Psychedelic substances are some of the queer survivor’s most powerful tools that, when used respectfully, can aid in the treatment of complex trauma, the alleviating of feelings of intense isolation and suffering, as a key to spiritual development, and as a necessary component to the future survival of our people.
The queer art of survival centers the experiences of the borderlands, those spaces where multiple identities meet as sacred and essential. Juxtaposing the Christian conception of Jesus going into the wilderness, queer survival tells the stories of a people who have called the borderlands and the wilderness home from the beginning. A people whose experiences with violence, trauma, and oppression have left them seeking ways to exist that are strange, outlandish, and quintessentially queer. In uplifting a theology of queer survival, we defy the exoticism of the heteronormative spiritual world, claiming our inherent right to self-governance and dignity. I am someone who uses the term “queer” to speak to the reality of being a contradiction, the convergence of opposites within one person. Gender and sexually diverse LGBTQIA+, those people whose existence is both/and. When I use the word “survivor,” I name most vocally someone who has experienced violence and abuse, while at the same time, remembering that instances of violence are not isolated from other traumas and tribulations. It is important to note that survival is directly related to matters of life and death, and that to survive is to move through the world haunted by the memory of the past, both personal and generational (Gordon, 2011). Queer survivors are bearers of tremendous anguish, and yet they persevere. Psychedelic substances are some of the queer survivor’s most powerful tools that, when used respectfully, can aid in the treatment of complex trauma, the alleviating of feelings of intense isolation and suffering, as a key to spiritual development, and as a necessary component to the future survival of our people.
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Gender- and sexually-diverse peoples have used psychedelics for generations, though, as with much of our experiences, these stories have been closeted. From ancient Eleusinian rituals in the Mediterranean, to the role of the two-spirit person within Native American shamanic traditions, there is a vast array of untold psychedelic stories. In “Queers, Faeries, & Revolutionaries in the Psychedelic Movement,” Gregory Wells (2019) does a fantastic job of providing queer entries into the realm of psychedelics in modern times, uplifting the presence and significance that such substances had on radical movements within the overarching movement towards queer equality. For far too long, these substances have been targeted by the American federal government for their ability to liberate the human mind and spirit. Timothy Leary, one of the most public and infamous advocates for psychedelics, was once named “the most dangerous man in America” by Richard Nixon (Mansnerus, 1996). Nixon used the War on Drugs to legally arrest and raid those who protested the Vietnam War, as well as the Black community. (History, 2019) This paper seeks to critically examine the role of psychedelics as analogous to the Christian Eucharist, granting a heaven-like reprieve from the hell that is heteronormative life, and to uplift psychedelics as necessary to the theology that is queer survival.
Feeling the Mother’s Love
When I was six, my father died. Between ages seven and twelve, most of my grandparents and extended family had followed. From 12 to 22, my mom and I survived the unbridled rage and abuse of my law-enforcement stepfather. At 17, I was raped by a high school classmate, forcing my “coming out” story and allowing others to characterize my experience of violence as “normal,” with one man telling me, “You can’t rape the willing.” By the time my brother Jason died in 2018 of alcohol-related heart failure, I was on the verge of drowning in alcohol myself. I was consumed by trauma, and in order to simply make it through the day, I turned to the bottle. Alcohol was both tonic and poison: tonic by way of annihilating the painful memories, poison by way of annihilating self. Drinking became an insidious ritual that blunted my experiences of trauma. It is clear why, in recent years, “Pride” celebrations have been predominantly sponsored by alcohol companies; their marketing teams know we are a people suffering anguish, vulnerable to the allure of the intoxicating oblivion that drink after drink can create.
Today, I am 254 days sober: eight months and six days after nearly 16 years of alcoholism! While my survivor spirit helped to bear me out, I would not be writing this had I not had queer connections to psychedelics. On the last Saturday of August 2020, I received news that my mother, the last member of my family, had been diagnosed with breast cancer and would need to undergo immediate surgery. I had been preparing for an intensive “spiritual autobiographies” class at the Boston University School of Theology, taught by Claire Wolfteich, that was beginning Monday morning; the existential dread of losing the last person to love me unconditionally threatened to topple my world. My mother has since battled this cancer fiercely, with her third surgery now scheduled for March of this year. Instead of turning to alcohol, I sought the wisdom of the Mother, Gaia, Earth. Psilocybin mushrooms, along with an unintentional period of fasting, followed, and I excelled in my course. The authors I read all expressed a turning away from civilization and to the wilds for introspection and guidance. While I could not do this physically because of the ongoing pandemic, psychedelics provided an alternative that worked just as well. Held in the embrace of Gaia, I began to truly mourn the adverse experiences of my life. Wounds scabbed over began to break open, then to heal, and where once I saw only despair, I now sensed the potential to grow and to hope. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I felt whole.
In taking psychedelics, one is able to break through the imposed limits of this world and reach into other realms. The rending of self becomes a defiant reclamation of sovereignty.
Perceiving the Queerness of the Divine
Looking to psychedelics as Eucharist is not new. Within Santo Daime, a global religious tradition born in Brazil, ayahuasca, or daime, is named as the “same wine that Jesus gave” to his apostles (Gregorio, n.d.). Such a substance allows she who takes it to experience the breaking of self and the death of ego, and in death, there is wisdom. In Norse myth, we hear of Odin hanging himself from Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life, for nine days and nine nights in order to gain knowledge from other worlds (Ashliman, 2003). The death of Jesus ultimately results in the resurrection and the passing on of knowledge to others. In taking psychedelics, one is able to break through the imposed limits of this world and reach into other realms. The rending of self becomes a defiant reclamation of sovereignty.
In her article, “Why LGBTQI+ Members are Creating Their Own Ayahuasca Circles,” Shelby Hartman (2019) names the reality that, even within emerging religious spaces in America, where legalization of ayahuasca allows for members of some groups to consume psychedelics in accordance with their religious beliefs, gender- and sexually-diverse people are unable to attain leadership positions. If you thought of leaving the United Methodist Church for the União do Vegetal, you might want to press the brakes. The exact thing that is tearing the United Methodist Church apart is infesting one of the only legally-protected spaces where psychedelics are treated as sacred.
In this same article, Hartman shares a portion of a leaked statement issued by the UDV’s leader at the time, in 2008, that explicitly states that the essential element to our being, that which defines sexually-diverse people, their queerness, is in opposition to the “natural origin of human existence,” failing to understand that, in fact, queerness is what has saved our species time and again. Queerness is that ability to survive in the midst of hell; to evolve, to adapt, to remain in constant—if painful—motion. Jesus was queer. The Buddha was queer. All our visionaries, our dreamers, our prophets, bore the flame that is queer survival.
Survival Begets Survival
Whereas, in many established traditions today, we can see an extreme focus on the founder, we see the spirit of queerness that is inherent to each queer person, their ability to survive, as our central tenant. What gets you to the end of the day? What puts a roof over your head? What puts food and water in your body? How do you survive? In this, we, as a spiritual people, veer away from Christianity, which looks to a man whose skin has been bleached by our society, who was murdered, and who was resurrected. We queer survivors know that the reality, here in America and globally, is that our people do not come back from the dead. The reality is that, in 2020 alone, 44 predominantly Black and brown transgender women were murdered (that we know of) in the United States, and over 350 worldwide. (HRC, 2020) These human beings, each one with hopes and dreams, fears, and aspirations, are gone.
Queer survivors come from all backgrounds and beliefs. Queer Christian survivors are out there! Queer Hindu survivors are out there! Queer Muslim survivors are out there! Survival is inherent to life, and it manifests across cultures. We call forth the divine into the mundane through our perseverance in the face of suffering and annihilation. Survival is painful. That is why the second core tenant to our belief is that, as we survive, we do not forget our sisters and brothers, our siblings in body and spirit. We challenge systems of violence and oppression. We defy systems of murder and enslavement. The trauma we bear in this daily ritual is immense, not lacking the power to consume us. We fight at every moment to survive.
Researchers are realizing that psychedelics have the potential to penetrate complex trauma, allowing for what has been dubbed “post-traumatic growth.” Through inciting a sort of “ego death,” the individual is granted a unique ability to perceive and to confront adverse exposures and experiences.
Psychedelics present us a new hope. Researchers are realizing that psychedelics have the potential to penetrate complex trauma, allowing for what has been dubbed “post-traumatic growth.” Through inciting a sort of “ego death,” the individual is granted a unique ability to perceive and to confront adverse exposures and experiences. This ability is similar to something that Chicana lesbian poet, advocate, and theologian, Gloria Anzaldúa (1987), called la facultad, “the capacity to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities, to see the deep structure below the surface.” (p. 38) In stimulating this faculty in patients living with trauma, clinicians are able to provoke the human will to fight, to live, to survive.
Casteism and the Realm of Psychedelics
The use of psychedelics for spiritual development has been studied at length. Carl A. P. Ruck coined the term “entheogen” to describe such substances, realizing that the term “psychedelic” invoked unwarranted stigma following the American federal government’s War on Drugs. It is clear that there is an inherent link between psychedelics and the spiritual realm. Our institutions, however, have taken it upon themselves to decree who ought to be engaged in the spiritual dimensions and who should be kept from them. This is an example of what Isabel Wilkerson (2020) names as “casteism.”
In her groundbreaking book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Wilkerson (2020) writes, “Casteism is about positioning and restricting those positions vis-à-vis others” (p. 71). This regulation of positioning is precisely what we see taking place in spaces such as the United Methodist Church and the União do Vegetal, where gender- and sexually-diverse people are denied positions of leadership. This caste system permeates all aspects of our society and denies the humanity and divinity in others as a means of maintaining the status quo.
Opening Up to the Divine Through Entheogens
What would happen if gender- and sexually-diverse peoples were empowered to use their sacred substances? As a survivor of interpersonal violence, and someone who struggles daily with post-traumatic stress symptoms, I can personally testify that such empowerment leads to healing, transformation, and hope. For over 15 years, I managed to survive as a raging alcoholic. I completed my undergraduate education and my first master’s while drowning myself in alcohol, a legal substance that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is responsible for over 95,000 deaths each year in the US alone (CDC, 2021). Today, I am 254 days sober, and much of that success has to do with my ability to access entheogens. If I were to make an educated guess, I would say that the reason systems work so hard to control psychedelics is out of a fear that the wounded might heal, and, through such healing, become stronger, more bold, more willing to fight back and to claim what is ours.
I am, however, unapologetically queer and trans, and therefore, I will never truly be welcomed into sacred spaces in established traditions. Yet, I need a space to grow, to find community, and to be myself without fear of contempt and violence.
If I were asked where I reside on the religious spectrum, I would name myself an uncanny, queer, post-Christian survivor. I very much love the heart of Christianity and most, if not all, other traditions. I am, however, unapologetically queer and trans, and therefore, I will never truly be welcomed into sacred spaces in established traditions. Yet, I need a space to grow, to find community, and to be myself without fear of contempt and violence. If we are to fully realize the miraculous potential of entheogens, we must first have the legal rights that allow all people to safely partake in them, and this space must be led by our people. We need a theology of survival, a religion for the misfits, the faggots, the dykes, the queers, the trans. Such a religion almost existed, until capitalism dug its grotesque claws into it: Pride.
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Birthing a Tradition of Queer Survival
Let us, then, move forward through official channels. Let us claim a faith that is queerly divine, that is our own. Let the world know that no longer will we sit by while our rights are trampled upon, our humanity violated. No more will we be silent. We come from the borderlands, those spaces where multiple identities and cultures blend and bleed into one another. It is time for these borderlands to be held as sacred and protected as such. If our existence is such a revulsion to “God,” let us move against such a false idol. In taking the entheogen, may the boundaries become liminal, allowing us who have been forged by the flames of hell to enter into “His” realm, and let us take our queer sword of Truth and strike “Him” down. For from the imperfect body of “God,” whom the American dollar has tainted to “His” core, shall emerge Goddess, She who has been with us from the beginning, whispering into our hearts, “You who are born of chaos, you are worthy of love, child of Stonewall.” It is time to transition from survival to a state of abundance, equity, justice, and sustainability. Let us once more thrive, as Goddess intended us to, through the embracing of entheogens as our sacred Eucharist.
Art by Marialba Quesada.
Anzaldúa, G., Cantú, N. E., & Hurtado, A. (1987). Borderlands/ la frontera: The new mestiza. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books.
Ashliman, D. L. (Ed.). (Revised 2003). Hávamál: The words of Odin the High One (O. Bray, Trans.). https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/havamal.html#runes.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021, January 14). Deaths from excessive alcohol use in the U.S. Atlanta, GA: Center for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/features/excessive-alcohol-deaths.html#:~:text=Excessive%20alcohol%20use%20is%20responsible,years%20of%20potential%20life%20lost.
Gordon, A. (2011). Ghostly matters: Haunting and the sociological imagination. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Gregorio, V. (n.d.). Em minha memória [In my memory] (#14). O livrinho do Apocalipse [The little book of the Apocalypse]. https://nossairmandade.com/hymn/141/EmMinhaMem%C3%B3ria.
Human Rights Campaign. (2020, November). Violence against the transgender community in 2020 (Resources). https://www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-trans-and-gender-non-conforming-community-in-2020.
Hartman, S. (2020, December 29). Why LGBTQI+ members are creating their own ayahuasca circles. Chacruna. https://chacruna.net/why-lgbtqi-members-are-creating-their-own-ayahuasca-circles.
History.com editors. (2017, May 31). War on Drugs. History.com. https://www.history.com/topics/crime/the-war-on-drugs.
Mansnerus, L. (1996, June 1). Timothy Leary, pied piper of psychedelic 60s, dies at 75. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1996/06/01/us/timothy-leary-pied-piper-of-psychedelic-60-s-dies-at-75.html.
Wells, G. (2019, April 1). Queers, faeries, & revolutionaries in the psychedelic movement. Chacruna. https://chacruna.net/queers-faeries-revolutionaries-psychedelic-movement/.
Wilkerson, I. (2020). Caste: The origins of our discontents. New York City, NY: Random House.
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