Shamanism and the Gay Community
by Don Kilhefner, Ph. D.
Why should gay people and gay communities have an understanding of and training in shamanism at this time? From a historical and cross-cultural frame of reference, gay people (or what some people have called homosexuals) have been associated with shamanism wherever found throughout the world. It is part of our historical heritage.
It is in our bones.
One of my teachers, Malidoma Some, who is an initiated shaman and elder among the Dagara people of the country of Burkina Fasso in West Africa (he holds two earned-doctorates from the Sorbonne and Brandeis respectively and currently teaches at the University of Oregon), has written that among the Dagara gender identity is not determined by biology but by the energy frequency at which a person vibrates and those with the highest frequency are called “gatekeepers.” Their role in Dagara society is to maintain and keep open the gates between the visible and invisible worlds—an important shamanic responsibility on which the well-being of Dagara people and society depends. People who are designated as Gatekeepers among the Dagara in our Western society would be labeled “homosexual” and be stripped of any societal or spiritual importance, demonized, forced into hiding and murdered.
When I was in my early twenties I lived for three years (1962-65) in a village called Dessie in Ethiopia, about 200 miles north of Addis Abeba. Deeply inspired by President John F. Kennedy, I was with one of the first Peace Corps groups abroad. My days in Dessie were spent teaching history at the only secondary school in the province and creating a free school lunch program for poor students, many of whom would walk barefoot for long distances each day to secure an education—leaving their home villages before sunrise and not returning until after sunset they would otherwise eat nothing all day due to poverty.
On my first night in the village I heard a drum beating throughout the night and I became curious and excited. That curiosity has deepened and the excitement has continued unabated to this day. The drumming came from the home of what in the Amharic language of Ethiopia is called a worgeshe—a village shaman. I met him almost immediately, hung out there often, and he became my first teacher about the multidimensional nature of reality. Traditionally shamans did their healing work at night which is why I heard the drum. The word “shaman” is derived from a Tungus word, a people in Siberia, that means: “he/she who sees in the dark.”Every culture has its own word for shaman but the word “shaman” is used generically in anthropological writings to describe this kind of person. Sometimes it is used interchangeably with “medicine man,” “magician,” “walker between worlds,” or “seer.” No matter from which continent or islands your ancestors came, they came from a shamanically-based culture. Shamanism is over 25,000 years old; from the historical perspective of shamanism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are New Age religions.
The word “shaman” is often used very loosely and carelessly these days.In American culture the word has almost lost its meaning. I saw an ad recently referring to “The Haircut Shaman.” In most cultures, it would be considered bad form for the shaman to call himself a shaman. Other people could use that word to describe him, but the shaman himself did not. In our ego-centric culture, all sorts of people are calling themselves shamans without much understanding or training. It’s part of the superficiality of our age.
There are two major approaches to the understanding and training of shamans throughout the world. One is a culture-bound path whereby a person studies, for example, Lakota (Plains Indians), Inka (Peru) or Dagara (West African) shamanism within the traditions and practices of that particular culture.
A second approach is core shamanism which is based on the understanding that wherever shamanism is found in the world there are certain core practices that all shamans utilize. One of my teachers, Michael Harner, Ph. D., acknowledged by indigenous people as one of the finest shamanic teachers anywhere and founder of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies (www.shamanism.org), is the leading voice with the core shamanism approach. His book The Way of the Shaman is a classic in the field.
What exactly is a shaman and what does he or she do? A shaman is a man or woman who enters an altered state of consciousness—at will—to contact and utilize an ordinarily hidden reality in order to acquire knowledge, power, and to help other persons or a community or a tribe. The shaman has at least one, usually more, “spirits” in his personal service. Thus a shaman can change his state of consciousness, usually by the use of a certain type of drumming or the use of certain plants, to enter another dimension of reality. Around the world drumming is used 90% of the time for changing consciousness and plants only 10%. Shamanism is based on the understanding that reality is multidimensional. Contemporary physics also says reality is multidimensional. In cutting edge physics, according to the rapidly expanding field of brane theory, an extension of string theory, there are membranes of reality existing simultaneously. It’s what young people mean when they talk about parallel universes. The old shamans knew this for over 25,000 years—other fields of knowledge are catching up.
One of the most important books written by gay people in the 20th century was published in 1922 by Edward Carpenter and titled The Intermediate Type Among Primitive Folk. The word “intermediate type” was his way of describing gay people without using the limiting label “homosexual” then in vogue. Carpenter (1844-1929) lived in England and is an important voice in the modern history of gay people. In his groundbreaking research he studied the then available anthropological literature amassed between the 16th and early 20th centuries by European imperialism (and its missionaries and traders) in Africa, Asia, and the Americas to ferret out the historical and cross-cultural contributions gay people have been making in non-Western societies. Carpenter concluded that one of these roles was as shamans and shamanic healers. The contemporary research literature is full of similar examples. A good recent example would be Will Roscoe’s Jesus and the Shamanic Tradition of Same-Sex Love.
A shaman tends to the soul of a community or tribe. By the word “community” or “tribe” I mean a people who come together because of some commonality and who assume responsibility for each other.
Thanks to Don Kilhefner for his permission to reprint this article!
ABOUT DON: The Gay Men’s Medicine Circle was called into being in November 1999 by Steven Solberg and Don Kilhefner. It grew out of several workshops entitled Seeing in the Dark: An Introduction to Gay Shamanism that Solberg and Kilhefner co-facilitated. The workshops were sponsored by Tumescence, an organization founded by Kilhefner in 1994, that was the foundation on which the Gay Men’s Medicine Circle was built.
Don writes: Once a year I teach a workshop titled Seeing In The Dark: An Introduction To Gay Shamanism which in 2008 was held for four consecutive Sundays in April. It is sponsored by the Gay Men’s Medicine Circle and successful completion of the workshop allows one to prepare to become a member of the Medicine Circle. Such Circles of gay men are also operating in New York City and Washington, D.C. In the workshop participants will be introduced experientially to the practice of shamanism and how they might tend to the well-being of gay men and the welfare of the gay community. Particular focus will be given to the shamanic tools of journeying (“riding the drum”), dreaming (“visions of the night”), shamanic healing, creating ceremony, and journeying for the benefit of others. Shamanic journeying increases one’s sense of inner power and aliveness, thereby contributing to a richer, more meaningful personal life and gay community.
Who knows, you might even find yourself?