The majority of Canadians view cannabis use as somewhat, or completely acceptable1, but research on cannabis use continues to stigmatize certain groups, like lesbian, bisexual, trans, and queer (LBTQ) women. LBTQ women who use cannabis are often portrayed as lacking agency and their cannabis use is viewed as uniquely harmful. Our work paints a different picture.
To get a better idea of how cannabis use impacts the experiences of LBTQ women, I worked with LGBTQIA+ youth (aged 15-24) in Quebec. Without constraining the participants to specific survey questions, we asked them instead to represent their experiences with identity, mental health and cannabis use by taking photographs.
Hind, 20: "Since I started smoking, I started to have a lot of distance from the person I was before I came to Canada and how much I was trying to fit into those standards. I started to feel like this dress wasn’t me, it was someone else wearing it. It had a lot to do with my questioning of my sexuality and gender expression."
The creativity and resistance of many LBTQ women such as Hind, a 20-year old queer and cis woman, points to the potentially transformative aspects of cannabis use to resist stereotypical femininity and experiment with gender norms and expression. Contrary to many studies which only look at cannabis-related harms, our findings suggest LBTQ women use cannabis for a variety of reasons, including to contest norms, but also to develop creative solutions to cope with trauma.
It is my hope that these findings will lead to a broader understanding of LBTQ women’s experiences navigating substance use, mental health, and oppression.
Of course, it’s not surprising LBTQ youth report high levels of mental health difficulties and substance use. As we, LBTQ women, walk through Montreal’s Gay Village, bars, shops and saunas are all geared towards a male clientele, triggering feelings of invisibility. Combined with other minority stress factors such as discrimination, harassment and concealment, many LBTQ youth use as a way to cope. This minority stress adds to experiences of sexism and almost inevitable experiences of sexual harassment in our lifetime.
Alexis, 21: "I’m being sued for defamation because I told on my abuser. I think it’s a way to process, the trauma with the art and the pot."
As we produce research reflecting LBTQ perspectives and experience, it is important to recognize these stressors, but also participants’ agency. Participatory research—research that engages participants as collaborators—allows us to reframe and rethink how we produce knowledge. Using these methods, we can avoid victimization and paternalism and put LBTQ women’s narratives at the forefront.
As much as I struggle with the invisibility of queer, lesbian and bisexual realities, I take pride in the strength and resilience of the badass LBTQ women around me, especially considering our limited access to tailored and queer women-led psychological and social resources. By conducting our research in partnership with LBTQ women, we can lift up these voices which are too often pushed to the margins.
I don’t think I will ever stop saying that we need more queer, bi and lesbian women as subjects and producers of research. We need to keep reframing discussions about sexual and gender identity and mental health to transform feelings of shame, despair and isolation into growth, resilience, and pride. With this, I hope that we encourage and create more stigma-free spaces of sharing, empowering, helping, and caring, as these are certainly hard to come by.
By Tara Chanady
Dr. Tara Chanady is a postdoctoral researcher with Qollab, a participatory research lab on mental health and substance use among 2S/LGBTIA+ individuals. Raising awareness about LBTQ realities has always been on the forefront of her research work, including in recent work on cannabis use and mental health.