Words | Saliha Rehanaz
In January, I found myself at a queer cabaret called Woolf’s Speakeasy, which was organized by Sydney University’s Drama Society (SUDS). It was the first time I was in a queer theatrical setting which was not a drag or ping pong show. While I enjoyed the mesmerizing performances with my friends, I realised the event was promoting a sober space for queer people. As a heterosexual, this concept felt foreign to me and learning more about it, I was surprised to say the least.
Even though Mardi Gras has been over for a while now, the need for safe spaces for queer people is still a prevalent one. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights in Australia have advanced since the late-twentieth century, however there has still been a question of what type of spaces are the most accessible to queer people.
Historically, bars have long provided safe spaces for the queer community, where many could socialize and find entertainment. Nonetheless, there are certain issues concerning such settings, which include the disparity in numbers between queer bar settings catering specifically towards gay male demographics versus any other orientation. In 2017, an analysis of gay travel guides showed that out of 1,357 LGBTQ bars in the United States, only 36 catered specifically towards queer women.
Whether this has arose out of the changing cultural dynamics of an ever-shifting community or because of the socio-economic advantages that comes with male privilege even within the queer community, finding commercial spaces geared towards female and non-binary patrons is a challenge in and of itself.
Often, the LGBTQ+ spaces that are available tend to be inaccessible for a large number of people. For example, Laura Kate Dale, a UK-based author of the book Uncomfortable Labels: My Life as a Gay Autistic Trans Woman, is living at the intersection of gay, trans and neurodivergent identities. Dale explains in her book how numerous LGBTQ+ settings, such as clubs, parades and bars, can create an uncomfortable environment, including “loud music, flashing lights, crowds of people… a huge number of unknown variables mixed up to create a chaotic sea of sensory overload.”
For individuals like Dale who experience sensory processing issues, or any other issue related to disability, such as wheelchair and deaf/hard of hearing accessibility, common queer spaces often do not consider the reality of those facing such difficulties. Numerous queer venues are also oriented towards finding romantic or sexual relationships, which makes it isolating for asexual or aromantic individuals. Moreover, queer venues involving alcohol are focused towards crowds over the age of 18, which means these spaces are not necessarily welcoming to queer youth, who are some of the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ+ society and in need of a sense of community.
On top of this, there is a high correlation between substance abuse and the queer community, which makes many of these spaces not the most optimal places for those struggling with sobriety.
In October 2019, a study published in the journal of Psychiatric Services found that “multilevel minority stressors and associated coping via substance use in adolescence and young adulthood, coupled with LBTGQ-specific sociocultural influences, contribute to the development of substance use disorders among some LGBTQ young adults”.
Jai Andrews* was born and raised in a strict Mormon family, and alcohol and drugs had never been a part of his life. However, when he entered his late teen years and started exploring his sexuality, he felt that “to be a part of the queer community, alcohol seemed like a major factor.”
“While I knew my family and religion would not accept my sexual orientation, I started putting myself in queer venues to feel accepted and find others like me. However, even though I understood that my religion was not accepting of who I truly was, I still believed in the values of my religion and refrained from even trying a sip of alcohol.
“At first, it seemed like I could still enjoy myself without drinking. However, I quickly realized that
I was the black sheep in the crowd and seemed to be the only person without a drink in my hand. Also, the friendships or relationships I was making with other members of the community in bars and clubs did not feel authentic at all. People were completely different when they were drunk and it seemed like they were someone else the next day,” Andrews said.
The places that Andrews had been going to in search of acceptance was making him feel worse and it made him think that there was nowhere he could go and “be himself.” After entering a period of depression, Andrews realised that he had had enough and started an ‘alcohol-free queer room’ in his apartment.
“I still haven’t come out to my family and a large number of my friends. So, it was really difficult for me to not have someone to talk to about how I was feeling. It led me to think that there has to be other people who are in my situation, so after a quick search online and a shopping trip to Costco, I was ready to have my first hangout for other gay men that didn’t drink.
“To this day, I still can’t believe 27 people showed up at my doorstep! After years of struggling, I had finally found a place to be myself, and managed to inspire others to take this initiative. Now, every month all of us alternate and have hangouts at our houses, where we just sit around, solve puzzles and eat chocolate. It’s the best!”
There are many people out there like Andrews, who do not engage in substance use because of their religion. In contrast, there are also numerous people who are on a journey to recover from substance abuse.
“I was only 15 when I came out to everyone.” Lisa Daniels* explained, who is currently in her second year of sobriety. “Queer bars and clubs have a life of their own and being so young and naïve, I quickly found myself falling into a lifestyle that was not only hampering me financially, but ruining my relationships with people that cared for me.”
Daniels believes that she was lucky to have a supportive family that helped her through her alcohol addiction and rehab.
“I sit down and count my blessings every day, because whenever I look back at the person I had become from consistently binge drinking at social gatherings to developing dependence on alcohol, I feel mortified. I see so many other people who are in my place and it breaks my heart, because all this could be different if we just had more queer spaces that did not involve substance.
“Even now, I find it difficult to connect with others in the LGBTQ+ community because there aren’t many sober spaces available. And while I have been alcohol-free for the last two years, I cannot afford to put myself in a bar because I still don’t think I’m strong enough.”
People are starting to become more considerate and in recent times, there has been an increase in events which promote sober queer spaces. One such event in Sydney from earlier this year included a queer cabaret called Woolf’s Speakeasy, which was directed by Sean Landis, a member of the Sydney University Drama Society.
“The concept behind Woolf’s Speakeasy was to create a space to showcase art and performance centered around queer stories. Similar events… had often been set in bars, and whilst this builds a wonderful vibe, we recognised that not everyone is comfortable in such an environment. Not all queer people drink, and a diversity of queer spaces allows for more people to find a place where they feel comfortable and involved,” Landis explained the motivation behind the cabaret.
He also believes it is incredibly important to have sober queer spaces and higlights their value.
“Party culture is such a wonderful and valid part of queer community that allows so many people to come into their own and come out of their shell. But in emphasizing it so strongly as a community, we tend to ignore those who don’t feel comfortable in such a space. Sober queer spaces allow for community building in a different way that is incredibly valuable for those who don’t want to be around alcohol.”
As we move ahead as a society, it is time to consider and expand our understanding of members of the LGBTQ+ community that are impatiently waiting for the availability of sober queer spaces. These spaces not only provide a place for people to come together and enjoy themselves, but to also realise they are not alone.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals.