Lessons for Marijuana Activism from LGBT Activism

This week, ABC has broadcast a miniseries entitled When We Rise. It is an epic retelling of the gay rights movement from the era of the Stonewall Riots to the Supreme Court’s decision affirming marriage equality in the Obergefell case.

The series follows the lives of Cleve Jones, Ken Jones and Roma Guy, gay and lesbian activists in San Francisco who were instrumental in the gay rights movement. 

Cleve’s work with assassinated city supervisor Harvey Milk and his creation of the AIDS Quilt are illustrated, as well as Ken’s work organizing and testifying to bring disparate gay groups together in solidarity. Roma’s determination to create a safe space for women, both gay and straight, figures prominently, too.

While I’m cis-straight, during the mid-2000s, as reactionary conservatives worked to put anti-gay initiatives on statewide ballots, I found myself reading, commenting on and eventually writing for the front page of a prominent LGBT blog called Pam’s House Blend. It was run by a Southern African-American lesbian, so my straight white Pacific Northwest viewpoints provided the voice of an interesting ally during politically difficult times.

My time writing for the Blend culminated in me securing a blogger credentials for the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, when Senator Barack Obama was nominated for the presidency. While a few in the community were perturbed that “the token straight white guy” was getting that prized credential, most appreciated my advocacy and the fact that somebody like me “gets it.”

I don’t know if I can ever truly “get it” when it comes to how LGBT people deal with the world, just as I can’t imagine what it’s like to be black or a non-English-speaking immigrant or a Muslim woman wearing a hijab. But as a lifelong pot smoker, I feel like I have some tiny inkling of what it’s like.

No, I’m not trying to say that being a pothead is exactly equivalent to being gay or any other persecuted minority.

It’s more like being “minority light.” We are a voluntary minority. Even the most desperately ill person who needs cannabis as medicine to live is choosing to use cannabis. We can stop using cannabis or usually hide our use. But within our status as a minority slowly gaining acceptance in mainstream America, there are some parallels and lessons for us in the civil rights battles of other minorities.

In When We Rise, they presented the difficulty of marshaling all the disparate groups in the gay community under one rainbow flag. As Roma struggles with understanding she’s a lesbian, she tries to build her women’s building and finds conflict between some of the women who want it to be a safe space for all women against those who want it to be a lesbian-only enclave.

As Cleve tries to build support for the candidacy of Harvey Milk, he finds it difficult to get the lesbians onboard with the gays. Rosie O’Donnell plays Del Martin in the movie, the pioneering lesbian activist who formed the first lesbian political organization and was the first to marry in San Francisco until California voided the marriage six months later. Del complains that the gay men lead a flamboyant and risky lifestyle that would squelch mainstream support for their cause, even shrugging off the emerging AIDS epidemic with a “what did you expect” attitude and admonishment for casual sex and rampant drug use in the gay male community.

Later, as the gay rights movement becomes more politically active, Cleve finds himself in conflict with HRC (Human Rights Campaign), which he finds to be too conservative and appeasing of the mainstream, and in conflict with ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which he finds to be too radical and confrontational.

As Ken, a Vietnam veteran, works to build coalitions within the gay community, white gays shunned him, telling him to go back to the Tenderloin district, where the black gays like him and the Latino gays were segregated. When Ken later testifies in Oakland before an all-black city council, he’s confronted by the homophobia in the African-American community and told “no real black man is gay.”

I watched these scenes, and I saw parallels to our own community; the medical marijuana consumers who say they are “Patients, Not Criminals,” as if a healthy pot smoker is a criminal; the “Hemp Can Save the Planet” people who don’t want the party lifestyle of the pot people contaminating their non-drug industrial arguments; the “Marijuana Is Safer” crowd that casts aspersions on the users of other, not-as-safe drugs; the older, flower-power generation fearful of “crack torch”-bearing dabbers; the “TILTers” (Treat It Like Tomatoes) impatient with the pragmatic approach of the “T&Rers” (Tax & Regulate), and so on.

What finally brought together all these bickering groups with disparate agendas was two wars—the biological one against the human immunodeficiency virus and the political one for legal marriage and marital equality. It took far too many deaths from AIDS, expulsions of gay soldiers and refusal of basic marriage rights like visiting a sick spouse, sharing a spouse’s insurance coverage and planning a spouse’s funeral, before this country finally began doing the right thing and started treating LGBT people with the same rights, privileges, responsibilities and respect that every American deserves.

When I’m writing article after article about Jeff Sessions, warning as loudly and often as I can that a renewed War on (Recreational) Marijuana is imminent, it’s only because I don’t want our multiple, disparate, bickering groups to have to suffer greatly before we coalesce to ignore our differences and focus on our shared condition—we all suffer discrimination, indignity and lack of access because of prohibition of a plant.

I don’t want medical marijuana folks to chill out because they’re safe and protected by Rohrabacher’s spending rider and Spicer’s comments ensuring patients they’re not in the crosshairs.

I don’t want the hemp people to chill out because they became legal under the Farm Bill and many states’ laws.

I don’t want the adult consumers to chill out because they can grow their own and don’t shop at dispensaries that might be shut down, anyway.

I don’t want the underground growers to chill out because a renewed interest in prohibition fattens their profits.

In this metaphor, we adult-use consumers are those flamboyant gay boys in the Tenderloin, the most difficult color in the rainbow flag to defend to the mainstream. If we remain separate and let Trump’s administration focus solely on us as justification to maintain prohibition, it will last longer than necessary.

Only by banding together and insisting that no matter why we use this plant, none of us deserves to be treated as criminals, can we hasten the fall of this 80-year abomination of cannabis prohibition.

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