Gay Tarot by Lee Bursten; Art by Antonella Platano
Review by Diane Wilkes

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

Usually, women rightfully object to the fact that men dominate our culture in ways overt and subtle. There is still a glass ceiling for women, as well as a disparity between men and womens' earnings for doing the same job, a disparity that benefits men. Even medical research favors men--a study showed that women were dying far more frequently than men from heart attacks because all the research had focused on mens' responses to treatment, and women and men are biologically different (a rather obvious fact, I would think--but one ignored by researchers).

However, in Tarot World, two lesbian-friendly decks (Motherpeace, Daughters of the Moon) have been around for decades, with no true tarots out there for gay males. Granted, there are some decks that have "gay" in the title, but the emphasis on sex to the exclusion of all else made these decks more erotic images than true tarot archetypes.

The Gay Tarot by Lee Bursten is a remediation of this inequity. As opposed to the previous pornographic gay decks, Bursten's offering is so wholesome that some may find fault with its clean-cut approach. It's one of the few tarot decks in existence that has NO full-frontal nudity. Jack of Will and Grace would bemoan the lack of eye candy as unspeakably dreary.

Then again, not every gay man is the Queen of Camp nor sex-obsessed to the point of obliviousness to any other reality--and that is this deck's greatest strength. It addresses gay issues (coming out, fighting for equal rights) in a way that is both gender-preference-specific but also universally applicable to everyone. It doesn't hide its subject, nor does it have an agenda. It simply portrays men as fathers, craftsmen, politicians, and lovers, operating at every level and position in our society. And that's certainly as valid a picture of the "gay lifestyle" as Will and Grace provides the television public.

Since no women appear in the deck, the Gay Tarot doesn't reflect a woman's world with the same effectiveness, any more than a Native American Tarot encompasses Finnish mythology. The artwork by cartoonist Antonella Platano, who also created the Witchy Tarot, is very modern in its orientation. The images include blimps, skyscrapers, and skateboards, retaining almost none of the traditional iconography of the Marseilles or Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) tarots. However, the cards themselves will be a snap for those familiar with the RWS to use in readings, as both the Major and Minor Arcana evoke familiar messages and interpretations. These up-to-date scenes have the added advantage of familiarity for querents who don't know quite what to make of Hierophants and High Priestesses. Not only that, the tastefully muted colors are easier on the eye than the original RWS. However, this modernization will not be to everyone's taste.  On the other hand, Lo Scarabeo and the author and artist of this deck are to be commended for creating a very easy-to-read deck, something not always the case with this publisher.

The Fool is a hitchhiker. Trump I is a modern, professional magician, attired in a sparkling suit, with all the accouterments of the trade: top hat, black wand, and klieg lights. When we turn to the more traditionally female archetypes, they are revisioned in more generic terminology. The High Priestess steps out of the closet as an Intuitive, and the image is of a meditative male looking rather sorrowful under a crescent moon. The Empress is now the Protector, a father raising his little girl in his strong arms, his tiara, a backwards baseball cap. (The Emperor remains the Emperor, but is now a director or producer who holds a stage in his capable hands.) Strength has the obligatory big cat, but the calming presence is a well-muscled male lion tamer, not a fragile female.

The Hierophant is The Priest--and he's marrying two men. The fact that this issue is, at present, a major media item, gives it additional wrinkles, not all of them in keeping with the traditional interpretation of following...traditions. One of my favorite cards is The Lovers (at top). We don't have the yin-yang of male-female, but this opposition is shown in other ways: one man is Black, the other, White, the moon crowns one male, the sun, the other. Even their individual spaces are delineated by night and day. Justice shows two men reaching towards one another behind their prison bars--again, we have the black/white poles expressed by the color of the two men.

The Wheel of Fortune is now the Wheel of Life and depicts men of different ages and colors around a spoked wheel. The Hanged Man is a diver and reminds me of Greg Louganis, who is considered the greatest diver in history. He stayed in the closet about his sexual orientation and his HIV-positive status for a long time. These associations are richly resonant for Trump XII. Death continues the metaphor--it shows a grieving man standing by a gravestone of one who died too young. The Devil has been renamed Self-Hatred, and depicts a young man speculating on a "typical" family portrait with a degree of sorrow and loss. Trump XVI (traditionally, the Tower) continues the theme--a young man sharing his gay orientation to his parents, hence the card name change to Revelation. The last renamed card is Beyond Judgement (as opposed to Judgment) and depicts a gay rights parade.

I am sure there are some of you who are reading this, and thinking "I'm straight. How will I relate to these cards? I never hid my sexuality or protested in a gay rights parade or came out to my parents." The reality is that Lee has chosen specifically gay situations that have universal resonance. Have you always been an open book or have you held potentially damaging secrets? Was there never an issue that you felt strongly enough about to protest? Did you never have to tell someone you loved something you knew that would hurt them? If so, you've lived a far easier life than I have.

The Minor Arcana are particularly clever. Each number enhances upon the theme of its Major Arcana counterpart. The Twos (associated with the Intuitive/High Priestess) show the same man in meditative poses, three of them being actively meditative by depicting a martial arts position. The Threes (associated with the Protector/Empress) show Dad and daughter sharing ice cream by a fountain (Cups) and painting their walls (Coins). The Three of Swords depicts three umbrellas crossed and lying in a puddle on a grey day. This doesn't directly revert back to the Protector card, but it does hearken to the tradition of the RWS Three of Swords, that doesn't contain any human characters. The Three of Wands is the most poignant card--it shows Dad waving goodbye to his daughter as she goes off for school. The poignancy comes into the picture with the two ghostly siblings who walk alongside the little girl; this reminds you afresh how the law is stacked against gays adopting children. The other numbered Minors also refer in some way to their Major Arcana counterpart.

The Court Cards, as you would expect, are also revisioned in the Gay Tarot. Pages are Youths, Knights, Men, Queens are Guides and Kings have become Sages. These cards are also ethnically diverse. The Guides are unique--they are wingèd, naked creatures, either supernatural or mythical in nature.

The physical quality of the cards is uniform and excellent, as one would expect from Lo Scarabeo. The reversible backs offer dual images of a naked man from the waist up, meeting in a watery pool. Card titles are in six languages and the little white booklet (LWB) is translated into five: English, Italian, Spanish, French, and German. Inside the LWB is the author's introduction to the deck, along with interpretations (which emphasize universal, as opposed to singularly gay, meanings). There is a short section on card reading and a four card Self-Image Spread. Lastly, a short biographical blurb is provided for the author and artist. 

While I doubt I'll use this deck for myself on a regular basis, I can see using it often for men in general, and gay men in particular.

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

You can see a sample reading with this deck here.

  Yes No
78 cards X  
Reversible Backs X  
Strength VIII, Justice XI   X
Color Images X  
Standard (RWS) Titles of the Major Arcana   X
Traditional (RWS) Suits (Rods/Wands, Cups/Chalices, Swords, Pentacles/Disks) X  
Traditional (RWS) Golden Dawn Suit-Element Attributions X  
Standard dimensions (4 3/4" X 2 3/4") X  

Gay Tarot by Lee Bursten and Antonella Platano
Publisher: Lo Scarabeo
ISBN #:
0738705977

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


Images © 2004 Lo Scarabeo
Review and page © 2004 Diane Wilkes