Queering Psychedelics?

The Swinging Sixties was all about sex, drugs and rock and roll. After the horrors of the Second World War and the rationing and dour conservatism of the straight-laced Fifties, it was time to party. And LSD was the heart and soul of the party. It turned the people on and tuned them in to the groovy sounds of the Beatles and the Stones and even got some of them to drop out.

There were casualties of course, as Alan Ginsberg noted in his epic poem Howl:

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…”

But there was no stopping the Children of the Revolution. They had seen Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and awakened their Flower Power. They had smashed their Mind-forg’d Manacles and ushered in the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. There would make Love not War and would spread the Free Love to everyone under the California Sun.

Psychedelics do that to people. And now we know how. By inhibiting the Default Mode Network in the brain, they loosen the hold of the ego and allow all sorts of new and novel connections to be made. By deconstructing established patterns and habits, they increase openness and creativity, so that it becomes possible to restructure the personality and even society.

In the Sixties, people in Britain, Europe and America needed to let their hair down. And they needed to get high and get laid. The psychologists, still under the sway of Freud, gave their blessing to the Sexual Revolution and the Summer of Love. And then, with the Stonewall riots of 1969, Gay Pride was born. Now the love that dare not speak its name was shouted from the rooftops, “and [they] saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated, … or purgatoried their torsos night after night / with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls”.

Ginsberg’s poem is anachronistically bleak. Wasn’t the Sixties all Sweetness and Light and Orange Sunshine? Wasn’t it a beautiful dream, rather than a “waking nightmare”? As always, probably a bit of both, probably somewhere in the middle, probably six of one and half a dozen of the other.

In any case, the real or perceived threat of the Sixties Counterculture to the traditional American way of life prompted Nixon to brand LSD Enemy Number One and declare a War on Drugs, which was to last for decades.

Now we are witnessing the dawning of a new Psychedelic Renaissance. So should we expect a rerun of the Swinging Sixties? Do we just carry on from where we left off? Yesterday I was invited to a symposium organised by the Chacruna Institute called Queering Psychedelics. They declared: “We honor Black trans women––revolutionaries like Marsha P. Johnson––and the many queer protestors and advocates who today, continue to fight for our rights. Chacruna is proud to be queer!”

For Chacruna, it would seem that the role of psychedelics is intimately connected with Social Justice and gender fluidity. The Civil Rights activism of the Sixties needs to be taken further so that all oppressive social structures are progressively dismantled. The deconstructive effects of psychedelics can be usefully employed in service of this Progressive Liberationist project. This time around, though, hopefully they will be able to avoid the “waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls”.

The Psychedelic Renaissance of the 2020’s is focused primarily on medical research and clinical trials. The great hope is that psychedelics may be able to successfully treat and perhaps even cure seemingly intractable mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and addiction. Doctors and psychiatrists consider them to be potentially powerful medicines, which if administered carefully and sensibly, could revolutionize our approach to mental health.

Chacruna also clearly sees psychedelics as medicine. However, as well as the presenting issues of people’s specific psychological conditions, they also diagnose a deeper sickness in society which may even be the cause of these. This sickness is identified as the same as that social sickness challenged by the Civil Rights Movements in the 1960’s, namely, Institutional Racism, Sexism and Homophobia. Except that now it must extend to all marginal groups, including all those under the LGBT2QIA+ umbrella.

Well, well! It seems that psychedelics have landed bang in the middle of a Culture War! The clinicians will try to steer clear, keep a professional distance and remain scientifically neutral. They will want to dispense the drugs and cure people without having to dirty their hands. They will want to ignore the possible underlying cultural causes and stick to the symptoms. They will want to stay away from “politics”.

In the meantime, the two sides of the Culture War will want to deal with the underlying “social sickness”. Except that they disagree profoundly about what the sickness is. Chacruna seems to think that the social sickness is still some variation of straight-laced Fifties conservatism. The antidote is therefore even more freedom, more fluidity, more “liquid modernity”.

As a rough test of this hypothesis, we might compare the mental health of freedom-loving liberals and freedom-wary conservatives:

“White liberals are more prone to mental health disorders than individuals who identify as conservative or moderates, according to a Pew Research Center survey. 

Sixty-two percent of Whites who classify themselves as “very liberal” or “liberal” have been told by a doctor they have a mental health condition, as compared to 26% of conservatives and 20% of moderates, the study found. 

Young White people who identified as “very liberal” were almost one and a half times more likely to report mental health problems than those who considered themselves “liberal.””

The Washington Times, April 22, 2021

So if “very liberals” are one and a half times more likely to report mental health problems than “liberals”, who are three times more likely to report mental health problems than “moderates”, should we really be pushing hyper-liberal progressivism on the psychedelic community?

What about mental health in the LGBTQ+ community? Well, according to the NHS Foundation Trust,

“It has been consistently reported that in the UK, the LGBTQ+ community may experience increased levels of common mental health problems, including depression and anxiety. According to a research project conducted by Youth Chances, 52% of LGBTQ people reported self-harming, compared to 35% of heterosexual non-trans young people. Furthermore, 44% of the LGBTQ people reported suicidal thoughts, compared to 26% of heterosexual non-trans respondents.  In a study by Stonewall, it was also found that 13% of LGBT people aged 18-24 attempted to take their own life in the past year.”

Social conditions are clearly very different today than they were in the 1950’s and 60’s. Could it really be the case that the higher incidence of mental health problems among liberal and LGBTQ+ people are the result of social disapprobation and persecution? This is not the 50’s. Mental health issues are much more likely to be associated with the inner chaos of people’s lives than any external oppressive social order, particularly in progressive areas such as Buffalo and Portland in the US or Oxford and Brighton in the UK.

When gringos travel to Peru and Brazil for healing, what do the traditional indigenous curanderos make of them I wonder? What does Madre Ayahuasca make of them? And when they purge, what is the psychic poison they are vomiting up composed of? Is it the “phobic sins” (transphobia, homophobia, etc.) or is it the traditional vices (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride)?

Progressives would say the former; conservatives the latter. What would the shamans say?

In shamanic cultures, spiritual healing involves physical, emotional and mental healing. It involves sexual healing and moral healing. And all of this healing requires purification. This has nothing to do with “progress” and everything to do with repentance, contrition and amendment of life. As G.K. Chesterton said, “The false theory of progress maintains that we alter the test instead of trying to pass it.” But there is no fooling Madre Ayahuasca.

Shamanism is no different from major world religions such as Christianity in its emphasis on straightening yourself out and making the crooked straight. As the prophet Isaiah said, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Shamanism isn’t interested in Queer Theory or Kink Theory. And it certainly isn’t interested in “Queering” or “Kinking” psychedelics. In the traditional shamanic worldview, purity and impurity, sanctity and profanity, are not just arbitrary social constructs for the maintenance of hegemonic power structures. They are necessary lines we must draw if we want to get straight with God.

In our post-Christian world, quoting from Scripture can count against you rather than for you. But I’ll do it anyway:

“Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that commiteth fornication sinneth against his own body.

Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?

For ye were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.”

1 Corinthians 6 : 18-20

Just to be clear, I am not saying that homosexuality is incompatible with shamanism or Christianity. Most gay people do not subscribe to Queer Theory at all. Saint Paul’s point is about fornication, which obviously applies to everyone, whatever their sexual orientation. As he says, this involves “sin against the body”, what we would probably call “sexual abuse”. This is a notoriously difficult thing to define or pin down, which is why it is legally reserved for abuse of minors – age is easy to define.

Psychedelics sensitise us to our energetic systems and reveal to us the harm we are doing to ourselves on all levels, physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. In terms of sexual activity, psychedelics confirm what Damon Albarn sang all those years ago:

“Girls who want boys
Who like boys to be girls
Who do boys like they’re girls
Who do girls like they’re boys
Always should be someone you really love”.