Denise Cumor is a Priestess, Educator & Facilitator of The Red Tent, who defies the patriarchal paradigm by following her own intuitive path, through creative expression and her commitment to womyn’s empowerment in the arts & history of sexuality and divine feminine worship. Experiences that have strengthened her commitment: Clerk at the feminist/ lesbian 31st St Book Store in Baltimore, working as a Dancer for 4 years on Baltimore’s infamous ‘Block;’ teaching OB-GYN protocol & techniques to medical students with Johns Hopkins; a decade of costume design in Baltimore, directing & acting in various productions of the Vagina Monologues; A 3 year purgatory as a corporate Event Planner, Event Coordinator & Sex Educator for the Spiral Dance Women’s Center, vending, facilitating & educating in the Red Tent for 7 years in the mid-Atlantic Pagan community, Coordinator for The Scarlet Den at THE Beltane & The Inner Sanctum at Blue Ridge Beltane. She has been making music and writing poetry for over 20 years, her current musical project is Red Wound. Creating art, music and sacred space for womyn has been her joy and salvation.
When I was young I learned first that I was not a boy like my brothers as I pee’d down my legs bawling, second that anything sexual was somehow bad and third that wearing a dress and batting your eyes could get you all kinds of things. Thus is the beginning mindset of a young, shy and completely gullible girl with a fierce streak for independence, born Scorpio with Venus in Scorpio, emanating sexuality and completely unaware of it. This combination took its toll quickly in the form of sexual abuse which I have had to continually understand and heal from since the age of 8. After my younger years of growing up with the mark of sexual abuse and the guilt that society and my Christian faith laid on me as I explored my body and sexuality, finally as a teenager I decided to clean the slate. I claimed “celibacy” and “atheism.” I listened to no one but my own inner voice. At that time I had already found my high school freak tribe. I experimented with marijuana and hallucinogenics, and the inner voice led me to remove my blinders and find my own creative expression, a place I could purge the sickness and heal. My first true love was dancing; I spent hours improvising to song in my trance space.
The biggest sadness and heart break of my life at that time, besides boys being cruel, was my desire to be a dancer, with a lot of raw talent and little training, I was way behind to play catch-up in the competitive world of dance. Instead I followed the path of normality; find job, get housing and drive car. I worked in retail; Yogurt Tree, Barnes and Nobles, Sears, Linen Barn and an extended stay at Artistic Dance Fashions & Costumes, where the bitter rub of fate had me fitting dancers in dance shoes all day long. As a young adult that was never going to marry or have children, by 19 I was a utopian dreaming, please no more retail, hippie, married with a baby boy growing in my belly. The birth of my son will always be for me, the most profound and defining moment of my life. He became a grounding force that I had never felt so solid and consistent before. In polarity, being a young mother, in an unhappy marriage in the ghettoes of Baltimore, wrought with depression and alcoholism, brought with it incredible fears. As my hippie dreams wore off into disillusionment, I found solace in making music with my band and writing poetry. Writing and singing my way through it all. Around this time I also found the 31st St. Bookstore, a feminist and lesbian mecca in my own neighborhood and I began working with a collective of feminists, publishing the fanzine, Broom. With my new found community, politics, poetry and baby boy, I eventually found the courage to be an independent mother and stand on my own two feet.
A core healing and awakening experience happened for me soon after. In desperate need to pay the rent, I discovered Baltimore Street and stripping. Thus began my “Persephone’s descent” into the seedy underworld of the sex industry. So many people would assume that this sort of experience would be abusive, misogynistic and completely harmful to a womyn already healing from past abuse. I have had my debates with feminists on the topic of sex work and misogyny. I would have most likely agreed with them 100% before consenting to the work. Although the sex industry is wrought with all sorts of male dominated attitudes and behaviors and women are sub-humanized and exploited, my personal story is one of empowerment. My mind and body awoke to the sickness of men that hid in the dark and by exposure and navigation; I became a sexually empowered warrior. This is not to endorse that all red light work is good, on the contrary the culture of sex work is much about power over womyn, and when it is trafficking and not consent, it is slavery.
As an awakened warrior, I began exploring the concept of sex as a way to heal and especially to see sex workers as healers and when you awaken to that mystery the dynamic between you and your client’s changes. The dynamic between you and each lover changes. At this time in my life I was also still working with the feminist bookstore and began to understand feminist theory as it all played out in the underbelly of the club where I danced. I found myself often in the role of counselor for many of my co-workers that struggled with abuse, addiction, reconciling the sex work with life and single mothering. I realized the need we all have as womyn, especially those of us sub-humanized by society, to stick together and support each other. And it is here I awoke and tapped into some ancient divine feminine understanding, and I knew what I needed to be doing in the world. And also for the first time, I felt hot as shit.
I began to explore my own sexuality more outside of the club and live more overtly as a sexual being. I discovered BDSM. I began my first same sex relationship and challenged myself often with public exhibition. I loved dancing erotically on stage and sought opportunities to do so outside of my work place. I especially loved when I could perform at lesbian events. I joined a metal-punk band as lead vocalist and personified my sexual deviant side on stage with a microphone in my hands. I also spent much time sketching and writing poetry, always keeping the ever lurking shadows at bay. Another important life changing moment was meeting a womyn I had seen on a TV news story, Pam Davis. She had recently had been arrested and jailed for having a small amount of marijuana in her possession and was busted in Carroll County. They confiscated her shop, Liberation, and her home. Pam was a woman that had struggled with MS and her husband leaving her while she was in jail, a woman that was coined the “Marijuana Mama” on the cover of High Times, a woman, that after all her strife, stood up to fight for her life and her beliefs, and a woman that I am proud to say was a mentor to me and a heroin. She taught me to stand up and fight for what I believe in. When I saw her story, I immediately set out to find her in Baltimore and offer my help. She was running a shop on Read St., The Baltimore Hemporuim, I worked at her store, and vended with her at festivals. I became her companion in all things. It is to her I owe so much, in showing me the outlet to brand myself an entrepreneur of sex. I tagged along with her to a retail convention in NYC when I invented, on the spot, my new title as business owner, networking at the retail show as opening a new shop in Baltimore, “The Cathouse” to sell erotic garb and sex toys, which I would later expand on and would eventually lead me to the Red Tent. I started selling vinyl, leather and velvet garb down on Baltimore street to other dancers as a side project.
I look back at this period of time with much pride. I managed to shed so much convention and I broke the chains that held me back as I created an alternative life for myself, but I would be dishonest to say that opening yourself to this sort of exploration and attempting to be Baltimore’s hottest mess does not come without baggage. I had no one around to teach me about boundaries. Being a stripper and spending time in a sexual deviant environment daily can make it very difficult to have long term relationships, and this also took its toll on me. Balancing being a mother and a sexually overt woman would often make me feel like I led a double life. I drank and smoked too much, lacked sunlight and sleep, was often sick with chronic bronchitis and struggled with depression and feelings of emptiness. My career as a stripper ended after four years, not by calculated decision, but by a leg injury that left me with no ligaments holding my knee together. I had to finally come up out of the depths of the underworld and take a look around me, my place in the real world and what my future might look like. At this time I was inclined towards seeking spiritual enlightenment, I was consciously seeking to fill the void within. All through my life I always felt drawn to the woods around the homes I lived in and spent much time alone exploring paths and climbing trees, so when I was first introduced to “new age” spirituality as a teenager, I had an overwhelming curiosity, that brought on an almost euphoric state when engrossed In books on the topic of “magic”.
When I think back, it is hard to remember a singular moment that I claimed the Goddess archetype in my life as sacred. I believe she was always there, like a patient mother revealing herself in her many aspects until I was able to conceive her as my own. Early on, I never saw her as attached to a name or tradition, until my descent into the underworld of Baltimore St. and I first found Lilith, to me she seemed to be the poster Goddess of that realm and I devoted myself to her easily. Lilith’s story is so masked in a patriarchal cover-up and a demonizing of feminine, that upon reflection, I could have had a V8. I bought my first copy of Green Egg Magazine at a local shop and found there were thriving communities of Pagans gathering at festivals and events. The Pagan community has been and continues to be, a big part of my salvation through the years. I found an ad in the magazine for a Reclaiming retreat, a Pagan collective started by Starhawk. I had just read 2 of her books and felt the calling to attend.
This retreat changed everything for me, not only did I finally meet a collective of people that embraced nature and the Goddess but also the most openly liberal collective I have ever witnessed, that was inclusive of sexual exploration and empowerment with a female centric focus. I attended a sacred sexuality intensive workshop at this retreat that made me feel inspired to transform my own learned experiences into something useful I could share and empower women with. At this retreat, I vowed to commit myself to facilitate, through ritual, healing work and education. Soon after I came back from my first time with Pagans, “between the worlds,” I had an unorthodox offer from a trusted and supportive client, to move out of Baltimore with him to Columbia and attend college. This was appealing to me, as I tired of the city grind and the vampiric energies that surrounded me in my beloved dark city. I needed a change and my son needed a safer school. I enrolled at Howard Community College and began my studies in Psychology. Although I quickly became jaded by the patriarchal slant of the scientific and medical world and found myself unable to remain steadfast on the path to become a legit doctor of sex. I changed my major to technical theater and acting, following my lifetime pursuit of catharsis through art.
My four years on this campus helped to mold me in so many unbelievable ways. I was growing powerful through learning. My politics and passions starting becoming well formulated theories, honed with critical thinking and mad hours of research. I had my first computer connected to the internet, which gained me access to a bigger library of alternative writers. I became so very hungry for knowledge and my focus delved into all topics of psychology & sexuality, women’s studies, history and world religion. I wrote papers on subjects of interest including; the emergence of Paganism & the Goddess, the decriminalization of prostitution and the harm of gender reassignment for intersex children, all the while, falling in love with the magic of the theater, in all its aspects, on stage and behind the scenes. I became the President of The Performing Arts Group and held the honor once of Arts & Humanities Student of the Year. I achieved excellent grades and became a type A personality student. In my love of the theater I settled into Costume Design as it appealed to me the most with the intimate dynamic between an design and character development. I also had a hand in sound design, acting & performing, prop design, stage management and board op & running crew. Theater students at this community college are blessed to have a professional equity theater in residence, Rep Stage. This gave us all the opportunity to gain experience working with true professionals.
I loved and swore by the high standard of theater, that even if you chop off a finger, in a bloody pool backstage, moments before curtain, “the show must go on.” This intensity and hard work, that is never to be seen by the patrons in the seats beyond the fourth wall, is the magic and it was like a drug in my veins. The theater provided me with a valuable asset I call my “MacGuyver” skill that led me to be gifted at event planning later in life. The “MacGuyver” skill is best defined as, “to fix the problem in seconds flat without freaking, the fuck, out.” After birthing my son, the second most monumental moment in my life is when I saw my first production of the Vagina Monologues. It had such a huge impact on me, that on the car ride home I had already plotted my own directorial version of the play. The Vagina Monologues, to me, was not just encompassing my passion for theater, but it was a radical movement, spiritual and divine feminine, it created a dialogue for women to speak out about things they are told are taboo. After seeing the play, I immediately went to my mentor, the Performing Arts Director at the college, and boldly asked to be able to direct the play. To my amazement she did everything in her power to see it happen for me, and I am ever indebted to her for her faith in me on that day.
Directing The Vagina Monologues at HCC was an abundant source of personal empowerment, that exuded from every pore of my body. I rallied like never before. I went to my depths to spawn all the magic I had in me. And then there was the community of women that embraced the adventure, that most moved me. Every night as the lights faded to black, I would be in tears before the first utterance of “vagina” came from the stage. At this time in my life I met a best friend, soul & life companion, that I would spend the next ten years devoted to. A man that not only supported all of my mad projects but worked along by my side to see them through and loved me for the wild and creative soul I was and loved me regardless of my impatience, manic depressive traits and heavy baggage. He was also a theater major and a musician, and joined me and another friend in making music. The original band Medusa’s Son would later become known as the Dirty Mothers. We discovered and spent our summer vacations at the Pagan and alternative festival, Starwood. My first true tribal home and always where my heart is. After spending a few years together finishing school, we decided to move back to Baltimore to be closer to the thriving art scene the city offered, to pursue music and theater careers and for me to begin a business plan for, “The Cat House,” (a place for pussies to shop.) I began working part time at Johns Hopkins as a Female Genito-Urinary Teaching Associate. This work is the most intimate public service one can commit to. You are the teacher and the standardized patient, guiding the students through the OB-GYN exam as it is performed on you in the stir-ups, sitting upright at a 90 degree angle on the examination table. I learned so much about the female reproductive system and about my own body while working for Hopkins. Although the work was a bit intensive, I found that my background in the sex industry reduced my awkwardness and I actually enjoyed being able to teach 3rd year medical students the protocol and technique for performing the exam. I use the knowledge gained in much of the empowerment work I do today.
Also at this time, I had met and began working with the newly founded Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, where the Artistic Director had much faith in my abilities and skills to not only give me work in costume design, but offered me the opportunity to teach with an in-residence program at a Baltimore County public high school. Eventually they offered me the staff position of Audience Service Manager that I held for a few years. Unfortunately the administrative work had me so busy that I was getting less offers to design and although I loved the work and the entire staff was like a second family to me, I decided to look for work that would be more financially sustaining, to be able to, for once and my life, not struggle financially. My life plan at that time was to work for the man, while making music and developing my business plan to open the Cat House, a womyn owned sex shop and educational center. I landed a job with a decent salary and benefits as an Event Planner with the national corporation, American Home Mortgage. Although I loved planning events and the perks that come with such a title, working in a corporation took its toll on me rather quickly as the power over hierarchical structure began to rot my passion, I was slowly turning gray.
We bought a new car and purchased our first house, proudly in my old stomping grounds in the Waverly community of Baltimore. Hoping this would make me happier about my life decision to work for a big corp, it was wrought full with all sort of feelings of personal failure. The house had so many issues, we felt swindled by the purchase. And then the mortgage and banking system crashed and with it I lost my job. Being part of a department that spent large amounts of money and as the only Pagan tattooed freak in that department, I was one of the first to be cut. Without a job and with a mortgage and car payments, life got pretty depressing, very fast. I tried to rally my career as an Event Planner and came close to landing jobs a few times in non-profit organizations. After a year of looking, I was still jobless. I had more time to spend on art and started playing with clay, making ceramic Goddess and vagina rattles. I re-invented myself to be a house cleaner, Dirty Mother Cleaning Services, and quickly found new income cleaning my friend’s houses to fulfill some of my financial obligations. In the same year I was laid off, I also discovered that a new sex shop owned by a womyn had opened in Baltimore. Although I tried very hard to not let something like this upset me or discourage me, I took the news hard and felt deflated.
I spent some time meditating on my dream and decided to be a mature person and offer my services to the shop owner. I had a strong knowledge of retail, sexuality and much research time spent in starting the same kind of business. I set up a meeting and felt proud of myself for building the bridge. Unfortunately the meeting did not have the outcome I had hoped for and the owner, either not feeling she knew me well enough to trust me to join her team or felt threatened by my honesty to tell her my story openly. She had very little interest in finding a place for me in her business. I tried to shrug the negative thoughts away, by saying she just did not have an opening at the time, but later I interviewed with her officially and although well over qualified, I was not offered a position. I struggled with my ego after this and re-evaluated my intentions, goals and why I was feeling so hurt. After some consultations with close friends I decided to take the business on the road and vend at Pagan festivals, this would be easier to obtain financially and afford me to spend more time in my beloved tribe doing the work I was passionately driven to. One good thing that came from the meeting with the sex shop owner, was her suggestion I go meet a few womyn that had started the Spiral Dance Women’s Center, where I found new community of feminists and lesbians that also held spirituality in its mission. They embraced my Goddess love and also supported the possibility of me teaching workshops on womyn’s sexuality and reproductive health.
While at Starwood that summer I met a womyn who was working with a women-owned sex toy party company, Athena’s Home Novelties. I quickly fell into both new communities, doing sex toy parties for part time work and integrating into the SDWC as Secretary of the board and Event Planner. Feeling more on track with my goals, I began to hammer out how I would start my business vending and teaching at Pagan festivals. I was figuring out the details of this space I would create when I read The Red Tent for the first time. This changed everything for me as I had never really empowered with my menses and realized how many womyn, even those in my Goddess embracing community, had not done so either. A menstrual revival was ignited in my heart and became integral to my vision. I knew then the name of my space would be The Red Tent, a sacred space for womyn. I would teach classes on menstruation, divine feminine, womyn’s sacred sexuality and reproductive health. I would sell tools of empowerment and create a space womyn could explore their sexuality and feel safe and supported. Needless to say I wish I could finish this story by adding, “And she lived happily ever after,” but the biggest heart brakes were yet to come.
In all my efforts and devoted work, I can say, the Red Tent brought me closer to myself, when I most needed the space I was creating. It also gave me purpose and so much good connection. I am Priestess and servant to my Goddess in the Red Tent and it feels true. I am in every moment with all my heart and passion and devotion when I hold sacred space, and this is exactly what I would need for my own safety for what came next in my life. Even though I was surrounded by so much love and support, I was still struggling with feelings of failure. The Red Tent was a huge spiritual success but more of a financial sacrifice to achieve, and we were slowly losing the race with bills in our house. I was also becoming increasingly more concerned about my success as a human being and felt unsettled. I felt fear that I would never achieve the balance of my passion and my need to make ends meet. In my attempts to make some sort of revival in my relationship with my husband and beautiful life companion, I set out to make us a big Pagan wedding celebration, the stuff worthy of the Gods and all tribe and family that attended. The event was a great success, but somehow that even went sour and south. I suffered emotional lows soon after and when winter fell and I found solace on a Macbook, online in a role playing game.
If anyone had ever told me I would be the one that would sacrifice everything for a virtual reality, I would have denied it thrice. But that is what I did. I became Siteya Ganaya, the Dermorian elf leader of an all-female Goddess worshiping guild. In this game I got to play a kind, petite, perfect High Priestess, leader of the Daughters of Xiosia, who’s good deeds were worthy of the realm. And then she met an elf boy, he was sweet and admirable and Siteya was his entire world. Soon after he crossed the line and lured me into many out of character discussions. I became his confidante, he confessed his love and we fell into some virtual, then not so virtual, intimacies. In an obsessive state, I willingly sabotaged my ten year relationship, with a good man who loved me and trusted me explicitly. For all the baggage I carry in my heart, this is the heaviest, not only did I screw up his whole world, but also my sons and the community around us who thought we were an “idea” couple. I spent many nights in a fetal position with sharp pains of shame as my ritual.
I moved in with my best friend, and my old life and house fell away like time lapse decay. Followed by a hiatus of madness in Florida with said elf boy that confirmed my loss of perspective on reality when he soon had a change of heart and back to my friend’s house I went with 2 cats and guitar. As I slowly recovered from total self-annihilation and began to feel partially human again, my best friend of many years and of many lives and the only one that had me held to the ground at that time in my life, was diagnosed with melanoma, in a later stage. And within only 4 months of being by her side as her primary care giver and taking care of her 3 year old son, she was gone from this world and her son was removed from my life. I sank into the hardest darkest hole I had ever know, everything was lost to me. I felt completely alone and spiraling out of the universe, giving up on every vow or dream. But the one voice that came through was that of my husband, soon to be ex-husband, “You have to keep doing The Red Tent.” He meant no matter what I did, that I needed to keep doing what I set out to do, now more than ever, and luckily I heard him and believed him. I fumbled my way back, on my knees, to The Red Tent and slowly recovered the self-confidence to continue holding womyn’s space as the womyn within held me. I must say, it was the time spent with tribe that festival season, that showed me spirituality again and showed me that I could transform, I was transforming, and life would go on.
How thankful I am looking back, as I was in some very destructive relationship choices, one after the other, that left me feeling abandoned and choked spiritually and even one time physically. With no place to call my own and desperately avoiding calling myself homeless, another dear friend reached out a life line and in her nonchalant simple grace said, “come with me to Pennsylvania and be a nanny to my children.” I thought she was nuts at first, but looking back I have to say that her children saved me from the greatest depression I have ever been through in my life, by having to be there to care for her 3 young boys with all their non-judgmental love, goofiness, cuddles, snot and giggles, I found myself of the world again. Through all that had happened I had isolated myself to any intimacy, as many people do when disaster strikes with every new connection, but I had one small spark each week on my Myspace with messages that were filled with kindness and encouraging words from another fellow gamer, Rowye, who resided in Spain. We had begun making music with each other online before I left Baltimore, uploading and down loading music tracks. His lifeline was so very crucial, because he was completely an unbiased friend and good listener while providing me a space to pour my broken heart into his brilliant musical arrangements.
As my old Baltimore life faded away, a new path emerged, full of children, music and my Pagan tribe. Not only did I transform, more empowered, I started to feel more youthful and sexually desirable again. This is when, after 5 songs into our music making, Rowye and I finally decided to Skype. Prepping for this meeting was like a frightful first date, as I changed my top several times and did my make-up. It took just seconds of seeing him and then hearing his sexy deep husky Catalan voice and I… we were madly in love. Long distance is not the easiest relationship dynamic. We spent months apart and then months together, In Spain and then back to the US. We lived at the mercy and kindness of others, because of how temporary everything is when you go through the process of trying to obtain a green card, with no guarantee that it will actually happen, it is hard to make long term plans. Once together we had to often redefine our dynamic, shedding the romanticized versions of each other while apart. Four years later, he is still by my side. Now we live seasonally in an off grid trailer on my parents land in North West PA. The future for me is always open, as I know now that all can change, at any given time, but one thing I am sure of is I am devoted to love, empowering womyn, creating art and holding my head up and heart strong in the face of calamity, always a warrior.