Substance Abuse Issues in the LGBT Community


June is LGBT Pride Month, an excellent time to consider the substance issues unique to the LGBT community, such as the high incidence of drug abuse.

Compared to the heterosexual population, LGBT people are more apt to use drugs, have a higher incidence of substance abuse and are at higher risk for continuing drug abuse into their mid-life and later years.

Research also indicates that alcohol abuse and dependence occurs more often in the LGBT community than in the mainstream population. Some independent studies show alcohol abuse is up to three times higher among LGBT people than among heterosexuals. This means that as many as 45 percent of LGBT individuals abuse alcohol.

Reasons for the High Rate of Occurrence

Heterosexism and Social Options

The higher incidence of drug and alcohol use in LGBT communities is considered, by many, to be the consequence of dealing with sexual discrimination, or heterosexism. Heterosexism includes negative overt or covert messages aimed at gay and lesbian individuals and their lifestyle, as well as threats, acts of humiliation and hate crimes. Heterosexism can come through rejection by family or friends, work associates and employment loss.

As do many individuals suffering depression, anger, isolation or fear, LGBT people turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate and find relief from unbearable feelings. Plus, the LGBT community has traditionally found solace and socializing opportunities in nightclubs and bars, increasing their risk of developing a drug or alcohol habit.


Many LGBT individuals live compartmentalized lives. Outwardly, to fit in, they follow the rules of the society they live in so that they can succeed and gain acceptance. This public self hides a secret self that is in tune with the person’s actual feelings and desires. The authentic self is kept a secret because it is viewed as unworthy or shameful, possibly evil.

Substance use can provide relief from the emotional toll involved in living a compartmentalized life. In addition, the effects of drug or alcohol use mirror the escape mechanism of self-compartmentalization, making it an ideal complementary behavior.

Treatment Issues

Some treatment facilities for substance abuse fail to meet the specific needs of LGBT individuals. The treatment staff may be uninformed about LGBT issues or possibly antagonistic to LGBT clients. Heterosexual clients at the treatment center may have negative attitudes about them as well.

While the mechanism of addiction is the same for all humans, the reasons behind our initiating drug and alcohol abuse behaviors differ. Successful treatment requires that helping professionals understand the imprint of heterosexism on LGBT people and know how to help them address their unique type of internalized negative self-image and shame.

Source: Pride Institute


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