Coming into this interview, I was thinking about how I can describe my spirituality, and I think the challenge for me, in doing that, is figuring out how to explain it so that the pieces of it that are most important to me are really something that people can connect to and relate to, rather than having it seem like something that’s really outlandish or odd.
I identify as lesbian, you know, if need be. That’s the most practical label in my life. I identify as gender-queer. I identify as feminist and, as far as my spirituality goes, if I have to pick a label, I’d go with eclectic Pagan. And I think that it’s generally not useful for me to put all these labels out there—not at the same time, especially. I don’t think that paints a very telling portrait of how I see myself, and again, how it’s something that is similar to a lot of other people’s experiences.
So, I was raised Presbyterian, and I also went to a Lutheran grade school in the city of Chicago. The public schools there don’t have a great reputation, and there are certainly expensive private schools, but there’s also a lot of kind of in-between. My grade school is called a Christian day school, so it’s definitely a religious environment, but it’s also a place where a lot of parents send their kids when they want them to get a good education—even if they are working class people—and don’t feel they can trust that to the public school system. So I went to one of those schools, and it was a Lutheran school, and meanwhile I went to Presbyterian church. The Presbyterian church that I was raised in was a really positive experience in many ways. My pastor is a really important role model in my life, and in terms of people who have influenced my ability to think critically about things, he’s way up there. And my Lutheran school was a much more restrictive environment, in a lot of ways. I definitely can’t over generalize about my experience of Christianity. Those were my two experiences growing up, and I had really different experiences with both of those places.
I don’t know how unique my experience is, but the pastor I had at my Presbyterian church, he really engaged me in very thought-provoking questions at a young age. I don’t think that in any way he taught me that I had to become a Christian or had to become a specific anything. Actually, the opposite. He challenged a lot of different, more mainstream ideas of Christianity that I may have held for some reason. I remember he asked me where heaven is located; that was the theme of a Sunday school exercise. When I was 10 years old, he talked to me about social welfare and how welfare really isn’t enough for people to live on anyway. He also talked about how church is really the concept of people gathering together, so if people chose to stay home from church on a holiday and they were with their families, that was not something to judge or disrespect. I was raised going to this church every Sunday from birth until 14 years old, but these are the things that I was being exposed to, and I think that was a pretty amazing experience to have.
In high school I went to, for the first time, a school where I was not in a religious environment, and my parents didn’t require me to go to church at that point. Honestly, I did identify with Christianity growing up and being in that environment, but as soon as I was not in that environment, I really didn’t feel drawn to it anymore. It wasn’t all negative at all, but it wasn’t something I felt compelled to pursue on my own, so I looked at a lot of different temples and churches. Throughout high school and throughout college, I looked at places but more and more I did eventually find what suits me more, in the long term. I found different beliefs that fall under the umbrella of Paganism that are more meaningful to my life.
I see spirituality and religion, ideally, as something people find that helps them to be better people, and what resonates with them individually. I take a lot of inspiration from Goddess mythology, and even the idea of Goddesses and different representations of higher power. I don’t see any reason to ask anyone else to believe that. I certainly don’t think everyone else should connect with the same things that I do, but I have found that, since I have become an independent adult, that is something that has resonated the most for me. Part of it is just the way I look at things. I am aware that, in my sense of life being meaningful, the concept of faith really doesn’t resonate with me, because I don’t really feel like there’s anything I have to believe in. I feel like if I’m able to just connect with what’s around me—“magic” is the word used in Paganism that really is about the changing of energy and about, I think, seeing the beauty of life as it is around you. So I identify much more with the concept of magic than of faith. If I’m not feeling connected to life, then I use my spirituality to try to find the meaning there.
In my own identity development and process of finding myself in the world and creating a world that is supportive of me, rather than the environment that exists in the mainstream media, I found the idea of Goddess, and increasingly a gender-ambiguous God/dess, really means a lot to me. I know for some people the word “God” is pretty neutral, but “God,” to me, is not a neutral term. It implicitly refers to a male deity. “Goddess” isn’t a neutral term either, but “Goddess” and "God/dess" are, I think, subversive. I think that the idea of a male God or even a so-called gender-neutral higher power referred to as “God” and "he"—it just doesn’t do as much to bring out my confidence and my ability. I think of spirituality as the ability to experience awe and really to give love and to find meaning in life. For me personally, “Goddess” happens to be really subversive in a lot of ways, but that’s what I connect to the most, generally.
I think I was brought to that because of a search for role models, in a sense. I do think of Goddesses as inspiring, but also when I learn about them, they’re painted as real people with flaws and quirks. They’re just stories, and you can pick Goddesses that have different characteristics and traits. I like looking at, “What Goddess do I want to draw on for inspiration at this moment in my life?” My partner, she draws a lot on animals and representations of animals, and I do that as well. I do both at this point, probably pretty equally, truth be told. I ask myself, “What animal or what Goddess, right now, if I think of and connect with, kind of helps me emotionally with what I need at this moment in my life to be the person I want to be?”
The other thing that has been a big part of my spiritual life is that I have organized rituals and ceremonies. I’ve done my own private rituals. Rituals can be done just me by myself, but I’ve also organized ceremonies for groups of five to fifteen women on over a dozen different topics.
The Lutheran experience that I grew up with and Paganism bear an amazing amount of things in common. The rituals are so similar. When I grew up in the Lutheran school, the way that music was used, the processions and banners and all that, I think there's huge, huge overlap. My brother also grew up with this experience and now also identifies as Pagan, and I think that it’s really not that much of a leap. I know that Pagans are a growing population; I’m sure it’s part of why. In some ways it’s fundamentally different, but in other ways there’s a ton of similarities.
This gets a little bit more theoretical, because it’s hard to describe,, but I think that in my spiritual practice, I do ritual as an action that is embodied, and I think that as a woman and a gender-queer and lesbian woman there’s a lot of ways that it can be challenging to be really at home in your body. I think that the act of doing things that are using the body in a way that’s positive resonates with me as spiritual.
I’ve had these gatherings or ceremonies almost exclusively with women-identified people, and over time, they’ve had themes to them. Most of the themes are things that have to do with being a woman or being Queer. One of the most controversial of these was the Masculine Goddess Session. It was a ceremony honoring the idea of masculine Goddess, and my partner and I co-hosted and co-planned this one. There were literally over 20 hours of phone calls and conversations with friends who questioned why we would do this. These were people from queer-identified communities, and we were close friends of these people, and this is really just something we wanted to do for a few hours on a weekend. But people were fearful that “masculinity is violence” you know, and therefore why would we honor this, or what does this mean? Meanwhile, I knew I’d had plenty of ceremonies beforehand where I invited people to honor the “Divine Feminine,” and I never had anyone question, like, why would we do that. Honoring the masculine Goddess in that situation, well, it was probably the queerest and most subversive topic based on people’s discomfort.
There have been a lot of different ceremonies I’ve done, and I think they all are very inclusive of queer women. I like to draw on different representations of Goddesses that include queer representations and queer interpretations. Even Paganism itself, I think a lot of people don’t know, has a lot of rules if you are going by traditional Paganism. I’ve never been part of a coven or a really traditional group at all. But I’ve learned enough to know that there’s a lot of heterosexism underlying traditional Paganism. Sometimes, too, I think of my ceremonies and how they are not always even a fair representation of what Paganism is because it’s me doing things my way, and I have usually developed and co-lead the ceremonies with another person, to see how this other person and I can create something that blends our spiritual interests and expression. It’s definitely about being creative and coming up with something on your own that works for you. For me, that’s part of my Queer experience: figuring out what is working for me, not what other people tell me what should work for me, or what is generally working for people in society.
My partner and I, instead of a wedding ceremony, we had a hand-fasting ceremony, which is a Celtic-Pagan tradition. For all the rituals we did, we were very pointed about making sure they were not drawing on more conventional wedding rituals. So that was another more significant way that I think we brought our spirituality and our queerness together, and it was just our immediate families that we brought into that space.
The history of it is that, in some Celtic-Pagan times, there was a hand-fasting, where two people were saying to each other and their god and their community, “We want to spend our lives together.” The more wealthy had a wedding, because they also needed to deal with things like the exchange of property.
One thing that we both liked about that origin of the handfasting is it really distinguished a commitment between people from the sharing of property and having the law being involved in that way. I’m all for protection from domestic violence and rights of children and those things that pertain to marriage as a legal contract, or at least should, but I’m not a big fan of how legal marriage comes into play in terms of property and health insurance and those sorts of things. That history was one thing my partner and I drew on for the handfasting. A handfasting ceremony is also specific rituals that have to do with tying of cords around the couple’s hands that symbolize the commitment. There’s some language around a traditional handfasting, too, like, “These are the hands that will hold your children, take care of each other when you are old,” this and that, this and that. It’s very beautiful, and we chose to do our own Queer and eclectic twist on a traditional handfasting. Instead of rings, we tied a knot together.
This is one way that we were able to bring our spirituality and some of our Queer identities and our feminist perspectives together to say, “We want to celebrate this and we want to have a ceremony and ritual, but that has nothing to do with a legal contract.” We came up with rituals to honor our queerness and our spirituality, and even our sensibilities, our commitment to one another. It’s not about being against legal marriage but it’s saying that traditional marriage rituals aren’t the only way. We can create alternatives, and we’re going to do something that feels really right to us.
This text is condensed and edited from a Queerituality story Berg Miller recorded on June 24, 2013, in Chicago, Ill. It was transcribed by volunteer Nancy Vaughn.