Meet Xochitl, the cannabis-loving Native American transgender veteran.
At 62 years old, Xochitl Selena Martinez is as young of a Vietnam War veteran as you’ll find.
Martinez was just 18 when she served in Operation Frequent Wind, more commonly known as the evacuation of Saigon. These chaotic final days of the war saved untold lives but left Martinez scarred.
“I don’t want to tell you details, and you don’t want to hear them,” Martinez says today. More than 40 years later, Martinez remains deeply affected.
“I’m rated 100 percent PTSD,” she says. “Total and permanent.”
Making Martinez’s adjustment after the war doubly complicated was that she’s a transgender woman. She was born biologically male but says she “always knew that something was different about me.” As she tried to navigate reintegrating into civilian society, she also had to grapple with complicated issues around gender and identity.
It wasn’t until joining Operation EVAC, a veterans support group centered around cannabis, that Martinez found the community for which she’d been searching for years. Martinez says her life has improved tremendously since finding Operation EVAC about three years ago — including in ways one might not expect.
“I didn’t really have a group of veterans that I was close to, so having that kind of support has been awesome,” she explains. “As a transgender woman, having support outside of the transgender community is really awesome. I’ve also come to find that the veteran community is much more supportive than the civilian community, as far as being a transgender person.”
But to fully appreciate where Martinez is today, one has to understand her journey so far. It’s a remarkable tale full of twists and turns as it stretches back decades, to before her time in the Vietnam War. It’s also a story that, through her own life experience, illuminates cannabis’ deep connection to two frequently marginalized groups: Veterans and LGBTQ+ people.
‘Cannabis is only about 10 percent of what we’re about.’
Born and raised in San Francisco, Martinez says that as far back as childhood she hypermasculinized to bury her complex feelings about gender and sexuality. She threw herself into sports. She took up martial arts. Joined the Navy as a teenager, which is what got her shipped to Vietnam as part of Operation Frequent Wind.
After returning to the United States following the war, Martinez shared an all-too-common experience with many vets affected by PTSD. Pharmaceutical medications prescribed by doctors from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to treat PTSD often created more problems than they solved.
“I felt like a science experiment at the VA,” Martinez says. “The side effects are terrible, everything from anger issues to lethargy.”
Yet Martinez says cannabis successfully eases many of her PTSD symptoms – including anxiety, stress and difficulty sleeping – without debilitating side effects. She’s just one among an undefined but extensive population of veterans who, through cannabis, have found relief they couldn’t get by other means.
Martinez joined Operation EVAC a few years ago, but it’s not the only group connecting veterans to cannabis. The Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance, Veterans Cannabis Group and the Weed for Warriors Project are just a handful of the additional organizations leveraging marijuana to help former soldiers find medical relief and a supportive network.
“We do receive donated cannabis products but, in a way, cannabis is only about 10 percent of what we’re about,” Martinez says of Operation EVAC. “We talk. We have deep conversations. We do community outreach to support other veterans.”
While certainly representative of a larger cannabis community, Martinez’s experience as a veteran is only one aspect of her story. Meanwhile, Martinez’s journey as a transgender woman also connects her to another group with deep links to marijuana’s mainstream acceptance.
‘The word transgender didn’t exist.’
Martinez says the hypermasculinization that marked her youth extended into adulthood. She earned three black belts in martial arts, worked as a licensed building contractor for 30 years and grew a bushy beard while cultivating marijuana in California well before legalization.
Yet something lingered, a feeling that wouldn’t go away.
“When I was younger the word ‘transgender’ didn’t exist,” Martinez says. “There was no word for it. But I think the internet era kind of changed my awareness because information started to become more freely shared.”
Ten years ago, Martinez made a bold decision by writing and printing a long essay she then delivered to family and friends.
“It started out, ‘This is my story and I’m sticking to it: I’m a transgender woman,’” she recalls. “I started my transition right there and went from male to female in one day.”
Martinez’s mother and friends were supportive, but her father disowned her. Her two younger sisters stopped speaking to her. Ten years and several surgeries later, however, Martinez has completed a full transition.
As a transgender woman, Martinez is part of an LGBTQ+ community to which cannabis consumers of every orientation owe a debt of gratitude.
A gay Vietnam veteran named Dennis Peron was a driving force behind Proposition 215, the 1996 ballot measure that made California the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use. Before that, gay activists were among the first to vocally advocate for medical access during the brutal early days of the AIDS epidemic.
Many patients reported that cannabis soothed the harsh side effects of pharmaceutical AIDS medication, and the legend of Brownie Mary was born.
“I saw all of it,” says Martinez, who was living in San Francisco at the time. “I lost so many friends. It was devastating to lose people day after day.”
“It’s about being human”
These days are different for Martinez in San Francisco. AIDS, while still a serious health threat, has been brought relatively under control. And transgender people enjoy a much higher level of freedom and acceptance. Martinez, who is part Native American, attends an annual pow-wow in San Francisco for indigenous people who are transgender.
“As Native American transgender people, we are called ‘two-spirit,’ and many, many two-spirit people are considered shamans and medicine people,” Martinez says, connecting this to her appreciation of cannabis.
Still, for all the elevated consciousness around transgender people in 2019, Martinez says other things define her just as much as her gender identity or sexual orientation.
“My life isn’t all about being transgender,” she says. “It’s about being human.”
She’s certainly traveled a long journey from the “hypermasculinized” teenager who landed in Vietnam as part of Operation Frequent Wind. In fact, Martinez is currently single parent to a teenager of her own.
“Being a single parent to a 17-year-old daughter has been awesome,” Martinez says. “She is super supportive of me. And all her friends and teachers, they just see me as her mom.”