Addiction in the LGBTQ Community

By Chelsy Ranard 07/25/16

Despite the giant leaps being made in LGBTQ advocacy, substance addiction and misuse still affect this community in disproportionately high numbers.

Addiction in the LGBTQ Community
The LGBTQ community faces a bigger drug problem than most.

The LGBTQ community has seen a ton of progress in recent years in regards to social standing and policy making. It’s due time, too, with discrimination running rampant against this community for generations. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of work to do in order to gain a real standing of equality for everyone no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity. Today, despite the giant leaps being made in LGBTQ advocacy, there are still issues with discrimination. Because of this, among other factors, the LGBTQ community has seen substance misuse and addiction in disproportionately high numbers. 

Realizing the Problem

According to the CDC, compared with the general population, those in the LGBTQ community are more likely to use alcohol and drugs, have higher rates of substance abuse, not withhold from alcohol and drug use, and continue drinking later in life. According to the HRC Youth Survey Report conducted by the Human Rights Campaign where 10,000 LGBTQ youths age 13-17 were surveyed*, 52% of LGBTQ youth say they have used alcohol and drugs while only 22% of non-LGBTQ youth say they have. Since the late 1970s, when substance abuse research first began to include those who identify as LGBTQ, studies have reported higher overall rates of substance use as well as substance use disorders. 

Courtesy of the Human Rights Campaign* (Click for larger version)

Psychological Causes

There are many different reasons for substance abuse and addiction including arguments for both nurture and nature influences, but it’s most likely a combination. For those in the LGBTQ community especially, the higher levels of substance misuse seem to be connected to "minority stress" and experiences such as bullying, harassment, violence, family conflict, and peer influence. These nurture issues can cause depression, shame, and guilt which are motivating factors for substance use. On the nature side, family history seems to affect a person’s inclination for substances as well as the adolescent brain which may experience cognitive impairment due to teenage experimentation with substances. Drugs have a more profound and lasting effect on young people since the brain hasn’t fully developed, especially in the areas that affect judgement and self-control. 

Party Culture

Another factor that influences drug use in the LGBTQ community is the tendency towards party culture. Early on in the history of LGBTQ, coming out was not a common practice and meeting up with those in the same community was done secretly or behind closed doors. However, within this community was another hidden group: the drug-using community—when the gay underground feels much more hidden and safe in the dark and inebriated environment of the party scene, the two groups tend to blend a bit. Despite the changing culture of the LGBTQ community to being more accepting, open, and filled with pride, this kind of party culture still exists to a certain extent. 

Today, the LGBTQ party culture is about a few things: being yourself, finding a date, and escaping from reality. On one hand, going to a gay bar or similar venue allows members of the LGBTQ community to be themselves around many like-minded people. They can have fun without the fear of discrimination and celebrate their sexuality or gender identity. It’s also an easier place to find a date outside of online dating or using an app, since it can be difficult to know if someone you’re interested in is also a member of the LGBTQ community otherwise. And, to reiterate, some members of the LGBTQ community tend to utilize drugs or alcohol to escape from feelings of persecution that stem from their sexuality or gender identity. 

Courtesy of the Human Rights Campaign*

Awareness and Treatment 

In order to combat drug misuse and addiction, we need to start with making people aware. Promoting a dialogue and supplying information about the dangers of drug and alcohol use in the LGBTQ community will help people understand the actual risks. In addition, we must educate teachers and parents about the warning signs of drug and alcohol use, and make sure that the problem is at the forefront of their vision instead of being an issue to look past or go unnoticed. We need to look at the contributing factors for substance abuse in this community and promote awareness for those issues as well. It’s important to promote acceptance, support, and acknowledgement for everyone no matter their sex, race, color, creed, sexual orientation, or gender identity but also acknowledge the particular challenges and situations that affect people in marginalized and oppressed communities.

Drug and alcohol treatment programs should be a part of the dialogue as well. Many people in the LGBTQ community already feel judged and looked down on; it can be difficult to add to that with the admission of a substance abuse problem. We need to make it easier to ask for help and open up to people in the treatment industry. Fortunately, many treatment centers have programs dedicated to those in the LGBTQ community, and social workers are aware and trained for the issues and discrimination unique to this group as well. With the awareness of the problem, fighting to fix the issues that it stems from, and a positive outlook on treatment and asking for help, we can help improve the statistics for the LGBTQ community and substance use.

Despite all the progress made in the LGBTQ community as of late, the advocacy isn’t done and there are still many issues to fight for. The substance use issues in this community are abundant and require all hands on deck to spread awareness and promote positive views on treatment. Once changes are made in regards to equal rights and discrimination, many people in this community won’t feel so alienated and unsafe. If we can work to reduce discrimination, problems with substance use will naturally decrease as well. Until then, promote a dialogue on addiction and spread awareness on this issue that the LGBTQ community continues to face.

* Growing up LGBT in America – HRC Youth Survey Report – Key Findings (Click for larger version)

Chelsy Ranard is a writer based in Boise, Idaho. She graduated with her journalism degree from the University of Montana in 2012. She is passionate about equal rights, addiction recovery advocacy, and iced coffee. Follow her on Twitter.

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