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A Brief History of Addiction in the Queer Community

Data from various national surveys conducted worldwide consistently show that people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ+) face significant risks of substance addiction. But why is this the case? When did this all start? To shed light on this topic, let’s delve deeper into the history of addiction in the queer community. 

The Role of Gay and Lesbian Bars in Queer Addiction

Even in the years before the Gay Liberation Movement, gay and lesbian bars have always offered members of the LGBTQ+ community a safe and accessible escape from the pervasive prejudice and discrimination they faced on a daily basis. Unlike typical drinking establishments, these bars held the promise of exclusivity and anonymity as they operated in secrecy. The Queer bar culture offered a sense of freedom to express one’s true identity, as well as a tight-knit community spirit.

In more recent years, clubs and bars have become synonymous with being Queer, making up a huge part of the community’s culture. 

Close up of the rainbow Pride flag

A Culture of Drinking

Unfortunately, the Queer bar culture also played a pivotal role in their dark history of addiction. Aside from creating a safe space, it has also fostered an influential culture of drinking that is still a strong component of the Queer community. 

In fact, during the 1970s, a study exploring substance use and addiction among LGBTQ+ individuals was conducted in gay bars. As a result, several studies done in different years have established that lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations from anywhere in the world are more prone to drinking alcohol excessively than the rest of the population. Some of these stats include:

  • One in 6 LGBTQ+ people in the U.K. said they consume alcohol every single day 
  • A third of LGBT folks in Britain aged 65 and above (33 percent), say they drink almost every day
  • Substance use and addiction risks in queer community were three times higher than those who identified as heterosexual. 
  • Up to 25 percent of the LGBTQ+ people have been found to have moderate to severe alcohol dependency
  • U.S.-based studies suggest higher rates of alcohol-related problems among lesbian and bisexual women than straight women.

“Promoting Pleasure”

Based on a 2012 article on The Scholar & Feminist Online, the iconic Stonewall Riots in 1969 gave birth to a new Queer movement centred on youth and was heavily influenced by the rampant use of substances to “expanding awareness, deepening enlightenment, and promoting pleasure.”

Substance use, paired with the deeply ingrained drinking and clubbing culture, swiftly became an established societal norm and an essential part of being queer. This connection suggests—and has been theorized by many—that the history of addiction in the LGBTQ+ community is entwined with their strides towards progress. Queer folks let go of their inhibitions and took advantage of the euphoria afforded by illicit drugs to express themselves freely as the community’s sexual liberation movement continued to thrive. They encouraged “free and open expression of the queer body as a political act and queer sexuality as a human right.”

Queer folks partying in a club

A Second Closet

Perhaps one of the most prominent figures in the Queer community’s history of addiction would be Marty Mann, a lesbian activist and founding member of Alcoholics Anonymous as well as the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence. She pushed for public awareness of addiction and alcoholism and she was a catalyst for many members of the LGBTQ+ community to seek addiction treatment in the 1940s and 1950s.

During that time, Mann kept silent about her sexuality out of fear of giving her critics more reasons to stigmatize her as a person and undermine her credibility as an activist. It’s quite the opposite these days. More and more Queer folks are proud of their sexual identity or gender variance… but not their addiction or recovery out of fear of being ostracized by their LGBTQ+ friends. 

Typically, there is a reverse stigma and judgment hurled against people in recovery who no longer share a common interest that involves getting high or intoxicated. In some cases, there is also a hesitation to address the social issue of the pervasiveness of addiction in the Queer community, thinking that it will cast them in a bad light even further and give the dominant culture more ammunition to attack them.

What’s Behind The History of Addiction in LGBTQ People?

To fully understand why substance use and addiction are prevalent among individuals who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community, let’s take a look at the underlying factors.  Check out these alarming information compiled by Rainbow Health Ontario and CMHA Ontario:

1. Extreme Poverty 

An Ontario-based study found that half of trans people were living on less than $15,000 a year. Queer folks are among the lowest-income Canadians, which has been shown to be a factor of substance use disorders. 

2. Dual Diagnosis 

LGBT people have higher rates of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobic disorder, suicidality, and substance abuse. They either use drugs and alcohol to cope with the effects of their mental health issues or are predisposed to addiction because of their condition. In cases of dual diagnosis, both conditions should be treated with equal aggression to prevent relapse.

3. Unemployment 

Lack of job security is common in the LGBTQ community due to discrimination. At least 26 percent revealed they lost their job while 46 percent believed they were not hired or promoted because of their gender identity.  

4. Homelessness 

Up to 20 percent of transgenders admitted they had experienced homelessness at one point in their lives, 11 percent had been evicted from a home or apartment, and 29 percent had been turned away from homeless shelters.

5. Violence, Harassment, and Discrimination 

Trans people in Canada and the U.S. report high levels of violence, harassment, and discrimination when looking for stable housing, employment, health or social services. An Ontario-based study of trans people discovered that 20 percent experienced physical or sexual assault due to their identity, while 34 percent were subjected to verbal threats or harassment.

6. Fear for Own Life 

From 2007 to 2008, hate crimes triggered by sexual orientation more than doubled in Canada and were deemed to be the most violent of all hate crimes. 

LGBTQ-Friendly Addiction Treatment Centres

Learning about everything they have to endure, queer people’s history of addiction is closely connected to their history of trauma and oppression, whether as individuals or as a part of the community.

Freedom From Addiction is one of the most innovative Ontario addiction treatment centres. Our comprehensive LGBTQ addiction treatment uses effective research-based therapies like motivational interviewing, social support therapy, contingency management, and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), as recommended by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 

To know more about our services, please contact Freedom From Addiction today!


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