Research tells us that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are more likely to smoke, drink and use other drugs than our non-LBGT peers.
This research, however, is often viewed as flawed. Those individuals who are willing to participate in research may well be very different from those unwilling to openly identify as GLBT.
There is the belief that many research participants have been drawn from convenience samples of individuals who are members of gay identified groups, attendees at gay events or patrons of gay bars.
As a result, most samples have included a disproportionate number of white, well-educated, middle-class lesbians and gay men who are open about their identity and perhaps more likely to be heavy drinkers or regular illicit drug users.
Studies conducted during the 1970s and early 1980s reported rates of alcohol use and abuse within the gay and lesbian community were up to three and a half times higher than rates among their heterosexual counterparts.
These studies were later regarded as having some major methodological problems, and, as a result, the findings have been questioned.
Recent investigations, employing more rigorous research methods, have identified lower rates than previously suggested, but there remains one area of concern -“ lesbians and alcohol.
Based on the available research, it would appear that fewer lesbians than heterosexual women abstain from alcohol and, even at comparable levels of drinking, lesbians report more alcohol-related problems than heterosexual women.
Also, lesbian drinking does not decline with age as it does among heterosexuals. So why is this such a problem?
Alcohol affects women differently to men. The blood alcohol concentration (BAC) in a woman’s body will almost always be higher than that in a man’s body after drinking exactly the same amount of alcohol.
This is because women tend to have smaller physical builds than men, so alcohol is distributed throughout the body’s water over a smaller volume.
Women also tend to have more fatty tissue than men, and alcohol is not taken up by fatty tissue. As a result, the alcohol will be more concentrated in a woman’s body, producing a higher BAC.
Adding to this, on average, women have smaller livers than men, and the ability to break down alcohol is limited by the size of the liver. It is for these reasons that women often get drunk more quickly than men, and recover from drinking more slowly than men.
As a result, women may develop liver damage and other health problems at lower levels of alcohol consumption than men.
Alcohol use is not an issue we deal with particularly well in the GLBT community. Unfortunately, it is even more hidden within the lesbian community.
More open discussion about this problem and its links with other issues of our community, like domestic violence and the breakdown of relationships, is urgently needed.