Ross and I scurry into the Raëlian Happiness Academy four days late. The whole thing is supposed to last six days, but we will only be there two. They are the most important two—the final meditations and the baptism, which occurs on the last day.
We wander into a room and are quickly greeted by a tall man in a cowboy hat who rushes to the front of a packed room to tell us that “No, this isn’t where to register, and where to register is, um…Where to register is somewhere that way.” He points away from the room, urgently. We get the distinct feeling that we’ve walked in on something.Everyone’s smiling awkwardly, like kids who were just playing doctor but have been caught in the moment with their trousers up, so mustn’t spoil their luck. We’re ushered out.
When the appointed registrar comes back in the room, he greets us with a pitiful shake of the head. “Oh no, you really missed all the good stuff,” he says. Ross and I look at each other. The “good stuff” is pretty famous, though we will all not refer to it directly for the next couple of days. The good stuff, according to Raëlian infidels, is not so much what you might call a “seminar” as what you might call “an orgy.” Stories abound of people getting naked in the seminars, massaging their genitals until they come, while onlookers try to pretend they aren’t onlooking. The “good stuff” allegedly means dressing up as the opposite sex (not the opposite sex from the one you were born with, which would be too banal a request, but opposite the one you go by in your everyday life, so for the trans-folks, it’s back to the identity you spent most of your life sloughing off, I suppose)—dressing up as the opposite sex and having a dance. Yes, a dance, the prom kind. Rumor has it these dances typically lead to everyone, save the minors, sleeping around. When Ross and I ask about the dances in our meetings, they all gaze at each other secretively and longingly. There were many times when I wanted to ask, “Should I leave you alone?”
We had missed the good stuff, but he checked us in, anyway. It was extremely cheap. As first-timers, the cost was under $100 each. And we got coupons to trade in for books, like “Message from the Designers,” “Sensual Meditation,” “Yes to Human Cloning,” the straightforwardly-titled “The Book Which Tells the Truth,” the slightly more pointed “Extraterrestrials Took Me to their Planet” and the downright explicit, “The Message Given to Me by Extraterrestrials.” Oh yes, this is a UFO cult. Did I not mention that?
Raëlism is the religion founded by a former racecar driver named Claude Verilhon. He goes by Raël, a sort of nickname. He says he was hiking on a mountaintop in France one day, when all of a sudden extraterrestrials plopped down in front of him, took him on their ship, and told him the secret of the human race: that we were made by aliens. As Raël’s followers grew, the extraterrestrials continued meeting with and talking to him, getting ever more pointed in their requests and how they might benefit Raël himself: At first the message was something like “Love people and it’s all gravy.” Over time, it turned into something more like “Love people, and it’s all gravy, but especially love Raël, who is the special one chosen by God to tell you all what to do, and for all the young women to have sex with.”
With our coupons in tow, we go into the heart of the seminar, which is being held in the center of the hotel. It is a huge room full of mattresses and people. People everywhere! Not in their ordinary positions: standing, seated, or prone. Diagonal people! Upside down people! People on one leg! People kissing! People hugging! People fondling! A diagonal person lying on top of a horizontal one! It’s a maze of human limbs, and navigating them means saying “I’m sorry” every time I take a step. My hands are up by my chest in the international symbol for “Whoops! Did I just step on your face?” Finally, we sit down and look up at a stage full of people singing and dancing to a song whose only lyrics appear to be “Be happy if you want to” over and over. They bounce around, a vacant look in their eyes, and swish their perfectly toned bottoms around. Over the course of the weekend, we will see them give a presentation on the UFO embassy they are building for when our alien overlords return to Earth, lead meditations, talk about restoring clitorises of women who have been mutilated, and parade around topless (women and men) in honor of Go Topless Day. But none of that matters yet, because above all the action is the Raëlian symbol, and it stares down at us with unyielding defiance. It’s gold and glittery and printed on a thick sheet of card stock. It is a Star of David, and inside, a swastika.
The swastika, you see, has been a symbol of peace and good luck around the world, until it was stolen by those darn Nazis, who turned it into something else altogether. And here it was again, meaning peace, harmony, and free love: all the things the aliens taught the Raëlians. And even though we’ve known that the swastika is their thing for quite some time, something brings the symbolism sharply into focus, when it’s there on the wall behind the religious leader still talking about clitoris rejuvenation.
“Reclaim the swastika,” says a brochure on the floor in front of me.
“You know,” I think, “sometimes it’s best to just let some things go.”