I couldn’t possibly start writing about fat tarot – or why tarot is so thin (just like the hashtag #tarotsowhite a couple of years ago) – without explaining what queering tarot means for me. As soon as I started learning tarot, not only did my queer and feminist activism influence my approach, my fat activism did too. But how do all of these elements coincide?
Who is queer? Who is your tarot reader?
In order to queer tarot and to understand power structures, we must be able to acknowledge our own position – without competition, let’s leave that to those in power. We must be able to understand, expose, use, and ultimately lose our privileges. Along with their limitations. Because, as we’ll see, what seems to be natural or appears like it doesn’t need to be explained often hides a power position. Like when white is considered the default skin colour (the so-called ‘nude’ colour), when all characters in a deck are thin, when everybody is assumed to be cis or straight until they come out. There’s nothing ‘natural’ in our social positions. Maybe we could try and make them all clear. For instance, on our blogs or ethics charts.
It’s easier for me to say I’m a queer fat fem(me) tarot reader and insist on my oppressed position than to go into the details of my dominant positions, although they very much inform the way I read tarot and why I read tarot.
So, let me start here: I’m Cathou. I am writing this series because of an invitation from Beth, who saw on Instagram that I was into the topic. I’m a white cisgender lesbian fem(me)**. I see my femmeness as non-binary, but I also identify strongly with the social class of women and I am seen as a woman all the time. I come from the Belgian Walloon countryside, from a farmers’ family. This middle-class background means I have the family safety net to some extent when it comes to money. I graduated from university. I work half-time for a non-profit organisation, which gives me a certain middle-class status as well. I’ve been living in Brussels for more than 10 years.
**Femme means literally “woman” in French. This is quite problematic since femme in English is kind of a gender of its own that is not related to womanhood (to put it in a much too simple way). In French, we use “fem” that sounds like the way people pronounce femme in English and not like we pronounce “femme” in French (fam). As a French-speaker, I like to use fem(me) when I write in English to distance myself from woman and embrace queer fem(me)inities in all their genders.
I am fat. My mental health will probably always be a struggle, although I’ve found balance for the past 6 years. Before that, I was suicidal for 15 years. I’ve had several psychotic episodes. All this is linked to PTSD. I find it hard to speak about trauma that happened when I was too young to be heard. I have trichotillomania, which means I pull out my hair. My hair will never grow ‘normally’ again. I wear wigs. Able-bodiedness is complex when it is troubled by chronic illness. I have asthma and frequent health issues. I’m 33.
I bring all of this experience to my tarot practice. As much as I try to work on my privileges, I still mess up more often than I wish to. Sometimes I can only assume what someone else’s experience could be. Sometimes I struggle to be humble enough to say, “I don’t know.” Sometimes I lack the necessary nuances to speak to my querents who are trans and/or people of colour. Being a queer tarot reader means making the promise to try to improve, integrating failure and dreaming/making another reality, with our own specific positions.
Queering tarot? But what is ‘queer’ anyway?
Queer is an ambiguous word, even more so when it is imported in a context where English is not a primary language. I am based in Brussels, so my experience relates especially to Western European francophone countries (Belgium, Switzerland, and France). In French “queer” didn’t mean anything. We started to hear about it when it was reclaimed in the USA in the late 1980s. Its widespread use in the French-speaking West is entangled with its academic history, namely the translation of queer studies classics in the 2000s . The history of reclaiming the slur is lost in translation. Queer struggles get lost and reappropriated. “Queer” often ends up being used as a fancy hipster equivalent for white LGBT+ community. “Queer” just sounds cooler.
But it stops being a political statement. Not just here of course, but with more easiness when parts of its history seem so far away. In the radical anarchist or leftist spheres, some people have dropped the word, going for “transpédégouine” (transfagdyke, say hello to bi erasure here) or transfeminism (which doesn’t have the same history in some parts of Europe than it does in the anglophone world either).
Despite this ambiguity, some queer people of colour, queer fat people, and queer trans people often insist on using this word. A queer perspective helps us to make sense of the way various norms (especially bodily norms) affect us individually as well as as a community. Obviously, it also gathers us around the common ground of a non-cisheteronormative approach. Although living in a heterocispatriarchy is violent for us, we can still meet, celebrate, and connect as queers in spaces that intend to be some safer bubbles where our multiple identities can scream and sing, where rage and love and despair and joy can meet. “Queer” is a welcoming word as well. No need to know who you are, no need to clench to labels. There’s room for questioning people and for fluidity. That might be the positive side of a certain depoliticisation of “queer”.
In leftist circles, ‘allies’ are prone to tell queer activists they are not revolutionary enough. They say we engage too much with community and representations – what they consider secondary – and not enough with the ‘actual’ struggle. By this, I suppose they mean something along the lines of destroying oppressive systems of capitalism, racism, and sexism right away. That doesn’t feel very palpable to me, even though it seems to keep them very busy indeed.
First of all, our activism doesn’t revolve on making community only. It’s made of ramifications ranging from direct action, to demonstration, to hacking, to writing. Creating space for queer people is a revolutionary act anyway. Whereas radical leftists might try and lead a revolution without questioning their own organisation and aim for a post-revolution world in which most power structures will remain unchanged, queer activists also believe in making the change happen now and at a local level.
Through the alternatives we nurture, we instill revolution in everything. We make it start now, including in our everyday practices (and, as you can already guess, in tarot). It is actually a huge step towards destroying oppressive systems. Queerness doesn’t mean you’re distracted from the fight against capitalism, white supremacy, heterocispatriarchy, compulsory thinness and able-bodiedness, ageism, colonialism, and so on. Queerness means you’re fighting them while also allowing room for survival and alternatives that are not waiting for a hypothetical brighter future.
Queerness is so much more than sexuality and gender identity. Queerness renders it impossible not to look at how bodies are constructed and coded. How could we consider fatness only through a health/illness lens when homophobia and transphobia have been supported by a pathologizing medical discourse, in some countries even recognized by the laws? How could we consider disability as something that needs to be fixed? How are the politics of desirability and consumerism that affect our queer lives intertwined with other bodily norms? Because tarot works with symbols and representation, those questions can’t stay out of our tarot practice either.
What connects it all is very systemic. What pushes queer people towards the margins of societies is a system of compulsory heterosexuality as shown by Adrienne Rich, Monique Wittig, and others. Because heterosexuality tends to pass as natural and because of the binary that only considers two complementary and fixed genders (in other words, because of heteronormativity), our experiences that differ from this powerful norm are deemed un-liveable. Not worth living. An abjection.
Queer theory explores how the system works, as well as the possibilities for resistance. Black feminists, like Kimberlé Crenshaw, who forged the concept of ‘intersectionality’ did it to understand the articulation of oppressive power systems. They are entangled. Many people of colour experience multiple structural oppressions. You cannot fight against patriarchy only, or white supremacy only, or capitalism only, etc. Understanding the complexity of our lives as well as the intricacy of power systems and the many faces of oppressors is mandatory for social justice.
From the concept of compulsory heterosexuality, some queer scholars shed light on compulsory able-bodiedness (must read alert: Robert McRuer, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability) and on compulsory thinness (another one: Cat Pausé, Jackie Wykes, Samantha Murray, Queering Fat Embodiment). There is nothing natural in them; they are social norms reinforced and sanctioned by governments, various medical institutions, dating apps, schools, and most social interactions. As queers, we can at least try to be aware of them and stop reproducing them.
As queers, we need to work on tools to dismantle them. If you don’t submit to the white, cis, hetero, able-bodied, thin, male-norms, your life is precarious. You are considered a freak. Or a criminal. You’re abnormal. You are exoticized. Stigmatized. You are a deviant. Maybe if those in power or those who are “normal” feel the need to ostracize us and be violent towards us, it’s because our mere existence is a danger to their status. Maybe not being in the centre, being pushed to the margins, not only equates with oppression but also with lucidity and resisting strength.
We need these concepts to understand tarot. Because tarot IS white. Tarot IS thin. Tarot IS able-bodied. Tarot IS cis and straight. And everything that is not those things, when pictured in a deck, is usually just a symbol for something else. An old person is associated with wisdom and a child with innocence. A fat woman is associated with fertility or abundance. A visibly trans body is associated with fluidity or overcoming all binaries. All disabled bodies are referring to obstacles and overcoming them: in a wheelchair because you’re stuck, blind because you’re either in denial or able to follow your third eye, and so on. Black women represent wildness, Native American people an archaic wisdom, Arab women lust or a Scheherazade of some sort, and it goes on.
This seems over-simplistic to you? Well, think about most of your decks! Those are repetitive patterns. Normative bodies usually don’t stand as a metaphor, they just are. It must be possible to work with symbols without assigning them in a normative and confining way, right?
I’m going to develop this analysis about queering representation in tarot in the rest of this series, mainly leaving out the gender binary and heteronormativity territory, since there’s already so much good analysis on the topic on Little Red Tarot. One thing is for sure for now: the standard or default character in a tarot deck is white, thin, able-bodied, cis, straight, and normatively gendered. Queering tarot then consists in choosing or creating alternative decks. Moreover, it requires you as a reader to always keep those biases in mind and to try to dismiss them when you encounter them yourself.
Tarot as a queer practice
Not only can you queer tarot but, according to my definition, tarot as a practice IS queer – or it has at least a queer potential that shouldn’t be left aside.
Tarot doesn’t adhere to any institutional standard. There’s no gatekeeper and no leaders. And there shouldn’t be. Tarot avoids the trap of religions and of academic disciplines. It is not set in stone. It’s an ever-growing tool that oppressed people can reclaim. Some tarot gurus claim it’s universal, although they develop a cishet white hierarchical approach. In the queer perspective, it is universal because it is not limited, because it holds space for multiplicity. It will expand with every new reading, giving visibility for the margins, and creating new interpretations more appropriate to encapsulate a broad range of experiences. Tarot is fluid. Tarot is evolving. Our ancestors created tarot, you are creating tarot, and so are we. Tarot is ours. Tarot asks us and our communities to work with it the way that suits us. Our myriads of interpretations, decks, and approaches will bring it closer to the universality some have dreamt for it.
Tarot is relatively free. You can use tarot for divination. You can use it for self-development. You can use it to resist the neoliberal version of ‘self-development’ that’s only luring people towards human exploitation, as enhancing productivity appears as its ultimate goal. Some think tarot predicts the future. Some think it allows us to explore our past lives. Some think it’s sacred. Some have a lot of rituals associated with tarot. Some think it should only be fun. Some use a lot of psychology concepts in their tarot practice, others refer to mythology, others rely on their intuition only – and a lot of tarot readers use a combination of them all. Some tarot readers only read for themselves, to gain better insight on what’s going on or to be less dependent on a therapist or on friends. Some tarot readers only read for others. Some of them want to be paid for their hard work. Others would never accept any money, not even a non-financial exchange. You get the gist of it: there is absolutely no right way to approach tarot.
To me, as a queer tarot reader, tarot is autonomy. It is a tool for autonomy. It is a tool that one can use in a free and creative way. No need to refer to a book, a certificate, or an academic discipline. One certainly can, but that’s not what makes you a tarot reader, and it’s not a condition to get access to it. Tarot creates accountability for one another in our communities. It fuels social interactions that are based on trust, confidentiality, and safety. It holds space for our vulnerability. It weaves stories in ways that don’t need to rely on dominant discourses: no literature, no psychology, no philosophy is required. You are free to tell your own story. Free to expand beyond the capitalist narrative.
Queer tarot empowers. It doesn’t tell you what is right or wrong. It doesn’t decide what your way should be. On the contrary, it opens more paths. It helps you stretch your visions. It can be a utopia as much as it can help create a plan for a project, a direct action, or a happening. It helps you to heal, but not in a way that fixes you in order to be more responsive to the demands of a white supremacist, heterocisnormative, patriarchal, thin and able-bodied system. It’s a companion on the path of healing that owes a lot to the fight of your ancestors – those that happened and those that are still to come. Tarot embraces social justice. Tarot listens to processes and cycles. It makes room for the freedom to live and think in a non-linear way. It’s a whole different narrative.
Tarot de-centres healing. And the political. It’s a constant reminder that intimacy is important. The personal is important. And it is political. It is political to create spaces and narratives that are not stuck in hegemonic frameworks. To borrow Starhawk’s concepts, tarot is the radical act of refusing power over and setting up an alternative: power from within. Tarot and queerness: it’s making a change right now.
A part of this change consists in detaching fat embodiment from dominant frameworks as well. In a context where tarot is so very thin, why not try to fatten it? Now we’ve queered it up, let’s also fat it up! See you in a couple of weeks to go on on this adventure!
Cathou is a queer and feminist activist and artivist who lives in Brussels, Belgium. She develops a queer tarot perspective in French on cathoutarot.blog and holds a blog on fat liberation and fighting fatphobia at grossefem.tumblr.com. Her Fat Tarot series combines those two topics, as an invitation to understand and resist bodily norms in tarot. You can also find Cathou on Instagram @cathoutarot.