by Mandy Nunes, Assistant Director
October 11, 2023
In the tapestry of human history, the LGBTQ+ community has woven a thread of resilience, creativity, and love that stretches back centuries. Despite monumental progress in recent decades, LGBTQ+ individuals continue to face discrimination, adversity, and stigmatization. This blog aims to explore the intersection of LGBTQ+ history, mental health, addiction, and recovery, shedding light on the unique challenges faced by this community. As a lesbian woman in long-term recovery, who came out at the age of 37, I've witnessed firsthand the transformative power of acceptance, support, and inclusivity from many within recovery communities. Yet, like countless members of the LGBTQ+ community who have come before me, my journey has also been marked by moments of fear, judgment, and significant adversity. Embracing my authentic self has meant navigating a world that, at best, strongly favors heteronormativity, and at worst, as history has shown, can be hostile to individuals like me.
The LGBTQ+ community has a dark but rich history that spans millennia, showcasing immense resilience.
- Sappho and Plato (circa 630 BCE - 347 BCE): Ancient Greece saw the flourishing of same-sex relationships, with figures like Sappho and the philosophical musings of Plato touching on love and desire between individuals of the same gender.
- 1610: Virginia's Sodomy Laws: The Virginia Colony passed the first sodomy laws, imposing the death penalty for offenders. This marked a dark chapter in LGBTQ+ history, as legal persecution took a brutal turn.
- 1641: Massachusetts Broadens Laws to Include Women: Massachusetts expanded on the Virginia legislation, now targeting both male and female same-sex relationships in its penal code.
- Victorian Era (1837-1901): The 19th century was marked by the stifling mores of the Victorian era, imposing strict gender roles and stigmatizing any deviation from the heterosexual norm.
- Section 377 in India (1861): In 1861, India passed Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, criminalizing same-sex relationships. This draconian law persisted for over a century, until it was finally struck down in 2018.
- Havelock Ellis's Pioneering Research (1897): Havelock Ellis challenged prevailing notions with his groundbreaking research on human sexuality. His work laid the foundation for more nuanced understandings of sexual orientation.
- Evelyn Hooker's Trailblazing Study (1957): Evelyn Hooker's paper, "The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual," revolutionized perceptions of homosexuality by demonstrating that homosexual individuals were just as mentally healthy as their heterosexual counterparts.
- Alfred Kinsey's Revolutionary Research (1948-1953): Building on Ellis's work, Alfred Kinsey's studies on human sexuality, notably the Kinsey Scale, revealed that homosexuality was far more common than previously assumed. Kinsey argued that the rigidity of institutions like religion, marriage, and social norms were often more damaging than the sexual behavior itself. He advocated for the change of laws to end bans on specific sexual acts, including homosexuality.
- Frank Kameny's Pioneering Activism (1925-2011): Frank Kameny, an astronomer employed by the US Army Map Service, faced discrimination based on his sexual orientation. When he refused to answer questions about his sexuality, he was terminated. Undeterred, Kameny took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, although he did not succeed. This experience transformed Kameny into a tireless activist. In 1965, he led the picket line at the White House. He collaborated with groups like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, organizing pickets at various government institutions. Kameny also played a pivotal role in the campaign to overturn DC's sodomy laws in 1963. The bill he drafted eventually passed two decades later. His advocacy extended to the removal of the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder from the DSM.
- Stonewall Riots (1969): The Stonewall riots were a watershed moment in LGBTQ+ history. On June 28, 1969, a police raid at the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in New York City, sparked resistance from patrons and activists. The ensuing days of protests, led by transgender women of color like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, marked a turning point. The LGBTQ+ community's defiant stand against police harassment galvanized a broader movement for LGBTQ+ rights, leading to the establishment of Pride parades and a renewed spirit of activism.
- DSM Removal of Homosexuality (1973): A monumental step forward occurred in 1973 when the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, affirming that being LGBTQ+ is not a mental illness.
The classification of homosexuality as a "pathological behavior" in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders had far-reaching consequences. It provided a basis for:
- Justification of Criminal Laws (e.g., 1948 Miller Act): Laws such as the 1948 Miller Act authorized penalties of up to 20 years in prison for individuals engaged in same-sex relationships.
- Explanations for Anti-Gay Laws: The classification was used to rationalize laws against congregating in public places and to support discrimination in public spaces and housing against "known homosexuals."
- Medical "Interventions": This misguided classification led to a range of harmful medical interventions aimed at "treating" same-sex attraction, including lobotomies, sterilization, and hormone injections.
Mental Health Disparities in the LGBTQ+ Community
The discrimination and prejudice that LGBTQ+ individuals face contribute significantly to their higher rates of mental health challenges. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), LGBTQ+ individuals are more likely to experience mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders due to the cumulative effect of societal stigma, discrimination, and isolation.
Statistics reveal that:
- Depression and Anxiety: LGBTQ+ youth are four times more likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety compared to their heterosexual peers.
- Suicide Rates: LGBTQ+ individuals, especially transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, face significantly higher rates of suicide. Studies have shown that transgender individuals are nearly twelve times more likely to attempt suicide.
- Substance Abuse: The LGBTQ+ community faces higher rates of substance abuse disorders compared to the general population. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that 39.1% of LGBTQ+ individuals use illicit substances, compared to 17.1% of heterosexual individuals.
The interplay of addiction with mental health struggles is often profound within the LGBTQ+ community. Substance abuse can frequently serve as a coping mechanism for the discrimination and rejection they face, exacerbating the cycle of addiction and mental health challenges.
Looking back, it’s no surprise that I didn’t come out as a lesbian until I was 37, and until after five years in recovery. The journey was fraught with uncertainty and fear, as societal norms and internalized stigma collided with my newfound sense of self. In many ways, my recovery journey paralleled my journey towards self-acceptance. Both required vulnerability, resilience, and a supportive community.
This history underlines the significant progress made in understanding and advocating for the rights and acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals. However, it also emphasizes the vital work that remains in creating inclusive and equitable communities. Together, we can continue to create safe spaces where members of the LGBTQ+ community can embrace their authentic selves without fear and be welcomed into communities, including behavioral health and recovery communities, with open arms.