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, Quartz, and Chacruna, among others.
Shelby Hartman

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As a kid growing up in suburban New Jersey, Steve Silberman was just beginning to get into counterculture when he stumbled upon an interview with the already-mythological Timothy Leary in Playboy magazine.

“An LSD session that does not involve an ultimate merging with a person of the opposite sex isn’t really complete,” Leary told the interviewer. “LSD is a specific cure for homosexuality…it’s well-known that most sexual perversions are the result not of biological binds but of freaky dislocating childhood experiences.”

This 1966 article was just the beginning of an adolescence of identity conflict for Silberman. He would go on to get deep into the Deadhead community. It was in that community—at Grateful Dead shows—where he felt he and his fellow misfits could tap into “wellsprings of wisdom” together, influenced by Buddhism, Daoism, and the Beat Generation. The shows created a safe space, a kind of modern-day ritual for, he says, “experiencing awe and wonder without worrying too much.” In the 70s, psychedelics played a key part in catalyzing the whole environment. For Silberman, though, there was always one thing that prevented him from fully relaxing into the scene.

“The coming home always had an asterisk,” Silberman, now a journalistand New York Times bestselling author, tells Chacruna. “Don’t be too gay or you’ll freak people out.”

“The coming home always had an asterisk,” Silberman, now a journalistand New York Times bestselling author, tells Chacruna. “Don’t be too gay or you’ll freak people out.”

For all the overlap between the psychedelic and queer communities (Aldous Huxley’s mentor Gerald Heard, Allen Ginsberg, and Ram Dass were all queer), there was, Silberman says, a reverence for traditional gender roles among the first generation of America’s hippies. In some ways, albeit largely unintentionally, the legacy of this reverence lives on today in the psychedelic community. Queering Psychedelics, the first- ever conference highlighting queer voices in the psychedelic community, aims to change that this summer.

To date, there’s been no research (other than one trial underway at the University of California, San Francisco) looking at the potential of psychedelics to treat the disproportionate rates of mental health conditions in the LGBTQI+ community. Alexander Belser, a Clinical Research Fellow at Yale University, and a speaker at Queering Psychedelics, says the psychedelic trials being conducted at major universities aren’t as inclusive as they could be, and that they were largely designed by straight white men. They don’t, for example, ask about the gender and sexual identity of trial participants, making it impossible to determine whether psychedelics work among members of the queer community facing distinct mental health stressors. Additionally, he says, these psychedelic sessions have historically been led by one female and one male, reinforcing the unhelpful notion that there are only two genders.

Bia Labate, a leading researcher and founder of the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines, says the psychedelic community isn’t just to blame for this exclusion. It was inherited, in part, from the mental health field at-large.

“There’s a common thread here, which is that indigenous people, people of color, and queer people are voices that “matter less”; they are minorities, they are marginalized, and are normally not heard,” says Labate. “Chacruna’s mission is to give more space and voice to these groups to decolonize knowledge, to invert the white, straight, biomedical narrative that is hegemonic in the field of psychedelic science.”

Steve Silberman and his husband Keith at their last Dead show. Photo by Susanna Millman

The American Psychiatric Association only removed homosexuality from its diagnostic manual in 1973. Prior to that, conversion therapy—where therapists tried to convert people from queer to straight—was common practice.

The American Psychiatric Association only removed homosexuality from its diagnostic manual in 1973. Prior to that, conversion therapy—where therapists tried to convert people from queer to straight—was common practice. In fact, Silberman’s parents—even though they were what he describes as “left-wing radicals”—sent him to a “therapist for the cure” when he came out in high school.

The psychedelic field followed, engaging in their own form of this practice. Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass), who himself later came out as gay, gave 200 micrograms of LSD to a bisexual male in an attempt to make him straight. It didn’t work. Stanislav Grof, a luminary in the psychedelic field, also gave LSD to many of his gay clients based on the belief that homosexuality is a perversion.

Ironically, anecdotal evidence has found that psychedelics not only fail to “convert” queer folks, but that they actually can help reaffirm their identities.

Ironically, anecdotal evidence has found that psychedelics not only fail to “convert” queer folks, but that they actually can help reaffirm their identities. Clancy Cavnar, Associate Director of the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines, will be speaking at Queering Psychedelics about her dissertation documenting the personal accounts of gay and lesbian people who take ayahuasca. She found that the plant medicine—and other psychedelics—can be a powerful tool for healing the trauma of homophobia.

And yet, Belser says, the ayahuasca community today faces its own challenges around homophobia. “There’s tons of reports of sexual-minority people anecdotally saying that they feel very uncomfortable in certain ayahuasca communities because of the strong patriarchal, stereotypical gender roles,” he says.


Come join us in Queering Psychedelics! Buy tickets here


Labate says just beginning to plan Queering Psychedelics has reaffirmed the need for these conversations. Upon announcing the conference on Chacruna’s social media channels, the organization received what Labate calls “an incredible amount of backlash,” some from members of the psychedelic community. A leader of an important ayahuasca healing retreat center in Peru, for example, commented: “if you don’t want to discriminate against anything or anybody and not prohibit anything, why limit to the LGBTQI and not add P for pedophilia, D for digisexual, Z for zoophilia, M for metrosexual, G for gerontophilia? All this is love, supposedly… free sexual choices?”

There’s also been, Labate says, people contacting her daily in deep gratitude, saying they’ve been waiting for someone to initiate a dialogue around queerness and psychedelics. This elucidates how far society has come, and yet, how far it still has to go.

It’s been more than three decades now since Steve Silberman came out as the first gay deadhead in Grateful Dead Magazine Relix. Around the same time, he joined the first publicly gay deadhead group, called Queers for Weir (named for Grateful Dead founder Bob Weir), in the San Francisco Pride Parade. Amid all the revelry and marching, a middle-aged man, overjoyed, came running up to them with a camera and asked if he could take their picture. “I’ve been waiting for this my whole life,” he said. That man turned out to be the Dead’s legendary longtime manager Jon McIntire.  



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