Last summer, as I was preparing a festival workshop around this topic, someone wrote me to criticize the comparison of “taking” a drug with “being” queer--a comparison that she described as “very dangerous and regressive.” Her choice of words is telling: From her perspective, “being” queer is an identity that someone’s born with. But “taking” a drug is something that people choose to do. It’s nonessential to who they are.
So on the basis of this reasoning, the gay rights movement is allowed to draw on civil rights discourse, but psychonauts aren’t allowed to draw on gay rights discourse.
This person positioned herself as an authority on this subject, as an LGBT activist who has tripped and been to Burning Man. She had witnessed firsthand how nonessential psychedelics are, and I believe that’s true for her. But I don’t believe she’s in a position to speak for all psychonauts.
To consider a different angle on her reasoning, here’s an alternative scenario: What if I’ve been involved with multiple women during my life, but I don’t identify as a lesbian? If someone told me that I couldn’t be with another woman ever again, it wouldn’t be a deal to me. But does that give me the right to tell a lesbian that, therefore, it shouldn’t be a big deal to her?
My psychedelic identity is personally a bigger part of my life than my gender identity or sexual identity.
Consider for a moment the LGBTQIA acronym. It ends with the letter “A,” which stands for both “Ally” and “Asexual.” An asexual person is someone for whom, by definition, sexuality is not the most important aspect of their identity. So even within this acronym, there is an arrow that points to identities beyond it.
While we’re here, let’s also consider the letter “T,” which stands for “Transgender.” The transgender movement has taught us that we need to believe people when they say who they are. If I say I am a psychedelic woman, who has the right to tell me that my experience of myself is false?
In the process of thinking through these ideas, I decided to look more deeply into the history of the gay rights movement and its reliance on civil rights discourse. Something surprised me: the gay rights movement had to defend itself from criticisms that were essentially identical to the criticisms being directed against psychonauts, today.
For instance, some people say psychonauts don’t have a right to claim that they’re an oppressed group. Psychonauts are mostly privileged, wealthy white people who just want an excuse to have hedonistic parties, right?
Compare this to legislation debates about gay rights from the early 1990s, as described by Michael Bronski in his book, The Pleasure Principle:
Bronski describes the view that “Gay men and lesbians did not need ‘special rights’ because, far from being disenfranchised, they already were wealthier, had better jobs, more leisure time, and more disposable income than almost any other group in the U.S. economy. … For many in the mainstream, the ‘privileged economic status’ of homosexuals was conflated with their already established view of gay people as pleasure seekers and sexual libertines.”
Being gay was seen by many as a deviant lifestyle choice. But gay people weren’t convinced by this argument.
Michael Nava and Robert Dawidoff set out a defense of the alliance between gay rights and civil rights in their book Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter to America. For our purposes here, I swapped out the authors’ original race and sexuality terms for my own sexuality and psychedelic terms. The argument is still valid with these changes.
Take for instance, this altered quote:
“The special character of [sexuality] within this society and of the [gay] rights movement that grew out of it cannot preempt other movements for civil rights…. [Some members of LGBT communities] are understandably sensitive and protective about the routine appropriation of their particular historical experience and the particularity of the extraordinary movement they carried forward to challenge their oppression. Nevertheless, the movement’s claim…was to a common set of principles that must apply to everyone…. If women, racially and ethnically diverse groups, [LGBT people] and now [psychonauts] rush to the standard first carried by the African-American civil rights movement [and subsequently by the LGBT movement], that is not stealing but believing. Those who are so quick to denounce the appropriation of civil rights by movements based in gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, and [other modes of identification] probably need to examine their own record with respect to human differences other than race [or sexuality].”
The authors suggest that the key contribution of the gay rights movement to the history of civil rights and civil liberties is its re-emphasis on the individual—an “individual asserting personal rights to personal freedom for personal choice about the personal life.”
They continue, “The labeling of gays as...degenerate and unnatural is the same kind of labeling that has always been used to justify the denial of rights to individuals belonging to ‘minority’ communities.”
Remixing the authors again: People who are quick to shoot down the possibility of a psychedelic identity “deny the validity of personal experience when it is at odds with convention. … In effect, [psychedelic] men and women are taught that their experience of themselves as decent, productive, loving humans is false, because [drug use] is unnatural and sinful.”
In the face of this, the “act [of coming out] is the acceptance of one’s fundamental worth…in the face of social condemnation and likely persecution.”
But it is common for members of oppressed groups to resist alliances with other groups.
Andrew Solomon describes this phenomenon in his book Far from the Tree, where he explores what he calls “horizontal” identity categories--identities that people don’t necessarily inherit from their parents.
He writes that: “Deaf people didn’t want to be compared to people with schizophrenia; some parents of schizophrenics were creeped out by dwarfs; criminals couldn’t abide the idea that they had anything in common with transgender people...and some children of rape felt that their emotional struggle was trivialized when they were compared to gay activists. … The compulsion to build such hierarchies persists even among these people, all of whom have been harmed by [such hierarchies].”
But Solomon cites the theory of “intersectionality” as an alternative to this trend.
“Intersectionality is the theory that various kinds of oppression feed one another—that you cannot, for example, eliminate sexism without addressing racism.”
Solomon quotes Benjamin Jealous, president of the NAACP, who said: “If we tolerate prejudice toward any group, we tolerate it toward all groups. … We are all in one fight, and our freedom is all the same freedom.”
I argue that it doesn’t serve us to cherry pick which identity groups are worth protecting and which are not. We need to focus on a common set of core principles, and honor the right of individuals to make decisions about their own minds and bodies.
Which brings me to the final section of my presentation. What does it mean to “come out” as psychedelic?
I’ll start with my own case: When I went to college, I didn’t understand why the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was such a big deal. Why did people need to talk about their sexuality at work? But then I moved from Bard College—a hippy school in the woods—to the University of Pennsylvania for graduate school. Suddenly I didn’t know anyone who’d had meaningful psychedelic experiences. I felt that I needed to keep that part of me hidden, and it was an extremely lonely time. I learned then the hard way that hiding part of who you are can have a deep psychological impact.
“Coming out” as psychedelic was profoundly liberating. Instead of studying Romantic poetry “because of” my secret interest in psychedelics, I started researching poetry explicitly “alongside” psychedelics. In my case, this doesn’t mean that I continue to use psychedelics today. As a mother and teacher, the current political climate makes the risks outweigh the benefits. But psychedelics helped me work through crippling social anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder during my first year of college, and they shaped my entire worldview and life’s path. This isn’t something I will easily forget.
But “coming out” as psychedelic entails a whole spectrum of possibilities. It can mean describing past use, but it can also mean striking up a conversation about the latest research out of NYU or Johns Hopkins. It can mean forwarding a recent article in the New Yorker or New York Times to your mom or your boss or your colleague, or even planning a trip to drink ayahuasca in a country where it’s legal.
Taking a different tack, you can also choose to be a psychedelic ally, rejecting the current state of the drug war while personally abstaining from psychedelic use.
What’s important here is that people are mindful of the decisions they’re making and why. Sometimes it can be more strategic to keep things under wraps. If you teach children or require a security clearance to work for the government, for example, it might make sense to hold some of your interests and experiences back.
But if you’re holding back on “coming out” because of a knee-jerk fear reaction, I encourage you to reconsider. Sometimes the risks are low, and sometimes the risks are worth taking.