We live in a culture where binge drinking is standard practice. We are expected to imbibe on dates, when we’re hanging out with friends, and in order to bond with our coworkers. Alcohol is often unavoidable when navigating the social landscape of a young person in Britain. However it’s even more difficult to avoid as an LGBTQ+ person.
Research from the LGBT Foundation found binge drinking is twice as common amongst queer people, and that 16% of LGBT people surveyed showed indicators of alcohol dependency compared to only 3.8% of the general population.
As a gay person who doesn’t drink, LGBTQ+ spaces and events can often feel alienating. Queerness and sobriety are two things that rarely get to occupy the same space, particularly in a world where queerness is often viewed as inherently transgressive and illicit, while sobriety is thought of as unthinkably straightlaced. I enjoy going out and dressing up and dancing, as do many other queer sober people, but despite being the place our community calls home, gay clubs aren’t built to accommodate our needs. Sober queer spaces do exist but they are few and far between, and the scarcity of these environments can make many LGBTQ+ folk who are minors, in recovery, or people of faith feel estranged from their own community.
Maddie Exell, who is queer and intersex recalled the role that alcohol has played in her life:
“I started drinking as a teen to fit in with friends, […] THEN I found I couldn’t deal with any intense emotions without alcohol […] Now I’m a lot more sober than I used to be but still find that I have to have alcohol in certain social situations which ruins trying to be sober. It’s all very messy and in an ideal and mentally stable world I’d never have alcohol again.”
She went on to tell me how socialising in queer spaces further complicates trying to be sober.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a queer environment that hasn’t had alcohol involved? I get that it’s seen as some kind of weird bonding experience and I do have nice memories of being able to flirt with cute people at queer nights and have some liquid courage, but I find it kinda weird that I can’t think of a single queer space — that I’ve been to — that hasn’t included alcohol. I think it really closes off the community. It makes it difficult for sober/recovering people to meet and enjoy LGBT+ focused places.”
Many of these sentiments were were echoed by Sophia Simon-Bashall:
“I don’t drink and for the most part it doesn’t bother me — I never really liked the taste anyway. […] But [alcohol] is still difficult to be around, especially as I struggle a lot in social situations, and it seems like the easiest way to ‘be a part’ of something. I feel like a lot of the ways to get to know other queer people […] is to go out to clubs […] Certainly where I’m at uni, that’s a big scene and most events organised by the SU LGBTQ+ society are based in these spaces. As I don’t feel comfortable or even safe in these spaces, I can’t participate, and that leaves me feeling very isolated.”
Sophia also expressed their fear of how an alcohol focussed queer culture can isolate and potentially even endanger young LGBTQ+ people:
“I think [clubs being the primary LGBTQ+ social environment] definitely keeps younger people from being exposed to their communities and stops them from feeling included — which is terribly difficult when you’re working out who you are. It can also encourage a lot of younger people to act older than they are and put themselves in dangerous situations in order to find their way into a space.”
These safety concerns and feelings of discomfort surrounding LGBTQ+ social spaces were shared by George Turner:
“I feel like I haven’t been to many exclusively LGBT+ social spaces […] because they’re so obviously in pubs or nightclubs. I feel unsafe going to meet new people in a new place alone, especially if they’ve been drinking […] so I just don’t.”
Alcohol being so intrinsic to queer socialising doesn’t just leave people behind, it also perpetuates the idea that queerness is something that is inherently illicit or adult. Pip Williams remarked that “A lot of queer spaces are centred around alcohol, bars and clubs etc. I think a lot of it ties into the sexualisation of queerness, it’s seen as something that needs age restriction and those two things seem to go hand in hand.”
This idea was reinforced by Lu Allan when she said:
“I think it’s important for there to be enough queer spaces which are sober or not booze-heavy, because [the lack of these spaces] perpetuates this “queer = adult/inappropriate” notion and there are queer people who don’t drink and there are queer people who are under 18 and deserve as much of an accessible community as adults (in fact, there’s an argument that accessible queer community is even more important for minors who may be less confident in themselves or who may be told that they’re too young to understand their own sexuality)”
When I go out to a queer club night I dance, and talk to people and drink a lot of water, but I am fortunate that I am able to access these crucial queer social environments and maintain my sobriety whilst doing so. Occasionally, I might feel awkward or out of place but I am able to be present and and find joy in being surrounded by my queer chosen family.
However, for many people even entering these spaces isn’t a possibility. As a community we need to do better to ensure that LGBTQ+ people who don’t drink can be included and find a place to celebrate their identities and feel safe within our community.