A few months ago, I posted on Instagram about the link between alcohol and oppression. The quote I chose to highlight this point was by the late Jean Swallow, editor of the book Out From Under: Sober Dykes & Our Friends. Her statement, “I can promise you, any revolution we make will not start in a bar” is simple, to the point and so fucking accurate. We are never going to start any sort of revolution if we’re numbing out in a bar (or at paint night, or while doing yoga, or at book club, or, or, or…)
People often like to remark that Pride started in a bar but in stating that, we are over simplifying the situation. The uprising at the Stonewall Inn happened because of oppression. The only places the queer and trans community were welcome in 1969 was in gay bars, and even then they weren’t actually safe. These bars were often run by the mob – who paid the police in order to limit the raids and arrests of their patrons. However, even with regular bribes, the police violently raided gay bars on a regular basis. While the Stonewall Uprising did lead to the birth of the Gay Liberation Front, it wasn’t a conscious revolution. This was a reaction. A combustive reaction to decades upon decades of violence and dehumanization that started a movement but, it was a reaction nonetheless.
The real revolution was created behind the scenes. It showed up in the organization that was needed to continue the revolt for three more nights after the initial uprising occurred on June 28th. The revolution was created in people’s living rooms and in community spaces. It happened on phone calls and bulletin boards. The revolution didn’t happen in a bar.
When the bar is your support
As a teen I belonged to a local LGBTQ+ youth support group. There were a handful of groups in different cities in New Hampshire where queer, trans and questioning youth had a safe space to talk about what was happening in our lives and just be teens without having to worry about whether or not we were safe. We learned to support each other and about safe sex, we also met friends and partners. The people I met at those meetings are still very important to me and some of my closest friends.
Since these groups were for youth, there was a cut off age of 22. That cut off age was appropriate but, the resources available for support once you “aged out” of the group were simply the local gay bars. That was it. Bars were how you were supposed to meet new people and find support while you were going through some of the hardest things in your life.
I’m sure that right now many people want to say something like “But there are bars everywhere! Straight people have to deal with it too!” Sure. There are bars and alcohol all over the fucking place these days but straight people have never known what it’s like to have the only place where you can be yourself and safe is a bar. That after a day of feeling uncomfortable or having to deal with microaggressions or direct hate or having lost someone close to you because they don’t accept who you are, the one place you can go to truly let your guard down is a bar. Not church. Not a fitness class. Not your family. A fucking bar.
Beyond the bar, the vast majority queer events involve alcohol of some kind. Pride is sponsored by big alcohol companies and local bars alike. Whether you’re going to drag shows, brunch, parties, bars, clubs, game night, fundraisers or, karaoke in Provincetown, Fire Island, Miami, Chicago, Atlanta, New York, San Francisco or Portland – they’re all drenched in alcohol. Who can blame us!?! We’ve been told since before we were even born that heterosexuality and being cisgender are natural human states, everything else is a deviant. Most people don’t actually say these words anymore but, our coded language and actions still get the message across. Heteronormativity and cisnormativity are so ingrained in how we do things, there is almost no one who doesn’t fall prey to that line of thinking. Even members of the LGBTQIA+ community need to consciously resist, because it’s that deep-seated. No one is immune.
Oppression starts at home
So let’s talk about the connection between alcohol and the queer community and oppression, shall we?
Pride may have started out as a protest but it has morphed into something unrecognizable that makes corporations a lot of money. It’s turned into a parade where companies who don’t do anymore for the queer community besides slap a rainbow on their logo and march through the streets as if they are single-handedly ending all of the problems the queer community faces by simply being there.
The reality is, most of these companies and the “straight allies” who are marching with them are upholding heteronormativity and cisnormativity every day. When the parades are done and the glitter is swept up from the streets, many of those people go home and insist that their baby girl is so cute that she’s going to have trouble keeping the boys away. Or doesn’t that little boy want the blue bike instead of the pink, sparkly one?
Oppression starts at home and you don’t even see it. When you make a big deal about your tomboy daughter wearing a dress, that reinforces in her the feeling that she is more valid and worthy when she’s not being herself. These are the small things that add up over time and they are what we eventually drink at. Then, when we grow up, the prevailing culture of the queer community keeps us drunk and high. Because we, as queer folks, self-medicate our collective trauma. The alcohol keeps us safe from our feelings and it also keeps us in that place of thinking we’re not worthy as we are. No matter what we want to say about how much pride we have or how out we are or how we aren’t ashamed, drinking keeps us small.
A different future
For the past two years I’ve been hearing about how bad our political climate is; how scary things are. And, yeah. Things are scary. But this is nothing new. The political climate we’re in currently isn’t really that different than the political climate of most of my life, it’s simply more visible now. People in power have always tried to find new and more creative ways to maintain my less-than-human station in life and they continue to insinuate my mere existence is offensive enough that people need to be protected should they have a ‘sincerely held belief’ that they need to discriminate against me.
As we’ve entered a time where sexual identity labels are more fluid and less static, more and more people are embracing the fact that they aren’t straight or they aren’t cis. And this warms my heart, welcome to the team! We need you! But a serious question I have is: how are we going to truly advocate for our growing army of queers if we’re numbing ourselves with mimosas or IPAs or margaritas or PBRs or whatever the fuck the queers are drinking these days? Alcohol keeps us sedated, it keeps us complacent, it keeps us silent. Alcohol keep us in our place.
Listen, I’m not an idiot. I know that not all of the queers are going to stop drinking; that’s not my goal.
My goals are revolution and evolution. And, I fully believe that a revolution starts with people who love themselves. A start would be to plan alcohol free events and create alcohol free spaces for adults and youth alike. In doing so, we would be more present and aware of what is going on around us. We would make it much easier for folks who are trying to quit drinking to continue to have a community. We would be available to support and help each other deal with trauma, racism, homophobia and transphobia in ways that are healthy and uplifting.
One of the difficulties of growing up queer is that we often don’t have other queer folks in our family to show us how to handle homophobia or transphobia. Most of us don’t even have a close adult who understands what we’re going through. But we can change that. Our revolution needs to be as focused on loving our youth and supporting the folks who are newly coming out as it is on ensuring we have equal protections under our government and safety when we walk down the street. As queer adults heal our own traumas, we can model this healthy behavior for kids and youth so they know that they have more options than self-medication. Queer elders* can make themselves available to folks who are newly discovering their sexuality or gender, giving them support that doesn’t require numbing.
Our revolution is not going to happen in a bar. It’s going to happen in our everyday lives. It’s going to happen in the connections we make. It’s going to happen in the stands we take. It’s going to happen with a clear head. It’ll happen with love and it will grow as we rediscover our humanity.