As a transgender gay man in recovery, I know how vital these spaces are.

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Collage by Yunuen Bonaparte. Photo by Justine Trickett.

LGBTQ+ bars and nightclubs have traditionally been places where queer folks can find community, acceptance, and safety. As a result, alcohol has become a normalized part of LGBTQ+ life.

When I was first exploring my queer identity as a young person in the early 90s, discovering the vibrant LGBTQ+ scene hidden beyond blacked-out bar windows was a revelation. I had rarely seen openly queer people, and here they were in all their glory, free to be themselves and express affection to each other without fear. I was home.

The irony is that although queer venues have historically been places of safety, they also pose a risk to a community that already has a higher incidence of drug and alcohol use.

According to the Alcohol Rehab Guide, “25 percent of the general LGBTQ+ community has moderate alcohol dependency, compared to 5 to 10 percent of the general population.”

In honor of Alcohol Awareness Month in April in the United States, now seems like a good time to bring attention to this serious problem.

Higher addiction rates in our community are largely connected to experiencing discrimination and hostility for being queer.

“Formative experiences of shame and stigma contribute to symptoms of depression, anxiety, trauma, and substance abuse,” said Jeremy Ortman, licensed mental health counselor and founder of Real Talk Therapy.

I strongly relate to this. As a teenager in the 80s, I found myself drawn to the few queer people I saw, and as I became an adult, experimenting with my own queerness was something I did in secret.

Confused about my sexuality and gender, and experiencing rising anxiety and distress as a result, I turned to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. The fact that I had found my new support community in places like clubs and bars, where alcohol was at the center, just made my substance use worse.

Many years later, I am now a proud 47-year-old sober transgender gay man, and acceptance of LGBTQ+ folks has come a long way since my early days of queer exploration.

However, stigma still exists. Personally, I feel this most when it comes to public displays of affection.

Depending on where I am, I can’t kiss my partner in public without checking over my shoulder first, for fear of disapproving looks, which we often still receive.

This is why many of us prefer to socialize in queer venues, because in these spaces, we feel safe to live our lives and be ourselves.

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Attendees socialize at a Queers Without Beers night. Photo by Justine Trickett.

But trying to change the way you drink, as I have, when your identity and community are wrapped up in these alcohol-centered spaces, can feel impossible. How then can queer people who are looking to change their drinking habits break out of this cycle?

When I realized that I needed to stop drinking in my late 30s, my resolve was not strong enough to socialize in bars without being tempted by alcohol.

My queer friends were supportive — they would meet me in a café for lunch or just to hang out — but they were always drawn back to the bar or the club afterward. It was heartbreaking to no longer be a part of the community where I had discovered myself.

Luckily, I found an accepting and supportive recovery community in Alcoholics Anonymous. But 12-step meetings, even LGBTQ+-specific ones, are primarily focused on maintaining recovery rather than on developing community, and I missed my queer family. Plus, I still wanted a social life.

It’s precisely this lack of community-focused spaces for sober queer people that inspired Phoebe Conybeare and Hollie Lambert to create their own, Queer Sober Social (QSS), initially Chicago Queer Sober Social.

They held their inaugural in-person events in January and February 2020, the first at a coffee shop which stayed open late for them after over 100 people attended.

“The atmosphere was great, and there were just games and people hanging out and chatting,” said Carly Novoselsky who took over from Conybeare when in-person events unfortunately had to close due to the pandemic.

Determined not to lose the momentum they had started, Novoselsky and Lambert moved things online.

They currently host two virtual events each week over Zoom, a relaxed hangout with chatting and games, and a more structured setup with icebreakers and set topics, such as positive things that have happened that week.

“Of course, we can talk about queer and sober topics as much as we want,” Novoselsky said about QSS events, “but that was never really so much of the focus. We just wanted to talk about normal things that normal people talk about.”

Providing alternative queer social events is also a goal for Laura Willoughby, co-founder of U.K.-based Club Soda, which she describes as a “mindful drinking organization.” It offers everything from tools to help people cut down on their drinking to an online support community.

Through Club Soda, in 2018, Willoughby created Queers Without Beers, a series of pop-up “bar” nights, where sober and sober curious people can try a variety of low- and no-alcohol beers, wines, and spirits in a social setting.

“Substitution is a really important part of behavior change,” Willoughby said.

In-person events are currently on hold because of the pandemic, but in the meantime, Queers Without Beers is running online social events, such as bingo nights and dance parties, as well as informative talks and workshops.

When Cuties, a queer café in Los Angeles owned by Virginia Bauman, was forced to permanently close due to the financial effects of lockdown, CEO Sasha Jones began looking at ways to bring events online, as well.

“I immediately was like, ‘OK, how can we continue what we built?; How can we keep bringing our community together?’” Jones has built a thriving queer and black-run virtual space, hosting an array of creative events such as drawing and writing workshops, as well as talks and socials.

As a result of moving online, community is also now more accessible.

“It gives people access to queer community where maybe they don’t have it where they live,” Jones said.

The imposed social isolation has also caused us to seek more meaningful connections.

“The people that are showing up to virtual events are people that really want to be in community,” Jones said.

I’m definitely one of those people. I’ve found myself socializing far more with my queer siblings over this last year than I have in years prior. This is both out of isolation and because there are more options available.

I’m attending queer self-development workshops, meditation sessions, and quiz nights, and the connection feels purposeful and meaningful in ways it never did in drinking spaces. Hanging out online, I also don’t have to worry about avoiding alcohol. I can just relax and spend time with the queer people I relate to, without my sobriety being a barrier.

In this way, sober socials, what people in the community are labeling as “third spaces,” are uniquely positioned to offer an alternative social community. They provide much-needed social spaces, not just for those in recovery, but for anyone interested in, or curious about, changing their drinking habits.

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Hollie Lambert, left, and Carly Novoselsky at a Queer Sober Social event. Photo courtesy of Carly Novoselsky.

“Wanting to change your drinking has always been linked with the suggestion that you’ve got a problem,” Willoughby said, adding, “The whole point of Club Soda is about normalizing not drinking.”

Because alcohol is so deeply ingrained in queer life, and such a culturally accepted part of social interaction in general, there is a huge amount of stigma toward those who don’t drink. This is yet another barrier to recovery, and is just one reason why this normalization is so crucial.

We see this normalization, not just in venues, but also at Pride events, which have often been heavily sponsored by the alcohol industry. I love attending Pride parades, but being handed a rainbow flag with a vodka name emblazoned on the back does not sit well with me as a person in recovery.

This is something Willoughby has been working on while in-person events have been closed.

“For me, this is mostly a diversity campaign,” she said, “because it’s about saying, ‘Why would you not consider what could potentially be half the people at your event when you’re organizing, and only focus on alcohol?’”

There are now many alcohol-free alternatives. One example is the queer-owned beer brewing company Drop Bear Beer Co., co-founded by Joelle and Sarah Drummond.

After quitting alcohol and being disappointed with the alternatives, they created the alcohol-free craft beer they wanted to see themselves.

“I hope Drop Bear Beer can address the alcohol issue in the LGBTQ+ community by providing an epic brand and product range,” Joelle said.

The increasing number of LGBTQ+ sober socials and queer-owned booze-free beverage companies popping up highlights that there has been a shift in queer people’s relationship with alcohol.

It’s proof that we can choose a different narrative. We don’t have to be hidden away and dulled with alcohol and drugs. We can be visible as queer people, and work together to create a more mindful, meaningful, and healthy community space for us all.

“The conversation about sobriety has only gotten bigger since I’ve been sober,” Novoselsky said. “I feel like it’s turned into a movement.”

Willoughby agreed. “I also think that now is just the right time to make some real significant progress,” she said, “both in terms of our social settings as a whole, but also in the way we talk about alcohol in the community.”