In the early 90s, Ash Blackwood (who goes publicly by his psuedonym, Ash Astaroth) was an openly gay teen looking for community in his tiny Ohio suburb—and he found it when he stumbled upon Satanism.
With his piercings and blue hair, he found empowerment by embracing his own brand of weirdness—something that brought him routine high school bullying, but seemed to be embraced by the Church of Satan. Without a physical church to visit, he said he'd spend a few hours each day at his local library, logging onto online Satanic forums and chatting with like-minded souls. For several years, those virtual chats sufficed.
Ultimately, however, he became disenchanted by the Church's insincere and aggressive tone, not to mention the bros who infected the scene with outdated machismo.
He nearly ditched Satanism altogether. In 2014, as he prepared for a life explaining away his Lucifer tattoos with a spiel about liking the literary archetype, he discovered the Satanic Temple, an unrelated though similarly-named group. It was actually an anti-Satanic Temple rant that drew him to the organization, posted to YouTube by Brian Werner, a former death metal vocalist in the band Vital Remains. "It's become a very liberal, compassionate, borderline hippie-like outlook on politics and societal issues," said Werner.
"If this guy is leaving the Satanic Temple for those reasons," Astaroth recalls thinking. "That's exactly where I need to be."
A year later, Astaroth established New York City's first Satanic Temple chapter, pulling an online community into a real-life group roughly 80 members strong, the first IRL chapter in the city. The goal: to make it "not just accepting of LGBTQ people, but an enthusiastically accepting atmosphere for LGBTQ people," he said. In other words, the kind of group he'd longed for as a teen in Ohio. To wit, the first question on the New York chapter's membership application asks for one's preferred pronoun, which establishes a communal sense of respect while also acting as a safety net. "If someone takes the opportunity to answer it in a flippant way, they're just not going to be a good fit for our chapter," Astaroth said.
He has since moved to Salem, Massachusetts, where he's now the director of the Temple's headquarters and remains an assistant chapter head of the NYC group he founded. The Temple's openness to intersectional identities is just part of what's endeared him so strongly to the group. "Queer is an extra layer on top of being gay just like Satan is an extra layer on top of being an atheist," Astaroth said. "You can be both."
This would have been news to me six months ago. At 26 years old, newly lesbian, and navigating the tail end of a five year relationship with the man I loved, I didn't know what to call myself aside from "confused." Figuring I might as well lean into that untethered panic, I attended a public forum hosted by the Satanic Temple's LA chapter. Held at a biker bar in the suburbs, I showed up wearing mom jeans and fit in seamlessly, and I've since become a member in good standing.
Since then, I've been consumed with all things Satanic Temple. As someone who identifies as both gay and queer—queer in the modern sense of rejecting binary thinking—I feel at home in its embrace of complexity. As it turns out, I'm not alone.
With 60 chapters around the world (many of them online, according to LA chapter head Ali Kellog) and more than 70,000 followers on Facebook, the Temple has gained recent attention thanks to several campaigns meant to challenge the religious right's grip on American policymaking. Take, for example, its fight for reproductive rights, campaign to install a statue of its gender-fluid deity near a Ten Commandments monument outside the Oklahoma State Capitol building and offer to perform same-sex weddings when Michigan state officials wouldn't. VICE has previously covered the Temple's first "Pink Mass," in which spokesman Lucien Greaves trolled the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, by having same-sex couples kiss over his dead mother's grave.
But beyond these kinds of stunts, the Temple is an important movement that provides a safe, radically-inclusive space for people who identify in all sorts of ways. Without defining itself as an LGBTQ organization outright, the Satanic Temple has become a haven for queer folks. At the first meeting I attended, nearly everyone I talked to was confidently queer, gay, pansexual, transgender, bi, polyamorous, or something in between.
There's still ample confusion about what it means to be a Satanist. Given society's long history of pegging Satan as the root of all evil, that's fair—though it's worth making some distinctions. Anton LaVey, a then 36-year-old American musician, founded the Church of Satan in 1966 with the mission of creating an organization "openly dedicated to the acceptance of Man's true nature—that of a carnal beast, living in a cosmos that is indifferent to our existence." The Satanic Temple, on the other hand, was created by Lucien Greaves (aka Doug Mesner) and Malcolm Jarry in 2014 to promote humanistic principles of benevolence and empathy.
Greaves is surprised I find the Temple's queerness, well, surprising. "It's not a big deal," he said. "We don't have strict separations or definitions of our gay membership, our trans membership, or anybody else." Though he doesn't have an exact headcount of LGBTQ members, Greaves said he wouldn't be surprised if more than half identify as such (an estimate that conforms with my experience at the LA chapter). The organization as a whole is a platform for LGBTQ members to celebrate their identities.
Throughout the long history of Satanic culture, "there's always been a tenor of tweaking the status quo, tweaking the mainstream," said David E Embree, who teaches religious studies at Missouri State University. That opposition to the status quo, Embree said, is exactly why the Temple has such great appeal to many who have been burned by mainstream religions. What's more interesting, in his mind, is the way Temple Satanists formed a community in the relative safety and privacy of online chat rooms. "The internet is the best friend Satanism ever had," he said—which makes sense, when you consider how dangerous it can be to identify as anything other than cisgendered, straight, and Christian in much of the country.
That origin story—how the Satanic Temple was mostly born online—makes for an almost too-perfect metaphor. The internet operates as both a Pandora's box of vile commentary and a tool for distributing a means of communication and organization to marginalized communities around the world. It obscures as much as it clarifies and blunts loneliness as often as it exacerbates it. Those are modern-day dualities that both queers and Satanists are all too familiar with. "Humans are complex," as Astaroth put it. "I don't understand why you would resist being as many things as you want to be. That idea shouldn't be intimidating, but refreshing."
This article was written by Kate Ryan. Follow her on Twitter.