Did you know that young individuals from the LGBTQ+ community, despite tremendous societal progress in the past couple of decades or so, are still twice as likely to suffer from a mental health disorder and/or a substance use disorder (SUD) as their heterosexual peers?
In this article to support and celebrate this year’s Pride Month, we look at it’s history, this year’s biggest Pride events, and, specifically, what can be done for LGBTQ+ youth to reduce the alarmingly high rates of SUDs and co-occurring disorders (an addiction plus a simultaneous mental health disorder), how to have an affirming relationship with your LGBTQ+ child, and the resources that are readily available to LGBTQ+ youth and their families right now.
Before we begin, let’s return to 1969 (admittedly, easier said than done):
The Stonewall Uprising & The Beginnings of Gay Pride
Like many small acts of revolution that lead to lasting movements for positive change, it started with a riot. On a summer’s night in 1969, a group of young people, one of society’s minorities, stood up against their constant oppression, and the thrashing truncheons and tear gas of the NYPD, and finally stated to the world, “We’re not taking this anymore.”
The date – June 28th, 1969 – is now passionately remembered for the events of that night, which became known as the “Stonewall Uprising.” The catalyst for these events was yet another police raid on one of New York City’s gay bars, used by the city’s gay, lesbian and transgender community – the Stonewall Inn, in trendy Greenwich Village.
The result was the birth of the world’s first modern gay rights movement, which would later successfully spread from New York to the rest of the U.S., to European countries like the United Kingdom, France and Germany, to Canada, to Australia and New Zealand, and, later, to the rest of the world.
Photo by Jeffrey Czum
At the time, in 1969 America, homosexual acts remained illegal in every U.S. state (except Illinois), with bars and restaurants even getting shut down for either having gay employees or serving gay patrons.
Unthinkable now, but you need to remember that the Stonewall Uprising was only a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King (April 4, 1968), and the presidential signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which, for the first time, ensured equal housing opportunity – regardless of a person’s race, religion or national origin.
Unbowed, Heads Held High
Despite the flying truncheons and tear gas canisters, the beatings and the arrests, the members of the city’s LGBTQ+ community decided to fight back. Unbowed, they returned for more of the same in the days that followed. Their revolutionary spirit was to inspire the rest of New York’s LGBTQ+ community, and word of their message spread rapidly across 60’s America.
“The Rainbow Flag” – Gilbert Baker
The Rainbow Flag was the very first of the Pride Flags, and designed by Gilbert Baker, a San Francisco artist, activist, and openly gay military veteran.
Each of the 8 colors has a meaning: Pink: Sex; Red: Life; Orange: Healing; Yellow: Sunlight; Green: Nature; Turquoise: Magic/Art; Indigo: Serenity; and Violet: Spirit.
Finally, for people who had for so long felt separated, segregated, and spurned, this was now a movement of resistance that not only welcomed them, but gave them an identity and a voice, too.
Those who were there on the night of the Stonewall Uprising came back the following year, along with hundreds more, to join together and march to mark the event in the city’s very first Gay Pride Week. Inspired by their example, gay pride celebrations were also seen in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago.
The movement was on its way, and has led to where we are now.
U.S. LGBTQ+ Community: Substance Addiction & Mental Health
However, in the United States of 2021, exactly where we are now, unfortunately, is still not far enough. As mentioned previously, the ratios of diagnosis for both substance use disorders (SUDs) and mental health disorders are much greater for those from the LGBTQ+ community.
Here’s not only a summary of those rates here in the U.S., but a clear indication that, even in 2021, and a whole half a century on from Stonewall, living as a LGBTQ+ individual today, with its stresses, discriminations, and continuing stigma, continues to take its toll both physically and mentally.
Photo by Ronê Ferreira
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), in its publication “Mental Health Disparities: LGBTQ”:
- LGBTQ individuals are more than twice as likely as heterosexual men and women to have a mental health disorder in their lifetime
- LGBTQ individuals are 2.5 times more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and substance misuse compared with heterosexual individuals
- Women who identify as lesbian/bisexual are twice as likely to engage in heavy alcohol consumption in the past month than heterosexual women
- Transgender individuals who identify as African American/black, Hispanic/Latino, American Indian/Alaska Native, or Multiracial/Mixed Race are at increased risk of suicide attempts than white transgender individuals
- Generally, LGBTQ individuals have higher rates of mental health service use than their heterosexual counterparts
For LGBTQ+ youth, the increased risk of experiencing mental health problems directly correlates with their increased risk of substance use and addiction. In fact, youth who identify as a sexual minority (LGBTQ+) are about twice as likely to use substances as youth identifying as heterosexual.
Furthermore, sexual minority youth are also at an increased risk of using multiple substances (polysubstance use), which not only exacerbates the harm potential, but significantly increases the risk of a fatal overdose, too.
Lastly, for any LGBTQ+ youth who suffer from either a SUD or mental health disorder, such as bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety, there is a 75% chance they will experience the other.
Pride Month, June, 2021: Festivities, Parades & Awareness
Ever since the inaugural parade back in June, 1970, Pride Month has been celebrated across the United States. Festivities, parades and events celebrate both the LGBTQ voices and experiences, but also to raise as much awareness as possible to the huge range of issues that members of the community continue to face on a daily basis.
Photo by Rosemary Ketchum
Unfortunately, last year’s Pride events went the same way as all the others affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic – still marked, remembered and celebrated, but only virtually. This year, many U.S. states are holding in-person events, as well as virtual ones, as the vaccine rollout reaches more and more people, and restrictions are either eased or lifted.
As there are simply way too many festivities, parades and other events happening during the month of June across the U.S. to mention them all here, these are just a few of what will be this year’s guaranteed highlights to celebrate Pride Month, 2021:
1. New York Pride
In the home-city of the Pride movement, the NYC Pride March (Sunday, June 27th) has grown not only to encompass all of the LGBTQ identities, but, since the very first parade back in 1970, it’s purpose has broadened to also include the fight against AIDS, as well as to remember those lost to illness, violence and neglect.
This year’s official theme for NYC Pride 2021 is “The Fight Continues,” which reflects the spectrum of community battles currently being faced, such as the ongoing pandemic, police brutality, economic hardship, and voter disenfranchisement. André Thomas, the Co-Chair of NYC Pride, stated, “NYC Pride events offer an opportunity to gather in community and highlight the diversity, resilience, and power of the LGBTQIA+ community, giving us the energy and spirit we need to continue the fight.”
2. Washington D.C. PrideMobile Parade
On June 12, 2021, Capital Pride Alliance will present the Colorful Pridemobile Parade for the first time, which will “traverse throughout the Nation’s Capital… to spread joy, resilience, and PRIDE throughout Washington, DC.” The Parade will pass through including Dupont and Logan Circles, and past iconic landmarks such as the Capitol Building.
3. Atlanta Pride Run
In Atlanta, you can enter the in-person or virtual (the choice is yours) 2021 Atlanta Pride Run – a 5K fun run on June 20, around the beautiful Piedmont Park, and with the theme of “+Reconnect Safely.” For the last 30 years, the objective of the Atlanta Pride Run has been both to generate awareness for the LGBTQ+ community in the greater Atlanta area, and to fundraise for much-needed community partners.
How to Protect Your LGBTQ+ Teenager from Substance Risks
For the parents of children who have recently identified as LGBTQ+, life is about to become a sharp and steep learning curve, as they themselves discover what it is like for those who regard themselves as either lesbian, gay, bisexual or non-binary to live in the world of today – a changing world, yes (you just have to remember pre-pandemic life to acknowledge that), but also a world that might not be changing fast enough.
In a discriminatory world like ours, you can do one simple thing as a parent to protect your LGBTQ+ child. By being fully supportive of their identity, you will automatically and naturally reduce the risks of issues such as substance use and abuse, and any others they may face as they journey through to adulthood.
“Progress Pride Flag” – Daniel Quasar
The Progress Pride Flag was designed by Daniel Quasar to be a more inclusive pride flag. The white, pink, and light blue striped chevron design reflects the colors of the Transgender Flag, while the brown and black stripes represent people of color, and those lost to AIDS.
Here’s an example of this learning curve. Millions of Americans identify as LGBTQ+, and much like every other select group, they have their own language. Therefore, parenting an LGBTQ+ child brings a whole new vocabulary for a start. Before you begin, a quick heads up – many of these “new” terms have been used previously, sadly, in a derogatory way, as intended insults.
So, to be as naturally supportive as you can be to your child, take a few moments – perhaps, more – to memorize a few of these (and, in the process, do your part for Pride Month):
- LGBTQ: The umbrella acronym for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer”; however, some people use the ‘Q’ to represent “questioning.” You may also see these abbreviations, too: LGBT+, LGBT*, LGBTx, or LGBTQIA (where ‘I’ stands for intersex, and ‘A’ for asexual / aromantic / agender
- Sex: The label assigned at birth, based upon anatomical features, chromosomes and hormones
- Gender: The societal constructions we assign people based on their sex characteristics
- Queer: Originally used in a derogatory way, “queer” has now become a term to describe the many ways people reject binary (masculine / feminine) categories of gender and sexual orientation.
- Gender Expression: How people choose to express gender identity, eg. hairstyle, clothes, or language
- Pronouns: Pronouns, eg. she/her, he/him and they/them, can signal a person’s gender
- Neopronouns: Words used as “gender neutral” pronouns, eg. thon, thons, thon’s, and thonself
- Transgender: A person whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth
- Cisgender: A person whose gender identity equates to the sex they were assigned at birth
- Two-spirit: Used by some Indigenous groups to describe someone who identifies with both a masculine and a feminine spirit
- Genderqueer: People who reject society’s conventional categories of gender, and embrace fluid ideas of gender (and often sexual orientation, too)
- Ally: A person who is not LGBTQ. but supports LGBTQ people and promotes equality
Note: These few definitions and terms are by no way exhaustive – there are many, many more.
Why Do LGBTQ+ Youth Experience Increased Substance Use Risks?
The undeniable stigma and discrimination that members of the LGBTQ+ community still continually have to battle against unfortunately presents a number of issues in itself – for example, the heightened risk for substance use and abuse because of the ways they may be treated on a daily basis.
As we discussed earlier, LGBTQ individuals are 2.5 times more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and substance misuse compared with heterosexual individuals. That’s a severe increase in risk for what can be a life-threatening situation – you only have to look at the tremendous number of drug overdose fatalities that occurred during the pandemic to acknowledge that sad and awful fact.
Stigma and discrimination can come in many forms. Here are a few of the primary reasons that LGBTQ+ youngsters are often more at risk than their counterparts:
- Poor Family Connections: Dysfunctional, uncommunicative relationships within the family are the biggest factor in LGBTQ+ substance use risk in young people. Research from the Family Acceptance Project has found that young adults who identify as LGBTQ+ and who experience family rejection during their adolescence are more than 3 times as likely to use illicit drugs as those who are accepted by family.
- Homelessness: Often this family rejection is severe enough to lead to homelessness. It is estimated that around 40% of the homeless youth population identify as LGBTQ+, and will use substances at a higher rate, and more frequently, than other homeless youth.
- Harassment: Physical and verbal harassment, either in-school or online, toward LGBTQ+ youth obviously damages mental health. Research has linked victimization against LGBTQ+ students in schools, and an increased likelihood of substance misuse.
- Social Anxiety: The anxiety and stress in social situations experienced by LGBTQ+ youth has been shown to increase substance use, too.
How Can I Protect My LGBTQ+ Teenager?
The key to discovering how best you can protect your LGBTQ+ teenager from the risks of substance use and abuse is… education. More accurately, your education – from learning about the LGBTQ+ community, how to access the right support, and learning the vocabulary (as mentioned above), to effectively communicating with your child.
Photo by Rosemary Ketchum
By educating yourself about the identity your child associates with, you will be practically demonstrating your acceptance, love and support. Your child and you will also be far better placed to help reduce any substance use and addiction risk, and improve their mental health – essential in a time of potentially complex changes.
Here are a few of the more important and proactive steps parents can take to help to protect their LGBTQ+ teenager:
- Get Involved in the LGBTQ+ Community: You can show support in a practical way by getting involved in LGBTQ+ community activities, and encouraging them to do the same. By doing so, you will help your child overcome feelings of isolation and stigma.
LGBTQ+ youth and adults experience unique issues – talk openly with your child about these topics. It’s also incredibly helpful to learn and use affirming, respectful language when referring to members of the LGBTQ+ community.
- Access Additional Support Together: Affirmation-based therapy, which consists of supporting LGBTQ+ individuals and increasing their confidence, can improve mental health – with your child, research behavioral health care providers who specialize in these services. Additionally, engage in community and school programs that address specific LGBTQ+ risk factors with your child.
- Get Support for You & Your Family: Personal support can assist you and other family members with caring for your LGBTQ+ child and helping to keep them safe, such as a support group specifically for parents or those seeking family or individual therapy.
- Use & Share Correct Pronouns: It is rapidly becoming more common for LGBTQ+ people to introduce themselves with their personal gender pronouns (e.g., she/her, he/him, they/them). Remember, not everyone has a gender identity that we perceive to match their gender appearance. Therefore, make a conscious effort to learn and not assume your child’s or other’s pronouns.
- Open Conversations: Always keeping communication lines open and continuous with your child is a must. This will help you recognize when they need support, and how best you can help.
LGBTQ+ Support for Children & Parents
There are many support organizations, programs and groups that can help your child, other family members and yourself from providing professional information to facilitating shared experiences; for example:
- Family Acceptance Project
- Child Welfare Information Gateway
- National Network of LGBTQ Family Groups