June 17, 2021

June 17, 2021

Love & LSD: The Complicated Relationship Between Pride & Psychedelics

This month, as we celebrate Pride and the ongoing journey towards acceptance and inclusivity for members of the LGBTQ community, it's important we look back on the overlapping history of Pride and psychedelics.

The LGBTQ+ community has quite the intertwined history with psychedelics. And, it hasn’t always been smooth. As we celebrate this pride month, let's take what lessons we can from the past and help foster acceptance and pride-positive spaces within the psychedelic-assisted therapy movement.

A Spectrum of History

Queer people (defined here as non-normative) have long been involved in the world of psychedelics — from ancient to modern, Indigenous to mainstream medicines. 

In an article for Chacruna, Gregory Wells, a licensed psychologist, tells the history of psychedelics and the LGBTQ community by first acknowledging two-spirit, blended spirit, and third gender peoples that have existed in Indigenous tribes throughout history. Wells writes, “In many tribes, they were greatly respected and said to be more human and more spiritually gifted, as they embodied characteristics of both woman and man. It was also not uncommon for these people to be apprenticed to the tribal shaman or healer.”

Fast forward to the 1950s and '60s in the United States. Psychedelic research and clinical studies were ramping up throughout university and college campuses. Ram Dass (formerly known as Richard Alpert), along with Timothy Leary and Andrew Weil were members of the infamous Harvard Psychedelic Club

Their earliest work at Harvard involved using LSD to conduct psychedelic research, including conversion therapy, in attempts to “cure” homosexuality. 

Many psychiatrists at the time believed that homosexuality was an illness. In 1962, a study conducted by Joyce Martin claimed to have helped cure half of the 12 gay men of their homosexual proclivities with LSD.

Four years later, Leary, the same prominent voice of the psychedelic counterculture who coined the phrase, “Turn on, tune in, and drop out” told Playboy that, “LSD is a specific cure for homosexuality.” 

And it wasn’t until years later, after his own healing, that Ram Dass spoke openly about his internalized shame as a gay man and the need for healing in the gay community.

On The More “Prideful” Side...

On the other side of this history were gay liberation movements fueled by psychedelics, such as club culture and The Cockettes.

The Cockettes were an avant-garde psychedelic-hippie-theatre group, known for political parody, gender-bending and blending, and LSD. These are another great example of the connection between gay liberation and psychedelics as they were all about celebrating sexual experimentation and free love. 

Did you know that LSD also played an important role in the design of the iconic symbol of pride? 

In his posthumous memoir, Rainbow Warrior: My Life in Color, Gilbert Baker recalls a night in a San Francisco nightclub, “riding the mirror ball on glittering LSD and love power.” It was that moment, “in a swirl of color and light,” that he knew exactly what kind of flag he would make. The year was 1978 and he popularized the rainbow as a global LGBTQ symbol.

It was during these later years in the '70s and '80s that LGBTQ activists and leaders like Dennis Peron played pivotal roles in the interlacing of the psychedelic and gay liberation movement. During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, Peron led the fight for the medical use of cannabis. “Legalized cannabis would not be where it is today were it not for Peron’s activism,” says Wells.

Today, members of the queer community are still very much involved in the psychedelic movement, attending and presenting at psychedelic conferences and panels, and more importantly, “coming out of the psychedelic closet in droves.”

And as the new wave of the psychedelic movement continues, Wells hopes that more people will feel emboldened to come out of the psychedelic closet.

Queering Psychedelia

Historically, psychedelic therapy culture has been dominated by white, cis, middle-aged men. And while they believed in the power of healing with psychedelics, they also ascribed a heteronormative definition to healing.

With the legalization of psychedelics like LSD and MDMA on the horizon, the movement for accessible healing with psychedelics requires a radical rethink of Western psychedelic culture, seeking justice and inclusion. 

Vice’s article notes, “In LGBTQ communities, incidents of depression, anxiety, and addiction are far higher than in the larger population. In the US, LGBTQ youth are five times more likely to attempt suicide.”

Psychedelics can be a powerful way to explore and even reconstruct gender and sexual identities — helping people to embrace and affirm who they really are, says Alex Belser, a clinical researcher at Yale University who works on psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. “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 continued. 

Education about the lived experiences of LGBTQ people is at the core of new psychedelic-assisted therapy spaces. Creating safe spaces in which queer people can take psychedelics, and opening doors to historically hostile medical institutions, could help to heal the decades-long trauma these communities are still recovering from.

Coming out or dealing with trauma related to identity is always a process of healing and introspection, and one that could greatly benefit from guidance and support. Psychedelics (and more importantly psychedelic-assisted therapy) promotes this healing and introspection through training, counselling, and supportive means.

As Nese Devenot wrote, “the oppression and alienation of both psychedelic and queer people results from a common cultural prejudice against those who experience and interact with the world differently from the dominant and traditional population.” She goes on to say, “Queer is, by definition, whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant”.

MINDCURE is helping to lead the way for inclusive, safe psychedelic spaces. To learn more about what we do, check out our website.

Written by

Hayley Kirsh