They’re Laughing At Us: The lack of queer representation in cannabis branding will define us by 2069*
We have a chance to get this right.
We started communicating using language about 1.8 million years ago, give or take. These days, we filter through so much information that it’s hard to tell what will be immortalized by punctuating our timeline as an actual “event” or become just another buzzy detail bulldozed to the peripherals of epistemology in a never-ending shit-storm of opinion.
The legalization movement was spearheaded by the gay rights movement. We know that. Tracing back to America’s first medical marijuana policy, California’s Proposition 215 or the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 which was provoked by the gay community in the wake of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, it’s undeniable that if the cannabis industry has an LGBTQ exclusion problem, it is also denying its roots.
If it’s denying it’s roots then it’s ruining progress. And if it’s ruining progress then it’s messing up the unwritten history of humanity and that’s not cool because future generations are going to look at us and laugh. It’s really quite embarrassing.
“I think it’s the same pitfall as any industry, in that it’s still heavily dominated by white cis males,” says model and activist, Aaliyah Ei in the year 2019.
She adds that there are only a handful of fully inclusive brands that exist on Instagram right now that are heavily focusing on POC and queer representation, including @420_queer (making content by queer people for queer people) and @equityfirstalliance (who fight for justice for everyone).
“Try and gain all the knowledge you can so you can form your own opinions and see where you align morally with brands or dispensaries,” says Aaliyah. “Find small things you can do daily that enact small change. Vote in your local small government; voice your (well-informed) opinions more freely; feel free to say no to things that don’t sit right with you ethically.”
In the ongoing push for inclusivity, ignorance is still a statement. You don’t get to sit on the sidelines if you’re buying.
We can map change in the present through the lens of “moments,” when enough contradictions pile up and create fractures in the existing foundation of the way things are. Those fractures eventually cause enough of a rift between past and present opinion to merit a reconstruction, at which point an evolved way of thinking is given agency to develop, like a flower bursting through a crack in the sidewalk. This is the blessing and curse of the internet and all its fixings, I suppose. We get to see the minuscule advancements and the messy bits that eventually lead to seemingly unshakable “truths” of the time. All truths, however, should be challenged, and the more established the system, the more it should be questioned. No doubt, we will be heavily scrutinized for the treatment of our own people if we don’t check ourselves, right now.
“Probably the most important framework that needs to be applied consistently to our community is intersectionality. Black trans* women are the origin of the 2SLGBTQ+ community as we know it today and that needs to be recognized and respected,” says Kira London-Nadeau—a Masters student at the University of Montréal, studying the intersection between LGB identity, cannabis use, and anxiety and depression in adolescence. She identifies as a gay cis woman. “Sexual and gender minorities are also overrepresented among street-involved folks, people with mental health issues, people who commit suicide, people who use drugs, etc. Issues of sexual and gender minority status frequently intersect with difficult migration, strained family ties, racialization, and colonialism.”
The LGBTQ community is comprised of roughly 10.7 million people in the U.S. today who now exert social, demographic, and economic influence like never before. According to recent estimates, the annual purchasing power of the LGBTQ community is $917 billion . The companies that recognize the importance and impact of these numbers can really set themselves apart from the competition; but only if they mean it.
“Don't think that having someone from one identity is enough. I sure as hell hope you're not turning to your lesbian white employee to ask about issues facing trans-masculine POC,” says London-Nadeau. “The answer is easy to see, but harder for some folks to implement: Make space, even if it means giving up yours. Make space for BIPOC queer folks, trans* folks who pass and who don't, sexual and gender minorities with disabilities, young and old queer people. Our community is incredibly diverse, and our identities aren't interchangeable.”
In other words: the token queer person in your organization will never be enough.
“Like other marginalized and underserved communities, [the queer community] is very sensitive to being used as a marketing device, and we will do our research to see if your organization is legit in including sexual and gender minorities.”
Gossamer profiled the co-founder of one of New York's premiere cannabis delivery services, whose staff is made up exclusively of queer people of colour.
Super Nova Women—an organization formed by and for Women of Colour in 2015—has the goal of empowering POC to become self-sufficient shareholders in the evolving cannabis economy.
Ophelia Chong started the first cannabis-related stock photo agency, Stock Pot Images, to create more diverse and positive images in the industry. For her, working in solidarity with POC and the LGBTQ community doesn’t mean falling into old patterns.
“Does Apple design specifically for LGBTQ? Is it rainbows? That’s moving into the stereotypical, similar to the previous cannabis community being pegged as tie-dye hippie stoners,” she says. “Instead, if you want to broaden your reach, you have to speak to everybody. What we’re looking at now, is branding everything as if it were for tea, or coffee, or bread. It just happens to have cannabis associated with it.”
What you buy, like, and share becomes an act of defining, redefining and reinforcing the standard of what is considered appropriate in advertising. Where money is spent becomes the standard scale for who should be accepted and listened to or considered worthy of being taken seriously. We need to collectively advocate for equality until it becomes so commonplace that it goes unnoticed. This requires diligence. It requires moment after moment after moment of saying: do better. It is the demand to hear all voices echo back from the annals of history.
“I identify as many things including: Transmasculine, Genderqueer, Xenogender, Androgynous, and Pansexual. But I shorten it all down to Queer for simplicity,” says Caelan Hart, a cannabis activist, human rights advocate, and founder of The Cannaisseur—a cannabis education website and blog.
“I’m always wary of brands waving the rainbow flag to attract LGBTQ2S+ customers with performative allyship, as they may not understand how to be respectful of their new clientele once they get in the door,” says Hart.
Some examples of respectful behaviour, according to Hart:
Dispensaries with clerks that ask for and respect your name and pronouns if they’re different from what they see on your ID at the counter
Companies that give back to the community through philanthropic contributions
LPs offering a non-binary gender and alternative name option at sign up
Companies that use trans-friendly, gender-neutral language when marketing cannabis body products (like vaginal suppositories or intimacy creams).
“On the marketing side, I’d much rather see cannabis companies featuring same-gender couples and gender-variant models year round rather than just during pride month, and represented in a way that celebrates rather than fetishizes our identities. If you have a favourite cannabis business that doesn’t do these things, bother them with phone calls and emails until they do.”
The queer theorist, David Halperin, wrote that sex has no history because it’s “grounded in the functioning of the body.” Sexuality, on the other hand, is a product of culture.
It might seem strange to think about, but up until the 19th century, nobody ever thought of themselves as heterosexual or homosexual or any other form of identification. When language began to change and brand heterosexuality as dominant, it turned sexuality to stone.
The novelist and playwright James Baldwin admitted during an interview to having good and bad fantasies of the future. One of the good ones was that “No one will have to call themselves gay.”
“When it comes to why LGBTQ2S+ folks might fear negative repercussions within the cannabis space for being their authentic selves, I feel that it’s particularly important to look at the potential root cause of this issue from an intersectional perspective,” says Hart. “Under prohibition, the cannabis market was very much male-dominated and carried with it an atmosphere of machismo and toxic masculinity out of the need for self-preservation due to the usual dangers associated with dealings on the black-market. Patriarchy tells men in our society that femininity is weak, and being gay or queer is therefore associated in a negative light because of the stereotypes that exist to perpetuate a false representation. It is only by confronting the root issues of gender discrimination, gender bias and harmful stereotypes within the industry that we will be able to see real progressive change when it comes to LGBTQ2S+ issues as well.”
The options for how we can identify ourselves will, perhaps, become so long and varied that it will wipe itself out. The pendulum will swing as far as it must until we return to a time without labels. They will be unnecessary. The spectrum will become so vast that limiting ourselves by language will seem ridiculous. Words are tiny prisons. Sexuality is fluid.
But for now, language is necessary because to address is to acknowledge. Part of the reason why a brand needs inclusivity at its core is that we are actively creating history in the present moment; a history that generations after us will consult as truth, much in the same way we look back to mark how far we’ve come. Progress is linear. We can only start from where those before us left off.
Let’s try not to be the laughing stock of the future by making strides in the right direction now.
According to London-Nadeau, if you authentically want to help the queer community, here are a few ways you can make that happen:
Donate to queer community groups
Invest in real resources and projects through your business
There are a lot of questions the queer community might like answered: ask them, then use your capacity as a business to do the research
If you have a physical retail space, make sure it is EXPLICITLY 2SLGBTQ+ friendly. This means the staff has gone through awareness training, isn't assuming people's genders, is comfortable using the singular "they", etc
If you're creating products, don't have "for him" and "for her" products if you're not including other genders
Don't assume that all women are looking to have sex with men and vice versa
DON'T CALL YOUR MENSTRUAL PRODUCTS "feminine products"!!
The bottom line for inclusion/diversity is that you need to walk the walk. You can call yourself an ally to sexual and gender minorities all you want as an organization, but you aren't really an ally until that's what they're calling you too
If some of this is tricky, that's why you have meaningful inclusion within your organization already, and people you can turn to with these lived experiences, right?
Further research provided by Caelen:
*2069 is complete speculation but chances are high that I’m right if we continue this way.