by Shawn Syms
It was all over the news. All over Facebook. All over Twitter. Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman—who came to prominence with his role as an earnest and awkward gay man in the film Boogie Nights—was found in his New York apartment with no vital signs, a needle in his arm.
In the days following Hoffman’s death earlier this month, media outlets dissected the story from countless angles—how long he’d been sober, his recent struggles to remain clean, how many dozens of bags of heroin were found in his apartment, the impact on his partner and children. Tragic—but why am I writing about this for Our Agenda? Does this have anything do with the lives of queer men? As far as I’m concerned, it sure does.
Many queers use drugs. Some of us struggle with addiction. And many of us use substances—whether we buy them at a bar or in a back alley—as a choice. But those choices can be constrained, whether by social attitudes or the criminal-justice system. And our choices exist in a broader context—some of them are pushed on us by mass-media advertising; others are punished by legal apparatuses, ones that feed industries which make money when more people are in jail.
In my social circles, I witnessed a backlash against Hoffman. Why is this rich, famous person getting all the attention when some people die under bridges in the cold? Why are people celebrating the dead actor, when he “chose” shooting up instead of spending time with his family?
Well, like I said above, sometimes drug use is a choice—but sometimes it isn’t. Addiction is a complicated medical issue. Many people try over and over to end their problematic relationships with drugs, including alcohol. Relapse is a part of the process of recovery. Snap judgments about the “selfishness” of addiction are not just naïve and offensive—they can be really unhelpful and counterproductive.
And yes, while drug use and addiction cut across all lines of wealth and class, it’s true that celebrities who overdose get more press. Do they deserve this attention? Not more than anyone else. But can this attention be helpful to us all? Yes. Every addiction death is a tragedy. Still, anything that amplifies the conversation about the risks associated with drug use—and how to reduce them—is helpful. Because many overdose deaths could be prevented, and the more we learn about how, the more lives could be saved.
Death is preventable if you are at a safe-injection site instead of by yourself. It’s preventable if you’re with a friend who can call 911. It is preventable if you’re with someone who knows how to use Naloxone—an antidote that can be sprayed nasally or injected into a muscle to reverse the effects of an opiate overdose, long enough to get help.
Then again, how many safe injection sites are there here in Canada? One. How many are there in Ontario? Zero. If you call 911 in a drug-use scenario, everyone in the room could potentially be arrested. And despite the fact that opiate overdose is one of the leading causes of death in the province, Naloxone is rather hard to get your hands on.
Philip Seymour Hoffman died alone. An opiate overdose usually needs a few hours to result in a death. If he were not alone, Hoffman would likely still be alive. People can choose to get high alone for a lot of reasons—they may consider it a private pleasure, they may be lonely and bored, they may not have friends who use or approve of it. They may be struggling to stay clean and don’t want anyone to know if they partake.
In fact, drug users who have tried to remain abstinent can be at greater risk of overdose than anyone else—since one’s tolerance level for a substance will go way down in its absence. When it comes to heroin in particular, maintenance programs such as methadone or prescription heroin can reduce this risk. But the public discourse about addiction sometimes feels so shrouded in misunderstanding, guilt, shame and moralism that even getting any airtime for support options outside of abstinence can be hard.
So let’s open up the conversation. All of us can likely relate to these issues in one way or another. Whether you have ever personally tried drugs or not, most people have things in their lives that they understand from experience they need to avoid completely, and other things they can moderate. Let’s talk to one another as a community about important issues in our lives—including drug use—and how safe we feel discussing them with the people we care about the most. Let’s try and make a world where people can seem less alone, figurative and literally, when it comes to getting high.
I want to get back to how this relates specifically to us as queer men. To be queer and to be male, by definition, means to live a life characterized by both privilege and discrimination. Marriage rights aside, openly gay talk-show hosts aside, any perceived advances in equality aside, we live in a society that can still be far from hospitable about our sexual identities—as well as other factors in our lives like race, class and physical ability.
As a result, our communities struggle disproportionately with addiction, and therefore also with repercussions of drug use—from our peers, the police, the courts and the community in general. The more we talk about our society’s problem with drugs from our specific vantage point, as queers perhaps we can play unique roles in devising some solutions, too.
Shawn Syms has written about sexuality, politics and culture for more than 25 years.
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