Queer Herbalism: A Journey Through Healing and Tradition

Queer Herbalism: A Journey Through Healing and Tradition
For centuries, queer and trans people have turned to plants and herbalism as a way to find belonging, heal their bodies and spirits, and connect with nature and tradition. Though herbalism has its roots across many cultures worldwide, it has a special significance for LGBTQ+ communities who have been marginalized and even actively harmed by mainstream medical practices.

Queer herbalism allows us to reclaim power over our bodily autonomy and wellbeing. It gives us an opportunity to tap into ancestral wisdom that affirms our identities and experiences. And it can be profoundly healing - physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

The History of Queer Herbal Traditions

Herbalism has a long history in many Indigenous cultures across the Americas, Africa, Asia and beyond. These traditions often recognized and even honored those we might today call LGBTQ+ - such as Two Spirit people among Native American tribes.

Early European settlers, however, brought discriminatory views on gender and sexuality from the Old World. As Christianity spread, colonial laws severely restricted and punished gender and sexual diversity. Queer and trans people were often forced to hide their identities to survive.

Yet LGBTQ+ communities found ways to resist and build solidarity, frequently turning to the plant world for medicine, ritual and refuge from judgment. Well into the 20th century, finding accurate information about queer identities and experiences was difficult or even dangerous. But plants, as guides and allies, remained accessible to those seeking self-understanding and care.

From the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s through today, herbalism and holistic care practices have continued to offer LGBTQ+ people alternatives that affirm our dignity. Mainstream healthcare has often left our communities without needed support. Yet plants haven’t turned us away.

Herbalism as Holistic Queer Healthcare

Modern medicine tends to take a narrow, highly specialized view of physical health. But queer herbalism embraces a holistic lens - understanding wellbeing as the interplay of mind, body and spirit in relationship to our environment. It empowers us to become active agents in our self-care, growth and healing.

Accessing healthcare can be challenging for those of us with identities that dominant systems fail to understand or treat with dignity. Queer and trans people still routinely face discrimination, hostility and refusal of care in doctors’ offices and hospitals.

Herbs and plants, however, offer no judgment about who we are or how we identify. Their diverse gifts nourish and sustain all bodies. By learning even basic herbal skills, we can promote resilience within LGBTQ+ circles. We can better care for our whole selves when the broader medical establishment fails us.

Herbal Allies for LGBTQ+ Health Concerns

Beyond affirming our identities, herbalism provides support for some of the specific health issues facing queer and trans communities. Here are just a few examples:

- Herbs like lemon balm, oat straw and chamomile can help ease anxiety and depression, which impact LGBTQ+ people at higher rates.

- For those who use hormones as part of medical transition, herbs like vitex, saw palmetto and wild yam help balance cycles and hormones.

- Antiviral herbs including garlic, astragalus and olive leaf fight infections like HIV and HPV - viruses disproportionately affecting men who have sex with men and trans women.

- Digestive aids like marshmallow, slippery elm and plantain leaves can relieve side effects from medications or help recovery after gender confirmation surgeries.

- Liver herbs including milk thistle, yellow dock and dandelion root support natural detoxification from drugs, alcohol and environmental pollutants - helping those managing the strain of minority stress.


Healing Through Nature Connection

We sometimes think of healing solely as treating illness and injury. But true healing also nurtures wholeness - our sense of connection to self, community and the living earth that sustains us.

Spending contemplative time with plants allows space away from society’s pressures to mute our LGBTQ+ identities. Nature offers a welcoming presence that mirrors our own diversity.

Gardening, wildcrafting, or herbal meditation grounds our senses in the web of life. As queer herbalist Mel Goodwin writes, “The Earth does not assign gender, does not posit queer as abnormal. The Earth welcomes all beings, provides nourishment, shelter, beauty and magic to all beings.”

Through plants, we reconnect with our ecological belonging. We remember that in nature, there is space for all of us as we are - as we were meant to be.

Honoring the Past, Cultivating the Future

We find ourselves at a poignant moment, with queer elders, activists and artists paving the way for historic advances in LGBTQ+ rights even as threats to those gains continue to emerge. We walk with one foot in a painful history, often still carrying its scars in our bodies - and the other stretching tentatively but with hope toward a future filled with possibilities.

In this space between, herbalism helps root us. Traditions passed down over generations remind us of how far we’ve come. The medicinal gifts of flowers, leaves, stems and roots fortify our resiliency. And the very act of getting our hands in soil, planting seeds, harvesting their bounty connects us to the cycles of life which nourish all beings, all communities.

Queer herbalism allows each of us to add our own voice, our own complex living spirit to this ancient story. As we infuse herbalism with the rainbow of identities reflecting the full diversity of the LGBTQ+ experience, we open new possibilities for this healing art to take root. We plant seeds for a future where all bodies are cherished, nurtured and held sacred by Mother Earth herself.
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