Psychedelic retreats are often discriminatory. So this couple created a queer-affirming paradise.

Jhoselyn & Courtney Gaddy
Jhoselyn & Courtney Gaddy Photo: La Vida Divine Institute

In the jungle of Macas, Ecuador sits a large, off-white cottage with yellow doors and a roof the color of baked terracotta. It is flanked by the Upano River, which runs through the southeastern part of the country. On most days, you can see people walking in and out, as well as lounging in the building’s self-proclaimed “Om” room or resting in adjacent hammocks.

This isn’t another South American hostel catering to fresh graduates and digital nomads. La Vida Divine Institute — the three-year-old soul child of couple Jhoselyn and Courtney Gaddy — offers Ayahuasca and San Pedro retreats for individuals seeking psychedelic healing. In that sense, the Gaddys help people go on trips: No travel agent license required. 

Ayahuasca is a botanical drink that was first compounded by the indigenous population of the Amazon basin. It usually causes one to purge and release physical blockages while experiencing hallucinations and (mostly) euphoric sensations over a period of 4-6 hours. San Pedro is a cactus that contains mescaline and produces similar psychoactive effects when ingested.

Though these natural psychedelics have been a vital part of South American religious traditions for centuries, the practice of “tripping” was essentially co-opted by the Western human potential movement of the 60s and 70s — with blatant disregard for native environments. 

Psychedelic “getaways” – where travelers consume the plant medicines in a group setting to tap into the universe’s messages for them and move past everything from addiction to PTSD to depression – have also been traditionally discriminatory towards LGBTQ+ and BIPOC populations. 

The Chacruna Institute — a research organization that educates on psychedelic plant substances in an effort to de-stigmatize them — reports that queer people are frequently ousted from leadership positions in Ayahuasca church organizations once they come out. Oftentimes, queer folks have felt unsafe even attending psychedelic ceremonies after they’ve signed up and paid for them. 

The Gaddys are trying to course-correct this nuanced legacy and revolutionize the Ayahuasca healing world in real-time – not just by providing LGBTQ+ trauma-informed programming, but also by basing their whole business model on how best to serve people at the intersection of queer and BIPOC identities. 

“Last year, we did a Pride Retreat where people could have the opportunity to sit with what they’ve gone through because of their gender expression or their sexuality,” Courtney Gaddy (who goes by “Gaddy”) said. “We had a coming out party so that, no matter what your coming out story was, we could rewrite it and celebrate it.” 

Gaddy met her now-wife and business partner in Atlanta at a club on the night it catered exclusively to polyamorous partygoers. As someone who grew up in the Christian church (where she was a trained choir singer), Gaddy was told early on that she “had the gift of prophecy” and would likely become a preacher. Yet, there was a lingering disconnect: She didn’t necessarily believe what she was taught by the church, despite her love of God. 

“It didn’t help that I’m pansexual and dress the way I do,” Gaddy said. “I knew I had to get out of there. But then when I started my plant medicine journey, the God that I believed in was the God that appeared.” 

Indeed, many La Vida retreat-goers come from a background of “church hurt,” as Gaddy calls it. “It’s been beautiful for individuals to come here and hear a different message about Jesus and about God. It’s really opening up doors for them,” she said. 

Jhoselyn Gaddy’s Ayahuasca experience began earlier than her wife’, about 13 years ago, to be exact. It was the first time she became intimately familiar with “Mother Ayahuasca,” but it was far from her last. In 2016, Jhoselyn received a breast cancer diagnosis, so she decided to come back to Ecuador (her home country) and resume her healing with plants. 

Then something shifted. 

“I received a message to bring people to the medicine here. [Mother Aya] said, ‘I want our people. People that normally don’t have access to this. Bring them,’” she recalled. 

Jhoselyn listened. While continuing her job as an ER nurse, she began to invite friends to Ecuador for yearly psychedelic “pilgrimages” (which also coincided with the time Jhoselyn and Gaddy first started dating). In June 2020, she received an invitation from the Ecuador retreat’s previous owners to take over the business. “We did it,” she said, referring to herself and Gaddy. “We walked by faith and that was it.” 

La Vida Divine Institute didn’t start out with the explicit mission of hosting LGBTQ+/BIPOC-focused retreats. Yet, within a couple of months, a client informed the couple that La Vida is the only BIPOC, queer, women-run sanctuary of its kind in the world. 

“In that moment, we looked at each other and were like, ‘The responsibility is bigger than what we thought we were going to do. This is what our calling is,’” Jhoselyn said. “ There was something specific about holding space for our BIPOC and our gay communities.”

Besides retreats that cater specifically to intersectional identities, La Vida Divine Institute also offers à la carte services relevant to queer folks seeking alternative healing. These include the Goddess Touch Yoni massage session — “designed to help anyone with a vulva/vagina discover [their] body’s unique pleasure zones and divine feminine essence” — as well as the relationship session, which gives monogamous or ethically non-monogamous individuals a chance to “navigate the complexities of love and connection with clarity and intention.” 

The powers of these programs are plainly evident in what La Vida’s past participants share about the time they spent entrusted in Jhoselyn and Courtney Gaddy’s experienced, empathetic care.

Sy, who attended an eight-day retreat among a cohort of of LGBTQ+ individuals practicing ethical non-monogamy, told LGBTQ Nation that they “felt completely accepted and valued and free to express [their] authentic self without fear of judgment, shame, or guilt.” The group quickly became like family — an invaluable and precious feeling, given that many in the queer community are excised from their biological families upon coming out. 

Kissa, a queer woman of Haitian heritage, similarly found “a rare sense of inclusivity that [she] had longed for” on La Vida’s premises. “Gaddy and Jhoselyn’s dedication to creating a space where ‘misfits’ like myself can find solace and purpose is nothing short of extraordinary. I am eternally grateful,” she said. 

Maisha, a self-proclaimed “black queer femme and healer,” learned of La Vida’s offerings at a time of huge life transition.

“Jhoselyn’s ties to Ecuador made me feel like the local community would be respected, as plant medicine spaces are popping up everywhere these days, some with no respect for the plant, the land, the community, or its roots. “I felt comfort in knowing that I never had to do anything that I did not want to and could honor my body and trust my own wisdom each day in the comfort of their sanctuary. At the end of my time there, my soul felt lighter, lifted, more powerful, and free as I came back to myself.” 

To ensure the legitimacy of the time-honored ceremonies is preserved and that utmost respect is indeed shown for the local Ecuadorian community, La Vida operates with the guidance of an indigenous Shaman named Tsentsek (who has collaborated with Jhoselyn since 2017). La Vida also helps a nearby afterschool program for kids whose parents work in the fields and has created a partial scholarship to increase accessibility to plant-powered healing in honor of the Gaddys’ departed ancestors Aurelio Lopez Jr. and Dr. KP Gaddy. 

At the end of the day — despite the complex relationship between the LBGTQ+ community and plant therapies (with many worldwide retreats still following a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to the identities of clients) — The Gaddys are the first to tell you that nonbinary gender fluidity has been present in nature and, by proxy, plant medicine from time immemorial. 

“When I first met Shaman Tsentsek, I shared with him a little bit about who I am, how I am, and he said, ‘That’s from the beginning of time. That’s how everything has always transformed. Nature doesn’t have just feminine, just masculine. It has all the things,’” Jhoselyn said. “That allowed me to feel comfort in my own space and create a space for others where, from the very first day they arrive here to the moment they leave, everybody is in support of how they choose to live.” 

The Gaddys hope for La Vida’s expansion, not necessarily in size but in location, as they are well aware of the fact that not everyone is able to travel to Ecuador. 

“I want to continue to walk in the way that Spirit is leading us,” said Gaddy. “We have very big dreams and aspirations for this place, having seen its potential and heard the voices of others express their healing. Remaining aligned with spirit, whatever needs to happen here will happen.”

Standing by the unwavering belief in psychedelic cures that brought them to Macas in the first place, Jhoselyn and Courtney are continuing to eagerly accept new visitors — queer or not, BIPOC or not — with arms wide open. As long as these newcomers are fully aware of what’s in store. 

“[Jhoselyn] and I are going to hold your hand for as long as you’re gonna allow us to,” Gaddy said. “We tell people that regardless of whether they’re here or not, we’re thinking about them, we’re praying for them. But once you get here, you can’t unsee what you see. So, if you’re not ready for that, don’t come,” she laughs. “Not yet.”

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