On Monday, Christine Hallquist won Vermont’s Democratic Primary in the contest to become the state’s next governor. In a state where the governorship has passed back and forth from Democratic to Republican hands on an every-other-person basis since the 1960s, a Democratic Primary victory typically does not make news. But this year is different. Christine Hallquist is the first transgender governor candidate nominated by a major party.
Hallquist’s victory is an historic step towards the normalization of people who identify as LGBTQI+ as legitimate holders of public office. Just as significant, Hallquist’s win helps to reposition the spotlight on the substance use disorders (SUDs) and mental health issues plaguing the LGBTQI+ community at rates higher and more harmful than people who identify as heterosexual.
For too long the LGBTQI+ community has been marginalized, stigmatized, and prejudiced against when it comes to SUDs and mental health. They suffer the many of the same addiction and treatment problems facing heterosexuals; because of longstanding—albeit, fading—biases, they are more likely to experience SUDs, suicidal tendencies, discrimination, and disparate care.
According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), LGBTQI+ individuals are “3 times more likely than others to experience a mental health condition such as major depression or generalized anxiety disorder.” This is largely due to the pressures of coming out and the fear of being rejected not only by loved ones but by the community at large, which can lead to anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance use, and suicide.
A 2016 study supported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found LGBTQI+ community members were more likely to use illicit drugs in the past year, to be current cigarette smokers, and to be current alcohol drinkers compared to heterosexuals.
Non-heterosexuals are at an increased risk of experiencing discrimination within a number of community institutions. The Center for American Progress found that 43 percent of gay and 90 percent of transgender people have experienced workplace discrimination and harassment. Nearly 60 percent of gay and 70 percent of transgender people have experienced housing discrimination, including being denied affordable housing. Gay adults are about twice as likely to be without health insurance, making their healthcare less accessible and more expensive.
Race and ethnicity also weigh heavily on LGBTQI+ people. Those who identify as Hispanic face an additional burden because, according to a 2017 study published in American Journal of Men’s Health, “it is feared they will display effeminate behaviors, violating traditional codes of masculinity.” They are pressured to conform to rigid gender roles and when they fail to do so, they face higher rates of family rejection. This can lead to depression and in their despair gay Hispanic men are more likely to engage in sexual practices with high-risk exposure to HIV.
There are a number of measures we can take to ensure the safety and good health of the LGBTQI+ community. We must acknowledge that their sexual orientation and preferences do not define them and should have no impact on their basic human rights, including access to health services, housing, and fair employment practices.
We must also put into place effective treatment infrastructure for those in need. This includes opening and properly staffing facilities, residential homes, and clinics; implementing community programs to educate and inform the general public; and advocating at the local, state, and federal government levels. All of this will lead to reducing stigmas, but we must take care to do this in both the long-term and the short-term.
Christine Hallquist’s primary win is incredibly important to the LGBTQI+ community not only because it advances the cause in terms of political trajectory, but because it helps emphasize that this community is composed of people with more incidents of SUDS than heterosexuals but are receiving less care.
The Gándara Center fully recognizes the rights and needs of the LGBTQI+ community. Our youth residential programs have the capacity to, and are operated by staff trained to, engage and support this population.