Guadalupe: Mother of My Cross-Bred Soul

The year is 1531.

It is not quite dawn and the hills outside Mexico City are still shrouded in darkness, the sky lightening where the stars are disappearing in the east. A Native man, dressed in the simple cactus-fiber tunic that the peasants here wear, is making his way to Mass on this Saturday morning.

It is December, and the air is crisp with cold. The man, a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, stops as he hears voices. He looks up to Mount Tepeyac, from where it appears the sound of singing, like that of precious birds, is coming. From the summit of the hill, he hears a voice. “Dignified Juan,” the voice says, calling him by name. “Dignified Juan Diego.”

Juan begins up the hill uncertainly. Up ahead, he sees a lady, standing and beckoning him to come forward. She is beautiful and glows with a radiant light. This most amazing light illumines the rocks and shrubs surrounding her. She speaks, saying, “I am the entirely and ever Virgin, Saint Mary.”

She goes on to tell Juan Diego that she wants a shrine, a hermitage, a shelter built in her honor, here on Mount Tepeyac. And that she wants Juan to go to the palace of the bishop in Mexico City with this request.

Taking his leave of her, Juan Diego goes straight into the city to the palace of the bishop. The bishop, of course, is a ruling-class Spaniard, and this is the imperial city of Tenochtilan, and Juan is, of course, a peasant and an Indian. The bishop’s attendants leave him waiting for a long time, and when the bishop finally speaks to Juan, in passing, he dismisses his vision.

Returning, Juan finds the heavenly lady waiting for him in the same place he had encountered her earlier. Juan tells her what has happened, how he was kept waiting, and how the bishop dismissed him without even hearing his story. Juan begs the Virgin to send somebody nobler, better known, somebody respected and esteemed. “No one will believe me, my Lady and my Queen. I am nothing but a campesino.” The Virgin rejects these protestations, insisting that he is the one to make her message known to the official church.

Again, Juan heads into the city, and again is put off from seeing the bishop, and again is admitted reluctantly. This time, the bishop tells Juan that he must provide some proof that this vision he says he keeps having is actually the Virgin Mary herself.

The next day, Juan hastens to the bedside of his uncle who is dying of a pestilence. His uncle begs Juan to fetch a priest to give him last rites before he dies. Juan hurries off into the crisp December dawn. He needs to take the path upon which the Virgin Mary has appeared to him, but, because his last interview with the bishop didn’t go so well, he wants to avoid her, so he goes another way. Despite his attempt, the Heavenly Lady again appears before him glowing with preternatural light, surrounded by the sound of birds.

“Where are you going?” she asks. Juan confesses that he needs to get the priest before his uncle dies. She tells him that his uncle is well, that he has been healed. She tells Juan to go back to see for himself that his uncle is well, and that when Juan returns, she will provide proof of her identity for the skeptical bishop.

On December 12, 1531, the Virgin Mary appears again to Juan Diego on top of Tepeyac hill. Flowers, rich, fragrant roses from Castile in full bloom, surround her though this is neither the place nor the season for such flowers. It is the desert in winter in Mesoamerica.

“Collect these flowers,” she tells Juan. “They will be your proof to the bishop so that he will believe it is I who am requesting a shrine be built for me upon this hill.” With the flowers gathered up into his simple tunic, Juan heads for the bishop’s palace. This time, the attendants are astounded that the poor Indian who doesn’t seem to know when to go away is back, and back with what seems to be miraculous flowers. Juan is ushered into the bishop’s presence right away. Juan unwraps his tunic, and the fragrant, out-of-season, Castilian flowers tumble out triumphantly at the bishop’s feet.

And there, on the fabric of the poor Indian’s tunic, is an image. It is an image of the Ever Virgin Holy Mary Mother of God.

Virgen_de_guadalupe1

You can see this image today, at the basilica in Mexico City dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. The bishop, it seems, heard and believed, and built a shelter dedicated to her on that hill. The image in the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the original cloth, though about a hundred years after these events, somebody has touched it up to make it look a little more like the European representations of the Virgin Mary. They added stars and a crown and a crescent moon beneath her feet and a halo around her entire body. It is, of course, possible that the entire image was painted on and there are many who claim this is the case, a seventeenth century fiction fabricated (so to speak) within a discourse that pitted Native piety against Church hierarchy.

Her mantel drapes her head and falls about her shoulder and arms. Her hands are clasped before her. She is not carrying a baby. She is serene. And all around her, the spiky body halo. The most remarkable feature of this now ubiquitous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the fact that she is brown-skinned. She is widely known in Mexico as la virgen morena, the dark-skinned virgin. She looks more like an aboriginal princess than a European lady. The very name Guadalupe, in fact, is probably a reference to the statue of the Virgin Mary in northern Spain by that name. That statue is carved out of a very dark wood, giving the impression of a dark-skinned Goddess more than the pale images of Mary current in European art. Many of the Spanish troops stationed at Tepeyac were from this region of Spain and may have identified the Mexican virgin with the one in Spain.

I was first introduced to the Virgin of Guadalupe soon after her feast day many years ago, when I found myself in Trinity Church in Boston, hearing about a pilgrimage somebody had made in her honor. When I visited Santa Fe, New Mexico a few weeks later, I discovered such pilgrimages were common there, with pilgrims not only going to the basilica in Mexico, but to various sacred places in the state. Sante Fe is the home of the first church dedicated to her in the United States.

The more I learned her story and saw her image, the more fascinated I became by this figure, and by the meanings that resonate out from around her like the glow of her halo. I became intrigued with what seemed to me a rich, archetypal symbol of the divine feminine and an incarnation of liberationist, post-colonial wisdom.

The fact that this is the story of a Native, an Aztec who converted to Catholicism first caught my attention. My ear is always inclined toward colonized peoples and the stories we tell through our art and religious expression. It is the story of an indigenous person whom the divine visits, and whose narration of this visitation is disbelieved by the colonial powers that be.

Who is authorized to narrate stories of the miraculous, of the divine? By what authority does a Native talk back to the power that subjugate his people, take his land, that erase his language, religion, and existence? What empowers the poor and disenfranchised to talk back to the ruling class?

“Send somebody else,” Juan Diego says. “Send a nobleman, a Spaniard, somebody educated and literate. Not me.” But the Heavenly Lady insists it must be him, and it is the bishop, representing imperial Spain, that must be converted to this poor indigenous person’s simple message to honor her wishes.

Also of note is the fact that the mountain on which Our Lady of Guadalupe is asking to be honored happens to have been the mountain that was sacred to the Aztec goddess Tonantzin. The memory of the Goddess, officially erased by the church, asserts itself. Like a flashback through the clouds of amnesia, the Goddess remains alive. The Franciscans whose missionary activities accompanied Spain’s colonization translated the Virgin Mary into the local dialect as Tonantzin, meaning “our precious mother,” though this word was also the name of the erstwhile Aztec goddess.

Her extinction is resisted by subterfuge; she lives on inscribed within the image of the European Christian Mary. The memory of Tonantzin persists in an act of resistance, in opposition to the disappearance of Native culture and religion.

What also interested me were the uses Our Lady of Guadalupe has had by the First Nations of Mesoamerica. In the 1500s, there were several Native and mestizo uprisings against Spanish rule that took on Guadalupe as their patron. The Mexican patriot Hidalgo, leading bands of mestizo and Native rebels, carried a banner depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe into battle in the 1880s, as did Emiliano Zapata in 1914.  The republic’s first president, Guadalupe Victoria took his patroness’s name after she helped him, he believes, win a decisive battle. In the 1960s and 70s, the Mexican-American labor activist Cesar Chavez marched under a banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe as he agitated for the rights of migrant farm workers.

Guadalupe is an oppositional symbol, a sign of resistance to the powers that be. She is referred to often as the Madonna of the Barrios, the protector of the poor. She is the compassionate mother, and also the defiant Mary who proclaimed the Magnificat:

“[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Colonized people respond in many ways to our colonizers. One way is to adopt wholesale the imperial culture, to speak its language and learn its customs, to play its music, to practice its visual art and its religion. This was the so-called “civilizing mission” of the Spanish, along with of course the French and the British. As their empires spanned the globe, these imperial cultures thought of themselves as bringing civilization to the savages. At the same time, they didn’t really believe that the indigenous peoples of the continents they conquered were actually capable of becoming civilized. So the colonized person who adopts wholesale the culture of the colonizer is never really admitted into the circle of civilization despite his or her best efforts.

Another response is for the colonized to reject the colonial culture entirely, to assert our own, aboriginal culture and identity. This is the way of nationalists and separatists, who insist on preserving and promoting the traditional ways of the people. Traditions of language and art and religion are maintained with a sense of pride and self-worth.

One other response might be what we see in the figure of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Aspects of the colonial culture are adopted, but not wholesale. They are invested with meanings the colonizers did not intend, oppositional meanings that, like Juan Diego, talk back to the powers that be. The indigenous cultures are not wiped out wholesale, not silenced definitively, but rather remain present and in constant dialogue with imperial power.

Colonized people do not passively accept domination, even as the unequal power relations strip away all means of cultural production and self-determination. Liberatory, transgressive, and self-affirming messages from the dominating culture are highlighted and drawn upon. An evolving, hybrid culture emerges that is a vehicle for the self-expression of the colonized using the narratives and images imposed by the colonizer. Juan Diego is the prototype of the Indian who is a Christian but not a traitor. Juan Diego is a convert who does not abandon the traditions of his ancestors.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is mestiza, a mixture of Spanish and Native American. I myself am a mix of cultures and national identities. I am drawn to her. She gathers in all of us caught between worlds, between languages and cultures and religions, between the worlds of home and foreign land, of belonging and exile.

I see myself in the story of Juan Diego and the Virgin of Guadalupe. More often than not, I am the bishop, the skeptic. I don’t believe in miracles. And if you say you have experienced something miraculous, I want proof.

But I see myself in Juan Diego, too. Caught between cultures, wanting to move into new territory religiously without abandoning the old altogether, finding a voice to talk back to the powers that be, a bearer of dangerous memories–like him, remembering the Goddess on the hill and using the language and piety of the changed circumstances his people found themselves in.

In the collage of our soul’s world, we rearrange the pieces we are given, creating our own works of art and beauty. I had once dismissed the Virgin Mary as a useful potential archetype of the divine feminine, hopelessly trapped up there on her sexist pedestal, meek and submissive, lauded only for who her son turned out to be–until I met Guadalupe.

Guadalupe is for me the figure of America, the Americas–not European, but not Native or African either, but rather mestizo, creole, an emblem of the hybridity and mixed cultures that is both my own heritage and the fraught heritage of the encounter of Spanish, French, English, African and First Nations peoples. Guadalupe is the figure of my own queer spirit, my own immigrant, cross-bred soul–and can be, I think, for any of us who grew up strange and queer to our own families, who adopted the ways of this country to our parents’ chagrin, who are nostalgic for a homeland we have never seen, who have crossed oceans of loneliness to make our own way in an unfriendly land, who are émigrés from devastated places that no longer exist, who are unrelated by blood to those closest to us, who long for companions to speak to us in a mother tongue we have forgotten. For all of us lost, forgotten, and abandoned, she comes.

Without knowing what I needed until I met her, I am devoted to her now. She represents the creating, subversive power within and the creative subversions of post-colonial peoples. She is the invitation to speak, to narrate, to tell, to talk back. She is an emblem of the long march toward justice and inclusion in which I walk.

The voice that calls will not choose somebody else. It is we who must do this work, to use what is found to forge a religion of the present and future–we who have been unauthorized and demonized, silenced and sidelined.

And so I invite you to a place in the twilight of dawn, where the imagination, the soul, is awakened. Into this numinous space we come, this place of potential for creating religious culture that is a vehicle for our self-expression, for our becoming, that can re-imagine the past in order to create a future that includes all of our hybrid, complicated, contradictory selves.

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“Gay Pride is for Straight People”

I was in Toronto recently for Pride Day. I notice that these days, most North American cities no longer celebrate Gay Pride Day, nor do they celebrate Gay & Lesbian Pride Day, or LGBT Pride Day. It’s just Pride Day.

I had thought for the longest time that this was because of our own ever-growing alphabet soup of nomenclature, trying to create the broadest coalition of sexual minorities. We want all sexual and gender dissidents included.

In Toronto, for example, the call goes out from the organizers to “LGBTTIQQ2SA” constituencies to come out for the week of activities culminating in a parade on the final day. That just gets too complicated to keep saying so “Pride Day” truncates all those letters (and one number) for the sake of conversational ease.

It has also occurred to me that plain old-fashioned shame, ironically, could be the reason for the erasure of the word “gay” in one of the biggest celebrations of queer (and other) identities on the calendar.

After the Dyke March on Saturday during Pride Week, I asked my friend if she would be coming to the next day’s parade. “Are you kidding,” she said wrinkling her nose. “Gay Pride is for straight people.”

I laughed out loud, realizing the wisdom in her pithy remark. “It’s not really for us,” she continued, joining my laughter.

More than a million people turn out for Toronto’s Pride parade. The parade participants and spectators fill the streets to watch the hours-long parade and attend the street fair that takes place on dozens of streets closed to motor vehicles. Most, I would venture to say, are non-LGBTTIQQ2SA people.

It has become de rigueur to complain about the commercialization of Pride Day. It’s worse than Christmas. Corporate sponsorships and participation in the parades and street fairs have generally crowded out the community-based groups and small (queer-owned and oriented) businesses that were the mainstay of Pride Day in years past.

Pride Day has become little more than an opportunity for multinational corporations—everything from banks to alcohol companies to automobile manufacturers—to market their wares to gay and lesbian consumers (all those other letters don’t seem to interest them).

And it’s a day for straight allies to demonstrate their solidarity with sexual minorities. Even the ones who are not only doing it because they want to take your money.

But that’s a post for another day.

I want to tell you about the straight people who come to Pride Day.

They come to Pride Day because it is fun. They come because it’s a fantastic party with really good dance music. They come in costume, masqueraded in makeup and body paint and glitter. They wear feather boas and skimpy shorts and fierce leather boots. And I’m talking about men, women, older, younger—straight people of different cultures. They make of their bodies a demonstration, a celebration, and they do it in a very queer way. They vamp, they cheer drag queens and leather dykes, they kiss their same-sex friends on the mouth.  Gender nonconformity and same-sex desire are being both celebrated and enacted by these participants and spectators who do not ordinarily identify themselves with queer constituencies.

It’s like Saint Patrick’s Day, only instead of being Irish, everybody is “gay for a day.”

For one day of the year, a whole city comes out for play and revelry that celebrates all kinds of sexual desire and the fluidity of gender expression. For just a little while, the erotic, the body, is at the center of a civic celebration, along with subversion of norms around pleasure and gender and propriety.

The kids who come with their heterosexual parents have the right idea: this year, I saw a number of children dressed in masks and capes, in disguise as their favorite superheroes. It’s like Halloween, but with Mardi Gras beads instead of candy.

It’s an occasion for presenting a self that is hidden, a secret identity –like Batman and Spiderman crossing over between their secret self and their public self and back again. The children understand intuitively the costuming, the disguise, the crossing categories of identity — and show up as Batman and Spiderman.

It’s an occasion for the hidden self cloaked in shame to reach for the light. Anyone who has ever had a secret to shamefully hide comes out and takes pride in themselves on the main street in the sunshine.

It’s an occasion for presenting a sexualized self to the world, and not just to one’s private admirers. It’s an occasion for playing with the boundaries of gender and self-expression.

What person, working their nine-to-five job in their grey wool suit, wouldn’t want that? What person who chafes under the restrictions allowed to their gender wouldn’t want this? (I love how straight men show up in their kilts or sarongs).

Eroticism is exciting. Life would be a drab routine without at least that spark. That’s the point. Why has all the joy and excitement been concentrated, driven into that one narrow, difficult-to-find alley of human experience, and all the rest laid to waste? There’s plenty to go around within the spectrum of our lives. (Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectics of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution)

Eros is banished from that everyday world. And in the world created by queer carnival, it is allowed open and public expression.

Carnival: the one revolutionary impulse beating inside the disco rhythms of Pride Day that are my hope for resistance to the day’s complete takeover by consumerist capitalism.

Historically, carnival is the occasion for inversion of the social order. It exposes the power relations in a society as malleable, the social structures as able to be subverted. The pleasures of the body that have been banished from public view, from the polis, from the political, erupt in a joyous abandon during carnival. The pleasureless world of speeches and manifestos, boardrooms and offices, factories and classrooms are swept aside in an explosion of festive Eros.

The liberation of sexual desires and the resistance to the repression of what is queer is going to be a party. To rebel is to revel; the words are related. ACT UP, Queer Nation, Reclaim the Streets, Carnival Against Capital, Occupy Wall Street and others have the right idea. Nothing is more deadening and unsexy, than traditional protests, marches and demonstrations.

When the occasions of our joy, our jouissance, our pleasure, are the sites of our rebellion and resistance, of course our rebelling takes the form of revelry.

In Pride Day, we have the potential to turn up the volume of mockery and transgression inherent in its role as latter-day carnival. There are elements of Pride Day that mark it as spectacle, as entertainment. And yet there is also mass participation—even from heterosexuals and their offspring.

Carnival does not know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators. Footlights would destroy a carnival, as the absence of footlights would destroy a theatrical performance. Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. (Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World)

Everybody participates through costume, drag, the overt expression of desire, the playfulness around gender stereotypes—even when there are barricades that separate “spectators” from the parade, or “audience” from performers on stage.

A major part of Pride Day happens after the official parade, when everybody unofficially parades up and down Church Street. Drag queens, muscle boys, Brazilian dancers with enormous headdresses, the outrageously clad and costumed, pose for pictures, accept the accolades of passers by, and dole out kisses and winks. And yet everybody is acting like they are fabulous, and kiss, wink at and squeeze total strangers.

Some people are completely naked, others merely shirtless. Others are conventionally attired but wear masks, horns, glitter, rainbow leis. Others are in leather chaps and harnesses, jockstraps, bras. Everybody is in on this street party, this display; every body is on display, with their tattoos and piercings and body paint.

In a way, the LGBT liberation movement has been pioneering a politicized social change movement around sexual freedom and expression. Despite the many ways the revolutionary impulse in this movement has been co-opted and dispersed, the potential is still there.

Ultimately, I think the future will not see a divide along the lines of sexual orientation at all (i.e. “straight” vs. “gay”). I think we will have sexual dissidents and gender transgressors of all sexual orientations on the one hand, and on the other, people of all sexual orientations committed to bourgeois conformity and propriety. (The biggest complainers about the nudity and cross-dressing at Pride Day that I have ever known were gay men).

That so many “straight” people participate in Pride Day reminds me of a column I read by the novelist Jane Rule in The Body Politic in the 1980s. I clipped it out and saved it for a long time because of it’s essential truth.

If straight people have the decency to be modestly ashamed of their own sexual natures, what right have we to be proud of ours? … Everyone is supposed to be ashamed. … We won’t move freely in the world until all people are required to confront their sexual natures in order to understand, take responsibility for and celebrate them, as we have had to. For no one who is disappointed or ashamed or frightened of his/her own sexuality is to be easily tolerant of anyone else’s.

Her column was titled “Straights Come Out.”

At the root of our oppression and marginalization as sexual minorities is erotophobia—fear of Eros, the repression of sexual desire, the refusal of one’s sexual nature—as well as the enforcement of rigid gender stereotypes. That heterosexuals participate in some way—even for one afternoon, even in the context of a banal civic celebration framed by corporate consumerism—is for me a measure of hope.

Everybody has closets of sexual shame to come out of. Everybody has closets of body shame to come out of. Many long to come out of the drab, grey everyday into a rainbow-colored world in which they are fabulous.

So maybe it’s not so bad that it’s no longer “Gay Pride Day” or “Lesbian and Gay Pride Day” or “LGBTTIQQ2SA Pride Day.” Maybe simply calling it “Pride Day” is portentous of a future world in which everyone who has reclaimed their bodies and desires marches together up the main street in the sunlight.

Crossing Over: Spiritual Reflections on Pride Day

The observance of lesbian and gay pride day has its origins in an event that has taken on the proportion of legend. The Stonewall Riots of 1969 symbolize the beginning of the lesbian and gay liberation movement. In the heady atmosphere of the late 1960s, with the student, anti-war and countercultural revolutions in full swing, the police in New York City conducted what was then a routine raid on a Greenwich Village bar called the Stonewall Inn. The Stonewall catered primarily to low-income gay, lesbian and transgender patrons who were used to police harassment. On the night of June 27, 1969 something extraordinary happened. Instead of routinely submitting to the harassment and brutality, the patrons of the Stonewall fought back. The situation quickly developed into a street riot, with the police seeking shelter in the bar until reinforcements arrived to do battle with the enraged crowds in the streets of the Village. The riots continued for three nights with pitched battles between gays and the New York City police.

To understand the significance of Stonewall is to appreciate what sexual minorities were up against. Homosexual behavior was illegal, and same-sex desire considered pathological, immoral and sinful. The public expression of same-sex desire or of a homosexual identity was to risk losing everything: job, family, home. The places where gay people could meet were, for the most part, underground, furtive, and constantly under attack from thugs and police officers. Most importantly, gay men and lesbians themselves believed themselves to be flawed or perverted. Attempts at reform on the part of homosexuals before 1969 were tepid and fraught with the contradictions that come with self-hatred.

Like the first gunfire of the American Revolution, the Stonewall Riot was the shot heard around the world. It became possible to fight back. Taking their cue from the civil rights and anti-war movements, within which many gays and lesbians had been active, the Gay Liberation Front was formed within weeks of the riots, and within months similar groups had sprung up across the continent. These groups took direct action, picketing, protesting, zapping, held sit-ins, teach-ins and guerilla theatre demonstrations. They began consciousness-raising circles and newspapers, all spreading the until-then unheard message “Gay Is Good.” Stonewall changed the way that sexual minorities viewed themselves forever.

A year after the Stonewall Riots a newly energized, politicized lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in New York decided to mark the anniversary by having a protest march, the last weekend in June, starting in Greenwich Village and ending in Central Park. Called Christopher Street Liberation Day, nobody knew how it would turn out. Or indeed, if anybody would even show up to march through the streets for no other reason than they were gay or lesbian and wanted to defiantly celebrate these identities as good in the face of all that said it was not. Similar marches took place in other cities. Thousands turned out for it. A tradition was born.

As the lesbian feminist and gay liberation movements blossomed in the 1970s, so did the commemorations of the Stonewall Riots at the end of every June. Now celebrated as “Pride Day” the parades swelled with people exuberant in their newfound sense of themselves. The exhilarating pride they felt as gays and lesbians organized unions and caucuses, publishing houses and bookstores, softball leagues, marching bands, religious organizations, churches and synagogues, professional associations, magazines, political and self-help organizations and as each one of these paraded up the main streets of North America and Western Europe. No longer marked by secrecy, shame and isolation, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities celebrated the momentum of coming out in festive parades and demonstrations.

Pride is not just a community on parade, a celebration of our diversity and accomplishments. Though obscured now, in our time of greater visibility and equality, it is also a festive observance of the journey out, the crossing over from underground to aboveground, the journey from darkness to light. The merry-making and partying that mark Pride tap into profound spiritual cultural traditions of gay and lesbian subcultures.

The campy self-presentation inherent in drag balls, costume balls, masquerades, and gay revelry draw us into a world of festivity and fantasy. The fantastic, the imaginative, are not merely flights of fancy, flighty escapes from the world. The utopian visions of many radicals have been, after all, a kind of political fantasy. Festivity and fantasy point past the real to what is possible, what could be.

The political nature of festivity and fantasy can be seen in the medieval European celebration of the Feast of Fools. The Feast of Fools began at Vespers on the day of New Year’s Eve with the chanting of the Magnificat, that celebrated passage from the Gospel of Luke where the mother of Jesus declares: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” It was a period of time in which roles were reversed: the beggar with the bishop, the fool with the lord or sheriff. Lowly clerics painted their faces and strutted about in the robes of their superiors. There was cross-dressing in every sense. Masks were put on, outrageous ditties sung in the streets, and all the stately rituals of the church and court were mocked. During the Feast of Fools, every social convention and custom was ridiculed, every ruler lampooned by the common people.

As you might imagine, the Feast of Fools was criticized by higher ups, being condemned outright by the Council of Basel in 1431. Nevertheless, it survived into the sixteenth century, primarily in Germany and France, eventually being transformed into various theatrical and homosexual traditions. It represents in many ways the class conflict of the times, the peasants keeping alive many of their folk traditions while expressing resistance to feudal and ecclesiastical rule.

In gay slang, we talk about camp. When something is overly exaggerated and theatrical, it is campy. Camping is the practice of extravagant mannerisms, usually parodying or mimicking something or someone. It is ironic, playful, and biting. In the sixteenth century, on Shakespeare’s stage, it was illegal for women to act. The parts of women were played by boys. This act of cross-dressing was known in English as camping. Camping is the corruption of the French word campagne (or the Italian campagna), meaning not only countryside, but the level playing fields where travelling theatre troupes entertained. Campaign and campus are related English words. Theatrical troupes played on such fields throughout the medieval and early modern period. Such troupes often kept alive the spirit and practices of the Feast of Fools through the performance of political satires.

In gay and lesbian slang we also talk about drag as the act of cross-dressing, or more recently any kind of costuming or self-decoration (office drag, for example, being a suit and tie). Drag queens represent a particular kind of theatrical self-invention. Drag performers are known for dressing up like famous people in order to parody them. Drag queens are fantastic, fabulous creatures more than they are impersonators of women. In the restrictive binary of “male” and “female” there is nowhere else to go if one is not male–but female. Drag occupies a place along a gender continuum, not male but not female.

“On the drag” or “flashing the drag” was English slang right into the nineteenth century for men dressed in women’s clothing. It comes from an older English slang word for a cart used for hauling (or the street such a cart was pulled down). The main drag, we might say, in a town is its main street. Drag racing is, of course, the practice of driving down a strip of road.

These are possible linguistic remnants and echoes from the days of the Feast of Fools where the dressed-up or cross-dressed were dragged in carts along the main streets, parodying the well to do and powerful. The folk traditions kept alive by such festivities as the Feast of Fools are rooted in even older, pre-Christian European religions. These were likely animistic and pagan traditions–pagan in the root sense of the word meaning “country-dweller.” Christianity in Europe was, for the longest time, an urban phenomenon. The pagans or heathens of the countryside, the heaths, continued to practice their animistic, earth-centered traditions, other fragments of which survive to this day in such things as Halloween and Easter eggs.

The Inquisition actively suppressed the old religion of pre-Christian Europe. It is interesting to note the kinds of things that became illegal and persecuted. It became illegal to hold processions of men dressed as women in carts down the main streets; it also became illegal to wear animal skins in such parades. Could it be that the Church was trying to stamp out the burning embers of nature-based religion of the peasants that seems to have included a role for gender-variant behavior? Was it banning sacred parades of people dressed up as the goddesses, gods and animal spirits of their nature religion? We know that by the twelfth century, homosexuality was conflated with heresy and the two were actively persecuted.

There are many fascinating anthropological studies that link cross-dressing, same-sex desire and sacred function. In many cultures across the globe, certain shamanic, healing and mediatory roles were assigned to gender-variant people. The shaman impersonates the spirit of powerful animals, in many societies, taking on the persona of power animals. The shaman is able to cross over into the spirit world and return. It is possible that remnants of a European nature-based religion that included the sacred function of cross-dressed, homoerotically-inclined shamanic figures has survived through the Feast of Fools, the troubadours, and western theatrical traditions and is echoed in contemporary gay and lesbian slang and sub-cultural practices.

As late as the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, one of the few societal niches that afforded gay men a place to be themselves was the theatre, the world of the performing arts. Theatre, itself rooted in pagan rites, reenacts transformation. The curtain rises, the veil between this world and some other is lifted, and we are transported into a world beyond the ordinary world. Where players use costume and makeup to take on the personae of people who are not themselves.

Celebrating Pride Day, we draw on these rich traditions and associations. Reversing roles, as happened in the Feast of Fools, is a critique of such roles. Power and gender arrangements are shown not to be natural or God-given, but made up by humans. They can be unmade. The inherent critique of power involved in reversing roles also taps into our powers to transform ourselves. Masquerade, costume, camp and drag remind us of our ability to create ourselves anew, to become fabulous. We can cross over, we can enter a new world. This is what social change movements do, showing us how personal and social transformation are possible.

Celebrating Pride Day, we evoke our powers of becoming who we are, our potential to be all that we are meant to be, by drawing on the theatrical, shamanistic threads in western European lesbian, gay and transgender subcultures. It has the possibility of simultaneously being political theatre, protest and ritual.

The central metaphor of Pride Day is one of coming out, coming out of the closet. It seems to me that coming out is a profoundly spiritual occasion. Yet in a world that cannot appreciate gayness, it is a spiritual occasion without ceremony. Jewish kids come of age with a Bat or Bar Mitzvah, Christians with confirmation, but no similar rite of passage exists for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who make the difficult, treacherous passage from the closet to the daylight. There exists no formal apprenticeship, no ceremonial initiation for us as we wake up to the inward truth of who we are.

The themes of transformation, of passage from the ordinary world to an extraordinary one, of shamanic crossing over that are all inherent in Pride Day make it a psychologically and spiritually powerful event for sexual minorities, we who have been denied ritual expression of our wrestling with the power of being. It is for this reason that Pride celebrations can be emotionally charged and moving events for many of us.

We remember the Stonewall Riots and their important place in defining a change of consciousness, where sexual minorities came out of hiding. At Pride Day, we remember our past and festively celebrate our hard-won freedoms. Like the Jewish festival of Passover, it is a yearly reminder that we came out of oppression. Pride Day is a dramatization and reenactment, like the ritual occasion of Passover, of our coming out into freedom. On Pride Day, we celebrate our arrival, like the “coming out” balls of debutantes.

Celebrating our coming out, our crossing over, we invite those we love and those who love us to join us. Not only to support the equality, dignity, and worth of sexual minorities, but to create with us a new world. Not only to demonstrate our opposition to oppression, discrimination and unfair treatment, but to journey together on a road of personal transformation, celebrating the possibilities–for all of us–of becoming who we truly are.