The distinctly un-queer past and present of psychedelics

Madison Margolin opens her recent piece on queerness and psychedelics with the provocative phrase “To have a psychedelic experience is to have a queer experience.”

Her wonderfully engaging article dives into the expansive and revolutionary qualities shared between the psychedelic experience and the queering of sexuality.

As Bett Williams is quoted as saying, “Being queer means you can become everything.” And later; “When we are in our psychedelic selves, we are anything and everything.”

Although Williams seems to be saying that the psychedelic experience has the potential to open you up to queerness, Margolin takes it a step further and infers that every psychedelic experience is a queer experience.

This is a mistake, I think.

Before you grab your pitchfork, let me explain that I am totally onboard with the queer experience that psychedelics can produce. Without psychedelics I probably would not have been able to explore my own sexuality so deeply. I owe my current queer identity to the expansive journeys of gender and love that I was sent on, and I know that other people feel similarly.

But my repeated encounters with the very un-queer side of the psychedelic community hold me short from agreeing with the statement that “To have a psychedelic experience is to have a queer experience.”

For starters, the first wave of psychedelics (the indigenous shamanic use of psychedelic plant medicines) was, and still is, steeped in sexism and patriarchy. Amazonian shamans still frequently forbid menstruating people from taking party in ceremonies, and advise against eating food that has been touched by a person on their period. Psychedelic plant medicines, in indigenous settings, are usually found together with some form of gender essentialism or heteronormativity. Are these shamans having a truly queer experience?

Then we come to the second wave of psychedelics – the counterculture movement of the 1960s and ’70s. While this wave certainly had elements of queerness in its questioning of societal norms, heteronormativity and even homophobia were rampant. Timothy Leary himself stated that LSD could be used as “a specific cure” for homosexuality. Ram Dass, before his transformative pilgrimage, actively tried to convert a bisexual man to heterosexuality using LSD. Not exactly progressive perspectives from the thought leaders of the first psychedelic renaissance.

And now the third wave of psychedelics – the current renewed interest in psychedelic culture. Although we’d like to think of this new renaissance as being led by progressive types, in reality it has been catalysed by the prospect of medicalisation and corporatisation of natural psychedelic medicines. The racist, sexist and homophobic foundations of Western science and capitalism are still present in this modern community.

Even in a psychedelic community that thinks it is more steeped in love and compassion than ever before, gender essentialism runs rampant. Talk of the “divine masculine” and “divine feminine” invades almost every mainstream psychedelic space, while you won’t have to turn over many rocks before you find a hippie proselytising about exactly what roles women need to have in a truly harmonious society.

And even if we’re talking about queerness in less constrained ways – perhaps the subversion of capitalist or hierarchical systems in addition to sexuality – well, many people emerge from psychedelic experiences with even stronger capitalist or exploitative moralities too.

Clearly, some people take psychedelics and don’t have a particularly queer experience. These people seem to have prior biases and assumptions confirmed – especially regarding gender and sexuality.

If we say that all psychedelic experiences are queer, what does that mean for these people who emerge from them with distinctly un-queer views? Have they simply heard the message but refused to listen?

This kind of gatekeeping is dangerous, I think. It would mean we’d start to label these un-queer people as either stupid, stubborn, or afraid. I think it’s more likely they are complex people who are victims of a patriarchal and heteronormative upbringing, and the psychedelic experience does not always show the same truth to everyone.

As much as I’d like for every tripping novice to be shown a queer wonderland, it doesn’t look like that’s happening; and we can’t assume that non-queer people are just wilfully denying some kind of absolute queer truth.

Maybe everyone does have the potential to be queer. Maybe there is no such thing as pure, unchangeable heterosexuality. I honestly and deeply want to believe that!

But it may take more than just a single dose of a psychedelic to prove it. The entire un-queer history of psychedelia shows this. Saying that the psychedelic experience is essentially a queer experience is a denial of the shadow of psychedelics – a shadow that has always stood alongside the beautiful and healing light of psychedelic medicines.

2 thoughts on “The distinctly un-queer past and present of psychedelics

  1. I have to confess that while I am strongly against the capitalisation of psychedelics I do not see much wrong with medicalisation. People are still free to use it for other purposes. I fear the involvement of repulsive businessmen is inevitable if psychedelics become accepted for medical use and it is difficult to see how it could be otherwise. Someone has to produce the stuff and distribute it to doctors. Much as I loathe capitalism it is hard to see any alternative.

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  2. Also I do rather wonder whether queerness or otherwise is an unnecessary diversion. If the stuff helps people, if it opens their minds, makes them kinder, better, healthier, happier, are we really too bothered about whether it makes them gay or not? Sex seems such a silly distraction in the greater scheme of things.

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