"I spent my 20s drunk," says E (they/them), a 31 year-old living in Brooklyn. "Drinking was the thing to do, and everyone did it. We drank in the evening, after class, after work, or good or bad events. I drank to alleviate boredom, for creativity, as punishment and distraction. I drank to feel and not to feel."
There is a long history of alcohol abuse in LGBTQ+ communities—and the stigma of being "doubly out" as both LGBTQ and alcohol-dependent continues to weigh on those struggling with addiction. According to the CDC, studies show gay and bi-men, lesbians, and trans people are more likely to use alcohol and continue heavy drinking in later life than the non-LGBTQ+ population. E, who struggles with alcohol, wishes alcohol and drugs were less included in queer events.
The Pride Movement and the Alcohol Industry
Pride month is deeply rooted in its protest against police brutality and the struggle for queer and trans liberation. The movement was led by trans women of color like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and feminist advocate Brenda Howard, but the celebration has rapidly corporatized.
An example of this is Pride's relationship with alcohol companies. Larger companies aggressively promote products like Absolut Rainbow, BABE Wine, or Busch and sponsor Pride-related events. Still, the glaring reality is that many of these companies didn't suddenly uncover a passion for queer rights overnight. Some may interpret the presence of alcohol in the rainbow market as capitalization. There are many LGBTQ+ people in recovery and navigating sobriety. But in a culture where many queer events center alcohol—like gay bars, clubs—how do queer folks navigate alcohol consumption?
Alcohol as a Social Lubricant
"I started drinking when I was 12 with a group of kids much older than me," says 26-year-old Mel (they/them). I got drunk to kiss the other gay girl there. From then on, I used alcohol as a social lubricant." According to Mel, drinking eased their social anxiety. "I went through a lot of my life feeling like it was cool to be the drunk girl. Drinking helped me to deny I was desperate for queer love and acceptance."
Mel isn't alone. For many, alcohol is the ideal social lubricant, lowering inhibitions and helping people jump from I wish I could act on my queer feelings to acting out on them. However, substances, trauma, potential rejection from families of origin, societal homophobia, and alienation are a dangerous mix, especially when paired with alcohol.
Drinking helped me to deny I was desperate for queer love and acceptance.
"I had an awful drunk episode on my partner's birthday and humiliated myself and ruined the whole event," Mel says. "I realized I was going to lose the person I'd been searching for since I was 12. It scared me enough to open my eyes."
For Renee (she/her), a 31-year-old living in Philadelphia, the drinking began in high school but quickly lost its appeal. "It wasn't fun anymore. I'd end up with the worst hangovers." The nail in the coffin was Renee's experiences working in the restaurant industry. "I worked in the kitchen, and the owners were social alcoholics," she says. "They'd get drunk every night and pressure everyone to drink on the clock. So I made the blanket decision to stop partaking."
Moving towards sobriety can be especially difficult for queer people. Support groups like AA may admit people of all backgrounds, but finding a genuinely welcoming support group can be challenging. For Renee, becoming sober was easier once she found the support she needed. E's sobriety was a four-year journey, including two in the pandemic. They credit the support of friends and family in getting there.
Mel, like E, went sober shortly before the pandemic started. "The pandemic helped me commit to sobriety. I didn't have the opportunity to drink socially," Mel says. All three described the commitment and boundary work it takes to maintain their sobriety.
I feel awake and alive. I wouldn't trade it for anything.
During the pandemic, Mel started going to therapy and meditating. "I asked my housemates not to bring liquor into the house and to only drink in rooms I wasn't in," they explain. "I started reading revolutionary texts that taught me about how the government uses alcohol to oppress marginalized communities." Along with a strong support network, Mel has been able to find healthier coping strategies.
Meanwhile, E found a whole new world in their sobriety. "I carry less regret," they say. "I'm learning to say no." E also says that an alcohol-free lifestyle has introduced them to newfound comfort in intimacy. "I had sober sex for the first time this year, and it was terrifying at first, but now I love it," they say. "I feel more confident sexually, in and outside of my body. I feel awake and alive. I wouldn't trade it for anything."
Physically and mentally, Renee has more energy and rarely feels ill. Now, she focuses on relationships and activities that are connective. "I enjoy dancing, hiking, and talking to people," she shares. "I'm cautious and thoughtful about substances."
Drinking has left some physical impact on Mel, who has chronic pancreatitis from alcoholism. But since they quit, Mel is able to treat their condition and begin healing. "I am healing from trauma that's haunted me my entire life," Mel says. "Now, instead of self-medicating and lashing out, I'm communicating and understanding my pain. I get to treat myself with kindness. I'm happier than I ever thought was possible. I am liberated." While sobriety journeys and relationships with alcohol are different for everyone, stories like these leave glowing pockets of hope if you're on the path to healing.
Are you thinking about changing your relationship with alcohol? Visit the Gay and Sober directory here.