By Michelle Garcia
Originally published on Advocate.com January 21 2014 6:00 AM ET
The first time I ever picked up a cigarette was to impress a girl.
Her name was Vida. She was tall, and tough, and funny, and she was the first queer girl my age who I knew. And she smoked.
By seventh grade, I was incredibly aware of the harmful effects of smoking. My paternal grandmother, who was basically my third parent growing up, smoked since her early twenties and was known for spazmatically hacking up a lung a couple of times a day around our house. My dad incurred a health issue that forced him to quit cold turkey when I was about 5 years old. Cigarette smoking smelled terrible, it made me itchy, and the fear of ruining my lungs or becoming addicted to something so ruinous and expensive was completely unappealing.
But Vida smoked, and I liked her. I mean, I wasn't crazy about her, but she wasn't straight, so in my 12-year-old mind, I had a shot... at something? I didn't really know what. Also, I was completely not out at all.
It was after school, and I was hanging out at a gas station across the street from my junior high school with my best friend, when Vida came up to us.
"Wanna try it?" she asked. She was only being polite, since she was about to light up. We were at least very polite children.
"I've never had a cigarette before," I said. I was not openly bi yet, but I was completely openly square. "They're like, bad and stuff."
Of course I said this as Vida looked down at my 5-foot frame as smoke slithered out of her mouth.
My best friend and I didn't even have to say a word to each other to convince ourselves. We just were like, "OK, fine, let's do this."
Thankfully, Vida was a gentlewoman and lit the cigarette for me. Could you imagine 12-year-old me, attempting to use a lighter for the first time at a gas station? Yeah, bad idea.
Of course, my BFF just coughed a tiny bit, and then looked completely natural and glamourous with a cigarette dangled between two of her fingers. And so, supposedly unlike the president at the time, I inhaled. Well, it was more like I had the sudden urge to show off my amazing lung capacity, so I really went to town with that first drag.
Unlike my friend, I succumbed to a complete coughing meltdown. I thought I was going to die right there at a gas station on 64th Avenue and Utopia Parkway, coughing myself to death, with enough drool coming out of my mouth to fill a bucket, and my eyes watering like I just stabbed each of them with sliced-open jalapenos. I was sure I was dying both of embarrassment and of my body's complete loss of control.
And that was the last time I ever picked up a cigarette.
My aversion to smoking went unchanged, especially after watching three out of my four grandparents die from health complications due to smoking. In fact, when I do impressions of either of my grandmothers, I'm usually pretending to have a Kool or Viceroy hanging out of my mouth, depending on which grandmother I'm doing. It's a signature, like FDR's fancy filtered cigarettes.
If I'm not mistaken, my grandparents all started smoking before the surgeon general finally admitted to Americans that smoking is bad for you. The 50th anniversary of the surgeon general's statement is this month, and with it comes a whole slew of information about LGBT people smoking. Since 2001, the surgeon general has said that LGB people smoke cigarettes at a rate 68 percent higher than everyone else.
Smoking is one of our community's biggest health burdens, according to LGBT Health Equity. In fact, LGBT people spend 65 times more money on tobacco products than on efforts to improve LGBT rights. Sixty-five times!
The thing is, we all know smoking is bad, yet we do it anyway. But on top of that, we're shuffling money toward something that is literally killing us, instead of funneling some of it to a cause that could literally save a couple of lives. I'm not naive. I know that the numbers aren't causation. It's not like Big Tobacco is directly stealing money out of Big Gay's pockets. But the numbers are still hard to digest.
I lost my grandparents fairly early thanks to largely preventable health problems tied to smoking, including my Nana, who I miss dearly. My sister and I used to devise silly ways to get her to try to stop smoking. We would try to make her eat candy instead of pick up her pack of Viceroys, and we'd hide her cigarettes, but the addiction was too tough for to beat. Fifteen years after her death, I still think about her daily. I wonder what she would think of me now; what we would talk about; what advice she would give me. I smile when I think about her love of Sally Jesse Rafael, RuPaul, and the Home Shopping Network, or when she would tell us stories of being a poor kid during the Depression, and going to Hawaii after World War II.
So, look, we're all adults here. I know that this one column won't stop anyone from smoking. But please, if you're thinking about quitting, do it. Everyone has someone who will miss them when they're gone. Why leave them behind for a couple of cancer sticks?
MICHELLE GARCIA is the managing editor of Advocate.com, and she thinks it's stupid when people think they can just walk around the supermarket smoking e-cigs. Follow her on Twitter @mzMichGarcia.