Queers, Overdose and COVID-19 – Part I

By Kori Doty

Kori is a non-binary genderqueer trans person with more than a decade of community facilitation experience. They specialize in sexual health, harm reduction, community organizing, technical knowledge exchange and radical approaches to wellness. This is part one of a two-part piece on Covid-19 and the Overdose and Fentanyl poisioning crisis in the queer community.

The Historical Contexts

Within the lives of our living elders there were criminal and diagnostic codes that classified LGBTQ identities and desires as perverse and criminal. Some among us served time in psychiatric facilities and jails as well as lost jobs, homes, and families due to laws that outlawed our genders and sexualities. In the days of criminalized queerness, gay bars were often run by underground crime syndicates that used the sale of alcohol and drugs to pay off police in order to provide safety. This exchange wasn’t always reliable, and events leading up to and including the stonewall uprising are examples of when these arrangements failed to serve, but ultimately opened the doors towards liberation.

Since Stonewall, wherever you are looking into queer communities celebrating, it is an incredibly rare occurrence to find an event that is not awash in legal and illegal use of the things we use to alter our states. Throughout our history, our communities have been targeted through marketing, predatory funding initiatives and also through the trends of our gathering spaces being bars and clubs where alcohol, tobacco and other drug use is built in. Our “safe spaces” have almost always been either explicitly or implicitly driven by the sale and consumption of substances.

As drug war era policies started coming into place in Canada and the USA in the 1970s they were designed to impede social movements, including Black and Queer liberation and the anti-war left. As the drug war ramped up, it did nothing to end drug use, but harmed users by leaving the supply quality unpredictable and often poisoned, impeding access to harm reduction and recovery services and criminalizing users, especially BIPOC folks, with jail time and disenfranchisement.

Timing of this overlaps with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which was also ravaging our communities while government agencies failed to respond in timely or appropriate ways. Gay lives were treated as disposable in an epidemic impacted certain groups more than others. IV drug users, sex workers and racialized groups were impacted disproportionately along with gays by HIV/AIDS, and the stigma that fell across all of our communities, the places they overlap and the places they don’t, informed public health responses that were abysmal. As a result of all of these failures, our communities needed to organize from the grassroots as a matter of life or death. Organizations like AIDS Vancouver, Friends For Life, YouthCO, VANDU, PACE and INSITE came out of a need to meet the needs of and advocate for communities impacted by public health crisis that went unaddressed by officials.

There is No Us and Them

Queer and Trans people have all the same reasons (and more) as our cis, hetero counterparts to use and misuse drugs. As understandings of addiction and substance use/misuse are now telling us that trauma, dislocation, isolation, discrimination and disenfranchizement all are more “gateway drugs” than the “devil’s weed” we were warned about in DARE. We know that queer and trans people use drugs, we use legal and illegal substances recreationally, ritualistically, and even problematically. As our community spaces have been built into and out of bars and parties that are fueled by alcohol and drugs, breaking patterns of problematic substance use while maintaining connection to community can be incredibly challenging. Party and Play (PNP) use, hustling, interactions with HIV meds or PREP, and the ways that our communities can be woven together are specifics that conventional recovery or use reduction programs can lack cultural competency with. This led to the creation of programs like PRISM and Meth Sex at HIM, but these programs are limited, and have been impacted along with all other services through Covid 19 shutdowns. 

Many queer Vancouverites also work in front line social service, the adage being “If East Van Queers were a small town, Raincity is the mill.” As the opioid crisis has ramped up over the past 5 years, even folks who aren’t drug users personally have been deeply impacted by the vicarious trauma of watching and attempting to revive friends, neighbours, clients and lovers many of whom we have now lost. This amount of grief has led to more people self medicating, while the supply of drugs, not just opioids, has become increasingly toxic. The nature of a prohibition drug market is that you can never be sure what is in your drugs, and the nature of free market capitalism is that every time it changes hands, efforts to increase profits mean the amount of adulterants, additives and cuts goes up. As a result, even for occasional users getting just a little bump every once in a while, the risk of fentanyl poisoning increases at every level of the supply chain.


Find Kori on the web at www.koridoty.com or on Facebook at Kori Doty Educator