This piece explores gender identity, sexuality, the gender binary, and more. If you are new to these concepts, check out the glossary at the end and resources throughout. We all start this work somewhere, and it’s ok to learn as we go!
“We are a fellowship of men and women who…” … “Ladies and gentlemen” … “It’s men for men, and women for women.” This is just some of the language that, while common in recovery spaces, can make the difference between community and exclusion for LGBTQIA+ people. And, as anyone in recovery knows, finding a community of support can mean the difference between healing and continuing to suffer.
If those opening phrases felt normal and welcoming to you, chances are you are heterosexual and/or cisgender. This article is an invitation and an opportunity to examine how you might be excluding LGBTQIA+ people from your recovery circles and to explore why consciously designing for inclusion is essential not just to their recovery, but to yours as well.
This article is an invitation to explore why consciously designing for LGBTQIA+ inclusion is essential to everyone’s recovery.
People of all genders and sexualities struggle with their relationship to drugs and alcohol, but LGBTQIA+ people experience significantly elevated rates of addiction and addiction-related deaths. Experiences of discrimination and violence often lead people to turn to drugs and alcohol for relief, and this same discrimination keeps them out of recovery programs, treatment centers, and even social media communities that explore recovery.
Bars are also historic refuges for queer and trans people, dating back to times when it was illegal to date the same gender or to wear “cross-gender” clothing (in some states, these laws remained on the books until the 2010s). For decades, sometimes the only safe public place for queer and trans people was the local underground gay bar, meaning that LGBTQIA+ people had limited access to sober public spaces.
Sometimes members of the LGBTQIA+ communities experience outright violence and explicit harassment. But more often than not, people fall through the cracks through a series of subtle exclusions, compounded over years of being treated as other. And if we want to eradicate addiction; it’s important to include those of us who are most vulnerable as part of our solutions.
In creating a more inclusive space, within your community and within your heart, you have the opportunity to restore yourself to wholeness.
If we have a straight or cisgender identity, we have the tendency to view inclusivity as about other people: something we’ve been messing up and need to fix for them. In my work as a diversity & inclusion consultant, I watch many people initially regard inclusivity as akin to assigning an accountant to balance their books and breathing a sigh of relief when the problem is resolved. When we outsource inclusivity work like this—and don’t look inward—we deny ourselves the chance to realize that being inclusive is primarily about the work we do on ourselves.
Recovery is ultimately about removing the blocks that stand in our way of being fully present for the here and now. Recovery means reclaiming the core parts of ourselves that society has conditioned us to stifle or deny. Recovery means showing up to build a world where everyone gets to be whole and human, no matter what they’ve done or who they’ve been.
In creating a more inclusive space, within your community and within your heart, for people of all genders and sexualities, you have the opportunity to restore yourself to wholeness. You have a chance to recover and reintegrate the parts of yourself that you abandoned years ago.
To support you in your work, here are five strategies for making your recovery space inclusive to people of all genders and sexualities:
1. Move Your Spaces and Policies Beyond the Binary
Take a look at your physical spaces and institutional policies. Consider how they might welcome or exclude LGBTQIA+ people. Eliminate the gender binary from bathrooms, and include bathroom accessibility information in your event or meeting listings (i.e. “there are single stall gender-neutral restrooms on the main floor and gendered bathrooms in the basement”). Be aware of your instinct to divide people between male and female for recovery support, as this rule is based on the assumption that everyone is straight and cis.
Check your stories for binary-enforcing assumptions, such as the idea that all women have certain anatomy or hope to marry a man. Shift from phrases like “ladies and gentleman” and “men and women” to “everyone” (or “folks” or “friends”) and “people of all genders.”
Action Step: Audit your physical space and community norms. How can you make more space for LGBTQIA+ people?
2. Honor Names, Pronouns, and Gendered Language Preferences
Use the language that most honors someone’s identity. Pronouns are the words we use to describe people in the third person (i.e. Aaron lent me his book). We cannot assume someone’s pronouns, based on what they look like OR what they say their gender is. Asking someone’s pronouns is not invasive or offensive, if that’s really all you’re doing (hint: if you’re also hoping to get more information about their gender history or their body, that’s why your gut is telling you “no!”).
Make checking in about pronouns, names, and gendered language a community norm. You will undoubtedly find that people who are not trans still have preferences, such as a woman who prefers to be called “dude” instead of “lady” in casual greetings. Again, we’re all living with different constraints under the old binary system.
People often ask me: Why are you so focused on language? Can’t we all just be whoever we are without so many labels? It’s a great question. I too experience moments where I want my only identifying word to be “human.” However, we cannot move into a label-free future until we first bring more understanding and awareness to our current experiences. Labels help us do that. For example, a word like ’nonbinary’ helps create more understanding that there are people who live outside traditional male and female boxes.
Action Step: Update your cultural practices regarding names and pronouns. If it’s relevant, leave space for people to distinguish between their names and what their legal paperwork says. Make check-ins about names and pronouns a regular part of your culture. If you can ask people in an icebreaker what animal best captures their personality, you can ask them about their pronouns!
3. Move from Assumption to Connection
Practice not assuming people’s sexuality, gender identity, or pronouns when you meet them. Instead, seek to form an authentic connection in which you get to know them over time. Physical presentation does not indicate internal identity. Sex is in the body. Gender is in the heart, soul, and mind. We live in a world that still reinforces the gender binary. It’s natural to meet someone and immediately put them in the man or woman box. We all assume pronouns to some extent, but we also have the opportunity to train our brains to react in a new way.
Practice pausing and waiting for other context clues about someone’s pronouns and identity. Practice introducing yourself in a way that invites another person to share more about themselves. “Hi, I’m Joey, I use he/him pronouns” is a great way to make space for the other person to share the same info. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at this.
Action Step: The next time you aren’t sure of someone’s pronouns or gender identity, practice bringing more awareness to the situation. If you find yourself feeling nervous, fearful, or judgmental, ask yourself—what is this person triggering in me? Are you scared of messing up and getting into trouble? Are you feeling resentful that this person is being allowed a space to express themselves that you were never given? Have compassion for the origin of your response. Creating a little space between your immediate reaction and your intentional response can lead to greater ease and connection for everyone involved. And remember, allyship is a daily practice, not a one-time event. We are all in the process of aligning more and more with our best selves. The more you show up for this process, the more intuitive it will be.
4. Seek Professional Training— Don’t Rely on Friends or Family
Rather than asking LGBTQIA+ members, clients, or friends to educate you— which means taking their emotional labor for free— pay someone who consults on this for a living. As this list indicates, creating a truly inclusive environment for people of all genders and sexualities requires a rigorous reworking of how you view the world, in addition to a series of detailed changes. Like all processes of change, that work is best done with the support of a professional. If you do ask an LGBTQIA+ employee or community member to support this change, compensate them for the work that falls outside of their job description.
Action Step: Check in with yourself. Do you have the resources to make the necessary changes? Or do you need more support? As a diversity & inclusion educator and consultant, I lead organizations through policy reviews and trainings to their cultural practices with their commitment to inclusion. I also coach individuals one-on-one in releasing the gender binary and showing up as greater allies. Reach out to folks like me to help you so you don’t have to rely on friends or family.
5. Embrace Lifelong Learning & Seek Out LGBTQIA+ Stories
Every LGBTQIA+ person’s experience is different. Seek out a variety of stories and commit to immersing yourself in new perspectives. Look to queer and trans media to educate you about queer and trans experience, rather than relying on your LGBTQIA+ friends or community members to answer your queries.
There’s a subtle but clear difference between reaching out to show support and creating space for listening, and reaching out to ask for resources, information, or work. Focus on making sure LGBTQIA+ people have opportunities to speak up, and listen to them when they choose to do so. Ask yourself: what is the goal of my question? If it is to provide a better experience for this person, then ask away. If it is to gain access to more general information about LGBTQIA+ experience, look for other resources before turning to your friend, employee, or family member.
Bonus: Understand Your Own Nuanced Gender & Sexuality Story
We all have an evolving relationship to gender and sexuality, whether or not we are queer or trans. We have all navigated society’s expectations for our gender and sexuality, in big and small ways. Reflect on how you’ve been restricted or pressured to fulfill certain gender roles, however small they might be. Think about the first time you were corrected as a child, for crying as a boy, for not crossing your legs like a girl, etc. Honor your journey and celebrate what makes you you. Supporting visibly gender-nonconforming people makes more room for all of us to live fully as our authentic selves.
Action Step: Reflect on your gender and sexuality and celebrate what you love about it. What was your experience growing up into yourself? What do you appreciate about yourself now? How can you make more space for everyone to feel this level of self-expression and comfort in your community?
We have but a daily reprieve from our society’s autopilot patterns of exclusion and violence.
We have but a daily reprieve from our society’s autopilot patterns of exclusion and violence. You have an opportunity to choose again. You have a chance to recover the truth of what you chose, what was chosen for you, and what you are still imposing on others. Our arena of change is exactly where we are right now. So start today. Take the next right action to make your world a place where people of all genders and sexualities can recover and thrive.
LGBTQIA+ is a current umbrella acronym for people who identify out of the heterosexual cisgender norm in some way. The letters stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual. The + indicates that there are many other words people might use to describe their experience.
Gender identity is your innate sense of your gender.
Sexuality, or sexual orientation, refers to the people who you are attracted to and would like to have romantic or sexual connections with.
Gender expression is how you choose to express your gender.
Sex assigned at birth is the label you were assigned at birth based on the external anatomy your doctor observed.
Transgender describes someone whose gender identity is different from their sex assigned at birth. There is no way to tell who is transgender unless they tell you! Not every trans person undergoes the same kind of transition. And not every trans person has a binary gender: man or woman.
Cisgender describes someone whose gender identity is congruent with their sex assigned at birth.
Nonbinary is a gender identity that falls outside of the boxes of man or woman. Nonbinary people have a wide variety of gender expressions and definitions for what their identity means to them.
Pronouns are the words used to describe someone in the third person, such as “he,” “she,” or “they.”