Addiction in the LGBTQ Community

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LGBTQ Flag | Addiction | The Hills

The LGBTQ community faces many challenges, but one of the most dangerous challenges is the relationship between the LGBTQ community and addiction. A harrowing statistic put forward by the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, “adults defined as “sexual minority” (in this survey, meaning lesbian, gay, or bisexual) were more than twice as likely as heterosexual adults (39.1 percent versus 17.1 percent) to have used any illicit drug in the past year”.

In this article, we will take a closer look at the relationship between the LGBTQ community and drug addiction. What unique challenges does the LGBTQ community face that makes them more prone to addiction? What kind of addictions to they tend to fall victim to and why? Is there LGBTQ-specific treatment, and, if there is, is there enough of it available?

The LGBTQ Community and Addiction

Before delving into the relationship between the LGBTQ community and addiction, it’s important to establish the three W’s – the WHO, the WHAT, and the WHY.

The Who is anyone within the LGBTQ community. This well-known acronym represents all Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer or Questioning people.

The What is the tendency toward addiction within the community. SAMHSA has “reported that 39% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults have used illicit drugs in the past year, compared to only 17% of heterosexual adults.”

The Why is the challenges that the LGBTQ community faces. Some of their challenges are discrimination, prejudice, mental health issues, and limited treatment services.

Why is LGBTQ Addiction Different from Heterosexual Addiction?

LGBTQ addiction is different from heterosexual addiction. Think of it this way: While a heterosexual person may try drugs for the first time to just liven up the party, many LGBTQ people try drugs for the first time to escape. Sure, heterosexual people experience stress, mental issues, and hopelessness as well, but it is often not directly connected to how they identify either sexually or as a person.

For instance:

  • In a 2017 study, a whopping 58% of LGBTQ youth listed that discrimination was their main reason for drug and alcohol abuse.
  • Out of all LGBTQ people in the United States, 52% of them live in states that give no workplace discrimination protection.
  • Two times more LGBTQ community members (58%) deal with anxiety and depression than heterosexual and gender-conforming people.
  • There are hundreds of treatment facilities that claim to have LGBTQ-specific treatment programs, but only a few dozen of them can confirm that these specialized programs exist.

Imagine suffering from substance abuse disorder because of discrimination and the resulting mental health issues only to enter a treatment facility in which you are exposed to the same discrimination you faced in your daily life. This is the harsh reality for many of those in the LGBTQ community that seek treatment.

What Unique Challenges does the LGBTQ Community Face?

The LGBTQ community faces challenges that are unique to their population that contribute to their heightened chance of addiction. The four main challenges they face are socialization within their community, health care deficiencies, social discrimination and prejudice, and homophobia that leads to various mental health issues.

Socialization Within the LGBTQ Community

For many people within the LGBTQ community, it is hard to find places that have other people that are either LGBTQ or allies. So, many of them end up in bars as a primary social outlet. This promotes a culture of drinking and other substance use, especially for the ones who are closeted or shy because of past discriminations.

Additionally, Gay Pride parades and parties are known for being fantastic and fabulous and featuring many drugs that are known to mimic happy feelings. Furthermore, there is even substance advertising that targets the LGBTQ community – especially alcohol.

Bo Brown says the following about how his substance abuse addiction began in his blog “Addiction in the LGBTQ Community:”

In 1982, I was 18 and in college and finally of legal age to drink and enter a bar. During the 80s, a gay bar was one of the few places to socialize and feel comfortable in your own skin and be yourself. It was also a place where the alcohol flowed freely and someone struggling with their own insecurities could seek their false sense of self-esteem at the bottom of a bottle. Drugs were also easily available if you knew the right people.”

Health Care Deficiencies

The percentage of people with health insurance varies widely because of their identity. 82% of heterosexual people have health insurance, 77% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people have health insurance, and only 52% of transgender people have health insurance. In addition, many services that a transgender person needs are not even covered by the health insurance that they have.

Social Discrimination and Prejudice

America has many LGBTQ issues at the forefront of its news, and there have been strides taken to reduce the level of discrimination and prejudice that the community experiences. However, they still experience much discrimination both openly and behind the scenes. Bullying because of their identity combined with the daily stressors of living as an open LGBTQ person exacerbate addiction rates.


Two major factors in anyone’s life – employment and housing – are affected by homophobia when it comes to the LGBTQ community. Currently, in 29 out of the 50 U.S. states, you can legally be fired from your job for being LGBTQ. 43% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults have experienced discrimination in the workplace because of their sexuality, and 90% of transgender adults have experienced the same.

The results of not having a job don’t stop with not having an income. In many instances, it also results in not having health insurance.

Moreover, stress over housing plagues the LGBTQ community because of rampant homophobia. 55% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults and 70% of transgender adults have either been denied safe housing or denied housing completely because of their sexuality or identity. This has resulted in a high rate of homelessness among LGBTQ people which has led to high addiction rates.

The Specifics of LGBTQ Addiction

There are certain drugs that the LGBTQ community uses at higher rates as well as certain co-occurring disorders, process addictions, and even sexual health issues that the community faces more than their heterosexual counterparts.

The Most Commonly Abused Drugs in the LGBTQ Community

  • Tobacco: LGBTQ individuals are 200 times more likely to smoke than heterosexual individuals.*
  • Alcohol: 25% of the LGBTQ community in the U.S. abuses alcohol.
  • Marijuana: Gay men are over 3 times more likely to abuse marijuana than straight men.
  • Amphetamines: LGBTQ men are 13 times more prone to amphetamine abuse than heterosexual men.
  • Ecstasy: When asked if they had used ecstasy, 63% of the LGTBQ community answered yes.
  • Opioids (including Heroin): In 2015, 10% of LGBTQ individuals abused prescription drugs as opposed to only 4.5% of the heterosexual population. Additionally, gay men are 10 times more likely than straight men to suffer with heroin addiction.
  • Club Drugs: Almost 50% of the LGBTQ population has used poppers.
  • Benzodiazepines: Lesbians are more likely than straight women to abuse drugs like Benzodiazepine Medication and Benzodiazepine Medication.

LGBTQ Co-Occurring Disorders, Process Addictions, and Sexual Health Issues

SAMHSA reports that most co-occurring disorders in the LGBTQ community include depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Common process addictions (also called behavioral addictions) that are found in the community are eating disorders, exercise, gambling, money (as in shopping or spending), cybersex, and sex.

Sexual health issues are very prominent in the LGBTQ community because of their tendency toward addiction. In fact, some of the sexual health issues actually contribute to the stress that causes their addiction. The most common sexual health issues in the community are:

  • Compulsive sexual behavior
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Sex or HIV-related anxiety
  • Sexual abuse or assault

Smoking | LGBTQ | The HillsThe LGBTQ Community and Addiction Treatment

To reference back to Bo Brown’s blog, he says the following of finding LGBTQ-specific addiction treatment programs when he was entering recovery:

There are also reasons that many in the LGBTQ community do not seek treatment. Some of the reasons are lack of insurance or resources, fear of exposing truths about oneself, and finding a treatment center that is LGBTQ friendly and offers therapeutic tools in dealing with this specific population. When I first decided that I needed to go to treatment, I searched on the internet for facilities that specialized in treatment for the LGBTQ community. The choices were far and few between.”

Addiction treatment over the years has been tailored to fit many different personal needs, such as age and cultural background. However, LGBTQ-specific treatment programs are still severely lacking. In the article, “LGBT Addiction is Not the Same as Straight Addiction” by Manny Rodriguez, the following sentiment is shared:

Treatment programs must reflect the dynamic between the drug and the patient, or the forces between a specific addiction and a particular addict. Safety in a treatment environment is essential, so that person may speak without fear of judgment and get the care necessary for long-term recovery.”

Rodriguez rightfully calls attention to the fact that treatment for LGBTQ individuals in addiction recovery needs to be specialized. They need therapists and medical staff that are vetted and trained in helping LGBTQ addicts. They need a community of other LGBTQ people and allies for support within the rehabilitation center. They need to feel safe in their program, most of all.

One positive aspect of the LGBTQ community and addiction is that LGBTQ addicts are more likely to seek help than heterosexual addicts. While they may struggle to find treatment specific to their needs, they are much more likely to admit that they need help and try to get that help.

There are some things that LGBTQ-specific treatment centers can offer the community:

  • Counseling about substance abuse and misuse focuses on issues that cause the abuse that are specific to the LGBTQ community
  • Specially trained staff members that can meet the needs of the LGBTQ community; many times, the staff members are part of the LGBTQ community themselves
  • Often, there are sexual health programs included in the substance abuse treatment
  • Deals with various LGBTQ-specific stressors like discrimination, coming out, and homophobia – especially internalized homophobia

In other ways, rehabilitation for an LGBTQ addict is just like that of a heterosexual addict. You can choose inpatient or outpatient programs. There is the option of hospitalization programs and intensive outpatient programs as well as the planning of aftercare and continued sobriety programs.

Unfortunately, out of the 13,688 treatment centers that were surveyed by SAMHSA in 2010, only “7% of private-for-profit substance abuse programs, 5.8% of nonprofit programs, 5.5% of state programs, 2.6% of federal government programs, 4% of tribal council programs, and 2.9% of other government programs” offered LGBTQ-specific treatment options.

So, in all, only 777 of 13,699 treatment centers catered to the needs of the LGBTQ community.

In Conclusion…

The LGBTQ community is in dire need of help – both with addiction and the allowance to live safe and happy lives. In Bo Brown’s blog, he explains:

“[The LGBTQ community] face bullying, fear of losing their employment and housing. The fear of coming out to family and friends and being disowned is still a commonality that is real to many of us. Hate crimes are a reality and have shown an increase with today’s current administration. Not too recently, a new concept has emerged known as “internalized homophobia.”

In internalized homophobia, a person accepts his or her sexual stigma and discrimination as part of their self-concept and identity. This creates a self-loathing and many turn to drugs and alcohol to feel comfortable in their own skin and to numb the pain. This was a huge component of my recovery that took many years to overcome.”

The prejudice and discrimination start early toward the community – with most members experiencing negative judgment in school. It is important to be an ally and let your LGBTQ loved ones that know you are always there with an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on. Help to build their self-esteem. Allow them to openly discuss their lives with you. Support the acceptance of everyone.

And if you find yourself or a loved one to be an addict within the LGBTQ community, get help as soon as you possibly can.

If you’re trying to get addiction treatment for yourself or for someone you love, reach out to The Hills for comprehensive and caring treatment that will help patients detox and learn the skills to cope with their triggers and their addiction. You have options, let The Hills be one of them.

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