Witchcraft is radical, and it’s on the rise in young queer and feminist subcultures in the west. From queer shamans protesting the demolition of a historic gay sauna to queer-occult cyborg manifestos in Berlin to Azealia Banks, sorcery has swept through radical queer, feminist communities and its influence is truly global.
VICE, The Guardian and Art21 Magazine all contend in the links above that witchcraft – as a subversive and powerful act – is providing ways for oppressed subjects to harness power. I agree, but I’m interested in communal resistance as opposed to that of an individual. Why is witchcraft so popular with queers? What does it have to do with capitalism? What are the radical potentials of these subcultures, whether you believe in magic or not?
Fio (Gede Parma), an Indonesian-Australian witch, is sitting in my room in Brisbane. He is fluent in the crossover between witchcraft and politics, and he gives me a glimpse into some of its history.
The ‘reclaiming’ tradition of witchcraft, developed in the 1970s, sought to ‘unify spirit and politics’. It grew alongside feminist and anti-nuclear movements, and operated by consensus processes, dual-leadership models and activism workshops.
In its present-day manifestation, this hasn’t changed. From summoning spirits in Manhattan to influence Senate votes on an international fracking pipeline to workshops for activists in regional Australia, this subculture is staring directly at systemic issues and attempting to tackle them through both occult ritual and traditional activist action.
What has changed, however, is the demographic of these groups. Originally a women-only tradition, this branch of occultism is now dominated by queer – and particularly trans – people. They’re young, they’re politically engaged and they’re embracing spiritual experiences. They are melding together, in the nature of their tradition, their politics and their spirituality.
This isn’t as strange a relationship as it first appears. Fio observes that ‘great amounts of young queer people have found themselves empowered and contextualised by witchcraft … Witchcraft is inherently queer because it’s about the Other. It’s about situating yourself almost as the Other, and drawing mythic power from that Otherness.’
To be queer, for one, is to be perpetually on the outside. José Esteban Muñoz describes it as a ‘horizon of potentiality’, as something that is always on the fringe. In this way, it is not only used as an umbrella term for LGBTQIA+ subjects, but as a description of radical politics, of sexual and gender fluidity, and a marker of anti-normative ideals.
Witches, in folklore, are also considered outsiders of the human collective. They are often found in hidden enclaves (covens), or in isolation from society. They straddle the gap between the civil and the wild, the human and the element, and it is they who provoke, attack, agitate, heal and enliven the social order.
The queer and the occult, then, walk hand-in-hand – if only under cover of darkness –stealing furtive kisses where no one else will see. They both dwell at the edges of society, re-forging the outsides they inhabit into their homes.
So is this relationship between the queer and the occult a radical one? To the skeptics focusing on the magic itself, this is surely aligned with the self-love movement that focuses on self-preservation instead of community activism. Surely it’s an illusion of power, a drowning-coping mechanism of the individual against the system: a straw-man solution, a falsehood?
If we consider a radical as someone who lives against the dominant system, these witches are radicals. The current economic system is based on global exploitation, individual success at the expense of communal capital, and the entrenching of wealth through family inheritance. In contrast, these witch communities vote through full consensus, have dual-leadership instead of singular, and celebrate non-normative forms of gender, sexuality and family.
Magical or not, the political project of queer witchcraft upsets the ideals of capitalism: it attempts to disrupt, wherever possible, the social mechanisms that entrench it.
Though it speaks in old tongues and tarot cards, this new notion of queer activism is taking hold. If queerness is a horizon that never arrives, then that distant glow is not the sun, but a bonfire. There, just out of sight, the queers dance and cast their spells; through cast-out and scoffed-at means, they continue their revolutions.