The Invisible Addicts: Addiction and Treatment in Black LGBT Communities

Welcome to Autostraddle’s 2020 Black History Month Series, a deliberate celebration of black queer clarity of vision and self-determination.

The first depiction of alcoholism I ever saw on TV was on one of my favorite shows, Degrassi. I grew up watching soap operas and shows that were far more mature than my age should have allowed, but for whatever reason, this Degrassi scene stuck out the most to me.

Ellie was a character that I identified with greatly. She was angsty. She wore black nail polish and those fishnet sleeves. She rolled her eyes constantly. I wanted to be just like her when I got to high school. Ellie’s mother, however, was a different story.

Ellie’s mom is an alcoholic, in episode five of Season Four, “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” we get to see the real repercussions of her mother’s disease. Her mother’s drinking has caused Ellie to start secretly planning to move in with her equally angsty boyfriend, Sean. In this particular episode, Ellie’s mom shows up to a parent-teacher conference drunk and embarrasses her daughter. She’s slurring her words, accosting Ellie’s teachers and even manages to have an offensive interaction with her boyfriend. The truly alarming part of the episode comes when Ellie’s mom passes out drunk while making dinner and almost burns the house down. This is the final straw for Ellie, who moves out shortly after.

This depiction, and many others I’d seen growing up, made me believe that alcoholism was a thing that only affected white families. It was either the trailer park father passed out on his couch surrounded by crushed cans of beer, or the white mother in her kitchen sneaking sips of wine while her family sat in the other room. If teens were involved at all, it was because they were in crisis. Heartbroken, lost friends, abusive parents; they turned to drinking to ease some pain they were too young to deal with — but they were always white.

As I got older, I began to question these depictions and the possible effects they would have on marginalized populations, specifically the black LGBTQ community.

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In an article published by The Fix, Dee Young asks the question “Why aren’t more black people in AA?”

“Maybe, in a way, AA is like churches. Even the most liberal churches in the city, Black or white, are almost completely segregated. People say it is the most segregated hour in America. I also think that a lot of minorities have a mistrust of institutions. Who can blame them? Our country has a long history of racism.”

Redlining is a distinctive practice that saw neighborhoods divided into “hazardous” zones with red ink, these zones were mostly populated by low-income, minority residents. This had lasting effects that hindered residents’ abilities to receive fair housing, banking, and finances, as well as the ability to accumulate wealth. In short, redlining divorced black and poor residents from the resources they needed to thrive. I could not find any specific data that linked this historic practice to rehabilitation and other sober living facilities, but it’s not a stretch to believe that better rehab facilities and treatment centers have been more readily available to those that had more money.

When I was a child I remember going to the corner store to get snacks for my brothers and niece, and watching as the group of older black men sat at the counter drinking beers for the day. At that time, I thought it looked so nice to sit with your friends and spend the day together laughing and watching TV. I had no reference for what addiction was even though it was around me constantly.

In the neighborhood I lived in, it was not uncommon to see drug deals and overdoses out in the street. I did not understand the weight of alcoholism and drug addiction on life until I began to struggle with my own problems with alcohol. Since I started young, I considered drinking to be a method of survival. It was a way to get myself to the next day and away from the overwhelming emotion that plagued me at every moment. Like many black girls, I was taught that what I felt was either too much or unimportant; it was to be relegated to the confines of my body and not to be shared with others.

Drinking gave me solace and companionship that I didn’t get from the outside world, it became easy to get lost in it.

Redlining policies make it easier to dehumanize black people, keeping them away from the aid they needed while giving the appearance that the symptoms of their oppression were of their own making. For The Guardian, Brian Broome interviews Erica Upshaw Givner, the founder of Vision Towards Peace. Broome writes

“Back when Upshaw-Givner was working with African-American veterans, pregnant women, and youth on methadone, it was different than it is now. A lot of times, when you look at our counterparts, they want to justify this addiction as, ‘Well, it was just pills. I was in a car accident and one thing led to another.’ But, when our people had those issues, they were still a dopehead or a dope addict and that was the label they had.”

This narrative around black addiction is one that lacks empathy. Black addicts are lead to believe that they don’t have a problem, they are the problem. Addiction is not an issue that can be solved but an inherent part of their being.  So then there are no solutions, no work to be done, and people are left suffering, On this, Broome, a black gay man, writes:

“I remember my own psychological self-abuse when I was using drugs. I was just an addict. It was my fault, and there was no way out. I remember knowing for certain that I was no victim of an epidemic. I was just garbage and knowing that made me want to use more. I wondered if I had known that I was just the victim of an epidemic, whether I would have thought differently.”

Broome puts into words what many struggle to; the fear that you are fundamentally not cared for, that your status as an addict and a black person equates to worthlessness. This fear is coupled with a mistrust of institutions that comes from a long history of medical racism and eugenics disguised as treatment, such as the Tuskegee Experiment and the forced sterilization of black women.

Additionally, to be in active addiction and seek help means to force yourself to contend with some of the lowest and most humiliating moments of your life. It requires that you ask for help when you need it, which can seem like an impossible task.

In my own struggle to get sober, I would spend days telling myself that my bottoms were “not that bad.” That the next day I would drink lighter, drink less, have water between glasses. I had a vague sense that I had a problem, but facing that seemed insurmountable. For one, I did not want to become a stereotype. I already faced discrimination and hate for being a black gay woman. I truly believed that struggling with alcohol and going to rehab was “white people stuff.”

If I came out as an addict, it would subject me to even more hardship and bias from the people around me, my family and peers.

I started drinking around the same time I came out of the closet, but it wasn’t until I was 19 that I had my first gay bar experience.

I went to a local bar with my nephew and saw a drag show for the first time. I was immediately alarmed by the sense of community and togetherness I felt in that space. I wasn’t worried about offending straight women by looking at them, or being harassed by straight men. It was wonderful.

For LGBTQ people, our history with addiction is through a complicated lense. Historically, the bar has been more than a meeting place. It’s a place of liberation and political action. Even before the days of Stonewall, the bar was a place for LGBTQ people to seek refuge and share power with one another. Of course, drinking and dancing were a part of these institutions — but so was seeking and enacting change.

Despite police harassment and the criminalization of homosexuality, many gay men and women decided to live their lives fully and out loud. In a post World War II America, gay bars became a place to escape criminalization. For gay and lesbian soldiers that lived their lives in isolation and fear, having a space to be themselves was more than a matter of the community, it was one of life and death. Allison Tate outlines the important history of gay bars in her article for The Advocate:

When AIDS began devastating the gay community in the ’80s, the bars became the places for folks to gather, grieve, and raise money for men dying from the disease. Interviewees credit lesbians for stepping up to care for gay men when nurses wouldn’t touch or feed their patients and for donating blood because gay men weren’t allowed to do so. They also point out how many drag queens did shows for no pay and donated their tips to those suffering from AIDS. ‘I don’t know where we’d be without drag queens and the lesbians,’ says David Coppini, manager of WCPC.

For LGBTQ people, bars were always more than drinking and partying places, so what does addiction look like in our community?

Many factors contribute to a higher percentage of addicts in the LGBTQ community, including stress and discriminatory practices in addiction treatment. The basic complications in LGBTQ addiction and treatment comes down to a question of need. High levels of stress from social prejudice and bigotry leads to anxiety, fear, isolation, anger, and mistrust. This increases the desire or impulse to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Additionally, there are limited treatment services that are knowledgeable about LGBTQ-specific issues and needs when we finally do seek treatment.

study completed by the NCBI uncovered that out of “854 treatment programs that reported to have specialized treatment services for LGBT people, only 62 confirmed these services actually existed during a telephone follow-up.” An overwhelming percentage of these treatment centers that claim to be specialized are really no different than their non-LGBTQ focused counterparts. What does this mean for LGBTQ people? That we’re being enticed by promises of inclusivity and likely giving money to these centers, only to not have our needs unmet.

This study found that “stigma, intolerance, and open discrimination” were the most major barriers to treatment. These issues touch almost every area of our lives, so of course it comes as no surprise that it persists even in recovery. This same stigma, intolerance, and open discrimination drives many LGBTQ people to drink in the first place, pushing us into bars that have become our only safe haven in a world that shuns us. The gay bar, a space of revolution and solidarity, can at times can become a breeding ground for what is known as “rainbow capitalism.”

Rainbow capitalism is the practice by which many brands shift their outreach and marketing to target and take advantage of LGBTQ consumers. It’s most often, though not only, seen during Pride month. Where there were once floats of local organizations and drag performers, there are now major corporations like Walmart, Wells Fargo — and more notably, alcohol brands. How many of us have gone out to a bar or to a grocery store and seen bottles of vodka adorned with rainbow stripes and graphics? These tacky optics are aimed at creating a sense of belonging and unity toward a community that has long been ostracized and penalized for merely existing. However, these solidarity optics don’t reach far beyond the confines of their wallets.

In 2019, Bud Light debuted its rainbow-striped can in celebration of World Pride month. By purchasing the bottles, Bud Light agreed to donate $1 (up to $150,000) to GLAAD. While this may seem like an act of solidarity and activism, it and many other tactics like it are a way to capitalize off of the dollars of our community. With 20-30% of LGBTQ people being affected by substance abuse compared to 5-10% of the general population, these adverts do more harm than good. They tap into our need to be seen and heard in order to make a profit. If an advertisement makes a certain group feel comforted and accepted, that demographic will be more likely to buy said product.

With many companies like Chick Fil A and Hobby Lobby taking bold anti-LGBTQ stances, it is understandable how one might feel tempted to buy products that seem to champion love and acceptance. I’ve personally been moved or swayed by the emotional tactics employed in these ads, and that’s because they are supposed to make us feel. We are finally seen, finally heard, and so we want to throw our weight behind whatever force is pushing that message. But just as presidential candidates pander by showing up to Pride events in feathered boas or sitting down to eat soul food with black religious leaders, these brands have a singular interest in mind: money.

For black gay addicts, we are pressured at both ends. As members of the LGBTQ community, we are being targeted by predatory alcohol companies. As black people, we are naturally skeptical of any entity that claims to be a “treatment” center. Black people also seemingly aren’t included in conversations centered specifically around alcohol addiction, leading many to believe it isn’t a problem in our community. Black LGBTQ people face several intersections of oppression and discrimination which can make it harder for them to seek treatment. Anti-blackness is global and clouds every institution’s ability to see black people as a human before anything else. We don’t always feel at home in white LGBTQ spaces because of fetishization and racist incidents, and homophobia in the black community pushes us into a space where only we exist to lift each other up. When media, real and fictionalized, does not tell stories that reflect our realities, sometimes even we are incapable of seeing it.

This isn’t to say that there is no hope. There are millions of people in recovery today, many of whom are black or a person of color. As more addicts divorce themselves from the shame and stigma that comes with admitting your addiction to tell their story, more people in need will follow.

One of the only reasons I’m sober today is because people around me talked about it, they extended their hands and hearts to me without knowing it. This was how I knew I could get better. Seeking treatment does not have to be steeped in skepticism or worry. Change can start with even the smallest of us telling the truth. The National Black Alcoholism and Addictions Council is a program committed to “educating the public about the prevention of alcohol and other drug misuses; increasing services for people with alcohol dependency and their families; providing quality care and treatment, and developing research models specifically designed for the African American community.” This and many other organizations are working with addicts to make sure their stories do not end with hopelessness and shame.

The National Black Alcoholism and Addictions Council can be reached at 877-NBAC-ORG (622-2674) or http://www.nbacinc.org. There is help available if you need it. You are not alone.

Dani Janae is a poet and writer based out of Pittsburgh, PA. When she's not writing love poems for unavailable women, she's watching horror movies, hanging with her tarantula, and eating figs. Follow Dani Janae on Twitter and on Instagram.

Dani has written 29 articles for us.

5 Comments

  1. Thank you for this article. I remember when I was at Dinah shore Budwiser was one of the big sponsors & their booth really tried to get people to drink to have fun. Like we are at Dinah the fun is being here around all these lbtq womxn just existing without any cis men.

  2. Thank you for writing this. I really appreciate your insights on the barriers that black LGTBQ people face in accessing treatment for addiction, as well as your commitment to talking about these issues to help break down stigma.

  3. Hi, thanks for this article! I’m a white cis gal, but very bi, and as of 6 months ago, very sober! I went to a treatment center and luckily had a queer roommate who was on her second time through and got us a different counselor who could work with us separately. I also happened to be in Palm Springs, CA and little did I know it’s such a gay desert!
    I logged in to post here, though, about a community I found online called Tempest. I joined an online sobriety school, I know how weird that sounds!!, and we have an amazing private group. There are weekly labs on different topics, several per week. One is the LGBTQ lab, every other week. There’s a lot of diversity in the articles the Tempest posts and inclusivity as the foundation of a new type of recovery for women, women of color, and all of us lbqia folks. I really recommend everyone check it out. And if you are ready to start the gorgeous journey of sobriety, PLEASE FIND THIS!!
    We are planning a tongue in cheek T-shirt that says “I got sober online”. They are some of my favorite human beings from all over the world, all walks of life there. The founder, Holly Whitaker, just published a book “Quit Like A Woman”, check it out.
    You’re right AA is pretty white, and I think it’s telling how you compared it to church segregation because I consider it very much like church. So I stopped going. They are not simply a sobriety group. That is a covert religion! I sure didn’t fit in or enjoy it.
    Please seek help if you need it, and know that AA isn’t the only way to get sobriety support!!

    https://www.thetemper.com/stories/

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