Sober in the City: Redefining My Queerness On Fire Island

Feature Image via Forbes

I’ve been queer in New York City for 15 years, and sober for the last five of those years. However, long before I jumped in a U-Haul and planted my baby dyke roots in the Big Apple, I was born, raised, and spent a good portion of my life in Any City, USA. I stayed in my hometown for undergrad and came out during college. Like many Any City, USAs across the country, my hometown, at the time when I resided there, had little to offer in the queer culture department. Other than my college’s small LGBTQ student group, which had less than 10 regular participants, there was not a single LGBTQ-specific community center, sex shop, health center, coffee shop, or museum in the entire state. But, my city was home to the state’s only gay nightclub.

I remember the first time I frequented that nightclub. I was so nervous standing outside in line. However, once I got in, I felt like I was home, like I was free to be my true self for the very first time. No hiding. No shame. There were gay men openly grinding and making out. People were dancing and singing along to disco classics. A gorgeous butch go-go dancer who looked like a young K.D. Lang swiveled her hips on top of the bar wearing nothing but a tight pair of white men’s underwear and a tank top that had been cut off to a length that barley covered her nipples. An all-drag-queen punk rock group hailing from NYC stormed the club’s tiny stage and belted out a midnight performance of “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine. When they sang the song’s lyrics, “F*ck You, I Won’t Do What You Tell Me,” the audience pumped fists in the air and yelled back, “F*ck You, I Won’t Do What You Tell Me!” I was alive! That night, my queer identity was born in a bar.

via Wiffle

via Wiffle

I became a regular at the club and my drinking started to slowly increase. At that time, my drinking probably still could have been defined as binge drinking. But, when I binged… OH BOY, did I binge! And, after I moved to NYC, those weekend binges turned into drinking 5-7 nights a week. I came from meager beginnings, put myself through college and graduate school, held a good job, had great friends, and scored a decent NYC apartment. So, it took me some time to realize that drinking 5-7 nights a week was a problem. After all, I seemed to have it together and my friends, who were partying along with me, were more than functional — they were successful.

I was just doing what they were doing. And, we all were doing what (it seemed like) everyone else in NYC was doing. Even the women on Sex and the City (my generation’s Girls) were living the fabulous single life, going out somewhere amazing every night and guzzling Cosmos by the barrel. (By the way, Kristin Davis, aka Charlotte, is actually sober and proud.) If the straights were doing it, well then, we were not to be outdone because we were not normative; we were rebels!

The reality was that I had become another queer substance abuse statistic and there was nothing fabulous about my life. Or, at least everything that was fabulous about my life was being drowned in alcohol. I know what some of you are probably thinking: The bar scene is important to queer culture and it’s a shame that I had to abuse it, had to take it too far, right? And, I agree. The bar scene is very important to queer culture and, in my case, I had some biopsychosocial odds stacked against me that predisposed me to addiction.

But, one of those factors is being queer. According to the Pride Institute, “research suggests that alcohol abuse and dependence occurs at even higher rates [in the LGBT community] than in the mainstream population. Independent studies collectively support the estimate that alcohol abuse occurs in the LGBT community at rates up to three times that in the mainstream population. Said another way, alcohol abuse is estimated to occur in up to 45% of those in the LGBT community.” Although research has primarily focused on substance abuse among gay men, some studies reveal that lesbians and bisexual women also report higher rates of illicit drug use and heavy drinking than their heterosexual counterparts.

There are a number of factors that contribute to these higher rates, including, but not limited to, discrimination, stress, and lack of support networks. However, one factor that is often the rainbow elephant in the room is the LGBTQ community’s reliance on bars to socialize. Many LGBTQ individuals reside in areas, like my home state, where there are few opportunities to socialize with other members of the community except in bars. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration states, “Legal prohibitions against LGBT behavior and discrimination have limited LGBT people’s social outlets to bars, private homes, or clubs where alcohol and drugs often play a prominent role.” Further, The Center for American Progress points out, “targeted marketing efforts by alcohol and tobacco companies exploit the connection many gay and transgender people have to bars and clubs as safe spaces for socializing and increase easy access to tobacco products and alcohol.”

NYC provided me with more opportunities to explore my queer identity outside of bars, but by the time I had moved here, my definition of what it meant to be queer was already skewed, rooted in the notion that being queer and being blasted and fabulous were inseparable. Besides, NYC also provided even MORE venues at which to get wasted. There were so many bars, nightclubs, and parties to attend. Every night was a wonderland that was not previously available to me back home. And, even if my friends and I were going to do something outside of a bar, like go to a gay beach, gay BBQ, or gay museum, those activities were usually preceded by a fair amount of “pre-gaming” and followed by another fair amount of “post-gaming,” because that’s what badass homos do.

A decade later, I found myself occupying a seat in AA. I made wonderful friends in the program, both gay and straight, and we all struggled at some point with redefining ourselves, with finding out who we truly are. Other than partying, what did we like, what were we good at, what defined us? One area that many LGBTQ individuals, including myself, struggled with was redefining what it meant to be queer. I always felt that my queerness was integral to how I define myself in general. But, if being queer was synonymous with getting drunk, then how would I ever be able to define myself as anything other than a drunk? Was I going to have to focus less on being queer? And, if that was the case, how could I do that in a world where I am constantly reminded that I am the “other?” Also, why was my queerness so hard to define when my regional, racial, national, and generational uniqueness seemed so evident and easier to incorporate in the healthier new me?

About one year into my sobriety, I went on a day trip to Fire Island, a stunningly beautiful gay beach community in New York that is also notorious for its all day and all night parties. All of my previous experiences of Fire Island involved getting obliterated (imagine that), so I was particularly bitter about this trip. How in the world could Fire Island be fun without booze? Yeah, the beach was spectacular, but then what? I was going to be the teetotaler while everyone else sipped on vodka by the pool and twirled around fabulously to Yonce and other divas.

Before the first wave of evening parties commenced, I excused myself to attend an AA meeting on the island. I was dragging my feet all the way there.

I entered the room and was surprised to see over 100 drop-dead gorgeous queers, tanned, in their summer gear, sipping iced-coffee, laughing, smiling, greeting each other with hugs, showing mad community love. WHAT? I thought there was going to be 3 washed-up, sad faced ex-delinquents there, and instead it was a gathering of fierceness and support that is usually only seen once a year during Pride. People were nice. They came up and introduced themselves, offered phone numbers, and shared their experience, strength, and hope. They even informed me that there was a recurring women’s seaside meeting on the beach that I should check out. All of a sudden, I felt as exhilarated and reborn as the first time I entered that gay bar in my hometown.

And, it got better. When I went to some of the parties later that evening, I saw some of the folks from the AA meeting shaking it on the dance floor like everyone else. We gave each other a nod, like we belonged to some secret gay sober association. (Because we did!) I was doing everything I had always done back home, in NYC, and now in Fire Island. I just didn’t have a glass of alcohol in my hand. (I had a virgin drink, and no one was the wiser.) I was present. I was kind. My words weren’t slurred. I stayed out later, harder, better, faster, stronger. My wallet was fat with money that I hadn’t spent on liquor. I even remembered every last minute of my night the next day. No blackouts. No regrets. Heck yeah, I was queer! And, I couldn’t wait to explore more of what that meant in every aspect of my life, from the office to the bedroom. Turns out that there is queer life beyond the bottle, and it’s fabulous!

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Ginger has written 4 articles for us.

45 Comments

  1. Thumb up 22

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    “one factor that is often the rainbow elephant in the room is the LGBTQ community’s reliance on bars to socialize.”

    Thank you. I like to drink (heeeeey!) but I would like to also socialize in queer spaces with out alcohol. Queer feminist book clubs are everything to me because it allows for me to open up knowing that I don’t need a glass of wine and I’m still funny sober.

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      I’m so with you, Kate. It took me until my mid-20s to start embracing the “queer” label because up until that point, pretty much my only association with that word was “party.”

      I wish there were just one queer book club or discussion group for every 10 bars or clubs.

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      Me, too! I don’t even have a particular reason for not drinking – somehow, I just never got around to starting and I do tend towards obsessiveness and overdoing it, so why bother? – but it’s hard to find queer spaces outside of the bar scene. (I also can’t stand loud noises for other reason, ruling it out almost completely.)

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    I’ve been teetotal longer than I’ve been old enough to drink alcohol (because of medications) and it’s always been a problem when it comes to socialising. University social culture was very much centered around alcohol and a lot of the queer society events were also alcohol-heavy, though there were also (less well attended) film nights and brunches. Post-university socialising hasn’t been much easier, for the same reason. I wish there could be more social spaces where alcohol wasn’t involved…

    • Thumb up 8

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      I am also a non-drinker largely because of medications, and though I didn’t used to have a bad relationship with alcohol, I am now very aware of how much it permeates queer culture and society as a whole and kind of enjoy being a non-drinker. But it can also feel a bit strange to explain to people that I can’t drink because of medications, because that ‘outs’ me as chronically ill, and if I just abstain without explaining, it is usually noticed and commented upon. I would love for there to be more alcohol-free social events, or even more events that just weren’t alcohol-centered – as in, the drinking isn’t the highlight of the event.

      • Thumb up 4

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        Totally sympathise re: outing yourself as chronically ill. I usually say “I can’t drink because I’m on medication” and don’t elaborate further – that’s already more than I’d ideally like to say to a coworker or casual acquaintance, but it’s also the only way I’ve found of saying I don’t drink without there being follow-up questions and/or attempts to persuade me to drink. Which is frustrating, because “no, I don’t drink” should be ENOUGH and I hate it that people expect me to justify myself. (And don’t get me started on the people who continue trying to get me to drink AFTER I’ve said the medication thing – that happens sometimes too. Gah.)

  3. Thumb up 9

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    I’ve always been a non-drinker, for family history reasons and personal reasons, but not because of any personal history or moral opinions. I don’t mind being around people who are drinking lightly to moderately, but I feel bored and/or uncomfortable around those who are really sloshed.

    With my straight friends, being a non-drinker sucked until people started to hit 25, and then it was no big deal. But my city is small enough that most of the LGBT events either involve lots of drinking or are for people way older than me. So I’ve never been able to integrate into the LGBT community here. Having more alcohol-free events for young people, and more events for post-university 20-somethings in general, would have really helped.

  4. Thumb up 12

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    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!
    I think sobriety needs to be talked about more.

    You wrote my story. My drinking took over my life, and it took me 6 years to realize how much it weighed me down. I’m 9 months sober now, and the sober gay community is something that is strengthening me.

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    LOVE this article. I’m feeling crummy from 1.5 drinks at a queer event last night (over 5 hours, with food), and wishing I’d stayed true to my almost always sober self (half a drink or one drink on rare occasion is my usual limit). Still learning my personal limits and how to respect, enforce, communicate them. Thank you for writing this!!

  6. Thumb up 16

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    Thank you! The extent to which everything queer scene (& even non-scene) focuses around alcohol&drugs creates some really problematic dynamics (what does it mean to combine sex-positivity and huge quantities of alcohol, for example?), and for some I know it just makes so many places no-go areas, while others are forced to choose between things that are massively damaging to their mental health and just not socialising (which, um, is also damaging).

    Not to be too spammy, but I want to shout out for any Londoners here that I’ve started up a *sober* queer+LGBT dance party: https://www.facebook.com/events/1445539025692261. I’m really hoping it can be sustained indefinitely (and that others will take it up and do other events focused away from alcohol&c.), because we really need just to have these options.

  7. Thumb up 10

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    Right on Ginger! Every time I attend a queer social event, I felt like I was back on the campaign trail forced to drink to appeal to potential voters. Remember that?

    Well, no more! Hillz knows how to party without using alcohol as a social crutch!

    Cuz I am fun and will be President with or without beer and whiskey! Hillz 2016!

  8. Thumb up 8

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    This is something that doesn’t get talked about enough. I lost my brother to a complication from alcoholism. He was unable to reconcile his queerness, and that drove him to drinking. The program never worked. As a queer adult now,

  9. Thumb up 14

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    Thank you so much for writing this! It’s been hard making new queer friends in a new city while still trying to stay away from bars or from drunkenness. I love Autostraddle but they do that thing that most popular blogs and magazines do where they are saturated in references about drinking and articles about how to drink and what to drink without any counter-balance or affirmation about not drinking. Which is particularly hard since, as you wisely state, the queer community at large has a drinking problem. It’s so affirming to see queer sobriety in a positive light like this, so please, more sober articles Autostraddle!

    I’ve struggled a lot with finding my sobriety in the past two years. I’ve tried private therapy, group therapy, AA, CBT, smartrecovery, toughing it out on my own, a whole slough of things. My addiction makes me lie to my friends and family. It probably contributed to breaking up my biggest relationship. The smell of whiskey or the touch of a cold beer fires up my addictive neurons like nothing else. And the worst part is that whenever someone asks me why I don’t drink, I never have a good answer. I’ve started reading this book Clean by David Sheff and it’s totally changed the way that I think about my alcoholism and my recovery. Namely the idea that addiction is a progressive, chronic disease. It’s never going to go away and it’s only going to get worse. And the primary symptom of that disease is anosognosia – lack of self-awareness about being sick. Even though it’s often treated less like a disease and more like a choice, a symptom of the disease is making bad choices and in many ways not understanding why. Looking at research (like going into my school library and like looking up articles published in journals about addiction and looking at analyses of MRI scans) has been so much more helpful to me than AA meetings (though finding queer, sober community has been helpful in general). I always felt like I had to “bottom out” to really prove that I was an alcoholic and since I haven’t been arrested or fired or declared bankruptcy, then I haven’t bottomed out and therefore I can’t be an alcoholic. Which is a lot like a diabetic saying “well I haven’t lost any limbs yet so I can’t possibly be diabetic.” So I kind of wish someone had shown me this research sooner. My therapist didn’t, my family didn’t, my friends didn’t, psychiatrists didn’t, AA didn’t, and my community didn’t. It would have saved me a lot of personal failures if someone had shown me data two years ago saying, yes, this is a thing that is happening in your brain and in your neurons called addiction and yes, we know lots of sciencey things about it and about how to treat it, and yes, we need to deal with it right now, but no, you’re not always going to use this knowledge in your best interest and it’s going to take more than your own action and willpower to overcome it.

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      JZ, thank you SO much for sharing! I want to send you a big cyber-hug.

      I can really relate to a lot of what you wrote. First, yes with the pop media. I found it really difficult to watch t.v., read blogs, magazines, listen to music, etc. that glorified getting blasted. At every turn, it seemed that alcohol and/or drugs were central to the theme, especially when it came to queer characters, etc. I honestly felt like I was such a loser for not being able to participate anymore. It’s no longer a struggle for me (I watch my reruns of Sex and the City and Nurse Jackie knowing that some of the characters are sober or hardly touch a drop in real life). But I do take issue with the party lifestyle being pushed by celebs who do not even partake themselves just because alcohol sells. Alcohol companies are just as much “the man” as other big capitalist industries with lobbying power.

      Second, AA didn’t completely meet my needs, particularly with respect to the Big Book stating that I was a drunk because I had a spiritual defect. I am science minded too, so I knew better — that my addiction was much more complex than me not being “spiritual” enough. I looked for reasons, for answers WHY. When AA people would tell me to “Let go and let God,” I would want to pull my hair out. But, in the end, AA was right about at least one thing (at least for me): Over-thinking the “whys” was not going to get me anywhere. I was going to have to put in the work. Also similar to diabetes, understanding the origin of my disease was important. However, like diabetes again, it doesn’t matter how much I understand it on a molecular level if I am not taking steps beyond my willpower to control it.

      BTW, one of my friends shared this on Facebook the other day as a joke. Please disregard the “jokey” part of it. The video was produced by BBC and contains some interesting data on primates and alcoholism.

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      Well Said, I couldn’t agree more. I think people have this impression that you have to be so down in the drain to admit you have a problem. It is a very personal experience I imagine. I used to not drink at all, now i drink a little more often, but I do completely agree how much drinking is immeshed in the gay culture.. not even just drinking one is “good enough,” many think you should keep drinking all night. at the end of the day YOU DO YOU!! :)

  10. Thumb up 6

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    This is a wonderful article. AA got me sober almost two years ago, then for the first time ever I was present in my life. My own spirit was lifted when I read your description of that feeling of elation at the Fire Island meeting and dancing. This was a very pleasant read.

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    Thank you so much for writing this, I really needed it today. I have slowly learned how to redefine my queerness after being sober for 2.5 years and it’s not easy when most of the queer folks in your life aren’t. Thank you thank you thank you.

    I’m about to go searching, but do we have a sober group on Autostraddle yet? If not, we definitely should. I absolutely want and need to connect to more sober queer women, esp those who have commented already!

  12. Thumb up 6

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    I’ve been sober a little over 6 years now in an area that has a small but strong queer community. Like, what has already been said I really needed to hear this today. It’s easy to forget where I came from and you gave me a wonderfully put reminder.

    I would love to be involved in any sort of start up of a sober group on autostraddle. Let’s do it!

  13. Thumb up 5

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    I’m so glad this is being talked about more and more. There are a lot of alcoholics in my family, including my father, and drinking makes me extremely uncomfortable. I also take many medications that make it impossible for me to drink without risking more health issues, so I tend to avoid parties where there’s alcohol. Unfortunately, the only gay place in my town is a bar, so I really have no place to interact with the queer community. It makes me sad that it’s nearly impossible for me to go to any big social gatherings for queer folk since there’s always alcohol involved.

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    This was exactly what happened to me when I came out. The funny thing is that I see no way to prevent it. Outside of major cities, there are few things for adults to do that do not include drinking. It is worse for us, but it is a huge issue for everyone.

    It is like eating healthy. I am about 70-80 pounds less than I was at this time last year. Now I go out and am surrounded by places that do not sell anything that I want to eat and bombarded by ads for stuff that is no good. It is inescapable.

    It seems like consumption is hardwired into every social gathering in one way or another. I tend to not socialize that much because of it.

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      As someone who can’t eat most food outside of my home (autoimmune disease), I’ve been recognizing more and more how even cities — but definitely small towns — don’t have any places to BE with people besides establishments for consuming food/drink. And with the policing of streets and public spaces, just hanging out with people on the corner or in a park is becoming less and less accessible too. I think this contributes to the phenomenon.

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        Yes, definitely agree with the policing of public places. It wasn’t until you mentioned that that I realized it. When I studied abroad in Spain, people congregated outside all the time and at all hours of day or night with no problem.

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    Late to the party (no pun intended) but yes yes yes yes yes thank you. I’ve never consumed alcohol because of rampant addiction and alcoholism issues in my family. I have an addictive personality and I know if I were to start drinking I would never stop. There are even times when I’m in a bad headspace and I struggle with not going out and getting drunk – and I’ve never drank before! I feel like that is enough of a red flag for me. I also take medication so I can’t drink.

    Being queer and sober is really lonely. And with the shutting down of queer and feminist bookstores (Giovanni’s Room in Philly is shutting down on the 17th), we’re losing places to congregate.

    I don’t know how old everyone is (I’m 24; 25 in July), but if it’s any consolation, I’ve noticed that the older I (and my friends) get, the less likely my friends are to drink excessively. I don’t know if it’s because we have Adult Jobs™ or if they’ve just grown out of it or what.

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    Urgh, this makes me feel SO guilty, especially about your worry the meeting would be filled with “washed up ex-delinquents”. Because that might be me. I’ve been on and off trying to get sober for three fucking years, ever since the first time I went to jail, and the longest I ever got sober was eight months, and then I lost it. Because I have NEVER, ever, ever, been able to find community without alcohol and drugs. My stretches of sobriety are stretches of time where I am totally and utterly alone.

    At this point I’m scared to go to “sober” events because I just can’t take it – I pregame, or leave and get drunk/high and come back, or mostly don’t go at all. Or I spend the whole time thinking in my mind about getting high until I can almost feel it and then go straight home.

    I really admire you for being able to stay sober. Stay clean dude! Someday I hope I can too.

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      Autumn,

      First, allow me to apologize if my description of what I expected to find at the Fire Island AA meeting was offensive. That was not my intention. In fact, I was including myself in that group of “washed up ex-delinquents.” I felt so alone, like all of the “normal” people were out having fun, and I was at the bottom of the barrel — where I thought I belonged, because I did my dirt. Yes, many of us hit bottom, and those bottoms are each different. What we all have in common is our addiction. We can share our stories, our hope, our love to help each other through. That connectedness transcends our differences.

      At one of my first meetings, someone came up to me and said that I was going to be a “first time winner.” When I asked what that meant, I was told that I appeared to look driven and would succeed as a lifer with no relapses first try. That was not the case. I relapsed three times before I was able to get where I’m at today.

      So, hang in there Autumn! Keep coming back, it works if you work it, so work it, you’re worth it.

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    Excellent analysis! As an openly bisexual person I should have known about these problems, but the thing is, I don’t drink. I never have because alcoholism and drug abuse run in my family and I’ve always been scared that one sip of alcohol would make me become addicted very fast. The only problem I have with this, is that the studies have focused on gay and bisexual women, and gay men; but what about bisexual men? It honestly seems like some people still tend to forget that bisexual and other types of queer men exist too! Even though they all know that “LGBTQ” is suppose to represent EVERY and ALL humans.

    I actually know quite a few bisexual men who are or have been heavy drinkers because they are scared to death to come out. One of my very good female friends is married to a bisexual man, and he sometimes drinks a lot because since he’s in the navy he can only come out to a few very close friends and family that he knows he can trust without letting his “secret” coming out. Especially since they have three small children of their own. And we all know how the military treats people who are not straight/cis-gendered…..

  18. Thumb up 1

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    Yes! Everything about this — my partner and I don’t drink, but because we’re in college literally everything revolves around drinking, and it’s been really hard to keep queer friends because we don’t want to go to parties on the weekend and whatever. My partner had her birthday and requested that people not drink excessively before/during it since she doesn’t drink, and those of our queer friends who came stood in a corner with their arms crossed looking bored like they didn’t know what to do, while our straight friends/ queer friends who didn’t hang out with the community had a lot of fun dancing and picking music and eating cupcakes.

    I think us queer youngins get saddled with double the message that drinking is an important part of our culture. First, there are all of the reasons above–queerness is deviance and deviance is made for night/ meant to be obfuscated by substances–but also queerness is an overwhelmingly “young” thing and that part of college aged life +/- a few years is getting drunk and going to parties/ or just drinking frequently with friends. I would love to see queer culture queer drinking culture and have more sober/somewhat sober events.

  19. Thumb up 2

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    this is so perfect!

    i drink, but not that much. i drives me crazy that everything social in my life seems to revolve around alcohol, and it’s comforting to hear i’m not the only one.

    p.s. my dad’s been sober for over 10 years and AA was definitely instrumental in making him accepting of me being gay. when i came out to my parents, my dad already had lots of queer friends from his group and proudly bragged about my working at AS to one of his lesbian AA buddies. if that’s not love, i don’t know what is

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