“The sense of having two selves was the root of my addiction, especially in the beginning. It was exhausting to play a role I didn’t want.”
Ten years ago, I was both terrified and ecstatic to go to my first ever LGBT Pride Parade. I knew that I was attracted to both men and women, but I had always kept this hidden. Being raised in the Catholic Church and in a conservative town, I was told it was a sin to act upon “homosexual desires.” To smooth out the edges of my mental tug of war, I took pulls of vodka and chased it with cherry Sprite.
Broadway was bursting with vibrant seas of color and glitter. Rainbow flags replaced American flags, much to the dismay of the town bigots. A float rolled by with drag queens dressed like Beyoncé and Dolly Parton, hair teased as big as their ta-tas. Then I heard the roar of Harley Davidsons as a throng of denim-clad lesbians cruised by with signs that said, “DYKES ON BIKES.” Next, another group chanted: “hey-hey, ho-ho, homophobia has got to go!”
I know this all sounds like a stereotypical version of Pride, but this was truly how it appeared to me as a newbie. Over time, I began to peel apart the layers and examine the nuances within the community. Pride showed me the power of embracing and celebrating your identity, even when it is associated with stigma, discrimination, and stereotypes. I realized that Pride gave me kindling for my desire to fight stigma, even long before I was in recovery.
As author of My Fair Junkie and Fix Contributor Amy Dresner wrote in (Re) Claiming Language: “I think the addiction/recovery movement needs to model itself on the gay rights movement and be vocal, out there, shameless and visible: parades, glitter, boas. Bring it all on.”
After admiring Dresner’s writing for years on The Fix, then her memoir, I finally had the courage to message her. She sent me a kind response and we had an amazing actual phone conversation! Okay, I swear that my fan-girling has a point. She also spoke with me in more depth about the parallels between our communities: the stigma, the struggle with health issues like HIV, Hepatitis C, and losing friends to overdoses or suicides. Amy can speak to these similarities since she has experience with the LGBT+ community in L.A. “Even though I’m straight, I often attend and speak at LBGT meetings. I like the vibe there. They feel more real and more celebratory. They get my humor and irreverence. I feel like I can be more open about my crystal meth use and being promiscuous without them judging me, because they’ve been there too,” she said. We also share an immediate kinship with each other over burrowing our way from the trenches to light.
My first small-town Pride parade only lasted fifteen glorious minutes. After all, my city, Fargo, was famous for the Coen brother’s cult classic film and being the highest binge drinking city in the country, not LGBT rights. I wandered to a beer garden for another Pride event. A girl with hot pink hair asked for my signature for a human rights petition. I signed and wanted to flirt with her, but I realized that I didn’t know how. At the line in the bathroom, a woman noticed that I was shaking with anxiety and offered me a little blue pill she said was Xanax.
“This will help chill you out,” She said. It worked. She led me down the street to the only gay bar, where scantily clad men grinded to Katy Perry under pulsing neon lights. Later that night, I drunkenly wrote in my journal: “we’re here, we’re queer. We’re junkies and drunkies.” I also realized that alcohol and pills were the easiest way for me to “break bread,” in the LGBT community. They were magical potions that could teleport me from being an outsider to an insider, give me the courage to flirt with women, to numb the shame. I’m not alone. For many, Pride and being part of the queer community is synonymous with drinking and drug use.
Charlie* is a 24-year-old graduate student who is bisexual and is ambiguously trans. They are from a school district in Minnesota with the one of the highest suicide rates in the country. At their high-school, gay and “gay-coded” students were bullied, peed on, and called faggots. Charlie said, “For myself, the intersections of addiction and LGBT identity are so complex. It’s so ingrained in our daily lives, in our community lives. Our history. We weren’t given the social or political power to have public space. So, bars and underground clubs were our space…so addiction can sometimes become a learned behavior. For me, it was alcohol. I used it to suppress my identity.”
According to a 2015 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA), 30 percent of LGBT people struggle with some form of addiction compared to 9 percent of the heterosexual population. Bisexual women and trans people face the highest risk of drug use and abuse.
I spoke with a 30 something freelance writer from the Midwest named Morgan, who said she had known she was “next-level” gay long before she even knew the word. “The sense of having two selves was the root of my addiction, especially in the beginning. It was exhausting to play a role I didn’t want. I think it was originally a combination of easing the pain of not being able to love the people I loved openly and resentment toward the society I felt excluded me. There was an ease and confidence about being my true self when I was drunk though.”
Charlie said they have managed their drinking without the help of outside groups, but if they did need one they would prefer an LGBT-oriented recovery group. Meanwhile, Morgan lives in an area that does not have LGBT meetings. Morgan said she felt very uncomfortable at her first 12-step meeting and definitely didn’t feel comfortable disclosing that she is lesbian, because her home is near the birthplace of the notoriously bigoted Westboro Baptist Church. Her first meeting “was full of a Confederate-flag wearing, chain smoking old school crowd that didn’t have much experience with LGBTQI people.”
What about people who want to connect with other queer folks in recovery, but live in a rural area or don’t connect with 12-step meetings? I spoke with Tracy Murphy, who is lesbian and founded a blog called LGBTeetotaler, which aims to “create community and visibility for queer and trans people in all forms of recovery.” Murphy is an inspiring example of the power of connection through the internet, which she said is “life-changing.”
“Many times, when I’m dealing with cis hetero members of my recovery community, I end up feeling like I’m doing education while I’m also just trying to process an experience I’ve had… Having a group of queers to reach out to takes away that layer of education and emotional labor. We’re free to discuss and process without having to also explain why or how an experience is difficult,” Murphy said.
Talking to Murphy and Dresner inspired me to reflect upon my nearly ten years in and out of the recovery community- as an alcoholic/ addict in recovery and then as a social worker. Throughout those years, I’ve noticed a universal theme that weaves us addicts together. We all felt like misfits, outsiders. Like many others, I first went to meetings flashing my outsider identity like a badge of honor. I was surprised to discover the very thing that made us feel like misfits and lone wolves is often what connects us most in recovery. There’s a glorious alchemy that happens when a bunch of misfits unite for a shared goal of recovery.
But sometimes, the alchemy doesn’t happen. I’ve heard this to be true especially among people in the LGBT community.
Since Morgan didn’t feel comfortable in the AA group, she stopped going and eventually relapsed. Desperate to get sober and with no other options in her small-town, she decided to give it another try. She was happy to befriend another lesbian in the group, but surprised when the woman advised Morgan to keep the “personal information under wraps.” By that, she meant not to come out to the group.
Morgan said, “It felt like going backwards to be in the closet after 15 years of being openly gay everywhere and that contributed to the feeling that maybe this program wasn’t going to work for me. It feels strange to do that and to fear judgement in a group that is all about acceptance and guidance and love… I have a feeling that I will eventually come out at least in the women’s group…My gut tells me I can’t have true recovery if I’m not being my true self.”
How can mainstream 12-step meetings and groups be more inclusive of LGBT people? While this could be an entire book in and of itself, I wanted to ask others to see what they thought.
Murphy said: “I think that some of the easiest and most effective ways for the recovery community to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ folks are to really be aware of language and not make assumptions about the people they are addressing. For me, personally, I immediately get the message that I am not someone’s intended audience when the message being presented assumes that all women are feminine and attracted to men. Heteronormativity is ingrained in every part of mainstream society and, for people who want to make sure they are being inclusive of queer and trans folks, making sure that they’re not assuming people are heterosexual or cisgender is a huge step in the right direction.”
While I think that Murphy has valuable advice, she has had very different experiences; she has not been interested in attending AA and was able to get sober with the support of an online community called Hip Sobriety.
Josh* is a trans man from the Midwest who has gone to several rehabs, jails, and attended AA off and on for 20 years. He said that it’s hard to change an old institution like AA, but pointed out that they released the brochure: “AA and the Gay and Lesbian Alcoholic” in 1989. This omits others on the LGBT spectrum, but he said: “As for being included as an LGBT person, I don’t want to be treated any differently, just respected. Greeting goes a long way for me. Having people smile, shake hands, introduce themselves. Sounds simple but that’s where it all starts.”
I won’t be able to attend Pride this year. Ironically, I will be in a Catholic Church at my godson’s baptism. I will be thinking of my friends in Minneapolis and across the country as they march through the streets on floats, gathering signatures, and celebrating. But most of all, I will be thinking of the invisible misfits of the LGBT community- the ones struggling with addiction, the ones passed out before the dance even starts, the ones who are in rehab or detox.