Queering Psychedelics Couldn’t Come at a Better Moment

The conference at the Brava Theater opens on the first day of Pride month, right as Oakland moves toward decriminalizing psilocybin. Might it help alter contemporary medicine?

Denver has decriminalized psilocybin, and Oakland may soon follow. Almost as if by magic, the Brava Center for the Arts on 24th Street in the Mission hosts a two-day conference this weekend, as a sort of extra-timely Pride Month kickoff. Queering Psychedelics, presented by the Chacruna Institute‘s Women, Gender Diversity, and Sexual Minorities speaker series, takes on the topics of hallucinogenic plant medicines and their potential to aid the lives of everyday people. This Saturday and Sunday, June 1-2, participants will sit in on discussions such as “Are Black People and Queer People Allowed to Trip?” or “Music and the Psychedelic Experience: A Queer View on Its Evolution and Pivotal Role in Shamanic, Psychedelic, and Therapeutic Practice.”

These topics, of course, can be a bit fraught. Beyond the appropriative element, wherein things like ayahuasca get hipsterized as trend-chasers ignore the centuries of cultural practices that have kept their use beneficial and safe, there is also the issue of practitioners using medicine to “cure” LGBTQ people of their alleged sexual deviance, rather than help them feel like whole people whose minds and bodies are valid just as they are.

To gain some better insights into the rapidly evolving landscape of entheogenic plants, SF Weekly spoke with Chacruna Institute anthropologist and conference co-founder Bia Labate, a native of Brazil who’s worked in Guadalajara and here in the Bay Area (where she now resides). This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

I’m fascinated by this conference. It seems so obvious, yet doesn’t seem like it’s been done often — or at all.

Exactly! You found the secret. That’s exactly how it feels. I have this smile on my face on the phone.

So why now?

I don’t know about the external timing, but I can tell you about our timing. We created the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Medicine, and the main mission is to create public education and cultural legitimacy around psychedelic plant medicines. There’s a growing interest in psychedelics and renaissance in plant medicines but there’s a lot of talk about clinical trials and the possibility of making psilocybin a medicine for depression and MDMA a medicine for PTSD — but there isn’t a lot being done on the cultural level.

We want to make academic knowledge more accessible for the public, but also create a container where this conversation can happen and to create a bridge between the world of psychedelic plant medicine and the world of traditional, ceremonial drug use. It’s also part of our vision to create more diversity in the field of psychedelic science. We feel there’s a lack of people of color, a lack of women, a lack of natives, a lack of voices from the Global South and also LGBT populations. 

I am an anthropologist. I enjoy the cultural critique and reflection and conversation. So last August, we hosted a conference at CIIS called Cultural Perspectives on Psychedelic Science — and that was kind of like, let’s say, our foundational conference here in the U. S. I had been doing work in Mexico and Brazil ad elsewhere for 22 years in this field, but I moved here in 2017 and we had this conference. We had six panels that each covered one topic that we considered under-represented in the field of psychedelics. So one is the cultural aspect and individual voices, another one was legalization and regulation and decriminalization, another was the potential upcoming education of psychedelic medicines and the new psychedelic businesses that are emerging, another one was new therapists, another one was about queer voices, and another one was about people of color.

Six panels — and the one on LGBT went very well. That was in August, and in October, I was the moderator of a conference at Horizons, the longest conference on psychedelics in the U.S., which has been going annually for 13 years now. One of the [presenters] of our conference was invited to go to Horizons. [So we took] something that didn’t exist and you make one panel and the next thing you know, a speaker is on a major conference that has more global national visibility. Because it’s a small field, it’s very dynamic and you see things evolving very fast. You can see the results of the work, so that’s exciting, you get this feeling you’re really making history — frequently.

Someone asked about gay people and psychedelics, and one colleague announced that “gay people who were interested in psychedelics could meet during the break in that corner” — and it was like an army of ants. Everybody got up and stood up — and there were 50 people in a circle. We were like “Oh my God, that is amazing.” We realized we’re sitting on top of something, like a little volcano that we were not aware exists. There’s a lot of potential for healing and aspects that haven’t been discussed, but it’s already there in some ways. It almost presented itself to us. We feel like we’re almost obliged to do something about this, because there’s this underlying need and expectation that that has not bee explored. The field of psychedelics is evolving in a way that now we’re kind of ready for this, becoming more mainstream.

Is that a danger? Becoming more mainstream? You hear about people from Silicon Valley taking things like ayahuasca because it’s cool and/or to ‘reach their potential as entrepreneurs,’ without much respect for its ceremonial role or cultural context. Are you worried about it being used for the wrong purposes?

Ayahuasca is my main topic of expertise. I have published several book on ayahuasca, and that’s my main area of study. I feel highly bothered by certain vulgarizations that happen around ayahuasca, and every week is a new celebrity and there’s just a lot of nonsense and things that are disrespectful. But in a way, the genie’s out of the bottle, so it’s not very useful to sit and say, “I’m against this,” or “We can have a cappuccino in a nice condo somewhere and talk about vulgarization or whatever.” But it’s happening, so I think more than like lamenting or getting to some kind of intellectual abstraction, I’m more pragmatic, and we have to give ways to make this process less harmful and more integrated and create some harm-reduction and safe policies and ethical policies and reasonable ideations. This is part of the work: to create these bridges, ways these things can expand into society in ways that are positive, and it’s up to us as a community, as activists, as researchers to create those bridges.

I’m looking at the list of topics at Brava and I’m glad to see it has a lot about queerness and Blackness and racial justice, but when you think about the Drug War fought in the U.S., it either focuses on cannabis or on harder drugs like heroin and cocaine that have international distribution systems with cartels that have effects on geopolitics. But psilocybin and ayahuasca and other hallucinogenics don’t really seem to be part of the main thrust of the War on Drugs as it’s been fought for the last half-century. Are there a lot of people who are imprisoned in the U.S. because of psychedelics, and if so, does it fall along the same lines, where people of color are affected more than white people?

Great question! I really want a journalist to find that out. I don’t really know the answer. What I would say is there is a kind of paradox to psychedelics, in a way. They are not as much of a health problem and a criminal-justice problem as other drugs, so in a way they are not as important. There’s a kind of Catch-22. You don’t have huge incarceration or a huge public health problem or immigration problem, so in a way it’s harder to get policymakers and more mainstream drug-reform activists interested in this topic. Regardless, there is incarceration and persecution. I think that recently, in Denver — from what I saw — they only had like 11 cases of psilocybin-related problems, so it’s not like it’s a huge number. 

But in the public-health area, from what we know from involving Black Americans, there are two big fears regarding clinical trials. One is that this population has had historical trauma of being subjected to all kinds of scientific experiments, a lot of times without their knowledge, so there is a tendency to be suspicious of that. And then there is also a fear regarding the Drug War, because this population has been unfairly persecuted. We also have a session in Chacruna on inclusion and diversity. I’m not really sure about this number, but we’ve had clinical trials with MDMA — phase 1 and phase 2 — and in phase 2, I think there were only four people of color that were subjects. So it’s hundreds of individuals all over the U.S., but why are almost none people of color? We’re trying to create a training for therapists who are therapists of color. That would create some sensitivities. There’s lots of parallels with the LGBT topic, because there’s also not a lot of sensitivity toward this topic in the clinical trials.

One the track of the conference wants to discuss exactly this. How can psychedelics help this special populations? Because there’s high levels of suicide, depression, anxiety, et cetera. It’s a kind of permanent PTSD, because of systemic racism and micro-aggressions that happen all the time. So this population has a lot of health challenges ands mental health challenges, so it could be especially useful for them.

Regarding queerness and psychedelic use, a lot of these categories are ones that we take for granted. One person’s idea of queerness differs from another person’s. I’m wondering to what extent is psychedelic usage — in a safe way, with guidance, and under good circumstances — useful for people coming to an understanding of their own identity, but also to heal queer people’s traumas in a cis-centric, patriarchal, homophobic society.

Both! Completely right on, I like that you have the jargon there, man. [My partner’s] research was about gays and lesbians trying ayahuasca and the effects of that on their gender and sexual identity. That’s the topic of her work as a clinical psychologist. She interviewed 17 people and wrote a few articles exploring how psychedelics help people make peace with their identities and feel whole and feel sacred and that it’s OK to be what they are. Of course, you can say that her research has biases and limitations because people who answer this kind of research are already open to this. You can make any criticisms that are legitimate of any scientific research, but this is also something we did. We got a lot of backlash on social media: “Why are you guys doing that? What does sex have anything to do with psychedelics? What the fuck is this? This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard!” So unfortunately, we see there is a lot of work to be done still in this area, but we also get a lot of people saying, “I was dying for something like this! Finally!” Or “I’m a therapist in this little town in Colorado and I do this kind of work!” You put this cheese out and then all the rats hiding in their spots come and smell it and are attracted to what we’re putting out.

We got a lot of really strong reactions on both sides, an in particular in the ayahuasca field, it was a bit scary. We got a lot of people saying really really hurtful things. There’s still a legacy of trauma both with conversion therapy with psychedelics and religious dogma, using psychedelics in religious contexts that are homophobic. And so we have also seen attempts to “heal” gay people with psychedelics both historically and contemporarily, and there was even one ayahuasca leader who said, “LGBTQI? Why don’t you put P for pedophilia and Z for zoomorphia?” and a bunch of other really nasty things.

Queering Psychedelics, presented by the Chacruna Institute, Saturday and Sunday, June 1-2, at the Brava Theater, tickets and registration here.

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