Down to their core, magic and witchcraft are so very queer. They are often hidden in the shadows. They follow their own rules, which often don’t align with what is commonly known or accepted. They celebrate a liminality that often makes larger society uncomfortable. They revel in style – whether it be with ceremonial robes or flashy tools, or simply with the herbs, stones, bones, candles, altars, salt circles, and other curiosities that are part of the magical life.
To live magically is to embrace the symbolic, the poetic; it is to see beyond the limitations imposed upon us by the tyranny of rational thought and emerge liberated into a world populated by spirits, angels, faeries, and other fantastical intelligences that we perceive as being part of the living, conscious mechanism that is the universe. It flies in the face of convention, turns it on its head.
Magic also affirms that we have the power within ourselves to make changes happen. When our religions and institutions, or even our families, fail us, magic encourages us to live our own truths and to take action in the world to make those changes that are needed.
I find it almost amusing when I stumble across those within in the Pagan and magical communities who are, shall we say, less than affirming of sexual and gender minorities. I suppose that it is a mark of my own progress that I am able to hold such a patently dismissive view of those who would insist on my subservience, but it was not always the case. Whatever privilege I may now enjoy – in the Craft and in society at large – was hard-won in the face of opposition and adversity. Before I would be able to cast off the emotional and social shackles that had kept me tied to the idea that I was less than, I had to find my own sense of worth and power in a world that was constantly attacking me and my queer siblings for being “different.”
It wasn’t easy, and the religions and spiritualities to which I had been exposed offered me little more than the same sadistic abuse, even if it was at times subtle. But there was always this little voice inside me that told me to look beyond what was offered. Like a half-remembered melody, I followed this siren song into a place of magic and wonderment. I had heard the call of Witchcraft.
Like many other gay men, I was always drawn to the Craft. And why not? Witches have most often been depicted as powerful women, an image with which countless queer men readily identify (and no doubt many queer women and non-binary people as well, though I can only honestly speak to my own experience). Many a queer-boy childhood is sprinkled with women of power, heroines, and wonder women. Perhaps we identify with them because these women represent a type of power and strength outside of what is accepted by society – a strength based on something other than the standardized “straight maleness” which dominates both myth and media, and from which many queer boys feel intrinsically alienated.
Not realizing that Witchcraft could be a viable spiritual path, I first contented myself with the realm of fantasy and story. Strong women continued to be in the forefront of my cultural role-models with very few exceptions. Later I would come across accounts of those who practiced the Craft formally, and who primarily identified it with the worship of the Great Goddess. To me it felt like a coming home. Here was a religious paradigm that did not revel in the same old patriarchal tropes and spoke more deeply to the magic that I could hear calling me in my soul.
I was intrigued to learn that others were pursuing an actual practice of magic and Witchcraft, and this realization stoked my desire to learn more. But when I eventually found actual Witchcraft authors, I was again presented with problematic philosophies rooted in the concept of heterosexual supremacy (cough—magical gender polarity—cough). Though they were less harsh than my previous religious encounters, I still read blanket statements that gay people had no place in the magic circle, or that if we were admitted to a circle then we were expected to “assume the role of [our] actual gender” (whatever that means).
With all the emphasis on a “male and female polarity” (at least in terms of the media published at the time), along with constant assertions of how “real witches” practice and behave, I began to see that what was first touted as being a primal, earth-and-body-centered spiritual practice, was being codified into a type of organized religion, the result of which seemed to be the fate that nearly every religion had suffered before: homogenization, which leads to the demonization of the “other.”
The public Craft simply adopted Christianity’s distrust for the other and transplanted it into its own practice. Many of the authors and teachers at the time may have actually been supportive of homosexual and/or queer people. (Those who choose to investigate the source of the quote above will find that the authors are quick to point out that they did support gay members of their coven.) As well-meaning as they may have been, though, statements such as these went far to help perpetuate a heterosexist paradigm within the larger Craft. (And, of course, not all were accepting. Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca, was arguably homophobic.)
As a gay boy eager to learn more about the calling of my heart, reading their words not only stung, but it also stoked a fire in me. I knew in my heart that this was not the only way that magic (and Witchcraft) worked. I instinctively knew that they were wrong.
Many indigenous cultures have recognized a special place that queer or non-binary people occupy in the realm of spiritual practice and mediation, such as the North American and First Nations’ two-spirit people, and the Sāmoan fa’afafine. In many indigenous cultures the concept of gender is far more fluid than generally accepted in the West, and there is often a deep tie between what we might term “queerness” and spiritual and magical proficiency.
Even the modern history of magic is populated with queerness, whether it be with queer deities, queer spirits, or even the queer human magicians who have helped to develop and extend the practice and study of magic, though many not be aware that some of the most celebrated of magicians would be considered “queer” today.
The Pagan revival owes much to the writings and philosophies of Walt Whitman, a gay man whose romantic poetry helped to inspire the modern Pagan movement. Aleister Crowley, the infamous “Great Beast” who is much cited by serious occultists and rebellious teenage boys alike, was open about his bisexuality, utilizing same-sex acts in his practice of magic, and helped to expand the practices of magical work, sexual and otherwise. He even wrote love poems to same-sex lovers.
Rosaleen Norton, the “Witch of King’s Cross” whose sexualized artwork and openly bisexual lifestyle scandalized 1940s and 1950s Australia, offered a colorful beacon of style in an otherwise drab social and religious landscape.
There are many others. Google Dr. Leo Martello, Italian Witch and gay rights activist. And remember Scott Cunningham? He was one of the most influential Wiccan authors of the 20th century – and he was also bisexual. The founder of the American Faery/Feri tradition, Victor Anderson, was also reportedly bisexual (though in a monogamous marriage with his wife, Cora) and wrote poems expressing same-sex love and imagery, including a love poem to a young man, later published in one of his collections. This sensibility likely informed the modern Faery Witchcraft tradition, which is rife with an awareness of queer gods and gender-shifting beings.
Queerness, it seems to me, is a fundamental quality of magic. One might say that queerness is in magic’s DNA. And while in the magical world we can make the argument that we’re all a little queer just to be involved in such a practice, let us remember that it is our uniqueness and our diversity that makes us healthy and strong. If you are a cisgender heterosexual person who practices witchcraft, take a moment to show honor and respect to those queer magical folks who lived their lives going against the grain of society, and who gathered power and they did.
To the Witches and the faggots and the dykes and the queers who influenced and protected and promoted a magical lifestyle! We honor you in the name of the Queer Spirit. May you be remembered, and may you always help us to be able to see the queer nature of things.