Cannabis and the LGBT community have had a long, storied history and in honour of Toronto Pride month we will be examining the impact of cannabis and the LGBTQ community over the course of the next couple weeks.
Commonalities faced in the first half of the 20th Century, the beginnings of the LGBT rights movement and cannabis activism.
While homosexuality was illegal for the first half of the 20th century in most countries there were periods where it was simply ignored or tolerated, for instance the roaring 20's or between soldiers and the women on the home front during the second world war (1). While there might have been a modicum of tolerance during these periods cannabis was under threat by tougher legislation that criminalized its usage and possession. By 1937 with the passing of the Marijuana Tax Act the transfer and possession of cannabis became illegal throughout the United States (2), with the exception of medical industrial usage. Reasons cited for making marijuana illegal were that its usage led to rape, murder, and homosexuality.
While the end of World War II brought a new era of discrimination towards LGBT community, it also brought a new era of organization to community. In the United States soldiers who were known, or in some cases simply suspected, to have engaged in homosexual activity were dropped off at the nearest American port. Cities like San Francisco, New York, and Boston saw an influx in the number of gay men amongst the populace. By the 1950s many gay neighbourhoods had taken hold in these port cities even as discrimination intensified with the McCarthy Era. Federal employees suspected of being homosexuals were fired because the government feared that Soviet spies could blackmail the homosexuals more easily and that being homosexual was inherently duplicitous - this was known as the Lavender Scare (3).
When a group is forced to go underground they often find themselves exposed to other groups also forced underground (6). While there is no doubt many LGBT people used cannabis well before this period it was the 1950's that cemented the relationship between the two. Marijuana and the LGBT community were about to get closer, enter the Beatniks.
The Rise of Organized Cannabis Activism
Defined by people like Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg the Beat generation opposed the atmosphere of fear and conformity imposed by the cold war era. They exposed themselves to alcohol, drugs, homosexual relationships, sex, and art. Truman Capote, writer of Breakfast at Tiffany's, wrote into the Breakfast at Tiffany's novella "Rusty thinks I should smoke marijuana, and I did for a while, but it only makes me giggle."(7). The literature, music, and art from the beat generation still inspires.
The 1950's also saw the building of the LGBT rights movements. The Mattachine Society formed in 1950 (8) and the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955 (9). While many who were associated with "Beatniks" the goal of these two groups was to create tolerance/acceptance through normalcy. Having the general public see them in the same in light, which meant conformity. This dichotomy of anti-establishment and appearing as "normal" is something that the LGBT community still struggles with today.
In New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis push for conformity and normalization started to further marginalize many groups within the LGBT community; trans people, drag queens, "femme" men and "butch" women, street youth, and people of colour.
In New York and San Francisco underground bars began to open, largely owned by the mob (10), to cater to the LGBT community as it was illegal to hold hands or dance with members of the same-sex and to be wearing less than 3 items of clothing from your perceived gender (11). This element also added to the increased ease in which illegal substances could enter into the community.
Cannabis, LGBT & Hollywood
On the other side of the country another battle was taking place within the film industry where cannabis use was also being cracked down with the arrest of actor Rober Mitchum (12). The purging and blacklisting of perceived communists and homosexuals within the Hollywood film industry was pervasive. We don't think it's much of a secret that cannabis use within the film industry has been fairly constant but during this time many had to keep their usage under wraps. Studios had to pay off police and news media to cover up stories not only for marijuana but for homosexuality as well. Tab Hunter discussed his experience during this time in the documentary "Tab Hunter Confidential". The 1950's proved to be disastrous, and sometimes fatal, for many LGBT people in Hollywood and many turned to alcohol, cannabis, and other drugs as a form of escape. There was backlash brewing within Hollywood however, many would daringly introduce LGBT and marijuana elements into films despite the censorship that existed on such themes by the Motion Picture Association of America.
The combination of all of these elements would be instrumental in the decades to come. Both for the LGBT community and cannabis. Our series continues with Part 2 in Cannabis & LGBTQ: Free Love & Activism.
To end we give you two PSA films from this period.