Tarot by Lee Bursten and Antonella Platano
Review by Mark McElroy
Here’s an odd question for you: is your copy of the Rider-Waite gay or straight?
Most people would likely judge the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) deck heterosexual – after all, the couples depicted in Pamela Coleman Smith’s art always contain one male and one female. Even so, the deck has always worked well for me – a gay man, with many gay male clients. In fact, my trusty Universal Waite wryly serves up the same card over and over again – the Three of Cups – to tell me when my clients are in a happy, well-balanced gay or lesbian relationship.
Now, the Cosmic Tribe is a different story entirely. Nudity abounds. More than one writer has referred to the deck as the “Tarot of the Flaccid Penises.” I’ve heard people debate whether or not George Clooney modeled for the Knight of Cups. Thanks to its interchangeable Lovers cards – one for straights, one for gays, and one for lesbians – the Cosmic Tribe has long been considered one of the most gay-friendly decks around.
Yet, to be honest, my gay clients don’t care for it much. (One complained, “How can I possibly pay attention to my reading with the Emperor’s goodies all splayed out across the table like a smorgasbord?”) Even though I make the Cosmic Tribe available in public readings – especially those given in predominantly gay venues – men rarely choose it. Almost without fail, they pick it up, they eyeball the cards … and then they move on to something more traditional.
For me, and for most of my clients, the good old standby decks – RWS, Thoth, Robin Wood, Medieval Enchantment – do the trick, despite their overt heterosexism. The tarot, it seems, makes an excellent mirror of the soul … apparently reflecting the lives of gays and straights with equal scope, depth, and faithfulness.
That said, I’d pretty much decided we didn’t need a gay tarot … until I came across Lee Bursten’s Gay Tarot.
What Makes a Tarot Deck Gay?
That this is not a beefcake deck is apparent – though some cards, particularly the Lovers, the Moon, and the Six of Cups do depict well-defined men in various stages of undress. Instead, Lee has re-examined familiar RWS themes through the unique lens of a gay man’s life experiences.
The results can be eye-opening and profoundly moving. I live in a state where my neighbors are actively campaigning against my ability to marry my partner of eleven years, so the image on Trump V, The Priest – two men, hands clasped, being blessed by a church leader – resonates with me on a deeply personal level. The Justice card – featuring men imprisoned just for being who they are – is a chilling reminder of the reality of my situation: no matter how well accepted by friends, my partner and I both are, by our own state’s laws, illegally together.
Having recently turned forty, the Wheel, with its circle of men at different stages of life, takes on special meaning. And I have all too many friends whose lives are dominated by Shadow – like the young man on Trump XV (Self-Hatred), they allow denial and secrecy to hinder their personal and professional success.
So, as a gay man, I like the Gay Tarot. I “get” what Lee set out to do, and I believe the collaboration between Lee and artist Antonella Platano has produced an attractive, functional deck.
With just a little Googling, you will readily find that, while I’ve never met Lee Bursten, I know Lee Bursten. I enjoy his reviews here on Tarot Passages, and, in the course of our email correspondence, I’ve come to value his ideas and insights. Lee was one of the very first people to read and review Putting the Tarot to Work, and one of the very first to “get” what I hoped to do with that book.
That said, you might think that what I have to say about the Gay Tarot is a bit biased. (I worried about that myself, as I started writing this review.) So, rather than depend on my own viewpoint entirely, I decided to put the deck to a field test.
When I traveled to Atlanta for a series of author appearances, I had the opportunity to read for dozens of gay males couples…so I took the deck along. Without saying a word, inserted it alongside the Cosmic Tribe, the Rider-Waite, and the Medieval Enchantment decks. Given a choice, which deck would my gay male clients prefer?
When clients arrived, I offered them the four decks, face down. Gay men, lesbians, straight men, and straight women alike were intrigued by the mysterious, reversible pattern on the back of the cards. Many people commented on the artwork, preferring its clarity and contemporary setting to the alternatives offered by the other decks.
One hundred percent of the straight men looked the deck over … and chose another. All of these men were confident in their sexuality, and all of them live and work in a city where being gay is about as unique or interesting as being white … so they weren’t offended. Instead, the deck just didn’t seem to resonate with them.
A few lesbian clients picked up the deck, browsed it, and put it aside. None asked to use it. They weren’t put off by the deck’s male energy; they simply passed it by, as though it were a dish on a buffet they didn’t have a taste for.
Several straight women – about half, in fact – chose the Gay Tarot. Many asked its name; when I called the deck “The Gay Tarot,” they ooohed and aaahed; the idea of a deck illustrated with scenes from gay male life struck them as intriguing. Their readings, too, were spot on – the women at the event easily converted the deck’s appealing images into stories with deeply personal applications.
As expected, none of the gay men chose the Cosmic Tribe. About seventy percent, though, did choose the Gay Tarot. Initially drawn in by the card backs, they were ultimately engaged by the deck’s familiar scenes: men living, working, sleeping, talking, and laughing together. Many remarked how relived they were that the Gay Tarot contains no porn and no overt eroticism. One said, “Instead of being gay like on T.V., this deck is gay like me.”
In short: Lee’s Gay Tarot is making it possible for twenty-first century gay men to see themselves reflected in the timeless archetypes of the Tarot. I think the deck does even more than that … but, even if that’s all the Gay Tarot achieves, that’s a remarkable achievement indeed.
Gay Tarot by Lee Bursten and Antonella Platano
Publisher: Lo Scarabeo
ISBN #: 0738705977
Mark McElroy is the author of Putting the Tarot to Work, Taking the Tarot to Heart (Llewellyn, Feb. 2005), What’s in the Cards for You (Llewellyn, June 2005), and I Ching for Beginners (Llewellyn, October 2005). He is also the creator of the Bright Idea Deck, a brainstorming Tarot, coming from Llewellyn in March of 2005. You can visit him on the web here.
Review © 2004 Mark McElroy
Page © 2004 Diane Wilkes