We are, as a nation, less religious and more diverse than ever before.
Gay people have more rights, are better protected by the law, and should enjoy a greater sense of equality in our day-to-day lives. Yet, the gay community does not seem to be as happy as perhaps it should be. Some gay men continue to fall into a lifestyle of destruction and self-harm fuelled by a crisis of gay identity. Why is this?
Last week QX looked at the troubling issues at the core of this crisis; lack of self-worth; feelings of abnormality; sex issues; ageism; and fixation on the body beautiful. We also touched on a controversial issue that contributes towards, or at the very least exacerbates, this identity crisis, one that can rip apart our communities, destroy lives and threatens the very core of the gay scene. The issue – the elephant in the room – is of the abuse of drugs…
THE TIMES, THEY ARE A’ CHANGING
Drugs have been – and will continue to be – a part of wider society, for as far back as history dictates and as far into the future as we can imagine. It’s a basic human desire to alter one’s consciousness, whether that’s a lunch break ciggie at work or a line of coke at a club.
Of course the use of any drug, whether legal or illegal, socially accepted or frowned upon, brings with it risk and dangers to the user. But as Professor David Nutt – the infamous professor who so upset the government by criticising the current classification system so harshly suggests, the current drugs laws are not working because they ignore the basic truth that “drugs are taken for pleasure”. That’s not going to change. But, what is changing is the substances people are turning to.
As David Stuart, from Antidote – the UK’s only LGBT targeted drug and alcohol service – points out, the gay scene has always been pretty un-judgemental about drugs. “Drug and alcohol use is so normalized on our scene; historically, it’s not been too frowned upon, at least from within our community.”
But this could be changing as a tide of stories concerning drug related deaths on the scene has been blown up into the public eye. “People are alarmed by the GBL deaths that occur from time to time and make the press; people are frustrated with the chill-out parties ruined by guests passing out on G, and bars and clubs are concerned that the night-time economy is threatened by the alarming number of drug emergencies that threaten to close venues.”
Stuart argues it’s possible that “gay society has fallen out of love with the hedonism we used to enjoy.”
Health promotion specialist Paul Steinberg argues that it’s the early adoption of new club drugs that is specific to the gay scene and that is causing these issues. “I think there has always been something about gay subcultures which have been more experimental and more hedonistic than the mainstream. Often that’s why trends start underground on the gay scene before they filter out to wider society. That’s true of fashion, music, dance crazes – and it also seems to be true of drugs.”
He continues, “We have also seen there being easier access to these drugs through the internet – particularly “legal highs” and these other new drugs which are actually prohibited – and of course many of these substances are, by their very chemical nature, addictive.”
The new substances that people are turning to, namely mephedrone, GBL and crystal meth, are bringing with them a whole new range of dangerous behaviours. Staying up for three days at a time, missing days of work, new ways of taking drugs like ‘slamming’ (taking mephedrone or crystal intravenously), all bring with them new risks and troubles. Stuart points out that where less than 5% of gay men approaching Antidote were injecting Mephedrone in 2010, that number has grown to 80% in the last 12 months.
Looking back, Stuart suggests that the substances of choice in the past were not so damaging.
“The party drugs on the scene ten years ago just weren’t that harmful, or sexual. Ecstasy was about grinding your teeth, hearing dance music in your head, and wanting to be hugged. Coke was about chatty dinner parties, sometimes twitchy sex and interrupting whatever you’re doing to do another line every 20 minutes.”
The new club drugs, however, are “incredibly addictive, and with some devastating consequences associated.”
“Ten years ago, HIV was the biggest threat to gay men’s health and well-being; today, the biggest threat to gay men’s health and well-being is the epidemics of Tina, G and Meph. They are destroying lives, and some would say, our scene.”
SEX, DRUGS & LOSING CONTROL
Insatiable sexual desire, lowered inhibitions, three day benders as standard. These are all effects of the new range of drugs now so popular in the gay community. And the net result – huge risk taking with bareback sex and multiple partners each weekend.
“The average Tina user at our clinics”, says Stuart, “has condom-less sex with between 5 and 10 men each drug episode; the HIV positive clients rarely remember to take their HIV meds while high, meaning they are more virulent than they may know. And more than half of our HIV negative clients have done two or more courses of PEP in the last year, following chem-sex.”
STI rates are soaring, HIV diagnosis is at an all-time high – 2011 saw the largest number of new HIV diagnoses in gay men in British history – and expectations of how guys need to behave to fit in on the scene are pushing the crisis further toward self destruction.
“Ten years ago,” says Stuart, “‘fitting in’ meant being fit enough to take your top off on a dancefloor; today, to some, ‘fitting in’ means having porn star sex confidently at a chem-sex party.”
The result is that guys are becoming uncomfortable with the idea of sex without drugs. Stuart says there are “many men who are very uncomfortable with sober sex, fearing rejection, anxious about intimacy, needy of the immediate affirmations that come with repeated sexual encounters, but feeling empty and lonely afterward.”
So the lack of self-worth at the core of the gay identity crisis, leads to a desire for repeat partners and said porn-star sex, but which ultimately leave people feeling empty.
Steinberg suggests, “We’re forgetting the basics of safer sex and developing an online language of our own ‘bb, ff, chems’. The scene offers a particularly escapist lifestyle … which is enhanced, shall we say, by drink, drugs and lots of casual sex.
“For the most part, people seem to negotiate their way through that minefield, finding the fun, the enjoyment – and often the friends and partners they want to grow older with. But some people get caught up in the party, and don’t manage to find that equilibrium, or that way into a more moderated lifestyle. Ultimately, we know that a majority of gay men want a relationship, based around an emotional and sexual connection with their partner [European Gay Men’s Internet Sex Survey, 2011], but I don’t think we’ve been very good at promoting gay relationships on our scene or in wider society, as much as we have tried to promote safer sex.”
Stuart agrees that drug usage isn’t always problematic. “It’s not always that complicated,” he says. “There are a lot of very esteemed men who use drugs recreationally, now and then, perhaps on a Bank Holiday. Being informed and esteemed is much more important when playing with these modern drugs, than it was with ecstasy or coke. Tina, G and Meph are very dangerous in the hands, or bloodstream, of a poorly-informed gay man looking to party.”
For those who feel the balance has tipped and they’re losing control, it’s time to break the vicious cycle of ever-growing benders, crushing come-downs, and ever-depleting sense of self-worth. Because the outcome – the feeling that instant gratification is the only way to feel complete, albeit fleetingly – could tear the scene apart.
OUTSIDE THE LAW?
One widely-reported change that could soon be adopted is a change to the legal classification systems. Stuart is quick to point out that the current drug system doesn’t work well for gay people. “LGBT people suffer terribly for a policy that prioritises heroin and crack cocaine use, where drug services are funded according to the amount of crimes committed as a result of drug use,” he says.
“Less than 2% of LGB or T people use crack cocaine or heroin, less than 2% of LGB or T people commit crimes to get their drugs. There is an argument that we would be better served by a policy that focuses more on health and well-being than it does on crime, as modelled by some other countries.”
There is chance this could change with the recent recommendation from the influential Commons home affairs select committee that the government should look into alternatives to Britain’s failing drug laws, including decriminalisation and legalisation. But government sources were dismissive of the move to a royal commission as “simply not necessary”, insisting drug use in Britain was at its lowest level since records began. That may be true of the wider community – but certainly isn’t the case within the gay community, which is seeing a widespread rise of drug use.
There is also a lack of understanding of specific gay issues relating to drug usage within the mainstream healthcare service. Stuart argues that “if drug policy could adapt faster to changing trends, i.e. club drugs, and their dangers, there would be less of a scramble by services to provide appropriate care.”
Drugs on the scene aren’t about to disappear. Trying to tackle the issue with tougher laws and closing venues down will not make a difference. A generation of well-balanced, happy gay people, who like to party but know when to stop, will come about when young people are taught from day one that same-sex love is equal to any other type, and the religious institutions and homophobe politicians start to veer away from the hateful anti-gay language that they so freely espouse.
For Steinberg “there is still something potentially very deeply damaging about growing up gay or lesbian in a world which always assumes heterosexuality, and makes you feel wrong or bad or abnormal for having same-sex desires.”
When homosexual, bi and trans sexuality becomes incidental, when it ceases to be an issue in day-to-day life, and when the full breadth of meaning of what sexuality can mean is understood by society at large and those in the gay ‘community’, perhaps the gay identity crisis will ease. But for now, some common sense advice: Be informed. Be esteemed. Drugs aren’t evil, they just have consequences, and using drugs without a self-esteem, or without being informed of the dangers/consequences, will lead to trouble.
By Jonny Marsh
If you or someone close to you needs help with drug addiction, please contact
Last week’s article on Gay Identity is available at