off and on for a week; the initiation lasted a year: a year of wearing white, of changing my life's patterns. But the initiation has lasted a lifetime.

While I'm not very active in the religion, every day I feel my connection to the world of spirit, to the presence of the ancestors, to the mysterious blessings and grace of the orishas, and give thanks to Olodumare--to God--for this life, with all its good and its hardship; for my creative abilities which earn my paycheck and keep me sane; for health, for love and friendship, for the sun shining on gold and green leaves outside my window, for the warmth of my cat, for the amazing joys of words and music, for the tastes of chocolate and hot sauce.

Maferefun babami Obatala! Maferefun iyami Ochun!

(Obatala doll art from this site)

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Echoes of a past life: Will the Gay Movement Survive AIDS?

I wrote this article a long long time ago. With so much water under the bridge I have been remembering this piece off and on and dragged it out of a dusty file. The newsprint it's printed on is brittle; the pseudonym I used amusing. Many of its ideas seem quaint and without context; many of its reference points are lost to time. I'm fascinated by its mix of pessimism and optimism. I'm struck by how I anticipated the rise of the era of ACT-UP and Queer Nation, even as I remember that my own personal journey took me away from these new forms of gay activism I espoused. But let's bring this slice of twentieth-century radicalism into our new millennium. Any errors in the re-typing will be mine; and all italics are in the original. I won't edit or abridge this.

In modern blogs I've read many younger gays revile this forgotten past. There's no such thing as "gay culture" they say. The older generation brought death on itself through its rampant promiscuity they say, neatly forgetting that it was a deadly virus not a sexual lifestyle that erased the generation that by its very existence built the foundation of whatever the gay community is today.

(The following article is reprinted from the long-defunct "Torch/La Antorcha," newspaper of the Revolutionary Socialist League, June 15-July 14, 1985 "Lesbian and Gay Pride Day" edition.)

Reflections on a Troubled Community:
Will the Gay Movement Survive AIDS?
by Ian Daniels

In 1983, four gay men with AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) came to New York's Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee (CSLDC), which plans the city's annual lesbian and gay pride march and rally, with a request: a person with AIDS should speak at the rally. They pleaded that a message about AIDS would be important for the crowd to hear, adding that this gay pride rally might be their last. After a heated discussion, their request was voted down, though eventually an AIDS speaker was included in the final program. It is now summer, 1985. Three of the four men are dead.
In the fall of 1983 a coalition of gay organizations organized a boycott of a new gay bar that was refusing entry to people on the basis of race, age and size. The campaign was successful; the owner was forced to put a sign in the front window stating "We do not discriminate." A friend and I went to the bar shortly after the victory. The place was practically empty. A man was dancing with fans, by himself, to the loud music. Despite being alone, he looked happy and content. The three of us talked.

Spring 1985. My friend called me and asked if I remembered that night at the Union Club. The man we had met was on a panel at an AIDS conference, speaking as a person with AIDS.

Summer. A week ago I got another call from my friend. The man was dead.

Some statistics from the June 3 issue of The New York Native, New York's main gay paper: the Centers for Disease Control reports 10,400 AIDS cases in the U.S.; 49% of those who have contracted the disease are now dead; 74% of the people with AIDS are gay men.

Because the disease remains largely mysterious, the course of the disease is unclear and subject to debate and speculation. Some researchers believe the incubation period is five years. Thus far, the AIDS caseload has doubled eveyry nine months. Accepting these projections, simple math suggests that as many as one million people already have the disease--with symptoms not to show up for up to five years. Perhaps 74% of these people are gay men too. Those exposed to the AIDS-related virus, LAV or HTLV III, may count in the multi millions. The U.S. medical establishment has yet to find either a prevention or a cure.

An international conference on AIDS was held in Atlanta in April. The remarks of one government official provoked an angry statement by the lesbians and gays present at the conference:
"On April 15, Secretary Margaret Heckler of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, made a distinction between those classified as being at risk for AIDS and the 'general public.' We point out that gay men, hemophiliacs, intravenous drug users, Haitians and people with AIDS are also among the general public, and failure to Acknowledge this is a denial of our basic humanity.

"Secretary Heckler has stated on many occasions, as she did again on April 15, that AIDS is the nation's number one health priority; yet her department has requested fewer financial resources to deal with a growing and indeed overwhelming problem. In fact, the Reagan Administration is proposing to spend $11.9 million less on AIDS in fiscal year 1986 in the face of an expected doubling of AIDS cases...."

I wake up in the morning hearing "Smalltown Boy" play on the radio. The song, by the group Bronski Beat, tells of a guy who has to leave the repressive atmosphere of a small town. Bronski Beat is one of a tiny handful of gay musical groups who have hit the "big time," and their songs are about being gay. The DJ comes on the radio and says, "You know what that song's about, right?" He sneers. "Yeah, FAN dancers." I think of the man who is dead.

I wait for the subway. Scribbled on a billboard behind me is "faggot." At work, where I typeset a respectable, if pornographic, gay magazine (straight-owned), I work on an article about a gay bank in California. The article discusses how far gay people have come; look, it says, we even have a bank. After work I meet a friend in the ever-so-trendy East Village for dinner. On parting, we kiss casually. We hear a voice. "Come on guys. Can't you take that somewhere else?"

I'm watching Cagney and Lacy. Good triumphs over nasty criminals. One cop says to the other, "Yeah, lots of cops have drug problems. Some drink too much. And some put on makeup and a dress and go cruise the West Village." I call the TV station to complain. "Thanks you for your comments," I am told.

In 1981 New York's Gay Activist Alliance died a quiet death. The group had been around for over ten years, after the death of the Gay Liberation Front it was, along with the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Righths, a viable and important community organization. Some say the left killed GAA, but in truth New York's lesbian and gay community was no longer able to sustain such an organization. But still, there were groups to carry on a movement. Though fraught with factionalism, groups like Lavender Left, Committee of Lesbian and Gay Male Socialists, Dykes Against Racism Everywhere, and even CLGR continued. And the left "parties" were also active. The Revolutionary Socialist League, Freedom Socialist Party, Workers World Party, International Socialist Organization, and the New Alliance Party were all involved.

By the time of last year's International March for Lesbian and Gay Freedom, Lavender Left, CLGMS, and DARE had disbanded. CLGR was a group still claiming to represent "over 50 gay and lesbian organizations," but in reality consisting of four people. And the organized left was mostly no longer there; FSP had other things to do, which apparently didn't include work in the gay movement. NAP had an election campaign to run, but since that time they haven't been back. WWP was busy elsewhere. The RSL was the only left organization involved on any real level. And since then, the gay community has offerred few areas where "politics" as we have known them are involved, where the ideas of a radical movement can be raised. The RSL is active in one of them, in the fledgling Lesbian and Gay Task Force of the Mobilization for Survival.

But even this arena is limited: for the first time inn recent national demonstrations, no unified lesbiand and gay contingent marched at the April 20 march for Peace, Jobs and Justice in Washington, D.C.

One gay organization in New York City is growing. It's the Gay Men's Health Crisis, a social services organization that helps care for AIDS patients and their relatives, conducts education about AIDS, and raises money to fight AIDS.
Lesbian and gay pride day is June 30 in New York City. CSLDC is now a corporation, "Heritage of Pride, Inc." The march, now called a parade, will go from Central Park down to the West Village, where along with a rally, the Christopher Street Festival will take place, offereing the gay community the same Filipino noodles and Italian sausage sandwiches that are standard fare at New York's ethnic festivals all summer. A lavender strip will be painted on Fifth Avenue, just like the green stripe painted for St. Patrick's Day.
The New York Native recently published a series of articles on "sexual compulsion." This disputed theory is relatively new, a product of the AIDS generation. Its advocates argue that sexual compulsion is a disease, driving gay men to have sex against their better judgment, setting themselves up to catch AIDS. Its proponents talk about people who are constantly looking to have sex, or who masturbate to the point where their genitals become chafed and chapped. "Curing" sexual compulsion is the latest craze in gay psychotherapy.

The only read medical advice on preventing AIDS is the so-called "Safe Sex Guidelines," whereby sex should be altered to avoid exchange of bodily fluids (the probable transmission belt of the AIDS virus). It's hard advice, but probably sound advice (although as the caseload rises, the guidelines are coming to be called "Safer Sex Guidelines" rather than "Safe Sex Guidelines"). The choice is a personal one; but there is reason to believe that gay men, who, like all human beings, need sex, can have sex without jeoparizing their lives. The theory of sexual compulsion, however, in essence tells gay men that it is, indeed, their sexuality that is at fault for AUDS. "Gay men get AIDS because they can't control themselves."

How long agao it seems that gay militants argued, as they did in the landmark 1974 pamphlet With Downcast Gays, that gay people have nothing to apologize for:

"Puritanism lies at the heart of the distrust of promiscuity... Gay activists should stand up for the variety and freedom in sexuality that gay people can enjoy, and yet how often do we read articles in the gay press containing words to the effect that 'we shall never deserve our liberation until we stop being so promiscuous.' Such phrases expose two aspects of self-oppression. Not only are our moral standards being measured against those of our heterosexual oppressors, but liberation is accepted as something that must be worked for and deserved rather than a fundamental right of which we have been deprived. Itw ould be nearer the truth to say that we shall never deserve our liberation so long as we attempt to ingratiate ourselves into heterosexual favour by adopting the standards of the non-gay world."

During the 1984 presidential race, most gay organizations worked for a Democratic Party victory. This May the Democratic National Committee met and voted to abolish seven "special interest" caucuses in the party, including the lesbian and gay caucus. The move was part of the Democrats' desire to renounce their image of catering to "special interests" rather than mainstream "Middle America."

Parts of the gay movement once knew something about liberals:
"Liberals are liberation's most insidious enemy. Their deep sense of heterosexual superiority remains untouched by their concern for the 'plight' of gay people. They appear to concede so much while in reality conceding nothing; leaving the underprivileged to struggle against--not genuinely expressed reaction and hatred, but 'sympthay' and 'understanding'....Talk of 'intolerance' being 'genuine' or 'complete' is meaningless. Tolerance is extended to something regrettable. Wy be grateful for it?" (Also from With Downcast Gays)

AIDS, which came at a time when the gay movement was already faltering, is proving to deliver teh last blows to the movement. But a real problem in this demise is that AIDS has left the radical gay movement without answers.

As an issue, AIDS is not being raised by the left. There s some attempt to combine issues, like the chant Workers Works Party originated, "Money for AIDS, Not for War; U.S. Out of El Salvador." But as the overall response of the gay community to AIDS is fear and sadness, not anger, the connection between radical political ideas and the felt needs of the community is breaking. The left, in turn, is losing out to those like "sexual compulsion" theorists, or to gay misleaders like those in San Francisco who petition city governments to close gay bathhouses. As survival itself becomes the need of the gay community, the left needs to find ways to address that community in a way that means something to it, and provides for continuing a gay liberationist perspective.
It's Gay Pride Day 1985. Death is in the air: most anyone marching in the "parades" this year now knows what it means to lose a friend, or a lover, or an acquaintance, to death by AIDS (or to beatings by queer-bashers, or to the incessant pressures of a hostile world). The gay movement is in trouble like never before; the gay community is haunted by real and consuming fear. We can blame ourselves. We can hate ourselves. We can isolate ourselves. We can "go with the flow" and let the movement fall down around us. We are understandably--and necessarily--consumed by the need to stay healthy, to live. But will we live in closets? Is the price of our lives a return to the days before Stonewall?

There is another choice. As we struggle to live, we can continue to fight to be free. The fight, the movement, must take new forms, new directions. It must cast off its old leaders who have berayed us again and again. It must learn how to combine our new priorities with the old ones. We can't let AIDS finish off what's left of the movement, what's left of a fighting, liberationist politics. We can't let the overwhelming system of heterosexism--bred and fostered by capitalism--dance at our funeral.