As RuPaul’s Drag Race star and weed advocate Laganja Estranja (real name Jay Jackson) starts to strip down on stage during their first Cannabis Cup performance, they begin to feel uneasy. They’re not met with the enthusiastic cheers and applause they’re used to eliciting, but instead with awkward silence and uncomfortable stares. After wrapping up their act, Estranja quickly collects their clothes, feeling the audience’s eyes burning into them, a sea of mostly heterosexual, cisgender, white men, and shuffles off the stage in near silence.
“It really did make me feel like a loser,” Jackson says. “I remember telling my girlfriend, ‘I can’t do this,’ and she said, ‘Well, honey, if you’re gonna be an activist, you’re gonna have to get used to being uncomfortable,’ and to be quite honest, that’s why I took a break, because I was like, ‘I don’t wanna be uncomfortable. Why?’ When I can go over to another community where I’m loved and celebrated?”
A few years later, Jackson realized things weren’t going to get better for the next generation of cannabis industry outcasts—whether that’s women (especially women of color), queer people, people living with disabilities, or any other minority in the mostly white, cis, male-dominated industry—unless they stayed visible. “If anyone is gonna do it, it’s gonna be me,” Jackson says. “We need more gay people who are currently in the industry to come out. I think when that happens, more and more people will be forced to recognize gay culture has been simultaneously growing with the cannabis community for years.”
Medical cannabis first got its start thanks to HIV and AIDs patients in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s who requested the plant to treat pain and loss of appetite while receiving treatments. Despite doctors, too, advocating for cannabis as treatment for wasting syndrome (a side effect of AZT, the drug used to treat HIV and AIDS), the US government wouldn’t budge. So gay activist Dennis Peron, along with medical cannabis advocate “Brownie Mary” (Mary Jane Rathbun), eventually established the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers’ Club, the first cannabis dispensary in the United States, in 1992. Peron and Rathbun went on to draft California’s Compassionate Use Care Act of 1996, the first medical cannabis law at the state-level.
“We all had friends who had died,” says Felicia Carbajal, executive director of the Social Impact Center, an LA-based intersectional community hub. “We had all seen their suffering and many of us made the collective decision to help improve the quality of their lives. There was little compassion from our country’s leaders, so for me as a young adult, access to medicine was just an extension of LGBTQ liberation.”
“There was little compassion from our country’s leaders, so for me as a young adult, access to medicine was just an extension of LGBTQ liberation.”
While the roots of cannabis are deeply intertwined with those of the queer community, many LGBTQ people feel the industry has forgotten them—by not prioritizing queer-ran businesses or overlooking queer people in cannabis culture—and been “taken over by straight white males who obviously do not want to recognize that history or really give it a space,” Jackson says. They add that while representation is important for moving the industry forward, the cannabis community has to do more than just pay lip service. Queer businesses need support within the industry and LGBTQ entrepreneurs need to be proud of the fact that they are queer owned-and-operated.
“Nowadays, cannabis is all about funding, and most of the people giving it and getting it do not look like me, a queer woman of color,” says Isa Pérez, head of business development and operations at Meadow, a cannabis point-of-sale company, and board member at Supernova Women, an organization dedicated to empowering women of color in the cannabis economy. According to a 2017 report by McVey, only roughly 26 percent of cannabis businesses are owned or founded by women and less than 5 percent are owned by black Americans. “Whether it’s people of color or LGBTQ folks, there’s an endless potential for ownership and involvement in this industry.”
Pérez sees it as a major missed opportunity for investors to overlook marginalized communities. “Other industries have thwarted decades of innovation by selectively investing in a small, homogenous group of people,” she says. While cannabis is more diverse than other industries, with more women holding executive positions than in any other field, 81 percent of weed companies are still owned by white people, per McVey. “By investing in LGBTQ folks, women, people of color, and other underrepresented communities, we have the potential to make the cannabis industry thrive like no other industry has.”
Before cannabis can move forward as a more equitable industry, however, we need to examine one of the ideological twins of homophobia; sexism. Both stem from our society’s rigid gender norms and the idea that masculine traits are more valuable (which leads to homophobia against more feminine-presenting men, lesbians, trans women and nonbinary people). “I think the misogyny is worse than the homophobia and I think they’re the same individual,” says Hollyweed North CEO Renee Gagnon, who came out as transgender four years ago. “So if we solve the misogyny, I think we eliminate most of the homophobia.”
“By investing in LGBTQ folks, women, people of color, and other underrepresented communities, we have the potential to make the cannabis industry thrive like no other industry has.”
While Gagnon’s faced transphobia in the form of invasive and inappropriate comments during business meetings, and she avoids events in Mexico because of the “danger factor”—the country ranks second to Brazil in homicides against transgender people each year—she’s still seen the world of cannabis come a long way since transitioning, in terms of tolerance (she doesn’t get as many insensitive comments during meetings as she did five years ago), but also when it comes to funding for queer cannabis entrepreneurs. Gagnon wants young women and LGBTQ people to know that there’s a place for them in this industry.
“A lot of [people with] money are now interested in the fact that [being trans or queer] represents something new, it’s unique, whereas four years ago it was considered toxic,” Gagnon says. “One has to be careful about diagnosing society, because things can change rapidly in ways you can’t expect.”
If you want to be part of the change, advocates recommend supporting LGTBQ-owned and run businesses, and if you work within the industry, it’s important to not only represent the queer community in your advertising and products (and more consistently than just during Pride month), but hire people within the LGBTQ community.
For instance, Gagnon makes sure women and LGBTQ people hold leadership roles at her company. She also says it’s important to be proud of, and openly advertise, the fact that your organization is diverse, in order to encourage diversity throughout the industry.
“Women and LGBTQ-owned businesses have to be proud that they’re women and LGBTQ-owned, managed, and led businesses, that they’re proud of the fact that they’re C-level is female, that their boards are deliberately female—there’s a market now,” Gagnon says. “Right now customers are forced to give all their money to [straight] men’s companies. Give them some options.
“That’s what I think scares the other side, once you start creating these options of where people can spend their money, it fractures the big monopolies, the misogyny, and that’s how we do it. Diversity equals destruction of the monopoly.”