STORIES

Laganja Estranja Wants You to Grow

By Celia Gold on November 18, 2018

You may already recognize her from TV. Or a cannabis cup you attended. Or her music videos. Jay Jackson, aka Laganja Estranja, is a cannabis advocate as well as a dancer, choreographer, and drag queen who performs internationally (heads up, Beirut, she’ll see you soon). Laganja cut her televisual teeth on season six of RuPaul's Drag Race, and recently competed on So You Think You Can Dance.

PRØHBTD talks with Estranja about the consequences of gender norms and miseducation, Jay’s experiences with censorship (and support) in the arts, and staying connected amidst all the exposure, which includes multiple singles and a sold-out jewelry line in collaboration with Blunted Objects (more coming, stay tuned). “My buds are my supporters,” she says, “I don't really like the word fan, I think that's very demeaning. I call them ‘buds.’”

Based in Los Angeles, she’s in Miami now doing an artist residency. Estranja is a Presidential Scholar in the Arts, in case you were wondering. She’s wearing a shimmering bathrobe in a chocolate brocade, and smoking a cigarette in a way that instantly makes me regret quitting and I haven’t smoked in years.

When I started getting involved in the cannabis industry, I noticed that I found a pocket of feminist presence pretty quickly…

Lucky you!

(Laughs).

It was actually a lot harder for me to find other out queer people than self-proclaimed feminists, though, and I thought that was an interesting disparity. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on that.

First, I would just say you're very lucky that when you fell into the industry you found a group of women who were strong and present. I do believe there's a strong feminist presence in the world—everywhere you look—but I don't think it's always as obvious as other things are, especially in the cannabis industry.

I, too, now have found a collective of women in the industry who are very supportive of the LGBT community, of course, go figure: two marginalized groups supporting each other. But it took me a long time to find that. In fact, I found the cannabis industry to be very homophobic when I first got into it, and I still find it to be that way today. For me, I'm more than just a queer person, I'm a drag queen, and I'm an attractive drag queen I think, so that's a very difficult thing when performing at let’s say Cannabis Cup, when performing for a bunch of bros who are most likely enticed by what they see and confused about why. But at the end of the day, it just means I do my job well. And they shouldn't be confused, because I look like a woman. If you're attracted to women you should be attracted to me, you know?

I think now, in the current state we're in, with the current president we have, this idea of openness is closed off to a lot of people. It's not the '60s anymore, we're not all going to Hippie Hill and passing around a blunt to one another, because now we're scared that somebody might get sick or, “I don’t wanna smoke on that fag's joint.” It's a very different mindset than it was once upon a time.

That's an interesting sort of counter-nostalgia relative to the one promoted by our administration. Do you feel like the crux of resistance to you is confusion about, for example, what somebody's looking at is, I think that’s how you phrased it?

I feel like the crux actually comes from miseducation. I think the fact that I'm appearing like a woman is one of the issues, specifically for the “bro” that's attending these cannabis cups, but for me I think the main issue is that people aren't educated on pronouns, on the different genders people are identifying as now. They aren't educated on this idea of being open. Xenophobia is at an all-time high right now, and so I think that is really the main issue.

Absolutely. I'm glad to hear you say that miseducation is a big part of the problem because it means that more and better education may help.

Well, that's all it is. It's a learned habit. People are not born to hate, people are born to be curious and open but we teach… boys don't cry. We teach, girls wear pink, so that's an issue.

Have you encountered a lot of overtly toxic masculinity in the industry? And if so, how has that affected the way you move through it professionally?

[For readers who might not be familiar with that expression or are unsure of its meaning, I’m referring specifically to fear or hatred directed at queer and/or feminine people. Identifying as a man, or as masculine, or masculine of center, etc., is always legitimate. The thing you need to keep an eye on is your gender expression, which should never be predicated upon, as in the cases above, making someone small so that you can feel big. When in doubt, check in with your friend/partner/spouse/colleague/etc., and put on your listening hat.]

The first time it affected me hugely. I was like, I don't want to perform at the cannabis cups. I'm not comfortable here. This is not a space where I'm welcome. But luckily at the time my manager, Kristen Lovell—who is an incredibly strong feminist and brave woman who has ran my business for the last five years—she basically said to me in that moment, “Well, if you want to be an activist, you better get used to being uncomfortable.” And it took me a while to come around to that idea, that concept of being uncomfortable but also being confident in knowing that you're right, and hopefully with your confidence these other people will come around.

But that is where I am now. I do walk into any event—whether it's cannabis or not—in full drag with no embarrassment, no shame. I tell myself all kinds of things to get the kind of confidence to go into these spaces where I'm most likely not welcome. It's also why I've been working with women such as Women Grow, or with different organizations, to really create safe spaces for the gay community. I hate that we have to create more segregation. I hate that there's gay clubs. I wish there were just clubs. It's like, I get it, I get that there's a space for my community to gather and feel safe, but it's sad that we have to do that. It's sad that we have to create our own spaces in which to feel safe. We should all be able to coexist.

That's a humbling statement. I’m really interested in queer (in)visibility—with the "in" in parentheses—in this industry. Is this kind of confidence building carrying over into the residency you're doing now at Young Arts?

Yes! Young Arts is an organization that's been around for forty years. It's an arts organization here in Miami, and it's the only way one can be named a Presidential Scholar in the Arts [which Jay is]. A Presidential Scholar is two people selected from each state who are of the highest brain caliber one can be; they’re invited to the White House, meet the president, and they receive an award. Twenty people are also selected in the arts and they perform their work at the Kennedy Center. The only way to be eligible for this is to go through the program at Young Arts, which is a week every year in Miami where high school students audition and are selected to participate in a weeklong program of master classes with some of the most amazing teachers in the industry from around the world.

In fact, Young Arts has incredible alumni, like Kerry Washington, Nicki Minaj, Jonathan Groff, and the list goes on and on. Desmond Richardson, I could sit here all night and tell you who all has gone through the program. Basically anyone who's sickening; they were a Young Arts winner in high school.

I was a 2007 winner and was selected to be a Presidential Scholar in the Arts, [and] I met George [W.] Bush, which was not so great. I got to perform at the Kennedy Center at eighteen, which was an amazing experience. When I went to college I was able to get a scholarship because of this prestigious award, and I went on to going back to the program every year as a mentor. That's been so valuable for me, because most of my life is done as a drag queen when really this is exactly what I want to be. I want to be a director, a choreographer, a creator, and I want to be using my BFA and not just like tongue popping and falling on my back for laughs. [Through a grant] we've been able to really create a piece of art...an experience for people in gender to open up.

Has your work as a cannabis activist adversely affected your relationship with Young Arts given that it's still a Schedule I substance federally?

No, what's really cool is that Young Arts does not believe in censorship. Even when the high school students come in for that week, if their piece has curse words or is overly sexual, they don't censor any of that because they're an arts organization.

The whole point of art is not to be censored and to be free. So no, I was not received adversely when it came to who I was. I was told to speak openly about whatever it was that I wanted. I didn't talk a ton about cannabis in interviews with Young Arts because I'm an educator first and foremost. I realize how cannabis can be off-putting to some. It's still in there—my brand is strong—but it's done in a tasteful way to respect the organization and respect what it is they do.

I also teach dance to young children, and was definitely instructed by my boss to keep all of that on the side. When parents would approach that subject I would quickly get off of it. The stigma is alive and well. I face it online everyday, but that's why I try to use education and the way I medicate as education for others. I think as someone with a platform it's really important that I'm open and honest with people. I think that's what makes a really good figurehead, someone who's not afraid to be vulnerable and to really connect with people. Because, everyone smokes weed. We should just talk about it and help one another instead of furthering the stigma and going further into the closet. I've had lots of coming outs: coming out as a cannabis user, coming out as a gay person, coming out as drag queen, coming out as nonbinary, and it just gets old after a while. It feels like, why do I have to keep coming out? Why can't you guys come in?

Preach. It’s also interesting that, I framed the question as, has cannabis advocacy adversely affected your relationship with Young Arts, but I could easily have also framed it as, has your outness as a queer and nonbinary person affected your relationship with them? But it sounds like no on both counts, which, unfortunately, is still pretty unusual.

No, it's just affected my parents. (Laughs.) They’re like, “Well, we read that article and they were calling you ‘she’ and we just didn't understand.” It's like, I know, I know, it's okay, you don't have to understand, just go with it.

(Laughs.)

Yeah, in my experience, it takes multiple conversations, and we're not there yet. Can you talk a little bit about some of the areas of overlap between queer civil rights and cannabis legalization? You mentioned outness and closetedness as they relate to both, and certainly LGBT folks have played a large role in cannabis advocacy since, for example, the ‘80s, when medicinal use per se wasn't part of public consciousness but was vital to underground, palliative AIDS care. In your mind, are there other areas of symbiosis?

Sure, of course. It's a fighting for equality and a fighting for acceptance. I think also, it's a fighting for the right to be human, is what both of those are, in very simple terms.

We've covered the role you play in cannabis, what role has cannabis played in your life?

I grew up in Texas, where cannabis is seen as the devil's lettuce, so it was something I was very afraid of for a very long time. But obviously moving to California, I was exposed to it. Recreationally first. But then I was injured during a dance piece in college and started seeing a chiropractor. I felt it was really abrasive and wasn’t really helping with pain management. He actually suggested that I get a medical card and start using cannabis as medicine.

It was an “aha!” moment. Like, oh wow, this can actually help with that. From that point on, I started taking it more seriously. While I might still use it recreationally here and there, it's really all medicinal use for me. Once I realized this thing that I've been told no, no, no on is really a yes, I realized that needed to be my platform as a drag queen, as a gay person, as someone who's lineage really got cannabis to be legal in California in the first place with the Compassionate Care Act. For me it also feels like doing my ancestors’ work. I always like to put it in people's faces which is what drag queens do, that's what we're known for, so I try to do it like i said through education and love. Instead of the big scary drag queen being like “You better remember me, bitch!”

I know you've had a really busy summer: you released a new single and a jewelry line, you competed on So You Think You Can Dance as the first drag performer. Where can people look forward to seeing you next?

“Look at Me” [feat. J Tyler] is my latest single, which you can find anywhere online. What I'm most excited about is the music video, because I dealt with prison reform and the racial injustices mainly revolving around arrests for cannabis. I wanted to make a music video that really made a statement. The song is absolutely just a fun, great, gay, drag song, but I really wanted to use my platform to the fullest, so that's what the music video is dealing with. I'd love people to check that out.

I was the first drag performer on So You Think You Can Dance, and I made top 33! I have plans to go back next year and I will be making the show, everybody just wait and watch. I will. That was the best experience of my TV career thus far. For me, RuPaul's Drag Race was a very tumultuous experience. It was very hard on my psyche, whereas So You Think You Can Dance was all about my talent as a dancer. That's why I can't wait to go back next year. I believe I belong on that show, and more importantly I believe my voice and what I represent belongs on that show. Ultimately, I think this year they weren't ready; they didn't know how to deal with someone like me. But I think now that they've seen me, they know me, they're ready for me, and I'm going to be ready for them.

Photo credits: Roxy Taylor and Robert Hayman.

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