How LGBTQ Youth are Dealing with Drug Addiction
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How LGBTQ Youth are Dealing with Drug Addiction

Pieces to Pathways is one of Toronto's few safe spaces for queer and trans youth with substance abuse issues.

Pieces to Pathways' Geoff Wilson and Tim McConnell, with Amelia Janusas, a  placement student from the Assaulted Women and Children's Counselling/Advocacy Program at George Brown College.

Pieces to Pathways’ Geoff Wilson and Tim McConnell, with Amelia Janusas, a placement student from the Assaulted Women and Children’s Counselling/Advocacy Program at George Brown College.

Content warning: this article describes first-hand accounts of drug use.

Before his first manic episode and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, RJ’s substance use was a daily routine. RJ*, 22, would use to get through university classes and his part-time job. Nights were spent drinking until he fell asleep.

“Whenever I could get my hands on any drug, whether it was ketamine, blow, ‘shrooms or MDMA—whatever would skyrocket my mood—I’d use, and smoke weed once the comedown kicked in,” RJ says.

He calmed his highs and managed his lows like this—until he woke up one day in a psychiatric ward. His mind was wiped clean of a month’s worth of memories.

As an inpatient, he was told by hospital staff that he was in a “safe space.” For RJ, a bisexual trans man, those words were of little comfort. What was actually a safe space for him was Pieces to Pathways (P2P), a substance recovery program created by and for LGBTTQQ2SIA youth ages 16 to 29.

P2P is the remedy to an enduring absence in the local substance recovery movement. Before P2P, there were no substance use programs specifically for queer and transgender youth in Toronto.

Founders Geoff Wilson and Tim McConnell first met nine years ago while using recovery services. Both are trans queer youth, and are open about their experiences with addiction and sobriety. When they found themselves unable to refer friends to any suitable recovery programs that would respect their identities, they realized they had to start their own. As service users themselves, they knew they were equipped to support their own community.

Compared to straight and cisgender people, LGBTQ individuals experience higher rates of addiction, and are up to four times more likely to take drugs. “A lot of queer and trans people bear the brunt of oppression, violence, and discrimination,” Wilson says. “Substance use becomes a way to cope with all the crappy things that happen to people.”

Most service providers and 12-step programs provide support for anyone who wants to deal with their substance use, but the broadness can leave gaps that miss LGBTQ youth, whose perspectives on usage are entwined with their identity, or whose LGBTQ identity is a factor in how they use. That is, general programs fail to understand the institutional and systemic issues queer and trans youth face—stigma, discrimination, homelessness, or self-medication, to name a few. And the few LGBTQ recovery support initatives that do exist, such as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s Rainbow Services, take a clinical approach, one that Wilson says can alienate youth.

There is also insufficient research on age-specific LGBTQ substance use, so P2P conducted its own assessment of LGBTQ youth’s needs. After surveying 640 queer and trans youth living in Toronto, P2P’s ground-breaking results show that LGBTQ youth used more of every drug than the general population, and were more than 26 times more likely to use.

Once P2P published its findings, the group started the second phase of its program. It ran five focus groups with LGBTQ youth in different neighbourhoods across Toronto. Using the feedback received on program structure, P2P ran two pilot groups: a harm reduction group, for those who wanted to better control their substance use, and an abstinence group, for those who aimed to stop using entirely.

Lily Rez holding hands with her mother while in hospital care.

Lily Rez holding hands with her mother while in hospital care.

One of P2P’s harm reduction participants is Lily Rez, a 25-year-old graphic designer.

Rez lost her mother in May, following years of battling a brain tumour. She turned to cocaine and weed last summer, using heavily while her mother’s health deteriorated. At first, the drugs helped. Cocaine pulled Rez out of her depression and helped her feel alive again. But heavier use eventually made her feel paranoid.

Rez came to P2P after deciding to go sober for a few months ago. She heard about the program through Geoff. As a queer woman, there was a worry of rejection from other support services—but that wasn’t the case in P2P.

“I can connect. Everyone’s around the same age. It’s like having an addictions family,” Rez says.

Before meeting others in P2P, Noah Zavitz didn’t think the recovering queer and trans community existed. Zavitz, 25, is a non-binary person working in restaurants. They became involved with the mental healthcare system when they were 13. They first tried cocaine when they were 16.

When Zavitz went to treatment services, they didn’t come out to most of their doctors, because they felt their doctor-patient relationship had an unequal power dynamic.

“I might not being taken seriously, or perhaps the doctor [does] not understand how gender and sex can play a role in addiction,” Zavitz says. “Not knowing what their stance is potentially putting me in a very vulnerable position. Stigma in addiction is prevalent, I definitely felt that.”

Of those surveyed who had previously received formal support, more than 58 per cent did not feel safe disclosing their gender or orientation to prior recovery services. More than one in four youth chose not to access substance recovery services because they didn’t know if their LGBTQ identity would be accepted.

For RJ, P2P was his first time accessing recovery support that prioritized his identity. He appreciated how flexible and non-judgemental the groups were, as well as the efforts staff went to in order not to pathologize participants.

“P2P, being queer focused, knew how to actually make a space feel safe,” RJ says. “One of the first things we did as a group was build a ‘comfort agreement’ together, instead of have one thrust upon you.” Comfort agreements are group guidelines decided by a group, which can include agreements on how to act and communicate.

Negotiating consensual and informed decisions and behaviour is important to P2P and Wilson. They’ve been instrumental in the annual Toronto Queer Zine Fair, where alcohol is not served (though those who drink or use substances won’t be turned away). Outside of the zine fair, Wilson, along with their partner Clementine, also runs intoxication culture workshops.

Coined by zinester Nikita Riotfag, intoxication culture is a concept that suggests substance use is normalized in society, to the point where sober individuals and recovering addicts are alienated and have no say in how substances are used around them.

Historically, generations came into their queerness and gender identities with a drink in hand. Droves escaped Toronto’s vague indecency laws by finding each other in the nightlife. Gender and sex outlaws spent evenings cruising in gay bars, grinding in clubs, and necking in bathhouses—all places where alcohol and other substances became synonymous with socializing.

While no longer as essential to queer and trans community-building, the feel-good relationship between substance use and the LGBTQ population remains. As The Nation’s Richard Kim opined after the Orlando mass shooting, “Gay bars are therapy for people who can’t afford therapy.” Alcohol is a mainstay at many LGBTQ festivities and it will flow freely in beer gardens and parties throughout Canada’s longest Pride celebration, even in a financial capacity; Pride Toronto’s sponsors include Bud Light and Molson Canadian as top-tier sponsors, along with vodka brands Stoli and Palm Bay.

This makes Pride a high-relapse time for those who want to stay sober while celebrating their identity. To curb this, Pride Toronto is running Clean, Sober, and Proud, a dedicated sober space. The non-profit will also be holding 12-step meetings multiple times throughout the weekend. Wilson commends the strides, but also says there should be more.

“It’s a really risky time,” Wilson says. “During Pride, a lot of people celebrate their identity with their engagement with alcohol and drugs, and that’s totally legit. People that are sober, want to be sober and be LGBT should also be valid as well. I think that both of those identities should have space in conjunction with each other, instead of being one or another.”

When it comes to future plans, P2P aims to continue running its groups. They’ve partnered with Breakaway Addiction Services, a west-end facility that offers harm reduction services for families and youth and have also received funding for their initiative from Toronto Central Local Health Integration Network.

The initiative has also seen a growing need among LGBTQ youth for addiction services specifically geared toward people of colour. Sixty-four per cent in focus groups felt prior recovery programs did not meet their needs as racialized people.

Ultimately, their program will set the framework for other service providers to be as culturally competent, friendly, and accessible to queer and trans youth.

“We really want people to make their places queer and trans friendly too. We’re not creating a detox centre,” Wilson says. “We want other places in city to make sure their services are adequately prepped for LGBTQ people.”

For the pilot groups’ participants, the paths to recovery are entwined with helping others, just as they had in P2P’s peer support. Like Wilson, Rez hopes to work in addiction recovery. Zavitz advocates for local harm reduction.

RJ found stability in his furry companion Pepito.

RJ found stability in his furry companion Pepito.

RJ finds staying busy with work and volunteering keeps him from relapsing. And thanks to P2P helping him recover, RJ was able to adopt a cat named Pepito eight months ago.

“He’s very loving and demanding of attention, which just makes me feel needed and more responsible,” RJ says. “He’s a daily reminder that I have to take care of myself.”

*RJ’s last name is withheld to protect him from undue outing.

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that substance use and drinking is not outright banned at the Toronto Queer Zine Fair. It has also been updated to clarify that Wilson’s workshops are not affiliated with the Toronto Queer Zine Fair.