Meet Buck Angel, trans porn star and recent cannabis entrepreneur. His story helps explain why marijuana legalization has special meaning to the LGBTQ community.
Ann Marie Awad: Hey there. This episode has some explicit language and subject matter that some people might find upsetting. There’s talk of pornography and suicide. So this episode is probably not appropriate for younger listeners.
Ann Marie Awad: From Colorado Public Radio and PRX, this is On Something. It’s the early ’90s, it’s Los Angeles and Buck Angel’s, dear friend is in the hospital dying of AIDS.
Buck Angel: Yeah. There must have been like, 300 of us in that room, and outside. The hospital was just like shocked that this many people would show up. I think they were not prepared for it. It was always very loving. I would sneak a joint in here and there, because the guys always wanted to smoke weed because it was the thing that made them feel the best, you know? And so we felt like we had to give our people a place that made them feel comfortable enough to leave this earth.
Ann Marie Awad: Weed was a folk remedy for a community of people considered outcasts. LA’s LGBTQ community was being racked by a disease no one knew how to treat. People were suffering and weed was the only thing that they knew helped. I want to talk about the moment where you noticed your friends starting to get sick. What can you remember about that?
Buck Angel: That always makes me want to cry. It sits deep with me, because I lost all the guys who recognized me as a man and really treated me on a level that many people didn’t at the time. See how sensitive I get from it, because I really think that the world doesn’t understand what happened during that time.
Buck Angel: You’re just never going to understand the level of hate that the world gave us and that people didn’t care. Nobody cared. Nobody. Nobody. On some level, the lesbians and the dykes really, we saw it. We saw all of our friends dying and we actually all came together and saw each other. And saw it as our fight, and not just the fight of gay men, but the fight of gay and the fight of LGBT community and our survival and our future.
Ann Marie Awad: This is Buck Angel, adult film star, sex health educator, trans man. He’s had a remarkable life, a life where cannabis has cropped up time and time again, and he says it’s not so unusual. Cannabis and the movement to legalize it has a special significance to him and to many other members of America’s LGBTQ community and to everybody enjoying legal weed today.
Ann Marie Awad: This is On Something, stories about life after legalization and this story starts way before legalization. I’m Ann Marie Awad.
Ann Marie Awad: In his 20s Buck lived in Los Angeles. He was part of a thriving gay community, and back then his life was very different.
Buck Angel: I was a young lesbian in the ’80s. I was a dyke really. I was very hardcore lesbian dyke, and I was just starting to come out into my sexuality because back in the day they didn’t really understand trans sexual people. So, when I said I felt like a man, they said, ‘No, you’re just a lesbian.’
Ann Marie Awad: What else can you tell me about what kind of person you were at that time?
Buck Angel: Very shy. So if you saw me today-
Ann Marie Awad: Very shy?
Buck Angel: Very shy.
Ann Marie Awad: Really?
Buck Angel: It’s so unbelievable because as you see, I’m just not a shy guy, but I equate that to really somebody who was not comfortable in their outside space. Right? So what people saw of me did not reflect what I felt like inside, and that’s actually what a transsexual person feels like. They feel like they’re actually in the wrong body. I did feel that way and it was very difficult for me to walk the world. I had to always be drunk or high on speed, or marijuana or something. Whatever was there for me, I would take it and I would just get high and you know, not be present.
Buck Angel: So I was not a present person on some level and was a self-destructive, I was a cutter, just was sad.
Ann Marie Awad: Back then there was one place where this young lesbian felt at home, in the company of gay men.
Buck Angel: The gay man really on some level, didn’t push away from me being a butch woman, I think because maybe I was so butch, but they were the ones who, especially the leather men scene, they were very open to me, and me saying, I’m a man. They were the only ones who were like, yeah, dude, you’re a man. So I did feel much more comfortable around gay men than I did necessarily around gay women.
Ann Marie Awad: These men became family, and over the next decade, this family was devastated. That’s what led Buck to join AIDS activist groups like Act Up, which pushed back on the government’s neglect of AIDS sufferers. AIDS sufferers, and the LGBTQ community would become the driving force behind America’s first ever experiment in medical marijuana.
Ann Marie Awad: When people first started getting sick with AIDS, doctors didn’t know how to treat it. The disease could start off looking like the flu, but as it weakened the immune system. AIDS sufferers would be more prone to things like tumors, tuberculosis, or pneumonia. They would drop drastic amounts of weight and waste away. One of the first drugs on the market to treat AIDS was called AZT, but that drug came with side effects, severe nausea, diarrhea, fever. Buck looked around at the crisis and did the first thing that he could think of.
Ann Marie Awad: Was it kind of a immediate thing getting cannabis for people to help them with the symptoms? Or was there like an aha moment?
Buck Angel: Immediately.
Ann Marie Awad: Oh wow. Okay.
Buck Angel: No. Immediately. I mean most of us all smoked weed back then, so it wasn’t a weird thing. But at the same time it was like the thing that the guys noticed that made them feel immediately better. Remember they were taking AZT and all of these insane drugs that were hurting them even more and making them sicker and just deteriorating their bodies at such a level they couldn’t eat, they couldn’t walk. It was like living in an apocalypse or something. It was like, you know, the death of the world.
Ann Marie Awad: How did the world at large treat your community when this epidemic was happening? Like how did people perceive AIDS and perceive people who had AIDS?
Buck Angel: Oh, as dirty, as sick, as faggots, as queers, as bad things. You know, queer is an okay word now, but back in the day it was not. So people just said every mean, you deserve it. We heard you deserve it. Can you imagine?
Ann Marie Awad: Oh my God.
Buck Angel: Yeah. Like what? But you know, now we have gay rights at such a level that people forget these things.
Dennis Peron: It was January 27th, 1990 that we were sitting home. It was about midnight and we were just ready to go to bed. When I hear a knock at the door.
Ann Marie Awad: This is Dennis Peron. He was an AIDS activist and a pot dealer.
Dennis Peron: I’m going down to answer. Before I get down there, a sledgehammer breaks the door down and in come these five people, claim they have a search warrant. They’re cops. They claim that they heard somebody, somebody said that I had marijuana for sale. On that basis, they got a warrant.
Ann Marie Awad: Dennis Peron looms large in the history of legalization in America, but he started out as kind of a troublemaker selling weed out of a storefront illegally, that kind of thing. He lived in San Francisco’s Castro district. He was gay and his partner, Jonathan West, had AIDS. Peron said that marijuana was basically keeping Jonathan alive towards the end of his life, and then there was that police raid.
Dennis Peron: They found four ounces of marijuana in my house, but what they also found was my very sick best friend dying of AIDS. My very sick friend was thrown on the ground with a gun to his head. That night we heard gay AIDS jokes, gay jokes. We were physically and brutally intimidated by these thugs who found four ounces of marijuana in my house. Okay? They arrested me for the four ounces, and nine months later I was exonerated because the four ounces of marijuana were claimed by my very sick and dying friend Jonathan West.
Ann Marie Awad: Jonathan’s death led Peron to begin a fight that would last years. He started advocating for San Francisco to approve Proposition P. That symbolic resolution called on the state of California to legalize medical cannabis. Peron saw his efforts as a tribute to Jonathan.
Dennis Peron: This is my eulogy for him. To see marijuana as medicine for people that really need it.
Ann Marie Awad: In 1991 Proposition P passed with almost 80% of the vote in San Francisco. Four years later, Peron would mount an effort to legalize medical marijuana use throughout the state of California.
Dennis Peron: So I’ll tell you, sometimes I feel so stupid. You know, I wake up in the morning, I say, I got to legalize marijuana. I got to legalize it. Yet every day I’m surrounded by AIDS, homelessness. I have people eating out of garbage cans. I have AIDS patients come to my club that are homeless and I say, I got to legalize marijuana when there’s so much pain around me and, but I know that we’re never going to get to the problems of this country. The real problems of this country, which is homelessness, hunger, despair, AIDS, until we legalize marijuana. I know that until we change the face of marijuana.
Ann Marie Awad: The measure became law in 1996 known as the Compassionate Use Act, and it would mark the first time that a state had legalized the possession, cultivation and sale of cannabis by popular vote. It was all propelled by the LGBTQ community. Dennis Peron died in 2018. In his memoir he wrote, “change takes time, but over time you can see it happening.”
Ann Marie Awad: After the break we return to Buck Angel and learn about the other surprising ways that cannabis figured into his life.
Ann Marie Awad: Let’s go back to 1991 medical marijuana was coming, but it wasn’t yet the law of the land and Buck Angel had just realized something important about himself.
Ann Marie Awad: It began with Buck, getting sober from drugs and alcohol. Having a clear head put many things in perspective, but especially one big thing that needed to change. Remember, Buck was living as a woman at this time.
Buck Angel: There was nobody doing this. I mean, I’m in Los Angeles at the time and there was nobody, there was no doctors, there was nobody. I had a therapist who had just started her practice and she was a gay woman, and I was just like, I don’t feel right as a woman. Then I thought she was going to judge me like everybody else. She basically just said, “No, I believe you Buck.” And I was like, Whoa.
Buck Angel: She saved my life. That woman saved my life, because she helped me move forward, figuring out how to move to the transition. Long story short, I figured out how to do it by finding doctors in a little book that I found in a bookstore. But that doctor had never worked with a trans man before, only trans women. So he called me a guinea pig and he said, you’re going to be my first.
Ann Marie Awad: Buck started taking testosterone and began the process of gender confirmation surgery. Not many folks would be thrilled to be called a guinea pig by their doctor, but Buck didn’t care.
Buck Angel: Honestly, I was so desperate. I was so desperate. I had a mantra that I would say all the time, almost every day. I said it my whole life. I said, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll kill myself.
Ann Marie Awad: Oh my God.
Buck Angel: Just like, yeah. That was what I said in my brain every day. If this doesn’t work out, I’ll kill myself. It was just a normal thing for me to say. As I look back, of course it was insane that I would say that, but I am a total factual person sitting here today telling you that the sex change saved my life. I feel like I’m the happiest tranny on the face of the Earth.
Ann Marie Awad: Buck transitioned 28 years ago. Shortly after that he says he invented the concept of trans male porn. Long story short, if you Google the name Buck Angel, you’ll see exactly what he means. But don’t say I didn’t warn you and most definitely do not Google it on a work computer. There’s a lot of porn out there.
Ann Marie Awad: So Buck was now living as a man, clean and sober, not even smoking weed, but about five years ago he had a little health problem. He couldn’t sleep. A doctor prescribed him sleeping pills, you know, do not operate heavy machinery kinds of drugs. They made them groggy. So a friend told him to try weed, and after really struggling with the idea, he found that it actually helped. Which is interesting because here is a recovering addict who uses weed. How does that not compromise his sobriety? Does he still get to call himself clean?
Buck Angel: Completely clean and I consider myself clean. So yeah, this is a great conversation that I really want to have.
Ann Marie Awad: For Buck, weed is a medicine for his insomnia. Just like those prescription sleeping pills were a medicine. But this one works for him.
Buck Angel: Because there’s something about sleeping pills that still give you this layer of haze. That for me it does, and I don’t like it. It feels druggy to me. Then I woke up like, wow, clear in my head and no residue. I was like, what?
Ann Marie Awad: Buck is 30 years sober now. He says daily cannabis use mostly to treat his insomnia, doesn’t change that.
Buck Angel: For myself, it is a, I don’t want to say drug, it is a plant that makes my life happy.
Buck Angel: It’s a plant that makes me feel on some level, that I can walk through the world without having anxiety and depression and the things I get, without feeling like I’m going to become addicted or in need of it.
Ann Marie Awad: So here is Buck Angel, professional adult film actor and producer with an unusual history and an unusual relationship with weed. A few years ago Buck decided to make a career change in his 50s, which marked the next chapter in that relationship, Buck Angel entered California’s legal recreational weed market with a business of his own.
Buck Angel: That’s why I started my company, Pride Wellness, was so that we could continue to talk about the history of cannabis and to keep my people in the game. Not only financially, but also in the game where we can talk about these stories and continue to educate people around cannabis and why it is so important. Especially for the LGBT community.
Ann Marie Awad: His company, Pride Wellness, sells cannabis products with the LGBTQ community in mind. The company also runs a weed delivery service in LA, which is managed by his business partner.
Buck Angel: All his drivers are queer, people of color, lesbian, gay, whatever. We don’t hire outside of that. I don’t know if that’s discriminatory, but, that’s just what we’re doing.
Ann Marie Awad: I mean, are you worried about that being discriminatory?
Buck Angel: No, I’m not. On some level, I don’t know. Is it discriminatory because we are a marginalized community and we don’t have the same access to jobs like a lot of people do?
Ann Marie Awad: For Buck Angel, weed helps his community economically, but it’s also important to that community’s history.
Buck Angel: The biggest mistake you’ll ever make in your life is to forget your past. I can’t forget my past as a woman. I can’t forget my past as a drug addict. All of these things play into my cannabis business and my cannabis activism because on some level, all of these things brought me into cannabis because they’re all part of my LGBT community on some level.
Ann Marie Awad: Nowadays, Buck Angel does not run the only LGBTQ focused cannabis business in California. Actually, he collaborates with a lot of other like-minded brands, basically gay brands or sexy brands like another company called Quim Rock, which specializes in weed infused vaginal wellness products. But Buck’s brand leans real heavily into words like legacy and community.
Buck Angel: I just know that it has been around in our community forever, you know, even before I was out and gay. It’s something that I think… and also the history of cannabis. Really you have to think about it. It’s a storytelling plant thing that comes from… it makes people want to be together. It’s a thing that creates energy that’s so beautiful. If you’ve never had it, the first time you experience it you’re like, wow, it brings people together.
Buck Angel: So I really think that’s why it’s been so prevalent within the gay community forever, even before HIV, because it brought us together and it’s a happy thing. It’s not a bad, negative thing.
Ann Marie Awad: And he says it’s his community that we all have to thank for legal weed in America. On Something is a labor of love reported and written by me, Ann Marie Awad, produced and mixed by Brad Turner and Rebecca Romberg. Our editor is Curtis Fox, music by Brad Turner and Daniel Mescher. Our executive producers are Rachel Estabrook and Kevin Dale.
Ann Marie Awad: On Something is made possible by lots of talented people like Francie Swidler, Kim Nguyen, Dave Burdick, Alison Borden, Matt Herz and Iris Gottlieb. Thanks to Pacifica Radio Archives and the Community to Restore and Regulate Hemp for the archival tape that we used in this episode.
Ann Marie Awad: Here at On Something, we are here to have a conversation about life after legalization, which is why we want to hear from you. You can give us a call at (720) 420-6587 and leave us a voicemail. You can give us your feedback, tell us your story or just say hi. That’s (720) 420-6587 and you can also email us firstname.lastname@example.org. That email address is email@example.com.
Ann Marie Awad: This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. This podcast is also made possible by Colorado Public Radio members. Learn about supporting Colorado Public Radio at CPR.org.