The queer community and illicit drug users are inextricably linked: Both are subjected to similar politicisation of private practices, both are disproportionately aggravated by social harms, and are both fighting stigma and shame for the assurance of rights that should be fundamental. Drug use plays an outsized, if not wholly unsurprising part in the experience of the LGBTQ+ community today, for good and bad.
Studies have shown that LGBT adults were significantly more likely to have taken illicit drugs in the last year than heterosexual adults, particularly amongst younger people, with one in eight LGBT people aged 18-24 (13%) taking drugs at least once a month. This pattern is found even when controlling for gender and age distribution.
Why is drug use higher amongst LGBTQ+ people? It is important to note that LGBTQ+ people are not one homogeneous group, but most published studies fail to distinguish between various sub-groups. Popular representations of queer drug use are dominated by oscillation between either trauma responses or debaucherous hedonism, rarely acknowledging the nuance that lies between the two. This is problematic and leads to the reproduction of often harmful stereotypes that further serve to stigmatise members of the LGBTQ+ community.
To view queer drug consumption solely as a coping mechanism for dealing with social and health problems, resulting from individual and structural conditions that LGBTQ+ people operate in, is to overlook the myriad ways in which substance use, most notably alcohol but also other drugs such as empathogens and stimulants, intersects with identity, sociability, sexual relations, place, space, and community formation for queer people – particularly young people. Nowhere is this more evident than in queer nightlife.
Sex, Drugs & The Gay Bar.
The ‘gay bar’— the only venue that dares to spin Kylie Minogue and Doja Cat back-to-back, and the symbolic site of queer liberation, has significance both directly to LGBTQ+ people and as a tangible, visible, physical acknowledgment of the queer community in a heteronormative society.
The historic criminalisation of gay spaces and behaviour demanded that LGBTQ+ people met in secret, underground locations. Codewords and word of mouth protected individuals that frequented early gay spaces (most commonly bars, clubs, and locations where alcohol was served) and the ‘queer gathering’ became a defiant “rejection of queer isolation”. Gatherings were liberating and hedonistic, an escape from the life of secrecy led by gay and gender non-conforming people.
It is no coincidence that the Stonewall Riots, a series of protests by gay and trans people in 1969 widely credited as the watershed moment in the fight for gay rights, began at a gay bar, The Stonewall Inn, in response to a homophobic police raid of the tavern.
As acceptance grew and regimes of the prohibition of queer identities dismantled, the historical centring of LGBTQ+ communities on activities involving drinking and drug use lingered. For freshly ‘out’ queer people, visiting a gay club acts as a rite of passage. Often the first time one can be truly and unashamedly queer in a space dominated by their peers, without the crushing oppressive pressures of a heteronormative society that exists outside the world of the gay bar.
While recent pushes for sober queer spaces (largely in response to high rates of alcoholism and problematic drug use among LGBT individuals) have initiated a critical questioning of why the queer experience continues to be intrinsically linked to substance use, in the face of widespread bar and club closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the importance of the existence of the gay bar as a pivotal site of connection, pleasure, and community for queer people has been reinforced.
Stereotypically a community that parties both hard and frequently, most ‘queer spaces’ open after the sun sets. As a key site of recreational drug use, it follows that gay nightlife and party drugs walk hand in hand. Fiona Measham, Director of The Loop and Chair in Criminology at the University of Liverpool, refers to gay club-goers as “‘early adopters’ of drug trends”; LGBT people, particularly gay men and trans women, pioneered what we have come to understand as nightlife in cities like New York and London during the social and political turbulence of the 1970s and ‘80s.
In dominating early nightlife scenes, LGBTQ+ people were among the first to adopt ‘club drugs’ like MDMA and novel psychoactive substances like poppers into their nightlife practices. The history of most drugs, particularly so called ‘club drugs,’ are queer histories (with some notably ‘straighter’ exceptions, such as: cannabis, tobacco, alcohol, heroin and caffeine).
Whilst substances are used for a panoply of reasons, self-expression, liberation and bonding are foremost amongst them. It is no surprise then, that it is in the context of nightlife – often in explicitly queer venues with the respite and comfort they provide – that drug consumption amongst LGBTQ+ people thrives.
A chemsex crisis?
The most explicit public discussion of the intersection between queerness and drugs is a relatively recent one, with reports of a ‘depraved’, ‘hedonistic’, and ‘dangerous’ new gay past-time emerging in 2015. Termed ‘chemsex’, the phenomenon attracted an explosion of inflammatory coverage in mainstream media and academia, including sensationalising pieces in the likes of The Guardian, the Independent, the Evening Standard and The Washington Post.
Chemsex typically refers to the use of drugs (commonly mephedrone, crystal methamphetamine, and GHB) to enhance the physical sensations of sex, largely among men who have sex with men (MSM). These drugs may be consumed orally, nasally, or via injection.
A recent study reported that 30% of participants that have chemsex have injected drugs during a session, a practice referred to as ‘slamming’. This high-risk act has been the focal point of much of the coverage of chemsex. The risks associated with chemsex, including increased risk of HIV through needle-sharing, murky capacity to consent or withdraw consent due to intoxication and addiction to sexual sensations unable to be achieved without the use of drugs, are well-documented.
The media’s response, an influx of headlines undoubtedly resembling a moral panic that pathologises and condemns the practice without any meaningful investigation into the reasons why people partake in chemsex, is another active risk that should be acknowledged. We know all too well that stigma and shame prevent problematic drug users from seeking help and encourages further unsafe, sometimes fatal practices.
It is difficult to determine the extent to which homophobic attitudes have informed the problematic portrayal of chemsex, but, like in responses to the HIV/AIDS crisis, it is evident that coverage would not be the same if it were seen as a ‘straight issue’: ‘deviant behaviour’ is significantly less tolerated from marginalised groups.
Sexualised drug use has existed as long as drugs have and, like much LGBTQ+ language regarding sexual and gender identities, ‘chemsex’ is simply a new word for an existing phenomenon, one which now has codes and norms in and of itself and whose novelty lies in the specificity of its demographic (MSM and other queer and trans bodies).
But why are individuals, particularly MSM, embracing chemsex despite the risks?
Foucault’s theories of ‘technologies of the self’ are useful to answer this question- the processes by which individuals perform operations on their bodies, minds and souls in order to transform themselves. Academics have conceptualised gender and sexuality as ‘techniques of the body’ and drugs as a new set of technologies, acting as tools to express the performativity of gender and sexuality. Thus, drugs play “a productive role in enacting queer identities.”
One impactful study in the International Journal of Drug Policy interviewed LGBTQ+ chemsex participants, exploring “how sexual and gender-diverse minorities pursue particular drug effects to enhance or transform their experience of gender and/or sexuality”. The participants’ reflections were compelling, citing justifications from enhanced pleasure to heightened intimate connections to their partner, increased physical comfort and even simply, a “lot of fun”. They reported feeling less self-conscious in exploring new sexual experiences, “promoting disinhibition and enhancing confidence.” Other sources emphasise the powerful capacity of drugs to erode senses of religious or cultural shame for MSM that may otherwise obstruct full integration into queer behaviours and lifestyles.
The study also reports profound accounts of chemsex as a gender-affirming experience, where hallucinogenic drugs or ecstasy are used to manufacture a harmonious self-conception for trans and gender non-conforming individuals, aligning “their sense of self with their gendered body”.
One queer trans woman in the study reflected on her own experiences having sex on LSD where she felt detached from her body and “had hallucinatory experiences on LSD, mimicking like a mental perception of […] PIV [penis-in-vagina] penetrative sex.. […] That has been a very interesting experience and again that ties back into the like using [drugs to reduce] gender dysphoria”.
Chemsex ultimately allows for “self-fashioning beyond the circuits of authorized expert knowledge” in tandem with base-level motivations like pleasure, fun, and connection. Therefore, while harm reduction interventions including needle and syringe programmes with specific outreach to LGBTQ+ communities, unbiased education and resources and healthcare professionals with a trained understanding of the phenomenon are crucial, we must look beyond principles of harm in understanding chemsex.
Gender-affirming healthcare, access to counselling, the expansion of safe gay spaces where connections between queer and trans individuals can be forged and combatting homophobia at all levels all would enable individuals engaging in chemsex to access care, as well as harm reduction.
These strategies would reduce any perceived need to engage in chemsex by allowing desires of affirmation, disinhibition, pleasure and fun to be fulfilled elsewhere, affording true agency to those who do choose to participate in chemsex and therefore reducing harm.
“Once you pop, you can’t stop”
Most typically associated with gay men, the sharp chemical scent of poppers evokes both sex and dancing — two often definitive communal experiences for queer people.
First synthesised in 1844, amyl nitrites were originally enclosed in a glass mesh called “pearls”. The usual administration of these pearls was done by crushing them between the fingers, followed by a popping sound, hence the name “poppers”. Poppers were originally used to treat angina, but during the latter half of the twentieth century they became a staple drug in the gay scene to the extent that “you could walk into a club and immediately smell poppers”.
Nowadays, they come in miniature bottles branded as Jungle Juice, Liquid Gold or Power Rush amongst others and when sniffed, as the nitrites vaporize and their scent is inhaled, the human body converts the chemicals to nitric oxide, inducing smooth muscle relaxation, lowering blood pressure and increasing blood flow and oxygenation levels.
Be wary though, poppers are highly acidic and will burn surfaces, especially skin around nostrils if sniffed too close. Regular intervals should be left to ensure the body has time to rest.
Since their entrance into the gay scene during the 1960s on the west coast of the USA, poppers have become widely used in the queer community, especially amongst LGBTQ+ people who engage in receptive anal sex. Poppers dilate the user’s blood vessels, helping receptive sexual partners comfortably enjoy anal or vaginal penetrative sex, or as Louis Parrish wrote in a 1977 issue of the Bay Area Reporter – a queer weekly – “poppers serve the dual purpose of putting [you] more out of it and at the same time more into it.”
Poppers, like most everything associated with the gay community, got a bad press during the HIV/Aids crisis of the 1980s. John Lauritsen and Hank Wilson suggested that the drug was either a direct cause or at least a cofactor in HIV in their 1986 booklet Poppers & AIDS.
By 1990, the US federal government passed a bill adding poppers to the list of banned hazardous products under the Consumer Product Safety Act.
Whilst in the UK, the police infamously raided the Royal Vauxhall Tavern – a popular gay bar – in 1986, seizing multiple boxes of poppers in what must surely be the campest drugs bust ever. The ‘rubber gloved raid’ whilst clearly ridiculous, is also one of the most egregious examples of the institutional homophobia that was a cornerstone of British policing during the HIV/AIDS pandemic through its harassment of queer nightlife, an institutional culture which is sadly still all to prevalent today. Police surveillance and repression, along with stigma and moral panic, are used to great effect against both LGBTQ+ people and people who use drugs.
Today an estimated 90,000 adult gay and bisexual men, as well as an undetermined number of queer women, non-binary people and heterosexual men and women currently use nitrite inhalants, yet the current legal status of the drug is confused, with possession not illegal but supply sometimes constituting an offence.
The legal grey area in which poppers currently reside mirrors that of many of the queer people who regularly use them. Non-binary, intersex and polyamorous people amongst others exist in a legal, cultural and bureaucratic nether zone where, for example, some businesses might let you put Mx down as your title, but there is still no option to have the sex listed on your passport as anything but male or female.
Pinkwashing abounds as capitalism does what it does best – adapts to ensure its survival – but full legal, political and social recognition remains painfully absent for so many LGBTQ+ people.
Personal sovereignty is a foundational principle of both the LGBTQ+ liberation and drug policy reform movements. Both are firmly rooted in the idea that our body belongs to us, yet both queer people and people who use drugs find that their bodies are battlegrounds in the unrelenting culture wars waged by political and cultural elites attempting to cement their hegemonic position and enforce hetero-normative realism.
Prevention, Cure & Analgesic
Whilst known for its bursting pride, trauma also abounds within the LGBTQ+ community and as such, one of the primary functions that drug use takes for queer people is that of a trauma coping mechanism – that of medicine or tonic. Discrimination and stigma experienced by minority groups are a key context to understand the lived experiences of such groups and it should come as no surprise that drug use is higher amongst queer people than the rest of the population.
Queer people turn to drugs to escape from the discrimination and disadvantage they face in a society where we are constantly othered, a source of pleasure in a world often full of pain. In extreme cases however, drugs can also become a tool of repression and abuse. Family and faith groups often arrange for LGBT people to undergo so called ‘conversion therapies’, which can include the use of mind altering substances, in a futile and repugnant attempt to ‘fix’ or ‘cure’ their sexual or romantic orientation or gender identity.
Drugs as self-medication
Much existing research has focused on LGBTQ+ drug use as a response to social and health problems that are common in the lives of queer people such as stigma, discrimination and heightened rates of resultant psychological problems, such as depression.
Queer people (especially gay and trans people of colour) are more likely than average to be experiencing a number of life circumstances that intersect with an increased likelihood of drug use. Homelessness, poverty, childhood trauma, mental health issues and physical, verbal and domestic abuse are all over-indexed in the LGBTQ+ community, all of which act as factors associated with an increased tendency towards drug use.
Internalized homophobia resulting from the constant stream of combative and repressive messaging about non-heterosexual relationships is a prevalent source of trauma amongst queer people. For those suffering from internalised homophobia, drugs, particularly alcohol, serve as an effective mechanism for silencing negative thoughts when integrating into and embracing queer experiences.
Research has found that gay and bisexual Central and East European migrants to London were more likely to engage in high-risk sexual behaviour and recreational drug use when first arriving in the city, attributed to both the sudden accessibility and visibility of gay clubs and cultures, and attempts to dismantle the internalised shame and stigma associated with growing up queer under homophobic governments and popular opinion that classifies “the LGBT movement and gender ideology” as the single biggest threat facing their home societies in the 21st century among men under 40.
This initial tendency toward high-risk behaviours was found to eventually settle into rates comparable with non-migrant gay and bisexual Londoners, indicating that the accessibility of harm reduction messages, healthcare services and norms of condom and safer drug use has a permeating influence.
The intrinsic connection between queer people and people who use drugs as pronounced victims of the HIV epidemic under both the War on Drugs and the dissemination of homophobic rhetoric by governments, leading health bodies and targeted ad campaigns, should not be understated. While activism that pushed for LGBTQ+ rights and access to comprehensive healthcare for gay and bisexual men in some countries during the HIV/AIDS epidemic (including the US, parts of Western Europe, and Australia) was relatively successful, fights for the same rights for people who use drugs continue today.
The disproportionate spread of HIV among LGBT people and people who use drugs also acts as a stressor that may increase drug use. While antiretroviral therapy (ART) regularly taken by HIV-positive individuals can manage the virus and stop its multiplication, in some cases lowering the viral load to undetectable levels which can allow individuals to avoid transmission to partners, the legacy of HIV diagnosis as a ‘death sentence’ prevails (especially following the destructive and homophobic scare campaign that dominated ‘harm reduction’ information delivered in the peak of the epidemic).
A HIV diagnosis can act as an acute wake-up call, an acknowledgement of imminent mortality that can encourage further high-risk behaviours. The shame and stigma associated with a HIV-positive status lingers and thus, HIV-positive gay men use drugs at rates higher than those not diagnosed with HIV.
It should therefore be no surprise that countries that rank among the lowest for LGBT equality and access to harm reduction for drug users are relatively consistent with those who experience the highest rates of HIV prevalence, including Russia and Ghana.
Social, structural, and pleasure-based factors therefore must all be taken into account when discussing high rates of drug use among LGBTQ+ people and any reduction into an “individual pathology or problem” falters in its understanding of queer drug use.
Drugs as a normative enforcement tool
Whilst there is a compelling case to be made in favour of drug use being in of itself a queer act, drugs also play a dark role as an agent of the cis-hetero orthodoxy.
So-called ‘conversion therapies’ (a term covering a wide range of abuse and violence experienced by LGBTQ+ people when others try to change, alter, or suppress their LGBTQ+ identity/ies) are disgracefully still legal in the UK, and pseudo-scientific attempts to ‘cure’ queer people can include the use of physiologically-affecting substances, as well as processes through which otherwise innocent non-physiologically active substances can become part of an attempted programme of mind-alteration.
This context pushes our understanding of what constitutes a ‘drug’. Examples include the process of nausea-inducing drugs (emetics) being administered simultaneously with the presentation of stimuli associated with the condition attempting to be ‘cured’, as depicted in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film, ‘A Clockwork Orange’.
There’s also the now thankfully long-abolished practice of chemical castration with hormonal treatment, most infamously associated with Second World War hero Alan Turing. Many gay men undergoing the treatment killed themselves, including Turing, who reportedly took his own life at the age of just 41 by eating an apple laced with cyanide in a tragic, macabre recreation of a scene from his favourite fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Whilst Turing was posthumously pardoned and apologised to by Prime Minister Gordon Brown on behalf of the nation, no apologies have been forthcoming regarding the thousands of less celebrated men convicted of homosexual offences who shared Turing’s fate.
‘Conversion therapies’ can also include being made to eat or drink something to ‘cleanse’ or ‘purify’ you. This process is laden with pseudo-religious symbolism; most obviously representing a bastardised version of transubstantiation during Mass. During the Roman Catholic ceremony, the bread and wine used for Communion become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
This ritual provides a particularly pertinent lens through which to understand this particular aspect of conversion therapies, given that a large proportion of people who undergo such abuse do so in religious contexts.
The food or drink the victim is forced to consume acts, whether inherently mind-altering or not, as a mind-altering substance in context, as the intended outcome is the complete alteration of one of the fundamental aspects of human identity. This specific method is an attempt to metaphorically exsanguinate the victim. Queerness becomes a toxin, a poison that requires draining as part of a wider effort to crucify their LGBTQ+ identity.
Even today, the proposed government ban on conversion therapies faces fierce and unedifying opposition from a pan-denominational coalition of British Christian groups on the hilariously predictable and specious grounds it could restrict religious freedom and prevent ‘loving Christian ministry’ from ensuring young people aren’t ‘caught up in transgender ideology’. A sick, perverted twisting of the reality that many young queer people face today, in a society where heteronormative ideology still strictly polices identities and presentations, leading to gender dysphoria, shame and dysmorphia.
If you think you or someone you know is a victim of conversion therapy, you can seek support and guidance here.
Drugs are Queer
“I suspect that – for obvious reasons – gay people can understand the pain of being punished for a harmless consensual act a little easier than other people.”
The sociological overlap of drug use and queer identities should not be overlooked. Both an LGBTQ+ identity and drug use constitute forms of deviance under a heteronormative society that criminalises drug use and both are uniquely integrated into an individual’s lifestyle, social engagements and understanding of the self unlike other forms of crime and deviance.
This unique positioning constitutes both ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ deviance in the understanding of sociologist Edwin Lemert who famously distinguished between primary deviance as “managed within a socially acceptable identity”, and secondary deviance as “internalised and becomes part of the core definition of the self”. As part of the ‘self’, the complexities of legal status and popular opinion affect LGBT and people who use drugs intimately and explicitly, where their “bodies [are] a battleground for competing political and cultural ideologies”.
Are queer people more open to drug use because the illegality is less of an issue given that LGBT identities were also at one point illegal and many continue to exist in a legal grey area?
Surely when one’s own existence is legislated against, demonstrating how arbitrary many of our laws are and how it is possible to live a life outside of them, then the legality of one’s actions becomes a secondary concern when making decisions – with happiness, necessity and fulfilment taking priority over adherence to a set of remote statutes. Thus, the law as a marker of acceptable behaviour is likely treated with more scepticism by LGBTQ+ people than the average person. Having experienced personally the legacy, or even the current effects of criminalisation as a result of policy and law based on twisted morality, not evidence and compassion, the queer person and the drug user have more in common than is at first apparent.
Perhaps it goes even further than this. There is a potent queer anarchist streak within the LGBTQ+ community, which spawned the infamous ‘be gay do crime’ meme that many in the community deploy with witty abandon when inhaling some poppers or partaking in a range of other illegal activities.
‘Be Gay, Do Crime’ means breaking the rules and challenging authority.
Though the meme’s first appearance is attributed to 2016, it has a historical resonance which means that it’s very easy to imagine a similar sentiment being expressed by MSM during the Edwardian era or gender non-conforming people in Weimar Berlin.
‘Crime’ in the meme is employed to describe the ‘survival tactics many marginalized people must use to survive under capitalism, and the meme became part of a movement arguing in favour of a radical approach to LGBTQ+ liberation movements and the interpretation of queer histories. For example, as more and more young people discover queer history, they may learn about the crucial role that the police played in their forebears’ oppression, and come to question the relationship between the police and the LGBTQ+ community today.
Social harms: moral opposition in disguise?
Both forms of deviance are also unique in their existence as ‘victimless crimes’ that concern the expression of bodily autonomy and sovereignty above all else. The absurdity of their current and historic policing could be considered an invasion of the private sphere justified only by abstract claims of ‘moral wrong’ and ‘moral right’.
The criminalisation of the possession of drugs is most commonly advocated for in reference to tangible markers of harm insofar as drug use extends into the public sphere, through costs incurred by healthcare services, drug-related litter and harm to family and friends in the wake of addiction or drug-related deaths.
We know, however, that these ‘social harms’ can be ameliorated by health-based policy that prioritises harm reduction: Sydney’s Medically Supervised Injecting Centre reported a 68% reduction in callouts for ambulances related to overdoses during the operational hours of the centre. Further, almost all of the 117 DCRs operational globally have reported a reduction in injecting in public spaces and drug-related waste in areas surrounding the DCR, no increased crime and reduction in overdose-induced morbidity due to safer equipment, overdose management and education. It therefore follows that the policing of the public sphere as a key motivator in a continued policy of criminalisation is not the true motivation of anti-reformers; instead, it is a moral opposition.
This can be aptly paralleled by the tenuous and flimsy claims of same-sex marriage (SSM) opponents. A moral argument against the private sphere is an unpopular one in the UK and many politicians were careful to avoid accusations of homophobia or an inherent rejection of the rights of gay couples. Instead, opponents largely argued that the existence of LGBT individuals was not wrong, but that the effects of legalising SSM on the institution and sanctity of marriage, the wellbeing of children, the quality of education and the possibility of subsequent legalisation of polygamy, incest and bestiality all rendered the lack of recognition for same-sex marriage essential.
Thus, in both the cases of anti-decriminalisation and anti-SSM rhetoric, opposition to the private acts of queerness and drug use are disguised by opposition to the acts’ consequences on the public sphere.
The sanctioned (and unsanctioned) policing of the private sphere.
One in five LGBT people will experience a hate crime or incident each year because of their sexual orientation or gender. Reports of homophobic hate crimes have nearly tripled since the legalisation of same sex marriage in 2014-2015 to 2019-2020.
Meanwhile, 16% of sentenced prisoners in the UK are incarcerated on the basis of a drug offence alone, and over 479,556 stop and searches were carried out on suspicion of drug possession between April 1 2020 and March 31 2021.
A recent piece for Volteface covered the reservations of Kenyan harm reduction advocates regarding global pushes for ‘Western’ forms of drug policy reform; one argued that if any form of decriminalisation or legalisation were to take place without sufficiently shifting the public conscience in Kenya, drug users would be subject to alarming rates of extrajudicial mob justice attempting to compensate for policy deemed ‘excessively soft’.
While few would dare call the decriminalisation of men having sex with men or the legalisation of same-sex marriage premature, the continued prevalence of hate crimes against LGBT people suggests that many individuals continue to see the law as an inappropriate marker for social and moral acceptability, and, like in the example of Kenya, choose to exercise personal justice by way of physical violence or verbal harassment.
In a media landscape that continues to publish transphobic views, and schoolchildren repeating homophobic language inevitably learnt at home at alarming rates, hate crimes appear to constitute a form of continued policing outside of legal frameworks, but within sanctioned social norms.
So common are these expressions of unsanctioned policing of queer identities that LGBTQ+ people adopt a range of survival techniques to reduce their risk of becoming victims of hate crimes, from queer couples avoiding public displays of affection, to drag performers bringing a change of outfit to the gay club, and trans men and women feeling pressured to not present their own gender identity if not assigned at birth until they can comfortably ‘pass’ to cisgender passersby.
Thus, while in the UK queer acts and expressions are no longer illegal, acute parallels between the continued criminalisation of people who use drugs and the legacy of criminalisation, alongside continued unsanctioned policing of LGBTQ+ people through hate crimes, emphasise the uniquely public place of these private spheres.
Queer(ing) drug use.
While queer is most commonly used as an umbrella word for non-cisgender or heterosexual identities, it can also be used as a verb- to queer. This use of the term relies on the use of ‘queer’ as a position, not an identity; David Halperin refers to queerness as “whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant” and “a positionality vis-a-vis the normative” (1995), and Cherry Smith defines queer as “a strategy, an attitude […] a radical questioning of social and cultural norms” (1996). To ‘queer’ is to subvert mainstream and normalised attitudes, particularly where they promote social exclusion.
Through this lens, we can consider that taking drugs while living in a prohibitionist society that has initiated a campaign of the dissemination of stigmatising information littered with falsities that positions drug use as an illegitimate act is a queer act. In the same way that queerness protests conventional understandings of what is natural, moral and acceptable in a heteronormative society, people who use drugs radically renegotiate conceptions of pleasure, consumption and bonding.
It is absolutely clear that the histories, and likely the futures, of drug use and of queerness whilst not quite inseparable, are woven intimately together. Queer people were instrumental in the introduction and popularisation of many recreational substances and these substances often had an instrumental role to play in the self-actualisation of queer people themselves.
As more people than ever come out of the closet about their drug use it is crucial to recognise that the drug policy reform movement and the LGBTQ+ liberation movement, are both natural allies and necessary companions. Both are champions of equity, justice and personal sovereignty – and drug policy reform must be viewed as a social justice issue, given the outsized effect that the misguided and discriminatory ‘war on drugs’ has had on LGBTQ+ people and other minority groups.
Arguments for both the liberation of the LGBTQ+ person and the drug user, most urgently from incarceration and structural discrimination, but more widely from the scourges of oppression and stigma, must be demanded.
Lead image credit: CC 4.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:G-A-Y_Bar_Soho.jpg