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In the United States and all over the world, LGBTQIA+ people — henceforth referred to as queer people — face unique challenges. Despite progress made in the past few decades, social and cultural customs and ideals continue to perpetuate various forms of discrimination against queer people simply because of their identity. Largely because of these prejudices coupled with internal pressures within the LGBTQIA+ community, queer people are one of the most high-risk demographics to develop substance use disorders (SUDs). Despite this, many recovery centers and programs aren’t fully inclusive and mindful of queer identities. 

Queer People and Substance Use Disorders 

A 2015 study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) revealed that queer adults are more than twice as likely to use illicit substances as their heterosexual counterparts and nearly twice as likely to develop SUD. Why substance abuse is such a prevalent issue in queer spaces is a very complicated issue that has only recently begun to be properly researched. However, certain factors seem to be largely agreed upon by experts. 


Discrimination against queer people takes place on varying levels. Queer people may experience homophobic remarks from anyone they interact with in their daily lives, like peers, acquaintances, teachers, etc. However, many queer people also must face toxic family homes where their identity isn’t accepted or tolerated. Due to this, many queer people have to learn from an early age how to “change” or hide their identity to protect their safety. Similarly, adolescent bullying isn’t the extent of homophobia in the United States. Queer people may also find themselves the subject of hate crimes because of their identity, which can lead to serious physical injury and emotional harm.

Additionally, there currently aren’t laws in place in all states to protect queer people from discrimination for things like housing and healthcare. These institutional and structural barriers that queer people face can make it difficult for them to even enjoy basic aspects of life that non-queer people enjoy freely. 

All of these factors can take a heavy toll on queer individuals. Feeling like you can’t fully or freely express your identity without being discriminated against or even physically harmed can create feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and even self-loathing. To cope with these feelings, some queer individuals turn to substances. 

Co-Occurring Disorders

Likely for largely similar reasons, queer individuals are more likely to be diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety disorders than their straight counterparts. Eating disorders — especially among queer men — are also more prevalent within the LGBTQIA+ community. The existence of these disorders can make people more susceptible to developing SUD in order to cope with the effects of their co-occurring disorders. People, such as queer people, who are predisposed to mental health issues are also more susceptible to developing SUD.

Intra-Community Pressures and Stigmas

People in the LGBTQIA+ community describe a “party” culture inherent in the community that encourages the use of illegal substances. In wanting to fully enjoy the scene and immerse themselves in the queer experience, some queer people will partake in these functions even if they otherwise wouldn’t have. 

Similarly, queer people may feel the need to partake in these activities in order to fit in with the social scene or be accepted by their community. Repeated exposure to these situations could result in the development of SUD. Like eating disorders, this pressure to partake in extensive bingeing or substance consumption is mainly reported by gay men but could affect anyone within the community. 

Potential Concerns for Queer People Seeking Recovery

Just as there are unique factors involved in the development of SUDs for queer people, there are also unique factors that may play into their recovery. Specific programs or treatment plans specifically targeted toward queer individuals are not as common as one would think, and many different issues arise from this. If queer people are given the same treatment as straight people, they likely won’t be as prepared for the unique struggles that they will face in their recovery.

Many healthcare professionals aren’t taught how to work with the unique issues that queer individuals face. Facing family abandonment, social isolation, physical and sexual violence, discrimination, and more are all issues that will likely factor into a queer person’s recovery and trauma processing. Professionals need to be prepared to explore these issues and how they relate to substance use with their queer clients. 

On top of that, different identities within the LGBTQIA+ community will require different services. The unique struggles that a gay man may face in recovery will likely be vastly different than those of a transgender woman, for example. Non-cis-gendered people may even experience discrimination within their recovery centers if the center subscribes to the gender binary in their treatment. This could completely tarnish the recovery process and cause the client to quit treatment altogether. 

The ultimate goal of treatment is long-term recovery. Clients need to be able to learn the skills necessary for them to navigate the world outside of the recovery center without relapsing. As previously discussed, queer people have unique obstacles in staying sober in the “real world,” such as discrimination and intra-community pressures. It’s the responsibility of the professionals facilitating treatment to properly prepare queer individuals to face these issues outside of the center. If they’re not properly trained or educated on queer issues, this may be impossible. 

Queer people seeking recovery should speak to representatives at recovery centers to determine if they feel that the center is properly equipped to handle their specific needs. Recovery is not easy for anyone, and queer people deserve to have the same chance at making a long-lasting recovery as anybody else. 

People who identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community have a variety of social factors at play that make them more susceptible to developing a substance use disorder. Discrimination, violence, co-occurring disorders, and intra-community pressures all add to the unique and often difficult experience of being a queer individual. Similarly, queer people have unique needs when undergoing treatment for substance use. Understanding the social factors at play, as well as the role queer trauma plays in substance use, is essential to understanding the needs of queer people in recovery. At West Coast Recovery Centers, we believe in creating treatment specific to individuals. For more information about our programs, call our professionals today at (760) 492-6509.