There’s a big white elephant in the room. No wait, let me look again. I’m wrong. It’s a beluga whale. They’re both big and white so, you know, it’s easy to get them confused. Except a whale doesn’t have a trunk. And an elephant doesn’t have fins, but it would be like so cool if they did. Hey, you guys, I don’t think this acid is working. Do you think we should take some more?
Drugs. We LGBT folk certainly seem to like them. We use them at higher rates than heterosexuals, and we really like to mix them with sex. Not our proudest accomplishment. The good news is that drug use, particularly crystal meth, is on the decline; the bad news is that it’s still too prevalent, and the primary causes of drug and alcohol use in LGBT individuals is still a problem for LGBT youth. This doesn’t bode well for any hope that rates for use will drop to the levels of the straight community, or go any lower.
Let’s be clear, though: The majority of the LGBT community does not have a drug or alcohol problem. Many do not partake of drugs at all, while others are occasional recreational users. We have our share of stoners and, unlike our straight friends, a high number of popper-heads. Like the general population, most of us enjoy a drink or two or six every so often. Sadly, though, almost all of us have a LGBT friend, family member, or acquaintance who has struggled or is struggling with an addiction.
The wealth of studies on the subject of drug and alcohol use among gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans makes it difficult to determine exactly how prevalent use is, as there’s little consistency in findings. That said, American Progress came up with these estimates for gay and trans men:
Tobacco: Gay and transgender people smoke tobacco up to 200 percent more than their heterosexual and non-transgender peers.
Alcohol: Twenty-five percent of gay and transgender people abuse alcohol, compared to five to ten percent of the general population.
Drugs: Men who have sex with men are 3.5 times more likely to use marijuana than men who do not have sex with men. These men also are 12.2 times more likely to use amphetamines than men who do not have sex with men. They are also 9.5 times more likely to use heroin than men who do not have sex with men.
Unfortunately, few statistics have been gathered on the use of drugs for lesbians. However, one survey of lesbians found that 30 perent used more than one drug (alcohol being classified as a drug for the study), significantly larger than the straight population. The most common drugs of choice for lesbians are tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana. Twenty-three percent of lesbians admitted to having a drinking problem, compared to eight percent for straight women. While there’s little statistical evidence about drug use among lesbians, it’s generally believed that rates of use are as high for lesbians as for gay men.
Having reviewed the statistics on drug use, one would expect a diatribe about how drugs are bad, perhaps a quote from a doctor or director of a rehab center pointing out the damaging effects of drugs on one’s body, relationships, and ability to function. However, we all learned that in our junior high school health class. Oh sure, there are those, gay and straight, who believe that their frequent Ecstasy trips have made them a whole person or that they can drink a couple of bottles of wine a night and still be a functioning professional.
The majority of people who are drinking too much or indulging in drug use know it’s destructive behavior, so preaching to them is like telling a smoker, “You know that’s not good for you”. No shit.
Nancy Reagan’s approach to the drug problem back when she was First Lady was “Just Say No”. It’s a great message for those who have not used or aren’t yet hooked, but it does little to address those for whom drugs and alcohol use are already a problem. Nor does it take into account cultural factors. For many LGBT youth, their “initiation” into LGBT culture involved alcohol or drug use, whether marijuana or party drugs. Consequently, more of our young people come to associate alcohol or drug use with social acceptance among their LGBT peers.
What’s more important to consider is that using drugs or alcohol is escapist behavior, and when you are living in a culture that frequently condemns you, escapism becomes increasingly appealing. Ostracized at school? Smoke a joint and forget about it. Harassed at work? Happy Hour will take care of that. Conflicted about societal standards for your gender and your own gender alliance? Snort some coke and be whoever you want to be in the privacy of your house.
As social worker and member of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency Jennifer Storm told Curve, “I look around my community and I see women in their 40s, 50s and 60s still going to the bars and still getting drunk. That ‘functional alcoholism’ myth just validates people never getting sober. How can we live our lives honestly if we are drunk or drugged all the time? How can we know who we really are?”
It’s easy to label such escapism as “just an excuse” for engaging in illegal or self-destructive behavior. However, a growing body of research shows that “sexual minorities are particularly at risk for drug use due to multiple life stressors” (Padilla, Crisp, and Rew, “Parental Acceptance and Illegal Drug Use among Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Adolescents: Results from a National Survey.” Social Work. July 2010) Among those stressors is the fact that LGBT individuals are subjected to harassment significantly more often than their straight counterparts, in school, on the job, and at home.
A disapproving family can make life not just stressful, but so unhappy that suicide may seem the best option. Further escalating stress levels is that crime against LGBT persons is higher than against straights, and domestic abuse rates are higher among gay and lesbians couples, accompanied by a too prevalent attitude of police and prosecutors that such abuse is merely “two fussy faggots” or “angry dykes” squabbling.
The effects of all this are particularly impactful on LGBT youth, whose perceptions are heightened as they try to deal with the usual drama and angst of growing up while reconciling their emerging sexuality with cultural norms and social stigma. According to the study reported in Social Work, over half of LGBT youth worry that their sexuality will impact their lives negatively and all but a third consider suicide. Combining these stressors with the typical peer pressure to experiment with drugs and drinking can create conditions for dependence that may last decades.
Authors Padilla, Crisp and Rew did find that LGBT youth are condemned to a life of substance abuse. A key factor in whether or not teens succumb to the pressure to imbibe is how much acceptance they get from their parents:
Mothers’ positive reaction to their children’s coming out had a negative effect on drug use among these youths compared with youths who faced a negative response from their mother or father or who were not out to either parent. Although suicidal ideation remained a strong predictor of drug use among GLB youths, its effect was decreased in the context of both parental acceptance and community involvement. In other words, if Mom is accepting, Junior is less likely to contemplate either suicide or drug abuse.
The second important element to note in the study is the importance of social services’ availability. If teens have access to LGBT youth groups and empathetic school counselors and organizations, then they tend to be more mentally healthy and able to resist addiction impulses. That doesn’t mean that they won’t experiment, like multitudes of straight teens tend to do, but they are less likely to make swilling vodka straight out the bottle at a pool party a way of life.
However, this isn’t just true for LGBT youth. It also applies to adults. A report in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs concluded that men who use the internet to find same-sex partners “need substance abuse education, prevention services, intervention services, and/or drug treatment” (Klein, “Substance Use and Abuse Among Men Using the Internet Specifically to Find Partners for Unprotected Sex.” April -June 2011), while the article in American Progress concluded that “a lack of culturally competent health care services” was a key factor in high abuse rates among all LGBT adults.
It doesn’t help that the internet propels the desires for drug-fueled sexual encounters, with blogs and websites devoted to describing how much better sex can be if you’re so high you have to stumble to the bed. Doing a search for “420 and gay sex”, “PNP”, “poppers and sex” will lead to instructional information, but also a variety of sites extolling their virtues. (For the uninformed, “420” refers to marijuana, “PNP” stands for “party and play”, most often referring to meth use, and “poppers” are amyl nitrate, which are inhaled to heighten sensory perceptions.) Consider the following quotes from various websites expounding the virtues of drugs and sex:
“One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever know? Not with poppers! You and poppers, and some great porn, are the perfect combination for the safest sex possible! You’ll get some of the best orgasms ever…”
“When poppers are inhaled shortly before orgasm, the user may experience a sense of exhilaration and acceleration, a freeing of inhibition of movement and vocalization, and perception of orgasm as prolonged, intense and exalted.”
“Sex is much better if you are high on the holy herb. Cannabis encreases (sic) the hunger for both food and sex. It also enhances the pleasure of sex.”
“I suggest you purchase some meth. It is excellent for sexual enhancement or for women that have trouble cumming. Meth’ll set you right.”
Such comments reflect a “live in the moment” attitude that overlooks the physical and psychological effects of use, however. They also fail to recognize that drug and alcohol use makes the user far more likely to engage in dangerous sexual activities and significantly increase the odds of contracting sexually-transmitted diseases, especially HIV.
As mentioned before, just telling people to stop using is a pretty ineffective approach. What the community needs is a two-prong approach: one aimed at providing resources for both parents and teens, and the other providing services for adult users. This takes consciousness of effort and government support, but far too many governments fail to provide adequate drug and alcohol resources for the population at large, let alone for specific demographic groups. As with the initial fight against AIDS in the ’80s, it will be up to us to treat ourselves.
If you are a user and want to quit or you know a user who is in crisis, the key is research. Learn what resources are available in your area, and if there are none, look for national hotlines and crisis centers with online counselors. Don’t overreact — just because your gay neighbor smokes a joint on Friday nights doesn’t mean s/he is on the fast track to shooting up in a dark alley while servicing everyone who creeps out the club’s back door.
It’s time to recognize the metaphorical white elephant. A growing number of sociologists and social workers and counselors are becoming aware of the challenges facing the LGBT community; now is the time for individuals in that community to do the same.
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