Rethinking the normalisation of drinking in LBQ women’s communities
by Rachel Cook, LBQ Women’s Project lead, Thorne Harbour Health
Middle-aged lesbian, bisexual and queer (LBQ) women in regional areas are drinking at higher levels than heterosexual women according to research. This risky drinking is a real issue. I’m Rachel Cook, and I'm the LBQ Women’s Project lead from Thorne Harbour Health working on the ReThink the Drink campaign. Our campaign is based on research from Latrobe University and the Alice Study by Dr Ruth McNair.
ReThink the Drink is about examining your drinking habits, working out if they’re affecting your life and creating strategies to reduce your drinking. In this campaign, we’re focusing on LBQ women aged 45 to 65 in Victoria’s regional and rural areas.
I’ve worked in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI) community for 18 years in a number of different roles and was employed on this project because of my community connections and media background. It was my role to get people to feel comfortable about sharing their personal stories.
In September last year, we ran several informal groups in regional Victoria, just to get people talking. We did it initially to get people to begin speaking about drinking in their community, but we also wanted to find out what else was happening, what was behind those drinking behaviours? What did they think is going on in their communities and how was life feeling? That turned out to be a really good approach because it gave a voice to regional and rural LBQ women who hadn’t talked about the issues affecting them before.
We then went to Ballarat, Bendigo, Geelong and Daylesford and ran several focus groups. Many LBQ women we spoke to didn’t realise what constituted risky drinking. Many have grown up with a high level of drinking in their community, so they thought it was normal, or at the very least, thought it was acceptable.
"I started drinking before I came out, but when I started going to gay clubs I really started drinking heavily. It was completely fine to drink that heavily, I don't remember anyone not really drinking."
Fran - 47, Bendigo
I learned there are two types of drinkers; the binge drinkers and daily drinkers. It surprised me that some daily drinkers were drinking two bottles of wine or ten beers a night. Drinking is such a huge part of Australian culture, so many women weren’t really aware of the extent of the damaging effects of alcohol on their health or that drinking so much was negatively affecting them. They talked about not being able to achieve their goals because of hangovers, feelings of worthlessness and anxiety which often came with the hangovers.
Speaking to these women made me realise as an LGBTQI person, how you take for granted living in the city. You don’t realise how tough it is for those who live in regional and rural areas. I heard some heart-breaking stories from people who’re very isolated and suffered terrible homophobia in those communities.
These LBQ women were relieved that something proactive was happening in this area. There’s been such a lack of focus and interest from mainstream and LGBTQI health organisations, so they’re happy that someone is finally taking an interest in their situations. They feel empowered. And they want to reduce the amount of alcohol they’re drinking.
"I realised I’d been relying on alcohol for confidence that was always there without it."
Bronny - 40, Ballarat
We asked these women what sort of a campaign would work? They wanted a positive, motivating campaign and didn’t want a campaign screaming LBQ women have a drinking problem. They didn’t want one that was obviously gay because living in a small community you could inadvertently ‘out yourself’ and that could put you at risk. They overwhelmingly chose the ‘Couldn’t Have Done That Without A Hangover’ campaign that we’re now launching.
In every region, we’ve organised a panel of LBQ women and got them talking about the project, drinking and other issues in their community and finished with an audience Q & A session. We launched the campaign in Bendigo, Geelong and in Ballarat on 1 September.
This work has been rather emotional at times. Some stories that will stay with me are about older lesbians talking about how they came out in the 1970s and lost not only their families, but their children and jobs as well.
But it’s also been incredibly rewarding work. These women know they can contact us and we have counsellors and support staff who can assist them putting strategies in place to help to change their lives. I think we’ve opened the floodgates!
These LBQ women now know that they’ve got support as they rethink their relationship with alcohol, take steps to avoid a hangover and want to do something to achieve their personal goals.
As part of our ReThink the Drink campaign, we’re also expanding our reach by collecting LBQ women’s personal stories online which will be shared with others. If they come from a small town and don’t want people to know their business, they can choose to be anonymous.
Phase 2 involved a LGTBQI health conference that took place in Melbourne on July 13th and 14th. It was a big event covering everything from drinking to cancer and mental health. We had about 400 women, including many who’ve been part of our research and have contributed to the campaign. It was great reconnecting with them and getting them to share their stories. We used a portable ’Storypod’ which is a video tent where you can record your personal story.
Phase 3 involves sharing these LBQ women’s stories online more broadly. I think sharing these women’s stories, realising they’re not alone and it’s not something to be ashamed of will start to have an impact on risky drinking behaviours. When you’re feeling you’re the only one, then you’re less likely to get help.
"I think her having time away from the constant routine of getting drunk every weekend made her realise there was a whole other life out there."
Ruth - 56, Daylesford
I’ve expected this campaign to be challenging and it has been. I didn’t realise how fearful these women were about talking to anyone, but it’s also been very rewarding in breaking through some of these barriers.
My biggest learning is that there’s so much work to be done in this area for LBQ women.
Click here to visit the ReThink the Drink website