To Change Hearts and Minds, the LGBTQ and Legal Cannabis Movements have a Simple but Powerful Tool: COME OUT
By Joni Fay Hill
I don’t have a particularly special coming out story.
I grew up with a loving mom, great siblings and lots of friends. I was a nerd, welcomed and comfortable among the cliques. In high school, I was editor of the yearbook and passionate about being on the track team. I experienced flirtations, roller coaster emotions, crushes, heartbreaks and first loves just like everyone else. I’m gratefully aware that my coming out journey was traveled on a smooth road.
But coming out isn’t a “one and done” thing. It’s a continuing process that LGBTQ people do every single day — intentionally or otherwise. The next step after coming out is being out. I sometimes forget or discount the fact that the big and small moments that comprise my existence with my wife and children (going to the beach on a family vacation, for example) are significant, even inspiring to LGBTQ people still suffering in the closet.
What is everyday stuff in my life are often acts of extraordinary courage when done elsewhere by others.
As much as it is the only way LGBTQ people can live full, authentic lives; coming out is also a powerful way to combat ignorance, intolerance, discrimination and hate against LGBTQ people. And that need is real.
Today, LGBTQ people in 27 states lack explicit legal protection against employment, housing or public accommodations discrimination. LGBTQ youth are five times more likely to attempt suicide. The FBI reports an uptick of hate crimes against LGBTQ people in the past three years.
But we know what works and what we must do. For example, the power coming out has over homophobia can be seen in real time at, of all places, the OREO Cookies Twitter feed. The brand is celebrating LGBTQ History Month with rainbow cookies and a heartwarming short film. Hateful comments are immediately and unapologetically countered not by a social media monitor, but by expressions of support — including coming out stories — from LGBTQ people and their allies.
“Every gay person must come out,” Harvey Milk, one of the first openly-gay elected officials once said. “You must tell your relatives . . .your friends, if indeed they are your friends. . . the people you work with. . . the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere — every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all.”
Milk served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors until his assassination in 1978. Around that time, another important constituency was beginning to organize in San Francisco — the cannabis legalization movement. Under the leadership of a gay man, Dennis Perone, and a coalition that ranged from mainstream medical doctors to drag queens, in1991 the first cannabis dispensary in the United States opened in San Fransisco’s Castro District. It primarily served gay men suffering from AIDS, as well as cancer patients.
Perhaps it was there that cannabis advocates learned from gay activists that protesting and marching, lobbying and organizing are well and good to change law, but coming out is the only way to change hearts and minds. Sharing our stories, speaking our truths and being our most authentic selves — in short, coming out — is a critical part of an effective legalization strategy.
I’m not talking about the adult “recreational” consumer coming out of the cannabis closet. I’m talking about the patient or caregiver who — just like the middle school guidance counselor who happens to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender — could lose their job, home, or family if they disclose their cannabis use.
I’m talking about:
- A military veteran who knows he should discuss his cannabis use for combat-related PTSD with his VA doctors, especially his anesthesiologist before scheduled surgery. But he fears he’ll jeopardize his VA benefits if he does so; or
- A worker, practically anywhere in the country, who fears a random office drug test, and the revelation that she is a cannabis user suffering from a medical condition she had hoped would also remain private; or
- A college student, who is suspected of selling drugs on campus, but is actually using cannabis responsibly and with the guidance of a health professional to treat severe anxiety; or
- A senior citizen, who lives in a state with a robust medical cannabis program, yet acquires cannabis to treat his chronic pain from the illicit market. He fears registering with the state may reveal his “secret” and embarrass his family; or
- A mother, who informs her child’s teacher that doctor-recommended medical grade cannabinoid oil has significantly improved her child’s health. And then gets an unannounced home visit from Children’s Protective Services a few days later.
Despite overwhelming public support for legalization, only 11 states and the District of Columbia allow for both medical and adult use sales. Several states have cannabis measures on the ballot next month. Even if they are all victorious, the percentage of Americans with access to safe, legal cannabis remains low. The federal government still classifies cannabis as harmful as LSD or heroin. Costly, resource consuming enforcement activities, which shift focus away from real crime fighting efforts, are still used as PR stunts to demonize the plant.
For frontline cannabis activists, coming out presents the same risks as it does for members of the LGBTQ community. It also presents the same rewards. Both the science and industry of cannabis are evolving. Our relationship with the plant and its benefits are a constant continuum. One person may have several opportunities to come out of the cannabis closets.
I’m one of those people. That mother who treated her child’s illness with cannabinoid oil and got an unannounced visit from Children’s Protective Services as a result? That’s me.
This is the first time I publicly shared that story. I just came out.
Joni Fay Hill is a stay at home mom and former chef. She lives in Southern California with her wife, Maria and 11 year-old twins, Vivian and Cosmo.