According to an old cliché, men are from Mars and women are from Venus. But, as any reasonably enlightened person can tell you, this adage upholds an antiquated and restrictive gender binary. In other words, Mars and Venus are social constructs.
For the past few decades, queer theory has become increasingly popular in academia and criticism; the purpose of this field of study is fairly hard to define, and intentionally so. Mostly it focuses on interrogating and dismantling stable conceptions of gender, sex, and sexuality. Queerness, as a concept, is meant to be ambiguous; in queer theory, it's essentially used to refer to anything outside of existing social norms. Recently, the concept found its way into a far more esoteric realm: In 2012, a group of professional astrologers started a queer astrology movement after meeting at a conference in New Orleans.
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"It was my first time kind of seeing what the greater astrological, organizational people are like when they get together, and it was also the place where I met my peers and colleagues for the first time," recalls Ian Waisler, a leading queer astrologer. "A couple of us, who were all roughly the same age and from California, were like, 'We love this, and at the same time, it's missing some views in the world that we are excited about.' After we hung out and started talking, we decided to take this on as our work."
A year later, Ian and some fellow astrologers held the first annual Queer Astrology conference in San Francisco, which about 120 people attended. Topics included "The Saturn Return of AIDS," in which an astrologer who had lost his partner to AIDS discussed his experience making a star chart for the epidemic, with the date the CDC named the virus serving as its birthday; "Lilith And Adam: The Origins Of Gender, Sex and Deviance," which examined the mythology around Adam (of Bible fame) and Lilith, a woman who was cast out of Eden for refusing to have sex in the missionary position; and "Ecosexuality: Liberating the Venus Within Pluto," which, according to its event description, was meant to serve as "an entryway to awakening the astrological archetypes in a radically animate cosmology which recognizes the centrality of relationship to our being." Since that first conference, he and his colleagues have hosted a second one, and they're currently planning a Queer Astrology tour of the US and Canada for next spring.
As someone with a working knowledge of both queer theory and astrology, I find it bizarre when people get angry about the latter because they say it's "made up," because everything on this planet is fabricated and ultimately meaningless, and you rarely see people getting upset over that. "Gender is a construct that exists that we've inherited," Ian told me, sounding very casual. Astrology, too, we have inherited. Like anyone who takes mushrooms after finishing a 100-level women's studies course might tell you, it seems sort of arbitrary to make a distinction between assigning set meaning to predictable planetary movements and assigning set meaning to various specific parts of the human anatomy.
But even within astrology—which has always seemed to me like a fairly feminine pursuit—outdated gender norms persist. "I've been studying astrology since I was a kid. It's a passion of mine," said Rhea Wolf, a Portland-based feminist witch and astrologer. "Starting out, I had to translate a lot of sexist language in astrology textbooks, which pissed me off."
For me, astrology has always been a tool of liberation, and queer theory likewise seeks to liberate people from the language of oppression.
In the Western astrological tradition, planets and signs are all gendered, with the qualities associated with each gender playing out in boringly typical ways—masculine energy is seen as active, light, and positive, while femininity is associated with passivity, darkness, and negativity. Rhea says she wants to undo that, thus allowing for cosmic interpretations that are "healthy [and] empowering... for people of all genders." But even the idea of focusing on a Western tradition is troubling to her: When asked how she incorporates the ideas of queerness into her practice, she cited a need to "address the Eurocentric, racist bias in the language of astrology."
Every astrologer I spoke to stressed the idea that all astrological practices, from all cultures, are equal. "For me, astrology has always been a tool of liberation, and queer theory likewise seeks to liberate people from the language of oppression," said Rhea.
For some practitioners of queer astrology, however, the philosophy is less important than the actual practice. "I'm super bored with theory," said Jessica Lanyadoo, an astrologer and medium. "As a triple Capricorn (that means my Sun, Moon, and Ascendant are all in Capricorn) I'm all about practical application." (Capricorns, for the record, are known for being logical, disciplined, and strong willed.)
As Jessica sees it, a queer framework allows her to be "open to all ways of being" when she's working with clients, doing readings and creating star charts. "My queer lens allows me to sidestep a lot of conventional assumptions. Not all guys are sexual tops. Not all girls want to make babies," she said. "I seek to empower people to accept who and what they are, so they can make healthy and self-appropriate life choices. Astrology is an invaluable tool for doing that."
It initially seemed surprising that that sort of logic isn't more widespread among the astrological community—if anything, the mystical world should be rife with women who seek fulfillment outside of the family and guys who identify as sexual bottoms. When asked if the history of astrology was really all that bad, Jessica responded, "The game has been run by straight, white, able-bodied, often monied, and educated dudes. Their values, experiences, and world views are everywhere, including in the astrology textbooks."
Obviously, this is true of most everything, and astrology is far from the only area in which diverse voices are beginning to emerge—which leaves just one looming question: Is there anything cosmic going on here? According to Rhea, yes. "I think the most obvious example is the Uranus-Pluto square, which we are currently on the tail end of right now," she said. Uranus is the planet of rebellion, and Pluto is the planet of transformation. The last time this transit occurred, she told me, was throughout the 1960s.
"When these two planets meet up in hard aspect, they challenge prevailing systems and overturn existing orders," she said. "During both periods I've mentioned, civil rights, gay rights, and feminist movements have been powerful, prominent change agents in the larger society."