As Christmas and New Year’s Eve approach, lockdown eases and the Christmas office parties start, most people are gearing up for a heavy month of boozy revelries. I, however, a bi woman, am sitting in a hospital bed, typing with a nerve-damaged dominant hand after receiving stomach banding due to internal bleeding from years of alcohol abuse. Alcohol abuse which began when I found a group of other lesbian and bi teens from a neighbouring grammar school with whom I began planning a new LGBTQ+ youth club. Unfortunately, they also enjoyed drinking strong white cider, smoking cheap cigarettes and singing Placebo songs in their thick black eyeliner – and who was I to resist joining in? If we were going to be renegade, we were going to do it hardcore.
Around the same time, we discovered how to sneak on to licensed premises. Of course, dear reader, it is a universal truth that many of us took our first tentative steps towards connecting with our ilk by visiting our local gay bar, often underage (I’ve still no idea how they thought I was 25 when I was actually 15, but the bar owner had a marked sympathy for the “baby dyke” with nowhere else to go). Not only this, of course, but rejection or misunderstanding from friends and family members can also trigger a turn to the bottle. Many were the times that I tired of being told I was “too young to know” and slid out of the house to “stay with a friend”, only to end up rocking out to Relax in the tiny hidden away gay club 20 minutes from my house.
A recent Stonewall report found that 16% of LGBTQ+ people claimed to drink alcohol almost every day, compared to the 10% of the general population reported by the Office for National Statistics. The National Institute on Drug Abuse puts the figure higher, reporting that –at least within the adolescent age group – LGBTQ+ people are 90% more likely to drink than their straight counterparts. The Stonewall report says the problem only increases with age, one in three LGBTQ+ people aged over 65 claim to drink nearly every day. “There are simply not enough social resources available for older lesbians,” Gladys, 73, tells OutNewsGlobal. “I don’t want to go out dancing to Miley Cyrus in a crop top and I don’t tend to get invited to ‘straight’ dinner parties etc – where it’s increasingly acceptable not to drink – so I stay in with a lonely sherry and try to forget my predicament. Drinking alone only means I drink much faster.” Whatever the discrepancies in research, it nevertheless seems clear that our community in particular has a problem with the old ethanol.
A recent visit to rehab after a messy relapse only served to alert me further to the prevalence of drinking problems amongst LGBTQ+ folk. Without speculating unfairly, I’d hazard that at least five of the 20 or so other “inmates” I encountered during my stay were on the queer spectrum. This only made the facility’s reliance on the archaic AA Big Book all the more amusing – the chapter “For Wives” (which makes the confident assumption that all alkies are straight married men) was particularly painful to study in detail. This is not to say that the book is not useful, but it is certainly very hetero/male-centric.
Out of control
Lockdown and Covid might have stopped people visiting bars, but this has only taken more of a toll. Dr Richard Piper, chief executive of Alcohol Change UK, said: “Covid-19 has negatively affected our nation’s mental health, and has led millions of us to drink more heavily. Challenging the stigma and shame that many of us feel when we realise our drinking has got out of control is more important now than ever.”
“This isn’t a niche issue,” he goes on to stress. “This research shows that six in ten of us have known someone with a drinking problem. One in ten hospital inpatients is dependent on alcohol. Any of us can find ourselves drinking too much. So it’s time we started talking about it: talk to your friends and family about your own and their drinking in a non-judgmental way, and ask for support if you need it. It’s the bravest and best thing you can do.”
A survey of LGBTQ+ students conducted by the University of Maryland Prevention Research Center found that a staggering 32% were drinking more since the Covid outbreak, their existing difficulties with family and friendship relations exacerbated by the solitude and loneliness. Eighty-two percent of the students surveyed had felt forced to move from campus or rented accommodation and back into their parental homes following the outbreak, leading to increased pressure for many.
The good news? Alongside this explosion in problem drinking, the alcohol-free drinks trade is booming, with brands like Three Spirit (aptly named, you’ll agree, for our community) and Lyre’s emerging to a very receptive audience. More and more sober LGBTQ+ nights like Create Your Own Adventure and Queers Without Beers events have been slowly cropping up over the past few years. The volume is pumping up for those who dare – only just not on the bottle labels.