Substance abuse is an epidemic among gay men. While meth is the drug most cited by the media, it’s not the only one causing problems.
Risky behaviors include having unprotected group sex or sharing needles. Such behaviors increase the odds of contracting HIV, hepatitis, and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Casual observers probably see these behaviors as gay men misbehaving or simply trying to have a good time. While that may be true sometimes, there are also proven psychological explanations behind these behaviors.
In fact, some professionals blame the high rates of substance abuse on the internalized shame and homophobia gay men experience in childhood.
Read on to learn how internalized shame and homophobia impact substance abuse in gay men.
An Overview Of The Cass Identity Model
One of the first researchers to study identity development in LGBTQ people was Vivian Cass. Cass, a psychologist and sex therapist, developed a model that viewed LGBTQ individuals as normal people living in a heterosexist society. She viewed this society as frequently homo- and biphobic.
Her idea doesn’t sound that radical today, but it was in 1979. Cass was one of the first academics to view society as heterocentric, rather than seeing homo- and bisexuality as the problem.
The Cass model breaks down LGBTQ identity development into six stages. We’ll briefly cover these stages to better understand gay and bisexual men’s behavior. But before we get into Cass’s model, it’s important to keep a few things in mind.
First, not everyone goes through the stages in order. Some people may skip stages or go back to previous stages. What’s more, this model may be less applicable in other countries or cultures. Every culture has a unique process for identity formation, whether through socioeconomic status, religion, race/ethnicity, or age. As such, no single model can completely describe identity development.
With these caveats in mind, let’s look at Cass’s six stages of LGBTQ identity development.
- Identity confusion – Most people enter the first stage after assuming a heterosexual or gender-conforming (cisgender) identity. This identity may come into question when thoughts, emotions, or physical reactions, don’t align with being heterosexual or cisgender. Individuals stay in this stage as long as they avoid situations that call their sexual orientation into question. Similarly, some men remain in this stage through denial or avoidance.
- Identity comparison – If the first stage doesn’t end with denial or avoidance, an individual moves to the identity comparison stage. In this stage, people may feel socially alienated, out of place, or like they’re different.
- Identity tolerance – In this stage individuals show a greater level of commitment to their gay identity. Here, individuals may begin to think “I am probably gay.” Men in this stage may seek out gay subculture. They may also question whether there’s a place for them within this group. At the same time, they may feel increasingly more isolated from their heterosexual identity. Finally, the gay identity is seen as something to tolerate and is not yet completely accepted.
- Identity acceptance – This stage involves more interaction and/or connection with the LGBTQ community. Men in this stage may start to validate their identity. In addition, they may develop a preference for being around others who are LGBTQ. They may also view the legitimacy of their homosexual identity in one of two ways. The first is to identify as gay only in private. The second is to identify as gay both publicly and privately. The first way can lead to attempts at passing as heterosexual, limiting contact with the LGBTQ community, or disclosing sexual identity only to individuals who will keep it confidential. The second option usually leads individuals to the fifth stage, identity pride.
- Identity pride – Individuals in this stage clearly identify with the LGBTQ community and choose it over the heterosexual community. Because mainstream society often rejects homosexuality, individuals may devalue heterosexuals and heteronormative societal values in an attempt to revalue LGBTQ people.
- Identity synthesis – Men in this stage feel proud of their LGBTQ identity, but don’t feel the need to reject the heterosexual world in order to confirm their queer identity. What’s more, men who reach this stage see being gay as one of their many identities, rather than as a singular defining identity.
Cass Identity Model And Substance Abuse In Gay Men
Being able to create and maintain an LGBTQ identity often presents daily challenges and stressors. For example, LGBTQ people may face rejection, homophobia (both external and internal), and low self-esteem as a result of their minority identity. These experiences can lead to self-hatred and self-devaluation, both of which contribute to substance abuse and addiction.
Another connection between Cass’s model and substance abuse is that not every LGBTQ person reaches a level of acceptance about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Some may feel afraid of their identity, or like they lack the societal support to fully embrace it. These stressors may lead some LGBTQ people to use substances as a way of self-medicating.
Similarly, some LGBTQ people may experience social isolation as a result of familial or societal rejection. This isolation is a significant risk factor for drug or alcohol use. Over time, individuals may become more reliant on substances to maintain denial of their identity, to cope with rejection, or to numb feelings of guilt, anxiety, and depression.
The Velvet Rage And Substance Abuse In Gay Men
Cass’s model served as an inspiration for psychologist Alan Downs’s groundbreaking book, The Velvet Rage. Downs’s book modernizes and modifies Cass’s stages into what he calls the Three Stages of Shame.
The first stage is characterized by overwhelming feelings of shame about being gay. In addition, men in this stage may stay in denial about their sexual orientation by “splitting” or leading a double life.
Men in the second stage are overwhelmed by the idea that who they are is wrong, according to Downs. This idea often triggers addictive and self-destructive behaviors like substance abuse and anonymous group sex.
In the final stage, resolution, gay men become whole. Gay men in this stage come to accept that being happy is compatible with being gay.
La Fuente Is A Leader In LGBTQ-Affirmative Substance Abuse Treatment
At La Fuente Hollywood Treatment Center, we’re members of the LGBTQ community, too. We understand what it feels like to live with the fear, shame, and intolerance that comes from being an LGBTQ person in a straight world.
As one of the only LGBTQ-affirmative substance treatment centers in the United States, we’re committed to providing the highest-quality care for members of our community.
If you’re interested in learning more about our substance abuse treatment center in Los Angeles, California, please complete the form below. A member of our staff will contact you within 24 hours.