Guest Opinion: Reflections on homophobia and LGBTQ youthsmoking trends

  • by Lee Staub
  • Wednesday November 9, 2011
Share this Post:

October 13, 1998 is a day that will burn in my memory forever. It was the day after Matthew Shepard, a college student from Laramie, Wyoming, was savagely beaten and left strung on a fence to die. His life was cut short for no other reason than he was a young gay man who strolled into the wrong bar at the wrong time. As a 16-year-old struggling with my own sexual and gender identity, I remember reading an article in the local newspaper about Shepard on my way to school that windy fall morning. I so clearly recall sitting in my English composition class that same day listening to my classmates around me calling each other "faggot" and "gay." I sat there on the margins of the classroom, my fearful silence fanning the flames of the anger that burned inside.

In many ways, things are better for today's LGBT youth than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. The mainstream LGBT rights movement made considerable strides over the past 10 years in the fight for marriage equality and most recently the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." However, queer and transgender youth still struggle with an escalated level of stress that may be compounded by other intersecting forms of oppression such as abelism, racism, and classism. It is no walk in the park to be a LGBTQ youth in today's society. "A lot of my friends, like myself, are part of the LGBTQ community, and have to deal with constant scrutiny not only for being out to society but also for the things we do as teenagers," stated Donovan, a recent Irvington High School graduate.

Last year Dan Savage launched the It Gets Better project, which sought to shed light upon the epidemic of suicide and bullying afflicting LGBTQ youth across the nation. This campaign brought a lot of national attention to the fact that many LGBTQ youth experience higher levels of stress than many of their heterosexual peers due to living in a homophobic and transphobic society. Of the youth that do survive the taunting and teasing, how many turn to tobacco, alcohol, or other types of substance use to cope with the stress?

In 2009, the National Youth Advocacy Coalition conducted a nationwide research project that focused upon smoking trends among LGBTQ youth (ages 18-24). Their research found that of 989 questionnaires received (88 of which were committed due to missing or insufficient data)   and about 50 focus group participants, a total of 51 percent of the respondents reported ever smoking and 42 percent considered themselves current smokers. Equally alarming is the fact that 20 percent of the self-identified non-smokers considered themselves "social smokers." The findings from NYAC's study is consistent with a 2004 California LGBT Tobacco Use survey that found that 44 percent of queer and transgender youth smoke cigarettes; two and a half times as much as their straight peers.

Jose Armenta, a 22-year-old college student and aspiring filmmaker, was in third grade when he tried his first cigarette. Even as a child he describes experiencing pressure to conform to dominant ideals of masculinity.

"The older kids told me I had to smoke [a cigarette] if I want to be a real man," he said. "And there goes my dumb ass stealing a cigarette from my uncle's room. I lit the smoke and oh, my god! It tasted horrible. I was coughing so badly. It made me dizzy, but I told the other kids it was so good and then they told me I was the man! Can you believe I was the man! Even though I was in third grade I was the man! And I was accepted among my buddies."

Armenta has been smoking cigarettes on and off since high school. He started smoking regularly to fit in among his peers: "I wanted to have a lot of friends. I wanted to be the guy everybody was talking about. I did not care if cigarettes gave me cancer or other serious diseases. I was young and I was invincible, plus I had my own crew. I was accepted for being a gay guy that smoked at school." Smoking created a facade of security and acceptance for Armenta. With each wisp of smoke came the illusion of rebellion, of masculinity, of an iconic-like coolness that clouded the stark reality of addiction and dependence. While he is well aware of the health risks associated with smoking and has made multiple quit attempts he still relies upon cigarettes not only to manage his stress and anxiety, but even to help meet other guys: "It's a good ice-breaker."

For many LGBTQ youth, like Armenta, smoking can serve a very specific purpose. "Smoking with a group of other LGBTQ identified people not only gave them a social space to make friends, but it was a vehicle for bonding over the stresses of being discriminated against for being LGBTQ at school and with their families and friends," according to the NYAC survey. Many of the youth that participated in this study suggested that smoking is just a normal part of LGBTQ culture. Calvin, a gay 19-year-old college student, echoed a similar observation when asked about his perception of smoking trends within the LGBTQ community. "It seems like a normal thing to do," he said.

When did smoking become such a "normal" part of queer and transgender culture?

With all the recent attention to bullying and the high suicide rates among LGBTQ youth it is vital to be aware of the many other insidious ways that homophobia and transphobia is wreaking havoc upon our youth. Sure, queer and transgender youth need to know that "it gets better," and more importantly they need to know that they can be empowered to "make it better," but what exactly does "better" look like? What are we as a community working toward? I hope for a society where LGBTQ youth don't need cigarettes or alcohol to cope with discrimination and harassment. I wish for a plethora of safe spaces outside of the bar scene where queer and transgender youth can meet others like them and build community. Smoking does not need to be a normal part of LGBTQ culture. It is time that we as a community kick our dependence upon tobacco. We are better than this.

Lee Staub is a health education coordinator at Tri-City Health Center in Fremont. For free help quitting smoking call 1-800-NO-BUTTS. Connect with Just for Us LGBT Tobacco Prevention Project online: Blog:; Twitter: @queerpinklungs; Facebook: Just for Us – LGBT Tobacco Prevention Project.