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Bringing Psychedelic Healing to Queer and Trans Communities

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Bringing Psychedelic Healing to Queer and Trans Communities

Access to psychedelic healing for queer and trans communities is long overdue and increasingly urgent. We know that psychedelics hold immense promise for the treatment of PTSD, depression, and anxiety, yet why are these communities – where these problems are disproportionately higher – not being prioritized in the research?

More than half of U.S. trans and non-binary young people thought about killing themselves in 2020, and queer teens attempt suicide at a rate of more than twice that of their straight peers, according to Jae Sevelius, a clinical psychologist and researcher in Columbia University’s Department of Psychiatry. It is no surprise, in a society where being queer or gender-diverse is widely perceived as “other,” and, in fact, often a crime, that this sense of “otherness” becomes deeply internalized and a source of ongoing trauma. This is only exacerbated by yet more layers of “othering” that BIPOC communities experience in a world where a white, straight, and cis-gendered identity is still widely regarded as the norm.

The time of reckoning and redress is now. Traditional mental health modalities have pathologized queer identity and experience throughout history, and many continue to do so. Homosexuality was classified as a mental illness in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as recently as 1973, and being transgender, up until 2012. Even now, gender-diverse people must undergo psychiatric evaluation before receiving the healthcare they need, as if there is something deeply wrong with them. And we know all too well that psychedelics have themselves been part of the dark history of brutal “conversion treatment” to try to make gay people straight. Timothy Leary, Stanislav Grof, and even Ram Dass, when he was still Richard Alpert and a founding member of the Harvard Psilocybin Project (and still closeted himself), were involved in this kind of experimentation.

Although I am a straight white male, this “othering” of the queer community is deeply personal for me. My own father was outed as a gay man in the 1970s. Watching him overcome such adversity, become a leader within his new “tribe,” and go on to help save lives during the early years of the AIDS crisis, had a profound effect on me. I’ve witnessed my own child, Indigo, endure a difficult transition into a non-binary adult. Thanks to the ongoing support they received, though, they can now report that they are “living their best life.” But how true is this statement for so many other trans and queer people who may not have access to the same supportive environment that Indigo has had?

Despite the victories of the LGBTQIA+ community in recent decades, gender-diverse and queer people are experiencing relentless – and in some instances escalating – attacks on their freedoms, rights, and identity choices, leaving many people as fearful and vulnerable as ever. The need for trauma-informed healing is increasingly urgent, as people grapple with internalized stigma, chronic oppression, homophobia, and rejection.

In 2019, I attended my first-ever mushroom retreat in Jamaica at age 50. I’d been successful as a real estate developer, repurposing abandoned Massachusetts textile mills into multi-purpose community assets, but I was on a quest for deeper meaning at this stage in life. I was looking for an opportunity to throw myself into something with a more profound and lasting impact. Not only did I find the experience profoundly healing, but I had an epiphany: I wanted to help bring the healing power of psychedelic therapy to people who needed it most.

As I worked to integrate the insights I’d received in Jamaica, I knew that I couldn’t ignore the voice that had spoken to me so loudly and clearly. A few months afterwards, the pandemic swept around the world and shut it down. All I could think about during that time was how could we unlock the power of psychedelic healing and spread it around the world like a “good virus”?

I always knew that what made me truly happy was giving. The Dalai Lama’s observation that “the wise way to be selfish is to be of service to others” has long resonated with me. And what better way to give than to pass on to others the same opportunity to heal that I’d received in Jamaica? 

Out of this, Healing Hearts Changing Minds was born. In collaboration with experts in the field, I developed a platform to raise money to support practitioners, therapists, and researchers from within specific communities who experience marginalization, trauma, and hardship. The idea is to take back the healing they receive through psychedelic-assisted therapy, and pay it forward to the communities they support and lead. This is one way to spread a “good virus”.

I knew that I wanted Healing Hearts Changing Minds to focus first on the LGBTQIA+ community.  Indigo, who has picked up their grandfather’s baton, has helped me to understand how much work there is to be done, particularly in the trans community. To “walk the walk,” I started off our fundraising with a personal donation of over a million dollars. After embarking on a listening tour of experts in the queer psychedelic arena, we learned not only that this work is urgent but that it is off the radar for many institutions and organizations engaged in psychedelic research. 

For example, while the use of MDMA-assisted therapy for the treatment of PTSD is imminent, “the number of trans and gender diverse participants in clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD remains unknown, primarily because this information has not been collected and/or reported,” says Sevelius, who adds that “anecdotal estimates are very low.”

We also learned on our listening tour that while there are many dedicated people out there valiantly trying to bring psychedelic healing to this community, they lack the capacity and resources to meet the immense and growing need. We realized the most effective solution would be to support the existing experts, trainers, and researchers who are already out there doing the good work. They just need help and resources to maximize their impact. And that’s what Healing Hearts Changing Minds is all about: maximizing the power of psychedelic healing. We also learned that it was critical to support therapists with a shared queer identity, knowing how this improves and enhances the therapeutic experience. As therapist Wilhelmina De Castro, puts it, “When we pair affirming and aligned support with the transformative power of psychedelic medicines, the capacity to heal from trauma increases.”

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Psychedelics, she goes on to say, are by their nature “queer” in allowing us to depart from the norm. “The spirit of psychedelics themselves have an embodiment of queerness, thus allowing for a deeply affirming somatic, spiritual, and mental experience for the journeyer.” 

We need to build on the growing body of research, and plenty of anecdotal evidence,  to create and refine models that specifically address the unique needs of so many LBGTQIA+ people. After all, those of us who have experienced the power of psychedelic-assisted healing “know what we know.” We need to help lift the burden of depression, anxiety, trauma, self-loathing, and confusion off their shoulders.

Thanks to two generous donors who contributed an additional $200,000, we soon had over $500,000 allocated for an initial RFP grant round and received 50 grant requests! We whittled the list down to around 20 very competitive requests and, finally, to our seven grantees. Diverse in size, scope, and geography, these grantees will help to fill the critical gap in research and/or bring healing to queer and gender-diverse individuals and communities either directly, or by training others to do so. They include: Access to Doorways, Alma Institute, Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics, Flourish Research Collaborative, Heroic Hearts Project, Integrate, and Naropa University.

For Healing Hearts Changing Minds, this is just the beginning. The more money we can raise, the more we can spread the power of psychedelic healing to those places in our society that need it most. We know that psychedelic-assisted therapy makes us happier, and the science of generosity tells us that giving makes us happier too. It’s a no-brainer.

Image: Rainbow_flag_breeze.jpg: Benson Kua from Toronto, Canada, used courtesy of a Creative Commons license.

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