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Substance Use Among LGBTQ+ Communities

Updated: May 19, 2021

By Krupa Patel

The past decade has seen a lot of important gains for LGBTQ+ people. From gay marriage, adoption rights, bathroom access, formal recognition of non-binary identities, or even lifting the ban on open LGTBQ+ people in the military, there have been some strides made to include sexual and gender diverse people into mainstream American society at the state and federal levels. Despite these gains, many LGBTQ+ youth and adults struggle with stigma, discrimination, isolation, internalized homo/trans-phobia, lack of resources like stable jobs and housing, as well as significant violence. Experiencing complex levels of actual or perceived discrimination as well as serious barriers and loss often leads to the development of toxic stress and the search for ways to relieve it. It is not a surprise then that LGBTQ+ people are at a significantly higher risk of substance use and developing substance use disorders than cisgender and heterosexual people.

Experiencing complex levels of actual or perceived discrimination as well as serious barriers and loss often lead to the development of toxic stress and the search for ways to relieve it.

Take the story of “Ramon” from Healthline. Ramon, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, moved to New York without any prior connections. He lived couch to couch and ended up working as an escort. He later was diagnosed with the HIV virus. He faced homelessness and became friends with people who provided him housing and support but also introduced him to crystal meth. Ramon said, “Crystal meth was introduced to me by people who did not have my best interest at heart. I still keep in touch with some of these people to this day, every once in a blue moon they pop up. Of course, I think about 'oh my gosh, I shouldn't keep in touch with them.' But they were there when I needed a place to stay when I didn't have anybody, any food, shelter. Unfortunately, they were there." As Healthline summarizes, “Ramone's experiences are not uncommon to the millions of people in the United States who live with addiction and substance use disorders.”

According to the Center on Addiction, “More than twice as many LGBT adults compared to heterosexual adults reported using drugs in the past year, according to data from 2015. Those who identified as LGBT were also more likely to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol and binge drink, and nearly twice as likely to have had an alcohol or drug problem in the past year.” Even in terms of the severity of substance use disorders, research demonstrates that bisexuals and those unsure of their sexuality are more likely to have a severe alcohol and tobacco use disorder than heterosexual people. Furthermore, there are many substances that are more commonly used in LGBTQ+ communities than others, such as crystal meth, poppers, K2/spice, ketamine, cocaine, ecstasy/molly, and gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB), often through the circuit party scenes. According to Jeremy Goldbach, Director at University of Southern California’s Center for LGBT Health Equity, this is often due to the fact that many “bars and clubs have a historical association as a central meeting place for the LGBT community, creating easy access to substances and providing a fertile ground for impressionable youths.” However, the reason why bars and clubs have been so important as gathering spaces for the LGTBQ+ community is due to the lack of other public spaces for LGBTQ+ to congregate without fear of discrimination and violence rather than a “natural affinity” for party or drug culture itself.

Not only are LGBTQ+ adults more likely to report substance use than their heterosexual peers, but studies show that LGBTQ+ youth are also more likely to try substances at younger ages. The 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) found that twice as many lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth drank alcohol before age 13 compared to their heterosexual peers. The same was also true for those who tried marijuana before age 13. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states in their report, “sexual minority students in the particular struggle because of the disparities in health-related behaviors documented in this report, including violence-related behaviors and alcohol and other drug use, that can be compounded by stigma, discrimination, and homophobia.”

LGBTQ+ communities have so much to gain with having expanded access to culturally responsive resources. This includes LGTBQ+ affirming substance use treatment centers, such as Gateway Foundation, inclusive school policies, and curriculum, and peer-led support groups, like SMART Recovery for LGBTQ+ adults. Additionally, many LGBTQ+ people can benefit from clinical psychotherapy sessions, like those offered at the Kenneth Young Center. These resources, in addition to having basic needs met such as food, housing, healthcare, employment, and more, can ensure that the quality of life for LGBTQ+ youth and adults across the country improves. If you or someone you know is looking for further resources, please visit the CPYD Recovery Resource Guide, LGBTQ+ Resource Guide, and the Teen Resource Guide which can be found on the CPYD Coalition website.


Learn More about the LGBTQ+ Center at Kenneth Young:

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