Addiction is inherently bound up in issues of class, race, sexuality, religion, and yes, gender – the exact “outside issues” that AA members are taught to check outside the meeting room doors.
Every day, in thousands of church basements, community centers, and clubhouses across America, people who can boast anything from a few hours to many decades without alcohol gather to collect one more sober day. Nearly all these meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous begin with members collectively reciting something called the AA Preamble, a statement of purpose for the AA group and reminder that AA’s “primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.”
I first heard the Preamble in 2009, during my earliest attempt at sobriety, and have heard it hundreds more times since. The Preamble is so ubiquitous in the AA program that almost all members can recite it by heart. The Preamble is short, just two paragraphs comprised of five sentences. Until last year, it was exactly 100 words. It is now 98. The loss of three words, and addition of one, might seem small, almost meaningless, to anyone outside of the AA program. But for an organization that has stubbornly resisted most edits to its doctrines and covenants since its genesis over 80 years ago, it is earthshaking. And for those of us who want AA to change – who hope the program that did so much to save our lives can adequately respond to new, more inclusive cultural norms – it is a sign that AA is not a relic or a curiosity but a living, evolving thing, still in search of the best way to carry the message.
For 74 years, the Preamble told members that AA is “a fellowship of men and women who … help others to recover from alcoholism.” Here’s the big change: “men and women” has been dropped and replaced with “people.” There’s a poetic simplicity to this that shouldn’t undermine its significance. No longer does AA’s self-constructed statement of purpose reduce members to men or women, Box A or Box B, this or that. AA is full of queer, trans, and non-binary addicts who for decades were greeted at every meeting with a recitation that excluded them. That is no longer the case.
To understand why the change to the Preamble is so important, you first must understand just how rooted in antiquity much of AA is. I’m a gay atheist, and my first few years in “the rooms” were spent largely trying to see how, or if, I could fit in. No easy task. The central text of Alcoholics Anonymous is the “Big Book,” originally written in 1939 by famed AA founder Bill Wilson with assistance from other founding members. The Big Book’s first 164 pages, the pages thought of as the “nuts and bolts” of the AA program and authored primarily by the near-mythic Bill W., have remained largely set in stone, subject only to grammatical and semantic edits. Wilson’s vision of a set of principles and practices to get and keep a drunk sober remains intact. And many of those principles read as outdated at best, and offensive at worst, to modern eyes.
Consider the chapter that caused me the most distress. “We Agnostics” purports to be the AA welcome wagon for the irreligious, but it is deeply condescending to those who don’t believe in God. The chapter begins reasonably enough, with sympathies toward those who have found organized religion corrupt or otherwise distasteful. It then turns toward AA’s unique, somewhat incomprehensible notion of spirituality, a vague sense that there is a “God of our understanding” who is in some way “bigger” than us. This can all be read metaphorically, which most godless AA members do, as a call to get out of our own heads and kill our egos. But there is a hard religious turn toward the end, a nod to our “Creator,” and a parable of a drunk redeemed through faith that wouldn’t be out of place on a megachurch’s Instagram feed. The overall message of “We Agnostics” is: Perhaps you don’t believe in God now, but you will, if you want to get sober.
Arguably worse is “To Wives,” chapter 8 of the Big Book. As the title might have tipped you off, “To Wives” is sexist, heteronormative nonsense. Written in a confessional style, “To Wives” purports to tell the story of the long-suffering wife of the alcoholic – “Oh, how she cried!,” that sort of thing. The unspoken assumption is that alcoholics are men, and AA membership is mostly men, and these members are straight and married to women. In that sense, the old Preamble – written eight years after the Big Book and when AA was becoming more established – sounds downright progressive in its inclusion of both “men and women.”
None of this should be surprising. Wilson was the product of both his time and his spiritual biography. In 1939, women had only been voting for 20 years, and the teaching of evolution could still be outlawed by states. For his part, Wilson had put down the bottle with the help of the Oxford Group, an anti-hierarchical, but explicitly Christian, sect focused on adherence to high moral standards and surrender to God. He incorporated many of the Oxford Group’s teachings into the Big Book. The roots of AA are Christian ones, and as a result, there is a religious lean to much AA literature. Some members are happier about this than others. When I was first trying to stay clean, I told a longtime member I was an atheist. He responded, missing the point entirely, that this was fine: “All you need to believe is there is a God, and you ain’t Him!”
Both “To Wives” and “We Agnostics” remain, unchanged, in the Big Book today, although there have been unsuccessful movements to remove or rewrite them. It is no exaggeration to say that the change to the Preamble is the biggest move toward modernity AA has taken in perhaps its entire history. How did it happen? Well, making a complex process simple: any AA meeting can propose changes through their elected representative, who then takes those proposals to an annual conference, where they are voted on by all the area delegates. (There are 93 “areas” in the US. Some states have one, bigger states have more – New York has four.) It is at these General Service Conferences where the big decisions about the most fundamental tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous are made.
The Preamble vote took place at the 2020 Conference. One New York area delegate put together a charming PowerPoint presentation, appropriately titled “AA In A Time of Change,” laying out the broad procedural steps, and I am cribbing from that here. AA groups in New York, D.C., and Louisiana pushed to have the change debated at the Conference. One committee initially voted down the proposal, finding that they needed “more information.” And that could have been where the change died – smothered in committee and consigned to next year’s conference.
It wasn’t to be. As per the delegate, “in rapid succession,” members brought four floor actions. A floor action is discouraged at a Conference – it is outside of the normal “process” by which change is made within AA, and can be voted down immediately. There is a radical bent to a floor action, and for a body that requires 2/3 majorities to pass anything, the Conference process is nothing if not deliberative. But “I guess we’re alcoholics,” notes the welcomingly wry delegate, and members pushed. And so, after a “spirited” debate, the floor actions passed, and on May 1, 2020, Alcoholics Anonymous formally voted to make the Preamble inclusive of non-binary recovering alcoholics. It was announced in Grapevine in 2021, and was introduced at AA groups throughout the summer and fall.
I wanted to find out just how spirited the conference debate was. The voting debates at the General Service Conference are not public, even to other AA members. While writing this article, I reached out to six area delegates to hear their recollections of the Preamble debate and vote. Only one responded, and he declined to speak. I anticipated their hesitancy – one of the most religiously observed creeds of Alcoholics Anonymous as an organization is its refusal to engage in what it deems “politics.” This is so important that it is even part of the Preamble itself, which states, “AA…does not wish to engage in any controversy [and] neither endorses nor opposes any causes.” And so, AA takes no position on medication, health coverage, drug legalization, or any of the other myriad policy debates that directly touch on addiction.
But this is a country that bans trans people from public restrooms, that mandates genital inspections for children to play sports. In that context, yes, making the Preamble queer-inclusive was “engaging in controversy,” and it is silly to pretend it isn’t. Certainly the opponents of the change, in private Facebook groups, attacked it in political terms. “Extraterrestrials are going to feel excluded now.” “More Cancel Culture, Politically Correct BULLSHIT.” One member’s post I saw bluntly stated that her group would refuse to read the new Preamble. And again and again, members expressed annoyance that AA would take up what they call an “outside issue.”
The “outside issue” trope is an old one in the program, drawn from the language of the Tenth Tradition, which tells members that AA “has no opinion on outside issues,” and thus will “never be drawn into public controversy.” It is deeply connected to AA’s refusal to engage in “politics.” The justification here is that anything not explicitly related to sobriety can alienate addicts from the program, and thus keep them mired in active addiction. But there’s an equally salient point – by not engaging in the everyday realities of members’ lives, AA can seem distant, naïve, and unfeeling. Plus, as in the case of the Preamble change, the ban on outside issues can be weaponized by bigots.
Addiction is inherently bound up in issues of class, race, sexuality, religion, and yes, gender – the exact “outside issues” that AA members are taught to check outside the meeting room doors. AA teachings discourage these discussions in any formal or public setting, and so, newcomers living in poverty are told that this is no barrier to a spiritual awakening, minorities are told to overcome their “victimhood,” and old timers – usually white men with decades sober – often spitefully attack any mention of drugs other than alcohol in meetings. Yes, even drug use is considered an “outside issue” by many AA members. As it has with the Preamble, the outside issues rule is vague enough to be targeted at any inter-group discussions some members don’t like.
Try as I might, I could not get an AA representative to comment on the record for this story. I had a lengthy chat with a very nice employee at AA’s General Services Office who asked me to forward some questions and refused to be quoted. Those questions were not responded to. I wasn’t surprised – I’ve written about AA and politics in the past, and was castigated by some for even identifying myself as an AA member in public. There is an overarching fear of sunlight in AA that is at odds with our current cultural moment, where institutions both private and public are held accountable for their internal rules and processes.
The Preamble’s change is a sign that the tide is turning in Alcoholics Anonymous. As older addicts are replaced by younger ones, the wall AA has built around its teachings weakens a little more. As one Facebook commenter put it: “Stop debating queer and trans members because we’ve been here and stayed sober even when we weren’t included, don’t get it twisted nothing any of ya’ll have to say will change my sobriety date.” Exactly.