by Erica Fada

The beginning of April marks the start of Alcohol Awareness month, and in mid-April, on the 14th, many schools are preparing to participate in the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s Day of Silence. Amidst the rise of anti-trans legislation that’s being proposed and voted on across the country, the interwoven nature of substance use and trauma in the queer community has been laying heavy on my heart and mind. In general, LGBTQ+ individuals are at greater risk for substance use and mental health disparities in comparison to their heterosexual counterparts. There is no age in which this effect isn’t present, according to SAMSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Let’s examine why that might be, through the lens of these two April events. 

What is GLSEN and the Day of Silence?

Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, is a collection of teachers, families, and youth that prioritize creating safe and supportive environments within schools for LGBTQ+ youth. GLSEN does research into the experiences of LGBTQ+ students. The Day of Silence, which has been observed since the 1990s, is a time of collective action to emphasize the voicelessness that LGBTQ+ individuals struggle against in a heteronormative society. Holding space for this silence, as well as creating a call to action to speak up about the threats to queer life, continues to be increasingly important. GLSEN’s 2021 National School Climate Survey found that there has been an increase in reported homophobic and gender essentialist remarks from teachers between 2019 and 2021.  We’re not just seeing homophobia and transphobia at a systemic level, it happens in interactions with peers and mentors every day too. 

How Does This Relate to Alcohol Use?

Substances make us feel good when we’re using them. That’s just a fact of how they interact with our brains. When it comes to alcohol, specifically, the effect that the substance has on dopamine in the brain can reduce feelings of stress, an effect that’s more noticeable if the person is operating on high alert throughout their day. If someone is experiencing intense bullying at school, feeling out of place and alone, it makes perfect sense that they would want to find relief from those feelings. We see this reflected in the data, as well, with LGBTQ+ folks having substance use disorders at about double the rate of their straight counterparts, which SAMSA has reported on.

Related to this, one of the most commonly thought of spaces for queer individuals to connect and find community has historically been within gay bars and clubs. There are very few spaces that are explicitly meant for LGBTQ+ individuals to gather that are sober spaces, which adds an extra level of nuance when thinking about how substances are playing into queer individual’s lives. If isolation can increase someone’s risk for overusing substances, but there’s a community culture of drinking in the one space where someone can be their full queer selves, things can get complicated. Folks can feel trapped in a bind.

What Do We Do??

Knowing all this can feel heavy. I know. I feel it, too. So what can we all do about this? I’ll take every opportunity I can to say that using someone’s pronouns is suicide prevention, and making the effort to put your own discomfort aside to be examined is essential. Be explicit about creating spaces that celebrate queerness when you have the ability and safety to do so. I also encourage people to be conscious about creating sober gatherings with friends, or working to remove the assumption that people will always be drinking when together. Once you start looking for how normalized substances are in social settings, the lack of sober spaces becomes a lot more clear. Finally, you’re not alone. There are more and more activists and interest in understanding the importance of queer sober spaces that I’ve been seeing in mainstream discussion lately. And that’s something to be loud about.


Queer-Focused Sober Space in Chicago-

Benediction Dry Bar

Eli Tea Bar

Queer Sober Social’s Events