Sobriety vs Chosen family: Creating safe spaces for sober queer folks
While I wasn’t aware of the exact prevalence, I can’t say I’m surprised. Queer culture is not just stereotypically tied to nightlife, and subsequently substance use; there really is a culture of drug usage that is ever present in most queer spaces. This poses a real obstacle for sober queer folks: how do you navigate finding your queer community when it glorifies a lifestyle you cannot or don’t want to partake into? To answer this, I spoke to a bunch of people, friends and strangers alike*, on the topic of being queer and sober to get a better understanding of this intersection.
As the holiday season starts to really kick off, which can be a time of year particularly difficult for LGBTIQ+ people, it may be time to open up the conversation on sobriety and substance usage among our queer peers more so than usual.
*Due to the nature of the topic, there will be no direct quotes unless I received explicit consent to do so!
The ever-presence of alcohol and drugs in queer spaces
A large echo among those I’ve asked about substance use and abuse in queer spaces confirmed that this was indeed observed and felt. Events catered towards the queer community are mostly based in nightlife, whether it be bars, clubs, raves or festivals -- which often come paired with substance use. Even cultural bonding staples such as drag shows tend to take place at night, in bars.
If it were simply a presence, it seems that some could get passed it. The problem extended to peer pressure to join in: not just the nagging “oh just one drink won’t kill ya!” but also a form of rite of passage extended to use of different substances regionally, such as poppers or ketamine. While several acknowledged that there is a growing drug awareness and education in the community, it doesn’t always reflect in the observed behavior that people casually have regarding their substance usage.
Where can you be queer and sober?
Sobriety in this article is to be understood as deliberate non-usage of alcohol and drugs (including the notion of being “clean” too) for a myriad of reasons: substance abuse recovery, worsening of mental health/family patterns of substance abuse, disinterest in drug consumption altogether, etc. I decided to reunite the stories of folks with different intentions behind their sobriety, as their experiences did seemed to have overlap, particularly in how they dealt with this intersection.
Many expressed simply avoiding the nightlife scene -- and by extension queer scene -- as a means of self-preservation or preference, making it harder to connect with others of the community. There are little proper safe spaces for sober queer people. Ones that offer a variety of activities. Ones that actually seem fun and cater to adults, as a desirable social alternative to bar-hopping.
But even when finding people in sober spaces, the conversation can still lead to non-sober ones. Where do you pursue a great conversation you had with someone at a cool art show? You get drinks together. So it feels pretty defeating in how unavoidable substances are casually brought into conversations.
Missing out on queer chosen family
The amount of sober queer folks mentioning losing friends and having to create distance with the queer community in itself is what disheartened me the most. Granted, not all, but enough that I feel it’s important to mention it. It brings up an aspect that relates back to the higher prevalence of substance abuse in the community: the importance of chosen family.
Chosen family: the notion that, although not related by blood, the careful selection of people who share an interest in your well-being and are dependable in that care, will remain pillars in your life. In desperate times, chosen family is far more than friendship, more so a means of survival: for emotional, physical and financial safety.
When queer folks have to deal with the stigmatization, they face for their gender identity or sexual orientation, their internalized stigma and any other intersectional challenge, the need to be accepted and included is even more dire, since the fear of being rejected and isolated is so much more amplified. And for good reason: we know that homelessness2 is unfortunately far too prevalent in queer youth. Relationships with blood family can be distressing.
Extracting yourself from environnements and social circles that push substances onto you is an important step in maintaining (particularly the recovery kind of) sobriety. But that doesn’t come easy if the extraction is from a chosen family that enables substance use: a couple of people described it as having to choose between the sober or queer community.
Creating better queer sober spaces
It’s not all gloom. Among the more positive responses, most highlighted that the opposite effect is true too: a chosen family that is compassionate of sobriety can be a true backbone to well-being and maintaining sobriety goals. Said individuals even mentioned, in some cases, being able to go back to the queer community and feel included as a sober person.
Others mentioned the power of finding other queer and sober folks, through physical and online spaces, and building a chosen family of peers. In recent years, there are more identity-specific substance abuse programs, for those in recovery, that cater to LGBTIQ+ identities in bigger cities and through Zooms. And while there are some legitimate reasons why someone may not care about traditional recovery programs, it does speak volumes that more are trying to cater to specific demographics. Age, was mentioned as being another important factor in the intersectional approach, as finding help with other younger peers is important for group solidarity too.
For sober queer people at large, one sentiment was pretty much unanimous: there needs to be more spaces that are substance-free. We need more sober hangouts, housing, nightlife, events… everything. More sober everything, as real alternatives to non-sober spaces. It’s not about vilifying substance use, it’s just about having options.
1 Boyd, CarolJ. et al. “Severity of Alcohol, Tobacco,and Drug Use Disorders Among Sexual Minority Individuals and Their ‘Not Sure’Counterparts”, LGBT Health 2019 6:1, 15-22. doi: https://doi.org/10.1089/lgbt.2018.0122
2 TrevorProject. “Homelessness and Housing Instability Among LGBTQ Youth.” Thetrevorproject.com.https://www.thetrevorproject.org/research-briefs/homelessness-and-housing-instability-among-lgbtq-youth-feb-2022/.Accessed November 29th 2022.