For a community that tends to drink and drug at higher rates, what exactly is the LGBT community's relationship to alcohol, and is it a healthy one?
The connection between alcohol and the LGBT community will be the subject of discussion at an upcoming podcast forum, 'Let's Take a Glass Together,' organized by LifeLube, Project CRYSP, the Chicago Task Force on LGBT Substance Use and Abuse, Sidetrack and Feast of Fools. Featured speakers include local bartenders, UIC professor and researcher David McKirnan and Howard Brown Health Center's Lisa Rivitz.
Jason McVicker. Photo courtesy of McVicker.
What's the problem?
Several small studies over the years indicate that LGBT people have higher rates of alcohol dependence than their straight counterparts.
A 2001 Urban Men's Health Study, which surveyed MSM ( men who have sex with men ) from four cities, including Chicago, found a prevalence of heavy and problematic alcohol and drug use. A majority of men—85 percent—reported recreational drinking. Roughly 12 percent reported three or more alcohol-related problems and 8 percent reported alcohol abuse, which is slightly higher than the national average for men, according to 2001-2002 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism data.
Findings from a 2000 National Alcohol Survey of all 50 states suggest that alcohol dependence differs by sexual orientation, especially among women.
The Chicago Health and Life Experiences of Women Study, also known as CHLEW, is an ongoing study of lesbian health. Although the study is not completed, preliminary findings show higher rates of drinking among lesbian and other sexual minority women than the national average. Popular settings for heavy drinking include lesbian and gay bars and LGBT events. Lesbians reported more alcohol-related problems and tend to show less age-related decline in their alcohol consumption than their straight counterparts, preliminary findings also indicate
'We, as a community, in general, tend to drink more and abuse drugs more,' said Simone Koehlinger, director of the Chicago Public Health Department's Office of LGBT Health. Koehlinger said that alcohol is 'one of the biggest problems' in terms of substance use in the LGBT community.
According to Lisa Rivitz and Kurt Mohning of Howard Brown Health Center's Recovering with Pride program, they see an increasing number of individuals—many of which are older males—coming in for alcohol abuse, though the increases could be a result of new marketing techniques. Many of the clients they see use a number of substances in addition to alcohol.
According to Center on Halsted's Director of Mental Health Services Jason McVicker, in 2007, only 11 percent of 500 clients reported substance abuse as a problem.
'However, we know the numbers are higher,' McVicker said, adding that 14 percent reported substance abuse as a problem during the first half of 2008.
Part of the reason for underreporting, McVicker said, is that individuals come in for services, but their alcohol or substance use is not why they first step through the door. As they get more comfortable, they may open up about their use.
From what he has seen, female clients at the Center tend to have more issues with alcohol alone, and gay men tend to report a multitude of addiction problems, such as sexual compulsion, drugs and alcohol.
Chicago Lakeshore Hospital Valeo Director Joe Camper said that the vast majority of those who seek Valeo's services—nearly three-quarters—are gay men, but the figures are always changing. A small subgroup of people report alcohol as the only issue. Some are dealing with several addictions, including alcohol, meth, crack, prescription drugs and other substances. Valeo provides psychiatric and addiction-related treatment for LGBT people, and has the only impatient program dedicated to LGBT people in Illinois and the surrounding states.
Why we drink
Many people—gay and straight—drink recreationally. They might have a glass with dinner to unwind, or grab a drink with friends after work.
Many people, representing various communities, view alcohol as a 'social lubricant,' McVicker said.
Gay bars and clubs have played a large role in the LGBT community's socialization.
'Gay socializing is linked with drinking,' Rivitz said.
For many coming out for the first time or new to a city, the first places they gravitate towards are the gay bars and clubs. Going to the local gay bar is often the first idea that comes to mind when someone wants to meet other LGBT people.
'We gravitate towards people with whom we have bonds,' said Sidetrack co-owner Art Johnston, who met his longtime partner in a bar.
For some, alcohol is not an issue if done in moderation, following guidelines for healthy alcohol consumption. However, for others, drinking may become problematic, excessive and unhealthy. It can become an addiction.
Although many of the reasons why LGBT people may abuse alcohol mirror heterosexuals, such as anxiety, insecurities, family history of alcohol dependence, etc., there are problems unique to the LGBT community.
Some of those underlying issues include discrimination, social rejection, internalized homophobia and others.
'That can have a corrosive and toxic effect on people,' McVicker said. 'We're a perfect set up for alcohol dependence issues.'
According to Rivitz, sex is often an issue Recovering with Pride clients note as to why they turn to substances. 'It's not just socializing tied into it, but sexual activity,' she said.
The role of the gay bar
Historically, gay bars and clubs have played a very important role in the LGBT community. They were, and continue to be, places for queers to socialize, organize and a means of funding events and initiatives.
'For a long time, it was the only institution we had,' said activist and bar owner Johnston.
'The bars were, in many ways, the origins of the community,' McVicker said.
Back in the day, a gay neighborhood was defined by the presence of a gay bar. Today, gay bars and clubs still make up a large portion of the gay-owned and gay-specific businesses in these neighborhoods. They dot Halsted Street in Boystown and line Clark Street in Andersonville.
For some, the presence of so many gay bars and clubs doesn't mean the community revolves around alcohol, though. 'I think that's a misperception about the community,' Rivitz said.
Before there were alternative LGBT-friendly spaces, much of the community's activism began in the local gay bars. There, AIDS organizations started up and voter registrations were held. Even political work and fundraising took place in local gay bars.
'People tend to forget the first community center we had was raised by money paid for by the bars,' Johnston noted.
'Long before there was ever a black tie dinner, there were the bars,' he added.
In fact, gay bars and clubs have historically funded a number of local efforts, from gay rights organizations to political work. Local bars and prominent members of the community associated with the beverage and hospitality industry continue to put money back into the community and sponsor a number of LGBT events and efforts.
'The bars are a very valuable resource to the community,' Camper said.
However, the extent to which alcohol is present in the local LGBT community can be of concern.
'We aren't naïve,' Mohning said. 'There's a lot out there, for example, during Pride,' he added, noting the number of alcohol-related floats during the Pride Parade and the amount of heavy drinking that takes place in that particular setting.
The alcoholic beverage and hospitality industry has historically spent a lot of money on the LGBT community—it's what Johnston calls 'an excellent working relationship.' Several large beverage companies have poured money and support into the local LGBT community, a brand-loyal segment of consumers. They were often there when others refused to be. This ongoing support has meant money and clout for the LGBT community in Springfield and beyond.
'They have always been there for us and they should—we spend a lot of money,' Johnston said. 'Finally, it's not just them [ that support us ] now, but the role of them in our community is enormous,' he added.
A healthy relationship?
Although LGBTs tend to drink at higher rates, whether alcohol has a negative or positive influence on someone's life ultimately differs from person to person.
'We do drink at higher rates, but that's not to say drinking is bad,' Koehlinger said. 'Some can enjoy it, and for them, it's not a problem.'
'There can be a place for it in our culture,' Camper said.
There is a wide spectrum of acceptable and non-acceptable use when it comes to alcohol. It's important to note that for some people, having a healthy relationship with alcohol means abstaining from it. For others, moderation is key.
Johnston feels that it is entirely possible for the community to have a healthy relationship with alcohol. 'All of us need to try to find the right balance, whatever that might be,' he said.
The reality is that gay and lesbian bars are an important part of the community, and they aren't going away any time soon.
'Can we have a health relationship with alcohol?' McVicker asked. 'It's not a question of can we, be we must. These are things that are part of our world.'
For some, a healthy relationship with alcohol means abstaining from drinking. For those in recovery, sometimes the healthiest thing to do is to stay away from bars and clubs, and other situations that involve alcohol.
However, if the abuse hasn't progressed to dependence, some people can learn about low-risk drinking behaviors and harm reduction techniques.
'People can moderate and have a healthy relationship with alcohol,' Rivitz said.
For those addicted, treatment includes replacing old habits with new behaviors that are healthier for the individual. Individuals need to find new ways to cope with triggers such as anxiety with alternatives like exercise.
Fortunately, there are a number of resources for LGBT people when it comes alcohol and substance abuse treatment and recovery.
How to identify problem drinking
Both Rivitz and Mohning said that, at Howard Brown, they often see individuals who are questioning their alcohol consumption. Some who walk through the doors are at an earlier, contemplative stage. Maybe a friend has noted their drinking patterns and they are starting to question their use.
However, some have already suffered negative consequences of drinking, such as problems at work, with the law or with their relationships.
'We would be empty if people didn't have negative consequences because often, people don't know they have a problem,' Mohning said.
Many people don't realize that their relationship with alcohol is unhealthy.
'People might not recognize that they have an issue,' McVicker said. 'We get to people when they are in crisis, and then we are putting out fires,' McVicker said.
Besides suffering a negative consequence of drinking—what some might refer to as a 'wake up call'—there are a number of standard questions people can ask themselves to evaluate whether or not their drinking has become an issue.
Both McVicker and Camper offered questions individuals can ask themselves that might raise a red flag: Has anyone, such as a friend or family member, expressed concern about your alcohol use? Do you find yourself constantly thinking about the next time you will drink? Are you defensive when people talk about your alcohol use? Has your drinking affected your work performance, or maybe your academic performance? Is your drinking impacting your relationships or interfering with your parental responsibilities? Do you find yourself struggling with drinking responsibly? Do you try to rationalize your drinking? When you promise yourself that you will only have one or two drinks, do you end up having six or seven?
Camper encourages individuals to not only ask themselves such questions, but discuss their drinking patterns and family history of substance abuse with their health care provider.
Barriers to recovery
For many in recovery, it is difficult to return to old hangouts and not use alcohol, or seek out new places and spaces that are alcohol-free.
'Often, there is a feeling of loss of lifestyle,' Mohning said.
Although there are many more alternatives to going to a gay bar than there used to be, many in recovery struggle to find those new spaces.
Some say that the LGBT community still lacks an adequate amount of options. 'I don't think there are enough,' Rivitz said.
Mohning feels that the alternatives are out there, but aren't marketed, making it difficult for individuals to seek out. 'It's often hard to find them,' he said. 'Nobody ever talks about a sober party.'
There are certainly more options then there used to be, especially now that the Center on Halsted has moved to Boystown. Instead of bar hopping, individuals can join an intramural league, catch a play or join a book club.
Camper, who has worked in the field for 30 years, said that a lack of alternatives used to be one of the biggest complaints from clients.
'I feel that's not really the case any more,' Camper said. In addition to numerous alternative spaces and events, Camper said that Chicago prides itself with having a very large LGBTQ recovery community.
Camper does fear for youth, however, who might not be aware that they have options. He feels work needs to be done in this area.
'They might not know about available resources and will probably start out in the bar culture,' Camper said.
'I would love to see many, many more places that are not centered around alcohol,' Koehlinger said.
Johnston, who owns Sidetrack, said that a number of his clientele don't drink alcohol, but for some, they need to stay away from the bars and thankfully, Halsted Street has options.
'I think that's a change for the better,' Johnston said.
Center on Halsted is located right in the heart of Boystown, surrounded by LGBT bars and clubs. McVicker sees the Center's location as a double-edged sword. 'It's an opportunity and a challenge,' he said. 'There is alcohol and drugs all around us. But I like to also think of the Center as being a haven. There is refuge within these walls.'
Let's talk about it
Many feel it will take a concerted effort from all aspects of the LGBT community in order to create any solutions to problem drinking in the community.
However, many agree that the first step is actually discussion the role alcohol plays in the community—a topic rarely talked about openly.
'I don't think it's talked about at all,' Mohning said, adding that he thinks alcohol's role in our lives as LGBT people has been 'very much accepted,' and even become a stereotype of gay men.
The Chicago LGBT Task Force on Substance Use and Abuse ( formerly the Chicago Crystal Meth Task Force ) recently broadened its scope, hence the change in name. Alcohol use is one of the many issues now addressed by the partnership of service providers, community leaders, businesses and law enforcement.
'I feel like we are moving in the right direction,' said Rivitz, a member of the Task Force.
Rivitz added that there is not enough discussion about the role alcohol plays in lesbians' lives. 'There is a lot of alcohol use in the lesbian community,' she said.
Holding the upcoming event at a popular gay bar, Sidetrack, has caused a controversy, with some saying the venue choice is a tad ironic, considering the topic.
Sidetrack owner Johnston was hesitant at first, but left the decision up to the event's organizers. He believes the venue will spark further discussion.
'I think it will make people think even more,' he said.
Although Camper agrees that the LGBT community needs to discuss the issue, his one concern regarding the location of the event is that not all voices will be heard. Generally, those in recovery are encouraged to steer clear of situations where alcohol is present. 'You might not get the full participation of people in recovery because being in a bar is a trigger for them,' he said.
The purpose of the upcoming forum is for individuals in the LGBT community to examine their own alcohol use, discussion alternatives to drinking, and address a number of issues. Among questions addressed with be what purpose drinking serves? What does it mean when LGBT events are sponsored by alcoholic beverage companies or local bars? What does it mean to have beverage and bar floats in the annual Pride Parade? Can we have a healthy relationship with alcohol?
'We want a healthy conversation with a healthy outcome,' Koehlinger added. 'Does having alcohol-related floats in the Pride Parade mean being gay and alcohol go hand in hand? No, but we never talk about it.'
'Our freedom to choose is so important to us,' Koehlinger said. 'We have so many people telling us what we can't do—can't hold hands, can't marry—that we shy away from these conversations.'
Where to get help
Fortunately, there is a number of LGBT-specific and -friendly places where individuals can get treatment and help. Listed are a handful of local resources:
—Valeo at Chicago Lakeshore Hospital provides comprehensive mental heath and addiction treatment for LGBTQ people, including an inpatient and an intensive outpatient program. ( 4840 N. Marine; 800-888-0560; www.chicagolakeshorehospital.com/GLBT )
—Howard Brown Health Center has several substance abuse programs, including its Contemplations drop in every Saturday from 1:30-2:30 p.m., and its Recovering with Pride treatment program. ( 4025 N. Sheridan; 773-388-1600; www.howardbrown.org )
—New Town Alano Club ( NTAC ) is an Alano club with a gay and lesbian outreach. NTAC has a variety of meetings in a number of 12-step programs. ( 909 W. Belmont; 773-529-0321; www.newtownalanoclub.com )
—Gay Alcoholics Anonymous meetings ( dickeb.net/aa )
—Center on Halsted's mental health program has numerous mental health groups and workshops ( including their LGBT family and partner support group, When You Care ) . Center on Halsted also offers 12-step programs such as Sober Horizons on Sundays, from 9-11 a.m. ( 3656 N. Halsted; 773-472-6469; www.centeronhalsted.org )
—Better Existence with HIV offers a substance-abuse support group for those living with HIV/AIDS on Wednesdays, from 5-6:30 p.m. ( 1244 W. Thorndale; 773-293-4740; www.behiv.org )
—Test Positive Aware Network offers discussion/support groups for those living with HIV/AIDS, such as Positive Progress, a peer-led group for HIV-positive individuals in recovery on Tuesdays, from 7-9 p.m. ( 5537 N. Broadway; 773-989-9400; www.tpan.com )
'Let's Take a Glass Together,' a forum on alcohol and the LGBT community, will be held at Sidetrack, 3349 N. Halsted, Wed., July 23, at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m. RSVP at www.lifelube.org or 312-334-0939.