Her energy is palpable in a room, even before you lay eyes on her—the magnetic force that is Renee Gagnon. Gagnon is French, pronounced gAEn – yoh. Her surname is derived from an Old French word, “gagneau,” meaning to “till” or “cultivate”—how appropriate.
Renee shows up at the DOPE Magazine headquarters for hair and makeup, pre-photoshoot. Peeking around the corner like a kid on Christmas morning, I spot her—a woman that can only be Ms. Gagnon. My face is beaming. In heels, Renee is tall—taller than I had envisioned. She sports a freshly dyed crimson mane, bright pink lips, figure-hugging jeans and an iced coffee in hand. She’s ready, and I can feel her excitement as I approach her to introduce myself for the first time—in person, that is. We’ve had countless chats on the phone, but now we’re meeting face-to-face. There is no denying Renee’s confidence as she walks in for her cover shoot beautifying regimen. She chit chats with the hair and make-up team, and her conversation piques the curiosity of everyone that saunters by.
Renee has been described by many, including Vivian McPeak (Founder of HEMPFEST), as a pioneer, risk-taker, mover and shaker. She knows how to get shit done, and if fear is something she experiences, she doesn’t wear it on her sleeve. DOPE Magazine had the sincere pleasure of spending a day with Victoria, BC’s Lady of Cannabis, and we feel privileged to share her story with you.
The LGBTQ community, of which Renee is a proud member, has been scorned, imprisoned, persecuted and violated—for simply being themselves. While the comparison is often made between the trials and tribulations of that of the cannabis and LGBTQ communities, I am wary of this correlation. One thing is true, however: the medical cannabis community was there during the AIDS crisis. In Renee’s words, “…no one else [except the cannabis community] would give them medicine.”
“It takes an outcast to know an outcast. The Cannabis and LGBTQ communities have both been scrutinized and villainized.”
“There is a very long, beautiful relationship between cannabis and the community.” Renee describes both communities as having to “come out of the closet,” so to speak. “There are some things that the LGBTQ community can teach folks in cannabis about coming out. It’s something that you have to actually demand. It’s not going to be handed to you,” she asserts. This is why we must continue to fight this battle together—that of cannabis stigmatization. We must continue to DEFEND our right to be who we are, and live the life we know is right.
FROM RURAL ALBERTA TO VICTORIA, BC
Renee, like many of us, was introduced to cannabis at a young age—thirteen. The ‘70s in rural Alberta were a time of incredible racism. “This was the normal culture. There were signs in liquor stores saying ‘We don’t serve Indians,’” Renee states matter-of-factly. Born in 1966, amidst the Equal and Civil Rights movement, Renee had only ever met one black person before the age of 13, when her family picked up and moved West to Victoria, BC. Renee learned early on that she had zero interest in being a dairy or pig farmer—the fate of many Alberta youth. In ‘79, Victoria was a logging community in the middle of nowhere, where “everyone grew marijuana. Everybody. Eeeeverybody.” Renee describes marijuana in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s in Victoria as “…currency, people paid for things with it. It was simply part of the scenery. That’s the mentality that I grew up with from that point forward.” The sale and trade of cannabis in Victoria is what kept the lights on for many families: “[It]’s what paid the grocery bills, bought the used family car and paid the hydro bill. I can barely remember my life without weed in it,” Renee thoughtfully reflects. “In 1982 our school got an Apple computer, and we founded a computer club. It was then that I started thinking about automated grow systems to grow marijuana. That was a splinter that got stuck in my brain back then,” Renee reflects.
Renee found herself in some hot water in high school, after getting into trouble for “slingin’” pot. She chuckles as she ruminates on the claims that she’d never amount to anything. A short time ago, Renee watched her business’ stock “break the two dollar mark, suddenly it’s a 50M dollar company…built by a kid from Alberta who got flung into weed culture in BC. A transgender woman who came out at the age of 48 built that thing!” During our interview, Renee laughs a lot. It feels like holy shit, this is my life laughter—built from the realization that this is, indeed, her remarkable life.
AMERICAN IDOL MOMENT
Women Grow is a platform for female inclusion in the cannabis arena. It’s been fundamental in Renee’s development as a woman, as a professional in cannabis’ business and as an employer and mentor. The organization “blew Renee’s hair back” from the start. Renee has been a member of many groups, even spending time as a Freemason fellow. Women Grow’s premise is simple: “Hey ladies, let’s get dressed up and talk about business!” Renee thought to herself, “how profoundly beautiful.” The first time Renee spoke in front of a Women Grow audience, there were 1300 people in attendance—men, women and everyone in between. She described it as her “American Idol moment,” and she was scared as hell. Unsure whether or not her message would resonate with the audience, her insecurities were put at ease when Jazmin Hupp (Founder of Women Grow) took the stage and addressed the audience with, “How the fuck are you all doing?” This was followed by an 8:30am group “Vagina” chant, described as “brilliant” by Renee.
TRANSGENDER REPRESENTATION IN MAINSTREAM MEDIA
In March, Buck Angel graced the pages of DOPE Magazine. A transgender man, Human Rights Activist, pornographer, public speaker and all around badass advocate, Buck has been an incredible source of support in the LGBTQ community. Two television series, Orange is the New Black and Transparent, present characters from the community. “When you see yourself on TV, it’s amazing. The fact that there is a trans person on TV…Hallelujah!” Renee sings at the top of her lungs. “Transparent is an amazing series. I appreciate that the show didn’t turn the transgender character into a slapstick representation of trans people…the way that Will & Grace depicted Jack McFarland in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.” As the cannabis community continues to fight for the normalization of the plant, mainstream media has an obligation to combat transgender stereotypes in its productions. “All trans people are unique. It’s often a very lonely and solo walk. It’s not like being gay. If you’re a gay man in San Francisco, for instance, there’s a culture, there’s a community, there’s a history. That’s less true for lesbians, but it’s still there. Drag is drag. Trans is trans,” Renee posits.
Related – Progress After Prohibition: Two Oakland…
If we wish to press the boundaries of understanding and thoughtful representation, we must first realize that putting people into a box, mislabeling individuals and “othering” result in the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes that only continue to divide communities. Now is the time for education if our goal is to build positive, compassionate, inclusive, integrity-driven conversations surrounding minority communities—women and people of color included.
ADVICE FOR ENTREPRENEURS
There is no denying Renee’s almost unnatural ability to comprehend business practices that lead to success. I want her advice. When Renee was 11 years old, she read the “hoary, and I mean h-o-a-r-y,” seminal work of Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich. “Hill’s book is the basis of almost every multi-level marketing scam ever conceived. It’s basically one of the first-ever primers on how to be a service business. It was written in 1937, at the beginning of World War II. Advertising hadn’t really occurred yet. This book profoundly changed my brain. One of the ideas that still resonates with me is the advice that you should create a mastermind group around yourself—people smarter than you that you can go to for answers.”
HOLLYWEED NORTH CANNABIS, INC.
Around the same time that Renee came out, she became involved with Women Grow. She quickly realized that women were doing amazing things in cannabis, but understood the risks these small businesses were taking. “I knew what was coming toward them. It was this gigantic, nine million pound Mack Truck…and they couldn’t see it,” Renee remembers. She witnessed women in Oregon and California making amazing products that were previously unconceivable. The thought that “the government could swoop in, pound these women on labeling mistakes, shut them down and wipe them out,” scared Renee deeply. Renee is the Founder and CEO of Hollyweed North Cannabis, Inc.—a management and representation company for “risk brands” in the legal, compliant cannabis space. Renee knew that white men with money and shiny shoes could put an end to many of these small startups with the stroke of a pen. Money talks, and if there is anyone who understands this adage, it’s Renee. She spent the first half of her life as a middle- upper-class man who enjoyed many of the comforts that she now fights against.
Renee compares Hollyweed North to that of a book publishing company. “We approach women and say ‘hey, you have a really great story here. We’d love to share your story with an audience.’” Hollyweed North equips female entrepreneurs in the cannabis space with FDA-quality factories and equipment, infrastructure, brand ambassadors and a female-run marketing team. The goal? Quite simply, to put these ladies’ products out on the market. Loans in the cannabis space are almost impossible to pay back, especially for startups. Most entrepreneurs seek out investors, but this can often end in decisions being delegated by people who don’t necessarily have the business’ best interest at heart. It’s the name of the game, unfortunately. Currently, Hollyweed North is active in BC, and Renee and her team have plans to get the same program up and running in both Washington State and California within two years.
PRE- AND POST-CAITLYN (JENNER, THAT IS)
When Caitlyn Jenner sat down with Diane Sawyer in April 2015, the world waited with bated breath for her to tackle Sawyer’s questions. Despite your views on Bruce or Caitlyn, one thing is certain: she started a national conversation about what it means to be transgender. After the interview aired, Renee immediately noticed a difference in how she was treated and approached as a transgender woman residing in BC. “People stopped asking me about my genitals,” Renee says, bewilderment in her voice. Pre-Caitlyn, strangers would come up to her and ask what was between her legs. She would get ask questions such as, “So, you want to be a woman?” “Are you going to get the surgery?”
Never in her life had Renee been in the position where people thought that it was acceptable to ask about her genitals. Caitlyn came out as a transgender woman, and almost overnight, people stopped asking Renee rude, intrusive questions. “Regardless of her own dubious politics and stances, Caitlyn did a service by putting her money and fame on the line for the transgender community. She made it easier for us. It is profound. I found people nodding and smiling at me in public—and understanding.”
For Renee, the pre-Caitlyn world was quite different as a transgender woman. “The word transgender was mostly a porn term, and it was ‘trannie.’ It wasn’t a proper thing that people talked about or understood. Caitlyn very quickly shoved it down everyone’s throats and incubated it, and people actually got bored of it very quickly.”
Coming out as transgender is akin to standing at the edge of a very, very tall cliff, Renee explains. The transgender community is small, and tiny ripples can turn into waves—rapidly. For Renee, Caitlyn has been a reason to celebrate. Her courage and willingness to put herself on the line has become a positive conversation starter for Renee. “Today, when we talk about being non-gender specific, people aren’t immediately throwing up their hands yelling, ‘whatever, this is crazy.’ People are accommodative. It’s been a huge shift in culture. It’s generational. I rarely talk to people under the age of 40 who have profound, immediate difficulty with me.”
COMING OUT TO HER CHILDREN
When Renee separated from her ex, she was outed unexpectedly. “At the point that I became separated with my ex, I hadn’t come out to my kids,” says Renee. She came out to her three children separately, one by one. Her youngest, also her only daughter, was 15 at the time. After Renee’s announcement, her daughter simply responded, “I know. We figured it out a year or two ago, but figured it was your own private business, so we didn’t want to mention it.” From day one, Renee’s kids have been supportive. During a high school Gender Studies course, Renee’s youngest shared with her classmates that her Dad was “trans.” The kids applauded. “I didn’t think that this type of reaction was possible,” Renee shares. “It was not in my realm of possibilities—five years ago, even three years ago—certainly not a conceivable response when I was a teenager.”
Renee is the first to say that she would not be anywhere without the support of her family. Her team, her businesses all support her as a transgender woman, without question. “My transition requires support. My businesses require support. My broader goals for inclusion require support. I’m dependent upon everyone. I’m incredibly blessed to be surrounded by so many wonderful people. I take no credit.”
EYESHADOW AND MINISKIRT FAUX PAS
“There’s a certain point where you have to understand [that] people hating you, it’s non-specific. They’re just jerks,” Renee explains. She describes coming out of the closet as an utterly raw and naked state. “You’re going through puberty in front of everyone—as an adult.” She laughs, stating, “You don’t even know what to wear!”
We can all remember making clothing and makeup mistakes as teens; looking back at pictures from adolescence can be traumatizing. “Every other woman makes eye shadow mistakes when they’re 12, not when you’re an adult—my mini-stage skirt happened when I was 40, and it was very inappropriate. You’re a middle-aged woman, Renee!” she laughs.
Renee feels like she’s been given a gift from the universe. She started her life as a white, privileged male. “You couldn’t have a better ticket to the amusement park. I had every advantage, I could go anywhere in the world anytime I wanted with some cash in my pocket and a passport.” As a trans woman, Renee has had some “holy shit” moments. Eighty percent of the world feels off-limits for her now. “Two extremes,” she says. “…it has been educational. Wow!”