All Acts of Love and Pleasure Are My Rituals: The Inglorious History of the Representation of Queer Witches in Popular Culture.
Witchcraft has been an important part of the horror genre for centuries, being used by villains and heroes to start and stop havoc. Queer people have also been intertwined with horror for centuries, albeit on a smaller scale. It’s when queer folks and witchcraft are mixed in popular media that things can grow far more muddled and tricky to navigate.
From Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) to American Horror Story: Coven (2013), representation for queer witches leaves so much to be desired – what little can be found of it, that is.
Just as there’s queer people in all forms and types, there are queer witches. Contemporary witchcraft is deeply intertwined with queer people, although whether it’s in a positive or negative light depends on which type of witchcraft you follow.
The Church of Satan’s high priest Peter. H. Gilmore stated in an essay that The Church of Satan was ‘the first church to fully accept members regardless of sexual orientation and so we champion weddings/civil unions between adult partners whether they be of opposite or the same sex.’ (Gilmore, ‘Founding Family: “Mortality” versus Same-Sex Marriage’).
Meanwhile, while the founders of Gardnerian Wiccanism dipped into some far-right politics, and Gerald Gardner (one of the co-founders) was openly homophobic, the founder of Alexanderian Wicca, Alex Sanders, came out as bisexual later in his life. There are even certain branches for gay men and lesbians only (although Dianic Wicca is known for rejecting trans women under a ‘womyn-born-womyn’ policy).
But this does not carry over into the media representation of witches.
Many queer witches have noticed very little representation for their kinfolk in popular culture. “Actually, the only LGBTQ witch I can think of is Aleister Crowley, and I can’t quite remember his sexuality (except that he was very open),” says Hannibal Grimm, a practicing witch. “And his portrayal in media has either been like… about fanatic cis women cooing over his free love philosophy and about him being a dangerous weirdo, and only those two.”
Parker Crocuta, another witch, states:
“I think that when they’re put out there, they’re not really put out there with the thought of ‘People like this actually exist’. A lot of the time the whole ‘spooky witch uses dark magic and goes evil’ thing is real big because of that, which kind of demonizes queer people while doing so by using a trope that isn’t even a thing.”
A good example of the trope that Crocuta brings up is that of Willow Rosenburg (Alyson Hannigan) from Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003).
Willow famously fell into this trope during the sixth season when her first love after coming to terms with being a lesbian, Tara Maclay (Amber Benson), is killed by a villain of the series immediately after reconciling after an extended fight over Willow’s use of magic.
Her lover’s death was – and still is – a notable example of the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope and led to Willow delving slightly into another trope: that of the ‘Psycho Lesbian’, driven mad by her grief to the point where she almost ends the world until she’s persuaded not to by a friend.
Even after this, she still struggles with her grief over Tara’s death and the pull of the same dark magic she gave into upon her passing. The treatment of Tara and Willow’s relationship is still seen as a point of contention in the queer community.
Another attempt at presenting queer witches appeared in the show Salem (2014-2017). The lead character of Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery), the most powerful witch in Salem, appears to be bisexual having had a romance with John Alden (Shane West) while also maintaining a strong sexual connection to Tituba (Ashley Madekwe).
However, Montgomery was very vague about Mary’s sexuality in an interview with AfterEllen during the show’s three season run, stating:
“It’s interesting—that question. What I’m trying to play on with witchcraft is that the language of witches is often sexual, It’s often based in a sexual nature. The relationship with Tituba, there’s a sisterly relationship there like family, there’s also the fact that they’ve grown up together, and so, they’re like best friends. There is a sexuality in their relationship though, and I think that comes from just the way witches would speak to one another, whether it’s physically or through language.” (Hoffman, “Janet Montgomery of Salem Explains Mary’s Sexuality”).
The fact that Mary is made evil through her usage of witchcraft, as are many of the other witches in the show, doesn’t help much either as she plays into the ‘Depraved Bisexual’ trope.
There are other hints of queer witches in popular culture, such as slight queercoding in the film The Craft (1996) and a disastrous attempt at what could be called a polyamorous relationship between Kyle (Evan Peters), Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), and Madison (Emma Roberts) on American Horror Story: Coven (2013).
Beyond these, however, representation for queer witches is stained with ‘Bury Your Gays’ at best and either covered up or made evil at worst. This is a serious problem, since witchcraft and queerness are both demonized frequently by conservative groups. Every single representation of a queer witch as a villain only leads to more and more ill will against both queer people and those who practice witchcraft in all its forms.
Luckily, there is hope outside of Hollywood’s sphere.
Many queer witches have taken to writing their own fiction, by queer witches and for queer witches. Meanwhile, activists and self-identified jewitches Shelby Handler and Cat Cunningham have created the ritual and performance piece protest Gay Witch (2016) to try and convey that there are more types of queer witches out there than the media has allowed the world to see.