When you think of tarot cards, what immediately floods your mind? Perhaps you envision a woman with flowing dark hair and arms decorated with tinkling bangles who draws the cards and speaks in a vaguely Eastern European accent you can't quite identify, but are pretty sure is an affectation. Images on the cards themselves, larger and wider than playing cards, may feature complicated scenes featuring stoic Europeans and guide the reader to divine something about you.
These are some of the more common images of tarot, but they don't reflect the wide variety of people get into the practice or how they relate to their cards. When I visited this year's FlameCon, an LGBTQ comic book convention held in New York City in August, I was struck by the sheer number of queer artists who, in addition to bringing prints of fan art and independent comic books, were selling custom tarot decks featuring people of color who were clearly coded as non-straight.
Trung Nguyen was one of these artists. When I spoke with Nguyen about his decidedly queer, uncompleted deck, imbued with intricate lines and bold colors, he told me the first thing that drew him to tarot was seeing the cards as an opportunity to try a new kind of art.
“I don’t know that I’d ever actually pursued a reading myself, but I really got into tarot four years ago just after college when I began to look at it more broadly as a form of illustration," Nguyen told me. "I signed up for a gallery show at The Light Grey Art Lab in Minneapolis and they asked me to illustrate the Ten of Cups."
Nguyen extensively researched the historical meaning of the Ten of Cups for that first tarot-related project, and it left him wondering what it would take to create an entire deck including all the major and minor arcana. And so, card by card, he began the painstaking process of unpacking the origins of tarot in order to craft a deck that was faithful to the tradition in some respects, but queered in a way to better reflect his own personal style.
“I realized that illustrating an entire deck would be a good way to exercise my visual muscles," Nguyen explained. "As I really committed to the project, I realized how much artistic thought has to go into each card and just how easy it would be to overstep my bounds, culturally speaking, if I wasn’t careful.”
Nguyen's deck-in-progress is based on the Rider-Waite Smith deck, one of the most popular tarot deck configurations originated by freelance writer A. E. Waite and artist Pamela Colman Smith in 1909. Both Waite and Smith were English occultists who were intensely fascinated with Christian mysticism. Their first deck was a hodgepodge of iconography borrowed from various occultist followings like The Golden Dawn and earlier believers in divination like the French Etteilla, who popularized the reading of tarot cards in Europe in the late 18th century.
The deeper Nguyen dug into the roots of the Rider-Waite Smith, the clearer it became that much of their original design choices were linked to a very Orientalist interpretation of other cultures that allowed Waite to pick and choose images and meanings from other systems of belief to suit his own ideas. That realization inspired Nguyen to ease up on sticking to some of the tenets of the tradition deck and more purposefully subvert tarot's inherent heteronormativity.
(Use the slide toggle to compare Trung's reimagined deck to the original Rider-Waite Smith)
"Often, we read these images in this really archaic way that reinforce traditional notions of gender. Like the emperor and empress refer to masculinity and femininity. Activity, and judgment," Nguyen said. "I’m trying to make queerness and the subversion of gender as second nature as possible to my deck."
Even though Waite and Smith had to join literal secret societies to dream up something like their tarot deck, it's difficult not to see a fair amount of gender essentialism and conservative Christianity in their work. So not only are artists like Nguyen queering the tarot canon through their art, there are also readers working to carve out a space in the tarot community for marginalized people.
Beth Maiden is a queer tarot reader and web designer based in the Isle of Skye who runs Little Red Tarot, a site dedicated to teaching people alternative methods of practicing tarot that are better suited for personal introspection. When I spoke with Maiden recently by e-mail, she told me that some of her earliest experiences with tarot left her somewhat put off at how white and heterocentric it all seemed.
"Then it struck me that it was just the books and websites I was reading that were so straight. I was totally free to interpret the cards in my own way," Maiden said. "Tarot is about articulating infinite human experiences, not about being rigid.”
For Maiden, tarot isn't about trying to predict the future, but rather is better understood as a deeply intimate lens through which to see the world. Given tarot's origins on the margins of society Maiden insisted, there's a sort of spiritual rhyme and reason to the idea that queer people would gravitate towards the practice.
"In mainstream terms it's not quite acceptable to be queer, and it's not quite acceptable to find answers to your questions by shuffling magical cards," she said. "Feminists, political queers, and other social activists are always looking for new tools to explain the world around us."
Much like Nguyen, Maiden came to tarot as something of a skeptic, but unlike Nguyen, who doesn't assign much spiritual significance to the cards and instead enjoys them for their artistry, Maiden's relationship to the practice and broadened and deepened over the years as she's studied and taught others how to read and make sense of their readings.
When I asked her what she wanted people to understand about how readings work, she said she wanted to dispel the notion of there being a psychic gift or deep intuition necessary to make the cards "work" for you. Instead, she said, people should focus more on cultivating their own meanings for the cards grounded in personal experience.
"The beauty of tarot is that—though those cards are full of traditions, archetypes, well-known symbols—every time you cast them, you reinvent tarot. You tell a new story," says Maiden. The “rad queer artists” creating their own decks are saying: “That's my story, too. I'm using this framework to tell it my way.”