Describing a Radical Faerie: An Odyssey into the Indefinite

Most Radical Faeries enjoy masturbation; and more than a few of us take pleasure in both the physical and mental forms of self-stimulation. Indeed, much of the mental masturbation of faes begins with the first three words of my first sentence, “Most Radical Faeries…” “Most Radical Faeries!?!?” will be the aghast riposte of…well…most Radical Faeries. After all, what most faes have in common is denying that most faes have anything definite in common. We shrink from self-definition: it’s one of the defining characteristics of this undefinable affinity group of unidentifiable humans.

You may correctly infer from my tone that I think this is bullshite.

As any anthropologist can tell you (or, for that matter, any lexicographer), there is a difference between definition and description. A definition tells you what something is; a description tells you about that thing. When Radical Faeries say (as they often do) that they are wary of defining what it means to be a Radical Faerie, or even what Radical Faerie is; what I think they’re saying is that they do not wish to be limited by boundaries – by being told what they are. They fucking well know what they are. Kindly don’t tell them. Okay, I won’t. But I am able, and very much within the bounds of propriety, to describe them. Human beings and our behaviour are not literally indescribable, after all.

Having said that, in everything that follows, please insert the adjectives, “Generally,” “In my opinion,” From what I’ve experienced,” where appropriate. Otherwise, I will be declarative.

Radical Faeries are people who aspire for transcendence, meaning everything from a total commitment to a passing assent that it’s a positive value. Sometimes this means transcendence of norms and customs; of national or cultural allegiance; or of commitment to the consumption economy. More often it means transcendence of gender expectations (or even gender itself); of sexual or racial self-definition; and of fixed identity or destination.

Having said all that, it doesn’t mean that Radical Faeries exemplify radical inclusivity…whatever else may be claimed. But more on that later.

If you want to understand what identifies one as Radical Faerie, a good place to begin is with how we name our gatherings. A gathering is called; meaning that a metaphorical alpenhorn is raised, letting out a distinctive note which will attract the tribe to the circle. Calls cut to the kernel of common identity, and so what do we read there? A few titles from the most recent Cascadian gatherings might offer some clues:

  1. Radical Intimacy, Radical Tribe (BCRFC 2013)

  2. Walks Between (BBS 2012)

  3. Men of the Winter Wood (BBW 2015)

  4. Giving Back to the Land (SGRF 2015)

  5. Spirit Meets Flesh (BCRFC 2012)

  6. Tribes (2015), Global (2014) (Generate)

  7. Transgression and Integrity (BBS 2012)

  8. [R]evolution (BBS 2014)

  9. Aurelia: Brilliant Emergence (WSGRF 2016)

If we had just arrived from a land whose denizens had never heard of Radical Faeries, and knowing just the titles of these Calls, what might we deduce? We might deduce that Radical Faeries consist of men (3), interested in questions of politics (7, 8), ecology (4), and identity (1, 2, 5, 7, 9). They seem to balance visions which are both tribal (1, 6) and trans-national (6, 8), pursuing a life of principled questioning of established norms and customs (2, 7, 8). They also appear to be interested in the intersection of intimacy or sexuality (1, 5), spirituality (5, 9), and embodiment (2, 5). Knowing what I have learned about Radical Faeries, my response to this characterization would be, “That’s pretty much it.”

As Radical Faeries, our identity emerges from intention. It derives from our personal intentions for becoming and being Radical Faerie; and it derives from our collective intention when we gather as a community. True, there are some gatherings which do not articulate an intention, or only a loose one. And there are other gatherings which have a stronger one. But no matter how much energy the organizers of a gathering invest in shaping a vibe, it will ultimately come from what individuals bring, collectively acting and reacting together. To be Radical Faerie is to choose radical community.

One of my friends, who has identified as a Radical Faerie for over thirty years, has said that every separatist movement has a fuzzy boundary when it comes to who’s in and who’s out. We want to be broad-minded and inclusive; to be a home for the homeless and a safe anchor for the wandering. We want to embrace the outcast and love the loveless. But we also want to be a haven for alternative queer men. Or do we? As the literary critic, Terry Eagleton, put it, “It is simply a liberal paradox that there must be something closed-minded about open-mindedness and something inflexible about tolerance.” Or, to quote Tony Blair, “Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain Britain. So conform to it, or don’t come here.”

We hope that the “right” people will self-select themselves in; and those who are a “wrong fit” will – somehow – feel uncomfortable enough that they will simply stop showing up. We tolerate the emotionally needy, the psychologically troubled, the codependent, the drug-addicted, the pedant and the pill; because we know that at least one of those labels might accurately describe ourselves. And yet, like any community, those who are found annoying or unpleasant will be shunned. And, sadly enough, like any gathering of gay men, the one who are considered unattractive will receive considerably less of the attention reserved for the handsome young guy with the sparkling eyes and open smile. If anyone tells you that Radical Faeries are a tribe without judgement, don’t believe them. But at least they try.

On another level, the dialogue about gender and sexuality has reliably rolled along over the years, with no resolution in sight, except the (mostly peaceful) coexistence of disparate views. Radical Faeries began as an affinity group for gay men; and the first dilemma was the presence of bisexual men. Then came the discussion over the inclusion of transgender men. And finally, the role of self-identified women. Pretty much all local circles include trans men; many accept women; but – for the most part, and most particularly in Cascadia, it remains a movement of and for gay men, cisgender and transgender. Some will attend female-inclusive gatherings, some won’t; and a few are even guarded about attending gatherings inclusive of trans men. But there are Radical Faerie gatherings for everyone. Even the odd straight-identified person.

For my own part, Radical Faeries was and continues to be a place where I can be myself, and explore new ways of manifesting the complexities of who I am, in a safe environment. It’s a place where I can feel free to be emotionally vulnerable among other gay men; to laugh, cry, dance, and sing. To pray and make love. To be and do and dream and act to build a better world, shot through with integrity and authenticity.