It’s no secret that the LGBT community struggles with alcohol and drug abuse. Many of the social scenes preferable for queer people are associated with alcohol and drugs; bars and clubs have been key to the urban LGBT experience since the 1950s and ’60s, which remain central to queer life and where fundraising events and other activities are often hosted. Alcohol companies have made use of the research conducted on the community and advertise their products in LGBT publications as well as sponsoring events like Pride. All the while the ongoing societal prejudice and legal discrimination against trans, gay, lesbian and bisexual people leads to members of the community seeking drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.
These realities lead to a state of affairs in which LGBT people are more likely to abuse alcohol than the rest of the population. Gay men and lesbian women are more likely to do so later in life as well.1 A national survey found that LGBT people are twice as likely as their cisgender and heterosexual counterparts to binge drink and five times as
likely to drive under the influence.2 Less is known about transgender and bisexual people, but their situation may be even worse, given that they can face discrimination not only from the straight and cisgender majority but from the gay and lesbian community too, discriminations which increase stress and can lead to alcohol- and drug-related problems. A lack of cultural competency towards LGBT people and especially trans people in many treatment programmes creates obstacles to recovery and prolongs the problem.
Drug and alcohol abuse is having frightening effects on the health of LGBT people. Drug abuse has been linked to a greater danger of contracting HIV amongst gay men3, as party drugs like ecstasy, ketamine and GBH can cause a greater propensity to risky sexual behaviour. Studies show that gay men are significantly more likely than other men to have used these kinds of drugs as well as marijuana, stimulants, sedatives and cocaine4. LGBT people often feel they need to overcome inhibitions and shame caused by internalising society’s homophobia and transphobia, and they may seek alcohol and drugs as a way to achieve this. But the long-term effects of addiction can be much worse than these initial inhibitions. Professor of History Jen Manion and the director of the LGBTQ resource center at Connecticut College has a powerful take on this subject. She suggests that becoming sober can be a positive and transformative thing for the whole LGBT community. She argues that substance abuse is a way of numbing the pain caused by societal homophobia and transphobia , and wonders what LGBT people might do to challenge social prejudice and structural inequalities if their senses were not numbed to this injustice by drugs and alcohol. Manion asks poignantly,
“What creative solutions to difficult problems might we come up with if we were clear headed? How might desire feel, and sound, and smell beyond the fog, freeing us to face our gay shame head on and move past it?”5
For Manion, the root causes of the dependence many LGBT people develop on drugs and alcohol are the social injustices we face. A key part of building a strong and sober LGBT community can combat these injustices, of course, must be finding spaces where queer people can socialise free from alcohol and drugs. If, as she suggests “Sobriety could be a form of radical resistance to a world that wants us to be too drunk or too high to really feel the pain”6, we must find ways to socialise with each other which are even more exciting than the drug- and alcohol-related alternatives.
Thankfully, the social scene for sober LGBT people is growing. There are LGBT-focused movie screenings and film festivals, sober dances and gatherings, educational groups, even fitness groups such as running clubs, and sports associations including softball and volleyball teams. A group from New York City called ‘Queer & Sober’ is just one fabulous example of how sobriety is beginning to thrive as part of the LGBT community. They have a strong presence at Pride, an annual event which often feels unwelcome for those struggling to stay sober due to the ubiquity of alcohol. They are guided by the knowledge that being queer should be no obstacle to living a joyous, sober life. They have an emphasis on enjoyment and sociality, recognising that due to the effects of party drugs like crystal meth many people are choosing to get sober younger. They organise 12-step meetings for people in recovery and health, wellness and recovery-related workshops as well as a number of social events.7
There is even an app for sober men and women, gay or straight, called Sober Grid8, which was downloaded 25,000 times in its first week after release. It provides a sober alternative to Grindr and Scruff. The risk of HIV has been linked with Grindr use since sex involving drugs and alcohol is often arranged by this means. Initiatives like the Sober Grid app will help to reduce this risk whilst also providing an opportunity for socialising, romance and sex free from drugs and alcohol so that those who have recovered from an addiction can avoid relapse.
These developments are unmitigated positives for LGBT people. For not only does the rise of a sober LGBT community mean a reduction in health risks and instability of employment, housing and relationships often caused by addiction but as Manion points out, it strengthens us to struggle against the injustices which are the root cause of the dependency in the first place. By helping each other recover in LGBT-focused treatment programmes and then, crucially, providing venues and opportunities to socialise free from the temptations and triggers of alcohol and drugs. Only this way can we build an LGBT community that is- as the saying goes- happy, joyous and free.
7. http://www.reneweveryday.com/group-aiming-to-make-difference-in-the-sober-lgbt-community/ and http://nycqueerandsober.org/