Legal Issues for Programs Treating LGBT Clients

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals with substance abuse problems are doubly stigmatized. As substance abusers, they are viewed by many as weak in character and moral fiber. As lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, they are reviled by some as deviant and immoral. They may encounter bigotry from employers, human service workers, criminal justice officials, the general public, and even their own families.

Two Federal (and a number of State) statutes protect recovering substance abusers from many forms of discrimination. However, in most areas of the country, LGBT individuals have no legal protection against discrimination in employment, housing, or access to social services. Protections fought for and won by women, racial minorities, and individuals with disabilities simply are not available for LGBT persons. Disclosure of sexual orientation can lead to an individual’s being fired or being denied access to housing and social services—all with legal impunity. LGBT individuals may even lose custody of their children if their sexual orientation becomes known during a custody dispute.

Even in those States that have enacted statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, LGBT individuals have sometimes been denied protection. Little wonder that LGBT individuals regard protecting information about their sexual orientation and substance abuse histories as critically important. Programs that treat this special population need to be particularly sensitive about maintaining clients’ confidentiality, for the consequences of an inappropriate disclosure can be far reaching. (For a compendium of the law regarding discrimination against LGBT individuals, see

This chapter examines ways programs can safeguard information about clients’ substance abuse histories, sexual orientation, and HIV status. It then describes how the lack of legal protection against discrimination can affect LGBT individuals in a variety of areas and how programs can help these clients protect themselves. Finally, the chapter outlines the laws protecting clients with histories of substance abuse and/or HIV/AIDS from discrimination.