Where Were They While She Was Getting High?

Last week the Center for American Progress released a study about things we already kind of knew, namely the fact that LGBT populations experience higher rates of substance use and abuse, and that this fact may be the result of systematic discrimination and prejudice. These are facts that we keep hearing and re-stating and complaining about hearing again, but there’s a reason that we keep hearing them, and that’s because no one is doing anything about it.

You’ve probably heard them before, but let’s run through the numbers.

+ Gay and trans people smoke tobacco up to 200 percent more than their heterosexual and nontransgender peers

+ 25 percent of gay and transgender people abuse alcohol, compared to 5 to 10 percent of the general population

+ Men who have sex with men are 12.2 times more likely to use amphetamines than men who do not have sex with men and are also 9.5 times more likely to use heroin

+ Gay and lesbian adults are roughly twice as likely as the general population to be without health insurance coverage, and rates of uninsurance are even higher for transgender and bisexual individuals

Granted that this study is a little bit less than fair because it tends to lump statistics for cis women, cis men, trans women and trans men altogether under the title of ‘gay and transgender people,’ it still speaks loudly to the utter lack of resources available to LGBT people in the face of adversity, and later, in the face of a health crisis.

Despite the flaws that may be present in the study, it’s a big step in the sense that rather than painting a portrait of depraved individuals lying in gutters or empty hotel rooms, we’re starting to actually make the connections between the individuals and the causes, and through this, we’re starting to understand the gravity of the effect. At the most simple and possibly most dramatic, we can say that discrimination is literally killing us. At the least, we can say that the manner in which substance abuse is viewed combined with the lack of resources available for LGBT people is not only dangerous but downright irresponsible.

At the same time, however, some of these numbers are caused by less dramatic ideas — LGBTs reliance on “bar culture” for socialization is also a contributing factor.

The Center for American Progress attributes LGBT substance abuse primarily to what it calls minority stress, or “the negative effects associated with the adverse social conditions experienced by individuals of a marginalized social group.” Minority stress ranges from individualized attacks such as verbal or physical harassment to more institutionalized forms of discrimination in areas like employment, housing, relationship recognition and healthcare. Also, there’s often tension between LGBT people and their families or communities that lead them to feel alienated in a way that easily engenders substance abuse. From having to remain in the closet to being kicked out of one’s home to having to deal with a breakup you can’t talk to anybody about, the list of reasons LGBT people are more likely to turn to substances to cope than other people are numerous.

And while it seems like kind of a stretch to say that discriminatory laws are an indirect cause of substance abuse, the danger in systematic discrimination is that it implies an invalidation of personhood. Although ideally we’d all get our validation from someplace besides the government (or, you know, smash the state and liberate everyone from the tyranny of marriage), there’s a certain level of validation that many people need from the state in order to, well, survive, and that’s important too.

The problem is that we continue to trivialize substance abuse and pathologize individuals rather than ask tougher questions about what in our society might causing huge spikes of abuse in certain groups. It’s actually scary because sometimes the only resources or coping mechanisms available to individuals dealing with ostracism, homophobia and violence are drugs and alcohol. These things are compounding upon each other and killing individuals while making it look like they’re killing themselves. It frees society from the blame, and it frees the government from any sort of responsibility. It has an adverse effect on the LGBT community, facilitating a narrative of queer people as disposable drug addicts with little to contribute to society. And it almost seems to make sense: if the laws don’t fully recognize us, why should we fully recognize the law?

We need to view substance abuse as a health issue, and we need to understand that the presence or lack of culturally competent healthcare providers can literally be a matter of life or death when it comes to LGBT folk seeking help. We should not consider it anything less than a right to have our health ensured by the government, and we should demand a level of cultural competence that makes us feel welcome and comfortable in health care facilities, not anxious, violated or unsafe.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!


phoenix has written 64 articles for us.


  1. Fact one: lately I’ve been thinking about giving up alcohol, for highly personal reasons.

    Fact two: I’m afraid of quitting because what if my queer social life, pitiful as it is, dries up too?

    Fact three: Most of the queer people I know IRL, at our small, southern university, rely on alcohol and pot to get through the week or even through the day.

    So my point is, yeah, it makes sense, terrifying sense, from an academic standpoint, and from personal experience: this idea of overlap between the populations of substance abusers and LGBT people.

    • I will freely, and sadly, admit that the main reason I’m not involved in my local queer culture at all is because I don’t really drink (I occasionally nurse a glass of wine for an entire meal and still don’t finish it, and that’s pretty much it). And I have no idea how to get involved when bars aren’t my scene.

      • Yeah..I sort of outgrew the whole bar scene..I turned to local queer focused grassroots volunteer groups..I work with a group that assists LGBT teens as well as volunteering with my states marriage equality group..In doing so, I’ve not only expanded my pool of queer friends, but found like minded people who care about the things I care about..And as for meeting potential dates, it has helped cut through alot of the BS you find in the bars..The women I’ve been meeting are mature and tend to have their shit together

    • Im sorry to hear that, maybe you could start a movement and make a change. create things where people cannot feed their addictions. When it comes to addiction, weed is strictly psychological, and alcohol is a combination of physical and psychological. No one will die from quitting weed cold turkey. with alcohol its different, and can cause serious problems. I do not believe we can use weed as an abused substance in this case because the body does not physically crave it, as well as it does not harm the body to any degree that a cigarette, alcohol, or other drugs do. Anyway a bid to my tangent. Create a movie day or game day, or mall day, something that gives you all a chance to hang out, while still being sober. Become each others support system, and above all else, educate those around you that what is said and how you are generally treated negatively effects your life, and that the people are hurting you. Teach them about acceptance, and then they need for alcohol will lessen as well as you trying to separate people from the need.

  2. Yeah, I’ve barely dipped my toe into the community and have already become well-acquainted with the bar scene. I drink socially and even then I don’t go out very often at all, compared to a few other queer friends I know of who seem to get drunk every Thurs-Sun (sometimes during the week, as well).

    Being in college probably exacerbates the situation, though, for me because just about every get-together, house party, what have you includes lots of alcohol and smokes.

  3. I used to go out alot to bars and shows here (Its a big drinking culture) but I got to the point where I just cannot socially drink. I never knew how and will never know. There are more “sober” events in my local lgbt group now it seems, people are open to other activities like hiking,lunches/ coffees,autostraddle meet ups :D, choirs etc. Still I don’t meet alot of people my age (in the dating scene) in the 20’s who don’t drink and smoke up to break the ice. I think this article was definitely needed and its sometimes a wake up call.


  4. I can’t deny how cute Shane is when she’s smoking!
    All joking aside, I don’t drink because I have gastritis and it causes me migraines. I stopped smoking when I became a massage therapist because no one wants to be within five feet of you for an extended period of time when you reek of tobacco (sorry ladies).

  5. Gotta admit I can totally see the truth in this… In high school my freshman year I got involved with a girl, had such bad situations, when I would be hurt I couldn’t tell my mom or friends because if I said “I’m having trouble with a girl,” I would also be coming out and I couldn’t come out to my mom. So, I turned to drugs and began taking pills (opiates and stimulants), drinking heavily, and smoking. My mom found out about the drugs but didn’t find out I was gay until the night before I was being shipped off to my bio dad’s place (which was horrible cause he enabled me). Life is great now and my mom is so damn supportive that I swear she acts like she’s coming out every time she says “my daughter is gay!” I also know my gay male cousin has issues with heroin and alcohol and finally is going to rehab after his most recent near death experience (literally the docs told us to plan his funeral) and my lesbian cousin is a heavy drinker…

  6. The American Journal of Public Health has several studies in April’s issue about queer adolescent risk behavior (unprotected sex, drugs, smoking, alcohol), and one study in Oregon showed that queer LGB* kids in more accepting religious environments (measured at the county level) have lower rates of risk behavior. Imagine that!

    *No T, unfortunately – it was a secondary data analysis and measured gender but not cis/trans status.

    I have been a rural Vermont dyke for the past 2 years, where everyone’s cool and when we want to hang out we go to the farmer’s market or hiking. Now that I am back in a (Southern) city I am not psyched about losing my hippie foodie queer friends and having to meet people in the bar scene.

  7. I live in small town rural America. I’m not out- because I don’t want the inevitable drama and isolation that goes along with it. I am love at my school. We only have about 200 students (yes really), including the middle school which we are combined with. I know every person in my graduating class personally and would do anything for them, as I would hope they would do for me. I am the class clown if you will, (guess what senior superlative I got). I am known for my Blazing Sarcasm and dry humor. I have plenty if friends and people that except the me that they know.
    I could still never come out to them.
    Maybe if I had a reason- a perfect girlfriend( hell- ill just take a girlfriend) , a love to fight for. To be honest, there is no one remotely near me I would be remotely interested in dating.

    I know y’all are thinking- why he hell is she going on about this?
    No wonder we turn to drugs or alcohol as an escape. I cant be myself without worrying about being ostracized from the close knot community I have been part of for six years. There is a statistic that has a really high number (80% maybe don’t quote me) of all homeless children/ teens identify as GLBT. In many placed we can’t hold hands, get married- or like me- find it impossoble to even find a partner. Somewhere body to love.

    It’s not a health care issue, it’s a mental health issue. It’s a society sucks issue.
    Why would we not escape in ANY way we know how.

  8. Its truly unfortunate how many queer people I have in my life who have either recovered from substance/alcohol abuse or are still struggling with it or have even died from it. But I try to be a positive outlook for them. However you can only assist people so much. And you need to learn when to walk away and let people decide things for themselves whether its good or bad.

    Those of you out there struggling with this, if you feel your going through this psychologically, physically or because “life sucks” I promise you, there are ways to counterbalance it.

    (Ex. A friend of mine had a terrible heroin habit for most of her adolescent and adult life. It was heartbreaking for years of not knowing if she was being honest with me, if she was going to live or the times we hooked up if I was putting myself at risk (even though she was really good about using new needles.) She also had severe depression because of it and claimed things were just too impossible to quit or she’d try and the sickness of withdrawal was so miserable that sobriety wouldn’t last long.

    Eventually there was a bit of hope in the form of an ex bf living in Hawaii. He wanted to help her, as he’d gotten clean himself. So she moved to Hawaii in hopes of finding a new way of life away from the old influences. Bought a one way ticket and is there currently. She kicked the habit and is now enjoying her life (for the most part, we all have set backs) but she is WAY better off than she ever was. No rehab, no forced withdrawals, just a change of location with sun and beautiful sunsets (We’re from WA state, so its mostly rainy here.)

    Just dont give up before you try EVERYTHING, if you truly want to feel better.


Comments are closed.