“I am a drug addict. Today I’m a sober drug addict, but still a drug addict. My drug of choice was heroin, but that didn’t mean I didn’t love whiskey and MDMA and coke, speed and pills, all the various ways I could quiet the endless voices in my head.” [Jeff Leavell, writer, in an article published in Vice]
It is widely believed that the queer community experiences a higher incidence of addiction to drugs (or chemical substances) than their heterosexual counterparts. Globally, various studies are being undertaken to validate this hypothesis; however, it will take many more years of scientific research for long-term trends to be identified and established. Despite the lack of meaningful statistics or evidence, one fact is universally accepted – the queer community is exposed to a significantly higher risk of addiction to drugs and chemical substances.
In a heteronormative society, members of the queer community are constantly subjected to societal and cultural pressures to force them to ‘fit in’ or become ‘normal’. The continuous discrimination, isolation, shame and stigma leads to an emotional void and low self-regard which is sought to be filled by drugs and alcohol.
Cultural practices also play a vital role in propagating drug use. For the longest time, queer bars have been perceived as safe spaces for the community. Peer pressure, coupled with the eagerness to lower inhibitions, can lead to experimentation with drugs. The prevalence of gay dating apps has fueled the subcultures of ‘chemsex’, ‘high fun’ and ‘Party and Play’ (PnP), where the use of stimulants or psychoactive substances such as methamphetamine (meth or crystal meth), cocaine and MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy or molly) precedes, or is concurrent with, prolonged and unprotected sexual activity.
The problem of addiction starts when these seemingly harmless activities progress from experimentation to habitual behavior. From casual or weekend use to one that becomes a serious, compulsive addiction, drugs become the new normal for queer people looking to bury their pain deep within their subconscious mind.
What causes addiction to drugs in the first place?
“You start doing the addictive behavior to feel good and then your receptors get overloaded with dopamine, then you stop doing the addictive thing and some of the receptors have shut down and you don’t have enough dopamine to feel good. So then you feel bad and go back to the addictive behavior to get more dopamine.” [Bill Nye]
Dopamine, a neurotransmitter commonly known as the ‘feel-good’ hormone, is part of the brain’s reward system. It is associated with feelings such as euphoria, bliss, happiness and motivation. A sudden increase in dopamine levels can lead to temporary feelings of euphoria and make one feel ‘on top of the world.’ On the flip side, it can induce hallucinations, delusionary behavior and mania. Drugs or chemical substances interfere with the way neurons convey information and process signals via neurotransmitters. Dopamine induces the brain to repeat pleasurable activities such as the euphoric high from drug use.
Addictive drugs release huge amounts of dopamine – between 2 to 12 times the quantity of dopamine produced by the body naturally – much faster and with greater reliability. This overwhelms the brain with dopamine; accordingly, the brain reduces production of natural dopamine or even ‘shuts down’ the relevant receptors. Consequently, dopamine has a lower impact on the brain’s reward center. Addicted users find that their go-to drug is not providing the same euphoric high or pleasurable sensation since their brains have reached ‘tolerance’. To compensate for this loss of feeling and reach the same levels of ‘high’, they start consuming higher quantities of drugs.
Drugs are a gateway to impaired judgment and risky sexual activities among queer people
“I eat my dinner in my bathtub, then I go to sex clubs, watching freaky people gettin’ it on. It doesn’t make me nervous, if anything I’m restless, yeah, I’ve been around and I’ve seen it all.” [Opening lyrics from the song ‘Habits (Stay High)’ by Tove Lo]
Many queer people are initiated into using meth, cocaine, heroin and other drugs during PNP sexual encounters. Using these drugs in a group setting increases feelings of intimacy and pleasure. The surge of dopamine produces high libido and bodily desires which need to be satisfied immediately. Drugs such as crystal meth induce users to falsely believe that they possess enhanced mental sharpness and physical prowess. Under the influence of meth, queer people briefly shun their inhibitions and physical limitations.
The false sense of invincibility and high sex drive can lead individuals to indulge in prolonged sexual encounters, that too with multiple partners or with people who are seemingly ‘out of their league.’ Although the sexual bonding in such situations is intense, it rarely lasts beyond that. Drugs have the effect of blurring brain function by severely inhibiting people’s abilities to make decisions or foresee the results of their actions. This often leads to unprotected sex and increases the risk of developing HIV and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
The use of ‘poppers’ (inhalable alkyl nitrates) has been prevalent in India’s queer culture for more than a decade at least. Poppers, which produce the effect of relaxing rectal muscles, is typically used by individuals playing a passive role in sexual encounters. Since poppers provide high for only a few minutes, the tendency is to inhale them multiple times a day. The expansion of blood vessels in the rectum makes users more susceptible to the risk of HIV infection.
Members of the queer community often attach significant importance to others’ opinions in order to improve their self-worth. This is especially true for gay men of a certain age, usually 40 years and above, and men diagnosed with HIV. Such individuals, who are at the highest risk of developing addiction, feel that they are less sexually attractive and more detached. Drugs become their go-to ‘friends’ who give them a false boost and make them feel positive about themselves, albeit in a completely delusional way.
Drug addiction entails other horrific consequences, worst among them suicide or self-harm
“Finally, last year, I overdosed, and my roommate rushed me to the hospital. There, too, the hospital staff was not willing to admit me until the police came. They, in fact, did not look at me as a person who had abused a substance. Instead, they mocked me and treated me like a criminal.” [Sadam Hanjabam, LGBT activist and a former drug addict from Manipur, in a conversation with Vice India]
In India, despite the reading down of Section 377, deep-rooted stigma against members of the queer continues to prevail in most parts of the country. The stigma worsens when queer people are found to be active users of drugs, and worse still if they are unfortunate victims of an overdose. Although alternative sexuality has received the stamp of legality, drug use is still a criminal activity. Medical care, which is anyway difficult due to the large-scale absence of queer-affirmative doctors, becomes a nightmare when a queer person is taken to hospital after a drug overdose.
Prolonged drug use is also associated with a significant risk of unpredictable behavior which can sometimes lead to aggressive behavior, violence, and even forced sexual activity or rape. Drugs produce anxiety, and sometimes the absence of drugs can lead to vitriolic behavior and violence. The increasing use of date-rape drugs, especially GHB, during chemsex further imperils the safety of queer people.
Drug addiction, and withdrawal symptoms associated with cessation of drug use, is closely linked to the onset of mental health conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, paranoia, and most seriously, suicidal tendencies or self-harming behavior. Not just withdrawal from drugs, society’s rejection of individuals with a drug-use problem can further fuel depressive symptoms and suicidal behavior. In certain Indian states, drug use is rampant due to the close proximity with international borders – drugs are available freely and cheaply.
One-stop solution unavailable, but engaging in conversation is imperative
Loneliness, alienation, rejection judgmental behavior and other problems faced by the queer community are unlikely to go away any time soon. For all the work done by advocacies, LGBTQ allies and support groups, one thing is clear – queer people are torn amidst their internal conflicts and lack of social support. Rather than suffer society’s ridicule, they often choose to take refuge in drugs. Rather than sweep this issue under the proverbial carpet, it is important to acknowledge it and engage in active, non-judgmental conversations to find workable solutions which will help members of the community.
While drug use is a criminal activity, the real reason for its rampant adoption in the queer community needs to be understood. Dating apps and high internet adoption are easy avenues for experimentation, especially for young people who have greater freedom of exploring their sexuality. The lure of drugs, gifts and money in return for sex can be too tempting to resist. Discussing the issue openly and highlighting the many perils of drug addiction can attempt to mitigate the risks in a way. If nothing else, it can at least be the first step in solving what appears to be a problem spiraling out of control.