Learn How the Tarot Can Be Just as Queer as You Are with “Queering the Tarot”

Queers and the Tarot are perfect for one another. Like so many occult practices, such as spells or astrology, Tarot is a spiritual tool familiar with hiding in the shadows. Despite its own queer history, as with, well, most things, the traditional Tarot imagery and interpretations tend to be cis and straight. However, each card contains knowledge crucial to the queer experience. To help us apply modern and inclusive thinking to an old occult practice, author and tarot reader Cassandra Snow wrote Queering the Tarot, which is a card-by-card guide to interpreting the cards from an inclusive and queer perspective. Read on for a Queer Tarot 101 guide, but for a complete reference guide, check out Snow’s book , which is relevant for experienced or new Tarot readers alike.

What is the Tarot?

The Tarot is a deck of 78 cards often used for clarity and insight. Evidence of the Tarot dates back at least until the 15th century in Italy, although speculation surrounds the cards’ exact origin. The most commonly referenced deck is likely the Rider-Waite tarot, whose iconic images were originally published in 1910. The deck’s illustrator is Pamela Colman Smith, born in 1878 to a Jamaican mother and a British father. Smith met A. E. Waite, the co-creator of the deck, at a meeting of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society. Since then, occultists created countless new interpretations of the Tarot, such as Slutist deck, a gorgeous queer and sex worker-friendly deck conceived and illustrated by Morgan Claire Sirene.

While the Tarot is called a divination tool, or a way to see predictions about the future, today many use the cards as essentially a mirror. (Using the Tarot for divination is frowned upon by some occultists, including Waite himself.) If you’re in a relationship that’s obviously doomed, the cards will call you out. This is rarely news, but rather a means for self-reflection. The cards, in particular, the Major Arcana, use archetypes to help us find clarity. Once you begin to understand the many interpretations of the cards, you can ask for guidance on anything from gender to a failing friendship.

Why does the Tarot need queering?

As the Slutist deck demonstrates, modern witches are creating new decks and illustrations that are inclusive. However, just like with anything, despite pretty cool diversity thanks to Colman Smith’s illustrations, the Rider-Waite Tarot conformed to patriarchal standards of the time. The bodies are primarily white, thin, and wealthy, and there is certainly no queer relationships displayed. That doesn’t mean that the archetypes in the Tarot don’t contain queerness. The cards are steeped in mystery, which their meaning weighted with centuries of use and interpretation by various people. There have always been queer people; there is no way queerness doesn’t inhabit the essence of the tarot, even when it appears heteronormative at first glance. For instance, the Empress is traditionally associated with fertility and abundance as illustrated by a beautiful blonde maternal figure. However, as Snow points out in Queering the Tarot: 

…the Empress represents nurturing and creative energy, which is found in people of all genders. While the illustrations of the Rider-Waite deck are not inclusive by today’s standards, there is no denying their impact, and the cards are still used today. While new decks are exciting, it’s also helpful to revisit the imagery most tarot readers learned on through modern eyes. This is where books such as Queering the Tarot come in.

The Cards

The Major Arcana

The Major Arcana are the first 22 Tarot cards in a traditional deck and include iconic imagery such as the High Priestess, Devil, and the Hanged Man. As Snow describes in Queering the Tarot:

If the four suits represent the four elements Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, the Major Arcana is the Spirit. When one of these cards shows up in a reading, they typically reference a life lesson or journey. For instance, the first card, the Fool represents new beginnings and a fresh perspective of someone without cynicism. It may appear before you embark on a freelance project you’re extremely passionate about and determined to make work. It signifies major, often risky new beginnings that are in line with what our soul wants. As it’s the first card, the entire sequence of the Major Arcana is often referred to as the Fool’s journey. Snow queers the Fool by pointing out how often queer folks start over, such as coming out, finding queer family, supportive relationships, and so on. These queer experiences may not first come to mind when considering the Fool, but upon reflection make perfect sense. From the Fool to the World, a card of completeness and the final card of the Major Arcana, Snow offers a fresh queer perspective.

The Minor Arcana

Each suit in the minor cards contains ten numbered cards as well as Court cards (King, Queen, Knight, and Page). They usually reflect more day-to-day influences. For instance, a nine of pentacles shows a person enjoying the fruits of hard labor. They worked hard and now they can take a moment to enjoy luxury. While the Major Arcana usually points to longer, ongoing themes, the Minor cards can act as a reflection of your immediate situation.

The Four Suits

The Minor Arcana is broken into four suits. The Wands represent the element Fire. As Snow describes in Queering the Tarot: 

…the Wands usually refer to the aspect of our life in which we are most passionate about. The Wands represent ambition, passion, and lend well to queer readings, as queer folks often experience a passionate relationship with their queer identity. Wands traditionally are likened to penises, so in your readings, be careful not to assume the presence of a penis indicates a person who identifies as male.

Swords correspond with the element Air. “The swords do not always bring us what we want, but they do get us what we need,” writes Snow. Swords correspond with mental clarity, intellect, and reason. The Swords relate to mental health, and in readings, it is important to remember the unique challenges queer people face in receiving mental health treatment.

The suit of Pentacles corresponds with the element Earth. The easiest way to translate the meaning of the Pentacles, represented with coins in some decks, is to say the word “money.” However, they also refer to other aspects of our surroundings, such as the home. As Snow notes in Queering the Tarot, “while this suit is easy to glare at given its capitalist connotations, we must remember as queer folks that we, too, deserve homes that make us happy and proper compensation for our labor.”

Finally, Cups represents the element of Water which is associated with emotions. The Cups are often linked with romantic relationships, but can also refer to any emotional relationship, as well as the process of healing. The fluidity inherent in water, as Snow points out, lends well to queer folks, creating a pretty queer suit.

Giving Readings

You may be familiar with elaborate spread patterns such as the Celtic Cross. Such spreads are useful but understandably intimidating. An easier spread is the simple three-card “past, present, and future.” A great way to become familiar with the cards is to pull one for yourself each day. Simply ask yourself, “What do I need to know today?” It’s helpful to keep a corresponding journal. As your knowledge grows, you can begin giving more in-depth readings to friends. Some readers consider reversed card meanings, and others don’t. While it often depends on which deck you’re using, as with anything, your intuition should be your strongest guiding force while reading Tarot. Trust yourself, keep it queer, and remember that there are no “bad” cards. Even some of the more frightening cards, such as the Tower, are necessary life experiences that bring us exactly where we should be.

Sophie Saint Thomas is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn and is originally from the U.S. Virgin Islands. High Times named her one of their “100 Women in High Places” for her writing on cannabis, and Brooklyn Magazine has named her one of their "30 Under 30's" in their annual Envy List. She has been published in GQ, Playboy, VICE, Cosmopolitan, Forbes, Allure, Glamour, Marie Claire, High Times, Nylon, Refinery29, Complex, Harper’s Bazaar, PRIDE Magazine, SELF, and more. She currently lives in Greenpoint with her two marmalade tabby cats, Mama Cat and Major Tom Cat. She has more than one David Bowie tattoo. Follow Sophie on Twitter.

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11 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for covering the book AND ALSO I absolutely LOVE how you do so and giving readers a quick reference guide to work through on their own. (I also love incorporating some of my other fave tarot makers like those from Slutist Tarot!)

  2. Just to make an important correction; Pamela was born in England to American parents, as far as we have evidence; the notion that she had a Jamaican mother or a British father is not factual. We covered the research in our book “Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot”, and it has also been recently covered in “Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story” by Kaplan et al.

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