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Psychedelics and Queerness

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In the United States and increasingly more countries, June is pride month: a month where major retailers push rainbow printed everything and queer folks have the opportunity to come together in celebration and remembrance of the triumphs and tragedies of their history. But now it’s July: Target has packed up their rainbow pinwheels, the parades are over and still, queer communities are in need of support and resources. Even the COVID-19 pandemic — a life-altering experience for everyone — disproportionately impacted members of sexual minority groups. As psychedelic researchers explore the expansiveness of plant medicines, the interplay of psychedelics and queerness becomes more and more pronounced. Do psychedelics and queerness go together? And could psychedelics provide support for sexually marginalized groups? Let’s go over some helpful terminology.

Sex vs Gender vs Orientation

Advocating for a more inclusive world includes updating the constantly evolving language surrounding sexuality and gender. Queer-identified people have varied interpretations of the identifying vernacular, but largely: queerness is an umbrella term used for people who are not straight or cisgender. Sex and gender are two different facets of a person’s identity and experience.

Sex refers to the genetic and hormonal factors that produce either male or female reproductive systems. This is what doctors assign at birth based solely on the physical characteristics present. Some people are born with physical anatomy that does not fit the binary of male and female genitalia: medical professionals refer to this as intersex. Sometimes the variation in physical anatomy is present at birth, but other times the variation isn’t noticed until puberty or when trying to conceive.

Looking past physical characteristics: gender is a combination of people’s thoughts, behaviors and their performance of the socially constructed roles and expectations assigned to their gender. Identity is a personal construction and gender is one of the many ways that people express their inner selves to the world. Often, the sex assigned at birth influences the way that people are socialized on the journey towards finding their authentic expression. This socialization is powerful and deviation from gender norms opens people up to discrimination. Sex does not equate to gender and though the sex assigned at birth influences socialization, it does not confirm a person’s identity. Neither sex nor gender exists in the exclusive binary of male and female.

Part of the exploration of the sexual self is a relational expression or sexual orientation. 

Sexual orientation refers to a romantic, sexual and emotional pull towards certain people. There is a spectrum of ways that sexual orientation presents itself and behavior does not always dictate someone’s range of sexual attraction. The LGBTQ+ or queer community is a diverse conversion of many different genders, romantic and emotional expressions. 

Psychedelics and Self

The LGBTQ+ community finds itself subject to persecution and marginalization throughout history. At least 70 countries still have some homophobic laws and sexual minority groups are put under unique stresses. For queer folks, assimilation into the largely heteronormative society is a challenge and they are forced to reckon with their relationship,  to self, body, desire and power in ways that cis-gendered straight people do not. The predominant narrative paints love, intimacy and connection as only sanctionable in heterosexual, cis-gendered, monogamous relationships. This is changing as more diverse voices are invited into the conversation, but queer folks still have to grapple with understanding their identity in the context of societies built with more rigidity surrounding gender and sexuality.

While attempting to understand the complexities of self, LGBTQ+ people must also navigate the oppressive legal and societal structures that still exist around the globe. In the United States, there is new legislation threatening the rights of trans people to healthcare access and in parts of Africa, South East Asia and the Middle East, homosexual activity is punishable by imprisonment or death. These oppressive structures hold such external power that they can become internal structures, corroding people’s sense of self and safety from within.

Psychedelics are uniquely well suited for liberating people from the confines of self. The commonly reported and empirically measured experience of ego death describes a space where people lose the constraints of self and are free to let go of otherwise fixed neural structures. After psychedelics treatments, many patients report greater empathy and love for themselves which is a powerful tool for marginalized groups. 

Unfortunately, ostracization from community of origin can be a common experience for LGBTQ+ people. This can leave attachment wounds and negatively affect people’s sense of self. Psychedelics provide people with the chance to disconnect from their own minds and connect into a more mystical space. Though research isn’t fully certain of the exact mechanism by which psychedelics free people from the confines of judgment and shame — perhaps by redirecting blood flow from certain brain areas or utilizing the serotonergic system — both empirical and anecdotal reports highlight psychedelics as a vehicle for unpacking and reprocessing trauma.

Psychedelic explorations have the potential to provide a fresh perspective for queer people learning to understand themselves in societies that challenge the validity of their identities.

Psychedelics as Support

Psychedelic treatments are popping up all over the world in an attempt to address the need for updated tools to combat the growing number of people dealing with mental and physical health concerns. Queer communities, like other marginalized communities, are at higher risk for compromised mental health — depression, anxiety, suicide and substance abuse disorders. This continues to be the case even as legislation changes and public opinion shifts away from the bigotry of the past. In the past, the fact that LGBTQ+ people suffer disproportionately from compromised mental health was falsely attributed to an inherent disorder of queerness. Researchers now know that rather than an internal flaw, the social stress, increased likelihood of interpersonal trauma and systematic discrimination take a toll on queer people’s health.

Psychedelics could be helpful tools in addressing the disproportionate harm and fostering healing for the LGBTQ+ community. 

Intersectionality

Though psychedelics treatments addressing mental health concerns could be particularly helpful for the LGBTQ+ community, it is important to take into account how psychedelic research accounts for the uniquely queer experience.

Alexander Belsar, a psychedelic clinician specializing in MDMA-assisted therapies for PTSD, emphasized the need for queer voices in psychedelic research during a presentation for the Chacruna Institute. Though the LGBTQ+ community is in need of support​, it is important to look at how the structures of clinical psychedelic treatment adapt to the needs of queer people.

If psychedelic research is conducted and funded by predominantly white, straight, cis-gendered males the treatment options may not address the unique needs of queer people. Conversely, unique experiences of LGBTQ+ people could provide opportunities for specific treatment approaches. For example, Belsar describes his experience as a boy attempting to be “perfect” in order to combat his internalized shame surrounding his sexuality. His experience of needing to be the “perfect little boy” is a somewhat common experience for young gay men and can manifest in anxiety, people-pleasing and negative self-concepts in adulthood. By looking at uniquely queer experiences, psychedelic therapies could aim to address people’s specific needs rather than more generalized feelings of distress.

Despite the history of violence, oppression and stigmatization queer people continue to transcend structures of shame and hate, allowing themselves to express the fullness of their human experience. The world of psychedelic exploration is boundary-shattering, introspective and connective: allowing people to tune into the subtleties of their own mind or tap into the multiplicity of the universe around them. The wisdom gained from these explorations can change how people live their lives, view others and view themselves. 

Belsar describes the beauty and power of queer wisdom: “Our magic is intersectional.” Queer people exist in every walk of life, religion and race bringing together disparate ideologies under the umbrella of authentic self-expression. Perhaps the world of psychedelics could benefit from the expansiveness and radical understanding of queer wisdom.

Do you think that psychedelics and queerness go together? We would love to hear your thoughts on how psychedelic research and culture can better include the LGBTQ+ community.

1 thought on “Psychedelics and Queerness”

  1. David (currently trying to find a name which suits me, it's been tricky)

    As well written as this article is I still strongly disagree with its conclusion in relation to psychedelics (although I agree very very strongly with it’s statements on queerness). I am a queer nonbinary transgender person and I’ve been interested in psychedelics for quite a bit, however, after researching them a great deal I’ve come to the conclusion that not only should I not take them but that they also in many cases have serious hidden risks which make them legitimately dangerous (although naturally I expect you to view this sentence as fear mongering so I will try to be non-confrontational here and naturally will only rely on facts and not any feelings of mistrust which so often can grow into judgemental prejudice). Before I dive into the details I want to stress first that I truly and strongly believe that neurodiversity and diversity of thought in general can (and has throughout history) offer(ed) some true marvels to the world and second that I am not against the testing of new drugs for the treatment of illnesses nor in principle the use of drugs for recreation or to enhance creativity. (although it’s telling that in terms of encouraging creativity drugs seem to be so unnecessary, neither Lewis Carroll nor MC Escher nor even Salvador Dalí viewed them as necessary for even extreme creativity and the later two had some fairly interesting anti-drug quotes) Also, apologies in advance: I’m a tad too into run-on sentences.

    My first major disagreement is that there is no mention of the risks of the use of psychedelics here and if I had to hazard a guess as to why, it would be because they are viewed as vanishingly small in comparison to the apparently quite intense and synergistic positives. I do not view them as small, not only is there the very real risk of ptsd from a bad trip (which can apparently be indistinguishable from a psychotic breakdown, ie it causes a state of psychotic breakdown, which to be quite clear is a very very bad thing [even that can be ‘marketed’ as “moving passed an internalized mental block” but the actual evidence for that interpretation is effectively nonexistent so I won’t linger on it]), the risk of hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (one of the few cases where I’m glad there’s an acronym to shorten it) (which is associated with mdma btw), and for drugs like lsd, and the large assortments of compounds in mushrooms and marijuana an increased onset of, like, actual schizophrenia. At this point you’re probably looking at the last sentence with a reaction somewhere between ‘that can’t be right’ and actual outrage at the suggestion however the research I have seen leaves little room for doubt (although as in all science, there’s always room for a little doubt, that’s how it works after all). Hopefully you’ve googled my seemingly implausible claims to fact-check me (and ideally looked broadly for and against your beliefs as I have for mine). Well… why is schizophrenia bad? (btw I do not mean to imply any correlation between schizophrenia and queerness whatsoever, frankly queerness to me is about questioning the status quo of a culture, even a counter culture, even the culture I create around myself, not in just an undermining sense but a truth seeking and constructive one) It’s a provocative question but the fact is that it should be taken seriously, insanity after all is relative and we should value the perspectives of those who are different from us (perhaps specifically because they are different, the distance can give a kind of notional parallax [well that got technical…]) besides the stigma against schizophrenics can be immensely harming socially to them. But wait. Shouldn’t we also question that picture too? Not that we should value other’s views, that’s a solidly good generalization. Also not that schizophrenics are prejudged as ‘just being crazy’ (sadly much like drug users all too often) that is a plain fact (an unfortunate one). The claim that insanity is relative can be questioned. It is possible to have beliefs in things which are not real, to believe without evidence that, for instance, there are only two genders or two sexes when the reality is plainly different (I mean, I exist after all). There is an objective reality which acts as the stage on which our subjective realities play which is a reference for sanity and truth, seeking to believe falsity is a kind of insanity, we can question even this objectivity of reality but insofar as the opposing view can win it is only in pyrrhic victories losing track of a truth which can be conveyed and conveyance is important in a world made of connections after all. Here’s an interesting connection, mdma production is contributing to the deforestation of an endangered tree (Cinnamomum parthenoxylon) in Cambodia, my point in bringing that up is to show that drugs can cause terrible unintended consequences which are not even directly related to the psychological effects that they cause but through the economics of their manufacture and distribution. I can hear you saying, ‘sure, but so do t-shirts, we shouldn’t just stop wearing those’ true, certainly true, but we should source them better and there is a certain level of implicit obscurantism you run into when you ask about where exactly a drug came from which makes it often impossible to actually find out the conditions under which it was sourced and made unlike many other products which aren’t illegal and so don’t need to hide those details. I would argue that psychedelic drugs can cause serious distortions in a person’s understanding of what can be considered real and that those distortions can greatly harm them, for instance, many many people come away from using dmt with a belief in machine elves which are purely subjective and are elaborate constructions of hyper-exited brains and very little more than that, they are even similar to clear cut hallucinations from Charles Bonnet syndrome (I’ve read Oliver Sack’s book on hallucinations) and they appear more meaningful than those because dmt does not exclusively target the visual system it also modifies emotional regulation, unfortunately people occasionally view these experiences as meaning that the elves are real and that they should build the machines the elves tell them to… which can lead to fairly dangerous situations. Who am I to say that they aren’t real though? Honestly, I’m a random internet person with very few qualifications in anything, however the fact that physicists haven’t detected the slightest evidence for invisible or selectively visible elves or any parallel universes which they could be residing in is clear evidence against their existence (and physicists are quite good at detecting the invisible, from x-rays to infrasound to the 100 trillion neutrinos from the sun which just passed through you a second ago, if they could detect something as invisible as a neutrino nearly 60 years ago I don’t think they’d have trouble detecting elves now, since to interact with a person enough to be visible in the first place they’d have to interact with matter a great deal more than neutrinos already do). This I think reasonably proves that drugs can do some intense subjective reality reshuffling and, as you can see from the anti-vax crowd, an unfounded belief can, at its worst, do a great deal of harm even to large groups of people. My experience in the queer community has given me many chances to talk with people who have used psychedelics and many who have not and I can honestly say I do not believe they have been truly helped by them and I have listened as carefully and sympathetically as possible to their descriptions. I think encouraging the use of drugs which have so many legitimate dangers (while overdosing to death is rare on psychedelics overdosing to a permanent psychotic state is not rare enough to pretend it doesn’t occur and it is in many ways a fate worse than death) is unwise and marketing them to queer and trans people who have a higher prevalence of schizophrenia (which while not wholly negative can still destroy lives) than cis people already (again, I am in no way stating causality here and have personally found my queerness to be tremendously stabilizing in the face of dealing with my mental health problems) is doubly unwise and I hate to say it but recklessly endangering others. I am personally quite profoundly tired of having to refute so many nonsensical claims about drugs which have ended up hurting and in one case killing my friends. I don’t want to be oppressed into believing a bland conformist picture of reality either but I equally don’t want to be oppressed by drugs into an irreality which I’ve already had to struggle to climb out of after having been consigned there by those who claimed I didn’t exist! (I do after all exist, perhaps as a fleeting pattern in a frail brain but exist even so, objectively) On the note of the experience of inexistance (or rather the subjective hallucination of inexistance, after all, I think therefore I am [in some very minimal capacity at least]), having lived through near ego death experiences in the past, from my perspective it was not therapeutic in any way at all but rather deeply traumatic and I think elevating them so highly is a generalization which needlessly avoids a more complicated & nuanced truth in favor of marketing. To exist, as a fragile particular shimmering multiplicity of pattern in a world of immense complexity is not a bad thing, we just don’t need drugs to do it, the doubters call us snowflakes, fine, let us be snowflakes, I can live with a broken arm or leg but to melt me and recrystallize me would turn me into someone else, I am myself, it would kill me, snowflakes have room to grow and change, how else did they come to be but by growing?, bit by bit, carefully, into deep imperfect symmetry, perhaps fractal, perhaps unique, but not needing to be, there are triangular snowflakes which resemble each other quite closely, it’s not a harm to either. Reality is enough for me and I would not trade it even for a beautiful life of pure imagination as though we can’t have both.
    tldr: psychedelic drugs? Nah.

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