The Gay Tarot by Lee Bursten and Antonella Platano

Review by Kim Huggens

If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.

I have been eagerly awaiting the publication of the Gay Tarot for months now, and am pleased to say that it has indeed been well worth the wait.  This stunning piece of work has lived up to all my expectations- and more. 


The objective of the deck is to not only provide gay men with a deck that provides “…a non-threatening venue in which to explore issues of relationship and of how to deal with a society whose attitudes towards homosexuality range from indifference to hostility” (from box), but also to help break the stereotypes associated today with gay men. 


Ask somebody to describe a typical gay man, and you'll immediately get images of drag queens, camp queens, a cliquey groups of bitching guys, promiscuity, pursed lips, wiggling hips, and limp wrists.  But this image could not be further from the truth, and the Gay Tarot does an excellent job of showing gay men in a real light: the deck shows them in everyday situations.  There are chefs, fathers, lovers, artists, astronauts, sporty guys, builders, martial artists, gardeners, scientists, judges, and more! 


The immediate advantage of this, for both gay men and others, is that each card features a modern, everyday situation or figure that we can all relate to.  This adds a new layer of meaning to each card, and brings the antiquated system of tarot into our 21st-century lives very effectively, making the cards easy to read and friendly.  There are no weird, old-fashioned robes in this deck; nor are there figures that we have only heard mentioned in the works of Chaucer or Shakespeare!  The men in this Tarot deck are people we will meet in our lives, people we understand, and roles we can relate to.  So before I go any further I would like to declare that this deck is not only perfect for gay men who need a deck for their lifestyles, but that it is also a deck perfect for anybody who wants to see the archetypes of the tarot brought into the modern era in a non-New Agey way (all too often you see ‘modern’ decks that are full of crystals, technology, space missions, and other things that just are not everyday enough for most people).


The everyday roles that appear in the cards are particularly useful in the Court Cards, where instead of some man sitting on a throne holding a sword, we have a Judge.  Instead of a king crowned and enthroned with a wand in his hand, we see a political leader.  Instead of a plump man on a throne holding a pentacle, we see a gardener tending to his plants.  Instead of an unmoving and boring image of the Court Cards, we see evocative portrayals of the personality and roles of each Court Card--once again brought into the modern, everyday world in such a way that it maximizes one’s understanding of the cards.  The Court Cards in the Gay Tarot have had their titles changed, but even this does not detract from their readability.  The Pages have become Youths, Knights have become Men, Queens have become Guides, and Kings have become Sages.  But for me, the titles are just there- the real meaning lies in the images. 


I must admit that I have fallen in love with all the Sages in the deck.  It is rare that you see such evocative Kings, but the Gay Tarot has managed to sum up the essence of each one in a single image.  The Sage of Cups, for instance, is shown as the peace keeper and mediator, as he stands in between two boxers in the boxing ring, separating them.  What better way to portray the caring, down-to-earth, fatherly figure that is the Sage of Coins, than a gardener watering his plants and weeding?  He is down on his knees in the soil, toiling, working hard, and getting his hands dirty.  This man is not afraid to work hard to get where he wants. 


I seem to have overstepped myself a little in my praise of the Court Cards though, and I have uncharacteristically forgotten the Major Arcana!  This is most certainly not because they are not as wonderful as the Court Cards, but because they tie in very closely with the Minor Arcana in an extremely clever way…


The Majors in the Gay Tarot retain their traditional numbering and order, yet their images are different (they are also modern and everyday) and some of the titles have been reworked to fit the deck’s theme better:


The High Priestess has become The Intuitive

The Empress has become The Protector

The Wheel of Fortune has become The Wheel of Life

The Devil has become Self Hatred

The Tower has become Revelation

and Judgement has become Beyond Judgement.


I think these title changes are perfect for the deck’s theme, especially when looked at in conjunction with the images. While the images are based on the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot (R-W-S), they deviate from it immensely: the Revelation (Tower) card retains its lightning bolt of realization, but in the foreground we see a young man revealing his truth to weeping parents.  As the little white book says, sometimes revealing the truth is necessary, but not always easy.  The Protector (Empress) retains its connotations of children and nature, but the image is that of a man swinging his young daughter in the air while both laugh gleefully.  The Fool still has his small-yappy-type dog, and, for Golden Dawn fans, there is even the traditional crocodile (albeit on a blimp in the sky), but here the Fool is hitchhiking.  The Emperor is definitely still the Lord and Master of all he surveys, but in the Gay Tarot he has swapped his crown and sceptre for stage and spotlight, and we see him opening the curtains of a mini-stage (or should that be a normal-sized stage that he is opening with his giant hands?) over which he rules. 


Many of the Major Arcana images show scenes that are of great importance in a gay man’s life, such as the Revelation.  But the two I want to focus on here are the Priest and Beyond Judgement: the Priest image is that if a priest, blessing the union of two men, and the Beyond Judgement image is that of a Gay Pride march, with confetti, cheering, and banners that proclaim ‘vive la difference’ and ‘beyond judgement’.  If there is one card that epitomizes the aim of the Gay Tarot, it is the Beyond Judgement card, and if there is one card that shows immediately the struggle for Gay Rights, and the wishes and hopes of many gay men that are denied, it is the Priest. 


But how, I hear you ask, do the Majors link to the Minors?  Well, let’s take out the Protector (III) card for a second.  Take a look at the little girl and her Father in that card.  Now grab the threes from the Minor Arcana and compare…  Who is that eating ice cream in a park in the Three of Cups?  Who is that painting bedroom walls in the Three of Coins?  And who is that waving goodbye in the Three of Wands?  The same Father and little girl.  I must add that the Three of Wands is particularly moving, as we see the Father waving goodbye to his daughter as she goes to school, and in his mind’s eye he also sees her growing up into a young woman. 


Now, let’s look at the Emperor card and all the Fours.  The Emperor controls the stage, and all the Fours are images set on a stage!  The Lovers appear in all the Sixes, the Intuitive appears in all the Twos, and so on.  This adds a new dimension to the deck that is very rarely achieved in other decks: immediate personal relationship with the figures in the cards.  Why?  Because we see them in many different aspects of their lives.  We see their hopes, dreams, fears, jobs, and hobbies.  They become more than just random people posing for a painting-- they become people with lives.  That is a rare feat to achieve in a Tarot deck, but the Gay Tarot has achieved it beautifully, thereby adding to the deck’s attraction and readability. 


Throughout the Major Arcana, the images are beautiful and evocative, while remaining simple and refreshingly free from esoteric symbolism.  Personally, I love esoteric symbolism, but looking at this deck and reading with it has shown me that esoteric symbolism is not always necessary, and that you can get marvellously accurate readings without it.  Many people also find that esoteric symbolism overloads and confuses the card meanings, and most people simply do not understand esoteric symbolism.  So, once again, the Gay Tarot shows itself to be a deck for Everyman, not just the Kabbalists and Hermetic magicians amongst us. 


The Minor Arcana are as wonderful as the Courts and Majors--also simple, yet evocative--and drawing on the R-W-S meanings.  Once again, the images are from everyday life, with everyday people, and they speak to the reader with ease.  The traditional tarot images are brought into a modern setting, and apply to the everyday gay man’s lifestyle.  The Five of Wands, for instance, is no longer just a bunch of guys battling each other with sticks.  We don’t know how they got there, or why they’re battling, but in the Gay Tarot we do: it is a hockey game.  The wands have become hockey sticks, the random men have become hockey players, and they are battling each other because of team competitiveness.  Suddenly, there is a reason for their battle.  Team sports are only mock battles, but they build teamwork.  The Five of Wands has taken on deeper meaning. 


Throughout the Minor Arcana, the symbol of the suits rarely appear: there are few swords, cups, coins, and wands in the images cluttering them.  Sometimes there are modern equivalents of the symbols, such as the aforementioned hockey sticks for wands, but unless the symbols are necessary for the picture, they are not included.  I think this provides a more open image that is a lot easier to read. 


The deck as a whole is very multicultural, with men of all races and ages appearing throughout.  However, there seems to be a proliferation of fit, muscled men that I am still waiting to meet in real life!  Some people may find this to be a bonus (a lot of gay men I know loved this deck just for the sexy men in it!), but others may feel that it takes away from the multicultural feel and everyday context--after all, not all gay men are healthy and work out every night at the gym!  But, speaking from an aesthetic viewpoint, they are all very handsome and beautiful. 


The cards themselves are just the right size to shuffle, and the card stock is good and will hold up through many years of use.  The borders of the cards are blue, and feature the card title is six different languages – though this is unobtrusive.  The card backs are reversible, and show what reminds me of the traditional High Priestess image- a man (yes, he’s very muscled!) with the crescent moon above his head and stars behind him, standing in between two pillars.  From his third eye, or mind, shines a brilliant, white light. 


The artwork, as usual for Antonella Platano, is beautiful: all smooth lines, perfect finishes, and accuracy.  It is also quite realistic, and makes Lee Bursten’s ideas come to life.  Thanks to Platano, this deck is a joy to behold and is worth getting just for its pretty face.


All in all, I love this deck.  I’m not a man, and I’m not gay, but I can see myself reading with this deck.  It is definitely a great deck for gay men, but I also think everybody else could use it very well--simply because of its down-to-earth view of the cards, and the everyday situations shown in the images. 


The Gay Tarot is a deck with a message too profound to be ignored; a deck too beautiful not to look at; a deck simple enough for beginners, yet interesting enough for advanced readers; a deck that gives to the tarot world something that has been missing for far too long.  It is a deck that obviously came from Bursten’s heart, and I can see it speaking to many other hearts in the future. 


Vive la difference! 

You can read other reviews of this deck here and here.

You can see a sample reading with this deck here.

Gay Tarot by Lee Bursten and Antonella Platano
Publisher: Lo Scarabeo

If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.

Kim Huggens is a 19 year-old Pagan Tarot reader, reading Philosophy at Cardiff University.  She has been studying tarot since the age of nine, and runs talks and workshops on different aspects of the tarot.  She is President of the Cardiff University Pagan Society, and runs an online tarot course here.  She lives with her boyfriend in Cardiff, and currently has a tarot deck collection of over 150 decks.

Review © 2004 Kim Huggens
Page © 2004 Diane Wilkes