For one month a year, the LGBTQIA+ community finds that the world is a little more as it should be. In a culture where so many spaces aren’t safe and only certain expressions of identity are accepted, suddenly, we have options. We see faces like ours in the media and leaders stepping forward; rainbow flags draped in windows and doors being opened; people listening to our stories and donating to our causes.
Then Pride month ends, and everyone goes back to forgetting.
The psychedelic mainstream is no exception, and many don’t see themselves reflected in ceremonies, conferences, and retreats. Yet the queer community has always taken healing into its own hands. And now, a growing number are creating psychedelic spaces by and for LGBTQIA+ people, offering needed support for the other 11 months of the year.
Queer psychedelic spaces provide healing for communities that have suffered centuries of discrimination—but, most importantly, they offer options. Here, “there is more ability to hold complexity and honor all aspects of self, seeing [them all] as spiritual, versus putting the spiritual self on a pedestal,” says Becca*, co-founder of the Queer Psychedelic Society. “Improving mental health is important, but there are more layers that queer spaces are better equipped to hold.”
The bass thumps through the sticky Costa Rican night, accompanying the rainforest’s cacophony of creatures. A gaggle of queer people gyrate on the dance floor, open-hearted from the preceding cacao ceremony. Some have traveled across continents and are staying in luxurious bamboo cabins; others are native Costa Ricans (called “Ticos” in the Spanish-speaking world) who have driven four hours from the capital city of San José and will collapse into bunks when the music stops.
This is not your typical retreat center. The Jungle Gayborhood, says founder Shelby Clark, was created as “a safe space for queer people to explore, express, and connect with the community and nature.” They offer events that incorporate various embodiment and spiritual practices, from psychedelics and yoga to dance parties, aiming to cast a wide net and expose LGBTQIA+ communities who might not otherwise encounter these healing modalities.
After all, it’s how he found his way in. “Growing up gay and having shame of the deepest parts of myself, I did what many people do… looking to the outside for validation, approval, and love,” Clark says. By all accounts, he was successful: an All-American swimmer, Harvard grad, and entrepreneur. But in 2017, when his second business failed, Clark found himself in a deep depression. Rudderless, he knew that doing yoga seemed to help, so he and his sister signed up for a teacher-training course in Bali.
“I expected to do yoga poses, and found spirituality,” Clark says. It led him to discover other embodiment practices: from ecstatic dance and contact improv to nondual philosophy and “profound experiences with psilocybin.” This journey led to Costa Rica, where Americans have increasingly been flocking in search of healing: building retreat centers, wellness spaces, and intentional communities (with significant impact on local ecosystems and people).
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While he found friends and collaborators, “I was often the only queer person in the room. It didn’t feel safe to talk about the things that were most alive for me,” Clark says. “[I started thinking], what if we had entirely queer containers, held by people who knew what it was like to grow up gay in a straight world?”
He opened the Jungle Gayborhood in December 2022, offering three distinct types of retreats. All involve embodiment and spiritual practices such as yoga, meditation, and nature walks, nestled in a lush rainforest hugging Costa Rica’s largest waterfall.
The type of plant medicine depends upon the facilitator. Previous retreats have included psilocybin and ayahuasca, which will be served at the next retreat by Tony Moss, a 30-year veteran of the medicine community who trained with Shipibo healers. He will be accompanied by Bird Tribe, the spiritually focused music group he leads, which blends Indigenous and popular sounds.
The center is cultivating relationships with Indigenous tribes, hosting members of the Yawanawa from Brazil and Wixárika from Mexico to conduct ceremonies for members of both communities (which were also fundraisers for those groups), though they have not yet been involved with retreats. They also work with the local Baruca tribe, primarily through Futuro Nativo, which funds projects for Indigenous communities in Peru, Brazil, and Costa Rica.
The second type of retreat the Gayborhood offers involves healing people’s relationship with sexuality and the body, primarily through tantra. Clark emphasizes that “there is no sex in the retreat context, and in sacred sexuality, there is no medicine or recreational drugs. …Clear agreements make safe spaces.”
Then there is what Clark calls “gay camp,” a retreat for those who aren’t looking to exhume trauma, but “also don’t want to go on an Atlantis gay cruise,” combining embodiment and spiritual practices with elements like cacao, wilderness hikes, and dancing. Some of these events, such as an upcoming Pride party, are specifically designed for the queer Tico community, who are also offered half-off all retreats.
“We’re creating invitations to dive deeper into connection…balanced with a fun, queer environment,” Clark says, “to meet people where they’re at. Not everyone is ready to do a deep ayahuasca exploration. If we gear our programming only to that, we’re preaching to the choir.”
The Only Gay in the Maloca
He radiated warmth and was quick with a joke in his wry British tone. His presence was so bright, we didn’t even realize that he was the only one who hadn’t shared his story until the last day of the LGBTQ+ Compassionate Inquiry and Ayahuasca Retreat.
Suicide, says Jonathan Bart*, was an idea as comfortable as an old, favorite sweater. He staved it off by retreating into work, home, and a romantic relationship. But when all three collapsed in 2021, he awoke from an alcohol-induced blackout to discover he’d written a note, and even found the rope he’d use to hang himself from the bathroom door. The LGBTQ+ retreat was “the last-chance saloon.”
Bart had already been to 19 ayahuasca retreats, a smattering of psilocybin ceremonies, and a 20-plus hour ibogaine ritual, but nothing really stuck. “I was always the only gay in the maloca, and I could hide behind that specialness. I’d talk about being bullied and hating myself, and no one would relate; pepper in a few Drag Race jokes; and we’d all move on.”
Publio Valle had a similar experience of isolation as a facilitator at the Temple of the Way of Light in Peru. So he proposed the first queer retreat, held in April 2022, which I, also, attended.
“I felt super welcomed by everyone…but there was always this need to present myself a certain way,” a hypervigilance that most queer people share, Valle says. “Working with the medicine for 18 years, it’s clear that the safer I feel, the easier it is for me to touch my deepest wounds. When I touch [them], I can transform them.”
Few things create more safety than shared experience. The nightly ayahuasca ceremonies, led by Indigenous healers called maestros and maestras from the Shipibo tribe, were followed by daily processing circles with Brazilian and Canadian facilitators; all of it helped us revisit painful memories within a safe container and reframe them through a compassionate lens. But the most powerful medicine was each other.
“I was a bit worried in the beginning. I had never heard so much sharing around the common wound of non-belonging,” says Juliana Bizare, another retreat facilitator. “But the group was more open and vulnerable [than any] I’d ever seen. There was so much safety, so much love, that the biggest wound became the biggest power.”
As Dr. Gabor Maté, physician and author, teaches, trauma isn’t caused by what happened to you, but rather, having no one to talk to about it. If you can process an upsetting event with an understanding person, that’s all it remains. If you can’t, it manifests in physical and mental unwellness. Less than 10 percent of the general population meet the criteria for PTSD; for LGBTQIA+ people, it’s as high as 48 percent.
“Voicing it and having people not just say they were sorry, but that they’d been there for the same reasons I had, took all the poison out of it,” Bart says. “I realized that this is just what happens to people who’ve been hurt a lot.”
For Anand*, the Gayborhood in March 2023 was his first plant medicine retreat. Wanting to prepare, he started by reading a 200-page textbook on ayahuasca, but it quickly became clear the experience was about feeling, not thinking. While the medicine was important, even more impactful was being in a setting focused on wellbeing and surrounded by people who shared his experience, something he hadn’t intentionally sought.
“The Jungle Gayborhood offers a setting, space, and program that allows individuals to focus on nourishing their bodies and clarifying their minds,” says Anand. “[Connection] flowed so beautifully through the facilitators and shared activities…I walked away with some really strong and powerful friendships.”
In settings where we can step away from the default world and show ourselves, wounds and all, without fear, to others who understand, transformation can take place. Clark describes healing as “an emergent community process,” amplified by others. We found this to be true at the Temple’s retreat, where one person’s purge was another’s release, one’s breakdown another’s breakthrough.
“Ayahuasca tells you, ‘you aren’t worthless, love yourself,’ and you think, ‘How?’” Bart says. “I realized this wasn’t about blasting my brain into sanity. This was about the little things: the hugs and warmth; holding people’s hands; the kindness in letting yourself be seen. You start to think, ‘If ayahuasca is saying this, and other people are saying this, maybe I’m the one who’s wrong.’”
Back to the Body
Much of queer culture focuses on sexuality and the body, but this is where trauma is stored. That means many of us have never felt at home anywhere, even in LGBTQIA+ communities. “Every day, someone would bring up how queer bodies have been terrorized, mocked, and abused,” Bart says, “and that soaks into the collective memory.”
Healing this history through plant medicine was a focus for Anand. “[Social] conditioning…made me feel uncomfortable with my body, the queer community, and living up to these very stereotypical standards of fitness, physique, sex, and all of these hyper-masculine, over-emphasized elements of the queer experience that exist on social and the web,” he says. “That was the source of a lot of trauma when I felt like I didn’t fit in.”
Becca grew up in a “not-so-borderline, homophobic Catholic family,” and prior to discovering plant medicine, only felt comfortable exploring her queerness when using alcohol. Even still, working through her attraction to women can be challenging, she says, “undoing the internalized patriarchal paradigm.”
As children, many queer people learn to dissociate from their bodies to avoid pain. Healing requires reconnection—which can include re-experiencing repressed memories—followed by release. Ayahuasca’s notorious purge often includes profuse vomiting, but there are many ways for the nervous system to release something painful. It’s why animals shake after something startling happens; for humans, it can include tapping, eye movements, and sacred sexual practices, with or without psychedelics.
At the Gayborhood’s tantra retreats, which are strictly substance-free, “we want to create a sex-positive space where it’s okay to excavate the experiences of trauma and shame and say, there’s a place for all of this,” Clark says. “Some people are able to move through that … into sex as a manifestation of creative energy, [or] eros, and that [can] be a powerful experience.”
Music and dancing can do the same. Indigenous rituals, such as the Bwiti people’s iboga ceremonies in West Africa, involve intense, hypnotic dance. At the Temple, we followed our heaviest processing sessions with dancing to Shakira, sashaying across the maloca, and laughing with tear-stained faces. Ethnobotanist Terence McKenna called rave culture part of the archaic revival. And queer people have always congregated on the dance floor. For a long time, says Clark, urban dance clubs were one of the only safe spaces, and many found healing by dancing together while using substances like MDMA.
The queer Tico scene, Clark says, revolves largely around circuit parties: massive, all-night dances. The Gayborhood’s Tico-focused Pride party will include workshops on yoga, breathwork, and tantra along with a techno-house DJ. The goal is to create an environment that feels comfortable, but also “invite them into other practices that have been nourishing for us, drive a deep sense of connection, and maybe open them to something new.”
While the concept of reciprocity, central to Indigenous medicine traditions, is practiced by any reputable retreat center, rarely are events catered expressly to locals. “It’s known that many of the ‘gringos’…have a hard time engaging,” says Clark, informed by the experience of his boyfriend, who is Tico. “We’re doing programming that specifically outreaches to the local community, and it’s actually working…We recently did a queer men’s tantra retreat where the majority were Tico. I’ve never been to an event [where that was the case.]”
Other groups may feel less welcome. While Gayborhood events say they’re for the queer community, gay men are primarily depicted, at the retreat Anand attended, all seven participants were men. However, the medicine keepers who served ceremonies were queer women, as were other healers and members of staff.
“I would have liked to see a more open container,” Anand says. “The intention was there…but they do market themselves as the Gayborhood, which has its own self-selecting interests.”
Drag can also be an embodiment practice, and the Queer Psychedelic Society was formed because of a psychedelic drag show. When the co-founders came up with the idea, they quickly realized no organization would support it, so they created their own foundation. The event, being held July 8 in San Diego, will “blend celebration and education,” Becca says, with speakers sharing how psychedelic work has helped them connect more authentically—then yielding the stage to a drag show and rave.
The Society particularly targets programming toward BIPOC, women, and gender-expansive people. While the show is open to allies, “we primarily create spaces for queer-identifying folks only,” Becca says. “We feel that’s needed, and [that’s] the feedback we’ve gotten, as well.”
Celebration in Community
Psychedelic retreats can have transformative power, especially for people in acute distress. But they’re often inaccessible to LGBTQIA+ communities that are disproportionately under-resourced. Camping at the Gayborhood costs $1,800; the Temple’s retreat, while longer, is $3,000; none counting the costs of travel and time off. Some centers have concessions (the Gayborhood offers a limited number of scholarships to anyone who demonstrates need), but this option is often not obvious from marketing materials.
It also requires queer communities to know these retreats exist. Additionally, these retreats often don’t account for the fact that those who can afford to go need support when they come home. The QPS aims to help fill these gaps, offering resources and support between ceremonies and for those who are doing at-home psychedelic work.
“Queer ceremonial spaces are absolutely powerful containers,” Ladybug says, but “it’s also important to have containers outside of the ceremony space for integration, and integration is going to look different for queer than it is for straight folk.”
In mainstream psychedelic communities, “I largely felt uncomfortable [and] had to stifle a lot of myself. There was the expectation to ‘just be high-vibrational,’ and a lot of binary ‘divine masculine, divine feminine’ talk,” Becca says. “I feel far more at home, and find more authenticity, in queer space.”
They hope to one day have the funding and membership to form a 501(c)3 nonprofit. For now they’re a co-op, also including board members Fakih and Preston. The group hosts online and in-person integration circles and provides resources for queer people struggling with substances; their goal is to create a healing access fund prioritizing trans and BIPOC queer folks.
Becca hopes that community-based models will allow more people access to healing, but they can’t do it alone. For organizations like hers that offer free services for low-income groups, the funds have to come from somewhere. She’s building a Patreon, but hopes those with the resources to start businesses and open retreat centers can support grassroots causes.
She describes meeting David Bronner, psychedelic advocate and CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps—who recently came out about using they/them pronouns and dressing in drag—at a queer psychedelics conference and trying, unsuccessfully, to get support for the drag show. Yet the need for these spaces is clear in the response.
“Queer people show up,” Clark says. At their first retreat, “80 percent of the participants were first-timers sitting with ayahuasca. That says to me that we have a lot of people who are ready to do these medicines.” Similarly, the Temple’s first retreat quickly sold out.
Becca hopes to inspire psychedelic societies in other cities and create communal living schemes. As Ladybug says, “finding queer folks in the psychedelic space has felt like coming home.”
At the Temple’s retreat, Bizare tearfully came out to the group—as straight. “I was so afraid of not being welcomed, but you made me feel safe,” she says. “It was very important for me to be able to understand what you go through.”
Just like Pride turns the culture upside down, queer psychedelic spaces show us a world where we are the “normal” ones, and it makes all the difference.
“At the end, I couldn’t believe I’d even considered [suicide]; it seemed preposterous,” Bart says. “Wanting to die was actually the opposite. It was about wanting to have a life worth living.”
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