Op-ed: The Queer Politics of Sobriety

With a culture that is perhaps a little too liberal with substance use and abuse, is it time for a community-wide sobriety test?

BY Jen Manion

February 13 2014 5:09 AM ET

Jen Manion

In the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic overdose, the virtues of living a clean and sober life are apparent — even popular — as people turn to social media to celebrate friends who have taken the long and difficult road of recovery. But this celebratory tone is far from the norm in our LGBTQ communities.

Our community wears our use of alcohol and drugs as a badge of honor, signaling resilience in the struggle against normativity and hate. This practice, however, takes a toll on us. We become bitter queens, angry dykes, and hypersensitive trans people — sometimes rightly so. In fact, especially within queer arts, academic, and cultural spaces, we glorify each other’s use and abuse. As we suffer the effects of resisting gender and sexual norms, day in and day out, year after year, the world still too often blames us for our mistreatment. So we drink and get high to that, too.

We have all heard the statistics, time and time again: LGBTQ people have higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse. For generations, bars and clubs were the central social spaces where people found friends, lovers, and community. Major alcohol companies sponsored our parties, conferences, and Pride parades when few other corporations would associate with LGBTQ organizations.  So many of us turned to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain of familial, religious, or societal rejection. They lowered our inhibitions just enough to pursue our first (or second or third) gay sexual encounter.

Despite our awareness that social norms and economic systems promote drug and alcohol abuse, we still treat it as an individual problem with a medical or spiritual solution. I’ve been sober for many years now and have always struggled to reconcile the overtly Christian 12-step model of failure and redemption with my queer feminist politics that views drug and alcohol use as a reasonable (ideally temporary) coping mechanism in the face of profound rejection and marginalization. Seeking a way out of self-destructive use of alcohol or drugs need not require one embrace failure and redemption; rather, as queer people we might embrace sobriety as an act of survival, resistance, and possibility.

I have seen an unusual amount of suffering caused by drug and alcohol abuse in the lives of so many LGBTQ academics, friends, and young people. As a friend, I am saddened by this pain, denial, and struggle. I am also angry that as a queer community we have not come up with a less destructive way to get through our days, connect with each other, and advance queer politics. The creativity, passion, and ideas of so many queer people become dulled (for a while at least), and sometimes lost entirely.

So many of us will celebrate our drinking as a way to get by and survive familial homophobia during family gatherings and other awkward situations.  Consider our rage and the anxieties that we dull, time and time again, and what might happen if we stayed sober during our visits? Might facing the interaction with a clear head compel us to greater vulnerability, and quite possibly, real intimacy? Or if the pain of familial bias is so great, might being present for it compel us to be more real about how it affects us? Might we organize collectively to challenge tolerance as an acceptable familial attitude and call for true radical acceptance and understanding instead?

For so long it has seemed to me that there is no place for sober values and community within queer political, artistic, and academic circles. While individuals might bridge the two worlds, recovery communities and queer cultural spaces are miles apart, socially and culturally. But it needn’t be this way, nor should it.

Sobriety is a queer issue. In a world full of hardships, distractions, and escapes, to be clear, to be awake, and to be focused, makes one queer. What creative solutions to difficult problems might we come up with if we were clear headed? How might desire feel, and sound, and smell beyond the fog, freeing us to face our gay shame head on and move past it?

Sobriety could be a form of radical resistance to a world that wants us to be too drunk or too high to really feel the pain.  What might we call for if we weren’t numbed? Is our great coping mechanism creating a front through which none of us can see a real queer future? Sobriety as radical queer practice has the potential to be truly socially and politically transformative.


JEN MANION, PhD is Director of the LGBTQ Resource Center and Associate Professor of History at Connecticut College. Jen is co-editor of Taking Back the Academy: History of Activism, History as Activism (Routledge, 2004) and is writing a book on the history of transgender representation in early America and tweets at @activisthistory

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