“I’m Sagaree, alcoholic. I’m new.”
I introduced myself very briefly at an AA meeting on a hot, windless Saturday morning. It was in a church, as they all are, only this one was in Oakland, and this one was reserved for queer people of color. A QPOC-AA meeting, if you will. In every other AA meeting I had attended, I had sat shivering slightly, a bodily response to my own brownness, youngness, short hair and dramatic earrings. Here, I was greeted by the almost physical welcome of a space I related to, some older Black and brown women, some younger queers bearing overalls or ripped t-shirts, a couple people cradling babies in their. I sat, as inconspicuous as possible, among a collection of folded chairs, children’s easels, and “Big Books,” the AA’s Bible.
I had arrived just in time for us to read a story from the Big Book about a wealthy banker who became addicted to alcohol. I didn’t expect to relate to his story, but I did. We began to confess our own cavalcade of harms, wounds, and absurd behaviors, enumerating our transgressions against normalcy. One woman cleared her throat.
She had been coming to meetings for decades, and she, too, had a relateable story. Not the worst the room had heard in the day, and not the best. She had tried to come to meetings in 1980, and she had found it unbearable. She couldn’t, she said, speak in this way to a room full of straight people. So she returned to the outside world, to her debilitating drinking, to rejection from family and rejection from her church. In 1987, she said, she came again, and found they had Gays and Lesbians meetings now. Finally, a meeting for her, for her people.
“And that,” she said, “is where God met me.”
In the back of the room, I felt something meet me, too. I began to cry, doing my best to excise my conflicted, suppressed joy.
I had been searching for that something for a long time. I got sober alone, in a village about an hour north of Kampala, Uganda. I had moved there for a job opportunity, naively confident I, as an openly queer person with a mental illness, could flit across the globe like a moth. My mental health began to decline almost immediately, and as I parsed through the complex postcolonial dynamics of my own selfhood, I searched desperately for queer community in a country in the habit of inviting American evangelicals to rail against The Gays in front of the Parliament.
By the time I quit my job and scheduled an emergency move back to the United States, my drinking was threatening my life. I didn’t even consider attending meetings in the country, although later research revealed that there are two. That was my first lesson in the mechanisms of Alcoholics Anonymous: without some baseline trust in the people running the show, there are no twelve steps, or even a first step.
I tried, though, once I was back in the San Francisco Bay Area. First, in San Jose, in a LGBT Center LGBT-AA meeting filled with older white gay men — sweet, but very confusing. Again, in my hometown, where I found a meeting, drove to the parking lot of a Presbyterian church, sat silently in my car, and drove back home, unable to face the possibility of running into Indian uncles at an AA meeting. Then, in Berkeley, at a queer meeting where I sat tensely cross legged until two younger, androgynous looking queers wandered into the meeting, and I relaxed into the seat of my chair.
From Kampala, where LGBT centers can’t mark their doors for fear of violence, to the East Bay, where people regularly commute an hour to access queer- friendly meetings. Alcoholics Anonymous notoriously keeps very few centralized records, but Gay and Lesbians-AA lists 1,283 regular queer meetings in the United States, averaging 26 per state. Of those 1283, I found three meetings that were specifically for queer people of color. Only one in the San Francisco Bay Area, only one in New York City. I felt as if I were squeezing myself into the margins of a movement, marching at the very end of a long parade.
Alcoholics Anonymous’ methods and reach have both come under controversy in the past decades. The organization was founded in 1935 by a stockbroker and a surgeon, and it grew out of an Episcopal non-alcoholic fellowship known as the Oxford Group. It was the stockbroker, not the surgeon, who spread the gospel that alcoholism was a disease rather than a moral failing. In 1939, the growing organization published a textbook, Alcoholics Anonymous, that remains the organization’s Bible 80 years later.
The basic tenets, that alcoholism is a disease and that confessing one’s sins to god and country will aid in the fight against that disease, have not exactly been scientifically proven. If alcoholism is a disease, it’s a disease LGBTQ people suffer from at more than double the rates of the general population, a claim only a step away from the kind of biological essentialism that insists that queer people are suffering from a defective gene, or a malformed psyche. For some, alcoholism may be a biological predilection, but for many, many others, it is a set of circumstances so unbearable that the cycle of substance abuse becomes a welcome relief. Alcohol abuse is social and therefore exists on a spectrum that AA orthodoxy did not recognize. Although, these days, there is space in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for “problem drinkers,” those lucky souls who flirt with the depths of alcohol dependence, but may not have hit the proverbial rock bottom.
This is one departure from the 1935 original model, but in many other ways, the AA model has remained rigid. Even in the anarchic Bay Area, meetings begin with guidance from the Big Book, continue with confession, and end with the Serenity Prayer. The value of Alcoholics Anonymous depends on confession of sins—what Michel Foucault would call “one of the main rituals we [in Western societies] rely on for the production of truth—, abstinence from alcohol, and on honesty in the face of God and the Fellowship.
And in so many places in the United States, and the 175 countries that the AA model has spread to, it is simply not safe for queer people to be honest.
What might it look like to build models of care for alcohol abuse that, instead of just including queer people, begin with us in mind? Models that recognize the interconnectedness of social marginalization and alcohol abuse instead of pathologizing alcoholism? That commemorate the small victories of survival in a deeply homophobic world? That accept and even celebrate that sometimes, you have to hide parts of yourself?
As it turns out, AA is not the only model that responds to alcoholism. Scholars of the history of Alcoholics Anonymous’ program have pointed out that the program often eclipses harm reduction approaches, dealing with individual triggers to drinking, or prescription drugs such as naltrexone alter the effects of alcohol in the body.
I can imagine, in a small and hopeful corner of my mind, a version of my queer communities where resources for alcohol abuse are as abundant as alcoholics anonymous meetings, where folks like me could access naltrexone to dull the effects of alcohol or counseling on substance abuse triggers and strategies as easily as information on STDs. I can imagine the kind of guidance that usually comes from a sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous coming instead from licensed and queer affirming counselors, and working one on one with experts to find triggers of binge drinking and work out safety plans, and a proliferation of LGBT specific substance abuse centers.
Parts of that vision are oddly terrifying, coming to me with jagged edges. I go to AA meetings, I have benefitted from the community there, and I have accepted a lot of the language for myself. I tell people that I’m an alcoholic, reciting my months of sobriety with a combination of pride and deep, dark exhaustion. But I imagine those idyllic sets of resources, and I feel a threat pushing at the edges of my words, my identity. Would I describe myself in the same way if, from the beginning, I’d had the support I needed? If I could simply take a deep breath and say that life became briefly unbearable, that I have experienced cruel depths of queer erasure and had no other strategies to cope, but now I have everything I need?
At least for me, Alcoholics Anonymous asked me for a kind of ill-fitting honesty, of accepting that I fundamentally have a problem. I still do not know how to encounter the term “alcoholic,” just as I once did not know how to encounter the term “queer,” the term “South Asian,” the term “bipolar disorder II.” I have accepted each and remade my life around them, come out of closet after closet, but each time, it has come with a sharpened consciousness of how my social world has failed people like me, and a burning need to see my worlds change to accept me. In my experience with substance abuse, I felt what it was for a substance to consume me, to become broader and deeper than my own conscious mind, and I knew that in a world without homophobia, racism, sexism, ableism, on and on, I would never have asked to be consumed in that way. I needed to come to terms with my own substance abuse, but even more, I needed to come to terms how it had been constructed along with, in conjunction with, other oppressions and struggles I have moved through in my short life.
And in that need, Queer People of Color Alcoholics Anonymous meetings have given me community, self- knowledge, and peace. I know that there have been many before me, and that within the AA and in the larger queer world, queer people struggling with alcohol have fought for space and recognition. Calls within AA for special interest LGBT meetings date back to 1970, before homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1973, and Gay and Lesbians-AA was established in 1981. Today, queer cafes, bookshops, and event series offer crucial sober alternatives to queer bars, often based on community support.
To me, when queer folks struggling with multiple marginalizations gather, speaking to the complex dynamics of substance abuse along with the dynamics of race, gender, and sexuality, there’s something in the room that recognizes and accepts us in all of it, apart and together. To me, my Saturday QPOC AA meeting is something stronger, newer, and more precious than the founders of AA might have known. I know that this space is not available to everyone, and I know that there are alternate universes in which every QPOC person partaking in it was presented with a half dozen options apart from AA. But even as I dream of the abundance of those options, I choose to believe in that meeting. In the embodied warmth of the church room in Oakland, in the happy babbling of children, and in the clasped hands of queer people choosing to save each other.