By Dannie Ceseña
The very first time I picked up a cigarette, I was in seventh grade. It wasn’t due to peer pressure, and I wasn’t aware that the tobacco industry aggressively targets the LGBTQ+ community. I was struggling with severe depression, suicidal ideation and coming to terms with my sexual orientation. At the time, I didn’t even know what transgender was, but I was presenting as female and wanted to date other females.
Growing up in the ’90s in a Latinx, religious, low-income neighborhood, it was basically a death sentence to openly state you were gay. Plus, I was emotionally and physically abused. Knowing that I had to hide who I was, led me to engage in self-harming behaviors.
One day I ditched school with my friends and went to the local liquor store to buy snacks. That’s when I discovered I was able to purchase single cigarettes. I wasn’t carded. I wasn’t asked why I wasn’t in school. I just gave the cashier a quarter and I was able to obtain a cigarette. From there, I experimented with different cigarette brands. I enjoyed menthols and 100’s. That’s not a coincidence. Menthol masks the harsh taste of tobacco, making the smoke feel smoother and easier to inhale. That taste hides the truth. Menthol cigarettes are worse for you and harder to quit. My experience with menthol cigarettes isn’t unique either — thanks in part to intense marketing by the tobacco industry, nearly half of all lesbian, gay and bisexual adult cigarette smokers in California smoke menthol cigarettes, while only 28 percent of straight smokers smoke menthol cigarettes.
By the time I was in high school, I was smoking a pack a day to ease my anxiety and depression. In college, it was difficult for me to meet new people and make friends. The most common way I did this was by hanging out in the college smoker’s area and either bummed cigarettes off people or allowed people to bum cigarettes off me. It was here that I learned that I wasn’t the only one with a strong sense of anxiety, depression and trauma. I was able to connect with others who smoked for the same reason. Tobacco companies exploit these feelings of isolation the LGBTQ community can experience and promote smoking as a way to bond and relieve stress. The tobacco industry has also feigned allegiance to our community by sponsoring community and Pride events. But promoting deadly products isn’t being an ally.
Over the years, my habit grew to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. I noticed my cigarette intake continued to get worse as I started to understand what being transgender meant and knowing that my partner was not OK with me transitioning. My anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies were getting worse. The worse I felt about myself; feeling the rejection by society, by my partner, my parents disowning me, I couldn’t breathe unless there was a cigarette in my hand.
It was in 2011, when I met my current partner, that I was finally able to kick the habit. It wasn’t an easy road, but I spent a lot of time trying to find mental health services to address my anxiety, depression, suicidal ideology and gender expression/sexual orientation. There were so many providers who were anti-LGBTQ and caused my smoking rate to rise. When I was in a psychiatric hold, I was consistently misgendered, not allowed to practice my dietary restrictions and was abused because of who I was. This made it harder to quit. It was only when I was finally able to find an LGBTQ-affirming therapist who specialized in childhood trauma that I was finally able to wean off of smoking and finally quit.
Unless resources and providers who are LGBTQ-competent are made available to assist in the healing of my community, we will continue to see smoking rates rise. We need to look out for one another and protect each other. This includes from the predatory marketing by tobacco companies to the LGBTQ community. There is something we can do today — we can tell our elected representatives that we will no longer accept the tobacco industry’s insidious targeting of our community. If you’d like to learn more about how our community has been pursued by menthol cigarette marketing, please visit tobaccofreeca.com.
— Dannie Ceseña is program coordinator for the California LGBTQ Health and Human Services Network. He is passionate about LGBT health ccare and is a World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH) member and Gay & Lesbian Medical Association (GLMA) member. Dannie strengthened the Trans*itions Health and Wellness Program while creating the LGBT Health Department at the LGBT Center Orange County. He has trained major hospitals and community clinics on LGBT health care disparities with recommendations on fixing the system, guest lectured at various California universities and medical schools, and provided pro bono legal services with a volunteer legal team. He now works at the CA LGBTQ Health and Human Services Network, taking his advocacy and program building skills statewide.