The turf wars

TERFs, trans women, imperfect bodies and girl-power messaging

I have a daughter with special needs, who sees all the advertising and messages about women’s bodies in the media that I can’t entirely filter for her and takes it in without even the usual mild resistance most kids have.

It’s all literal to her. She believes every word: There is only one way to be pretty. You must have this accessory to be OK. You must have this shade of hair to be popular. Ditsy, smart friends are OK to have, but beauty standards and charisma are most crucial for the person at the center of the story. You are loved if you get a pile of presents that fills your entire living room on your birthday. Anything less is not love.

We’ve had many conversations on these topics to no effect. She has difficulty with auditory processing and memory. Conversations don’t mean much. Videos and ads designed by psychologists to get at the deepest parts of the brain have much more power. The media world is more real to her than reality.

Now she has budding breasts and she hates them. I found her using scissors to cut off her first bits of body hair. I take her on my lap and try to gently explain. I read her stories about girl power and great women of history. I try to be a counter-weight but I’m just one drop against a tsunami of images and messages at school and on every device that she gets her hands on when I’m not looking.

Meme about women's spiritual power of birth.jpg

My words are unscripted and analog. The videos are photoshopped and tailored by experts to addict. I’m losing ground every day.

The other day I posted a meme about the spiritual power of women, about creativity and the miracle of women’s fertility bringing new souls into the world. It featured a woman of color, breathtakingly beautiful in my view but not in line with Youtube standards. My daughter struggles with skin color a lot, being a trans-racially adopted child. I listen to her. I try to give her hope. This meme is a bit beyond her still, but it is a tiny shard of the mosaic of positive womanhood I am trying to build.

This is my world. I shared the image because this is what I want to support in the world.

What happened next is what has been happening a lot in my spiritual community in the past two years with girl-positive or woman-positive messages and images. I was rebuked by someone I respect in the Pagan community.

The image celebrated fertility and birth as a spiritual contribution of women. It did not include a caveat about how not all women have children. It did not backtrack to explain that trans-women don’t even have uteruses. Shame. Shame. Shame.

I was shocked at how deep the anger goes in me. I never could understand the TERF (Trans-exclusive Radical Feminists) concept before that moment. Why would anyone try to tell trans-women they weren’t “real women?” Why would anyone insist on a strict biological, limited concept of womanhood?

Ah, but to never be allowed to speak positively of women’s bodies? To relegate fertility and birth to a gross bodily function like farting, something a bit shameful that we should get over as quickly as possible and not talk about in public? Is this the price for including trans-women? Are you either TERF or anti-body.?

Until now, TERFs were mythical creatures I have never actually encountered in the wild, outside a few books from the 1970 and 1980s. I still haven’t met a real live TERF—a person who is a feminist AND is trans-phonic and/or homophobic. But the issue and the ostensible choice was being shoved in my face:

Choose! Your sense of ethical integrity and your trans friends or your relationship to your female body! Now! Choose! Shame on you for even hesitating!

I have a uterus. Little good it has done me. I have had extremely painful menstrual cramps since I was a young teen with no medical explanation and repeated anemia due to heavy bleeding. In addition, I had unexplained infertility. I spent six years fighting with my body with every technological weapon available in high-tech European universal health care, and no one could ever tell me why I couldn’t carry a child to term.

Do the TERFs think I’m a real woman?

I don’t really care if they do or not. TERF philosophy may have been briefly trendy in about 1993 but any remaining TERFs have clearly been pushed so far back into the underbrush that we’ll find them around the time we find the unicorns. They don’t appear to be a current threat to me or to my trans friends. Patriarchal images and messages degrading our bodies and souls most definitely are still a threat.

Additionally, when a friend puts out a post about the beauty of color or anything else visually amazing or spiritual, do I come along and slap them with a rebuke about the fact that there are blind people in the world, so somehow they should not mention such things? 

No, I don’t. I don’t even think it. And it isn’t that disability doesn’t carry as much social stigma as being trans.

I get flack every single day for being a blind person and almost no support or even tolerance in the Pagan community. I am excluded, talked down to, accused of faking or making it up, ignored, dismissed and socially marginalized. I don’t think I have ever seen a abled Pagan come to the defense of disabled Pagans and insist we must be included when we have been excluded all too often. Every little bit of adaptation or mere tolerance of presence that disabled Pagans have received was won through our own hard work and quiet—and even so resented—hand-raising.

On the other hand, trans awareness has grown exponentially in the Pagan community in the past several years, and that is a good thing. It will help all of us. I have been part of it, writing in defense of trans rights in the wider world and in Pagan communities.  The vast majority of people with disabilities are with you on this one. We know bodies don’t always do with they were supposed to.

I also have two close trans friends. But the fact is that I didn’t know one of them was trans for five years, because it isn’t actually something he has to deal with socially every single day if he doesn’t choose to, which he usually doesn’t. His transition was 20 years ago.

It affects him, certainly. Part of the reason the issue came up between us was that my husband and I as well as he and his wife were going through IVF at the same time, and everyone who goes through IVF asks other IVFers “What are you in for?” like prison inmates.


“Aw, man. That’s a raw deal. Me, it’s being trans.”

“ Well, shucks.. I wish I at least had a reason. I didn’t even get a jury trial.”

That’s not a direct transcription of the conversation, but you get the point.

Nature plays chaotic and diverse with bodies. You don’t always get what you bargained for at birth. That does not make you “less than” anyone else. It does not mean you should not celebrate your body or that others shouldn’t celebrate theirs.

There are many ways to be a woman. Just because many women give birth and it is a big part of being among women does not mean that those who don’t have children, for whatever reason, are less women. I couldn’t biologically have children no matter how hard I tried, even though I do have a uterus. That meme about women’s spiritual power of birth doesn’t offend me. Since I needed to have children and I was clearly meant to be a mother, I adopted them.

It does not make me feel any less of a woman because I didn’t give birth. It does not make me less in awe of birth and the creative power of women.

I did participate in birth. I was born. I was born from a uterus. We all share that.

And there is nothing wrong with it. It doesn’t make trans people “wrong” or veneration of women’s fertility “wrong.“ When talk of women and birth stings trans women or infertile women, are those who discuss it to blame? Are those who describe a beautiful piece of music as a spiritual treasure of all humanity to blame if a deaf person can’t relate?

I say no. Don’t rub it in when your body has some great power that another body may not have. There is no superiority and inferiority here. There is only primal awe. We are. Look at the amazing diversity of life! Isn’t it dazzling and infinitely discoverable?

The pain comes more from internalized, socially abusive doubt creeping in from a culture that has been divorced from nature and from our bodies. If you are a trans woman, there is a reason you are a woman. It may not be to give birth. But it is still woman-ness.  

There is something definable about being a woman. That’s why trans people care whether they are perceived as their true gender. If there was nothing that defined a woman, there would be no trans people. Fertility and birth are part of who we are, even if only a fractional part. It is not our whole but it is there. It is in our consciousness and in our ancestry. We don’t have to each fulfill every part of it personally to be a valid part of the whole.

So please stop the berating of people who say positive things about women.  We still live in a society where the biggest and loudest messages about women are very negative. And then along comes this undercurrent saying we can’t even say something positive about women because we aren’t all the same.

We are all different. The fact that I can’t see does not make me resent people who can.

As a person with a physical difference, I want to sit at the table, not dictate what is said at the table.  Yes, living in a sighted world is always going to be difficult for blind people. But I don’t insist that the whole world be adapted for blind people. That wouldn’t work out very well for my deaf friends.

Trans people are here. We accept them and love them. We can’t help that nature has made a world in which they are not the average, and in which giving birth is a gendered thing. 

My spirituality is tied to nature. Rather than ask that we ignore the gendered basis of human fertility, I would ask, as many Native Americans traditionally have, what spiritual lessons we can learn from the fact that gender is not a simple binary. Trans people should not feel excluded from Pagan fertility talk. They should be considered an integral part, those who carry and embody a deep mystery.

An offering at the neglected shrine of Venus

Here is a poem inspired by the vibrant beauty of a June morning and my reading on the ancient goddess of Rome and other reading on today's weird social norms. 

Creative Commons image by Sarah Zucca

Creative Commons image by Sarah Zucca

She was told she wasn't really pretty

and she believed it.

The first boy she loved at sixteen

said he loved her even though she was fat

Solid calf muscles and round biceps

from track and hiking are not glamorous

Her full-hips and strong abdomen

were not in the magazines or on TV.

She noted down the numbers,

At five nine, she should 

be one thirty by that reckoning. 

Her face was never perfect,

her eyes too small and squinted

But sometimes she'd catch a glimpse

of her own shadow or her face looking up

she'd follow the line of her body with her eyes,

thinking it wasn't so bad,

nothing there to drive disgust, 

even grace of a kind, the health of nature

She was strong and swift.

She bent her mind to studies and career.

Twenty years flashed by before she knew it.

She scarcely thought of her body in all that time, 

except to be thankful for health 

and sometimes quietly to wish

that things could have been different.

How many times had she shouldered a pack

and hiked mountains or explored cobble stones

She built sturdy rock walls

with the husband she finally found.

He was not considered handsome either,

dumpy and overweight but strong as a mule.

And they decided dispassionately to throw their lots together.

She took care of her body's needs,

brushed her teeth and went for checkups

ate well and didn't smoke or drink.

But she rarely thought of it and rarely adorned it.

It was mostly just "it."

No mask nor jewelry,

except the thin gold of marriage

more a symbol than an ornament.

She pulled her long hair into a braid and called it good.

She had more important things to do

with her mind, with her heart, with her soul.

And the shrine of Venus grew dusty with disuse

When she comes to it at last after decades have passed

and looks at the lines across her face,

the flaws grown much deeper

and her body heavier and not nearly so strong.

Then she knows the price of offerings not left.

Now she places flowers before the shrine 

and puts gems in her ears and sweet oil on her skin.

She gives honor to the goddess she forgot

and dances in the beauty of a crone's body,

good and true to the health of nature

Journey to the Dark Goddess - Pagan Book Review

Journey to the Dark Goddess: How to Return to Your Soul by Jane Meredith is a startling combination of a spiritual guide book and a very practical how-to manual. It is almost more self-help than a spiritual book, although you can take it in a Pagan interpretation.

Here in one book are the myths of the Dark Goddess and those who journey to the Underworld to meet her--Inanna and Ereshkigal, Persephone, and Psyche--as well as the explanations of why and what these myths mean spiritually and psychologically, personal experience stories and clear instructions for rituals to consciously choose your journey of transformation.

Meredith sees the Dark Goddess as that which has the power to transform us through inner work. Because most people avoid deep inner reflection, we are usually brought to it through hardship, disaster, illness, loneliness, grief or depression. Meredith's concept is that a person can choose to take the steps necessary to meet transformation on our own terms--before it is forced upon us through circumstance or, if necessary, during such circumstances. 

Overall the concept is solid and well explained and executed. There is some moderate repetition but for those inexperienced with the concepts and ritual format, it will likely be helpful. The sections are well labeled and it is possible to navigate in the book, if the repetition does bother you. 

The writing is clear and enough flexibility is left in the instructions for the steps to be practical for a wide variety of people. If there is one thing that left me concerned in this book, it was the author's wise assertion that individuals consciously undergoing such a passage should always have support persons lined up in advance with specific instructions for helping the seeker should she get stuck in her process.

Primarily this includes reminding the person on the journey to the dark goddess to eat, sleep and exercise regularly. It also means providing compassionate moral support. While this is excellent advice, there was very little in the book on how to find such support or what to do when it is lacking. In today's world, it is not always easy for individuals to find authentic support and a large reason for seeking out such a book could well be isolation and social alienation. 

It may simply be that the author has no answers for this particular conundrum. She does not claim to have all the answers and in fact uses examples of her mistakes along the way as useful teaching tools to show how the steps of the journey should and should not be done. 

Using the book

Over the past month, I have experimented with the rituals, imagery and myths in this book. It just so happened that this book arrived on my doorstep at a time when I had to enter a dark and frightening situation consciously. 

I have been legally blind all my life, but my eyesight has largely remained stable. To others it may seem very weak, but I am very glad for what I have. Suddenly in the past year my sight started to fail due to cataracts. And I was told that I am in a high risk category for cataract surgery. I could become totally blind very quickly if the surgery didn't go perfectly... and there is a lot that can go wrong.

The surgery had to be scheduled at the darkest time of the year--November and December--to minimize risks. And so while I normally guard myself against the harsher parts of life at this time of year, I now had to face them fully. I also had a support person available both for the surgery and for the journey to the Dark Goddess.

It was quite a coincidence that the book arrived at just such a time, so I decided to go through it in a practical way. I have been through some dark periods--depression, social ostracism, infertility. So, I know what Meredith means when she describes a journey to one's personal underworld. 

There are a dozen rituals described in Journey to the Dark goddess but not all of them are mandatory for such a journey. I did some of the preparation rituals and exercises with curiosity but little deep connection. Then when it came time for me to consciously descend into the dark, I combined the ritual of the seven gates to the Underworld described in the book with a ritual sauna in an underground cellar and a time of utter silence.

My experience of the seven gates to the Underworld was quite different from what Meredith describes. It was a very powerful ritual, but I felt somehow detached from my emotions, which are usually rampant. It was almost as if I was watching myself from outside myself, watching this person I barely knew falling and disappearing into the gloom. After an entire moon in which I underwent two surgeries, a month of enforced rest and near isolation, and much upheaval in my relationships and household, I finally felt the flickering of returning energy .

Those things I had relinquished on my way to the Underworld--attachments to family, home, status and cherished skills--had reordered themselves and taken on a different significance. In the end, while my experience is not the same as Meredith's, it was very helpful to follow her guidelines and concepts. 

The Middle Eastern Goddesses of the Grain Moon - International Moon Circle 2

As the moon changes and moves, I shift my focus to another part of the world. 

I have chosen to celebrate Mesopotamian and Middle Eastern goddesses during this moon. I have found their stories to be deep and rich. They are often hidden within the consciousness of western culture today. The Maiden for this moon is Ishtar (also associated with eternal Astarte), the Mother is Nikkal, and the Dark Goddess is Tiamat.

The New and Waxing Moon

Creative Commons image by Carole Raddato

Creative Commons image by Carole Raddato

Ishtar’s primary symbol is the eight-pointed star. She does get married at one point, but she is often considered a maiden goddess because her attributes are battle and sex. She is independent and liberated. Hers is a classic quest story in which she must venture to the underworld through many obstacles to bring her husband back to life. (Laguna 2014)  

Why she wants him so much when she is so fiercely independent is a mystery, although knowing Ishtar, I’m betting the sex was very good. But more seriously perhaps she has an aspect of the passionate sort of love that goes beyond self-interest, reason and caution. 
We connect with Ishtar by freeing the sensual energy of our bodies and discarding external trappings. A women’s ritual might include discarding clothing. Ishtar had to leave a piece of her clothing at each gate as she descended to the Underworld, but this was also an act of sacrifice, because in the end she arrived naked before her judges and was sentenced to death. 

It is worth thinking about what we must sacrifice for those things we want dearly. We know we face ultimate judgment of success or failure in our life’s journey naked. None of the trappings of success on earth matter in the final reckoning. 

The Full Moon

Nikkal hails from the land that is now Syria. I am fascinated by the hymn to her that is supposed to be the oldest written song. She is a goddess of fruit and orchards and she is married to the moon god. (Lurker 1987) The song, which is only part of a larger myth, is about Nikkal’s marriage and her father’s initial concerns about it. The original story is quite erotic in parts, mentioning the god’s desire to plow the earth of her love and her explicit desire for him. (Gibson 2004) 

Later in this myth, she becomes a mother and is the goddess of fruitfulness, but we are also reminded that she is sensual herself. The Grain Moon embodies the ripening of fruit—both physically and in symbolic terms. Projects are being completed and things come to fruition.. 

It would be nice to offer Nikkal a basket of fruit on the full grain moon. Spend some time in an orchard, listen to or learn to sing the ancient hymn to Nikkal. Play music. Ask for Nikkal’s blessing on the land, on the community, on those who are hungry in the world and on your own endeavors and goals. 

Nikkal is a goddess of charity and aid to those in need. It would be fiting to make some specific commitment to help people in need of food or shelter in some small or large way, either as an activist or with material aid. This is one of the themes of Lammas/Lughnasadh, the fire feast at the beginning of this month, so it is a common practice for many Pagans. As refugees fleeing the tyranny of ISIS continue to flee into the area where I live from Syria, the ancient land of Nikkal, this message has added power.

The Waning and Dark Moon

Creative Commons image by John W. Schulze

Creative Commons image by John W. Schulze

The Babylonian creation myth tells of the defeat and dismemberment of Tiamat, the Great Mother, by the new gods of patriarchal culture. One of the key concepts imposed by this patriarchal culture was the idea of the Creator God as a separate entity preceding creation. 

Even though technically the primary Creator God in the story was Tiamat’s son, the patriarchal narrative twists this around backwards, so that he creates her—as an embodiment of all creation. Thus the Middle Eastern philosophy was born in which one of the greatest acts of the patriarchal God was the subduing of the Great Mother and thus the separation of God from her. (Reid-Bowen 2007) 

For our modern context, Tiamat is a Goddess of re-connection to nature, a Goddess who is the world rather than merely making the world. Tiamat is the repressed goddess made dark by patriarchy. Her symbols may be the primordial universe and clay goddess figures in the style of the ancients. One way to honor her is to connect with our bodies and the natural world as divine in their very matter.


Gibson, J. C. L. (2004). Canaanite Myths and Legends. New York, NY: T&T Clark International.
Laguna, R. (2014). Ishtar. In Greenfield, T. (Ed.), Naming the Goddess (pp. 214 - 216). Washington, DC: Moon Books.
Lurker, M. (1987). A Dictionary of Gods, Goddesses, Devils and Demons. New York, NY: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.
Reid-Bowen, P. (2007). Goddess As Nature. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company.

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.