LESBIANS AND ALCOHOL
There has been no research in Britain regarding lesbians and alcohol, although some is currently being conducted. Research in the U.S.A. suggests that between 27-35% of lesbians have alcohol problems.(1) One survey found that lesbians were five times more likely to be heavy drinkers or "alcoholics" than heterosexual women.
It is not lesbianism per se which makes lesbians become alcohol dependent but society's reaction to our lesbianism and our internalisation of this. Schilit, Clark and Shallenberger (1988) suggest that alcohol use by lesbians is connected with "feelings of low self-esteem, depression, anger, frustation, isolation, problems of sexuality...." and that lesbians drink for two main reasons: a) because they socialise primarily in gay bars and b) to 'hide from the world' and to escape from 'their feelings of being different.'(2)
The origins of alcohol misuse, for many lesbians, goes back to adolescence - when they were trying to cope with the possibility of being homosexual. Adolescence is a time when lesbians are most vulnerable to isolation, stigma and internalisation of homophobia which, as Remafedi (1990) suggests:
".... may act in concert with external abuse to heighten the victim's sense of differentness, helplessness, guilt, and shame. Severe anxiety, depression, and self-destructive acts may ensue. Alcohol and drugs may be used to nullify the pain of isolation and derision or to self-medicate depression."(3)
Indeed, Deevey and Wall (1992) state:
"....at present, at least, we know of no lesbian women who use alcohol who seem fully self-accepting. We see alcohol use as one of several strategies for coping with the self-hate of simultaneously accepting and rejecting shaming messages."(4)
Links between alcohol misuse and high levels of suicide attempts by lesbians have already been made. Lesbian Information Service conducted research (1990) into the needs of young lesbians in an area with no support. Of the thirteen participants all used alcohol, nine having serious problems. Nine lesbians had attempted suicide (some several times), three said they had seriously considered suicide. Alcohol and drugs were involved in many of these attempts; only two of those with serious alcohol problems said they had not attempted suicide. We have since interviewed a further five young lesbians: all have attempted suicide, four use alcohol and/or drugs.
During our research one young lesbian said:
"I've had alcohol problems since I was 18. I was getting help, from the Community Alcohol Team, but not now. It did nothing for me. As soon as he'd been I'd go out to the pub ... I didn't talk about the situation about why I'd got into drinking ... We talked about general problems, about the mortgage. He knew I'd split up in a relationship but he didn't know what sex. I saw him for six months, he never raised sexuality."
We visited the Community Alcohol Team and spoke to the Co-ordinator who said it was not the counsellor's task to bring up the subject of sexuality. At the same time, he admitted, "sexuality was the most hidden issue."
We recently contacted several Alcohol Agencies with regard to a booklet about Lesbians and Alcohol we are producing. One manager told me: "In principle it is probably needed" but, she added, they "had no evidence of the need as few lesbians were 'presenting' themselves." A worker at another Agency said: "Other Centres usually shy away from the subject. Some are not even aware of the need." A spokesperson for The Alcohol Counselling and Prevention Services in Brixton said "There is an incredible demand for support for lesbians with drinking problems; we run a lesbians and alcohol group."
Lesbian Information Service are conducting a survey of alcohol agencies in the North West of England, based on an American study which concluded:-
"...[We] found a significant lack of formal training in the treatment of homosexual alcoholics, limited knowledge of community resources, inability to identify gay clientele, little or no gay staffing, failure to actively address the unique treatment issues of this population, judgmental attitudes about homosexuality, and little or no priority for creating more supportive treatment environments for homosexual alcoholics." (5)
We have yet to analyse our findings but so far the results suggests that the situation here is worse. Indeed, one agency manager returned the forty questionnaires we sent for her staff saying that she "did not feel it appropriate to distribute (them)."
We need to acknowledge that many lesbians do have alcohol problems. In the U.S. alcohol misuse in lesbian communities has been taken on in a big way: there have been support groups and special projects since the mid 1970's. Whereas at one time, like it is here now, lesbian communities accepted alcohol misuse as part of lesbian culture. The climate has changed: alcohol misuse is frowned upon; the emphasis now is on coming off alcohol and providing alcohol free spaces.
We need to encourage the same here and set up lesbians-coming-off- alcohol support groups and campaign for proper support and treatment by alcohol agencies. We must also support our lesbian youth and provide alternative support groups/facilities which are alcohol-free and which build up communication and relationship skills, confidence and self-esteem so that they do not need to use alcohol for these purposes: let's help them to avoid our mistakes!
Jan Bridget co-founded Lesbian Information Service (L.I.S.) in 1987. As well as being an archive and research centre based in the North of England, L.I.S. is also a national social and welfare agency which provides support, information and training to individual lesbians, groups, organisations and agencies. We have produced a Lesbians and Alcohol Resource List, £2 and are in the process of producing a booklet for lesbians. For further information, and publications list, write to:- Lesbian Information Service, P.O. Box 8, Todmorden, Lancashire, OL14 5TZ or telephone (0706) 817235.
(1) J.M. Hall, "An Exploration of Lesbians; Images of Recovery from Alcohol Problems," Health Care for Women International, 13 (2), 1992, pp181-198.
(2) R. Schilit, W.M. Clark, E.A. Shallenberger, "Social Supports and Lesbian Alcoholics," Affilia, 3 (2), Summer 1988, pp27-40.
(3) G. Remafedi, "Fundamental Issues in the Care of Homosexual Youth," Adolescent Medicine, 74 (5), 1990, pp1169-1179.
(4) S. Deevey, L.J. Wall, "How Do Lesbian Women Develop Serenity?" Health Care for Women International, 13 (2), 1992, pp199-208.
(5) R.E. Hellman, M. Stanton, J. Lee, A. Tytun, R. Vachon, "Treatment of Homosexual Alcoholics in Government-Funded Agencies: Provider Training and Attitudes," Hospital and Community Psychiatry, 40 (11), Nov 1989, pp1163-1168.