Shelby Hartman

Shelby Hartman is Editor-in-Chief of DoubleBlind, a newly launched magazine magazine on psychedelics. She has reported on psychedelics and plant medicine for VICE, Rolling Stone, and Quartz, among others.
Shelby Hartman

Dee Adams knew she was going to participate as a facilitator of ayahuasca retreats one day. She’d heard the message, years ago, in a ceremony. Ayahuasca, who always uses a “clear voice” with Adams, told her that having a stronger role in plant medicine work was a part of her journey—but a lot needed to happen first.

Then, in December of 2017, before Adams came out as a transgender woman, ayahuasca spoke to her of this path once more. “You need to organize special retreats with the medicine,” ayahuasca said. “And they should be for gender and sexually diverse communities.” In ceremony, Adams had a vision of the United States and all the need for healing within it for gender and sexually diverse people. Since then, as Adams has become more vocal about her journey as a transgender woman in the ayahuasca community, that need has only been reaffirmed. 

Just last month, Adams wrote an article for Chacruna discussing the value of safe spaces for gender and sexually diverse (GSD) people to have and make sense of their plant medicine experiences. The criticisms were abundant.  “Why do GSD people need special spaces when ayahuasca, and other psychedelics, are all about transcending the ego?” asked many of the people in the comments. This, says Adams, just bolstered her commitment to creating these spaces. 

“It’s about having a space where you’re seen however you want to show up, and there doesn’t need to be any education. That creates ease.”

“It’s about having a space where you’re seen however you want to show up, and there doesn’t need to be any education. That creates ease,” explains Adams, who has frequently found herself needing to explain her preferred pronoun and identity to people in ceremonies.

Ayahuasca is, of course, drunk in a wide-variety of settings, from lineages with ties to Christianity, such as the União do Vegetal and Santo Daime, to indigenous communities in the Amazon and contemporary circles in cities across the globe. Gender and sexually-diverse people say they’ve experienced prejudice in different ways across these settings, particularly in South America.

The União do Vegetal, a Christian religion sect, has a reputation for being one of the most socially conservative ayahuasca churches. In 2006, the United States Supreme Court granted them the right to drink hoasca as a religious sacrament. (They differentiate hoasca from ayahuasca as, they say, hoasca always contains just the plants Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis. Ayahuasca also frequently contains just those two plants, but can include additional admixtures.)

The UDV, much like Christian denominations from the Seventh-day Adventist Church to the Southern Baptist Convention, doesn’t permit members of the LGBTQI+ community to assume positions of leadership in the organization. The religion, founded on the border of Brazil and Bolivia in 1961, has a hierarchy of leaders, with “mestres”  (masters) at the top, and a central governing body, based in Brazil, that issues statements about the organization’s stance on issues to its more than 200 chapters in the US, Australia, and beyond. In 2008, the UDV’s leader at the time issued a statement to their chapters that was leaked and published online, saying:

“As we have faith in the incontestable existence of God, we can never agree with the practice of homosexuality as it goes against the natural origin of human existence; this is, the relationship between man and woman which gives origin to generation. We disagree with the marriage of persons of the same sex because we do not want and do not have the right to bring about the extinction of the human species which belongs only to God.”

A former mestre, who asked to remain anonymous, told Chacruna that gay people in the UDV are “treated as a joke, specifically in the north of the country.” He left the organization in 2012 after his own marriage ended.

 “To become a “counselor” or “master” you, as a man, have to be married to a woman,” he told Chacruna. “The pressure is so [intense] on gay people that they end up giving up on the UDV or pretending to be straight to stay in the institution.” A spokesperson for the UDV confirmed to Chacruna that the mestre with the most spiritual authority at the time issued the internal memo above, but said it’s important to differentiate between the memo itself and the comments left about it on the website where it was leaked.

The UDV is not ready to make a public statement expanding upon their stance on LGTBQI+ issues. In general, the UDV keeps their internal operations and memos private. The spokesperson did say, however, that a central tenet of the UDV is non-judgment. “Those who may have told you that the UDV does not welcome or accept gay members are either misinformed, perhaps looking to advance falsehoods, or both,” they said. “The UDV welcomes all people, regardless of their race, political ideologies, religious beliefs, country of origin, economic conditions, or personal forms of expression. The UDV accepts newcomers from all walks of life and has no prohibitions on membership along the lines of what those you interviewed might have suggested.”

Clancy Cavnar, a clinical psychologist who studied the use of ayahuasca among gay and lesbian people, also said it’s well known that the UDV discriminates against LGBTQI+ people and does not allow them to ascend the ranks of leadership within the organization. She attributes some of this to the homophobia in Brazil and other South American countries in general.

Cavnar, a longtime member of the Santo Daime church, experienced some of this when living as a gay woman in a Santo Daime community in Céu do Mapiá, Brazil. “I felt self-conscious, like I didn’t want people to know,” she said. During all her research, however, she says she’s never heard of any gay or lesbian people in the Santo Daime having notable homophobic experiences in Europe or North America. The Santo Daime church is vastly different from the UDV. There are chapters, but there’s no central organizing body, allowing each chapter more freedom to decide what works for them. Members of the LGBTQI+ community are welcome to join.

In ceremonies, the men stand on one side and the women stand on the other and all are in uniforms. This can cause distress for members who identify as non-binary.

The primary challenge that they face in the Santo Daime community, said Adams, is that the ceremonies don’t always feel welcoming to gender- nonconforming people. Cavnar reaffirmed this, saying women can be expected to present as feminine, with long hair and a skirt or dress rather than pants. In ceremonies, the men stand on one side and the women stand on the other and all are in uniforms. This can cause distress for members who identify as non-binary.

Cavnar recalled a situation where the son of the leader of a chapter was dating someone who identified as female at birth, but goes by the pronoun “they.” She, said they combined aspects of the women’s and men’s uniform to come up with an outfit that felt authentic to them. “That was not well received,” says Cavnar. “The [Daime leadership] told this person, ‘maybe you should find somewhere else to worship.‘”

It’s situations like these that have inspired Kevon Simpson, a healer who does plant medicine work, to hold ceremonies that explicitly welcome queer people and people of color. As a gay man with HIV, he’s also experienced microaggressions and homophobia in ayahuasca communities, particularly when training with Shipibo and Quechua mestres in Peru.

“When I was doing my training in the jungle with my most recent mestre, I literally had to hide all of my sexuality.”

“When I was doing my training in the jungle with my most recent mestre, I literally had to hide all of my sexuality,” he told Chacruna. As a survivor, Simpson said, he can intuit when an environment is safe for him, and he knew it wasn’t based on how the community treated women and how the Quechua mestres kept pressing him on how he contracted his HIV.

This intuition comes into play when he’s leading ceremonies now, too. He says sometimes he meets people—particularly cisgender men—before a ceremony who he can sense are judging him. He tries to be “softer” in ceremonies, he said, to allow people to do their healing; but, when he’s done that without explicitly stating that the ceremony is welcoming of LGBTQI+ people, these men have tried to assume a sort of “alpha” role and challenge him in the space. This, Simpson says, can be very damaging when people are trying to go inward, especially in order to heal traumas associated with this sort of toxic masculine behavior. In response, Simpson recently posted on the message board of people interested in working with him, that his circles welcome everyone, including LGBTQI+ people. If you’re not cool with that, he bluntly said, “get out.”

Adams, too, is taking steps to help facilitate circles for gender and sexually diverse people. She’s assisting with a GSD retreat slated for 2020 in Peru. She’s also in talks with a national LGBT Peruvian organization about facilitating a GSD education training for curanderos (healers) and staff. The training will be led by a Peruvian trans man in Spanish.  

It’s not that gender and sexually diverse people can’t receive healing in spaces that are not specifically designed for them, says Adams. Adams actually had the revelation that she is a trans woman in an ayahuasca ceremony. Cavnar, too, says that even though she didn’t feel comfortable being out as a gay woman in the Santo Daime community in Brazil, this never affected her ability to do healing work in ceremony.

There is just “a different feeling” when a person is in a space with people like them. It can allow, Adams says, for deeper, more healing experiences.

It really depends on the person, Cavnar says, as everyone has varying levels of trauma about being a gender and/or sexually diverse person. Regardless, though, she agrees that there is just “a different feeling” when a person is in a space with people like them. It can allow, Adams says, for deeper, more healing experiences. And, given the need for these types of experiences in the queer community, there’s no time to waste.  



Buy our books: