Recovery in ACTION - National Recovery Month

Tom Hill, Project Coordinator

As we honor and promote recovery this month, let's focus on those in our communities who have not yet gotten there. Every day, LGBT individuals face extraordinary barriers to recovery. Some overcome them. Others aren't as fortunate.

The stigma of being an addict is a primary barrier to successful recovery. For a queer person, the stigma of sexual orientation and/or gender identity is an added stigma. If this individual is a woman, a person of color, HIV-positive, disabled, poor or suffers from other oppressions, stigma becomes multiplied. Compounded stigma further reinforces isolation, inhibiting treatment access and the achievement of recovery.

If a LGBT person overcomes the barriers necessary to accessing treatment, s/he will often find more obstacles in place. It is not a question of whether the LGBT person is ready for treatment, but whether the treatment facility is ready for queer clients. In most cases, they aren't. Attitudes of homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism prevail in many treatment facilities. Ignorance and insensitivity among staff and administration of LGBT issues create a climate in which responsibility is placed on the LGBT person to navigate a system that is hostile to them.

Lesbians, gay men and bisexuals who choose to disclose their sexual orientation in treatment settings risk facing discrimination, harassment, ridicule and sometimes violence. Some hide their sexuality. This entails detaching a core aspect of their identity from their addiction. (Studies show that that over one half of all LGBT people receive treatment two or three times before they disclose their sexual identity.) Many folks do not embark on a coming out process until they are fully engaged in the process of recovery. When treatment professionals handle any aspect of queer experience with ignorance and insensitivity, successful recovery is difficult to achieve and maintain. Recovery is dependent on a person receiving support and affirmation that value their identity and experience.

For a person of transgender experience, barriers abound. People of transgender experience are consistently denied treatment because administration and staff lack the necessary skills and training to serve these clients. Trans people who get past an intake often fail to stay. No one wants to remain in a treatment setting that offers recovery in a hostile and threatening atmosphere. Instead, folks often retreat to where they feel comfort and familiarity. Such places can put them at risk of picking up substances. Those who do manage to stick it out in treatment must be subjected to humiliating experiences around treatment plans, gender-specific groups, sleeping arrangements, and the use of bathrooms. All of this is in addition to the usual discrimination, harassment and violence.

People who are seeking help should not be subjected to circumstances such as these. Aside from a few LGBT professionals, there has been no one out there advocating for the needs of queer addicts. SpeakOUT is raising these issues, loud and clear. Many of us are recovering addicts, some of us are friends and family members of the addicted, others simply supporters of recovery. Through SpeakOUT, we have become advocates for queer recovery. We are organizing to impact legislators, policy makers and treatment providers. It's time for us to have an influence in decisions regarding treatment protocols, development of community-based programs, research initiatives, prevention models, and education and training mandates for treatment professionals. We represent communities that are at-risk, inadequately served, barely recognized and barely mentioned. All of this is about to change.

SpeakOUT is sponsoring a Statewide LGBT Recovery Gathering and Policy Conference in Albany on October 14-16. Two days will be spent building community and developing advocacy skills. On the final day, we will meet with New York State legislators and staff at the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS), initiating a dialogue on unmet community needs and recommendations for change. If you are interested in finding out more, call us at 212 620-7310 or email us at speakout@gaycenter.org.