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DoubleBlind: Mural of faces covering eyes. In this article, DoubleBlind explores how psychedelics help with gender identity and transition.
DoubleBlind: Mural of faces covering eyes. In this article, DoubleBlind explores how psychedelics help with gender identity and transition.

How Psychedelics Help with Gender Identity and Transition

A mushroom trip was the major tipping point leading Ivy to "meet" her true self, and deciding to come out to the world.

Nicolle Hodges // June 25, 2020

Mike Zmuda sat at “his” computer ready to reintroduce herself to the world as Ivy. On her screen was a Tweet with a link to her blog post ‘Unlocking the Closet Door Through Psychedelics’ soon to be catapulted into a newsfeed full of friends, acquaintances, and co-workers⁠—a few of whom knew her true identity, but most who did not. “I hit publish and forced myself to go get a coffee,” she says. “I figured it was better to leave than to keep obsessively refreshing.” She returned to a flood of replies, retweets, and messages—some people who she didn’t even know were calling her brave. “That’s when it hit me.” Becoming yourself seems to happen slowly over a lifetime and then sometimes in an instant. A psychedelic trip was the major tipping point leading up to Ivy “meeting” her true self, and deciding that the world should too.

“Since I was 14-years-old, I never had many male interests. I wasn’t pursuing women, I felt more comfortable in women’s clothes and being friends with women,” Ivy tells me over Zoom from her Vancouver apartment. “I would choose female names and avatars online, but those were the boundaries for a long time.” As psychedelics often require post-trip integration, the truths revealed during a trip lend themselves as contributing factors in a complex and nuanced narrative. Much like those who meet “entities” on a DMT trip are often told things they already know, Ivy was not smacked over the head with a realization that blindsided her⁠—instead, psychedelics gave her an opportunity to feel like herself; so much, in fact, that coming back after each mushroom trip revealed the glaring dissonance between her body and inner identity. Mike was a shell that Ivy was ready to burst through, to grow out of, to evolve from, like vines twisting towards the sun through one’s own bones.

Coming back after each mushroom trip revealed the glaring dissonance between her body and inner identity. Mike was a shell that Ivy was ready to burst through.

“Psychedelics are like a cheat code in that they can show you what it’s like to live as your true self,” says Ivy. “Mushrooms made the thoughts of ‘you don’t deserve to feel this good’ go away. It opened the door. It surprised me to realize how much of my anxiety was tied up in pretending to be male.”

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Psychotherapist, Dee Dee Goldpaugh, works with clients who have recognized aspects of their gender or sexual identity through the experience of psychedelics.

“We find ourselves in an expanded state of consciousness that deepens our experience of self-love. A lot of times, these revelations about our identity are not completely unknown to us, it’s just that we live in a society that’s unsupportive,” says Goldpaugh. “It’s a scary thing to make changes or ask people to see you in a new way. Psychedelics give us this momentary pause on self-doubt so we can emerge with a choice.”

But even with that choice—to become or not to become—there are plenty of reasons to stall or retreat entirely.

“It’s important to recognize that not everyone lives in a place or has access to communities who can make those transitions or identities public. It may be that they need to leave so they can live in alliance with who they truly are,” says Goldpaugh.  

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“The anguish and terror of leaving a prescribed gender or of trespassing upon another gender territory testifies to the social constraints imposed upon gender as an institutional rather than an instinctual reality,” writes Judith Butler for The Yale University Press in her paper Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex.

“Some people, teens especially, might be in a situation where their parents would disapprove or they don’t have the financial means,” adds Ivy. After leaving her hometown of Edmonton, where she felt “lukewarm support” for even orbiting the idea of being transgender, it wasn’t until she moved to the West Coast, got a new job in the cannabis industry along with a fresh group of friends that she felt comfortable coming out. “It’s selfish for advocates to say that it’s bad if you don’t ‘live your truth’ because it needs to be a calculated risk and that’s a personal choice,” says Ivy. “It’s doing what’s most conducive to your well-being, and if your quality of life is worse if you come out, it’s OK to wait.”

Psychedelic medicines may provide a pathway for trans and gender diverse people to reconnect with themselves and increase access to gender affirmation, thus reducing the need for gender affirmation from others. Even cisgender people can experience openness to a broader conceptualization of gender after psychedelic experiences, while trans people who have spent a lot of energy trying to conform to binary notions of gender may feel relief in the experience of this type of openness, explains licensed clinical psychologist, Jae Sevelius.

“The anguish and terror of leaving a prescribed gender or of trespassing upon another gender territory testifies to the social constraints imposed upon gender as an institutional rather than an instinctual reality.”

Policies will be inclusive…as long as different actors have a seat at the table,” says Bia Labate, anthropologist and executive director of Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines. “Populations that are marginalized, stigmatized, and persecuted have especially suffered the harsh consequences of the War on Drugs. Trans populations also have high rates of trauma and deserve a chance to receive the benefits of psychedelic healing.”

Gender is a cultural affair. When our identity is no longer dictated by what’s between our legs and anatomy can be altogether adjusted if desired, it makes the notion of gender as a determinant of one’s rights and liberties increasingly suspect.

“Psychedelics can help people go beyond stigma and externally-imposed narratives, social taboos, and prejudice and realize their internal truth,” says Labate. “Psychedelics can help you revisit your definitions of self and your relationship to others and the universe.”

Read: The Inherent Queerness of Psychedelics

As long as there is a sense of “I,” there will always be the “other.” Jean-Paul Sartre made a wonderful statement: “Hell is other people.” The other is the othered because I am “I,” the spiritual leader Osho explains in his book Sex Matters: From Sex to Superconsciousness. As long as there is separateness there can be no experience of love—the great unifier in a world divided. Love is the experience of oneness. When the wall has fallen between two individuals so that they may see one another as the same and not the other, that is love. When this same experience happens between an individual and the whole, that experience is godliness—a word often used when talking about the mystical side of the psychedelic experience, which can result in a sense of having one’s higher power communicated. To reach this place, many undergo “ego death,” in which the “I,” which binds us to our individual bodies, dissolves into the whole. To be free from ourselves, is that not transcendence?

“The ego functions to create a barrier of me versus not me. The ego functions to keep us different,” says Alexander Belser, co-investigator at Yale University where he works to develop affirmative psychotherapies for LGBTQ people. “Psychedelic medicine allows us to experience ego-loosening experiences. The philosopher and psychologist William James said the confining selfhood begins to melt down.” Belser says that psychedelics can accelerate the process of healing, which requires understanding our identity as an experience, deconstructing it, and regrowing it in a way that feels less encumbered by cohesive powers that told us stories about who we should be.

Psychedelics can accelerate the process of healing, which requires understanding our identity as an experience, deconstructing it, and regrowing it in a way that feels less encumbered by cohesive powers that told us stories about who we should be.

If we forgo gender as a construct, however, what about terms like “divine masculine” and “divine feminine,” which are positioned as polarities that create energetic balance rather than biological comparisons? Or are they merely different cells in the same prison?

Pat Smith, an ex-biologist and current writer for the psychedelic movement, questions this in his article entitled “Is there something divine about gender and psychedelics? He touches on a concept in Zen Buddhism which is often heard from people who have had psychedelic experiences: “It’s a realization that dualities are ultimately false—there is no such thing as an objective ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ but these concepts, in fact, exist in total reliance on each other, and therefore their opposition is an illusion covering up their inherent co-dependence,” he says. “It’s a paradox that is at the heart of Zen: life is both meaningful and meaningless. Black and White are opposites but also the same. Masculinity means nothing without a feminine contrast, but neither have any kind of objective meaning separate from the other—and since defining masculinity and femininity is so god-damn difficult, and I’d say impossible, gender dissolves at the exact same rate at which we attempt to grasp it.”

He doesn’t believe that terms like “divine masculine” or “divine feminine” fit into psychedelic spaces because they infer that there is such a thing as “absolute” masculinity or femininity that can be measured and judged against. But international sexual empowerment coach, Katrina Marie argues that polarity is what makes life worth living: “We don’t get the high without the low, the feminine without the masculine, the Yin without the Yang.”

The most important symbol in Daoism (a sixth century Eastern philosophy that rose from a need to govern the Chinese population when the Zhou Dynasty began to crumble) is the Yin Yang, which represents a mysterious force of the universe to do with the interdependence of opposites. The way of the Dao is to keep Yin and Yang balanced at all times, and the constant flux of the two forces represents the unity out of which all existence arises.

“Masculinity means nothing without a feminine contrast, but neither have any kind of objective meaning separate from the other—and since defining masculinity and femininity is so god-damn difficult, and I’d say impossible, gender dissolves at the exact same rate at which we attempt to grasp it.”

For Goldpaugh, who identifies as non-binary and uses the pronoun “they,” psychedelic experiences accentuated, and led to the acceptance of that dualism. “I’ve been very lucky to be able to go to Peru and do deep plant work, and speaking as a middle-class white person and not an indigenous Peruvian, my understanding of their cosmology is that you have masculine and feminine aspects of plant medicine, and these energetic aspects have nothing to do with assigned societal gender roles,” Goldpaugh says. “Ayahuasca is strongly feminine and San Pedro is masculine, and through the work of these two plants, I got in touch with these energies within me—which exist in everybody—but they were so strong that my identity began to explode and reconstruct into this person who is somewhere in the middle.” Being in a safe space with a high dose of medicine, they had the experience of leaving their body. ” I didn’t know how to be in a body until I knew how to be out of a body.”

Marie has explored masculine and feminine energy in her own queerness and has come to describe it as such: The masculine is stereotypically the giver and space-holder, like the banks of a river, and the feminine is the river that flows into that open space. “I think so much of sexual energy and what actually turns us on is polarity,” she says, “holding those opposite poles of masculine and feminine, which have nothing to do with our genitals.” And psychedelics, Marie adds, offer a means of exploring beyond that. “I think people getting to know their sexual energy beyond their physicality is so important. If you can understand how fluid your own gender is and have articulation around that, you will have so much more understanding for people who have that pendulum swing between energies.”

Read: Using Psychedelics to Heal from Sexual Trauma

Beyond energy, Belser says the psychedelic community suffers from a highly gendered essentialized understanding in the physical sense too, where there are often two therapists in a room—one male, one female, and both, historically, cis-gender.

“The male is supposed to embody masculine, fatherly energy and transference in the psycho-analytical paradigm, while the woman is supposed to embody feminine energy, stereotypical feminine traits, and the mother. Together, they form a reparative family for the patient who is taking the medicine to do deeper work,” he says. “There are many good reasons to have two therapists in the room but there has been an ongoing controversy as to whether those two therapists need to be male and female, or can be of other genders.”

Belser believes the future is wide open to the extent that gender is a social construct and psychedelics ask us to examine the root of problems of all constructs for how they propagate oppression and violence. However, what reparation must the psychedelic community do before leading the way?

We have rainbow skeletons in our closet, Belser wrote in his post outlining ten steps to systemically root out homophobia and transphobia in psychedelic policies and practices. He shared harrowing stories of LGBTQ people targeted for the treatment of “sexual perversion” (conversion clinicians boasting about turning gay men straight and reports of women in the United Kingdom treated with LSD to “overcome their sexuality”) and urges a continued arc towards less gender essentializing, more tolerance, and therapeutic practices that affirm rather than deter one’s path to self-actualization.

Today, to be a gender is to be engaged in an ongoing cultural interpretation.

The key to grappling with gender is fluidity—if it can be summarized so simply. That entails making neither the masculine nor feminine defined by genitals and expanding the notion of identity beyond the gender binary. Today, to be a gender is to be engaged in an ongoing cultural interpretation. In other words, to be born a woman is to become a woman—as Simone de Beauvoir wrote in her 1949 book The Second Sex—based on an active process of appropriating within the cultural possibilities. The same can be said of men. But if neither interpretation is suitable to the individual experience or reflective of the changing times—as is undeniable in 2020—does it make sense for some to reject it entirely, to become “gender outlaws?”

It’s impossible to leave gender at the door, it’s already inside. It’s inside our minds and deeply embedded in our language structure,” says Belser. But there are ways to work with it at individual and communal levels, which means involving, recruiting, and looking to trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming folks within the psychedelic research clinical movement in order to not continue to instantiate heteronormative practices, he adds.

There seem to be two separate worlds forming: the psychedelic experience where we meet some form of God, experience absolute love or “one-ness” and are free from ourselves as defined by our body—and then this world where we are not. Integration after a psychedelic trip is a bridge between the two worlds, but also the gap that proves the distance. 

“You can’t have a gender-liberating psychedelic moment and come back to a transphobic therapy room or hospital or clinic setting, or family life, or experience on the street or in the city or in the structures of power and occupation,” says Belser. “If that’s the case then we need to change this world. What I mean is specifically in the psychedelic world we need to confront transphobia at every level.”

Read: I Love You—Let’s Trip Together

Jack Halberstam, a professor at Columbia University studying gender and sexuality, says that in the best case scenario, the increased visibility of trans people would not only make the world a safer place for them, but, by encouraging all of us to ponder our relationship to gender, race, and entitlement, that visibility could ultimately topple oppressive systems of power and sexuality.

Our view of the way the world operates is largely influenced by the cultural climate we’re born into and the history that culture emerged from, with language serving to bring a semblance of order to the chaos of our absurd reality, or sometimes reflect how absurd it is. Language fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging people to question their own unexamined beliefs, which sometimes leads to discomfort on the way to understanding. In other words, communicating with one another is critical when dismantling deeply entrenched cultural norms. Sometimes, the spark of a revolution is a pronoun or quietly muttering your true name to mark a transition. We understand one another by identifying with the subjective meaning of the language of other people, by experiencing what a word means in their world. “I tried Heidy, Madeline, and Savannah,” explains Ivy—purple wig and makeup on, proudly put together for our video interview. “But none of them fit. When I came upon Ivy and saw imagery of flowers and vines, and then when people called me by that name, it felt different than the others; it felt like mine.”

In the last lines of her blog post coming out as transgender, published on March 31, 2020—in the midst of a global pandemic, no less—she wrote: “The world is in an increasingly uncertain state, which has motivated me to go against my predisposition to draw up a plan for every possibility and just let what’s going to happen, happen.”

I ask Ivy what she hopes is next; first comes a name and then—

“I’m looking forward to having more than two dresses in my closet.”

Nicolle Hodges is a sexual freedom philosopher, journalist, and founder of @girlswhosayfuck—an incubator for ideas and conversation that instigate change—including the feminist project and podcast @menwhotakebaths. Her first book, @theorgasmbook, is available on Amazon.

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