Lesbian Day of Visibility: Shining light on LBQ women’s substance use

A new Australian Research Council project will explore higher rates of drinking, smoking and vaping among lesbian, bisexual and queer women.

Dr Ruby Grant

Lesbians, along with bisexual and queer women, have high rates of alcohol and tobacco use, but very little research has taken a closer look as to why.

Australian research shows that lesbian and bisexual women are much more likely to drink alcohol and smoke tobacco than heterosexual women. In Private Lives 3, 16% of lesbian, bisexual and queer (LBQ) women surveyed were current smokers, with 7% smoking daily, while 60% reported potentially risky patterns of alcohol consumption. The SWASH survey of LBQ women engaged with Sydney’s LGBTQ+ communities has also found high rates of drinking and smoking in this community, with only slight reductions over time. In SWASH 2020, 27% of participants had used e-cigarettes or vaped, suggesting that this may be an emerging practice among this group.

Substance use has often been linked to minority stress for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) people, with high rates of alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use in our communities often being explained as coping mechanisms for those experiencing stigma and marginalisation. But this is only one part of the story. We know that alcohol and drug use can play an important role in the culture of LGBTQ+ communities, helping us to unwind, have fun, express ourselves and connect with others. Alcohol and tobacco also have a long history in lesbian bar scenes, with pubs, cafes, and house parties being key sites of lesbian sociability for decades. However, women’s alcohol and other substance use have often been stigmatised, due to gendered norms around intoxication and risk, meaning that there is less consideration of LBQ women’s experiences and needs in this space.

The National Alcohol Strategy (2019–28) recognises LGBTQ+ communities as a priority population for intervention, but improved health and social outcomes will not be achieved without a better understanding of smoking and alcohol cultures among LBQ women. For this reason, ARCSHS will soon be launching a new research project, QSOX – Queer Women’s Substance Use Over Time, to explore LBQ women’s alcohol, tobacco, and vape use in Victoria and New South Wales.

This exciting new project will be the first of its kind to track LBQ (cisgender and transgender) women’s experiences and perceptions of substance use over an 18-month period, capturing how their drinking, smoking, and vaping habits may change over time. Drawing on interviews and participant photography, this project hopes to start new conversations about the role of substances in LBQ women’s spaces, communities, and everyday lives, with a view to informing more inclusive smoking cessation and alcohol support services.

Funded by the Australian Research Council and conducted alongside Thorne Harbour Health, ACON, LGBTIQ+ Health Australia, Quit Victoria, and the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association, this project is a true partnership between researchers, service providers, and community groups, with the aim of improving health and wellbeing for women in our communities.

By making LBQ women’s stories of substance use visible through research and photography, this project will help provide a more complete picture of how alcohol, tobacco, and vaping feature in the lives of LBQ women.

We will soon be seeking participants for this project. If you are a lesbian, bisexual, or queer woman (cisgender or transgender) living in Victoria or New South Wales who drinks alcohol, smokes cigarettes, or vapes, we want to hear from you! Contact Dr Ruby Grant on r.grant@latrobe.edu.au for more information about this project.