The Gay Tarot focuses on the experience and identity of homosexual men. While men are featured as all the major figures, women are not excluded. The 78 images are fully illustrated, with people are of all ethnicities, shapes and sizes and in modern, contemporary settings.
I have awaited Lee Bursten’s Gay Tarot with a keen sense of anticipation ever since I heard of its imminent release. In the history of Tarot it will prove to be quite a milestone. It’s not the first gay themed tarot to be created, in fact I know of two others. However, it represents the first instance of a large mainstream Tarot publisher tackling the gay theme, hence it’s the first gay deck that has been made widely available.
Of the gay decks I’ve come across, one is explicitly erotic and the other (the Brotherhood Tarot) expresses the pagan spiritual outlook of the Radical Faerie movement. This one is much more practical and widely applicable as it seeks to represent the everyday life experience of a wide spectrum of gay men. Leaf through the deck and you will see the young, the old, the beautiful, the not so beautiful, career men, workers, lovers, single parents and retired same sex couples. The Symbolism and the settings are very cleverly devised to reflect common aspects of everyday life for gay males but still remain very close to traditional Tarot meanings. Hence, anyone with a fairly good working knowledge of the Rider Waite system should have little problem adapting to this with the aid of the concise yet well written instruction booklet.
There are significant but justifiable changes to the Major Arcana and the Court Cards. The traditionally female High Priestess and Empress are replaced by male equivalents The Intuitive and the Protector. The Devil becomes Self Hatred, particularly in the context of an inability to come to terms with being gay. The Judgment card becomes “Beyond Judgment” and shows a gay liberation parade/celebration. The most powerful alteration for me is card number 16 which changes from the Tower to “Revelation” The image portrayed is one of a young man coming out to parents who are both anguished and angry. Lightning strikes through the open window. Simple symbolism, yes, but powerfully relevant in the experience of many gay men and totally befitting the traditional notion of the world crumbling around you. Aside from these larger alterations, the rest of the Major Arcana are presented in a similarly challenging, fresh and exciting way. For me personally, the Moon and Sun cards stand out, the former portraying the erotic and romantic energy of the Moon while the latter shows the well-being and security of building within the safety of a strong, same sex relationship.
With regard to the Court Cards the traditional figures are replaced by the Youth (page), the Man (knight), the Guide (roughly analogous to the Queen but also representative of the higher/ spiritual self) and the Sage (King).
One of the things I really love about this deck is its continuity. Look closely and you will see that many of the cards portray the same people in different aspects or situations. Therefore, we see the Protector and his daughter re appear in the Three of Coins. The young man on the Chariot card appears in a more spiritual incarnation on the Star and is also one of the two Lovers. Also, the solitary space pilot on the Hermit card is again portrayed enjoying the success of his mission on the nine of cups. As a result of this, the figures really do begin to feel like three dimensional and multifaceted characters. Making the same associations during a reading can also be a powerful additional tool for self-awareness.
One thing that does take a little adjusting to is the fact that the minor cards don’t actually show the corresponding number of pips within the illustrations like a more traditional deck. For instance the Rider Tarot shows a clown juggling two coins to achieve balance on the Two of Coins. Here we see only a man practicing Tai Chi. No coins are shown but the essential meaning is the same. As such, you have to rely on the inscriptions at the top of the cards to initially identify the card but this would not be a problem once you were used to the deck. The corresponding symbolic freedom brings its own rewards.
If you’re looking for magic and mystique you probably won’t find it here. However, the images are powerful and moving in a more subtle way. What you have is traditional tarot meaning from a gay perspective, presented with the gritty symbols of real life. Because these images present well - known truths in a very direct and unexpected way they will catch you off guard and touch you deeply.
In practical terms, this is one of Lo Scarabeo’s more polished offerings. The wonderful artwork is by Antonella Platano who has already illustrated for the same publisher. Titles are presented in six languages within a dark blue border, which really does enhance and compliment the artwork much more than a white border would have done. The back design is extraordinarily beautiful: a reversible design showing the head and shoulders of a man between two pillars, lit by moon and stars. The little white book is more substantial than usual for this publisher; well written by Lee himself and presented in five of the six languages on the cards.
As a gay man I have waited a long time for a deck like this. It speaks powerfully into my everyday life and I can see that I’ll use it frequently for myself and also to read for clients if they request it. The author has said that he devised the deck to fulfil the same role for gay men that the many feminine gender orientated decks have done for women or specifically for the lesbian community. In this, he has more than succeeded. I also think that anyone outside the male gay community looking at this would be pleasantly challenged to expand their visions and preconceptions of who we are as everyday people.
In short, an invaluable and challenging asset to anyone’s tarot collection and an extra special resource for men who identify themselves as being attracted to the same sex.
The Gay Tarot is a groundbreaking new Tarot from first-time deck creator, Lee Bursten, together with artist Antonella Platano.
Lee explains his concept for the deck as: "I believe gay men deserve a tarot deck which can provide a non-threatening venue in which to explore issues of relationship and of how to deal with a society whose attitudes toward homosexuality range from indifference to hostility." While it is devoted to and sympathetic to the lives and issues of gay men and there are very few women, it isn’t an exclusive deck, any more so than other decks that feature different cultures.
All of the main figures in the deck are men, sometimes accompanied by children of either sex, and they inhabit a familiar, modern and contemporary world. It is a world of computers, cars, astronauts and aircraft. In Tarot, it's possible to learn to work with medieval art, or Buddhist, or rock art, or anyone else’s personal symbolism, but I found these cards were a step closer to our symbols of reality and our daily lives.
The scenes are familiar, if changed in detail. In the Eight of Cups, parents wave goodbye to their son, who stands on the steps of a plan, off an overseas journey. In the Nine of Cups, a man is in orbit. The Eight of Wands shows commuters on a train or subway, while in the Nine of Swords, a man is tormented by nine jet fighters screaming through his room. The art could have been cheesy, but most of the time avoids being stereotypical. There are very buff semi-naked young men but also firemen, politicians, scientists, judges, body builders, martial artists, construction workers and tennis players.
The suits of the Gay Tarot are Cups, Coins, Wands and Swords. I like the use of Coins instead of Pentacles, as it has a more historical basis, and the historically accurate ordering of Justice as VIII and Strength as XII has also been retained. The court cards, on the other hand, are unconventional and are named Youth, Man, Guide and Sage. (The Guide cards roughly equate with the more traditional Queen card, but "can also suggest the Higher Self and issues related to altruism and wider perspectives.")
Key cards of the major arcana have also been renamed. The new titles:
The Wheel of Life
The Hanged Man
There are recurring themes throughout the deck – some people pop up a few times: The Fool in the Ten of Wands, the Emperor in the Four of Pentacles. I particularly liked the imagery of some cards in this deck: there were cards that gave me the 'aha!' moment and illuminated an aspect of the card’s meaning I had not understood before. These were the Hanged Man, The Sun and Temperance. The Hanged One is suspended in mid-air, caught frozen in the middle of a high dive. The Sun shows two white-haired but hale men, building a wall together under the hot sun. Temperance, meanwhile, perfectly illustrated moderation and balance for me – a chef is happily cooking what appears to be omelettes.
The Gay Tarot cards have a mid-blue border and titles in six languages. The backs have a reversible design of a man in chest deep water on a starry background. The small companion booklet gives short "Suggested Card Meanings", where each card has a title, subtitle in a sentence, and a few phrases of possible interpretation. The back of the booklet has a section on reading the cards, where Lee recommends intuition and developing your own meanings.
Sample Suggested Card Meanings:
XII – The Hanged Man. Living in the moment. Being fully absorbed in the present. Nonattachment to goals. Seeing things from a new angle.
Ten of Swords – You Choose the Script. You can choose to plug yourself into a negative viewpoint, or to unplug yourself from one. The end of a bad situation. Finality. Hysterical over-reaction.
The Gay Tarot is pioneering for two reasons: it is the first printed gay tarot – and it is the first fully contemporary and modernised Tarot, in my opinion. It builds on the archetypes made familiar to use by the Rider-Waite Tarot and its many clones, but reconstructs them in twenty-first century nomenclature, dress and imagery, into the symbols of the era we live in and scenes, roles and objects that we immediately understand. It is also a quality Tarot deck that deserves a place with any modern Tarot reader or collector.
There are many Tarot decks out there that address niche (theme) markets, and there are some decks that are pertinent to the alternative Gay lifestyle. What Lee Bursten, Antonella Platano and Lo Scarabeo have done here is to present a deck that addresses an alternative lifestyle in a modern manner. It is a deck that one would not hesitate to place amongst others for a client to choose from - in a private or a public forum. It is done in a tasteful, to the heart manner, using a combination of "real life" and fantasy elements that combine to tell a wonderful story.
The accompanying LWB (Little White Book) is done in typical Lo Scarabeo style - with the information included in five different languages: English, Spanish, Italian, French, and German. For each card, there is a sentence describing the meaning of the card, along with suggested card meanings for the upright position only. I found it very interesting that for the Minor Arcana, Bursten pointed out that each numbered card (Ace through Ten) is an aspect of the corresponding numbered card in the Major Arcana. I think this gifts the reader with a wonderful tool for understanding the Tarot.
I was also impressed with the Self Image spread that was included in the LWB. It was crafted specifically for use with this deck, and opens up whole new worlds of understanding with only four cards. Card number one is defined as Past Self-Image, card number two is Present Self-Image, and card number three is Effects of Others (how others are presently affecting how you see yourself). These are laid out in linear fashion. After interpreting these cards, the Seeker goes through the deck, face up, and chooses a card that he or she wants for their Future Self-Image. Lee - you did good here!
The cards themselves are approximately 2 5/8" by 4 5/8", on good quality card stock. The backs of the cards have a 1/4" blue border, with an inset showing the figure of a male torso emerging from the water. In his third eye area is a star, and a crescent moon shine behind him. The background is green with white stars. Pillars rise on either side of the figure, and in the middle of the card the image is reflected back, in a rippled manner. It would not be possible to discern whether a card was drawn in the upright or reversed manner until it was turned over.
The Major Arcana show the card number in Roman numerals at the top of the card, with the card title in English and Spanish in the upper left hand corner, in Italian and French in the upper right hand corner, in German in the lower left hand corner, and in Dutch in the lower right hand corner. The Court Cards show the card title in the same language sequence as the Major Arcana. The Pips show the card number in Roman numerals in the top center, and the suit in the same sequence of languages as the Major Arcana.
The art style is what I (who know nothing about art styles!) would call line art that has been colored in. The coloring is flat, and there is an absence of the red color family which is disconcerting. (This is the only problem that I really have with this deck is the flat coloring, and the absence of red.)
There is some very interesting symbology used in this deck. In the Ace of Coins, we see a gold coin rising from an inverted magician's top hat on a stream of starry energy. Under the top hat we see a wreath of red roses. From the LWB: "Ace: A gift of security. Starting to build or construct something. A fertile environment."
The imagery in the Two of Cups is staggering, to say the least. It is not hard to find ones self in this card. We see a male figure, long hair caught back in a pony tail, wearing a white top and bottom, both edged in green, standing before a full length mirror. Reflected in the mirror are a mirror that is on the wall to the right of the figure, as well as the figure of the man with his left hand outstretched to the mirror. From the book: "2 - The Dialogue. A balanced relationship. Being able to see things from the other's perspective."
In the Magician we enter, most appropriately, the world of fantasy. Here we see a formally attired Magician, in royal purple top hat and tails. He stands with his arms outstretched to his audience, with a gray stage curtain seen to the right of the card, and curves of lights behind him. From the book: "I The Magician. To live fully, one must create life, not merely react to it. Creativity. Ability. Making something happen."
If you want something to pull your heart strings, pull out the Protector (High Priestess). Here we see a young man (read old enough to be a father), in a sleeveless brown top, lifting a young girl (read child) up in the air. The sun shines above them, and there is a white bird (a Dove, perhaps?) sitting on a tree branch behind them. The connection and joy that the young man and the girl are sharing is palpable.
There are so many other cards in this deck that just shouted out with life: the firefighter represented on the Man of Cups; the two male figures standing before the priest in The Priest (the Hierophant); the Five of Swords with one young man holding two tennis rackets, while another young man walks away; the male figure holding a flaming hoop for the lion that stands beside him to jump through; the older man gardening on the Sage of Coins; The Fool, which shows a young man and his dog hitchhiking as a large semi-truck is coming towards them, while in the background we see a butterfly and what looks like a blimp in the sky.
I am impressed with this deck - it is one of few decks that I have seen that has brought the Tarot into the modern age in a manner that I can relate to. I recommend this deck to anyone wanting to work with modern imagery, regardless of lifestyle affiliation.
© Bonnie Cehovet