When I was growing up, there were only two genders. I have said this a thousand times, and yet it is neither a complete nor accurate statement. I have had a lot of time to process since Parliament of World Religions in Toronto this year, and a whole lot of streams that were part of the discussions within my own faith community (Heathen) and other faith communities all came together in the realizations that I am going to try to put together in this piece. I am going to piss off a lot of people, more than likely the bulk of the people from my own generation who fit neatly into the classical gender role they were raise to believe was natural. Close to fifty years of dealing with my generation has lead me to the inescapable conclusion that we were largely blind to how much we bought into the system that made it impossible to love and accept all of ourselves.
Modern western thought is bound in a lot of Christian assumptions, one set of subtle corruptions is that of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. One right way to believe and one right way to act. This is not limited to the sacred, for this idea seeps into all thought with a fundamental acceptance of duality as the only possibility. This is not a part of any of the ancestral pre-Christian traditions of Northern and Western Europe, and yet those who turn their back on Christianity itself either to embrace a secular existence, or to take up ancestral faiths like Heathenry, or modern ones like Wicca cannot truly divorce themselves from the fundamental assumptions of orthodoxy and orthopraxy that seeped from their religious foundation into the understanding of almost every facet of human behavior and interaction. Most destructively in the case of gender and sexuality.
We inherited a toxic mythology from the Christian era of both masculinity and femininity. There was literally one ideal way to be a man and one ideal way to be a woman; the closer you adhered to these, the more accepted and socially successful you would be. This gave us a society that recognized two genders only, a very narrow definition of those two genders, and left a large portion of humanity understanding they are flawed, defective, or simply failures for not meeting those standards, not desiring those standards, or finding them of so little relevance to their understanding of themselves they didn’t even understand the standards.
We had two genders only! We had two genders, and a whole lot of people who hated themselves, and had lots of help from the rest of us telling them how badly they failed to be a real man or real woman.
Among those who succeeded in being real men and real women, as defined by our generations orthodoxy and orthopraxy on gender identity and roles, we had the hidden costs of those roles. Men could not express tender emotions, love, care, support, without being unmanly or weak. We could not show pain, nor discuss fear without forfeiting the respect our deeds had earned as men, and threatening our social standing or relationship. A man was expected to place work before family, to sacrifice his own relationship with them to fulfill his duties to the external world. If a man were to place his time with his family as important, he would be mocked for it, and it would threaten his standing with employers, friends, and honestly even his relationships.
Women suffered the same, where attempts to assert direct authority or power, attempts to stand up for themselves or those they care about threatened to make them “unwomanly”, either called a bitch or “mannish”. Women were as prohibited from stepping outside their gender role as men were. A woman who sought to pursue carer as equal or more importance to building a family was seen as unnatural, even as the desire to establish her own name and reputation rather than simply marrying well was seen almost as a failure of womanhood.
Classical Heathenry is not a good place to find justification for one true manhood or womanhood. Will you say a woman is primarily wife and mother, matriarch of her family? Certainly Frigg will be your guide to such a role right well. You will have a hard time if you desire to paint such a role as submissive, for her role is that of queen, that of the weaver of the bloodlines, of wyrd or fate, not that of concubine and domestic. Will you say a woman is passion, wild hunger for knowledge, experience, and life? Then Freya is a good guide for you. “An it harm none do as thou wilt” is a popular modern creed among witches, well Freya is not that kind of witch. Described as the delight of dark witches, she is Odin’s peer in power and wields her magic like she wields her sexuality, to do her will as she chooses, accepting no limits but that of her own will and judgement. Will you instead say that you seek to stalk the world in hunt after your dream, daring the high and wild, betting your skills and abilities to win for yourself the place you would claim? Skadi, the White Huntress is a good model for you, for hearth and home did not call to her, rather the hunt of her own choosing. Are you a nurturer? One who seeks to bring peace and renewal, healing to the world? Blessed Idunna of the Apples, Easter goddess of the Spring or Eir the lady of healing may be more suited to you. No one way to be a woman, no matter what your core essence called for, you were free to develop it to the limit of your potential without being seen as less than a woman.
Our generation was not offered this, we were offered attempt to fit yourself in the mold of orthodox cis-hetero submissive wife and mother or be a failure as a woman. We had a lot of self hating women, and more we shamed as slut, bitch, frigid, or unnatural for the crimes of desiring too much, not enough, not finding their fulfillment as primarily mothers, or desiring to prove themselves in other fields. Honestly we probably failed as many as we served. Oddly, the next generation didn’t accept that. Good on them! Honestly, we weren’t a screaming success. There was screaming, but it wasn’t about success.
Classical Heathenry offers men as many different faces, Ingwaz Frey, the peace lord, the life giving lord of the herds, of the land offers a strong but gentle model of manhood that is not possible to fit inside the nearly toxic model of masculinity that we inherited that defines cis-hetero dominant career focused male as the only right and worthy model of man. Not even Thor, the hammer wielding laughing god of the farmer and working man fits this model, for while he is the strong defender, he does not need to make another submit to know he is strong, nor require supremacy to feel whole. Able to laugh at himself, his tales tell us of a manhood that embraces its mistakes and failures as steps on the road to success, that can indeed laugh at the retelling of the tales where he was tricked, because his worth and strength are not threatened by laughter. This is not part of the manhood model I was taught in my generation at all. Odin is the one most often invoked by those who would hold to the toxic masculine model we were given, the god of war, the hard cold bastard who did what had to be done. Partially true, and leaving enough out to be almost entirely wrong. Odin crossed so many gender lines he was flyted for it by Loki himself, and when a god who transformed into a female to bear a child mocks your manhood, you know you crossed a line or two. Tyr comes closest to the healthy model of manhood our stereotype strives for, but the lord of law and honour is decidedly non-toxic, who gave up his sword arm to show that responsibility not power or prestige was most important.
To be a man as we were taught to be one meant you had to shut off your feelings and subordinate yourself to your ambition. Honestly, we were told to give up half our humanity in the service of a dream that not everyone saw any value in. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against money, but given the choice between making more money and spending more time with my children, I know which one I value. I have faced enough fire, faced life or death under so very many circumstances that the bullshit myths of my childhood have failed utterly upon the one test that matters; at no point was the dreams of avarice enough to sustain me or worth my sacrifice. It was the desire to protect and provide for those I love, and the opportunity to be a meaningful part of their lives that made it all worth while. The myth that men should leave the family to the women while they sought gold and glory makes us less than men, less than whole, and leaves few indeed valuing what they won, compared to what they gave up to get there.
We inherited one model of manhood, and those who could not conform to it were failures. We were told to cut ourselves off from almost everything that made us functionally human, or at least pretend we did, and hide the parts of ourselves that were creative, nurturing, or who saw sex as an act of shared joy rather than conquest. The next generation honestly took a look at what we accepted and told us to pound sand. Good on them.
We spent at least four generations I have seen pretending we fit into one true manhood and womanhood, choosing to be less than whole, or accepting we were failures. We accepted the false dualism, and spent our time looking into the mirror and knowing that we had to hide half of what we were, or lose what we had won.
The generation of today is honestly smarter than we were and more honest. They took the labels we gave them of man and woman and they accepted our definition of them just as we did in our turn.
Looking at the definition, and then into a mirror, many of them said with all honesty and great wisdom, “That is not me. I am not that”
Holy shit. Why didn’t we? I mean through the guidance of the holy gods and ancestors I learned to step back from the myths and become whole. I don’t just mean the safely dead and ancient ones, I mean the ancestors whose age and wisdom taught me that there was a lot more to the reality of being a man or woman than fit in what we pretended were the only ways to do things, or the reality about how people actually lived.
Many kids today when they were growing into their sexual and gender identity took a look at the two restrictive boxes we offered and went, that can’t ever be me. They chose to be a whole person, and not the bit that would fit in the box they knew would never be theirs, and instead chose to make new boxes.
For all those who are saying this is modern bullshit we never needed….well yes and no. It is modern, because through the Christian centuries we lost any other way than the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of the two gender roles derived from someone else’s book. We don’t remember how to be men and women when those terms expressed the whole and healthy range, so in this generation, rather than accept being half or less of what little we left of those traditional genders, they admitted they were indeed something else.
We call ourselves Heathen, and the old name of Asatru still holds a lot of truth in it. We are not just true to the Aesir, and the Vanir, we strive to be true to ourselves. How can we esteem someone for pretending to be something that will never truly be them? We esteem someone for living true. True to themselves, true to their beliefs, true to the oaths and loyalties they have sworn and undertaken.
A trans man or trans woman, a gender fluid or gender non-binary is choosing to live true to themselves, rather than imitating something they will never fully be, and will leave them less than fully what they could have become. I am a cis hetero male because that is who I am. My expression of that is far different than my father accepted for himself, but the regrets he wept about on his deathbed will never be mine, for I embraced more of the role of father and husband than the definition he accepted of his manhood would let him embrace. If I was bisexual, gay, or my gender was truly expressed in some other fashion, I hope I would be strong enough in myself to live TRUE to who I am, rather than be less than whole, less than honest, and trying to pretend I fit in, or valued, a gender role that others defined for me.
We grew up in a world of two genders, and many, many failures. We grew up to inherit a definition of man and woman that was brutally stripped of most of what our ancestors understood it could be, to the point that what we inherited as the one possible manhood and womanhood could only contain functionally a small portion of our people.
We don’t remember how it once was. We do know that what we inherit is not enough, is not whole, is not sufficient. The generation that rises now chooses to accept this, and to find for themselves boxes that they fit in, and live true to the people they know themselves either to be, or to be capable of becoming.
I am Heathen, I value those that live true to themselves, and who strive to accept their challenges without fear or deceit. To those who identify as any one of the genders, either classical or modern, if you live your truth, and do so honestly, joyfully and without condemning others for choosing to follow their own understanding, then I give you my respect.
We grew up with two genders that had lost so much of what they had once contained that they were broken, or broke those who tried to limit themselves to fit. Our children demanded more, and strove to fix what we accepted and let harm us, and later them.
Good on them. We failed, let them do better.