I was 7 years old the first time I visited New York City. I don’t remember seeing the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. I don’t even remember which distant family members we were visiting. I do, however, remember holding my breath while walking around Manhattan. I hated the smell of cigarettes, and being the mid-’90s, they were absolutely everywhere.
I grew up in a Los Angeles suburb, and no one smoked. My parents didn’t. Their friends didn’t. No one on the street did. It just wasn’t part of that bougie, healthy L.A. lifestyle.
Then I went to a small liberal arts school 90 miles north of New York City. The college was filled with queers, art history majors and brooding, pretentious intellectuals. Needless to say, everyone I met smoked. (If you were extra misunderstood as an artist, you rolled your own cigarettes.)
I didn’t quite get the appeal. It smelled gross. It’s an expensive addiction. And in the middle of winter, you have to leave your warm bed to smoke outside in the snow. But even more than that, it didn’t seem like they smoked for the enjoyment but as more of a performance, to enhance their own personal nihilistic brand. In smoking, they were communicating, “It’s cool to kill yourself slowly. Trust me, I know. I’ve read everything by Kierkegaard.”
So I vowed to never date a smoker. I clearly didn’t get it, and I was somewhat disgusted by it. I hated making out with people who tasted like an ashtray.
After college, by some weird fate of chance, I ended up working at a smoking cessation clinic as a researcher, coordinator and counselor. I spent my days talking to folks of all ages who wanted to quit smoking cigarettes.
I heard their stories. Their struggles. How desperately they wanted to quit, but all the setbacks that got in the way. I remember being called when one of my patients — someone I had grown quite fond of — died because she smoked with her oxygen tank still on. It was something I warned her repeatedly not to do, but she must have forgotten in her old age. It blew up in her face.
As an adult, for the first time in my life, the smokers I knew weren’t just privileged hipsters; they were folks who smoked because of their hardships and needed some form of release. They wanted to decrease their stress. Ironically, smoking actually increases stress, but it’s one way many folks attempt to alleviate it.
There’s a plethora of research explaining why minorities experience more stress due to being part of a marginalized group, and therefore are more likely to smoke. In fact, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender folks smoke cigarettes at alarming rates. In the past decade, the number of individuals who smoke cigarettes in the U.S. has dropped from 21% to 15%, but for LGBTQ individuals, the rate is 31% — more than double.
New research just came out earlier this year in the academic journal Pediatrics, looking at rates of smoking among LGBTQ and questioning teenagers. The data from the research, drawn from a survey of nearly 15,000 students, revealed that only 30% of straight-identifying teens have tried tobacco products, compared to 41% of gay and lesbian youth, 39% of bisexual youth, and 32% of those who are unsure of their sexual orientation.
The researchers note those who experience family rejection are more likely to smoke than those who come from a family that’s supportive and accepting of their sexual orientation.
During the time I worked as a smoking cessation counselor, I (finally) admitted to myself I was bisexual. This was after roughly five years of blackout sessions hooking up with guys. Five years of sleepless nights and confusion over “what I am.” Five years of self-loathing, not even for being queer, per se, but for being unable to “figure my shit out.”
The struggle is real for LGBTQ teens and adults. We struggle with higher rates of depression, anxiety, suicidality, PTSD and other substance abuse. All reasons why we’d be more likely to pick up a cigarette.
Personally, I know I struggled with my identity, abusing alcohol, other drugs and having unprotected sex (before the days of PrEP). I also know my struggle pales in comparison to most other LGBTQ teens. I’m a white, upper middle-class, cisgender man. There was never a question of whether my parents would throw me out of the house for being queer. When I finally did come out to them, they welcomed me with open arms. My college was incredibly friendly towards LGBTQ individuals. It was actually just ranked one of the top 20 most-friendly LGBTQ universities. My coming out story was a walk in the park compared to so many other LGBTQ folks.
So I gave up my rule of not dating cigarette smokers. One, because I can’t really afford to cut 30% of queer men and woman out of my dating pool. Dating is already tough as it is. But two, because while smoking is “bad for you,” the people who smoke aren’t bad. They’re stressed and looking for a little bit of an escape from their day-to-day life.
While I would never encourage someone to start smoking — and if someone wanted help to quit, I would absolutely use my smoking cessation training to help — I no longer judge smokers. I no longer stigmatize them or think what they’re doing is wrong. It doesn’t say anything about their character. It just says they’ve gone through some hard times.
I get it.
So now I’m opening my arms to loving smokers, because hey, we’ve all got our own shit, simply existing as queer people in this world. If you need to smoke right now to get through some tough times, I’m not here to judge you. I’m here to date and love you.
Featured image by Willowpix via iStock