Currently we see an ever-growing support for substance abuse recovery through effective treatment strategies, residential and outpatient programs and medical inroads. Yet, there is still a great deal of misunderstanding, stigma and bias when it comes to addiction. Equally wonderful is the growing acceptance of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT) individuals. But the current cultural and political climate also shows there is still a long way to go towards full LGBT acceptance and civil rights.
During June, there were Pride celebrations taking place in cities small and large. Initially started to memorialize the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in New York City, the event was seen as the birth of the gay liberation movement. Gay Pride celebrations honor this pivotal stance against homophobic violence and discrimination too long unchallenged in our culture.
The Stonewall Rebellion also represents a beginning emergence out of shame and homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia tragically imposed on all LGBT people. Starting the process of saying no to homophobic oppression is rooted in an innate but often buried personal pride in being LGBT, yearning to be uncovered. Coming out, whether you’re a 14 year old lesbian, or a 50 year old gay man, is an initial proclamation of self-worth, a choice to begin breaking the shackles of the insidiousness of heterosexism, and an opening up to having LGBT identities explored and cherished. Similarly, saying “I am an addict” means getting honest and real about the power and soul-destroying effects addiction has had, while making different choices to support a new life of healthier self-valuing. Both represent confronting different aspects of deeply sourced shame and often trauma.
Being LGBT and an addict brings particular challenges, dynamics and possibilities for healing. But some would question the connection between being LGBT and substance abuse. After all, young people come out earlier and earlier, right? Same sex marriage is legal in 37 states. Glee, Empire, Orange is the New Black, How to Get Away with Murder – all have prominent visible LGBT characters. Doesn’t this say we don’t have the same kind of oppression plaguing us anymore? When gay men are abusing drugs at much higher rates than their heterosexual counterparts, does this really have something to do with being gay?
Study after study alarmingly shows significantly higher rates of substance abuse among LGBT individuals. This includes studies among college LGBT young adults – the segment of the LGBT community that supposedly has an easier time coming out now. College campuses can be intimidating for any student. Many campuses have created Safe Space programs because of overt and/or implicit homophobic rejection and other real oppressions LGBT students still experience while in the process of finding themselves, how they want to express themselves, and who they want to form relationships and community with.
Children have a powerful need for necessary reinforcement from parents and the adults in their lives so that a child’s healthy wonderment of an emerging sense of self is to be felt as good and lovable in each person’s unique individual expression. For example, imagine the positive feelings a young gay boy would experience when a parent non-shamingly understands that his crushes on his father or a male school mate are normal developmental steps towards a healthy gay identity, just like his heterosexual brother “wanting to marry mommy when he grows up” is understood and not ignored. Instead of silence, imagine the positive effects on this young gay boy if the bedtime stories he was read included the same sex themed myths of ancient Greece, or if he was taught in history class that there have always been significant influential same sex loving persons throughout time such as Socrates, Walt Whitman, and the homosexual artists of the Renaissance.
But also imagine the confusion and shame that gets created even when he comes out at 15 years old to parents who declare they love him for who he is, and yet his being gay doesn’t get talked about within the home, with extended family, at school or church. Even with a Gay/Straight Alliance club at school, imagine hearing “that’s so gay” as a powerful slur and putdown, day after day. Or imagine getting the message that gay sex is disgusting when as a young teen and adult he is also longing for love and sexual exploration with another young man. Imagine what the psychological spiritual impact might be on him.
Now imagine this young gay man meets someone he wants to experience an intimate relationship with or have sex with. He should just know how to do it right? What’s the big deal, it’s just sex? However, “just sex” for many gay men – young and older – still carries the weight of profoundly instilled homophobic messaging that brings shame, fear, anxiety and distress. It makes sense then that he carries all this with him when he comes to that deeply intimate moment with another man. We can understand that he might think that a few drinks, a drug or a combination of drugs, would make it easier and less intimidating. Imagine how this too easily becomes a pattern if the initial source of shame and wounding around his desire for gay love and expression is not dealt with head on.
What can be most transformative is to recognize that the longing he feels when he meets that young man that gets his heart racing is also more than a desire for love and relationship with another man. A reparative and imaginative gay-affirmative perspective, sees this other hot man as a symbolic friend in his psyche – soulfully inviting him to go inside himself with curiosity and courage to foster an experiential understanding of the psychological, emotional and spiritual value and meaning of being homosexual. Recovery is often seen as a spiritual program. We can likewise envision that an ongoing developing gay identity has a similar possibility. To have the fullest feeling of pride would mean to explore what prevents this gay man from having more authentically felt feelings of worth and value. If we consider the ongoing development of a valued gay self as a hero’s journey, then we can imagine that part of recovery for a gay man involves an honest non-judgmental self-appraisal of how homophobia and heterosexism has stood in the way of experiencing himself as lovable because he is gay, but how unprocessed dark feelings of shame and feeling unlovable would be connected to abusing substances or other self-destructive behaviors.
In this example of a revelatory journey, Pride then brings the promise of greater potential, well-being, and vision for all LGBT individuals on unique paths of healing and recovery.
Thomas Mondragon, LMFT, is a West Hollywood, California psychotherapist and professor at Antioch University Los Angeles’ LGBT Specialization in Clinical Psychology, providing his clients with LGBT affirmative counseling and expertise. He can be reached at 310-779-3113 or at thomasmondragontherapy.com.