Introduction: A Story
It was summertime and we were having a get-together with my father’s family out in back of my grandfather’s farmhouse in southern Maryland. I was very young and sitting on my uncle’s lap and enjoying all of the activity, especially the male attention I was getting from my uncles. I coyly asked my uncle if I could have a sip of his beer. He handed me the long-necked bottle and I took a hard pull on it, and then another. He then asked me if I had ever tasted whiskey and whether I would like to take a slug from his glass. Without answering, I reached for the glass and knocked back a gulp. It burned going down my throat and I immediately felt an intense surge of heat and energy.
When I climbed off his lap and staggered around, imitating the bravado and swagger of my uncles, everyone laughed. Pretending not to notice, I reveled in the attention. One of my uncles called me “tough little man” and, at that swirling moment, I felt very masculine, just like my father and all of his hardass brothers. I learned to relish moments like this, energized by the confusion of intoxication, love, and attention. I felt a little less like the big sissy that, at other times, everyone was quick to remind me that I was. Years later, I came of age with a bottle in my hand. I may have been a sissy, but drinking allowed me to construct an identity of a tough, butcher sissy. Within time, I became an alcoholic sissy, a sissy who was addicted to a range of substances and behaviors.
Throughout the process of growing up, I learned quickly that being a sissy was definitely not okay. Things in this category were best left unmentioned, denied, or hidden from sight. The message that, “this is wrong and bad,” was reinforced everywhere. I seriously began to think that there was something wrong and defective about me and that I had only myself to blame. Every time someone called attention to my sissy-ness (and after a while, I was quite able to do this without their assistance), I pushed the feelings of intense shame and self-hatred into a dark pit, callously covered with a persona of indifference. Using alcohol and other drugs helped to keep a lid over the hole, helped to numb the pain that throbbed underneath, and gave me energy to keep the lid pushed down.
Trauma, Oppression, and Shame
For many years, I did not know the significance that trauma had in my life or in the lives of so many queers. Research now confirms many things that we have known for some time about substance use and addiction. One key area of new knowledge pertains to trauma. Trauma usually results when a person, family, or community experiences a sudden or unexpected occurrence, or set of occurrences, that threatens stability, safety, and wellness. Trauma can be experienced in many ways and creates various manifestations, both overt and subtle. Human responses to trauma are as varied as the experience itself, but often result in feelings of isolation, disconnection, compartmentalization, and shame that harbor a sense of woundedness and pain. Wounds left unattended become covered with scar tissue without ever fully healing. Individuals, families, and entire communities often use substances and behaviors to self-medicate and dull the chronic pain of unhealed wounds, especially when they are unnamed, unrealized, and deeply buried.
In recent years, research has firmly established links between trauma and oppression, especially in the lives of women and in communities of color. Scholars have written about “historical trauma,” particularly in Native American and African American cultures, in which trauma has been rooted in the historical experience of oppression and is transmitted across generations. Many lessons derived from this new understanding of trauma can be applied to queer culture and experience with oppression and trauma.
Further, when individuals are not allowed or encouraged to claim their own holistic and authentic selves, they frequently develop “split” identities that are defined by those around them. This is often the case with queer children who filter their perceptions and reality through the experience of others, for the sake of acceptance and validation. Well into adolescence and adulthood, this characteristic to self-monitor and please others at all costs takes its toll on the development of healthy, autonomous personhood. This attitude can promote a range of addictive behaviors. It can also be the driving force that keeps an individual closeted by reinforcing both the fear that disclosure will upset a delicate balance and that the individual is responsible for the feelings of others.
While trauma and oppression are not the only factors contributing to LGBT use of substances, the addictive substances and behaviors that I have used to cope with my pain and shame are common to many who have experienced oppression and trauma, and certainly to other gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and persons of transgender experience.
Substance Use and Queer Experience
In the years before the gay liberation movement, it was illegal in most places in this country for queers to publicly assemble. While bars and drinking establishments were the few spaces in which coming together was sanctioned, severe restrictions were placed on dress, customs, and behavior. A queer bar culture emerged—rising out of fear and secrecy—in which a sense of safety, identity, and community-building flourished. These spaces provided an arena for queers to create social and cultural norms, build solidarity, and establish communities of resistance. Queers, faced with outside repression, violence, and adversity, responded with a great sense of resilience. This historical resistance and resilience that emerged out of a culture of drinking has had a direct influence on and is still a strong component of our community today.
In the 1970s, research on substance use and addiction in the queer community was conducted in places like gay bars, as these were the logical, and oftentimes only, places to find queers who self-identified, if only within the context of the specific space. Researchers determined that substance use and addiction rates in the queer community were three times higher than among heterosexual counterparts. As the queer community became more visible, organized, and as researchers became able to find queer subjects in a variety of public settings, these statistics were contested and refuted as unrealistic and overblown. Yet, recent findings confirm that the rate of substance use and addiction are significantly higher in our community than in the population as a whole.
The queer movement that immediately followed the Stonewall riots in 1969 was largely informed by the experience of the new left counterculture. An important underpinning of this new, youth-oriented culture was the widespread use of substances as a means of expanding awareness, deepening enlightenment, and promoting pleasure. These ideas about the use of drugs and alcohol were taken up by some parts of our community and, coupled with queer bar culture, became established norms of queer behavior and community life. Also, the expression of self and culture through the use of substances became intricately connected to a flourishing sexual liberation movement that promoted free and open expression of the queer body as a political act and queer sexuality as a human right.
That said, many queers now frequently promote this right to pleasure without full acknowledgement of our history, or an awareness of the ways in which our use of substances can be directly linked with our history of oppression and trauma. While the use of substances has continued to be a cultural norm in some sectors of the community, active addiction has often been regarded as a taboo subject, stigma and shame remain, and recovery has sometimes been invisible.