Posters around the city, ads in newspapers, and signs on buses directing people to get treatment for meth abuse is nothing new. But the target of many of those ads has changed in the last month.
For 16 years, Seattle Counseling Service (SCS), an LGBT mental-health- and addiction-counseling center, has focused its meth outreach on gay men. A month ago, the organization started something different: Women OUT, a weekly meth-abuse support group for lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LBTQ) women.
"Different women. Different use. Same drug," the ads and flyers say.
"There's been virtually no research done on female meth abusers," says Susan Millender, Women OUT's project manager, who adds that the outreach is badly overdue in the LBTQ community. "What little research there is shows that lesbians are at a higher risk than straight women, and there's been no support in place."
It's somewhat understandable that people don't associate meth abuse with lesbians the same way they do with gay men.
Gay men often use socially—at parties or during sex—which puts them at a higher risk for HIV and AIDS. That's why "all our public-health resources have targeted gay and bi men," says Kris Nyrop, former executive director of Street Outreach Services, a harm-reduction and HIV-prevention organization in King County. "Women have been underserved. I'm happy to see that changing."
LBTQ women are generally solitary abusers who hide their use, a small SCS study of 33 LBTQ meth abusers found. Those women, ranging from 20 to 60 years old, typically used it to enhance their school or work performances or lose weight, says Millender.
While meth-abuse rates are nearly equal between men and women, queer women lack the same support network that many gay male users have, so they tend to abuse the drug without peer-based advice on minimizing the drug's harms. Once they're addicted, LBTQ women also tend to not tell their loved ones—more so than gay men—because of the shame attached to using meth, says Millender.
"I'd say 98 percent of the women we spoke with said they didn't know the drug was so addictive," Millender says. "They didn't know they'd be up for 48 hours straight, not eating or sleeping. They didn't know about the paranoia it causes." Even those who managed to walk away from their addiction did so with little information.
This is where Women OUT comes in. The weekly drop-in group, which meets on Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m. at SCS, gives LBTQ women the community support and harm-reduction services they need to break their addictions. Currently in its second month, the group attracts three LBTQ women on average. More importantly, though, "we've found that women want to be a resource for other women," says Millender. "It's great validation that we're on the right track."