The day I decided to attend my first recovery meeting, a person came into my work with two growlers of beer from my favorite brewery. Her sober partner was coming home, and she figured if she left it at the office, someone would appreciate taking it home. I spent the rest of my shift staring at the amber bottles and wondering if it was a sign.
Thankfully my coworker came in. She asked if I wanted to take them home and I sheepishly admitted that I was actually going to hit my first recovery meeting after my shift. Her face softened, her shoulders dropped, and she said she was proud of me. She had many friends in the rooms and immediately reached out to her queer friends to find out which meetings would be safest for me. She told me I didn’t have to share if I didn’t want to. She explained to me what 13th stepping is — the sexual harassment and predation that newcomers sometimes face in the rooms. I was surprised by her warnings, but within my first months of recovery, those warnings became incredibly clear.
I have yet to attend a meeting where people of color are the majority, even though I live in one of the brownest states in this country.
The twelve-step model of recovery was not built with someone like me in mind — a Black, nonbinary trans, queer desert dweller. I have yet to attend a meeting where people of color are the majority, even though I live in one of the brownest states in this country. I experienced inappropriate sexual advances almost immediately in the rooms when I was at my most vulnerable in those early days of recovery.
What is inclusivity in recovery? For me, that doesn’t necessarily mean a space that is majority BIPOC or LGBTQIA+, but it is a space where all of our intersecting identities exist at once. It’s a space where we can heal as whole people and feel safe while doing it. This is especially important for people from historically marginalized communities that face higher rates of addiction due to a number of reasons including “minority stress”. Making spaces safer and more accessible for marginalized communities means spaces are safer and more accessible for all of us. The ability for trans folks and people of color to be our authentic selves in the rooms gives everyone permission to be themselves, even outside of those categories.
As a Black trans person in recovery, I’ve seen this modeled well, and I’ve also seen some places in need of improvement.
One issue I always try to highlight when I’m asked to speak about sobriety as a trans person is that it is extremely difficult for trans individuals to receive adequate and safe in-patient treatment for our addictions, especially those of us that are nonbinary.
Making spaces safer and more accessible for marginalized communities means spaces are safer and more accessible for all of us.
My first month sober I cold-called as many local rehab centers as I could, and some out of state that advertised being LGBTQ friendly. They were much more interested in finding out what insurance I had to cover the costs, and brushed off my concerns about how housing would work. Even the one that I contacted that claimed to be LGBTQ competent didn’t know what I meant when I said I was “nonbinary.” I abandoned my hunt for an inpatient program, not wanting to “go stealth” or hide my trans identity, or face any discrimination if I chose to be out.
My story as a trans person in recovery is not unique. The inability for us to access gender and sex-segregated services is what trans legal scholar Dean Spade calls administrative violence, which equates to the inability for trans and gender-nonconforming people to access key services because of the policing of sex and gender.
In 2015 the National Center for Transgender Equality created the first nationwide survey of trans people. The results exposed many disparities, especially in health and access to basic services. A third of trans people have had a negative experience in a medical setting and the same amount couldn’t access medical care due to cost. Twenty-two percent faced discrimination in a treatment program. As a trans person, I have some privilege in that I have documents that match my identity — only 11% of my trans siblings have all of their documents reflecting their name and gender.
Why do we need inclusive recovery spaces and meetings? Because for the most vulnerable and marginalized populations, this is largely the only option. The uninsured and underpaid, trans people that can’t find gender-affirming care, people with disabilities, single parents, and countless people that can’t pause their lives for thirty days to get a new start need access to safe and inclusive recovery spaces. How do we make these spaces more accessible for these people?
Aaron Rose wrote an amazing piece on how to make meetings more accessible to trans and gender-nonconforming folks. As someone that uses they/them pronouns I really appreciate when meetings open with not just the sharing of names, but pronouns as well. In addition, when reading from texts you can change the “he or she”s to simply “they”. Gender-neutral bathrooms at the places meetings are held is another way to make the space open and welcoming to all.
Make Sure Accessibility Info is… Accessible
So many times meetings will say they’re ADA compliant, yet there won’t be a wheelchair accessible bathroom. Provide detailed descriptions of the limitations of the space. Ensure that there are translation services — especially ASL and Spanish — for major events and meetings. Ensure that your books and pamphlets have braille options. Work with web designers to make apps and websites that work with read-aloud technology. Include disabled folks in your efforts to make spaces more accessible, and note that being ADA compliant is only the beginning.
Offer Childcare at Meetings or Events
Access to childcare greatly impacts who can be in the rooms — single parents, people that can’t pay for childcare, and people that can’t put their family lives on hold for a one-hour meeting would greatly benefit from this. The more voices in the room the better.
Provide Education on Topics Like Racism, Transphobia, and Misogyny
I had the pleasure of being on a panel about safety in meetings and it was really important to hear a cross-section of experiences to make sure folks feel comfortable baring their souls in these spaces. Believe in people’s best intentions, and know that that education benefits all of us. Safety statements at the beginning of meetings also set the tone for what’s acceptable behavior in those spaces, and how to address tricky situations when they arise.
Provide Services that Can be Accessed Remotely
Online and phone meetings are critical for folks in rural areas, those who are living with disabilities or are immunocompromised, and people who lack the transportation to get to meeting places. Providing access to meetings held completely online or giving folks the option to telecommute to a physical meeting really expands people’s ability to find and fill healing spaces.
Have Meetings for an Affinity Group
Stag and women’s meetings have existed in recovery spaces for decades. More recently meetings that are LGBTQIA+ or BIPOC specific have become more common. Meetings built for people of similar experiences can really help others open up. Indigenous only programs like the Red Road to Wellbriety offer a critical space for meetings and materials that are by Indigenous people and for Indigenous people. These resources consider not just individual recovery but community-wide healing. BIPOC only spaces have been essential for my recovery. Being able to unpack my own trauma and that of my ancestors’ with people that get it is invaluable.
We’re at a moment where more folks are choosing to quit drinking and get sober. Some of us need support spaces. The safer and more accessible these spaces are, the more of us can successfully walk the road of recovery. We all do better when we all do better.