Updated: Mar 16, 2021
This interview was conducted and transcribed by Jessika Lagarde and edited by Marlies van Exter. The interview was condensed for clarity.
Ariel Vegosen is an inclusivity and diversity expert, educator, trainer, workshop facilitator, coach, consultant, ritualist, and writer. Ariel's work focuses on intersectionality, commitment to working from an anti-oppression lens, and creating communities across diverse cultural backgrounds.
She is the founder and director of Gender Illumination, a non-profit dedicated to healing, ritual, mentorship, and leadership in the trans and non-binary community. Besides that, Ariel is CEO of Shine Diversity, a company that creates clear pathways to diversity and inclusion, and founder of the Queerdome, a collaborative project to bring a queer-centered, psychedelic harm-reduction space to the heart of the Queerborhood at Burning Man.
On Amplify #13, Ariel talks to us about LGBTQ+ inclusion in the psychedelic space, psychedelic privilege, how we can start working on providing access to psychedelics to those who need it the most. Let’s check it out!
WOOP: The LGBTQ community experiences far higher levels of depression, anxiety, addiction, and PTSD than the larger population, and LGBTQ youth are five times more likely to attempt suicide. How can psychedelic-assisted therapies help, and is it for everyone?
Ariel: The LGBTQ community is faced with a harsher experience, like any marginalized community globally. There's so much oppression in how we navigate topics related to LGBTQ+, racism, people of color, indigenous people, poor people, and so on. This oppression lands on people's bodies, psyches, and spirits. To deal with the pain, the reaction can be suicide, drug addiction, and self-medication.
In the United States, most marginalized people are the least likely to get the resources and the needed care and attention. It's exciting to see the trial studies around MDMA as a healing potential for PTSD and mushrooms for depression. But I am constantly wondering how we will make sure that marginalized people have access to this medicine in a therapeutic and ritual context. A context that will be the best for their communities.
If you ask, is it for everyone, I would say: nothing's for everyone. We will need multiple layers of healing because each person will have to figure out what works best for them. For some people, that might be therapy with or without psychedelics. For others, the whole therapy model might not be working. They find healing through art, drama, theatre, or the drag community. There are so many different ways that we can heal ourselves. There's not one band-aid solution that will be the "be-all" or "end-all" for the way oppression has landed on the LGBTQ community.
WOOP: Do you think psychedelics can help gender and sexual minorities understand and embrace who they are?
Ariel: I think psychedelics can help people embrace who they are, no matter if they're in the LGBTQ community or identify as straight, cisgender, transgender, non-binary or genderqueer.
It opens up our minds and allows us to get more expansive. In that process, we get the gift of seeing that many of the boxes we have created in society are unhealthy, not actual or untrue. That, in reality, the human potential is so great. We get the opportunity to expand our minds on how we see gender, sexuality and the whole concept of humanity. We just get into a realm of really seeing that there's a deep connection to nature. A feeling that we are all deeply connected and whatever affects one of us affects all of us.
I just want to clarify that I don't think that it magically always happens that way when you take psychedelics. Your set and setting are incredibly important. What is your mindset before going into the journey? Where are you physically? Is that place prepared to be a place of wellness for you? Where you will be safe to be on a journey? Will that environment be providing you nourishment, kindness, and love?
You can have a very damaging or challenging psychedelic journey that does not give you the space to explore or to see the multiplicity of gender and sexuality. These medicines are not cure-alls, and like all medicines, they can be amazing, but they can also be harmful.
If you come back from a journey and see the harshness of the world, you feel the oppression; what's the integration going to be like? Unless you have a community, how are you going to continue this feeling of gender expansion?
WOOP: Just how accessible are psychedelic-assisted therapies for the LGBTQ community? What is being done to create queer-focused psychedelic therapies or to train culturally competent therapists and researchers?
Ariel: The LGBTQ community is going to need therapists who come from our community. That doesn't mean that someone always needs a queer therapist because they're queer. But I do believe that we need people who understand what the needs of different communities are. It could be because you're from that community or because you've done the work and you've taken pieces of training. One way how I see myself involved is by helping with those pieces of training.
But since therapy is not always accessible to a whole population of people, how do we make sure that multiple models become legal? For instance, what does it look like to have community healers? Or people who are ritualists and who can hold space in that way? Does psychedelic healing always has to happen in a therapeutic setting, or can there be other types of community members, leaders or healers?
It's different from therapy but equally as important and valid. And when you start thinking about plant medicine, indigenous people have been using this forever in ceremonies and rituals. So when we talk about things becoming legal, I want to certify that there are multiple channels for this form of healing.
WOOP: Scientific studies around psychedelics lack diversity and inclusivity. Why are queer-centered psychedelics studies so rare, and what more can be done to advocate for them?
Ariel: I think we have a problem that is actually way bigger. I think the problem is not just in the psychedelic world. It's a problem of being left out of the whole medical field and scientific studies. Queer people are being left out. LGBTQ people are being left out. Lots of marginalized people are being left out. You often find out that the only people in a medicine study were white men. But how does that medicine work on a body that's not white or not a man?
I also think there's a lot of fear because marginalized communities have already been harmed in different scientific and medical studies. There have been moments of lack of consent. In the United States, we've seen this over and over again. Literally using populations of people to be in scientific studies without their consent.
I think people would feel safer if a study was founded by LGBTQ people and the LGBTQ community. I know I would. I'd be more likely to put myself in that study than potentially other studies. Just because I've seen how badly my community has been harmed.
So, there needs to be an overall shifting of understanding that you need to factor in diversity anytime you're doing a study.
WOOP: They say that psychedelics open minds and shift perspectives, but let’s talk about a lesser-known fact in the history of psychedelics. They were weaponized by researchers to “cure” homosexuality and transgenderism. Psychedelic pioneer Timothy Leary himself said: “The fact is that LSD is a specific cure for homosexuality.” How has that impacted - and continues to negatively affect - the psychedelic space today? What else needs to be done?
Ariel: Much harm has been done by people thinking that there’s something wrong with being gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, or queer. I have found that being queer is a gift, and I feel incredibly grateful that this is who I am.
For some reason, there’s a real desire to control each other based on sexuality and gender. How do we make sure that everybody is seen as awesome for being exactly who they are, not trying to control or change someone?
I’m not surprised that this has happened in the past around psychedelics because people will take anything and use it for good or for evil. You can use psychedelics for healing and therapy, or you can use it to try to take you away from what you actually are. I see the same thing when it comes to religion. Religion can be healing and beautiful, like some kind of spiritual community building. But it can also be used as a system of control and harm, leading to tragedy, abuse and even death.
So, how does the psychedelic movement account for some of the harms that have happened in the past? How do we shift? How do we talk about these things? How do we heal? Questions build more questions, and together, we have to do this work of unraveling and unlearning.
WOOP: Tell us a bit more about the work you are doing at Shine Diversity, providing inclusivity training to organizations, as well as Gender Illumination, where healing, mentorship, leadership, and ritual programs are created for trans, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people.
Ariel: Gender Illumination is a nonprofit focusing on healing, leadership, ritual, and mentorship in the trans and non-binary community. One of our best-working programs is the mentorship for adults. Anyone of 18 years or older can participate in this "Gender Journeys Mentorship Program", in which we pair a mentor and a mentee together.
The program provides support to people that are on the journey of their gender identity. We ensure that you receive guidance and support from somebody who has been on the same journey as you. So, if someone identifies as non-binary, we work to ensure that their mentor is also non-binary.
Furthermore, the program offers different workshops; around decolonizing gender workshops, anti-racism, art and storytelling. It's really about community building. We also do unique rituals for people around name changes and coming out. And we help institutionalized religions to make existing rituals inclusive.
At Shine Diversity, we create consulting, coaching, policy, writing, curriculum, and writing training around justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Companies, places of faith, healthcare providers learn to be genuinely inclusive of all people, focusing on anti-racism on gender and LGBTQ inclusivity.
WOOP: You are also the founder of the Queerdome. This is a support site set-up at Burning Man helping gender and sexual minorities with difficult psychedelic experiences during the event. What has the response been like, and what did you learn?
Ariel: We launched Queerdome in 2019 at Burning Man, a great place to launch a project because you see what works, what doesn't work, and what needs to get improved. Then you can take that same model and bring it into everyday life.
This space was needed because it was called for by the queer community. We took that request and made it a reality. Our own space, run and operated by queer people. Where you know that, when you go there, you will meet sitters that are queer-identified. People who can hold the space for you. With whom you can share and talk about your sexuality and who will receive and honor you.
I'm also the co-founder of Gender Blender, the trans and non-binary and gender-expansive community on Playa at Burning Man. But we exist way beyond Burning Man. This is not something that just happens for one week in the desert. This is actually our real life.
WOOP: Harm reduction spaces already exist, so why is it so important to provide a safe space specifically created for and by queer people?
Ariel: I gave a workshop called "Drugs: the good, bad, and the ugly", and I would always end the workshop by asking everyone what is the call to action. And everywhere, people were saying they wanted to see queer-centered psychedelic harm reduction spaces - a very doable request.
So we launched it in 2019 at Burning Man. From there, we've been on this journey of taking it back into the real world. We saw that people could be received in a safe space and be held in a safe space.
People were so thankful. Some said they wouldn't have gone to a different harm reduction space, that they needed this specific one. So that felt really awesome.
There are a lot of anecdotal stories. I heard from one trans man that he was so thankful to just be able to go someplace during his experience where he knew that people would see him for all that he is.
WOOP: You coined the term psychedelic privilege - what does that mean, and how can we recognize and combat it?
Ariel: Privilege is an issue we have in society in general. Certain groups of people have been given privileges based on identity. They haven't done anything specific to deserve it. Still, they keep receiving more access to resources, financials, or anything that society offers. Marginalized people do not receive the same access. Often, when you're in the privileged group, you don't even realize it because this is just what's happening around you.
When it comes to psychedelic privilege, it's the exact same thing. Who's going to get access first to healing psychedelic therapies? What happens when it becomes legal right now? What is the difference between a white person and a person of color getting arrested for any substance? We have seen the statistics.
And what about psychedelics in a recreational setting? The reality is that women, trans, nonbinary and queer people have a higher chance of violence, sexual harassment, and rape. So if you are at a party, your guard is already up. If you're going to take psychedelics, you have to think about what that journey will be like. In a way that a cisgender man taking psychedelics does not have to think about. And that is a privilege, right? The ability to take a heroic dose and not have to think about it.
Bringing awareness is a way to fight psychedelic privilege. Still, it won't shift unless you're shifting privilege in society in general. So, people need to question what does it mean to be in a place of privilege? How do you leverage that? Everyone needs to be able to get the benefits that certain groups of people have been receiving.
WOOP: What is the role of psychedelics in our continued movement for equality and liberation?
Ariel: I think we need to move into a model of supporting and accepting each other. We have to start questioning ourselves, looking internally and figuring out where we're trying to control other people. How are we going to shift that?
It's going to take tremendous effort because cultural shifting is slow. Unlearning and relearning have to be on multiple levels: institutional, systematic and personal.
WOOP: It’s important to highlight that psychedelics aren’t magic pills. They won't automatically fix one’s issues or the greater problems of discrimination and oppression in society. What needs to be done to ensure that people from all walks of life have equal access to get involved with psychedelics?
Ariel: We talked about accessibility before and about the training of professionals. But how can we make sure that marginalized people who don’t feel comfortable talking about drugs or getting involved with psychedelics would feel comfortable showing interest in those things?
There have been some really effective models in Washington DC, Oakland, and Oregon. People have actually been able to create change at a legal level through voting and other initiatives. So there has been a real push for decriminalization.
We need to look into how we have criminalized and who we put behind bars. The whole system right now is about who has access and privilege. Who’s gonna be just fine and who’s not going to be fine.
Ariel Vegosen is a professional justice, equity, inclusivity and diversity trainer, workshop facilitator, writer, educator, consultant, coach, public speaker, performer, and ritualist. Ariel is the co-founder of Queerdome - the first-ever queer-centered psychedelic harm reduction. For over 20 years Ariel has facilitated trainings, workshops, and retreats for organizations, corporations, nonprofits, schools, communities, and faith-based groups. This work has taken Ariel all over the US and internationally.
Ariel is the founder and Director of Gender Illumination - a non-profit dedicated to healing, mentorship, and ritual in the trans and non-binary community. Ariel is dedicated to ensuring that marginalized communities receive access to psychedelic healing. Ariel is an ordained Kohenet Priestess and ceremonial facilitator. She is the founder of Shine Diversity - a company that creates clear pathways to diversity and inclusion through trainings, policy, and curriculum writing.
Ariel loves to play with pronouns, bring joy into all aspects of life, and creatively spark conversations and connections. She is a leader in the LGBTQIA community and has spoken at conferences throughout the US and abroad including Queering Psychedelics on the topic of increasing marginalized access to psychedelic healing and addressing psychedelic privilege.
Ariel offers coaching and ritual sessions centered on healing, building confidence, overcoming PTSD, and creating community. Ariel has worked with medicinal clinics to increase inclusivity and diversity in their practices. Ariel is the co-founder of Gender Blender a community that creates radically inclusive spaces to explore gender while centering trans and non-binary people. Gender Blender creates a Burning Man theme camp, consent-based spaces, and the Black Lives Matter Trans Grant program.