#Pride365: International Overdose Awareness Day – Harm Reduction & 2SLGBTQ+ Communities

Source: International Overdose Awareness Day | Description: A graphic with a blue background and the main text in the middle reads “NO MORE STIGMA. NO MORE SHAME.” with the words in white. At the top of the graphic, it reads “31 AUGUST” with words in white. Below that, separated by a hyphen, it reads “INTERNATIONAL OVERDOSE AWARENESS DAY” with the words in white. At the bottom of the graphic, it reads “A Penington Institute Initiative” with the words in white. 

Caitlin Monteiro, Community Development Worker 

International Overdose Awareness Day (IOAD) takes place every year on August 31st  “to end overdose, remember without stigma those who have died and acknowledge the grief of the family and friends left behind.” This day also brings awareness to the ongoing issues and barriers experienced by people who use substances.  

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2SLGBTQ+ individuals are more likely to use substances than other groups, and often face more barriers in accessing harm reduction services. High substance use rates in the queer community can be attributed to trauma, prevalence of mental health issues due to stigma and oppression, minority stress, party/drug culture and the lack of 2SLGBTQ+ friendly healthcare services (Edgewood Health Network). 

Historically, society has viewed people who use substances as well as those in the queer community as social deviants, marginalizing those who did not conform. These harmful views have delayed and continue to impact the establishment of harm reduction services, costing many lives.  

When we look at these communities from an intersectional lens, coupling substance use with queer, trans and/or BIPOC identities, navigating life and service needs can be challenging and isolating. These additional challenges make it especially important for harm reduction services to consider these intersecting marginalized identities in their program development and outreach.  

Hearing from community members 

To gain a better perspective on the 2SLGBTQ+ experience with substance use, it is essential to listen to the needs of the community from the community themselves. It is only through collaboration that harm reduction services can widen their reach, improve their approach, and better serve marginalized communities.  

We spoke to some 2SLGBTQ+ folks about their personal experiences with and opinions of substance use in the queer and trans communities to better highlight their needs. Many folks had a lot to say indicating the pervasiveness of substance use among queer and trans people.  

When asked about why folks thought that 2SLGBTQ+ individuals were more likely to use substances, here are some of the responses we received. Please remember that these responses are reflective of folks’ individual experiences and should be respected as such: 

“I truly believe that conspicuous consumption* and capitalism has a lot to do with it, as well as it being ingrained in the culture of being queer, like since the AIDS epidemic. I find that because of the AIDS epidemic, there was this lifestyle of like, live fast, die young, because you don’t even know if you’re going to be here that long. I feel like that never really left the core of queer culture.”   

“I was traumatized by my high school experience being a queer POC who is also feminine presenting. I was bullied and blackmailed and even physically abused in the halls of my high school. I turned to marijuana and since September 2018 I have smoked consistently and abused my use of marijuana.  

If there were more conversations about how queer folks need protection when I was younger, I wouldn’t be in this place to desire an escape from the heteronormative societies that I’m forced to be a part of every single day.” 

“It’s easier than confronting what you need to do or want to do. I can smoke in minutes and be done but working on confronting my emotions is so much more work.” 

“I think it’s directly linked to stress and other mental health issues. Most people turn to drugs because of stress and queer people are nearly ALWAYS stressed. As a bisexual non-binary person who’s not out, I’m literally worried everyday about my sexuality and gender identity.” 

“I can speak from experience when I say that substances often replace the love of a family or community. When acceptance is hard to find, addiction easily slips into its place.” 

“Most accessible and identifiable queer safe spaces are bars which subjects queer people especially young queer people to be in situations surrounded by substances. Queer youth make up a large portion of youth homelessness which puts them on the streets. That plus the increased likelihood of them suffering from mental health issues means they’re more like to turn to substances for escapism.” 

We also asked the individuals we spoke with about their experiences with harm reduction services; here are some of the responses we received:  

“For harm reduction services queer substance users need to have a safe judgement free environment to sort themselves out without the pressure of living up to a certain standard.” 

“I find that a lot of the times harm reduction services tend to be shoddy, but that’s not for no reason. Obviously, use of certain substances that would require these harm reduction clinics and services are unfortunately criminalized. On top of that, being queer and/or trans in that same space, it’s like you already have all these barriers off the bat.” 

“I think when it comes to harm reduction sites, there needs to be more trans-inclusive and accessible areas. There definitely needs to be more awareness on how substance use in queer communities is directly linked to other factors like homelessness, job discrimination and poverty so it makes it even harder to break cycles of addiction. I think we need to incorporate inclusivity of queer people in harm reduction to actually reduce the harm.” 

“Fostering a sense of community is so important for queer people battling with substance abuse. If they are afforded the patience and care that they lack but wholly deserve, there is a lower need to mask or numb the resulting pain. Therefore, harm reduction services that are aware of this link between marginalization and substance abuse will be more effective at curbing addiction. Specific care is crucial to saving the lives of 2SLGBTQ+ people.” 

Where do we go from here? 

Reviewing the various perspectives from community members can help us understand how to better support queer and trans people who use substances going forward. Creating community-centered programming requires us to connect with diverse community members and ensure services are meeting the needs of those who hold different intersecting marginalized identities.  

After speaking with community members, some of the key themes that emerged from the interviews were:  

  • Harm reduction services and education, as well as mental health support for 2SLGBTQ+ youth in schools, can support folks prior to them developing a reliance on substances and help them through mental health and emotional challenges. 
  • Training for health care workers and educators can ensure 2SLGBTQ+ people can access essential services in a safe, comfortable environment, without fear of discrimination. As well, 2SLGBTQ+ history and anti-oppression being taught in schools can reduce learned biases and misinformation which will help queer youth have a more accepting school environment. 
  • 2SLGBTQ+ safe(r) spaces where people can socialize and meet each other without the pressure and environment bars typically induce, will avoid the promotion of excessive substance use and give access to queer youth as well. 
  • 2SLGBTQ+ inclusive, confidential, and penalty-free harm reduction services for criminalized and decriminalized substances can encourage more people who use substances to reach out to these services. Additionally, offering continued support to people who use substances can help them stay safe.  
  • Subsidized counselling and therapy for 2SLGBTQ+ individuals can increase accessibility to these services and allow for 2SLGBTQ+ folks to work through their trauma and challenges. 

In acknowledging International Overdose Awareness Day and sharing some queer experiences with substance use we open up the conversation for the advancement and development of harm reduction services. We also aim to end the stigma around substance use and encourage support.  

Talking about overdose could save a life. Keep the conversation going.  

Check out these resources to learn more about substance use in the 2SLGBTQ+ community and harm reduction services:  

https://theconversation.com/in-the-opioid-crisis-young-queer-and-trans-men-are-navigating-risk-reduction-on-their-own-137679

https://www.rainbowhealthontario.ca/?s=substance+use

https://www.rainbowhealthontario.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/RHO_FactSheet_LGBTDRUGUSEHARMREDUCTION_E.pdf

https://resources.youthline.ca/resources?type_of_service_4%5B%5D=Addictions/Harm%20Reduction&combine=

https://www.acrossboundaries.ca/2slgbtq-1

https://www.heretohelp.bc.ca/alcohol-other-drugs-topics/lgbt-communities-substance-use

*Conspicuous consumption: the purchase of goods or services for the specific purpose of displaying one’s wealth. Conspicuous consumption is a means to show one’s social status, especially when publicly displayed goods and services are too expensive for other members of a person’s class. (Investopedia

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