Every June, I see alcohol industry powerhouses like Stoli, Absolut, and Budweiser marketing their booze and beer to the LGBTQIA+ community in the name of Pride. On the surface, this seems like an inclusive gesture and a way to show the conservatives and anti-LGBTQIA+ folks that companies making their favorite alcohol also support people and values they don’t. A mainstream voice that speaks up for the outliers appears to be bold and one of solidarity. But the alcohol industry has made enough money off of the backs of queer folks, and the LGBTQIA+ community is making different choices as the narrative focuses on the true meaning of boldness as we impact the recovery movement.
The LGBTQIA+ community is at a higher risk of substance abuse and dangerous experimentation with drugs and alcohol than the cisgender and heterosexual population. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the rate of substance use disorders among LGBTQ individuals isn’t well known, but studies indicate it may be 20% to 30%, which is significantly higher than the general population (9%).
The LGBTQIA+ community is at a higher risk of substance abuse and dangerous experimentation with drugs and alcohol than the cisgender and heterosexual population.
While some disagree on how responsibility should be distributed, I know I am the keeper of my addiction’s consequences; the companies that sold me the alcohol I drank may take advantage of addiction but they are not to blame. However, I am not naïve. “Inclusive” business practices that target consumers in marginalized and often forgotten groups are adding to their bottom line. And the queer community is an easy sell.
The social stigma, discrimination, and fear of violence we face year-round make it tempting to give our money to brands that publicly support the LGBTQIA+ community since we are desperate to be included.
It is society’s lack of LGBTQIA+ acceptance that fuels the queer community’s shame, depression, anxiety, and the resulting self-medicating and self-harming behaviors. Acceptance is a multilayered process for many of us. It is hard to love ourselves when we are not getting messages of unconditional love. We are starting to turn inward as individuals for the messages we need. We are building resilience and creating places to feel safe through therapy, chosen family, and queer spaces. We are looking for ways to take the edge off that don’t involve harmful self-medicating. It is our own voice and that of our queer family members that are most critical to reducing the shame of addiction because ours are often the ones told to stay silent.
It is hard to love ourselves when we are not getting messages of unconditional love.
I am one of the many addicts who used alcohol to hide from myself.
I craved acceptance from family members and friends before I truly understood my need for self-acceptance. I was assigned female at birth and knew I was gay from a very early age. My girl-labeled heart fell hard for girls, a discovery was both exhilarating and terrifying. I was a closeted teenager through the 90s and newly out when I was in college. My early twenties were spent finding places to exist in a way that felt “normal.” Without knowing what to call it, I was looking for community, and I found it in clubs hosting queer musicians and seedy gay bars with a mix of baby gays and seasoned members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Those spaces were safe, and I retreated to them to let my guard down for short periods of time.
We were so afraid of living our most authentic and happy lives that alcohol made it easy to avoid self-acceptance.
For me and many other folks who identify as LGBTQIA+, queerness did not exist without booze. It brought us closer to others who looked and loved like us, but at the same time, it pushed us further from seeing and understanding ourselves. We were so afraid of living our most authentic and happy lives that alcohol made it easy to avoid self-acceptance.
My brain and gut continued to tell me there was more to the story: I was not only female. I was male too — but not completely. It took years, 38 to be exact, to realize I was not just queer but also nonbinary. It took a sober mind and finding the right language to understand and accept my identity and come out again. Accepting my transness meant I had to move through self-hate, discomfort, and fear. It meant I had to put down the bottle.
I am still working through plenty of hard emotions but with sobriety has come clarity and hope. Thanks to a rise in conversations about queer folks in recovery, I now see the LGBTQIA+ community as a place of safety in my recovery. I am also learning that, when addiction is involved, escape and safety are two very different things. Seeing a rainbow flag on a bottle of wine or beer wasn’t necessary for me to consume alcohol, but it did take advantage of my predisposition to addiction and my desire for acceptance. Seeing a sober person or sober space conducting business under a rainbow flag makes it easier to be both queer and sober.
The LGBTQIA+ community has so many layers of stigma to break through; we don’t need the added layers that come from our struggles with mental health and addiction.
The LGBTQIA+ community has so many layers of stigma to break through; we don’t need the added layers that come from our struggles with mental health and addiction. We know the need to break down the barriers that prevent us from being our true selves and we know that alcohol is one of those barriers.
Thankfully, there are alternatives to hiding.
Queer and sober coffee bars like Cuties in Los Angeles, social events, dating mixers, and fitness and yoga classes are beginning to spread across the country. The Queer Kentucky’s Queer Sober Monthly Meetup and Yoga Practice kind of makes me want to move to Kentucky. LGBTQ Alcoholic Anonymous groups and treatment centers are becoming more available too.
Thankfully, they are being promoted through social media channels and publications that target queer folks. Plus, there are LGBTQIA+ online spaces for sober folks. For instance, Instagram is a great place to find people in recovery, though I wish we had more folks like Jonathan Van Ness who are willing to speak openly about both their queerness and sobriety. I love JVN, and I also get so much from voices like Tracy Murphy and Sam Dylan Finch when it comes to real talk about navigating life as queer people in recovery.
It’s beautiful to be out and proud. It’s okay to be out and sober too.
Being queer by itself is already an act of resistance and rebellion. Not drinking when our brains tell us we need to and when society tells us we should—as if alcohol is one more rule we need to follow to fit in — is yet another act of rebellion.
The next time Pride rolls around, know that there are sober events too. It’s beautiful to be out and proud. It’s okay to be out and sober too.