The Radical Faeries Of Kawashaway Sanctuary

Photo copyright Keri Pickett 

For the men at Kawashaway Sanctuary in northern Minnesota, wearing a pretty dress while chopping wood is more about liberation and festively celebrating a free-spirited lifestyle than about a polished aesthetic or a desire to be a woman.

While few people know that a Radical Faerie community exists in Minnesota or exactly what all the rituals, playfulness, and fellowship is about, that hasn’t stopped the local chapter from carrying their torch proudly—and, well, radically.

So who are the Radical Faeries? In a nutshell, they are a loosely affiliated worldwide network and counter-cultural movement seeking to redefine queer consciousness through secular spirituality.

Harry Hay with Mitch Walker, John Burnside, Don Kilhefner, and others founded the Radical Faerie movement in California in 1979. The group’s birth was seated amidst the context of the 1970s sexual revolution among gay men in the United States, the larger gay rights movement, the counter-cultural movement, and growing ecological awareness triggered by the oil crises. It responded to the increasingly heteronormative, assimilationist, and consumerist direction the gay community was taking, and has since evolved into a diverse global community.

“There’s a saying that goes, ‘To talk about Faeries is like trying to bottle fog,’” says Minnesota Radical Faerie Ralph Wyman. “How it shows up and manifests itself varies from place to place quite a bit.” In Minnesota, the Radical Faeries come in the form of a group that acts as a steward of a rustic, 17-acre Faerie “sanctuary” up north that was founded in 1989—one of many throughout the world.

Wyman stumbled upon this somewhat elusive, irregular group while working in the only gay and lesbian bookstore in Austin, Texas. He learned of the Faeries through RFD (Radical Faeries Digest) Magazine, a quarterly publication that serves as an important hub for the global Faerie community. “Mainstream gay culture just didn’t really interest me. I’d been a Boy Scout when I was a kid, so I liked camping and doing outdoors stuff,” says Wyman, who was invited by a friend to visit Kawashaway upon moving to Minnesota.

By all accounts, the Kawashaway Sanctuary is beautiful and sacred. The lush, biodiverse, glacially carved land includes a screen house and scullery, which is where the meals are prepped and eaten, that cozily seats 30–35 people. In addition, there are two outhouses, a tool shed, canoes, and a two-room bunkhouse called “the shackteaux” which is primarily for people with health concerns or reduced mobility. Drinking water is hand-pumped and sites for tents are sprinkled throughout the area.

“It was August of ’95 and I got up there and I didn’t know what the heck was happening,” recounts Wyman of the 60-person gathering he attended—his first at Kawashaway. “There was just this swirl of people, and there were people in high-concept drag playing croquet at 3 [pm] next to this ramshackle cabin with just all kinds of craziness happening.”

Scott “Scooter” Schroeder has been involved with the Faeries since around 1988. He found the group after reading Judy Grahn’s book “Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds.” “It was such a welcome alternative to the dominant paradigm of the day in terms of what it meant to be gay and be out,” says Schroeder. He’s the official president of what is legally a 501(c)4 social club, and has been one of the land’s “stewards”—a committee of Faeries charged with taking care of the space—for decades.

While on the land, spirituality and rituals are cornerstones of the group’s shared time together. Before dinner every night, three to four campers at the screen house go out on the deck and vocalize a drawn-out, high-pitched “yoo-hoo,” letting people know that it’s time to put on their finery for dinner. 

The community assembles and, before dinner is served, everybody holds hands in a heart circle—a space to share and listen. Then, everyone says their special Faerie name (like Honey Do/Dew, Prunella, Dish Diva, or Sweet Meat, for example) in turn and the whole group audibly reflects their name back, with everyone speaking into the circle and making a connection to the group.

Although the ceremonies largely stay up north, the members carry the warmth of their big-hearted community and their liberated spirits all year round. “Being a Faerie is not about fitting into a box,” says Schroeder. “It’s more about exploring who you are and your take on intimacy, fashion, and culture. It’s a space in which you can feel free to discard anything you’ve experienced, and play with the idea of some other kind of practice.” 

If you’re pining to let go of the past and unleash your inner Faerie—redefining your place on this planet in the process—look no further than Kawashaway.

Photographer Keri Pickett is the author of “Faeries: Visions, Voices and Pretty Dresses” (Aperture, 2000), winner of the Lambda Literary Award for best art book.