Bett Williams

Bett Williams

Bett Williams is the author of Girl Walking Backwards. Her new book, The Wild Kindness chronicles cover seven years of psilocybin growing and use, both solitary and in community with queer artists and writers.
Bett Williams

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I attended the Cultural and Political Perspectives on Psychedelic Science Conference wearing a dirty cowboy hat, in keeping with my self-conscious awareness that I was an impostor, being that I am a non-academic writer, an outlier/tripper and former mushroom grower (for personal use) from an old coal town in New Mexico, a true psychedelic vortex on the map.  It’s a place full of people so eccentric that being a lesbian is about as controversial as saying you like cheese. The panel I was moderating was called Psychedelics and Sexual and Gender Minorities.

  I arrived with the question, “Are psychedelics queer?”

 I think, yes. I am using the word “queer” rather than LGBTQ etc., because, like psychedelics, queerness exists in a realm larger than identity politics. Queer is a realm of being that is personal, political, spiritual even, and like psychedelics, the form it takes is dependent on cultural context. Queer has always been whatever we decide it is.

I wondered if queerness even mattered in the realm of psychedelic science, an arena currently fraught with issues of controversial corporate funding; MAPS acceptance of a donation of one million dollars from the Mercer Foundation being one example. Peter Thiel’s creation of Compass Pathways, the company behind the promotion of pharmaceutical psilocybin, is another.  We are dealing with structural institutions that, whether they mean to or not, foster hetero-White male dominance from the get-go. Yes, Peter Thiel is an out gay man; but, whatever. This is exactly my conundrum, and one I brought with me to the conference. Is queerness really psychedelic? If so, does that mean it’s an innately a revolutionary force?

I connected with the panelists at lunch and my ambivalence about the question faded quickly. I was amongst familiars who clearly had done serious time in psychedelic space, both on the ground politically, in their careers, and in the zones. I was taken in by the vulnerability of Jae Sevelius, who was quite nervous about her presentation. Jae works with the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies (CAPS) and leads several research projects at the Center of Excellence for Transgender Health. She was no novice to speaking in public, but she wasn’t used to having to communicate a strong opinion, and yes, this time she had one. She described her reaction to MAPS accepting the Mercer Family Foundation donation as one that “floored and appalled” her.  It was a gut feeling that I could tell was still with her, as I watched her pull herself together before she took her place at the podium, in an attempt to hold back a flood of emotion.

“Should psychedelic science be concerned with social justice issues?” she said, with an eloquent and arresting composure that held the room.

 It’s about bringing the values of these marginalized communities to the conversation, integrating those values, and, if possible, centering marginalized groups and giving them actual power, like real jobs, publishing their views, and monetary support.

She went on to say right action is not about enforcing “diversity” in psychedelic spaces. It’s about bringing the values of these marginalized communities to the conversation, integrating those values, and, if possible, centering marginalized groups and giving them actual power, like real jobs, publishing their views, and monetary support. 

There’s a diplomacy that arises in times of crisis and great change simply because it has to. When political strategy comes with an open heart mixed with intellect, a track record of activism, and genuine curiosity, it’s an alchemy that can turn golden, kind, and joyous. Jae brought this energy to a room full of people equally capable of guiding this new wild critter show we call the new psychedelic revolution to a better fruition than what’s been writ for us thus far.  

All this while Rick Doblin himself was sitting in a foldout chair to her left. 

Gregory Wells, PhD, is a psychologist who specializes in psychedelic integration. Via his genuinely fierce slide show on the old San Francisco LGBTQ scene, he laid out exactly what queers have brought to psychedelia.  He gave a brief history of The Cockettes, an avant-garde theater troupe influenced by the films of Jack Smith, and yes, a ton of LSD. The Cockettes influenced club culture, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and the Radical Fairies and, as a result, nearly every fundraiser ever held at a gay bar or pride parade. It was never just about a good party. The queer culture Wells speaks about has always been serious about people staying alive—and giving us all a reason to want to live. The resurrected bar, The Stud, a psychedelic wormhole in gentrified San Francisco, has a direct lineage to this psychedelic tradition.  

Clancy Cavnar, visionary artist, ceremonialist, therapist and writer, stepped up and put a necessary dark spin on how LSD was used in the early days by the medical and psychological establishment as a form of conversion therapy.  At lunch, we all had spoken with levity about how Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) used LSD in hopes it would turn him straight.  I had no idea, however, the level to which this was a “thing.” 

“Stanislas Grof used LSD to treat homosexual clients,” she said.  He came away with the usual cliché’ theories prevalent at the time.  Gay men were afraid of the Vagina Dentada.  Lesbians just wanted to return to the mother.  Grof noted that homosexuals, “saw their sexuality in archetypal or transcultural ways, such as witnessing fertility rites, initiation ceremonies, and temple prostitution.”

I try to picture these poor gays in Grof’s therapy office, trying their best to give him something worthy to chew on, and coming up with elaborate visions resembling scenes in The Wicker Man or anything by Alejandro Jodorowsky.  Set and setting, indeed. My most lesbian mushroom trip I ever had was when my dog Spanky told me she liked the chicken dog food more than the lamb. “You like lamb,” she said. “I like the chicken.”

I suggested to the panelists that psychedelics are queer because you get to “be everything.” Even psychedelic people who identify as straight I’m sure can relate to this. 

I suggested to the panelists that psychedelics are queer because you get to “be everything.” Even psychedelic people who identify as straight I’m sure can relate to this.  My question is how actual queers affect psychedelic culture as a whole.  The panelists had no ambivalence around this question.    

Queers know how to make community in times of crisis. We know how to mobilize outreach in larger circles.  We set up fundraisers, community centers, nightclubs, recovery rooms, galleries, non-profits with all of the skill, good graphic design, pleasant attitude, and finesse of Dolly Parton on Modafinil. Queers used to be illegal, just like the drugs we like. It doesn’t feel very good. We don’t like it. Gonna change it. Queers are as good at getting addicted as we are at getting free. We know how to party, but we need each and every one of us here. The dating pool is small enough as it is, so we work hard at helping people recover from addiction and other traumas so we can keep seeing them around.  Even people we hate, we like seeing around. Queers did PR for safe drug and alcohol use way before Burning Man built their chill out/med tents, way before Noah Levine capitalized on substance recovery for outsider types.  Lastly, queers seem to know that a broken heart can be a crisis as serious as a car crash. 

To watch the psychedelic mainstream move forward with the medicalization of psilocybin and MDMA, it’s hard not to remember the AIDS era, when drugs were being withheld for reasons having to do with politics, bigotry, and corporate capital. They were finally given to us, but at a price. I haven’t forgotten.  We were supposed to say thank you when they finally decided gay, trans, and POC lives were worth saving. Unlike AID’s drugs, psychedelics are relatively easy to acquire and administer. Herein lies my dilemma with psychedelic science and the corporate pharmaceutical machine.  How deep do we go to lead our communities towards mainstream legitimacy? Should we jump ship before the dominant system gets even more ugly?  

I learned from the panelists that I don’t need to view it so much as a black and white issue, that it’s possible to live in many worlds; another thing us queers do well. We can live a rogue outlaw life while at the same time working to change the mainstream psychedelic culture with the intent that maybe we can make it less gross, maybe even fabulous.

Clancy’s talk about LSD’s use in conversion therapy could have been just a fascinating journey through a dark history, if it wasn’t for this one fact she presented –

Psilocybin mushrooms. Credit photo: Des Tramacchi

“In 2016, for the first time, the Republican Party endorsed conversion therapy in their platform under “right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children.” Conversion therapy, or “reparative” therapy, is illegal in only 16 states, and has been promoted in the past by current Vice President Pence, who said, “Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior” (Stack, 2016), though he currently denies his support (Groppe, 2018).”

I think of a New Age workshop I attended at age 15 in Santa Barbara. An entire room full of people emanating “light,” tried very hard to convince me I was bisexual, not a lesbian.  The whole ordeal ended with me in a tearful panic attack that thankfully turned to rage.  I screamed – Do you have any idea what it is like to come out as a lesbian at age fifteen?  It was 1985.  Had that homophobic attack happened in psychedelic space, I shudder to think of the possible psychic wound that might have calcified within me. We are queer and we find our way. It’s easy for me to forget how bad it can get, how tragic it can be, and was, and is, for some.

As a therapist, Jeanna Eichenbaum works deep in trenches of the LGBTQQI community, offering trauma therapy as well as psychedelic integration support, which she has been trained in extensively.

She explained the use of the word “queer” in English language: peculiar, eccentric, strange, unusual. She stole my heart when she said, “It’s an odd word which takes us, in ostensibly one syllable, through at least three distinct movements of the lower facial muscles. That is queer!”

She said one of the qualities of religious experience as described by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience is, “A feeling that one has somehow encountered “the true self” (a sense that mystical experiences reveal the nature of our true, cosmic self: one that is beyond life and death, beyond difference and duality, and beyond ego and selfishness.”

Before Jeanna came out as the woman she is, she spent many years struggling with her identity, in a state of horrible self-hatred.  She had no friends and was living a life in secrecy and hiding. She met a man who claimed to be an experienced psychonaut. He was convinced that if Jeanna took a large dose of LSD or psilocybin, she would work through her issues and figure out she was, indeed, a man. Longing for a “normal” life, Jeanna agreed to trip with him. This prayer for “normal” began with 400 micrograms of LSD.

It didn’t go quite as her guide had planned.  Basically, what happened was this: God harangued Jeanna for quite a while, for, like, an eternity, asking her over and over, “WHAT DO YOU WANT???” In the face of the voice’s insistence, she began blurting out everything she had ever been ashamed of until finally she was empty, done, and exhausted. Lots of other crazy things occurred that only Jeanna has the talent to tell. It was epic. Deserts and ocean waves were involved.

Finally, God asked her, “Is there anything else?”

 I want to be a woman. There was a long pause. I could hear the desert wind rustling through the cacti. I could hear nothing, the long, empty moan of nothing. Then, suddenly, in a singsong lilt, the voice playfully asked, with a note of the trickster, ‘What’s wrong with that?’”

“I paused, swallowed,” Jeanna said, “I said, yes, there’s one more thing. I want to be a woman. There was a long pause. I could hear the desert wind rustling through the cacti. I could hear nothing, the long, empty moan of nothing. Then, suddenly, in a singsong lilt, the voice playfully asked, with a note of the trickster, ‘What’s wrong with that?’”


Note:

This paper was presented at Cultural and Political Perspectives in Psychedelic Science, a symposium promoted by Chacruna and the East-West Psychology Program at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), San Francisco, August 18 and 19, 2018.

Cover photo:  Clement Hil Goldberg.