New Year’s Eve is not one of my favorite holidays. Drinking and staying up late are really not my thing, so that cuts out the majority of New Year’s Eve activities from the list of possibilities. Frankly, I’m grateful that I live on the West Coast, where I can watch the ball drop in Times Square on the ten o’clock news and then go to bed. On this iconic night of revelry, I’m a major buzz-killer.
Obviously, alcohol and New Year’s Eve celebrations tend to go hand-in-hand. And many people are able to enjoy a drink here and there without a problem. However, alcoholism has a longstanding and destructive presence in the LGBTQ community. Several studies indicate that alcoholism is three times more common in the LGBTQ community than it is in the general population, and that up to 45% of LGBTQ people abuse alcohol. Although recent studies indicate that these statistics are inflated, and that alcohol abuse among sexual minorities is on the decline, the fact remains that alcoholism – and substance abuse in general – is a significant problem in the LGBTQ community.
Given that gay bars are still central to the social life of many LGBTQ people, these statistics aren’t surprising. For decades, gay bars were the only places gay and lesbian people could go to escape from the homophobia and heterosexism of everyday life. Closeted by day, authentic and free by night – that’s the safe haven that gay bars have been able to offer, especially in areas where it’s not safe to be out and where there are no other social opportunities for LGBTQ people. Throw alcohol (and, more recently, crystal meth and other drugs) into the mix, and you’ve got a mood-altering experience combined with a social lubricant – perfect for LGBTQs who might be harboring internalized feelings of guilt, shame, anger, fear, sadness, and loneliness. No wonder substance abuse has become such an issue in the LGBTQ community.
It hasn’t taken long for researchers to zero in on the significance of homophobia and heterosexism – and countless studies have connected the dots between alcoholism and the oppression of sexual minorities. For example, in a 2008 study conducted by Genevieve Weber of Hofstra University, lesbian, gay, and bisexual participants who had a serious drug or alcohol problem were significantly more likely than their non-drug-and-alcohol-abusing counterparts to have experienced heterosexism and internalized homophobia. This past year, a study led by University of Washington researchers Keren Lahavot and Jane M. Simoni indicated that, among lesbian and bisexual women, substance abuse was significantly associated with experiences of victimization and internalized homophobia. And findings from the 2010 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions suggest that the combined experience of homophobia, racism, and sexism quadruples the risk of a substance-use disorder for lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults. Combine sexual minority oppression with the absence of other social opportunities besides gay bars and clubs, and you’ve got a public heath disaster.
Thankfully, many LGBTQ communities have taken significant strides to address alcoholism and substance abuse within their ranks. Most urban areas offer a range of social opportunities in addition to lesbian and gay bars. The Internet has allowed LGBTQ people, particularly those who live in non-urban areas, to connect with others. Increasingly, LGBTQ youth have social opportunities in the form of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in their high schools. And being in recovery for alcoholism or drug addiction (and choosing not to frequent gay bars and clubs) isn’t grounds for having your gay card taken away – in fact, it’s fair to say that there is now a sizeable LGBTQ recovery community.
For anyone reading this who might have a problem with alcohol or drugs, or for anyone who might know someone with an alcohol or drug problem, check out www.gayalcoholics.com. This site provides information about alcoholism and recovery for gays and lesbians, and it includes links to gay Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as well as LGBTQ-friendly treatment centers.