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How witchcraft has become a safe haven for the LGBTQ+ community

Long seen as a symbol of otherness, witchcraft has become a way for queer folk to transform their difference into a superpower

Welcome to Witch Week, a campaign dedicated to exploring how witchcraft, magick and beauty intersect. Discover photo stories shot featuring real witches in NYC, a modern reimagining of the witch, and one witch’s mission to get a tan, as well as in-depth features exploring herbology, science and alchemy, and male witches. Elsewhere, we’ve created four special covers to celebrate the campaign and our one year anniversary – something wicked this way comes.

In the opening of the book Becoming Dangerous: Witchy Femmes, Queer Conjurers and Magical Rebels, there is a story about a group of lesbians in Wolf Creek, Oregon, who in 1974, created a magazine called Womanspirit, which was a witchy combination of spirituality and feminism. According to Kristen J Sollée – the academic who recounts this history and brilliantly self-describes as an “occulture slut” – the people who created the magazine were part of the women’s liberation movement and were “frustrated with the limitations of patriarchal religion.” They saw witchcraft was a way to build trust with one another in their lesbian separatist pseudo-cult. Sollée traces this tradition of witchery as political power through to 2017, when a group of witches called the Yerbamala Collective decided to hex Donald Trump. “Complacency is anti-magic,” they wrote in a poem, “witches of all genders ride now”.

Queerness and witchcraft have long been bedfellows. Just look at Buffy The Vampire Slayer – a show that traded off the links between witchcraft and queer sexuality (creator Joss Whedon has admitted that the network wouldn't let them show anything physical between Willow and Tara, so he used magic and spells as a metaphor for sex). Recently, however, it seems that an increasing number of LGBTQ+ people are identifying as witches, while more witches are understanding witchcraft as an inherently queer practice. A call out for LGBTQ+ witches on Twitter offers up dozens upon dozens of responses. On Instagram, there are many highly visible LGBTQ+ witches, like Brooklyn Bruja Emilia Ortiz, Dazed Beauty’s very own Wellness Editor, as well as 22-year-old YouTuber Harmony Nice (who identifies as bisexual and Wiccan), and musician Princess Nokia, whose bruja practice seems to be at the heart of all that she does.

As a queer person myself, despite not being particularly spiritual at all, I have even somehow found my way into a coven. Named Sisters Of The Sanitary Cloth (a half-joke of a moniker), it’s basically a Whatsapp-cum-support group for 13 women in London. It reached its supernatural apex for me when we met up under a full moon one night to cast some spells on a lesbian-identified member of the group who had been having trouble conceiving a baby via IVF. Just weeks after the hex, she finally became pregnant. A true act of sorcery, it converted me into a believer. But other than the obvious qualities of witchcraft – like, you know, magic – what is it that specifically draws us LGBTQ+ people in?

“What really drew me into witchcraft was how it didn’t focus so much on making everyone live under the same rules,” says Antonina, who is 19-years-old, queer, and a self-labelled witch. She moved to the UK from Bulgaria, where she was raised around Christianity, and finds witchcraft to be a more welcoming form of spirituality, pointing out that you don’t have to be straight, cis, or be part of the gender binary to practise. “Sexuality isn’t treated as a taboo, there’s no shame around it as there is in other religions,” she says. “As long as you aren’t harming anyone or anything you can live how you want to and I think that’s so important for individuality and freedom of expression. All kinds of love can be viewed as pure and holy!” 

“Because witchcraft describes a composite series of practices, rather than a single formalised religion in itself (there are various religions which incorporate witchcraft, such as Wicca and some forms of Paganism) there is space within witchcraft for more diversity of belief and practice,” says Alice Tarbuck, from Edinburgh, who co-teaches a course called ‘Toil and Trouble: Towards a Responsible Witchcraft’. According to her, the reason witchcraft has traditionally been so inclusive is that it has always been diverse, full of small and differing groups, meaning less emphasis on overall coherence.”

For London band Dream Nails – who all identify as queer and as witches – they joke about barely knowing where to start on the overlap between the two. “I mean, other than the dancing naked in the woods under the full moon with a bunch of other women?” laughs vocalist Janey, “Queerness is magical, right?” She says that, for her, witchcraft feels queer particularly because of its history. “The label ‘witch’ was branded on a person (usually a woman) who transgressed gender or sexual norms, or who challenged traditional power and knowledge structures,” she says. “It’s about prioritising self-knowledge and power rather than relying on structures of patriarchy and capitalism that are designed to crush you. Witches are the original punks.” 

Anya, who plays guitar in the band, agrees, explaining that for her, witchcraft, queerness andpunk are all symbiotic because they are oppositional ideologies. “State persecution for hundreds of years is something that both queer people and witches have in common,” she says. “There’s got to be another reason why so many witches never married, preferring the company of other ‘single’ women instead… Many witches rejected, and continue to reject, compulsory heterosexuality. For that they have historically been punished,” she says, pointing out that many people who reject heteronormative choices are still punished today.

Punishment seems to be a recurring topic with all of the witches I speak to. Being different or opposing power structures – whether that was as a Salem woman who does not fit into the puritanical standards of the day or as an LGBTQ+ person living under a homophobic, racist, and transphobic president in 2019 – can ultimately result in marginalisation and oppression. Yet experts and practising witches alike believe that witchcraft can, despite the historical persecution of witches, provide queer people with a weapon to use against power structures, or a source of power in itself.

“As more and more LGBTQ+ are discovering witchcraft through the internet, in trying political times, they are finding witchcraft to be a valuable form of political resistance – just like the lesbians in Wolf Creek, Oregon, and the Yerbamala Collective who decided to hex Trump”

“Witchcraft of any kind is about empowering yourself, tapping into your power, your gifts,” confirms Emilia Ortiz. “It can also be about finding your personal power when it comes to your oppressor. LGBTQ+ have been oppressed throughout the world for centuries, varying in the degree, while also being accepted and celebrated in some cultures (including being regarded as highly spiritually connected). For me, being a bi/pansexual woman, it has been so empowering to be a witch. To operate on a spectrum energetically, not just sexually? To be able to tap into my intuition and converse with my guides for safety purposes? To be able to cast love spells on myself so I could fall in love with the parts of me that society tried to weaponise against me? That has been so powerful and healing for me.”

Throughout Becoming Dangerous, many of the stories by queer people focus in on the self-care as warfare aspect of witchcraft that Ortiz touches upon, but also – as the title of the book suggests – highlight the notion of witchcraft as a way of becoming rather than being. They talk about the occult as non-essentialist, as fluid. Perhaps this is why a lot of trans people see intersections between their trans identity and witchcraft. A UK based witch called Avery Edison describes in Becoming Dangerous how, for her, at school, experimenting with Wiccan was a way to try on an identity as part of her journey to figuring out who she was (at the time, she hadn’t realised she was trans). Another writer, a Latinx witch called Mey Rude, talks about using spells as affirmations to boost her confidence and accept her trans, plus size body.

Yet, unfortunately, the world of witchcraft is not always welcoming to all LGBTQ+ people. Tarbuck still sees some discrimination within witchcraft communities and says that witchcraft has suffered from policing by TERFS. “TERFs exist within witchcraft as within any space – a small but vocal minority. Because much witchcraft practices worship and magic along God and Goddess lines, it has often felt like a very gendered practice in terms of placing importance on a binary which is being used to capture and understand the rhythms of the year.” This can lead to very fixed ideas around gender for some witches, she explains

She also points out that witchcraft has many rituals rooted in the practices of indigenous peoples of various colonised places – “cleansing with white sage is, for example, a practice that originates in indigenous cultures and has been appropriated by white Western witchcraft,” she explains. However, with education, and with care as to what practices are incorporated, these negative aspects can be minimised, says Tarbuck. She believes that witchcraft must be intersectional and post-colonial to operate, that it should not be a space of judgement or further outcasting.

Overall, however, a more inviting ethos does seem to make modern witchcraft feel welcoming for LGBTQ+ people, who are harnessing it as yet another way to question the status quo. It seems that, as more and more LGBTQ+ are discovering witchcraft through the internet, in trying political times, they are finding witchcraft to be a valuable form of political resistance – just like the lesbians in Wolf Creek, Oregon, and the Yerbamala Collective who decided to hex Trump. 

“Being witches is a source of power,” says Dream Nails. Anya describes it as “a mystic energy we use to keep going despite all the forces working against us as queer women making music,” adding: “We don’t write songs, we write hexes!” Lucy, the drummer concludes that it’s about embracing the punk attitude, the outsider status, the individual: “Witchcraft is about drawing from and reconnecting with the internal, the pre-existing strength that is absolutely within us all.”