Despite the limited data available on LGBTQ+ drug use, existing statistics suggest that these individuals use drugs at higher levels than straight people. The latest available information states that 2.6% of adults aged 16-59 use drugs at least once a month. However, when looking at LGBT individuals specifically, around 9% of this community use drugs ‘frequently’.
Although we know that drug use is more common within this community, research often struggles to grasp why. Many are quick to jump to the conclusion that LGBTQ+ individuals use drugs as a means of escapism from bullying or stigma. However, it’s important to acknowledge that certain drugs are inherently queer and that LGBTQ+ drug use is incredibly nuanced. Let’s take a look at some of the key sites of LGBTQ+ drug use that may contribute to these statistics.
Chemsex refers to the use of drugs (typically GHB, mephedrone and methamphetamine), by men who have sex with men (MSM) to enhance sexual encounters. These substances can be injected (known as slamming), or taken nasally or orally.
There’s no doubt that chemsex is accompanied by a variety of risks. The injection of substances means that individuals who partake are at greater risk of HIV through needle-sharing. Furthermore, bacterial infections such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea may arise if individuals don’t use condoms and the use of drugs to facilitate sexual experiences opens up the possibility of overdose. As well as this, consent or its withdrawal may be unclear while under the influence.
Media reporting of chemsex has been quick to jump on the angle of a ‘high-risk’ ‘hedonistic’ gay past-time – in turn creating a moral panic over ‘days-long, drug fuelled-orgies’ that further stigmatise and dehumanise the LGBTQ+ community. Media outlets are quick to condemn and pathologize chemsex and its participants without any meaningful investigation as to why MSM engage in these activities.
Research suggests that the use of drugs within LGBTQ+ communities can play a role in enacting queer identities. From a Foucauldian perspective, viewing drugs as a ‘technology of the self’ means that they become a tool for individuals to express and perform gender and sexuality.
One study from 2020 explored participants’ justifications for using drugs during sex, citing reasons such as enhancing endurance and intimacy, increasing comfort and pleasure – or, that it was simply ‘fun’.
Research also suggests that chemsex can be a gender-affirming experience for those with non-conforming gender identities, aligning “their sense of self with their gendered body”.
Therefore, chemsex is more than just drugs and sex, and is more nuanced than a dangerous and hedonistic activity. Chemsex is a cultural phenomenon that is specific to the queer community, that may help in the expression and affirmation of identity.
Poppers, also known as alkyl or amyl nitrites, have become a cornerstone of queer culture. Survey data suggests that use of poppers is 25 times more common among gay men than straight men.
Originally marketed as treatment for angina, poppers were sold on a prescription basis in glass ampoules which patients would crush between their fingers – hence the name. They would then inhale the fumes, believing it would help lower their blood pressure.
Towards the latter half of the 20th century they became a staple of the gay scene, used for their euphoric, analgesic and relaxant effects and allowing receptive partners to comfortably enjoy anal sex.
Although poppers carry a lower risk of dependence and addiction, they are still accompanied by some risks. Poppers are highly acidic and so can burn surfaces. Therefore, they may cause chemical burns if inhaled too close to the nose. It is wise to leave regular intervals between use so the body has time to recover.
As poppers lower inhibitions, users may engage in more riskier sexual behaviours or forget to use a condom. This, therefore, increases the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
Like most things associated with the queer community, poppers have received a large degree of bad press that further stigmatises their use and the LGBTQ+ community.
During the early days of the HIV/AIDs crisis of the 1980s, poppers were suggested as a direct cause or contributing factor in the epidemic, of course resulting in a moral panic.
In the US, the poppers were added to the list of banned hazardous products under the Consumer Product Safety Act. Over in the UK, the police began their assault on queer nightlife, raiding the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in 1986 and seizing multiple boxes of poppers.
Today poppers exist within a legal grey area, with possession not illegal but supply sometimes constituting an offence.
LGBTQ+ drug use in the night time economy
Gay bars and gay clubs are a key site of community for the LGBTQ+ population, a rite of passage for freshly ‘out’ queer individuals and a chance to come together in a space which is free from the oppressive pressure of heteronormative society.
However, as with the general population, there is a link between queer people’s involvement in the night time economy and drug use, with the highest levels of drug use reported by those who use gay clubs.
Most queer spaces don’t open until the night time, and so it follows that LGBTQ+ nightlife and the use of club drugs often accompany one another. Research by Bourne et al. has found that the use of methamphetamine, mephedrone, GHB/GBL and ketamine was associated with attendance of queer spaces, such as gay pubs and clubs.
However, LGBTQ+ drug use in the night time economy isn’t a new phenomenon. As Fiona Measham, Director of the Loop puts it, LGBTQ+ clubbers were “early adopters of drug trends”. Gay men and trans women in particular pioneered emerging nightlife scenes in New York and London in the 1970s. Furthermore, queer people were among the first to adopt popular club drugs, such as MDMA, into their nightlife practices – paving the way for the roots of rave culture into the 1980s and 1990s.
Whilst statistics suggest that LGBTQ+ individuals have higher rates of substance use than straight individuals, it’s clear that the reasons behind this are incredibly nuanced and extend beyond escaping trauma and stigma. Media reporting of queer drug use rarely acknowledges how drugs are used as a tool within the LGBTQ+ community, beyond sensationalised narratives of hedonistic and dangerous gay past-times.
This piece was written by Volteface Content and Media Officer Megan Townsend. She is particularly interested in the reform of drug legislation, subcultural drug use and harm reduction initiatives. She also has an MA in Criminology from Birmingham City University. Tweets @megant2799.