Studies have shown that rates of addiction run higher in the LGBT community than in the cis, heterosexual population. However, there are fewer people in 12-step and other addiction recovery programs than the statistics suggest there would be. This indicates that there may be additional stigma and other barriers that prevent many alcoholics and addicts in the LGBT community from getting involved in recovery fellowships. Anyone dealing with addiction has a difficult time taking their first steps to recovery and it seems logical that there would be additional issues in relation to marginalized groups of people, but it is a subject that rarely gets discussed.
I decided that the best way to begin understanding and striving to resolve this social issue, was by beginning to discuss it. I met with four people from the LGBT community. Jim and Tim are both gay men, Rachel is a lesbian woman, and Halie identifies as a bisexual trans woman. Each of these individuals are active in recovery and have been for between 18 months and 20 years. Their ages range between 22 and 55. I interviewed them trying to gain a better understanding of what some of the issues were for them both getting into recovery and finding self-acceptance.
Through our discussions I was able to begin to understand some of the difficulties each of them faces and have faced getting into recovery, coming out, and being both LGBT and in recovery.
Jim: “I can’t live like this anymore,” was the thought in my head right before going into recovery, referring to my feelings of having no direction, that I was wasting my life away, and having no real purpose. I reached a point where I realized I needed to be doing something different. My age was a big factor too. When I turned 30 years old, it was like a wake-up call that I wasn’t going to be “a kid” all my life. It was time for me to grow up. After using drugs for 20 years, I finally made the connection between the drug use and the mess I made of my life. At first, I thought I was using too many drugs too often and tried to “cut down” or moderate my use. Then my own experience taught me that complete abstinence from everything was the only way to go if I were going to get my life together.
Halie: I had a therapist that specialized in addiction counseling, he suggested I go to a (12-step meeting). So, I decided I wasn’t going to go. I was smoking so much weed it was really affecting my life. I picked a meeting that I would go to if I were to go to a meeting, which was the LGBT meeting in New Brunswick on Sundays. I had a friend who was even going to take me, we made plans, but they just never came to fruition.
One day I got so high, I forgot what day it was and completely forgot to go to work. I thought maybe I would start driving and pretending I was going to work every day. However, I realized that it wasn’t sustainable. So, I decided to go to a meeting, because I needed help. So, I was driving for three hours throwing away all my paraphernalia, then I ended up at the LGBT meeting. I’ve been clean ever since.
Rachel: I did pain killers, some stimulants, and weed in high school, I stopped using those after I went to Middlesex County College. Once, I transferred to Rutgers, I started drinking. A couple of times, I got extremely drunk and ended up in the hospital. A counselor suggested I start going to (12-step) meetings. I decided to try it out and I’ve been abstinent from everything for two years now.
Tim: I was arrested by the DEA, I was facing prison, they sent me to an IOP. I met my friend Sebastian at that IOP and he took me to my first meeting. Before that I was in active addiction from 16-41.
Jim: When I came out it was awful. I came out to my mother when I was 19 years old and it was a disaster. She told my father I was gay and both of them didn’t speak to me for a week. It was hell for 7 days until I finally broke down at the dinner table and my father suggested I go talk to a priest. Being devout Catholics, my parents felt the church was always the place to go to when family issues came up. I didn’t go to a priest because a few years earlier a priest made a sexual proposition. My parents and I never discussed my sexuality after that and this being a negative experience influenced future decisions I made to come out or not come out to others.
Halie: I had a unique coming out experience. I am fortunate enough to have a gay mother, so it softened it a little, but it was still difficult to come out. I was still ashamed. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. It’s a curious thing to admit something you’re so deeply ashamed of. I had a hard time even saying it. I told my mother first, then some friends, and then my dad and brother. My dad was less open, he said it was an abomination and a mutilation, he wanted no part of helping me at first. My dad eventually came around to it. My grandfather who is in recovery, he sat down with me and asked me about it. He paid for my surgery.
I think I was lucky because I was generally accepted right away. I don’t think a lot of trans people have the same experience, trans people are outright rejected, hurt, and there’s all these difficulties people often deal with.
Rachel: It happened very quickly after I came into recovery. It’s hard to live or try to in the truth and lie to yourself. Coming out was hard, but I have an exceptional support group. My parents were okay with it, my friends were okay with it, and I had a friend that was gay, and it helped a great deal.
I think it’s a lot easier now than it used to be before the 1980’s. A lot of the work I do at Rutgers, has shown me that we do have it a lot easier than people did before. But we still have a lot of work to do because it’s still difficult for people to come out and be accepting of their own sexuality, and to be accepted.
Tim: I came out to my friends when I was 17 in a sort of weird way. I was drunk as usual; my friend’s boyfriend was driving me home and I put the moves on him. A year later that guy came out of the closet and took me out of the closet with him. Nearly a year later, when I was 18 I came out to my mom.
Separation and Inclusion in the Addiction Recovery Community and the LGBT Community
Rachel: I feel as though it’s tough. Because, when you go to Pride, no matter where it is, it’s a huge party. There’s a lot of drugs, because I feel as though it’s deeply ingrained in gay man culture. There is a group that marches in New York City’s Pride, that is a group of gay men. I’m a lesbian, and I just don’t see myself, as a lesbian being represented in the LGBT Community. However, there are LGBT specific 12-step meetings.
Tim: There’s an additional stigma, I feel that is attached to being gay and in recovery. Shame is a natural part of the human experience. When you’re gay you are given an extra heaping dose of Shame. It feels as though society puts an extra label on you that you don’t deserve, and you didn’t earn.
Sometimes I’m afraid to show love and affection to other men in recovery, because they may misinterpret my motives.
Getting clean and sober though, I’m free from that prison I was in. I was a meth head, so I rarely left the apartment. I talk about my recovery as often as possible about my recovery. Because, I am proud of where I am now as opposed to where I was at then.
There have been clients that have come into the drug treatment facility, where I work that were uncomfortable. I believe that at times it is a growing experience, because generally they’re dealing with issues, where they’re not comfortable with themselves. A lot of people have difficulty in early recovery learning to be comfortable with their own selves. One client I remember had a very serious issue with me, when he arrived, however by the time he left the program he wanted me to be his sponsor. So, it’s one of those things where people grow in recovery.
I think in general people here are just very respectful of individuals sexuality. The program I work for is very community based so in general there’s nothing but love and support within the community. We’ve had individuals in the program that were gay, lesbian, bi, and trans, and I never saw any issues for them.
Some other issues I dealt with were when, I mentioned I was gay in meeting. A guy came up to me and accused me of cruising the rooms for sex. I was taken aback, the other people in the meeting were all in their sixties. I was like ‘look give me some credit, if I was cruising the rooms for sex, I could definitely do better.”
When I was starting to work in the recovery field a girl told me that I shouldn’t. She felt like I was going to have a hard time working here. I obviously ignored her suggestion, that I not work in treatment. I have no regrets about that and haven’t ever really had a hard time working here. If anything, it’s been beneficial to me and my recovery.
Halie: I think in general gay culture is very steeped in drug use and drinking. I think there isn’t an actual culture, in the same way there is with other marginalized groups. What you have for gay culture is a history of meeting places. Those meeting places are very much also places of drug use and drinking. So, often the only places that you can go to meet other people from the LGBT community are places like night clubs and bars.
However, I go to a lot of different conventions, anime and comic conventions have a very big queer presence, so they are places I can go to where the main attraction isn’t substances. Although, a lot of people there are introverts that don’t get out very often.
At events like Pride, I go with other people in recovery, then I usually leave before it becomes more of a party scene. People sometimes pass out things like rainbow beer. It’s just good to go with other people in recovery, because we support each other there, and can celebrate our identities. It’s a lot of fun just so long as you’re safe. It’s when you’re all alone without any supports for your recovery in that kind of environment that it’s dangerous.
Jim: I am not active in the LGBT community, however, from what I seen as a third party of other gay people in recovery and their peers in the LGBT community, I only see support, understanding and compassion.
The biggest issue I’ve had to deal with is my thoughts and feelings that there is something wrong with me because I am gay. This has led to a lack of self-acceptance, low self-esteem, self-hatred and feeling alienated. It’s so important for someone in recovery to feel a part of the recovery community or a sense of belonging and my experience is feeling excluded from others because, in my mind, I’m different from everyone else. Thinking and feeling that I had to keep my sexual identity a secret was a hefty burden to carry around with me day after day.
I have to say that I really haven’t experienced a lack of acceptance in my fellowship of recovering people or at the facility where I work. I attribute this mostly to my Higher Power sparing me from any negative experiences from people who don’t accept LGBT people. I also believe that recovering people are more interested in recovering from their addiction and don’t care who they get their help from, if they get it. The recovery community is akin to all of us being on a life boat, having survived the ship we were on in the middle of the ocean sinking; there’s really no room or time for being concerned with the sexual orientation of others on the lifeboat.
I have previous relationships with many of my co-workers from recovery meetings and, one place I am free to be open about my sexuality, I openly discuss it, so I know that they know I am gay. I have not directly come out to the other staff.
Dealing with Stigma Outside of the Addiction Recovery and the LGBT Communities
Jim: Being rejected by narrow-minded people because of my sexuality, my internal homophobia which I know not every LGBT person has to deal with, but I do. It’s really a lack of self-acceptance and an inability and/or unwillingness to accept who I am.
I would have to say it’s an internal stigma. Many times, if I am feeling stigmatized, what’s really going on is my projection of my own feelings of low self-esteem because of my sexuality. I honestly can’t recall specific incidents of external stigmatization, maybe because I’ve become expert over the years at protecting myself from allowing others an opportunity to stigmatize me.
Tim: I personally can talk about both. However nowadays, I have an easier time talking about being in recovery than I do about being gay. This is in large part because I was growing up in the 80’s, at that time people equated homosexuality to pedophilia, promiscuity, and just being a sick person. So, I still feel as though there’s an aversion to homosexuality. It’s a fear that is still present in my life, there’s all these things attached to me being gay, that makes it difficult for me to be open about who I am and my sexuality. I was out with my boyfriend recently. We were holding hands and I pulled my hand away when the waiter walked over. I am honestly comfortable with who I am. My family understands my sexuality, but my family also doesn’t believe that addiction is a problem. I believe that they don’t even really understand what recovery is. I’ve learned to accept that though.
Rachel: I think my family was relieved when I told them I was in recovery, because they knew I had a problem. So, the fact that I was in recovery was awesome. Growing up there were these minor things they said. These micro-aggressions that were said that were spoken.
It was harder for me to come out that it was for me to talk about being in recovery. Part of my using and what kept me using was my fear of coming out. Right now, I am in good place, because I am surrounded by other people in recovery. So, it’s a lot easier to not worry about people offering me drinks. Also, I’m involved in the LGBT community at Rutgers. It’s going to be tough when I leave, because I won’t be in that queer college community. I’ll probably struggle with my gender expression and holding my girlfriend’s hand in public, because I am the more masculine presenting one. I’ll probably also have to deal with more day to day microaggressions, just little comments about Lesbians in general. Although, I have also been yelled at on the street and this is a liberal college town. So, yeah, I worry a little more about that.
An issue I’ve dealt with is being in recovery and being in the outside world. I’m 22 and I feel like I am constantly being asked to smoke (marijuana), or drink. I also tend to compare myself a lot. I never did heroin, and it’s just one of those things I struggle with.
I insulate myself from people that aren’t in recovery or in the LGBT community. So, I don’t avoid people because of their sexuality or because they’re not in recovery. I just tend to stick with people that are understanding of who I am.
It’s harder to talk about being in recovery than being a lesbian. It’s just in general easier to talk about being a lesbian. I am a women’s and gender study major, so I think the expectation is that I am gay. However, I know that my professors are very accepting of the issues related to being gay.
Halie: I think sometimes I just don’t tell people in recovery, I try to be as open as possible, but it can be extremely difficult. However, I try to be aware of where I am, who I’m with. I am proud of both being a trans woman and in recovery, both are integral to my identity. I feel like I am representative of both. It’s tricky and I try to feel people out a little. It’s just something I must be careful about. I certainly don’t tell my bosses, because I don’t want to be judged or get fired for being an addict. I also let people know when they ask me to party that I am in recovery.
There’s an understanding I feel in the recovery community. Outside of the recovery community, I tend to stick with people from the LGBT community. There’s an emphasis in recovery on open-mindedness, that at times I don’t experience outside of that community to the same degree.
What these conversations revealed, is that one of the greatest barriers for LGBT members dealing with addiction, is the fear of stigma in the recovery community. Because individuals in the LGBT community deal with that stigma elsewhere, it is difficult to imagine finding acceptance in a recovery community whose members are predominantly straight.
One thing that stood out to me in these discussions the recovery community’s focus on acceptance and inclusion, lessens the stigma that LGBT members experience in recovery fellowships than outside of that community. The interconnectedness of the LGBT community and alcohol and drug culture also leads to feelings of stigma for that community’s members in recovery. Still, there are recovery meetings geared toward the LGBT community, which helps to create an LGBT recovery community that at times bypasses the differences between various recovery fellowships. The LGBT recovery community also allows for people to find a sense of safety, even at major LGBT events where drugs and alcohol are seemingly everywhere.
Ultimately, the individuals I spoke to are only a handful of representatives, of a large LGBT recovery community, while much was gained from this discussion, there may be issues that were not revealed. However, I can hope that the discussion continues. Because, issues visibility is important. The more aware people are of these issues the less stigma there will be for individuals in the LGBT recovery community.