There is a lively debate in the LGBT community over what constitutes gay culture. Is it several cultures within one culture? Do lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people each have their own cultures? Gay culture is as diverse as all its members. However, there is no question that many LGBT individuals experience a way of life that is considered a culture. Although lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals from different backgrounds experience their communities differently, they share the belief in the legitimacy of their way of life. Substance abuse treatment providers should understand that the gay community possesses common knowledge, attitudes, and behavioral patterns and has its own legacy, argot, folklore, heritage, and history.
Gay culture is different in the degree to which it is submerged within other cultures and in the way that these cultures tend to affect it. LGBT people’s behavior is still stigmatized, and because there is usually no way of identifying LGBT people apart from their own disclosure or identification with gay culture, gay culture is essentially hidden in the larger community.
In contrast to how members of ethnic cultures are marginalized, LGBT individuals may receive disapproval and censure from those whom they most trust and rely on—parents, relatives, religious leaders, teachers, and friends. Most members of ethnic minorities can escape discrimination by returning to a supportive family or neighborhood. This is not always true for LGBT persons. When they are growing up, their positive role models are not easy to identify. This isolation sets LGBT minority members apart from ethnic minority group members who are usually in close proximity to other members. The LGBT culture is one that is not developed, taught, or transmitted by families.
Although homosexuality has existed throughout the ages and in many different cultures, gay culture as it is known today began to emerge in 1969, when the New York City police raided a popular gay bar, the Stonewall Inn. At the time, raids of gay bars were conducted regularly with little resistance. However, that night the event erupted into a violent protest as the crowd fought back. The protests that followed, known as the Stonewall Riots, gave birth to the gay rights movement. Before Stonewall, public expression of LGBT life and experience was rare.
The gay rights movement spawned calls for gay pride and civil rights. Since Stonewall, some aspects of gay culture have blossomed. Gay media, books, magazines, movies, newspapers, and Internet sites abound. Attention is lavished on gay heroes—public figures who are “out” and who work to improve the lives of LGBT individuals. Many large companies market their products or services to the lesbian and gay community. Several LGBT organizations exist, and many companies have LGBT employee organizations.
Part of gay culture is a celebration of being gay. Gay pride celebrations are held in June to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. At gay pride celebrations, the invisible LGBT minority makes itself visible and celebrates its uniqueness, the struggle for civil rights, the cultural gains, and its heroes. The event usually consists of a parade, musical entertainment, and art events showcasing LGBT authors and performing artists and is attended by representatives of LGBT social and service organizations. Gay pride celebrations provide an opportunity for substance abuse treatment providers to reach out to the LGBT community.
An aspect of the debate within the gay community about gay culture involves gay rights. Because public acceptance is important, many LGBT persons want to advance the message that LGBT individuals are no different from non-LGBT persons. Some LGBT persons worry that highlighting the similarities and the positive aspects of gay culture will mean the loss of that culture as the LGBT community is accepted into mainstream culture. Some believe that the gay community should try to transform mainstream society rather than join it. Another aspect of the debate involves some LGBT individuals who believe there is only one way to be gay and do not honor LGBT persons with other lifestyles or opposing views. Bisexuals have complained that lesbians and gay men do not accept bisexuality as a legitimate sexual orientation but regard it as a developmental phase on the way to acceptance of lesbianism or homosexuality exclusively. Substance abuse treatment providers should keep in mind that this disagreement may be very confusing to clients who are questioning their sexual orientation or to self-identified LGBT clients who may feel unaccepted by the LGBT community because they have a different lifestyle.
Values. Compassion and authenticity are important ideals for LGBT individuals. The abilities to invent their own relationships, cultivate the arts, build a community, and create a culture are sources of pride in the LGBT community.
Language. Some LGBT individuals disapprove of the words used to describe them, and the reasons can be helpful in understanding LGBT clients. For some LGBT people, the term “homosexual” overemphasizes sexuality and seems to indicate that the sex act is more important to homosexuals than it is to heterosexuals. It also resurrects memories of when homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder. Hence, the words “homo,” “bi,” “queer,” or “gay” are preferred by some LGBT persons. However, some LGBT persons are offended by the term “queer.” Some lesbians may prefer to be called dyke or gay, instead of lesbian. Transgender persons may prefer the less clinical term “trans.” It is important to call a transgender client by his or her preferred name and always to use the gender designation that the client has chosen. Given these conflicting opinions, providers should ask a self-identified LGBT client what he or she prefers to be called. The choice is a conscious and sometimes rather emotional decision and should be honored. A provider’s sensitive use of language can be an important sign of respect and can help create a healing environment for LGBT clients. When clients are confused and questioning their sexual orientation, the provider should be sensitive to the clients’ confusion.
LGBT individuals have a creative vocabulary on the subject of sexual orientation because they may often use code words for safety reasons. For example, a gay man or lesbian uses the following to acknowledge someone with a same-sex preference: one of us, family, member of the church, cousin, colleague, or brother or sister. The vocabulary varies, and providers should listen carefully and ask questions about the meaning and use of unfamiliar terms.
Nonverbal behavior. LGBT individuals rely tremendously on nonverbal cues to establish whether the situation is safe for them to be themselves. As they walk into a treatment center, they will be looking for evidence that they are accepted and welcome. Do they see a rainbow-colored flag? A “Straight But Not Narrow” bumper sticker? Is there a mission statement that includes a commitment to honoring diversity or a commitment to treating LGBT clients? Do they see gay or lesbian staff members? Until the LGBT client feels a degree of safety, he or she will be guarded. A provider who is unaware of this may believe that he or she is seeing the client’s real personality when, in fact, the client is on alert and hiding it from the provider. It is important for providers to signal respect, open mindedness, and acceptance by using appropriate gestures and vocabulary.
Learning styles. Much of what is taught by institutions and teachers does not reflect the personal experiences of many LGBT people. Experiential learning techniques such as roleplays may be more appropriate, and peers with similar experiences are likely to have influence. Any materials used in treatment that acknowledge the LGBT experience will be more effective than those that do not mention it.
Healing. LGBT individuals may distrust the medical establishment and may be somewhat more likely than the general population to rely on the personal experiences of those they trust or other LGBT persons to select providers and treatments.