‘Out and Sober’ group helps LGBTQ people with substance abuse recovery

LGBTQ social support is massively important for sobriety.

This giant rainbow Smirnoff vodka bottle was one of many floats in this year's New York City Pride March advertising liquor. (Photo credit: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for SMIRNOFF)
This giant rainbow Smirnoff vodka bottle was one of many floats in this year's New York City Pride March advertising liquor. (Photo credit: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for SMIRNOFF)

A rehab clinic in Chicago is creating opportunities to provide LGBTQ people in substance abuse recovery with the support that reflects the unique challenges they face.

The Gateway Foundation, which operates several different facilities around the Chicago area, offers multiple levels of care for drug and alcohol rehab, from outpatient care to residential treatment. But no matter what kind of treatment a client is undergoing, they have the opportunity to join a support group called “Out and Sober,” which is specifically for LGBTQ people in recovery.

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Craig Lamb, the program’s director, told ThinkProgress that it wasn’t just enough to make sure clients didn’t hear negative messages. “We wanted to make sure that we were offering an affirming [space], letting people know this is a safe environment to just be out,” he explained.

Studies have repeatedly shown that LGBTQ people are at increased risk of substance abuse and seek support at higher rates than the general public. While many studies are only now starting to include sexual orientation and gender identity data collection, some have found that LGBTQ people may be two to three times more likely to be impacted by substance abuse.

Out and Sober allows clients to share unique challenges they face at the intersection of recovery and being an LGBTQ person, such as their relationships with their families or their partners. One of the biggest factors impacting high LGBTQ substance abuse rates is minority stress that people can experience in different aspects of their lives. Lamb told of one older gentleman “who had been married [to a woman] for years and years and feeling like he was not able to be open about who he was, which just drove his drinking. Eventually, he ended up getting divorced and coming out and finding some acceptance of himself and finding a support group, which helped alleviate trying to live with that stress.”

Lamb acknowledged that the current political climate may also be exacerbating some of these concerns, particularly when it leads to “not being accepted by people that are close to you.”

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This is magnified for LGBTQ people because there is stigma around both queer identities and addiction. Just as many people may be unaccepting of LGBTQ identities, they may also still see addiction as a choice instead of a health condition with biological and environmental components. Lamb sees these parallels in Out and Sober, where they discuss dual identities and the challenges of coming out both as queer and as a recovering person. “Who is it safe to come out to that I’m in the LGBT community and who is it safe to come out to that I’m a recovering person?”

One of the other big challenges for LGBTQ people in recovery is that a lot of queer spaces are centered around alcohol usage. Alcohol and tobacco companies even specifically target the LGBTQ community in their advertisements. Leeann, a 36-year-old lesbian woman who recently concluded a long-term stay in one of Gateway’s residential rehab clinics, has felt the effects of this culture. She spoke to ThinkProgress about significant changes she’s had to make to her social life to accommodate her recovery and how helpful the Out and Sober group has been for her.

“I have a pretty wide gamut of gay and lesbian and transgender friends; not one of them is sober,” she said. “I don’t even know what that looks like for me, especially in a city.” She worries that she’ll spend most of her time moving forward with straight people and sobriety because she’ll have to pick and choose gay friends who don’t drink a lot.

Having the group has alleviated some of Leeann’s concerns. “It’s awkward to have conversations about my personal private moments with someone who has no idea what that’s like. That is something I was definitely concerned with.” She’s now thinking of starting her own monthly or bi-monthly social group for LGBTQ people who want to be sober and have a community who prefer not to hang out at bars.

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“It’s very common that there’s going to be places exclusively like bars, and events — even brunches and things like that — where alcohol is just common,” she said. “People don’t even think twice! Everybody brings something. It’s not a big deal. There’s not a lot of thought put into it, so they don’t think about what it might be like to have someone sober in the crowd and being tempted.”

Moving forward, Leeann’s planning to employ strategies to avoid these kinds of environments. “The obvious to me is not to spend a lot of time frequenting places that I used to with a bunch of my gay friends, or gay bars, or even events at the beach where I know it’s just not an option, at least for this stage in my recovery,” she said. “When you first get out, it’s probably smartest to play it safe.” She expects she’ll one day feel ready to attend those kinds of events, but may bring someone from the program to be her support, even if they aren’t gay.

In the meantime, she hopes other queer people will consider “not making every event revolve around cocktails” and instead find other ways to connect that don’t involve drinking.

The Gateway Foundation is by no means the only clinic providing addiction recovery resources for the LGBTQ community. Lamb hopes that people who think they might have a problem take the simple step of just having a conversation with a care professional to see what options are available to them.

“People think, ‘Well, I’ve got a job and I’ve got a family,’ or ‘I’ve got a partner that I don’t want to leave.’ It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to,” he assured, noting that there are many kinds of treatment that don’t require a residential stay. “Just talking and seeing what options are available for help is just a great first step — to see that you do have choices and there are varying ways to get the help that they need.”