Changing Perspectives on Drug Misuse in The LGBTQ+ Community

Talking about the misuse of drugs in the LGBTQ+ community requires that we take into account its unique set of challenges. As a vibrant and diverse community, we each come with our own sets of national, ethnic, racial and economic circumstances that affect the way we live our everyday lives. With that being said the specific contexts for any one individual’s misuse of legal or illegal drugs certainly vary, so this topic is being broached specifically in terms of social spaces, and larger oppressive factors that tend to affect substance use in the community at large. This is especially important as LGBTQ+ individuals are statistically using illegal drugs at significantly higher rates and can, fortunately, be understood through an understanding of factors from youth homelessness and violence to social spaces like bars and clubs.

Some Reasons For Use

Terms like substance abuse and illegal drug use tend to carry with them loaded connotations about legality, morality, and social acceptance, oftentimes functioning as tools for further oppressing and disregarding members of society by treating individuals with substance use disorders (SUDs) as somehow lesser, or undeserving of treatment and care regardless of ones’ sexual or gender identity. Organizations like Rainbow Health Ontario and the Canadian Harm Reduction Network have helped bring light to the specific circumstances of substance use when applied to the LGBTQ+ community. Much of LGBTQ+ culture, especially in cities, has found itself centered on nightlife spaces, like bars and clubs, where the use of recreational drugs are more commonplace. In some cases, the need to associate closely with one’s community opens opportunities for pressure to use drugs. As cities tend to be more politically and socially progressive spaces they oftentimes draw LGBTQ+ youth who have fled violence, or particularly unwelcoming conditions surrounding their expression of sexuality and gender in their homes or former communities. Such changes have given rise to inordinate levels of poverty and a disproportionately high number of LGBTQ+ youth in cities with upwards of 40 percent of youth seeking agency help identifying as a sexual or gender minority according to the United States’ National Coalition for the Homeless. These circumstances leave youth at particular risk, with statistics showing that LGBTQ+ youth are anywhere from 90 percent to 190 percent more likely to use substances than heterosexual youth. The added historical context of oppression by law enforcement and the long-standing criminal status of homosexuality leave other acts deemed illegal in a dubious grey area, as there are oftentimes circumstances where the rule of law does not equivocate with ethical or scientific truths.

In broader societal terms the effects of isolation and stigmatization, as well as physical and psychological abuse, leaves members of the LGBTQ+ community vulnerable to drug misuse regardless of age. Drugs are often tools for escapism. To separate one’s self from past trauma or social stigma on a night out, while having sex, or as a coping mechanism on a regular basis has the potential to feel freeing and can further complicate struggles with potential dependency and addiction. Ultimately this leaves issues like trauma, violence, or internalized homophobia unaddressed when opportunities to safely and healthily deliberate recovery, with support systems like therapy or support groups, exist. But before we address our community’s necessary support role, it is important that we address to what extent substance use and substance use disorders affect our community.

What is The Extent of This Challenge in Our Community?

Given the aforementioned structures in place that has been shown to increase the risk of drug use in the LGBTQ+ community, let’s talk about the numbers. The presence of drug addiction, substance use, and SUDs have been serious issues facing the LGBTQ+ community for decades. But terms of more current research it has been shown that members of the community are twice as likely to have used drugs in the last year and the use of drugs being two to four times higher than the majority population at rates of 39.1 percent versus 17.1 percent. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association have also shown higher rates of addictive legal substances like alcohol and cigarettes amongst sexual minorities. And while five percent more LGBTQ+ community members seek necessary substance use treatment than the majority, that number is still quite low at 15.3 percent.

Talking Mindsets

It’s important that when working to improve and unify our community that we engage with challenging issues like drug misuse and substance use disorders carefully. Many nations have tended to criminalize addiction, which has not only been ineffective for treatment and recovery but tends to perpetuate antagonistic systems of imprisonment and punishment that leave individuals unemployable and less likely or able to seek assistance on top of sexual and gender minority statuses. Major organizations globally, like The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs, have proposed a series of responses to the treatment of drug abuse in all communities which at their core seek to alter perspectives on substance use and SUDs. Treating dependency, substance use disorders, and drug misuse as centrally health issues rather than legal ones furthers a more productive means of developing treatment centers, networks, and organizations while moving away from criminal demonization. As a community LGBTQ+ individuals are particularly aware of how painful and isolating it can be to go unsupported by society at large and how an organized community can work to stand up for its members. As such, it is essential that we as a community support sexual and gender minority individuals regardless of their circumstances, without falling prey to ideology that seeks to mistreat those who may faces challenges with substance use. Who are we to truly call ourselves a community if we do not stand by the most vulnerable amongst us and seek to better their circumstances, in whatever way we can?

We can begin with our mindset. Educating ourselves about our communities challenges help us to more accurately understand and talk about substance use, which creates a more productive dialogue that seeks to support, rather than cast aside, individuals in our community. Avoiding negative judgment that may come from not understanding individuals’ circumstances and stereotyped notions of drug use promote the idea that each person is valuable, is an individual, and is deserving of love and support irrespective of their challenges. Taking opportunities to reach out to those in need around us and educate ourselves about community resources like clinics, rehabilitation resources, mental health professionals and support groups are an important part of advocating openness and support to those around you. The LGBTQ+ community uniquely centers itself on love and acceptance. Fostering that love and support in our own physical and mental care and the care of those around us, from the most vulnerable to the most successful, promotes a culture of health and unity.

Written by Matthew Farrar


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