Playing for The Other Team: Dear Abby

Dear Abby,
Why didn’t you take an Uber?

Sincerely,
Disappointed Fans Everywhere

Another week, another celebrity athlete DUI. Another red-eyed mugshot. Another fallen idol. Only this time it was one of our own. One of our best. On April 3, women’s soccer legend Abby Wambach ran a red light and was arrested for driving under the influence of intoxicants in her hometown of Portland, Ore. And if that wasn’t troubling enough, she then allegedly admitted to police during questioning that she’d experimented with drugs when she was younger. Our Abby, who advocates passionately for GLBT issues and equal pay for women. Abby, who had a Barbie made in her likeness to showcase diversity in body image. Abby, who kissed her beautiful wife on national television after winning the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Abby screwed up. Big time. Running a red light, she’s lucky she didn’t kill someone.

But this column isn’t about pointing fingers and placing blame. It’s not for me to speculate on why Wambach chose to drink so much on that particular night, why she attempted to drive, or what her relationship with alcohol might be. She will deal with any personal and legal ramifications that manifest. I also by no means wish to trivialize the dangers of drunk driving. It would take more than a magazine column to attempt to convey the enormity of the loss of a family member.

No, instead we need to have a separate conversation. We need to use this opportunity to talk about the prevalence of substance abuse in our community and consider what can be done to respond to it.

A national study* indicates that GLBT youth are already at risk. Compared with their peers, GLBT youth are twice as likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and are more likely to continue heavy drinking into their later years. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the rate of substance abuse disorders within the GLBT community is between 20 and 30 percent, which is two or three times higher than that of the general population (nine percent). Three times! What are we doing?

To be fair, this isn’t entirely our fault. These same studies have shown that anti-gay bias and discrimination have played a part, resulting in harmful attempts at self-medication. This, and the fact that most social activities in our community revolve around alcohol consumption: Pride events, fundraisers, sports leagues, and the plethora of gay bars to which we’ve historically flocked as the only place to meet other gay people. The gay rights movement even began in a bar. The Stonewall Inn, to be exact. Substance abuse, or at least excessive alcohol consumption is practically a part of our history, our culture, our DNA.

I know you know this. But what we don’t think about often enough is how dangerous it is. As Abby reminded us, sitting at the apex of your career, being happily married with wealth and fame — none of that makes us immune to being at risk for substance abuse. We’re culturally predisposed, whether we like it or not. So where’s the fine line between enjoying ourselves, and stepping over into harmful and potentially perilous decisions? What can we do to be more aware?

Individually, there’s the CAGE screening. We can start by asking ourselves the following four questions:

  1. Have you ever felt the need to Cut down on your drinking?
  2. Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
  3. Have you ever felt Guilty about drinking?
  4. Have you ever felt you needed a drink first thing in the morning (Eye-opener) to get rid of a hangover?

Clinically, answering yes to two or more of these questions is considered a positive screen for substance abuse.

As a community, it’s time we move one step further. GLBT discrimination still exists, but certainly not to the extent as for those who came before us. #ItsNotOver, but it’s getting better. We can move our meetings out of the bars. (You know, those meetings where we talk about the gay agenda. I kid.) We can promote and take part in educational initiatives designed to eliminate homophobia. We can train community-based agencies and programs on GLBT cultural competencies and substance abuse risk factors. We can work together to provide GLBT youth a safer and sober place to gather.

Finally, dear Abby, dear friends, call a cab. Hey, buddy, I get it. You go out with your friends and unexpectedly: three-for-ones! I’ve been there. Think ahead and plan your ride. Let (or make) somebody crash on your couch. Bring back adult sleepovers. Hold one another accountable. Or just hold one another, whatever happens at adult sleepovers.

Maybe it’s because I’ve passed a few milestone birthdays, or because I’m focused on starting a family, but I’ve started to consider legacy, both what I want to leave and what we might leave collectively as a community. We may not have legions of young soccer star wannabes fixated on our every move, but we certainly have GLBT youth following in our footsteps, just as we have taken our cues from older generations. What will we be known for? Let it be marriage equality, transgender rights, bullying initiatives. Not red-eyed mugshots and mea culpas.


*Marshal, M. P., Friedman, M. S., Stall, R., King, K. M., Miles, J., Gold, M. A., et al. (2008). Sexual orientation and adolescent substance use: A meta-analysis and methodological review. Addiction, 103(4), 546-556.

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