“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…Sobriety as radical queer practice has the potential to be truly socially and politically transformative,” writes Dr. Jen Manion in her brilliant op-ed “The Queer Politics of Sobriety.” To some, sobriety is simple: you abstain from alcohol and drugs and proceed as normal, no longer shackled to the substances and accoutrements that seemed like friends. To others, sobriety is far more complicated and expansive, defined by more than simply choosing not to do something. Likewise, one’s gender identity and sexuality can be just as complicated, nuanced, and (what feels like) a moving target at times (if a target at all). Perhaps as a result of clarity gained in sobriety, you’ve started to question your gender expression and/or sexual orientation. Maybe you’ve been on this road for a while, the questioning only occurring in states of inebriation or in the painful mornings after riddled with “hangxiety.” Or maybe recovery friends and peers have started a journey of questioning and you’d like to be a better ally. This article is but a drop in the growing world of articles exploring the intersectionality of sobriety and queerness. As a cisgendered female who has historically oriented herself as “straight” but is finally coming to terms with her queerness, I now see the crucial role of sobriety in helping me get here.

 

Challenges to Queerness 

It’s important to unpack and challenge beliefs around gender identity and sexual orientation, especially for those of us who have grown up in a heteronormative and majorly cisgendered society. Those who refuse to identify by static labels tend to be outcast or otherized (not unlike individuals who choose not to use substances). Getting sober felt like stepping out of the matrix of a society hellbent on keeping its denizens busy and caffeinated on weekdays so they can stay inebriated and forget all their woes on weekends. Choosing to investigate and explore alternatives by going against the grain, whether it comes to sobriety or questioning one’s lifelong identification as being “straight” (and not simply doing it to be contrarian or “difficult”) is a radical act and one that takes a lot of courage, not to mention support.

Had I still been blacking out and getting high around the clock, I doubt I would have the wherewithal or bandwidth to question my sexuality in a serious way. A night of experimentation could be minimized and brushed aside by attributing it to the booze or drugs. Substances not only altered my perception of reality in moments of using but in the days and weeks that followed. Sometimes it was hard to tell what romantic feelings were repressed because of their unfamiliarity or given too much airtime (as in, ruthless obsession around familiar toxic patterns of past partners). Navigating dating and romance in the days of misusing substances felt like wading through a massive unknown, holding onto whatever semblances of relational intimacy I could manage. 

 

Resistance to Change

It’s part of human nature to resist change, especially if that change necessitates asking one’s self difficult questions and creating internal space to listen for answers in a truthful way. I experience an emotionally allergic response to labels like “alcoholic” or “addict” seven years into sobriety as I don’t find them helpful as I did in the first few years. I no longer consider sobriety to be the defining marker of my identity. Yet semantics matter, even if that looks like resistance to adhering to constrictive labels around gender identity and sexuality. For some, it’s comforting to have a label for their sexual orientation; for others it can be wildly unhelpful and even traumatic. Some people might prefer the term queer, whereas others might prefer pansexual or bisexual among a list of numerous other sexual identities. While you don’t have to identify with labels, please respect those of your friends and acquaintances and do the work to educate yourself before expecting (what could be the emotional labor of) an explanation from others.

 

Damages of Repression

Internalized homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and other kinds of phobia towards members of the LGBTQIA+ community can show up in everyone, including individuals who identify as being part of these communities. The word phobia, or the irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against a particular group of people, can manifest in insidious ways such as feelings of self-hatred, self-disgust, and shame. What matters is talking about internalized biases and exploring where resistance originates and how one can work towards deprogramming the software that wants them to stay cocooned to what’s familiar. What parts of yourself are you repressing and how can that contribute to feelings of unpinnable dissatisfaction, as if something is misaligned? Part of navigating this mental software for me entails questioning critical thoughts and defense mechanisms such as: You should have this all figured out by now or You’re not queer enough. Rather than brushing these thoughts away out of knee-jerk discomfort, try giving them some airtime by safely exploring their origins with safe people or in solitude through journaling.

 

Tools for Exploration

The beginnings of exploring gender identity and sexual orientation have started for me with a spirit of curiosity, not unlike the kind that led me to sobriety. When it comes to dating and romance, ultimately I am powerless over the people I fall for, but I can choose whether to accept those feelings or not. I am opening myself up to dating people who I might not have considered before. It’s not easy but learning to give yourself permission to explore with abandon and finding safe spaces to share what you’ve been discovering about yourself and others is important. No one in my family of origin openly identified as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community growing up and I didn’t have a queer life modeled for me by other adults, acquaintances, friends, or even figures in the media. I’ve recently been asking friends about their journeys of coming into queerness. Some knew their gender identities and sexual orientations early on while others have recently blossomed into the person that they knew themselves to be. It can be hard to be in a place of not knowing. How good are you at tolerating ambiguity? 

Checking out recovery meetings for members of the LGBTQIA+ community is a good, safe place to start. The podcast “Queer Sex Ed” (whose subtitle is: Pleasure is a basic human right) has been a really helpful tool for me in understanding concepts like bisexuality, transphobia, heteronormativity, and how the sex and gender binary are social constructs. The relatively new podcast Queer Sober Social Podcast, whose tagline is ‘You Are Sober Enough. You Are Queer Enough” explores the intersection of questioning one’s relationship to alcohol and drugs as well as gender norms and sexuality.

There is absolutely no linear timeline for how one goes about choosing (not) to identify themselves. Taking the first step to question what you’ve assumed to be static about yourself is a major component into becoming more authentically yourself and reconnecting with your core essence. The years denying what one knows about one’s self–whether the sobering realization that alcohol and drugs no longer fit into their life or that they don’t feel aligned with the sex assigned to them at birth–can be painful and long, but following that intuition can be incredibly rewarding. To feel repressed is to be at an emotional standstill. Sobriety is one step towards freedom and learning to be in one’s true gender (non)expression and sexual orientation is another step towards arriving there as well.