When Dee Adams decided to take an Ayahuasca trip, she wasn’t quite herself—yet.
“I tried to look away, but everywhere I looked, it was me as a woman. And I was happy, shining, everything was bright,” Adams said. This was before she embraced her identity as a transgender woman.
Despite the warmth of the visions that surrounded Adams, this was not a comforting experience: “I was scared. I just wanted to run away. I was like, ‘Oh my god! When are the lights coming on?’”
Psychedelics can dig into dark corners of your subconscious, opening the self up to examination, even rewriting the narrative of your life. “The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out,” wrote author Aldous Huxley on his experience of taking mescaline. “He will be wiser but less sure, happier but less self-satisfied.”
Recent research has suggested that psychedelics might help the brain change in ways that seem to create a revolutionary treatment for depression, trauma, anxiety, and addiction. Compounds in shrooms, LSD, and ketamine, among other drugs, have been shown to help people to dig themselves out of the habitual ruts that can make some mental illnesses so intractable. Even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has designated therapy with psilocybin—the active ingredient in shrooms—a “breakthrough therapy.” Now a movement of scientists, activists, and spiritual leaders hopes to bring queer experiences to the forefront of the psychedelic renaissance.
“Young gay people are taking their own lives because of the sort of stress, pressure, bullying, and rejection that they have received in their families, religious communities, schools, and broader political experience in the world,” said Alex Belser, a clinical researcher at Yale University who works on psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.
The same social pressures can push people into identities that deny their true selves.
Psychedelics, Belser said, can be a powerful way to explore and even reconstruct gender and sexual identities—helping people to embrace and affirm who they really are. “If a person has been fighting their sexual identity, the neuroplastic window of opportunity is a critical period for them to shift to a new way of understanding themselves and relating to other people in their lives,” Belser said. “That can be incredibly relieving and quite liberating.”
After almost half a century in the shadows, thanks to government drug policies, the reemerging practice of psychedelic-assisted therapy offers new hope. As the field re-emerges, though, so do the same questions from the 1950s and 1960s: Who gets to use these drugs? And are the marginalized communities who would benefit most able to find safe places to practice?
With the legalization of such potent medicines on the horizon, the movement to queer psychedelics seeks justice and inclusion so as to more fully unlock psychedelic healing in society. But doing so requires a radical rethink of Western psychedelic culture, which since its origins has often been led by straight, white, cis-gender men.
We Can't All Take the Same Doses in the Same Spaces and Feel Equally Safe
Despite the clear potential for psychedelic healing among queer people, psychedelic spaces—whether recreational, spiritual or scientific—often exclude those who may benefit most. “[Society] is disproportionately traumatizing people of color, women, and queer people,” said Jae Sevelius, a University of California, San Francisco psychologist who works with transgender communities. “And those are the people who are disproportionately excluded from these trials for treating trauma.”
Psychologist Timothy Leary was one of the most prominent voices of 1960s psychedelic counterculture, famous for urging America’s hippy youth to “Turn on. Tune in. Drop out.” In 1966, he also told Playboy that “LSD is a specific cure for homosexuality.”
“Most sexual perversions,” he continued, “are the result of freaky, dislocating childhood experiences.” His views were shared by many psychiatrists of the time, who considered homosexuality to be an illness—and some of whom offered LSD conversion therapy. In 1962, Joyce Martin claimed that more than half of the 12 gay men she had treated with LSD had become heterosexual. Renowned Czech psychologist Stanislas Grof also reportedly used LSD to treat homosexual clients. “It's not something that until very recently been acknowledged or talked about,” said Camille Barton, an artist and drug policy reform advocate from the U.K.
Despite this checkered history, queerness and psychedelics have often gone hand-in-hand: from San Francisco’s gender-blending, acid-fuelled theatre troupe the Cockettes, to the Radical Faeries spiritual movement, which began among gay men in the 1970s. Queer communities are inherently open to “trying things outside the norm, because they've already stepped out of a cultural box,” Sevelius said. Yet the likes of Huxley, Leary, and the writer/philosopher/drug enthusiast Terence McKenna, however, remain the figureheads of psychedelic counterculture. This lack of diversity is echoed in the demographics of those who take psychedelics—who tend to be white and male—and can lead to narrow descriptions of what psychedelic experiences are like.
McKenna, an ethnobotanist and mystic, popularized the idea of the “heroic dose” (he prescribed taking 5g of magic mushrooms and sitting in silent darkness—heroes apply within). This kind of psychedelic bravado also speaks to what Ariel Vegosen, an inclusivity and diversity trainer, calls “psychedelic privilege.” Not everyone can take the same doses in the same spaces, and not everyone has access to psychedelics in the first place—whether at a festival or in a psychotherapist’s clinic. Often this boils down to someone’s gender, sexuality, and race.
Vegosen described the microaggressions or unwanted advances that women and LGBTQ people often face at a party, for example. “If they're going to take psychedelics and alter their brain, what does that mean?” they asked. “Who feels safe to do this, and who does not feel safe to do this?” And so a consideration of “set and setting”—that is, your state of mind, and the environment you’re in while tripping—can be especially vital to queer people and people of color, given the traumas they endure.
This summer Vegosen was one of the founders of Queerdome at Burning Man, where 100 trained volunteers were on call to help LGBTQ people who were having a challenging psychedelic journey. Spaces that aim to reduce harm among people tripping already existed at Burning Man, but none were queer-centered.
“Queer people are looking for a safe space where the majority of the sitters identify as part of the LGBTQ community,” Vegosen explained. "If somebody comes in [to Queerdome], they don’t have to be afraid about being mis-pronouned; they don’t have to be afraid about people misunderstanding their sexuality.” The Queerdome team now plans to take the same model and roll it out at gatherings and parties across the U.S.
Five years after Adams’ Ayahuasca-guided revelation, her transgender journey is still unfolding, although she said, “it’s taken on a brilliant hue.” It’s a path that Adams has largely had to feel out for herself. “I can make a Venn diagram of people I can share my transgender experience with and people I can share my Ayahuasca experience with, and there's only a line between those I can share both with,” she says. So Adams is now curating an Ayahuasca circle for LGBTQ people in Peru next year, creating a safe space for others to explore their identities and to heal from trauma.
Gender dysphoria and transphobia can often prevent transgender people from entering Ayahuasca circles, Adams said. “Are there gender-segregated toilets? How will people look at me?” she asks, reflecting on the stresses she’s faced going on retreats. “You have to be careful who you drink ayahuasca with. Being called the wrong pronoun is bad enough when you’re sober.”
Education about the lived experiences of LGBTQ people is at the core of these new spaces, and so Vegosen recently founded Shine Diversity to train businesses, schools, and a variety of other organizations, including those working with psychedelics, in the language and tools of inclusivity. “If you're working with psychedelics, you need to be trained in what it means to work with people who are LGBTQ. If you're a white therapist, what does it mean if you're going to work with people of color?” they pointed out. “Have you done the work and have you done the training that it takes to be able to understand the specific needs of these communities?”
Yet the idea of queer-only spaces is opposed by some in psychedelic communities. Adams has received waves of online abuse: “People often say: ‘Oh, but we're all one. Why are you making these separations? The backlash can be really intense.”
“Saying that ‘we're all one’ is the equivalent of saying ‘All Lives Matter,’” she said. “It's really bypassing our experiences,” and doesn’t acknowledge the struggles that some people face when they're in these spaces. When you’re accustomed to privilege, the aphorism goes, equality feels like oppression.
Such spiritual bypassing is used “as an excuse to not really talk about difficult things that are real for certain people,” Barton said. “If you aren’t white, aren’t straight, aren’t cis, very quickly you begin to see that there isn't a huge amount of time and space given to understanding the realities of these oppressions.”
There’s a Noticeable Lack of Inclusivity in the Sciences More Generally
After decades cutting through red tape around the prohibition of psychedelics, clinical successes are coming in thick and fast—whether with magic mushrooms, LSD, ketamine or MDMA. Yet the methods used, and sometimes the attitudes of scientists, are rooted in practices from the 1960s.
“The scientific culture around psychedelics still feels very young,” Sevelius said. “And we often forget that there are all kinds of forces acting upon what scientific questions we ask, and how we frame our designs.” One such tradition from the original years of psychedelic science is the designation of two therapists to work with each patient: one male, and one female.
“The thinking at the time was driven by a psychoanalytic discourse, which basically said we should have both a mother figure and a father figure present,” Belser said. The idea that a male therapist has an intrinsic “masculine energy” and a female therapist has “feminine energy” is outdated, he said, and is potentially harmful to patients who don’t conform to the gender binary.
Trauma, too, is often narrowly defined in these clinical settings as something rooted in distinct events that happened in the past. “There's really no conceptual framework about how this therapy addresses complex trauma, or ongoing trauma—like racism, or transphobia, or homophobia—that people then have to go out and re-experience,” Sevelius said.
Some of these problems are beginning to be addressed in clinical trials that are designed to support the needs of queer people. Recently, at the University of California San Francisco, 18 gay men who lived through the AIDS epidemic took part in group therapy assisted by psilocybin. The remarkable potential of magic mushrooms to treat depression and other mental illnesses is well known, yet the key to this trial was offering group therapy to the men after their trip.
“The AIDS crisis in San Francisco is a huge source of trauma for older gay men, and this format creates a sense of community,” Sevelius said. “It provides social support for people to process their trauma and to break the isolation.” After psychedelic-assisted therapy, the study found a sudden decrease in the “complicated grief” of the men—that is an unhealthy sort of grief that sticks around after someone close to you has died. This improvement in mental wellbeing was sustained in the weeks afterward as group therapy was taking place and in the months beyond. But such queer-centered studies are rare.
Psychedelic science was cast into the shadows when President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in 1971. In the U.S., psychedelics became Schedule 1 illegal substances with “no therapeutic value.” Once they were made illegal, it became very difficult for scientists to test whether they had any therapeutic value. This catch-22 has taken almost half a century to break, with scientists only just beginning to overcome the legal, bureaucratic and financial barriers that have stifled their research for so long.
Only in 2016 did the number of scientific articles published about psilocybin surpass that of its heyday in the 1960s. It’s been a “very difficult, arduous process” Belser said, requiring a lot of “savvy, power and forms of privilege.” As a result, the scientists leading these clinical studies tend to be white, cisgender, straight men. “When asking for approvals from the powers that be to greenlight an experimental trial of psychedelic medicine, it often helps if the person making the request possesses all the privileges of identity, as well as institutional affiliation and connections,” Belser continued.
A lack of gender, sexual, and racial diversity is reflected among those who volunteer for clinical studies too, in part coming from a wariness that many oppressed groups have toward medical spaces. “There is a lot of past trauma that we have experienced as a community at the hands of therapists or medical professionals telling us that we are ‘sick’ when we are not. So there's already a lack of trust,” Vegosen said.
Barton, who produces an arts festival focused on the intersections of drug policy, racial justice, and liberation, also points to the historic experimentation on black and brown bodies; while the war on drugs was, and continues to be, a tool of oppression against people of color. Scientists designing clinical studies need to understand this, they say. “Researchers can't just expect to put a call out and say: ‘Great! Participate in these studies, it’s fine now.’ Because there is that history.”
But given how close researchers are to legalizing psychedelic-assisted therapy, there exists a “by any means necessary” mentality among many older members of the community, Barton said. “I think there's a need to slow down, take stock, and get critical.”
There’s Been a Bit of Progress but There’s Still a Long Way to Go
What’s needed is a “reckoning with the past” said Belser, who spoke at the first Queering Psychedelics conference in San Francisco this summer, along with Adams and Vegosen. There, and at other conferences such as Empyrean, these critical conversations are beginning to happen. There is some action in clinical spaces too: MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association For Psychedelic Studies) no longer requires one therapist to be a man and the other to be a woman, instead partnering patients with therapists of the same gender; MAPS also held the first psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy training specifically for therapists of color this summer.
Creating safe spaces in which queer people can take psychedelics, and opening doors to once-hostile medical institutions, could help to heal the decades-long trauma of these communities. But breaking the Ayahuasca circle, exiting the Queerdome, or walking out the sliding doors of the therapist’s clinic, queer people and people of color will still find themselves living in a society that can be hostile to them.
Even within psychedelic communities, which are often assumed to be open-minded spaces, the pushback that many in the queering psychedelics movement have faced suggests that the trope of tolerant, free-thinking psychonauts is a little more complex. Barton reflects on their experiences with people in the community who have “evidently done a lot of work with plant medicine” yet often struggle to empathize with life experiences that are different from their own.
“It's not like you could just hand out psychedelics to everyone and all of a sudden peace and love would happen,” Vegosen said. “You need to do the hard work of justice.” Broadly speaking, Vegosen said they think that psychedelics do help people to open their minds to “love and humanity,” but it’s no silver bullet. “It takes a lot of time to unlearn the systems of oppression that we’ve been living in,” they said. An understatement, perhaps, but one that is full of hope.