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LGBTQIA+ and Herbalism Throughout History: an Herbalist and Ethnobotanist Share Their Perspective

Published on June 07, 2024

By Kristen Boye BS, Natural Health

Kristen Boye

Kristen Boye is a natural health expert, writer, copywriter, and editor. Kristen was raised on an organic farm in British Columbia which inspired her life’s work. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Natural Health, is a Certified Natural Foods Chef, co-owner of a medicinal herb farm, and is a natural foods and children’s health advocate. Kristen lives with her husband and two children on their medicinal herb farm in Western North Carolina.

In honor of Pride Month, Gaia Herbs is celebrating the LGBTQIA+ community by exploring how we can improve access to herbs for all.

For an insider perspective, we talked to two members of the LGBTQIA+ community who are practicing herbalism and ethnobotany:

According to Seed Your Future, “an ethnobotanist studies a region's plants and their practical uses through the traditional knowledge of local culture and people.” 

Read on to learn more about Yam and Rebecca’s perspectives on access to herbalism for the LGBTQIA+ community, along with helpful resources and information on herbal allies.

The LGBTQIA+ Community Faces Marginalization in Healthcare

“I am dreaming of a world where LGBTQ+ people love going to the doctor, nurse, counselor, midwife, massage therapist, traditional healer, or any other practitioner we see.” -Zena Sharman, The Care We Dream Of

Most non-LGBTQIA+ folks don’t realize the level of marginalization the LGBTQIA+ community may face in various healthcare settings, both traditional and integrative.

Herbalism, which has been practiced for thousands of years by all types of people, can act as a bridge between self-care, autonomy, and empowered healthcare.

“Herbalism has always been there for marginalized communities,” says Yam Vallis, a fifth-generation herbalist who practices in various locations and organizations throughout Philadelphia, such as Philly Herb Hub, a free apothecary for black people in Philadephia.

The baseline of herbalism empowers the individual by deepening self-awareness and an understanding of their needs, which is particularly important for LGBTQIA and QTBIPOC folks whose needs are ignored in many healthcare situations.

“Working with herbs heightens your sensitivity to your needs and increases your understanding of your body. A benefit of this is that individuals become better able to recognize when they need support and advocate for, maintain, and extend their well-being in challenging and disempowering environments. I believe herbalism offers a means to enhance and safeguard your well-being.”

Rebecca Beyer, Appalachian ethnobotanist and author of “Wild Witchcraft: Folk Herbalism, Garden Magic, and Foraging for Spells, Rituals, and Remedies” offered similar insight: 

“I think herbalism is very intrinsically linked to queerness because a lot of people who are queer are pushed to the margins of society, whether people are pushed away from their families of origin or society. It’s a real bummer, and it’s getting better in some ways but worse in others, like people being denied gender-affirming care, for example.”

“Herbalism has always been a tool of the oppressed. I think herbalism is affordable, free, accessible, and easily sharable, hence the name ’folk medicine,’ which means medicine you don’t have to write down to share safely with another person.”

In this way, access to herbalism has the potential to increase health and wellness autonomy for the LGBTQIA+ community, which may lead to better physical, mental, and emotional health outcomes.

Herbalists in the LGBTQIA+ Community

The term “herbalist” can mean many things, from a university-educated clinical herbalist, botanist, or Doctor of Oriental medicine to a community herbalist who learned via apprenticeships and/or online or in-person classes.

Regardless, herbalism has become a welcoming profession for LGBTQIA+ folks, with an estimated 11% of identifying as 2SLGBTQIA+ per a recent Zippia poll.

Says Rebecca Beyer: 

“I think herbalism is an accessible health module that can be talked about, and I think it’s becoming very popular. Most of my friends who are herbalists are queer! Queer communities have always taken care of each other; I think about the lesbians in the 70s and 80s who took care of dying gay men with AIDS who no one would ever care for, as one example.”

Herbalists have historically offered a safe and welcoming space for marginalized people to experience empowered health and wellness.

Today, many herbalists, LGBTQIA+ or otherwise, are committed to that legacy by offering the same compassion and safe space for their community.

How To Improve Access to Herbalism For the LGBTQIA Community: an Herbalist and a Ethnobotanist Weigh In

Whether you live in a city or rural area, shop for supplements, or forage for wild plants, herbs are everywhere, making them accessible to (nearly) everyone.

However, some education and mentorship are required to know how to use them to meet your needs.

Yam and Rebecca shared the following ideas on how herbalists and those in the herbalism community can help improve access to herbalism for the LGBTQIA+ community:

  • Support community medicine gardens
  • Support community apothecaries, like Philly Herb Hub and other mutual aid-type organizations geared to LGBTQIA+ people
  • More community acupuncture locations and integrative or natural healthcare clinics geared to providing focused programs for LGBTQIA+ around herbalism
  • Offer more educational classes geared to or exclusive to LGBTQIA+ folks
  • Use inclusive language in classes and literature when teaching or writing
  • Herbalists can make it known they want to serve and support the LGBTQIA+ community in marketing materials, etc.
  • Rebecca has her paying clients make enough herbal tinctures, salves, etc., to donate the surplus to the community
  • Herbalists and companies should find ways to donate to projects like Rootworks Herbals and the People’s Medicine School, which is available only for BIPOCs (Black Indigenous and People of Color) to attend

Yam adds, “I’m about to host a queer tea blending class with 3-4 sessions specifically for queer and trans people to learn about teas. Creating these special spaces allows participants to learn and build community in a comfortable environment surrounded by others who are going through similar experiences.”

Rebecca sums it up: “Use inclusive language, state your excitement about working with the community if that’s your goal, and find ways to give things away for free, whether it’s a scholarship space in a class or providing free written materials online.”

Rebecca and Yam’s Favorite Herbal Allies

Although there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to herbs—for the LGBTQIA+ community or otherwise—Rebecca and Yam shared some of their favorite herbal allies that may provide nourishment and benefits for LGBTQIA+ folks.

Rebecca’s Favorite Herbal Allies

Although she doesn’t wish to generalize, Rebecca shared these herbs as potentially helpful to mitigate the effects of the unique stresses faced by many LGBTQIA+ folks.

Nervines (herbs that support nervous system function and stress response): 

“You can take these alone or I like to add them to sage,” says Rebecca.

She also recommended seeking immune-supportive herbs like Lemon Balm and Prunella, and functional mushrooms like Turkey Tail. 

“Turkey Tail mushrooms can modulate your own immune system in an empowered way. I see them as a bridge between the immune supportive herbs and the nervines.”

Yam’s Favorite Herbal Allies

Yam grew up around herbs thanks to their great-great-grandmother, who practiced herbalism within the black community in Chicago in the 1900s. 

“My Grandmother was an incredibly amazing herbalist and community leader in the Black community in Chicago in the early 1900s. During the great migration, she helped Black folks find and settle into housing and provided herbal medicine for her community. She used a lot of oats (Avena Sativa) from oatmeal to milky oats, so that’s where I formally started my herbal journey.”

Here are some of Yam’s favorite herbs based on their heritage and study of clinical herbalism.

  • Milky Oats: “This is my absolute favorite as a nervine and a trophorestorative (nutritive herbs that can be taken for long-term support). I love it. It has a dual-acting effect on well-being and helps support and strengthen your nerves.”
  • Lion’s Mane: “I love adaptogenic mushrooms and am a big fan of Lion’s Mane for its wonderful effects on the brain and nerves.”
  • Ashwagandha: I absolutely love this Ayurvedic herb, and I’ve been using it a lot.”
  • Chamomile: “This was one of the first herbs I came to. I love it so much for mental wellness and gut health. I find it’s one of the best solutions for an upset stomach.”
  • Ginkgo: This is a new herbal ally for me, but it has also been super supportive in helping with nervous system type support.”

Helpful Resources for Herb Lovers in the LGBTQIA+ Community and Beyond

Whether you’re new to herbalism or are looking for more resources to add to your library, Yam and Rebecca recommended the following books:

Yam’s recommended resources:

 “I always recommend starting with where your family is from. Research shows there are unique herbal synergies based on your ancestral origins. It's beautiful to think about herbs as a connection to our ancestors.”

Rebecca’s recommended resources:

Rebecca provides a wealth of free information on ethnobotany, herbalism, spells, magic, foraging, research, and folk medicine at her website. She also includes a helpful bibliography of additional resources.

Her books, “Wild Witchcraft: Folk Herbalism, Garden Magic, and Foraging for Spells, Rituals, and Remedies” and “Mountain Magic: Explore The Secrest Of Old Time Witchcraft” also offer a wealth of information on similar topics.

Rebecca also recommended “The Modern Herbal Dispensary: A Medicine Making Guide" by Thomas Easley because it explains dosages and the recipes are clear and effective. 

Gaia Herbs is Committed to Supporting the LGBTQIA+ Community in Herbalism

At Gaia Herbs, we’re committed to fostering an inclusive environment every day, not just during Pride month. 

For years, we have partnered with organizations like The Compassion Apothecary & Access Project, which champions access to herbalism for everyone.

According to its founder, “The Compassion Apothecary & Access Project is a mutual aid with a mission in Health Equity to serve historically marginalized communities who deserve access to safe, effective care. This project stewards a series of Community Self Serve Herb Stations throughout Durham and Raleigh, NC.

Community Herb Stations are donation-based and located in safe spaces, including queer-run businesses and resource centers. We also host a mobile Drag Care Case that serves House of Coxx, our local Drag Family, and guest performers.

Products at Community Herb Stations include in-house Compassion Apothecary teas, tinctures, and bath salts, plus generously donated products from Gaia Herbs. In addition, we offer Community Pop-up Clinics offering free AcuEar Seed Treatments for Stress & Resilience. 

Everyone deserves care, safety, body autonomy, and to be loved by their community. The Compassion Apothecary & Access Project hopes to offer these basic needs of humanity.”

Gaia Herbs has been supporting the Compassion Apothecary & Access Project by regularly sending boxes of our products for distribution throughout our regional community. This partnership is just one of the ways we live our social impact mission of encouraging herbal access and education for all communities.

We recognize our responsibility in providing helpful resources and platforms for communities who have turned to traditional herbalism throughout history, and are committed to supporting access to herbs, herbalism education, and wellness solutions for all. Learn more about our Social Impact Mission.

Photos of Yam and Rebecca used with their permission.