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Alcohol use in the gay community

From Darlinghurst in Sydney to the Chelsea District of New York (and everywhere in between) we queers love our booze, but is this a good thing? David Skidmore isn't so sure.

The “pink ghettos” in Australia, New Zealand, North America, Western Europe and parts of the developing world are centred on bars and clubs.  Even in countries where homosexuality is illegal or semi-legal, queer social life features drinking establishments. 

For instance, homosexual acts are illegal in Jamaica and that country is notoriously anti-gay yet gay venues are openly advertised on websites such as  State sanctioned homophobia is no match for queer people’s desire to meet up for a drink. 

Alcohol is, of course, a drug and drugs come with huge problems.  However, alcohol - unlike tobacco, narcotics or amphetamines – is generally considered socially acceptable as long as consumers don’t overdo it.  The Australian Government is campaigning against binge drinking and not alcohol consumption.

Fewer than 10 countries in the world ban alcohol outright and some countries have no age restrictions regarding their consumption.  In contrast, 21 countries retain the death penalty for offenses related to narcotics and others have lengthy jail sentences for trafficking or using such drugs.

Clearly alcohol has a privileged place in today’s world compared with other drugs.  According to Australian Bureau of Statistics data, 59 percent of Australians drank alcohol in the week prior to the survey.

In the US, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found 62 percent of the population consumed alcohol in 2008.  It’s a fair assumption that the number of alcohol consumers was much higher in these countries on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. 

So, if you’re a queer living in a country where alcohol is an everyday part of life, the chances are you’ll be a drinker.  Alcohol is part of the Australian or English or Irish or [insert nationality here] way of life.  In the queer subculture, drinking is an all-encompassing way of life.  It’s what we do and who we are. 

The Do It Now Foundation, a US not-for-profit health promotion organisation for the queer community, puts it aptly in a pamphlet: “the bar has always been the gay equivalent of the country club, church, social, and community center, all in one”. Alcohol (and other drugs) allow us to forget on often hostile world – at least temporarily – and loosens our inhibitions.  It’s the gateway to happier world of friends and sexual partners until the morning hangover. 

The problem begins when alcohol use becomes a prerequisite to cope with life’s challenges.  Alcoholism is easy to slip into once the impulse to drink becomes a response to every rock on the road of life.  The American Journal of Rehabilitation refers to a number of studies on alcohol problems in the gay community: 

“Alcoholism is the one disability that affects gay people at a much higher rate than heterosexuals. Kus (1990) stated that between 20% and 33% of the gay and lesbian population has an identified drinking problem. Other researchers believe that between 18% and 38% of gay men and 27% to 35% of lesbians are either alcohol abusers or alcoholics (Doweiko, 1993; Finnegan & McNally, 1987; Hellman, Stanton, Lee, Tytun, & Vachon, 1989; Lewis, Saghir, & Robins, 1982). This percentage exceeds the general population at large which has an estimated alcoholism rate of between 10% to 12% (Gosselin & Nice, 1987; Hollerman & Novak, 1989)”  

Research by the Australian Drug Foundation in 2000 found that over half the respondents believed the queer community had a major problem with alcohol.  No doubt much of that belief is derived from personal experience.  A quick Google search shows numerous gay Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Australia, Canada the US and elsewhere.  Not only do we queers have a problem with alcohol – we know we have a problem. 

Alcohol destroys the lives of many in the queer community in various ways.  Job losses, shattered relationships, drink driving charges and alcohol-related brain damage are just a few of the consequences of addictive drinking.  Of course, these consequences are not confined by gender or sexual identity. 

Particularly dangerous for queer revellers is the possibility of being assaulted or murdered because you are gay or transsexual (or assumed to be so).  Homophobes become more violent as intoxication removes their inhibitions.  Drunkeness makes us unaware of possible danger and slow to react.  A lose-lose situation for queers if there ever was one. 

How is it possible then to combat the alcohol problem in the queer community?  There is no single answer and the tactics used in the general community can also benefit queer people.  Restricted licensing hours, taxes on alcohol, enforcement of drink-driving laws, rehabilitation services and community education all play a role.  A 2008 article in the on-line Drug and Alcohol Addiction Recovery Magazine describes the nub of the problem by, once again, pointing to the centrality of the bars and clubs in queer culture: 

“Changing the relationship of gays to drugs and alcohol won’t be easy. Bars and clubs are among the most common places for gay people, particularly gay men, to meet one another. And for many gays, drugs and alcohol have become medications that allow them to be themselves, enabling them to shed culturally induced inhibitions and shame that can stand in the way of a fulfilling sexual life”.

It may be that the queer community’s relationship to alcohol is already changing.  On-line forums now provide an alternative to the bars and clubs as meeting places.  Greater acceptance of homosexuality eases the pressure on those who would drink in response to an anti-queer society. 

Nonetheless, if we believe alcohol allows us “to be ourselves” then we have a serious problem with our core identity.  To survive as queers and function as human beings, we need to move alcohol from the core to the periphery of what it means to be ourselves.  The alternative is to accept drug dependence with all its consequences.  The choice is ours.

David Skidmore is an Australian gay community activist and a member of the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby.  Professionally, he works for a lobby group for people with disabilities and has previously worked as an advocate for pensioners, older people, tenants and the homeless.  He is particularly concerned about substance abuse in the gay community.  The opinions in this article are his own.



0 #1 Johnclave 2011-02-16 06:10
Teenage Alcohol Abuse Statistics. According to the alcoholism and alcohol abuse research literature, around 9.7 million current drinkers in the United States are between the ages of 12-20. Regarding these young drinkers, 18.7% are binge drinkers and 6% are excessive drinkers. Obviously, adolescent alcohol abuse is a critical problem in the U.S.
alcohol treatment (

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