Sounding the Warning Bell About Meth Addiction in the GLBT Community: An Interview with Ryan Hanson

The methamphetamine crisis is something often associated with rural white people bored with small-town life and religion. However, meth has become a serious problem in the urban queer community. It’s something that Pride Institute, a local organization for GLBT treatment services, has been addressing rigorously for a while now.

Pride Outpatient Program Coordinator Ryan Hanson also had extensive experience with the Hazelden treatment center. He shares what he has been observing about the meth crisis in the queer community.

What draws you to this kind of work?

I am continuously amazed at the ability of addicts and alcoholics to persevere. I have never met a boring chemically dependent person. Addicts and alcoholics tend to experience and feel more deeply, are amazingly passionate, and have a capacity for love and growth that is unparalleled. I can’t imagine not doing what I do right now. My move to Pride has allowed me to take the field that I love, and bring my skill into my own community and give something back.

I hear lots of terms thrown about when I hear about methamphetamine. Words like meth, crystal meth, and crank. Are there other terms we should be aware of?

Methamphetamine has a variety of names, depending on some characteristics, and in some cases, which part of the country. Some of the standard names can include meth, crystal, tina, crystal meth, glass, crank, and shards.

There’s an image prevailing out there about rural, uneducated people being the ones who get hooked on methamphetamine. But not sophisticated gay men.

Stereotypes on who uses drugs. Once upon a time, the image sent out by law enforcement was the rural, uneducated, unsophisticated meth addict living in the woods. Clearly, all stereotypes are misleading, and minimize the human factor involved in addictions.

Within the GLBTQ community, regarding addiction in general, and methamphetamine in particular, stereotypes cross over all sociopolitical and economic boundaries. With our community, addiction is as likely to strike the lesbian soccer mom, twink, club kid, active member of the church, weekend partier, theater buff, gym god, rural outdoorsman/woman, business executive, chef, hairdresser, auto mechanic—or the suburban mother, father, or partner. Meth use crosses gender lines, racial lines, and income levels.

What appears consistent is that the GLBTQ community is at a higher rate for chemical dependency issues than the rest of the population. Our community has traditionally experienced prejudice and discrimination, and the internalized shame due to our society places us at higher risk to turn to chemical solutions for self-esteem and emotional needs. Traditionally, our community has had two limited safe havens: accepting churches or gay bars. While the bars did give us an emotionally safe place to express ourselves, it came with the tacit encouragement of chemical use, whether alcohol or other chemicals.

It is so important that we continue to address addiction in our community, including the addiction to nicotine. The GLBTQ community uses nicotine at an increased rate, more than double the rest of the population. Nicotine-related illnesses will kill more GLBTQ community members than all other addictions put together. The more we expose this and discuss it, the sooner we can help our community band together to make changes, and lend one another support.

Gay men seem to be having the biggest problem with meth at the present moment. But what about bisexuals, lesbians, and transgender people?

Gay men are at a much higher risk than the general population for meth addiction. The Pride Institute residential treatment program’s statistics over the past six months show that almost 25 percent of the clients served have had a diagnosis of methamphetamine dependence. The only diagnosis more prevalent is alcohol dependence. Unfortunately, the majority of studies to date have focused on gay men, and have only tangentially included lesbians, bisexual men and women, and transgender or queer persons. We know from our admissions at Pride Institute that all segments of the GLBTQ population are affected, but to what statistical extent has not been accurately measured.

Isn’t meth especially dangerous when it comes to having sex, because of a heightened potential for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)?

There is a very high connection between chemical abuse and unsafe sexual practices, including higher incidence of sexually transmitted diseases. The past number of years has seen the rate of infection in the GLBTQ community increase for HIV, hepatitis, syphilis, and other STDs. One of the draws of meth use is the feeling of invincibility. Under the influence, many users do not engage in safe sexual practices. Many meth users increase their risk factor by using meth and other drugs intravenously. Unsafe sexual compulsivity and sexual addictions can exist independently or concurrently with chemical addictions. Pride Institute does address both chemical addictions and co-occurring sexual-health and sexual-compulsivity issues.

You’ve said it is a myth that there is not an effective treatment for meth addiction.

Treatment for methamphetamine addiction is available and effective. A number of years ago, the Chief of Police in Washington, DC, stated at a luncheon: “Only one in a hundred meth users ever recovers.” This sensationalistic sound bite was used to rewrite laws about meth use and meth users, and to this day, no one knows where this supposed statistic ever came from.

The truth is, methamphetamine addiction and recovery have the same rates of recovery as other addictions when treated appropriately. There are residential and outpatient programs, as well as extended-care programs very familiar with how to effectively treat the emotional, physical, and psychological needs of someone addicted to methamphetamine. Pride Institute is one of those resources. Families, loved ones, and addicted persons need to know that hope exists, and that they can and do recover.

What were your thoughts on the Twin City Gay Men’s Chorus production of Through a Glass Darkly, the opera about meth addiction among gay men?

I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the thoughtful manner in which TCGMC presented Through a Glass Darkly. One of the most important things we can do as a community to address methamphetamine addiction and addiction in general is to make it a topic that is OK to talk about. Addiction is an issue in our community, and we need to educate, inform, and assist one another. The best way to do that is to reach out and speak out. Education, prevention, family services, recovery options, early interventions, and treatment are all necessary components of the recovery continuum, and we need to inform our community that options and resources exist.

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