Coming Out of the Broom Closet…Again!
Dear Witchful Thinking,
I recently discovered that somehow Ive ended up back in the Broom closet. While a few very important people who know me, know I’m Pagan, I realized many of the people in my life do not. This was brought to my attention when a friend… who knows and accepts me (and whom I believe might be practicing herself), said something in passing on my social media page. Thankfully no one I knew over reacted. However it did make me realize how few people know now. I’m confused, because I used to be open and I’m not really sure how this happened. I want to break it to my roommates, having discovered they don’t know. Two are agnostic one however is a very serious Catholic.
Broom Closet Mishap
Dear Broom Closet,
Ohh! My little Pagan is growing up! I know it sounds so pithy, but it’s true! Psychologists use a variety of Racial Identity Development models to describe the stages someone goes through with regard to their race. They are general descriptions of a person as they develop identity in relationship with the new and old group, and not everyone goes through all the stages. While Helms Racial Identity Model doesn’t quite work precisely as one would like, you can apply this model to the joining of any social group which relates to identity, particularly LGBTQ identity and, I believe, Pagan religious identity. So, here’s my modification of it:
The Pagan Religious Identity Development
Dissillusion: The individual becomes disillusioned or dissatisfied with their previous upbringing or religious traditions. They focus on the negative aspects of it and may actively despise their old religion or way they were raised.
Preencounter: The individual begins to actively seek new religious experience. This phase is characterized by far and wide exploration. Still critical of their old ways, they swing to the other extreme, seeking experiences that are totally unlike their upbringing. The individual still judges their new religious encounters from the theology of the old religion, but may try a religion that they would have defined as “sinful” or “evil” in their old perspective.
Encounter: In their exploration, the individual finds a religion that truly speaks to them. This encounter is characterized by a religious experience that goes above and beyond the individual’s expectations and touches them deeply. There is a sense of homecoming, which brings a deep desire to find out more and a fervor for the new religion. Although they have very little information, they decide that, based upon the emotions present, that this is the religion they have been seeking. There may be a recognition, based upon their old theology, that they are delving into something scary or taboo, however these preconceived stereotypes are romanticized.
Pseudo-independent: The individual begins to actively look for expressions of their new chosen path. Information is gobbled up and regurgitated almost as quickly. The individual is keen to express their new identity to others, and may declare themselves to be a member of a group they have not yet dedicated to or know much about. They struggle to describe what their beliefs are. For example, a new Pagan claims to be an Eclectic fam-trad gothic Wiccan, without actually belonging to a family tradition or being initiated in any tradition at all. For another example, they are claiming to be a White Wicca, while not recognizing that there is no “black and white” from a true Pagan perspective. Additionally, folks at this level may experience discrimination as they are so “out” with their new identity, yet cannot adequately explain to others what that identity means. There continues to be criticism of the old identifying religion in an effort to differentiate the two. At this stage, there is inadequate guidance for direction and growth, especially in a moral sense.
Immersion/Emersion: Uncomfortable with their novice status, the individual works to better themselves in the eyes of the people they admire. They may read fervently, take classes, claim priesthood, indulge in festival and, in general, seek community. The individual begins to seriously consider the norms of their new community with the theological framework of the old, and more and more aligns themselves with the new religion. This may manifest in an individual joining the first group they find, not being able to fully grasp polytheism and approaching the Gods in a monotheistic way, or having a bookish know-it-all-ism without actually doing much. Ideas in this framework tend to be concrete, but they become tempered and deepened by experience.
Integration: The individual has learned the new ways, and has begun integrating them into their life. There is some discomfort when the old ideas and traditions clash, for example, when the individual declines an invite to the annual family Nativity play at the local church so they can go celebrate the Winter Solstice instead. The individual comes to terms with their old religion by gaining distance from it, yet this stage lacks the zeal for the new religion as it comes to see its mores as normal.
Autonomy: The individual has gained significant knowledge and has begun to apply it to their own life and practice. They begin to “walk the walk and talk the talk”. Their identity is enmeshed with the new religion to the point where there is little need to talk about it with outsiders, because the individual is busy living their values. At this point, an individual might disagree with their immersion group and choose to go their separate way by seeking another group, choosing solitary practice, or creating their own coven. The old theology and religion are thought about more academically with little or no emotional reactivity. Friends and relatives tend to understand the individuals religion as “something they are”, rather than something they believe or do.
So, Broom Closet, where are you on this continuum? Each stage is totally appropriate and OK. I think everyone goes through the zealous phase where they want everyone to know who they are, just like in adolescence. But as we integrate, we sort of calm down. And we are who we are all the time, so the label for the identity does not come up as often.
If you feel the need to “come out” to your roommates, then do so, but be ready with adequate information to help educate them, if they ask. In my personal, totally unscientific observation, Paganism and Wicca are becoming more mainstream, and it is hard to find somebody who does not personally know someone who practices Paganism. Just like your Catholic roommate doesn’t talk to much about being Catholic, or force you to go to church, etc, there is no reason for him/her to expect the same thing from you.
I have found that “outing” yourself after someone already knows you is much easier than being “out” in the community. When you are “out” in the community, you become a living symbol, where everything you do is a reflection on your religious group to outsiders. This is how stereotypes are created (even if they are true). But when someone knows you, and then you share your identity, they get to know the real you, and not the stereotypes that they already have formed in their head.
I say there is no reason to hide who you are, but unless it comes up in casual conversation, there is no reason to tell them either. Much of this will depend on how visible your practice is. If you’ve got a broom hanging over your door,and an altar in the living room, and you regularly practice in the nude in your front yard…well, it’s gonna come up. How integrated are you in your values and beliefs? Because the more you are, the more the topic has the potential to come up, but coming from you as a person and not the label or identity you use.
I think you’ll be surprised by your roommate’s reaction if you approach it after they’ve already come to know you. Remember that they are going through their own developmental stages in relation to their religious and philosophical ideas. And if they can’t accept you…well, there are deeper issues at work here, and aren’t you glad you know about them now? On the other hand, how much are you willing to fight for it? Do you need to fight for it? Can you approach the subject in a way that is not meant to shock but is a point of sharing. These are all questions you have to answer for yourself.
By way of example, for myself, I think there is a time and place to share your religious identity, and I don’t rush to it, but I don’t hide it either. I tell my co-workers that I’m taking a holiday off for religious reasons, but I don’t tell them that we were dancing naked under the pale moonlight. I invite my friends and family to my handfasting, but explain to them it is Pagan and understand if they don’t want to come (they all did, btw, ready to celebrate and enjoy the spectacle of a wedding–I was sure my Mormon grandmother would object, but she said it was the most beautiful wedding she’d ever been to. Color me surprised!). If anyone asks my religious affiliation, I tell them–in that way, it’s no secret. I sometimes forget where I am and wear my pentacle shirt to the grocery store, and I don’t worry about the reactions I get. But that’s me. You’re journey is yours.
The Pagan Religious Identity Development is still in the works. Has this been your experience of coming to Paganism? What do you think should be added or modified? How true is it for you or in your observation?