The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer+ (LGBTQ+) community is made up of individuals who do not identify as cisgender, heterosexual. 8 percent of American adults, a total of 20 million, identity as LGBTQ+. There are currently more people in the U.S. who identify as queer than there are people living in New York City.
While the queer community is often represented through a colorful, bright context, there is adversity: a mix of discrimination and social barriers contribute to the high rates of substance abuse for LGBTQ+ people. Approximately 30 percent of the LGBTQ+ community abuse drugs or alcohol, often using to fit in with the queer crowd, manage mental health symptoms, and cope with life’s stressors.
- LGBTQ+ individuals are more likely to use substances, any substances, than non-queer people
- 20-25 percent of LGBTQ+ adults are heavy drinkers
- Queer people often enter treatment with more severe substance use disorders than non-queer people
- Queer people have co-occurring disorders at a rate higher than non-queer people
Addiction Triggers in the LGBTQ+ Community
The LGBTQ+ community experiences a range of difficulties unique to their sexual and gender identities. These adversities contribute greatly to the instability of their lives, potentially causing the development of mental health issues and, for some, substance use disorder.
Rejection from family and friends – Receiving familial support and maintaining an often be challenging for members of the LGBTQ+ community. Not only are they more likely to be estranged from their family than those who aren’t queer, but they are also more likely to be unhoused, a common stressor that causes some to use.
Intimate partner violence – Domestic violence occurs at a higher rate within the queer community than within straight relationships. Four in ten lesbian women and six in ten bisexual women have experienced sexual violence, rape, and/or stalking by an intimate partner. Not only do queer women experience intimate partner violence at a higher rate than straight people, but queer men also face rates of intimate partner violence at numbers higher than heterosexual men. Intimate partner violence can trigger severe symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other disorders.
Internalized queerphobia – The self-doubt and self-hatred associated with internalized queerphobia can cause someone to turn to substances to numb these feelings and distract themselves. Some LGBTQ+ use substances to become inebriated when engaging in opposite-gender relationships so it becomes easier to repress their true feelings. Internalized queerphobia hurts self-esteem and worsens symptoms of mental health issues.
Hate crimes – LGBTQ+ people are at a great risk of anti-gay verbal or physical attacks, and Black, Brown, Indigenous, People of Color (BBIPOC) youth and those that are visibly queer are more likely to be victimized in an assault. Hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people usually target transgender individuals and BBIPOC. These traumatic experiences can cause PTSD, lead to poor self-esteem, and trigger addiction.
Substance Abuse Habits in the LGBTQ+ Community
Gay and bisexual men are more likely to use marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine, and ketamine, with methamphetamine use dramatically rising. Queer men often use nightlife as a way to connect with their community, and poly-substance use is common on a night out.
Bisexual adults are more likely to be smokers and binge drinkers. Bisexuals face bi-erasure, the societal rejection of their sexuality, often living in-between two cultures. Bi people are more prone to use substances to cope with these issues than lesbians, gay men, and straight people.
Queer women, especially bisexual women, are at a higher risk of developing alcohol use disorder than straight women. Heightened stress levels and higher rates of mental illnesses are key factors for causing substance abuse in queer woman. Bi women smoke marijuana at a rate seven times higher than straight women.
Lesbian women are more likely to use marijuana and cocaine than straight women. There are only 21 lesbian bars operating in the U.S. as of 2022. Instead of having access to a robust dating environment, lesbian women instead seek the comfort of each other in private, outside of environments that serve alcohol. Lesbian subculture is largely marijuana-friendly, as lesbian women smoke marijuana at a rate two times straight women.
Transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming individuals commonly abuse alcohol, marijuana, and crack cocaine, and have a propensity to smoke cigarettes. Trans people are the least likely to obtain medical care for their addiction due to transphobia and the unlikelihood of treatment programs having gender-affirming care.
Recovery Support for the LGBTQ+ Community
While the LGBTQ+ community faces added challenges when it comes to obtaining addiction treatment, individuals who are struggling with substance abuse should always reach out for help. There are many ways to seek treatment in spaces that are inclusive of the needs of queer people:
LGBTQ+ 12 Step Meetings and Support Groups – Programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and support groups of LGBTQ+ people can offer peer guidance in a comfortable setting of community members. These meetings are places of healing, communication, and solidarity, and can help members learn important healthy coping mechanisms, communication skills, and aftercare steps.
LGBTQ+-Inclusive Addiction Treatment – In order to avoid discrimination that LGBTQ+ people often face in healthcare, addiction treatment centers are creating inclusive programming to better suit the needs of the queer community. Having gender-affirming housing at rehabilitation centers and providing therapy that is inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community’s unique needs are steps that treatment centers are taking towards inclusivity.
LGBTQ+ Recovery Coaches – In the same way that queer people seek out queer therapists, finding a recovery coach should be no different. Openly queer recovery coaches are there to guide patients after treatment and help them find the normal in their new, sober lifestyle.
LGBTQ+ Community Centers – These centers can offer additional support, help create community connections, host 12-Step meetings, and give community members the opportunity to meet in a sober, safe space.
LGBTQ+ People in Recovery
Pursuing addiction treatment can feel intimidating, but it makes a huge difference. While many queer people are apprehensive about seeking care, it is important to take note of those who did receive care and are sharing their experiences with addiction treatment.
Some queer community members who have been to treatment are vocal about their struggles with addiction. Elton John has felt more grounded in his career since seeking treatment, slotting Alcoholics Anonymous meetings into his tour schedules and finding inspiration in recovery rooms. Younger generations might know Colton Haynes, who rose to fame during his acting role on Teen Wolf; Haynes’ memoir, Miss Memory Lane, covers his experiences with drug overdose and alcoholism. And Ty Herndon, the first solo country singer to come out as a gay man, has openly spoken about his time using crystal meth.
But not everyone who goes to treatment makes headlines. For many, recovery is private. Some people are able to find treatment programs designed for LGBTQ+ people. Others come to terms with the fact that their addiction is the cause of a lot of internalized homophobia. And others may realize that just like the queer community, the recovery community is where they belong, and once they experience addiction treatment, they stay to help others find themselves.