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TGNC Harm Reduction Baddies Campaign: Harm Reduction, Proximity to Pleasure & Personal Autonomy

Intro by:

Taylor Edelmann (he/him), LGBTQIA+ Health & Harm Reduction Manager at NHRC

Written by:

Luke Grandis (he/they), Upstate Lead Organizer at VOCAL NY

When the nomination form opened in April, we immediately received two heartfelt notes in support of someone named ‘Luke Grandis’. Unfamiliar with this individual, I scoured the internet to see what I could find. Instantly, the search produced articles and statements made by someone with an intense passion for advocating and organizing on everything from ending the drug war, homelessness, incarceration, and HIV/AIDS. 

Luke’s career has been an ode to his lived experience as a trans person in recovery, and knowing this, I was eager to have their voice as part of the campaign. Although incredibly humble, speaking with Luke for five minutes told me I was in the presence of one of the most dedicated and ardent individuals contributing to the harm reduction movement today. Someone whose pain and joy have allowed them to expose the policy failures of our fragmented healthcare system so that others can be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. 

In addition to this blog post, we invite you to check out Luke’s recorded interview as well as this Instagram post about him and his work. 

I have been asked to share my ‘harm reduction origin story’ countless times. If you’ve ever been in the (what was likely Zoom) audience to hear my origin story, the stage is set with me about 18-months-deep into remission from IV heroin use. 

It should be noted that at the time I had been trying to stay in remission within the confines of an all-too-common, all-too-unrealistic abstinence-only outpatient program. Feeling triggered by a combination of stress and anxiety that was left unmedicated due to anti-narcotic stigma and the growing rolodex in my phone of people who were actively injecting drugs, I found myself on the verge of buying a bundle. 

I opted for a heavily dosed THC edible that day instead. A decision that, yes — arguably, can be credited for my livelihood today, but in my eyes, that isn’t necessarily the most significant part of this story. 

To me, this day marked the beginning of a reclamation. A day I took back my power from substance abuse counselors, mental health professionals, and self-righteous NA sponsors who had worked so hard to strip away my sense of autonomy. Sure, maybe they wanted me to stop using all drugs, thinking that was what was best for me. Still, they didn’t truly know what was best for me — and they certainly weren’t willing to hold the complexities of what it meant to be a queer, trans, polysubstance user with anxiety and depression.

Pathways to recovery that boast the necessity of turning over your will to a higher power don’t exactly love it when they witness you feeling empowered to make nuanced decisions about your own drug use and/or lack thereof.

I realized something significant when I contemplated writing about my origin story for this blog post. By ‘origin’, I don’t strictly mean “when I discovered harm reduction”; instead, I also mean “a time I (re)discovered the utility, power, and beauty that lies within the various ways that harm reduction can be applied to different behaviors to improve one’s quality of life, safety, proximity to pleasure, wellbeing, and so much more”. In reality, I am constantly discovering new harm reduction ‘origins’.

Discovering and rediscovering harm reduction has meant discovering and rediscovering my own self-worth, my own right to use drugs and sex as pathways to pleasure, my ability to trust myself to make big decisions about these behaviors It also meant  making mistakes,learning lessons as I go,  knowing I have not been and am not perfect in mitigating my risks — and that is all more than ‘okay.’

Between the age of 30 and 32, I have somehow learned more than I did in my first three decades on earth combined about my queer, trans, nonbinary body. I’ve discovered (in such beauitful ways, I might add) how best to navigate the positive, neutral, and negative consequences of sex, drugs, and other pathways to pleasure I choose to engage in. I feel more confident than ever that the harm reduction movement’s principles can be effectively lent and applied as a critical lens in which to inform risk reduction and prioritize pleasure. But not only within the realm of drug use, but harm reduction could, and perhaps should, be actively applied far more frequently to sexual health education, sex work, and I would love to see it expanded) within the less-chartered scope(s) of BDSM and kink.

I would like to believe that when we do all the work necessary to end the overdose and drug supply poisoning crises, when we’ve ended AIDS and have put an end to preventable deaths and folks are no longer contracting preventable diseases — that we don’t consider our work done there and allow funding streams to run dry. I would like to believe that we will treat harm reduction as just as much of a priority when we are educating folks on risk mitigation tactics with the goal in mind of simply ensuring people have the right to access pleasure, joy, relief, and new experiences with their autonomy honored and safety prioritized. 

Anytime we act as though sex, drug use, and/or pleasure exist in silos, we are evading the truth and are providing a disservice to ourselves and our communities. Amid a global attack on bodily autonomy, I believe it is more vital than ever for us to collectively reclaim our own power and autonomy to make difficult decisions in the way we navigate risky behaviors. Let’s continue to ask for help, share resources, educate ourselves, and build mutual aid networks, while not giving too much weight to the false narrative that we inherently don’t know what we need. 

As a community organizer fighting for drug policy reform, a harm reduxionist¹ and pleasure activist², I hope to contribute to the development of a world in which future generations are taught honestly about the positive, neutral, and negative consequences of drugs, sex, and other deemed-to-be-risky behaviors without the state’s total subjugation of our personal autonomy in the process. In a world where one’s self-actualization, healing, and proximity to pleasure are disregarded as luxuries of the privileged, we find ourselves relying heavily on mutual aid, community education, grassroots organizing, and other forms of semi-underground structures for change. 

We deserve a world in which sex ed is comprehensive, a world in which dogmatic D.A.R.E. programs are replaced with curricula like Safety-First Real Drug Education For Teens, a world in which I don’t second-guess my own right to choose to smoke weed when I need to manage my anxiety and opioid cravings, and world in which I don’t second-guess my own right to choose.

¹ Harm Reduxion(ist) – Term coined by Grandis. Grandis spells harm reduction with an ‘x’ to indicate the removal and absence of false binaries that exist not only within gender but within public health and harm reduction. Ex: The false (and harmful) binary of abstinent or not as a measure of success in recovery.

² Pleasure Activist – Term coined by Adrienne Maree Brown in Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, a book Grandis purchased at the Drug Policy Alliance Conference in 2019 that has gone on to influence their work focusing on the application of radical harm reduction to the pursuits of pleasure.

If you would like to get in contact with Luke, please email them at: lukas.grandis@gmail.com

Here is a list of the resources mentioned by Luke. Check them out and share them with your contacts!

-End Overdose NY

-Drug Policy Alliance (Safety First: Real Drug Education for Teens)

-NEXT Distro

-VOCAL NY