Editor’s Note: Billy Lezra is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, whose work has appeared in The Independent, HuffPost and elsewhere. Billy is currently working on a book titled “Los Animales.” You can reach them on Instagram @b.lezra. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
My queerness and my addiction to alcohol flourished in a tiny bar tucked in San Francisco’s Castro district.
Bathed in blue neon light, this establishment was where I first came out as gender nonbinary, where I celebrated birthdays, holidays, New Year’s Eve, Pride month, and where my partner Liam and I spent our wedding night.
I was in my mid-20s and I thought I was drinking and partying because I was “having fun,” which I was. This glittering bar was the home I’d always wished for. Feeling like I belonged, wholly, was more addictive than the alcohol itself.
But eventually, the fun soured. Once the first shot of tequila hit my bloodstream, I became bottomless: Nothing was ever enough. All the lacerating emotions I drank to avoid – rage, grief, shame, fear – gurgled to the surface.
I’d pick fights with Liam and wake up the next morning, clammy and nauseous, trying to recall the wounds I’d inflicted, trying to say I was sorry in a way that sounded different from all the apologies I’d offered before.
The pandemic exploded at the height of my addiction. The bar’s owners hammered wooden boards over its windows and everyone retreated indoors.
The lockdown’s solitude stripped my drinking of its social disguise: Without the blue neon lights, the music, the crowd, my habit revealed itself as a condition that was destroying my body, mind and marriage. On the one hand, I couldn’t imagine life without intoxication. On the other hand, I couldn’t keep drinking and create a meaningful life. With support from Liam and a therapist, I quit.
Now, at 30, I am two and a half years sober from alcohol and 10 months sober from recreational drugs. Liam and I just celebrated our eighth anniversary.
My old haunts in San Francisco have reopened and are bursting with Pride parties all month. Part of me wants to return for old times’ sake, but I also know that being there won’t feel the same – because I’m not the same.
I’m homesick for spaces that aren’t safe for me anymore. Participating in some of the vibrant ways my community celebrates itself puts my sobriety at risk. Engaging in what used to be my favorite experiences – queer nightlife in glittering bars – requires silencing the self that fights to stay sober. I wish I were the kind of person who found it easy to abstain when in the presence of alcohol, but for now, I am not.
However, when I am in sober spaces, my queerness often feels invisible because straight people dominate most environments, including these. As a queer nonbinary person, my lived experience makes me a minority, which means I have fewer opportunities to articulate the nuanced way my queerness and my substance use were interrelated.
Part of what fueled my addiction was a deep sense of isolation rooted in an estrangement from my nuclear family – my queerness directly informed this estrangement. I cannot meaningfully discuss this reality with people who may have never faced rejection based on their intrinsic identity. It is like trying to explain the sensation of water to someone who has never gone swimming: You have to feel it to know it.
When I expressed this conflict to my therapist, she read me a quote by writer and journalist Johann Hari: “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety – it’s connection.” Through this framework, I began to understand the importance of finding and building a community that reflects me, in order to recover.
Queer and sober spaces certainly exist. In San Francisco, you can drink cappuccinos, eat sandwiches and attend a range of events and 12-step meetings at The Castro Country Club. In Asheville, you can visit Firestorm, a collectively-owned, queer, feminist bookstore and community space that is “welcoming, sober, and anti-oppressive.”
Pride also offers options for those of us in recovery. This year, the Twin Cities hosted their third annual Sober Pride. Denver Pride threw a sober party. New York City had an alcohol-free cruise. Knowing that these options exist helps me trust that I belong as I am because, ultimately, Pride is a visible protest that celebrates life as a record-number of bills targeting the LGBTQ community are being discussed in state legislatures across the country. And this celebration can take many different forms.
Preserving all spaces in which queer people feel at home is essential and includes supporting and continuing to create spaces for queer folks who can’t or don’t want to drink.
Sobriety and queerness are both lived experiences that challenge dominant structures. To be queer in a world that hunts queerness, to be sober in a society that glorifies drinking, is to challenge “normative” impositions.
Anyone who defies any “norm” knows isolation and sometimes faces (intense) discrimination. The antidote to isolation is representation: When we are among people whose lives mirror our own, we feel less alone. Representation is limitless; there is never enough.
In the past month, I’ve found and supported sober Pride events, online and in-person, hosted tiny dinner parties and served tea and juices. My friends and I talked about the history of Pride, the pains and pleasures of queerness, watched terrible TV, cooked and shared space.
This is what recovery looks like for me – this is what Pride looks like, too. I trust that, with time, my queer self and my sober self will continue to find harmony, and in this harmony, I will find home.