I recently had the absolutely wonderful fortune to spend five days in the woods of a very tall place in Pennsylvania, surrounded by queer men who are pagan (and some who don’t identify that way) in the pursuit of spiritual brotherhood. This festival was Coph Nia and this writing is about one facet of it.
The experience was fantastic, and while I can’t know for sure what my situation will be in a year my desire to go back next year is a direct result of the brotherhood we created, of the interconnectivity of very different lives and paths coming together to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
When pressed to explain my own religious path I used to struggle. Recently I’ve nestled quite comfortably into “eclectic Jewish hedonism” as the moniker I use for what/how I practice. At the core I think of there being three foundational pillars to my spirituality: Judaism (as both a religion and Ashkenazi culture), polytheism (as I believe that Judaism is inherently a polytheistic religion that places a specific deity at its core), and hedonism (as I believe that pleasure, and the pursuit of it, is not only a biological imperative but a spiritual one). There are elements that sit on top of these pillars, but they form the very basis of who I am as a spiritual being.
My life is filled with serendipity and it is very easy for me to lose sight of this sometimes. I am constantly trying to do better and hold onto the ability to take a step back both dispassionately and connected to the present. Going to Coph Nia was a blessing for me; it was only possible because a friend had a spare free ticket with a meal plan. I was able to find and buy a tent that didn’t break my bank because a friend posted on social media that they were wondering about a deal they’d seen. I was able to pay for the gas because I drive an extremely fuel efficient car, came into possession (legally 😛 thanks) of a number of Shell gift cards, and would maybe get some kick back on fuel. I was able to buy materials I might need (food, medicine, *water*) because they were not only at Costco but on *sale*. My collaborator for what I’ve been working on was out of town and unreachable for this same time period (and I was able to finish everything required of me before I left; I’m waiting on feedback to continue now). I return now to a life where I am waiting desperately for my medicaid re-application, some form of cash flow to pick back up, and often find a lot of my existence turning into subsistence if I don’t watch carefully. It was a breath of life into what was quickly becoming a dull and grey painting of what life could be like if it evolved with the intention of snuffing itself out.
I mention these things because when I say that Coph Nia was a gift from the heavens placed on my head, I mean it. It’s a gift I’m still unwrapping slowly, savoring every moment and impression it’s left on my body. I’m going to be pondering the implications of it for the next few weeks.
Rather than belabor the mundane and explain just what physically happened (I went to this workshop, gave that workshop, participated in that ritual, went to this event, etc), I think it’d behoove me to speak more thoroughly on the implications of gender on the event and my experiences there. I’ll continue to write more on other aspects but following the break there is a fairly broad and (quite honestly for me) heart wrenching look into my experiences around my gender in gendered spaces and then Coph Nia.
As most of my readers (or twitter followers and friends) here will know, I am non-binary. Specifically I identify as “tumtum,” an ancient Jewish gender identity characterized by potential for any of the other five genders. While the identity really only has specific implications for halacha (Jewish law) and is otherwise pretty much ignored, it seems to fit me in indescribable ways. Most of the time I simply say that I’m “genderqueer” and leave it at that for simplicity.
My personal experience of gender, however, lies in that grey area of “potential” and the fact that I inhabit a space that is neither male nor female. Indeed, my gender exists in opposition to femaleness, and often to maleness. On the flip side I often identify closely with the queer male struggle; indeed, because for so long I identified this way both outwardly and inwardly I have a fierce and personal claim to that experience.
On twitter I shared the following phrase: Not all who claim manhood are men. Not all who are men claim manhood. I’ve been sitting with this phrase since the drive down to PA, when I was hit with a sudden spike of anxiety around my gender, and whether it was appropriate for me to attend an event specifically for queer men.
Enbies (non-binary people) who were assigned male at birth (amab) deal with this weird problem where we don’t quite fit in. Anywhere. Indeed, many people (from those who hate all transgender people to even many transgender people of all other identities themselves) claim that we not only don’t exist, but that we appropriate “non-binary” and “genderqueer” as concepts, that we appropriate the transgender struggle, that we exist at a crux of privilege that makes our struggle less interesting or important than binary transgender and/or assigned female at birth (afab) non-binary struggles. Often we struggle internally and externally with finding or accepting access to space for transgender people, for non-binary people, and especially for both women AND/OR men. Often we’re subjected to a standard of presentation that is impossible to enact without real harm to ourselves or even just impossible to enact because of societal expectations of androgyny as “masculinized femininity” and the blurred lines of gender. We’re simultaneously expected to be “more adventurous and visible” than trans women in our presentation and “transness,” and yet these same things are what causes many of us the very real micro- and macro-aggressions that make our lives as social animals unlivable. I’ve talked before about how I will never have real access to femininity in the eyes of society or escape masculinity, how even if I go as full-femme as I absolutely can at 6’7″ (just over 200cm) tall and over 350lbs (25stone or just under 159 kilograms) I will never be more than a “man in a dress.” About how my presentation will always exist as a modification of *manhood* not as a creation spawned from a blurring of masculinity and femininity, or even simply femininity itself.
I don’t think that anyone other than another amab enby could really understand the implications of this. I talked to a friend last night about what this means for me in every space, that I must navigate two realities that exist simultaneously not because they’re both real, but because others experience me as a man, and I’m not. Every situation I come across and go through I must understand through the context of manhood and maleness, and then also as “not manhood” and “not-maleness.” Then I have to blend and blur those realities and try to find a truth at the center that I can be comfortable with. I live my entire life and every experience in two (and often more) contexts.
This experience can make what gendered spaces we do choose to access (such as Coph Nia, which is a festival specifically for queer men) very difficult to connect to and, in many cases, anxiety provoking. It can invoke in us years of internalized transmisogyny and transphobia, and the idea that because we’re going to a space that celebrates or embraces manhood we’re not being “transgender enough,” bringing up many old wounds. Simultaneously we can worry that we’re not “man enough” or won’t be able to fit in to the groups, or will be chased out for being something that spans the great space beyond the idea of masculinity and femininity as a spectrum, of maleness and femaleness (or manhood and womanhood) as diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive. We can also be worried simply at the realities of cis male violence against trans-feminine individuals, especially those whose skin is darker than a sheet of printer paper.
For my amab enby siblings (and even by extension to my other enby sibs) I share and impress onto you the phrase I wrote to myself: Not all who claim manhood are men. Not all who are men claim manhood. Wherever that fits for you, or however that fits for you (and I recognize that it could very easily change with time or be different for different people). Hold up to it the mirror of woman and womanhood as well if that is something you need.
If you’re wondering if Coph Nia is the right place for you amab sibs, I can’t honestly say. I can say because I consider myself to be fundamentally constructed of experiences as a “man” by the pressures of society in addition to “non-man” that I found a place there and in the brotherhood it engendered. For my afab enby and trans male sibs I simply wouldn’t know. I would contact the facilitator directly to discuss it; I will say that if any trans men were in attendance they didn’t share that they were trans, and that while I’m fundamentally sure they would have been welcomed, there was a definite conflation of manhood and the phallus in both the rituals and functional philosophy of the event which could be potentially triggering for all enbies and trans men as well. There’s a discussion to be had around this and its occurrence in queer (cis) male spaces, but it’s not one I’m interested in pursuing at this time.
At Coph Nia I re-established a link to a part of myself I’ve been acknowledging in a haphazard way. I was open about my gender being something other than male (and even had fun explaining the implications of “tumtum” and gender in ancient Judaism a bit), but most people just didn’t care. I don’t mean that in a “I’M TRANS” “I don’t care you’re still a man to me” context, but rather an “I’m trans!” “oh cool, what does that mean and how does that work!?” sort of way.
It was refreshing. There was never a question of whether or not I belonged, even when talking about gender and the implications as someone who’s not “technically” a man. It was entirely clear that every person there (even those I didn’t get a chance to talk to much or at all) saw me as an integral part of the experience we were creating.
And it awakened in me this fierce pride in my belly. This grounding sense of “I’m ok. This IS where I belong.” in a way that I’ve haven’t felt in literal years, if ever.
One of the chants we did was “We are an old people, we are a new people, we are a queer people stronger than before.” I internalized this into me. I made this truth and from this truth formed power. My queerness, my gender, and even the experiences of myself as a man in society’s eyes? They are new. They are old. They are queer as fuck and they make me strong.
It’s odd that one of the first times in my (admittedly short) life I felt completely and unreservedly welcomed and seen in my own context by an organization and event aimed specifically at men celebrating and exulting manhood. It’s strange to me that I felt at my most queer and tumtum, two pieces of me that exist as a sort of rejection of manhood, in a place dedicated to it.
These are things for me to continue to unpack, and I slowly will. Primarily I am thankful for this experience, and continue to find myself wondering at what it will be like next year. I find myself thinking of my brothers and siblings, familial relationships forged in the fire of time and sharpened on the grindstone of spiritual praxis. I find myself hoping they are well, hoping that they are taking care of themselves, and pleasantly pleased when they’re hoping the same for me.
If the stars never align and send me back to Coph Nia again, I know that this was an experience I sorely needed. It’s certainly one that will never leave me again.