I am the gay, atheist son of a West Texas preacher and I smoke pot.
I’ve come out to my parents three times.
The first time was deliberate. A swift, calculated blow to the church and patriarchy. Coming out as an atheist was the final word in a lifelong argument with my father, a Methodist minister.
The second time I didn’t so much come out as I fell. It was a messy fumble of an announcement, an unplanned departure from the toxic masculinity of my West Texas roots. I’m not sure what shocked them more: that I had cigarette burns on my arm or that they came from “a guy I used to date” but it would lead to a month’s long falling out with my father, who, hard as he might try, always struggled to shake the machismo that was beaten into him on the famed football fields of Odessa, Texas.
The third time -- well, the third time was a mistake, but it was a long time coming. There are certain things you just don’t do as the son of a West Texas preacher. Breaking the law is chief among them. I came out as an atheist at 18 and as a gay man two years later. My parents eventually embraced those parts of me openly. It took me another decade to come out as a pot smoker. No matter my successes and accomplishments, I couldn’t imagine a world where my parents would be ok with me breaking the law.
There are certain things you just don’t do as the son of a West Texas preacher. Breaking the law is chief among them.
They’re not close-minded people. They grew up in Odessa, a conservative oil town in the West Texas desert, but they escaped as soon as they could. They would go on to become pro-choice activists, members of a hippy co-op, and great, liberal role models for my sister and I. Still, some prejudice takes a lifetime to shake.
Odessa’s oil fields, locker rooms, and cattle ranches: this is where the men in my family grew up, where they made their livings, and learned right from wrong. It’s where their perception of manliness took shape. It’s where the divide between my father and I grew, decades before my birth. I figured out at a young age that I’d never be a football star like my dad. I wouldn’t be a man of the cloth or a black belt in karate like him. I wouldn’t be a cowboy like my grandfather or an oil man like my uncle. As I grew older, I realized that the man I was meant to be was at odds with those dusty conventions.
So I rebelled.
I grew up travelling from church to church across West Texas and New Mexico. When we moved to El Paso in the mid nineties, I was a quiet effeminate kid with a butt cut. By the time I left to go to college in 2000, I was an outspoken honor roll student with more vices than his parents and a head of poorly bleached spikes.
The first sign of trouble came a year after we moved to town, when I was caught stealing cigarettes at The Good Time store just around the corner from my dad’s church. Not a good look for the preacher’s son.
The summer prior I’d become fast friends with a group of outcasts at church camp. We listened to grunge, took rohypnol before we’d even heard of the date rape drug and smoked cigarettes in the movie theater. We stole black light posters from Spencer’s and partied in Juarez before we were old enough to drive.
Then there was the weed. We smoked everything we could get our hands on out of anything we had on hand. We would burrough out permanent marker casings to create makeshift chillums and fashion pipes out of fruit or foil. We even ripped pages from The King James Bible and rolled joints with them. We knew where our weed was coming from: Mexico. But we didn’t know how or why.
Years later, after many of us had left home, the Mexican government started its own war on drugs, cracking down on drug trafficking and inadvertently sparking a series of violent battles for power among the cartels. More than 100,000 people would eventually die horrific deaths as a result of the Mexican Drug Wars, and the city of Juarez, just minutes from where we smoked our first joints, where we used to stumble down the streets as teenagers, was gutted. Meanwhile, El Paso became known as one of the safest cities in the United States.
El Paso has a complicated history with cannabis that dates back more than a century. In 1915 it became the first American city to outlaw marijuana. California and Utah had already passed state ordinances but El Paso was the first metropolis to cut its own path. The effort to criminalize weed was part of a growing anti-immigrant panic that would eventually result in the American War on Drugs and the subsequent expansion of the Mexican cartels. The city of Juarez where many of my childhood friends still have family, was collateral damage in a racist, greedy American conspiracy that we’re just now beginning to grapple with.
But I digress.
Sometime after my run-in with the police at The Good Time store, my partner in crime was suspended from his private catholic school for selling weed. After it happened, his sister called and told me to dump my stash. His parent’s called mine minutes later and the shit hit the fan. I don’t remember the argument exactly but I do recall the outcome. I was grounded for a month and forced to sing in the church choir. I was also given one final warning: fuck up again and you’re going to military school.
I promised my parents I’d quit smoking pot and we left it at that, though I never quite cleaned up my act. I quit shoplifting and experimenting with designer drugs after high school. I eventually out grew underage drinking, too, but I learned an important lesson about reputation management that day. Or so I thought.
As the gay son of a West Texas preacher, I learned to compartmentalize pretty quickly, and that day I threw “pot smoker” on the pile of disgraces not to be discussed. I spent the next couple of decades comfortably keeping weed a secret. Then my mom found my stash.
The actual incident was pretty anticlimactic. My parents were visiting my then-boyfriend and I in Oakland and my mom had gone to our basement to do a load of laundry. She returned clearly upset. She’d found our rolling tray on top of the dryer.
“So you’re smoking pot again,” she said with disgust.
I wanted to tell her that I never stopped, but instead I just said “yes”. I asked if she was mad, and she responded with a question. “Should I be?”
She said it in a way only a mother can. She posed a question, but it was really a judgement. At first I felt some level of shame, but as I played the question over in my head I began to realize that it didn’t matter how she felt. It didn’t matter what anybody thought but me. I’d been smoking weed since I was 13, and despite the warnings of just about every authority figure I didn’t die or end up in jail. It didn’t make me lazy or crazy and it didn’t get in the way of my career.
When I left El Paso for college I left behind a lot of the shame that followed me. Over the next few years, I would grow into a proud atheist and gay man. I would embrace the parts of me that the world had told me to repress and I would do it, mostly, unapologetically. I would cut my own path to success, disregarding the judgement from my family, teachers, and mentors.
I had succeeded not in spite of, but in large part because of weed. When I was in college, it helped me with anxiety and focus. When I began my career as a freelance journalist, it allowed me to see different perspectives. It cured my writer’s block and showed me beauty in the unexpected. When I started working in the porn industry, it again gave me the courage to say “fuck it,” to be truly myself. When I, against all odds, became the editor-in-chief of one of the biggest tech publications in the world, it helped me with anxiety and problem solving.
I recently came across an article published in The El Paso Morning Times in 1915. In it, the city’s deputy sheriff, Stanley Good, Sr., advocates for the criminalization of “mari juana,” as it was called then. He cites “the most atrocious crimes” committed by “drug-crazed” “mari juana fiends” who are “devoid of fear and … reckless of consequences or results.”
In a separate article, published in the El Paso Herald Post that same year he called marijuana “especially dangerous in view of the fact that it makes the coward brave.”
I’d been smoking weed since I was 13, and despite the warnings of just about every authority figure I didn’t die or end up in jail. It didn’t make me lazy or crazy and it didn’t get in the way of my career.
Stanley Good, Sr. was a fool and it’s because of people like him that so many Americans, especially people of color, are in jail today for non-violent crimes while people who look like me are allowed to profit off of their sacrifices. It’s because of people like him that hundreds of thousands of people have died at the hands of drug cartels in Mexico.
But I can agree with him on this point. Cannabis has done a lot for me, but above all else it made me brave. It gave me the courage to be myself.
My mom called recently to ask if I had more of “that hand cream you gave your father?” For the past couple of years, I’ve been giving him a 1:1 thc-to-cbd balm for his arthritis. It turns out his days of playing football took a toll on his body. Like so many Americans of their generation, my parents have seen the push for legalization and the CBD boom and they’ve started to loosen up. Their dogs are on CBD and my mom’s even joked about picking up some edibles.
Legalization hasn’t been all doggy dosing and mom jokes, though. The people most affected by the war on drugs will never get back the years spent in prison, the years without a parent, partner, or child. The people who lost their lives in the cartel wars won’t be resurrected. The injustices of prohibition won’t magically disappear with legalization, but at least now we can have honest conversations about this plant and its history.
For me, that means living without caveats or closets: I am the gay, atheist son of a West Texas preacher and I smoke pot.