Book Review: Bending the Binary by Deborah Lipp

(Note that this post contains one instance of explicit language!)

It is so excellent to see an uptick in queer-centered books on magic and witchcraft. Last year I read Outside the Charmed Circle: Exploring Gender & Sexuality in Magical Practice by Misha Magdalene and Queer Magic: Lgbt+ Spirituality and Culture from Around the World by Tomás Prower. Both were affirming and thought-provoking explorations of queer presence in/impact on witchcraft and spirituality. Both have a permanent place on my bookshelf. And this year Llewellyn kindly gave me copies of Sacred Gender: Create Trans & Nonbinary Spiritual Connections by Ariana Serpentine (which is next on my reading list!) and Bending the Binary: Polarity Magic in a Nonbinary World by Deborah Lipp. 

I’m embarrassed to say that this is the first book of Lipp’s that I’ve read–this is her ELEVENTH publication! I’ll definitely be adding some of her other work to my (ever-expanding) To-Be-Read list. Overall I really enjoyed Bending the Binary, and it’s given me ideas that I’m excited to incorporate into my magical practice. But is it an accessible book for those of us in the disabled and neurodivergent communities? 

Let’s discuss. 


Admittedly, I never ran up against the degree of gendered witchcraft that a lot of my trans and nonbinary siblings have. I’ve never been interested in joining a traditional coven that might operate under a God/Goddess binary. But I have definitely felt out of place when witchy books or instagram posts talk about the divine feminine/divine masculine. To be clear–if this is a source of power and magic for you, that’s absolutely valid! But for me, an enby practitioner whose gender identity is best described as “void,” it’s not useful or meaningful. It sort of strikes me the same way as meditation practices that begin with asking you to take a few deep breaths “in through your nose and out through your mouth.” My breathing is borked and I literally can’t breathe through my nose much, if at all. So while it’s awesome that this method of breathing meditation works for many people, it immediately takes me out of the moment and makes me feel like I’m Not Doing it Right.

Deborah Lipp, on the other hand, came up in a very gendered, heteronormative Wiccan tradition. While she is herself a queer woman, she readily admits that she had a lot of unlearning to do when it came to the gender essentialism she was trained in. It’s refreshing to hear an author talk candidly about how they’ve grown and changed, learning to let go of exclusivity and embrace diversity more wholeheartedly. But as she says herself, she doesn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater–the core idea of generating magical energy through opposing forces is worth exploring and retaining, so long as you detangle it from the cissexist and heteronormative window dressings it’s been attached to. 

Using the forces of masculine/feminine is but one option of many when it comes to polarity magic. Lipp offers a variety of other polarities that one could choose to work with, including self/other, force/form, and night/day, to name a few. “It’s not enough to study and learn a magical or spiritual system and follow its rules,” she says. “It has to be personal. The personal lives of the practitioners of magic have to inform the systems we use, and the systems have to allow that the impact of its practitioners is meaningful and valuable.” That is a profound assertion for ANY of us who have felt out of place in a spiritual system that didn’t seem to consider our existence or needs. 

There’s a lot to love about Bending the Binary. It’s well-researched, thoughtful, and written in a down-to-earth tone of voice. There’s a TON of background information about how and why gender and heterosexuality became so baked into traditional Wicca. And for each of the other polarities she offers, there’s practical examples, suggestions, and even rituals to put the polarity in question into action. I always love to see hands-on activities alongside deep theory. It helps take the theory from the realm of the abstract and into a more three-dimensional, practical reality. 


With that said, this is primarily a theory book. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But in terms of accessibility, it may be a bit of a stumbling block. As I mentioned, I don’t have a ton of experience/knowledge in traditional Wicca. So while I enjoyed learning more about it, there were moments when I struggled to maintain focus. Especially in the first section of the book, which takes you through the history of gender essentialism in Wicca. It’s definitely useful background information, and I learned a lot. But it is very dense at points, especially if (like me) you don’t have a background in Wicca. I wouldn’t even call this a con, precisely–it’s just something to know going into it. If deep diving into gender studies and Wiccan history sounds unappealing or overwhelming, it might be worth approaching this book very slowly. Break it into small, approachable bites rather than trying to marathon the whole book at once (which is what I did, because I have no self control when it comes to books). Or honestly, even jump over chapters five and six. They’re absolutely worthwhile, but if you’re mostly here for ideas about incorporating non-gendered polarity magic into your practice, you don’t need those chapters to dive in. 

Something that I will point out as a con is that Deborah Lipp definitely falls into some ableist stereotypes from time to time. In the chapter about the polarity of force/form, for example, she describes force without form using the metaphor of a “kid with ADHD bouncing off the walls and accomplishing nothing.” I don’t love this metaphor, any more than I love it when picky/particular behavior is described as OCD, or when a mood swing is described as bipolar. I don’t think there’s any malice in Lipp’s metaphor here–it just feels like one of those problematic language habits that requires conscious unlearning. 

Later, in the chapter on the polarity of passive/active, she uses an extended analogy that I don’t exactly know how to feel about. “Consider certain disabilities in which a person might need to passively wait to be helped,” says Lipp. “Living an active, empowered life requires dependency on a home health aide for some people, for example, a wheelchair user who needs to be assisted into their chair. They’re active once in the chair, but until then, there’s an enforced passivity that can be frustrating…it’s a polarity…I’m not telling any disabled person to be happy about a difficult situation, but it’s powerful to find that energy is there for the taking.” 

I can’t speak as a wheelchair user or someone who currently needs a home health aide. But I am a physically disabled person who uses a cane and sometimes a rollator, and I do require extra help from my loved ones. And reading that paragraph gave me very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I like the idea of finding power in the liminality of disability. I’m always excited when disability is called out as a source of strength rather than a tragic deficit. On the other hand…wow, I don’t love describing disability as enforced passivity. Even in moments like Lipp describes, such as a home health aide helping a wheelchair user transfer from bed to wheelchair, I don’t see it as passive/active as much as I do give/take. If I have to rely on my spouse to help me with something, I must first actively ask for their help. That takes a lot of energy and strength. It isn’t passive. And as my partner E pointed out, no matter what your body is doing, your mind may be very active. Even if I’m having a day where I can’t move much from the couch, my mind is usually pretty busy. That’s not passivity, either. And for all you know, a home health aide (or helpful loved one) may be mentally checked out while they help the physically disabled person with physical tasks. Does that make them passive, or active? 

 Furthermore, this polarity of getting help isn’t specific to disabled people. Yes, we may need our loved ones or caregivers to step in for day-to-day tasks that our abled compatriots don’t. But asking for and receiving help is something we ALL do, disabled or abled, neurotypical or neurodivergent. I would have preferred to see Lipp talk about passive/active from a broader perspective, rather than using the analogy of a wheelchair user. I will say that Lipp encourages the reader to come up with their own polarities, or different methods of engaging with each polarity. She even includes an appendix at the back which lists all the facets of each polarity she came up with, and leaves space for you to add your own. If I were going to experiment with this polarity, I think I’d call it give/take rather than passive/active. And with all of that said, perhaps Lipp’s analogy rings true to you and your practice as is. That’s completely valid! It’s just one of those moments that gave me pause when I first read it, so if you decide to pick up Bending the Binary, it’s worth knowing ahead of time what to expect. 

Image description: a page from Bending the Binary's appendix listing polarities. As alternatives to the polarity of Self/Other, Lipp has listed humanity/divinity, lover/beloved, immanence/transcendence, contraction/expansion, conjoin/dissolve, subject/object, and planet/satellite. As alternatives for the polarity of Passive/Active, Lipp has listed stasis/movement, fucked/fucker, socket/plug, receptive/projective, and being/becoming. There is also space to add your own polarities.

The appendix, where you can add your own polarities. 

Because E is a genius, when we were discussing the book they got me thinking about movement/stillness as a particularly rich vein for disabled witches to experiment with. I don’t have the space to do it justice in this blog post, so I’m actually going to write a separate post where I explore movement/stillness polarity–perhaps even with its own spell or ritual! So keep an eye out for that in the coming weeks. 

In general, I don’t think any of these cons make the book unworthy of a read. It genuinely does have a lot of thought-provoking and inspiring content, especially if you’re a queer witch. It’s a book I’m happy to have on my shelf, and one that I plan to return to as I experiment with polarity magic. If you want to deepen your understanding of magical theory in a queer-friendly way, OR if you’re an authority figure in a coven or magical group looking to make your space more inclusive, I’d definitely recommend picking up Bending the Binary. Just know that you may need to pace yourself as you read through the more theory-heavy sections, and that a few of Lipp’s analogies should be taken with a grain of salt. 

Thanks again to Llewellyn for giving me this advanced reader copy! What other witchy books would you like to see me review from an accessibility standpoint?

Book Review: Bending the Binary by Deborah Lipp Tiny Witchcraft

This episode is also available as a blog post at Note that there is one instance of explicit language in this episode where I quote directly from the book!

Published by Ru-Lee Story

Tea-drinking, asexual, agender tarot practitioner and author battling chronic illness and social injustices. Not necessarily in that order. They/them or ey/em.

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