Interview with Lee Bursten

by Kim Huggens

Lee Bursten is the author of the forthcoming Lo Scarabeo Tarot deck, The Gay Tarot, which is being released in December 2004. In this interview I talk to Lee about being a professional Tarot reader, how he became interested in Tarot in the first place, about being a deck creator, and about the Gay Tarot itself.

Let's start at the beginning: what brought you to Tarot initially? How did you get from the start of your Tarot journey to where you are now?

I remember there being a Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) deck lying around the house when I was a child, but I don't remember anyone in my family taking it terribly seriously. When I was around 15, I was in a bookstore and saw a set which consisted of three Eden Gray books and an RWS deck. I bought that set, and that's what really began my Tarot journey. However, it was very much a stop-and-start process. A few years later, I bought Rachel Pollack's "78 Degrees of Wisdom" books when they first came out (it was in two volumes at the time), and this was really the beginning of my serious study of the Tarot, as opposed to just playing around with it. Another milestone for me was Sallie Nichols's book "Jung and Tarot", which inspired me to find and buy a copy of the Grimaud Marseille deck at Weiser's Bookstore in New York, which no longer exists. John Crowley's novel "Little, Big", in which a Tarot deck is featured as a major character, helped me look at the Tarot with a sense of mystery and wonder which has never quite left me.

When I first began to collect decks with a vengeance, I subscribed to a newsletter then produced by Mary Greer, author of "Tarot for Your Self". The newsletter contained, among other things, Mary's deck reviews. I wrote her a fan letter in which I asked her about her opinions about a specific deck. In her gracious reply, she suggested that I write reviews myself, and gave me the web address of Michele's Tarot Page. I didn't have access to the Internet at that time, but obtained it soon after, and I took her advice, and collecting decks and writing reviews became another stage on my journey. Two years ago I started participating in the Aeclectic Tarot Forums, and this really opened up the Tarot world for me. Having the opportunity to interact with people of differing views really helped widen my horizons. Finally, two recent occurrences have helped me deepen my Tarot adventure. The first was the opportunity to create the Gay Tarot (with wonderful artwork by Antonella Platano), and the second was the opportunity to offer professional Tarot readings through the Aeclectic website. Sometimes it seems to me that I've come a long way from that Tarot novice who wrote Mary Greer a fan letter, but sometimes, when I lay out the cards, I get the same sense of awe as when I first started down this path. Every reading is a glimpse into the unknown, and in the face of that unknown, we're all novices.

Some Tarot readers read Tarot with a spiritual foundation, e.g. they begin a reading with a prayer, or they use their readings to serve a higher purpose. Many also have reading ethics that are based in a religion or spiritual system. Do you have a spiritual foundation for your readings? Do you feel it is necessary to have one?

This is an interesting question. First of all, I believe that Tarot reading is an intensely personal experience, and no one can establish what would be right or wrong for another person. One should do whatever one is comfortable with, or whatever results in the most satisfying reading experience.

Personally, I don't engage in spiritual rituals when reading. But this doesn't necessarily mean that my readings have no spiritual foundation. Rituals can help focus the mind on the task at hand and can help remind the reader of whatever spiritual assumptions may underlie the reading process for that reader, but I think it's important not to confuse the rituals with the spiritual realities that the rituals exist to remind us of. I think the true spiritual content of a reading is better expressed in the caring and selfless qualities of the reading itself than in rituals performed by the reader. I feel that the Tarot can be a part of one's religion or spiritual system, but it certainly doesn't have to be. Many people who work with the Tarot are atheists or agnostics, and they do very satisfying and fulfilling readings without believing in any supernatural mechanism to explain why certain cards appear in certain positions.

What deck do you use primarily for your readings?

I'm notoriously fickle when it comes to decks. I usually enjoy working with the RWS decks and those directly derived from it, such as the Radiant Rider-Waite. I've also done a lot of readings with the Tarot of Prague, the Morgan-Greer and the Connolly. Lately I've been doing all my readings with the Golden Tarot and the International Icon Tarot. I always work with decks whose Minor Arcana are based on the RWS imagery when doing professional readings, to help facilitate the conversation with those clients who are at all familiar with those decks. When the Gay Tarot is released, I plan to offer readings with that deck as a choice for my clients.

You also collect Tarot decks: how many do you currently have in your collection, and what is the purpose of deck collecting for you?

I have around 170 decks. I originally started buying decks because I was looking for "the one" deck to read with, and not because I wanted to acquire a large collection. I've since learned, though, that 170 is not particularly large (in fact, a certain interviewer probably has more than I do!). I never quite found "the deck," alas... however, I'm very happy with the Golden Tarot and International Icon decks at present. There are a few decks which I know I'll never read with but still enjoy having for the art, such as the Elemental Tarot and La Corte dei Tarocchi. But for the most part, whenever I buy a new deck, it's because I have hopes that it will become a frequent reading deck.

Now, you're the author of the upcoming Gay Tarot, which is being published by Lo Scarabeo in the near future. This is the first deck in mass-publication aimed at gay men, and in my opinion an idea whose time has most definitely come. What was the inspiration behind it? Tell us its story.

Riccardo Minetti from Lo Scarabeo contacted me and asked if I would be interested in creating a gay/lesbian deck. He knew me from previous lengthy correspondence regarding my reviews of Lo Scarabeo decks. I was quite surprised to be asked, and of course said yes. However, I suggested that we do a deck solely for gay men, for two reasons; first, I think lesbians have their own story to tell, apart from gay men. As a gay man myself, I felt inadequate to represent a lesbian viewpoint, and I felt it would be presumptuous for me to try. Secondly, I'm familiar with several decks with a lesbian or feminist viewpoint, and many new decks coming out these days seem to have a feminist or feminine slant as a matter of course, but without explicitly stating so on the box (an example of this is the recent Tarot of Transformation). I felt it would serve an underrepresented demographic to focus specifically on gay men, and would make for an interesting and unusual deck.

After deciding for myself what direction I wanted the deck to take, and deciding on a conceptual structure and what each card should look like, I wrote up a paragraph of description for each card and sent it to Lo Scarabeo. Lo Scarabeo chose an artist (the tremendously talented Antonella Platano) who began work on the images, and I wrote the Little White Booklet which will accompany the deck. Once I finished that, my work on the deck was basically done. Riccardo sent me scans of the images when they were completed. Needless to say, it was quite a thrill to see my ideas take shape as finished images.

What is the deck's main 'intent'?

Lo Scarabeo didn't tell me what kind of a gay deck they had in mind. I knew I didn't want to do an erotic deck, and I didn't want to create something which would feed into the general public's somewhat stereotyped view of gay people. I felt that if people wanted that, there are plenty of depictions of gay people in the mainstream media to satisfy that sort of thing. I was actually inspired very much by the Motherpeace Tarot, which was created as a self-empowerment tool for women. I wanted to provide gay men with a similarly safe and comfortable environment in which to explore issues of self-esteem, of how to survive in today's society without feeling like they must conform to either straight people's expectations or even other gay people's expectations. I wanted to show gay men as they really are -- in other words, just regular people, not especially conforming to heterosexual attitudes but not especially rebelling against them either. I wanted to show them in different professions, and not necessarily the ones which gay men are expected to go into. I wanted to show them in committed relationships. I wanted to show them with their families -- both their parents and their children, because of course many gay people have children. And I wanted to have cards in the deck which didn't specifically relate to sexual identity, because in real life, as we go through the day, we deal with issues unrelated to sexual identity, and I felt that a preoccupation with sexuality was another gay stereotype that I wanted to overcome.

Several of the cards revolve around issues of creativity, for example the Magician, who sees his own life as an essentially creative act, because I believe that this kind of viewpoint can help us all in dealing with whatever life hands us.

One of my intentions for the deck was to be as inclusive as possible. This may sound odd, since most of the figures on the cards are men, thus excluding a large portion of the human population! While I did want to create a deck specifically aimed at gay men, I do still feel a little uncomfortable at having excluded women. Hopefully I've resolved this a little bit by being aggressively multi-ethnic. I tried to distribute the various ethnicities equally among the cards, and it certainly will be one of the more ethnically inclusive decks available. I feel very strongly that a deck which has a modern setting ought to show people of various ethnic backgrounds without favouring one over the other, unless of course the deck has a theme which focuses on a particular culture or ethnicity. Not enough modern decks do this, in my opinion. An example of one that does is the World Spirit Tarot. Although it isn't my favourite deck, I do applaud its ethnic and cultural diversity.

How do you think the Gay Tarot will be received by the Tarot world?

It's hard to answer this question. I'm sure the creators of some of the less successful decks over the years had high hopes for them before they were released. I suspect it's similar to filmmaking, where the filmmakers try their best to come up with something that will be popular, and everyone is surprised when the sleeper which no one thought would be successful becomes a blockbuster, while the film that everyone expected to be a hit is instead a bomb. I've had some very positive feedback about the deck on the Aeclectic Tarot Forums, but there's really no way to tell until people are actually holding the deck in their hands and reading the LWB.

Hopefully some reviewers will write reviews of the deck. There's a certain irony in my situation. I've written so many deck reviews, and now I'm the one about to be reviewed! I'll certainly be interested to see what the reaction is. Also, there probably won't be one universal reaction. When creating the deck, I basically took an intuitive and emotional approach to the images, and so there may be some Tarotists who will be disappointed by the lack of Golden Dawn, Qabala, Astrology, and other such material in the deck. One thing I did attempt to do was to have the number cards relate in some way to the correspondingly numbered Major Arcana cards, so that, for example, the Three of Wands, Three of Coins, Three of Cups and Three of Swords all relate to the third Major Arcana card, the Empress.

Creating a deck is hard work. What has the process been like for you?

It was indeed hard work. For each card, as I worked on it, I was aware that there are people out there who might be using the deck for years to come, and thus I felt much pressure that each card should be as useful and as evocative as the others. I feel that I truly created this deck from the heart, and when something is created from the heart, there is always a certain amount of discomfort involved for the creator. However, there are rewards as well -- as I mentioned earlier, the joy in seeing my ideas take shape under a talented artist's pen.

How do you feel Tarot has incorporated homosexuality so far?

I think it hasn't, mostly, as far as male homosexuality is concerned. There are a few decks which were created by openly gay men and which show a gay sensibility in some cards, but the overall viewpoint is still heterosexual (for example, the Renaissance Tarot and the Light and Shadow Tarot). I think the Cosmic Tribe Tarot, with its three Lovers cards, probably has been up until now the mainstream deck that deals most directly with a gay sensibility. For lesbians I think there's more available, such as the Daughters of the Moon Tarot and the New Amazon Tarot. But none of these decks deal with homosexuality as their main theme. I think there is a difficulty for lesbians and gay men in the heavy emphasis that one finds in Tarot decks, and even more so in Tarot commentary, on male-female symbology. By identifying the very forces of nature with heterosexuality, there is an inherent bias against gay or lesbian sexuality. This has been true of several different categories of Tarot commentary, such as psychological, Christian, and even Pagan commentary. I think Rachel Pollack's "78 Degrees of Wisdom" was the first Tarot commentary to warn against marginalizing the gay experience by over-identification with male-female Tarot symbology, and I can still remember the powerful effect reading those words had on me, decades ago.

Do you feel gay men can use a 'heterosexual' deck, or do you think it is easier for them to use a deck that takes into account their sexual preference?

Gay men, of course, have been performing divination with heterosexual decks for hundreds of years without any problem. I think gay men might prefer to use the Gay Tarot when they specifically want a tool for self-empowerment; and Tarot readers in general, both straight and gay, might prefer to use it when reading for gay clients. But when it comes to doing general readings, I think readers should use whatever decks they feel comfortable with, regardless of the deck's orientation. As I write this, it's strange to find myself referring to a deck's "orientation." If you had, for example, a deck which shows only heterosexual relationships, but done with an obvious gay sensibility, would it be a "straight" deck or a "gay" deck?

I don't really envision anyone wanting to use the Gay Tarot as their sole reading deck, at least not if they read for others. Rather, my hope is that it's a deck which people will turn to when they want to receive a powerful message which encourages self-esteem and creativity.

Do you think women will be able to use the Gay Tarot?

I certainly intended anyone to feel free to use it, and I was pleased to see several women responding in the Aeclectic Forums thread that they were looking forward to the deck's publication and did want to read with it. Tarot author Cynthia Giles has written that there are men who find the feminist decks like Motherpeace or Daughters of the Moon very fulfilling, and so I would certainly hope that there are women who would feel the same way about my deck. At the very least, I imagine there are many female Tarot readers who would like to have a deck which their gay clients might appreciate.

As well as being a professional reader and Tarot deck creator, you also write deck reviews for Tarot Passages regularly. Some people feel that deck reviews are useless, since you cannot state whether or not a deck is good or bad: that's a personal thing. What do you think of this? Are deck reviews useless?

This question made me laugh. I mean, it's a perfectly good question, but my first thought upon reading it was, "I certainly hope deck reviews aren't useless, otherwise I've completely wasted the hundreds of hours I've spent writing them!"

I think deck reviews serve a very valuable purpose, and that is to alert the prospective consumer of what they might find inside that sealed box. When one is wondering whether to buy a book, one can always go to a bookstore and open up a copy of the book read a few pages or even a chapter. But with Tarot decks, unless one rips open the packaging (which one is not supposed to do), all one has to go on is the material printed on the package, which isn't always trustworthy.

Of course, reviews are a double-edged sword, because a reviewer runs the risk of establishing his or her own viewpoint as authoritative, when of course it isn't. I remember when Frank Rich was the drama critic of the New York Times, there was quite a controversy because people paid attention to his reviews to such an extent that he single-handedly had the power to determine whether a play would run for years or close overnight. I think the responsibility really resides with the reader of the review to understand that it's only one person's opinion and that it may differ from their own.

In the final analysis, of course, it's up to the readers to decide whether they think reviews are worthless. If they do feel reviews are worthless, they're perfectly free not to read them, just as people like Diane Wilkes or Solandia are perfectly free to maintain their own websites and publish them.

Finally, I'd like to look once more at your personal experience of Tarot: have you faced any discrimination or prejudice because of your interest?

No, I can't say that I have. But I also take care not to bring it into venues where it would be unwelcome.

What are your partner's views of Tarot?

Before we met, he had occasionally consulted a Tarot reader/astrologer, so he was sympathetic to my interest, and encouraged it. He tends to view the RWS as "the" deck, and judges new decks by their faithfulness to it. (The Radiant Rider-Waite got the thumbs up; the Sacred Circle got the thumbs down.)

Where do you think the Tarot world will be in 50 years time?

I think mainstream acceptance of the Tarot as a tool for self-discovery and therapeutic dialogue will grow over the coming decades. At least I hope so. I certainly hope we don't have a repeat of what happened several years ago, when a woman came forward with damaging information about a man who was a harsh critic of President Clinton. The woman was ridiculed in the mainstream press for being a Tarot reader. It didn't matter what kind of a Tarot reader she was, and we weren't told; she could just as easily have been a psychologist or a store-front con artist. All that mattered was that she was a Tarot reader, and everyone was supposed to laugh at her.

I feel that there's something inherent in the structure of the Tarot deck and the story told by the sequence of Major Arcana which is very satisfying on a deep psychological level, and I think over time the Tarot will lose some of the "occult" associations which scare some people so much.

So do you feel the Tarot would benefit from being de-occultised? Do you feel it would take away some of the deeper meanings of the cards? Or do you feel it would give people more freedom to manoeuvre?

Well, I think the key here is that the Tarot can have different uses for different people, or even different uses for the same person at different times. If one is searching for metaphysical or spiritual guidance, then of course one will want to take a more spiritual, supernatural or "occult" view of the Tarot, at least for that reading.

But sometimes one simply wants to explore how one feels about a difficult decision or an emotionally painful encounter, and for these times, a practical, down-to-earth, ordinary and mundane view of the Tarot will serve very well. I do feel that de-occultising the Tarot would be a good thing, because it would make it more approachable for the general population, while at the same time still allowing a more metaphysical approach for those who desire it. Mark McElroy's wonderful new book, "Putting the Tarot to Work", is filled with great ideas on how to utilize the Tarot in completely non-metaphysical ways.

Lastly, what do you wish you had been told at the start of your Tarot journey?

I have a good answer for this one! I wish I had been told that there is no single "correct" set of interpretations for the cards, and no single "correct" deck to use. Unfortunately, there is no lack of people involved in Tarot who will insist that their interpretations are the "right" ones, and if you don't use them, of course, you're "wrong", and that if you don't use their favourite deck, then you're not really doing Tarot. Nonsense! As I said in a previous answer, Tarot is an intensely personal experience, so by definition, one cannot dictate to another what the right answers are for them. Now, if someone is using a particular author's system and it works for them, then by all means they should use what works. Some Tarotists are so committed to the find-your-own-answers viewpoint that they think you're "wrong" if you follow someone else's system!

© Kim Huggens

Kim Huggens is a 24 year old PhD student in the Ancient History and Archaeology department of Cardiff University. She has been studying and reading Tarot since the age of 9, and has a deck collection numbering over 250. She is the co-creator of the Sol Invictus: The God Tarot and is currently working on a second deck, Pistis Sophia: The Goddess Tarot", and a book for Llewellyn Publications, due for release Autumn 2010.

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