Like many teenagers, at 15 I was uncertain, self-conscious, and trying to fit in. But as a Black LGBTQ+ youth navigating my gender expression and eager to make friends, I was willing to do nearly anything to feel a part of this community and culture that welcomed all of who I am.
I was vulnerable, and there were people who knew this, and exploited it.
That exploitation took place in what I believed to be a safe space by an uncaring and unethical industry, Big Tobacco.
It was at a Las Vegas Pride Festival that I had my first experience with tobacco. I was given a Newport cigarette because “that’s what Black people smoked,” I was told. And as someone desperate for acceptance, I took that cigarette. It began a decades-long addiction to nicotine.
Now, as a 40-year-old transman with my own children and youth that I care deeply, I want to ensure they don’t fall into this addiction.
Tobacco advertising capitalized on the fact that LGBTQ+ people see ourselves in the media so infrequently; they knew that seeing ourselves in their advertising would lead to their products becoming a part of our culture.
They created slick ads with people who look like us living out and proud, smiling, and happy. They sponsored our events like Prides and parades.
Decades of this deliberate, targeted advertising has led to LGBTQ+ adults using tobacco 2 1/2 times higher than the general population. But that statistic doesn’t tell the entire story. It’s difficult to accurately address disparities within our community without knowledge of the unique experiences we face.
The LGBTQ+ community is not a monolith. We need data — especially on our transgender community — that reflects the unique needs of each sub-section of the LGBTQ+ community.
As the executive director of Invisible Men, I work with transgender men of color and see the hardships we face daily as a result of bigotry, transphobia, and general inequity. When LGBTQ+ people are lumped into a single tobacco use statistic, it hides the fact that transgender people have the highest tobacco use rates among our LGBTQ+ peers, according to data.
When tobacco research is allowed to leave out questions of gender identity, we become invisible and erased in the data. When we don’t appear in the data, we are also left out of the solution.
I was finally able to break free from tobacco’s grip, but on top of the withdrawal symptoms and anxiety from trying to minimize or stop my tobacco use, my 25-year-old habit brought to light a condition that caused me to go blind.
My smoking habit also hindered my transition. I had complications in my healing process after my surgery.
Unfortunately, many people in the transgender community are unaware of potential complications because we don’t have enough data and research on how tobacco use directly affects us.
We must demand this critical information be gathered in order to better serve and treat the most vulnerable and marginalized among us.
That is why I joined the OUT Against Big Tobacco coalition to combat our poor health outcomes and lack of visibility through education and sharing knowledge. Through this coalition, we are bringing to light the impact tobacco use can have on hormone replacement therapy and gender affirming surgeries while highlighting the lack of data and research funding to get the answers we need .
To hear more about this coalition, join the conversation with Equality California and OUT Against Big Tobacco on January 7 at 6 p.m.