Sober & Out

Sober & Out

Reviewed by John L.

The new book, Sober & Out: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender AA Members Share Their Experience, Strength and Hope, contains stories published in Grapevine from 1975 to 2011, of AA members who love their own sex. Some gay men and lesbians were accepted in the AA Fellowship right away; others had a hard time. Most found that:

… recovery from alcoholism is more important than their sexual orientation and that by staying sober and following AA’s program of recovery, full and purposeful lives could be built, one day at a time. (Grapevine introduction, “Welcome”, to Sober & Out.)

Some background: the alcoholism rate among lesbians and gay men is many times that among the general population. One reason for this is real oppression. For reasons that will become apparent, I’ll focus on gay men. For over two and a half millennia, sex between males has been punishable with death, stemming from an Old Testament taboo:

If a man lie with mankind as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. (Leviticus 20:13)

The Levitical taboo was carried forward by all three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, new laws were introduced, which punished all-male sex with death. The laws were prefaced by quoting Leviticus. The death penalty is still being enforced in some countries in Africa and the Mid-East. Men and boys were being hanged in England until 1835, and the laws prescribing the death penalty for “buggery” remained on the books in England until 1861, and in Scotland until 1887. (Crompton, Lauritsen)

For most of the 20th century, overtly gay men in Hollywood movies had to be murdered or commit suicide. (Russo) Even in the basically pro-gay movie, Brokeback Mountain, one of the gay lovers had to die. In the United States during the McCarthy period in the 1950s, gay men were purged from employment, branded as traitors, vilified in the yellow press, and driven to suicide. Even later in the 20th century, gay men were incarcerated in mental institutions, castrated, and given electric-shock therapy. Only in 2003, through a Supreme Court decision, did it finally become legal in all fifty states for two consenting men, in the privacy of a bedroom, to have sex with each other.

Lesbians have experienced their own forms of oppression, although, with few historical exceptions, sex between females has not been illegal.

Another reason for high alcoholism rates is that mob-owned bars, where the cops were paid off, were for many years the only places where gay men and lesbians could safely meet each other. Alcohol, which dissolved shame and inhibitions, became inseparable from sex and socialising.

Speaking to a gay workshop at the 50th AA Anniversary Convention, Barry Leach, author of Living Sober, disclosed that AA’s Third Tradition (“The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.”) originated in a debate over accepting a gay man. In 1937 an alcoholic approached Dr. Bob, asking to be admitted to the group of recovering alcoholics within the Oxford Group in Akron, Ohio. (This was two years before the first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, in Cleveland, Ohio.) In Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers, the man is quoted as saying he was the “victim of another addiction even worse stigmatized than alcoholism” — but according to Leach, the man had described himself as a “sex deviate”. Three leading men then intensely debated whether he should be admitted to their group: Perhaps the newcomer would cause trouble; perhaps it would be better to “sacrifice this one for the sake of the many.”  The “oldest member” (Dr. Bob) then asked a question which resolved the matter: “What would the Master do?”  “No answer was necessary.”  (Dr. Bob, pp. 240-241)  For the time, these men were tolerant. In 1937, sex between males, although victimless, and even committed by consenting adults in total privacy, was a crime punishable by many prison years in every state in the United States.

When I came into AA in early 1968, there were no gay groups, although there were groups in Greenwich Village which had a gay presence. We gay men and lesbians did not discuss our sexual orientation in AA meetings, either in discussion or in qualifications, although most of us were not hiding in the closet. Through gaydar and introductions, we knew each other, and in private we discussed gay issues. No-one I knew felt guilt or shame over being gay. All of this changed in late 1968 or early 1969, when Charles, a married man, gave a talk in which he related his gayness to his alcoholism. It was a watershed moment, and we became more open. Then, in June 1969, the Stonewall Uprising led to the birth of the Gay Liberation movement. Things would never be the same. In 1970 I helped organise the first Gay Pride march in New York City, and saw many of my gay brothers and sisters from the Village AA groups in the march.

Some time in the early 1970s gay groups were formed and listed in the New York meeting book. Then in 1974 the question arose, whether gay groups should be listed as such in the AA World Directory. After a hot and heavy debate, the Conference of Delegates voted in favor of listing, with only two opposing. (Leach) For perspective: in 1974, it was still a felony in most states for males to have sex with each other.

On the whole, Sober & Out is better than I had expected. The fifty-seven stories are diverse and interesting. Of these, thirty-seven were from gay men, seventeen from lesbians, two from sympathetic straight men, and one from a transsexual. There are eight chapters, each of which has an editorial Grapevine introduction.

Most of them found support from their fellow AA members. In “Fitting In” B.H. from Asbury Park, New Jersey wrote:

When I told my sponsor I am a lesbian she said, “So what. You want to get sober don’t you?” … The truth of the matter is I’m just like any other alcoholic who wants to stay away from a drink one day at a time and I do belong in a world of human beings where, as a drunk, I thought for sure I would never fit in.

Likewise, a gay man, B.C. from San Francisco, found acceptance from straight men in AA. In “At Home in AA” he wrote:

I traveled to Fresno, California, for some service work. Some people there knew I was gay, while others did not. I asked for a local meeting schedule — wanting a gay meeting, but afraid to be honest about that. When one of the men in the group gave me the schedule, he said, “Someone told me you were gay, so I underlined some gay meetings for you. A couple of guys from my home group told me these are good meetings.” I was touched by this gesture. It helped me to understand that I can share in the experience of seeing a fellowship grow up around me in AA, whether I am gay or straight.

K.L., a lesbian living in Sacramento, whimsically referred to her “Higher Power, whom I call Herhim. (Don’t know whether H.P. is a he, she, it, or what!)” In “Here I Am” she wrote:

I will hold my head up with respect and love for myself. I was a hard-nosed butch who had, not merely a chip, but a whole tree of hate on her shoulder. Thanks to Herhim, I have mellowed. Here I am, you straights. Let me love and understand you, so I can love and understand me, so we can love and understand each other.

Some had to struggle with self-acceptance, in addition to finding acceptance within the Fellowship. In “Condemned to Live an Underground Life” B.L. from Manhattan wrote:

But the specter of my homosexuality was still there. “Sure, you’re sober in AA again. That’s nothing new,” I said to myself. Then came the burning question: “But how are you going to accept the fact that you’re a homosexual and, as such, must always be condemned to living an underground life, even with your AA comrades?”

In time B.L. did find self-acceptance. He does “my share of Twelfth Step work, with both heterosexual and homosexual people.” To others like himself he suggests: “(1) Remember you’re an alcoholic first and a homosexual second, and (2) ask your Higher Power for guidance and help.”

Mark H. in Bartlett, Illinois gives a moving account of the AA Fellowship. Two weeks before Christmas he announced in his home group that he was celebrating seventeen years without a drink. He and his partner went to a holiday gathering and later, in front of a warm fireplace, shared fellowship with friends. Mark “went to sleep sober with a smile on my face and a grateful heart.” The next morning he found that his partner had stopped breathing. The emergency medics were unable to save him; “My world crashed.”  AA members were with him in the following days and weeks, telling him “when to eat, when to sleep, and when to go to a meeting.”  In “In the Center of Sorrow” Mark H. writes:

I came into AA alone. Even with a handful of drinking buddies I was still alone. Seventeen years later, with less than twenty-four hours notice by word-of-mouth, more than 200 sober members of AA came to the memorial visitation for my partner…. When my partner and I first moved to this area many years ago, we were the first open same-sex couple at local meetings. We learned later that some people wouldn’t come to meetings that he and I attended. We showed up anyway because, as recovering alcoholics, meetings were a vital part of our sobriety. Ironically, some who had shunned us gave me the most support after his death.

However, some gay men encountered bigotry in AA. I made the mistake of reading the chapter, misleadingly titled “Love and Tolerance”, at night before going to bed, and became so angry that I couldn’t sleep until about four in the morning. W.B in Norman, Oklahoma decided that his sobriety was dependant upon honesty, with himself and with others. In “The Support We All Need” he writes:

After a year in the program, with much support from my two friends and with absolute terror in my heart, I was finally able to talk about being gay with a large group of people at a discussion meeting, and they accepted me as they had come to know me. The “faggot” jokes stopped at our meetings, because everyone had finally met an authentic “faggot” and discovered that he was just like any other recovering alcoholic — hurting, confused, in desperate need of their help and acceptance, and willing to pay with honesty any price that was necessary.

One man was upbraided and ridiculed by his sponsor for not acting straight enough (“This is AA, not a drag show!”) and given an ultimatum (“Unless you can present yourself in a manner conducive to recovery, I can’t work with you.”). And yet the man was not openly gay, and “didn’t think I was that transparent.” When he returned to the meeting hall, “I had more shame, doubt, and uncertainty than I’d had at my first meeting [eight years ago].”  He staunchly concludes: “If someone calls you a sissy, keep coming back anyway. This disease is vicious. I refuse to become a victim or a statistic.”  (“Anonymous” in North Carolina, “Stand Fast”)

AA meetings can harbor anti-gay bigotry. Hank S., having just moved to Lafayette, Indiana, went to a men’s meeting there. Before the meeting, men were telling stupid, anti-gay jokes. Hank sat through the meeting patiently, hoping that “the spirit of Alcoholics Anonymous would bring us all together compassionately”, but it got worse. When one man undisguisedly said that he hated “all those damned gays”, Hank ran out of excuses for the group, and called his straight sponsor, who consoled him and offered good advice. In “Just How Welcome Are You?”, Hank suggests that the men’s meeting take a group inventory:

Are you carrying the message to all alcoholic men? Are you practicing the principles of AA in your meeting?  Do you intentionally use vicious, excluding language before, during, or after the meeting?  Are you remembering that we are all just one drink away from what could be a fatal slip?  Might your gay-hating comments be driving away newcomers?

I was sorry to read this story, because for most of my sobriety, a men’s meeting has been one of my regular groups — Mustard Seed Men in Manhattan and the Friday night meeting in Provincetown (the world’s premier gay resort). I can’t recall a single instance of anti-gay language. For me, men’s groups have greater honesty and rapport, and less religiosity, than mixed groups.

Jim S. of Hauppauge, New York, in “A Plea for Love and Tolerance”, reports being shunned by members of his home group, and having to listen to “disparaging remarks about gays and lesbians….”  “The only reason I stuck around was because I was a hopeless drunk and I had nowhere else to go.”  Fortunately, he found gay meetings on Long Island, where “I’m not going to hear some form of hatred directed at me or others.”

In “I Want to Belong”, J.N. of Massachusetts attends gay meetings, but also attends regular meetings, because he wants “to belong to all of AA and the whole human race.” He is not afraid to be hurt:

Sometimes when they start with the queer jokes, I want to jump up and yell out, “I am one of those queers you all think are so funny. Does anybody here know me? Does anybody care that that word goes through me like a knife?”  But I don’t. True, my laughter is interrupted a little. But after the meeting, I join my fellows in the silent conspiracy against myself and try to get back the feeling that I belong.

In sobriety I’ve lived in Manhattan, Provincetown, and Boston, where there was never a problem finding meetings that were gay or gay-friendly. From the stories in Sober & Out, others have not been so lucky. Speaking from my own experience, in forty-six years of AA sobriety, I have observed only a handful of anti-gay incidents. At the end of his talk at a Greenwich Village meeting, a young man said that, as a gift of his sobriety, he had learned to love and be loved by another man. A woman then went into hysterics, screaming at the top of her lungs and effectively silencing him. In other cases, women intervened to prevent supposedly straight men from talking to gay men. Once a man from Harlem, giving a qualification at a Greenwich Village meeting, used the word “faggot” (a common word in ghetto language); the chairwoman responded immediately and told him not to use the word.

 What criticisms I have of Sober & Out relate mainly to the editorial introductions before each of the chapters. These introductions repeatedly and gratuitously impute religiosity to the authors — a religiosity which is largely absent from the stories themselves. For example, the first introduction (“Welcome”) states:

By working the Steps, following the Traditions, doing service and finding a Higher Power, they are now living sober in the Fellowship of AA.

However, thirty-eight (67%) of the stories are devoid of religiosity: they make no mention of “God”, Steps, or Higher Power. Only nine (16%) are at all religious, and only one of these is Christian. The Steps are mentioned by ten (18%) and Higher Power by seven (12%), but usually only in passing, as though paying lip service. Two authors (4%) seem to be agnostics; no-one identifies as an atheist. These statistics should not be taken too seriously, since we don’t know what criteria the Grapevine used in selecting the stories, or how much the authors tailored their stories to meet assumed Grapevine criteria. It is possible that some of the authors were infidels, who suppressed their non-belief in order to be published. It’s also possible that others didn’t mention their religious faith or Higher Power, because these weren’t relevant to their story.

I recommend Sober & Out. Now, it would be nice if AA Grapevine, Inc. were to do a comparable book for us atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, rationalists, secular humanists, and infidels in AA.


References:

Barry Leach, “Directory Listing of the Gay and Lesbian Groups”, speech to a gay workshop, 50th AA Anniversary convention, Montreal, July 1985.

Anonymous, Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers: A biography, with recollections of early A.A. in the Midwest (1980).

Louis Crompton, Homosexuality and Civilization (2006).

John Lauritsen, A Freethinker’s Primer of Male Love (1998).

Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (1981/1985).


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Sober & Out — 18 Comments

  1. Thank you for this review.

    As a gay man, I have found both a lot of support and some bigotry in AA meetings.

    One of the reasons that I like my experience in AA meetings is because of the “mosh-pit” of people that you can meet at AA meetings.

    So I’ve always made it a point to go to many different types of meetings; gay and straight.

  2. Great article. I got sober in 1991 in San Francisco, thanks for helping to pave the way for LGBT inclusion in the 60s. I’ve been back in my hometown in the Midwest for the last 14 years. I only attend LGBT meetings with a few exceptions. I’ve never really questioned why, I simply enjoy the fellowship of my own community and there is a LGBT meeting every day of the week. A good straight friend asked me why we don’t come to their meetings. We live in the most liberal part of town where it’s comfortable to be openly gay these days, I have no reason to think I’d be uncomfortable. I asked her why she didn’t come to our meetings, all are welcome. We segregate ourselves to insure a comfortable place to share but all are welcome. No one gets bothered when straight people show up and they do, they are embraced equally.

    I’m a big fan of AA Agnostica and I feel passionately about working towards more inclusion of atheists and agnostics but I’ve never had the experiences of many people who have shared on this website. Experiences of marginalization and oppression from religious people. I’ve always assumed it was because I’ve mostly attended LGBT meetings over the last 20+ years. There are plenty of religious LGBT people, especially in AA, but perhaps most LGBT people are acutely aware of feeling oppressed by the religious beliefs of others so we’re more likely to share with this in mind at 12 step meetings. I’ve heard many atheists and agnostics speak about their beliefs or non-beliefs at meetings, never once have I felt they were treated poorly. There may be a little cross talk from a higher power critic but it’s certainly not the majority view and if Jesus or the Bible is ever mentioned, it’s going to piss off most people in the room.

    I’d encourage any atheist/agnostics to try out a LGBT meeting if they exist in their town, if they’re having problems with religiosity in the program. I’m pretty sure you will feel welcome, especially if you share why you’re there.

    • Thank you for this comment, Michael, and again thanks John for this thoroughly effective review of Sober & Out.

      I’m in a Starbucks on the final day of a long trip around the US, which included a wonderful trip up to Toronto to experience the fabric of WAFT meetings and fellowship that is integrated within the AA Community despite the prejudice of religious bigots in Intergroup.

      One of the lead stories on the Starbucks splash page is this article from the Economist, The Gay Divide. One of the points it makes is what has happened in many countries worldwide and can still happen in the areas of the world where being gay is still subject to lethal punishment:

      What could help spread tolerance? If the past half-century is any guide, the prime movers will be gay people themselves. The more visible they are, the more normal they will seem.

      This John is what you and others in the LGBT community did in New York City with the Stonewall Riots 50 years ago, which has resulted in gay marriage being more fully excepted in American Society, even by the Supreme Court, which this week rejected dealing with several challenges to gay marriages from some of the more virulent red states, despite the strenuous religiosity of Justices Scalia and Thomas.

      What has happened in the LGBT community can happen within AA by us WAFTs being more openly visible within the rooms and service structure of AA.

      • In my area the gay community has done a great job in service in AA.
        I recently saw in the meeting list a LBGT meeting was changed to just a regular meeting. To see what was going on I attended one night and talked to a Gay member as why they changed.
        He said at their group conscience meeting the men and women felt confident after all the work they have done in AA that they could just make it a regular all inclusive meeting. It was a thriving meeting with quite a diverse group of people. Cheers, Daniel.

    • Thanks for your insight, Michael.

      I am a straight man, and I big supporter of the LGBT community. I’ve always enjoyed gay meetings for their palpable level of acceptance and tolerance. Much like the agnostic meeting I have begun attending, I feel I can breathe, and voice “heretical” thoughts without fear of censure or condemnation to dying in a dry-drunk hell on earth! (Ha!)

  3. John,

    Great review. Thank you. Although not gay, I certainly relate to the experiences shared. The stories are so moving, yet I am saddened that religiosity was added. It reminds me of the book AA Around the World: Adventures in Recovery – A World-wide Collection of Shared Experience, Strength, and Hope from The AA Grapevinee. The volume contains many inspiring stories about obstacles people from around the world overcame to initiate and maintain their sobriety. In many cases, as you have noted in your review, there was no mention of God or HP or Steps in the body of the narratives, yet a one sentence statement about these things was seemingly added at the end, thus somehow detracting from the deep experience each writer had. When did an AA member’s experience, strength, and hope, become insufficient?

    • Yes. I agree with your final point. AA’s religiosity really does detract from our sharing of experience, strength, and hope. Still, it could have been worse, and I do recommend the book.

  4. Thanks for exposing me to the phrase “infidels in AA”! I finally know what to call myself!

    • Yes. I half-whimsically contemplated starting a group, Dorchester Infidels. But people might think it was a local baseball team, and I don’t know any other infidels in Dorchester.

  5. John, thanks so much for this review and for your insights.

    How interesting that they felt it necessary to editorialize with dogma, instead of trusting that these articles could stand on their own.

    While many gays and lesbians are religious, many more have left their faith either because they were excommunicated, or because they couldn’t reconcile that their faith taught that homosexuality was a sin. So to insert God-talk into their articles is quite presumptuous.

    The entire time I went to traditional AA meetings, I never had the courage to bring up that I’m a lesbian. As easily as straight people talk about their husband, their ex-wife, their boyfriend, the woman they’re dating… I sidestepped questions and never offered any personal information. And that kind of withholding does matter, because I’m withholding a part of who I am.

    I can’t say that I would have been ostracized. But I can say that meetings which encouraged Evangelical or rigid interpretation, which did not facilitate freedom of thought, never felt like a good place for me to come out.

  6. Indeed, John, thanks so much for this thorough review of the new GV book, Sober & Out. The history behind the 3rd Tradition is especially informative. What an ironic factoid that Dr. Bob swayed the group by querying, “What would the Master do?” If only more of the “Back to Basics” crowd would live up to his powerful example of Christian principles.

    I also especially appreciate you ending the article on the note of hoping that the GV will also publish a book for us agnostics, atheists and freethinkers.

    • I suppose we can pick and choose when it comes to Christianity. My favorites are the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus’s comments on the woman taken in adultery (“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”) and comments on the Sabbath (“The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”). The last is an expression of humanism, and an attack on all taboo religiosity.

  7. When a woman “came out” in my home group, and admitted being terrified of telling us, she got support in many comments. When it was my turn, I said that I did not care if she preferred lemon or maple cake unless we had plans to share a cake.
    Annalia

  8. I enjoy everything you have to write John. Your views are never reactive or hostile. You draw upon your experience and even opinions where you and I differ, I come away feeling richer for your insights.

    I immediately bought a couple of Sober & Out for my home group. I have been reading and identifying. I think anyone who feels marginalized, women, atheists or anyone who doesn’t fit the heterosexual stereotype that AA literature is written in, will identify with some of these stories.

    John, I would be surprised if you don’t know Andrew Solomon, a New York Times writer and author of Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. Solomon says,

    There is always someone there to take our humanity away and always someone to restore it. Oppression breeds the power to oppose it. Identity politics always works on two fronts. First it gives pride to someone who has given characteristics and secondly, it causes the outside world to treat such people more gently, more kindly.

    He has two or three free TED talks if anyone’s not familiar with him. You can’t watch the wrong one – I find them all moving.

    At the Eastern Canada Regional Forum in Verdun QC this August, one of the workshops was “how to keep our meetings safe.” I was impressed by the intelligent discussion. There are often horrifying stories that come from such a workshop.

    There was one positive story about a Toronto Men’s meeting that draws a few hundred every Sunday. A speaker said, “I just want to be sure there are no women in the room before I tell this joke,” He was interrupted by a stern voice in the back, “There are gentlemen in the room.” The speaker backed off. The spirit of love and tolerance in AA isn’t just when someone’s looking, for many members. It’s worth remembering that the bigots are loud but few in numbers. We need not impose our values on others but we can all speak out when intolerable behavior or language is present in an AA meeting.

    The spirit of the two benefits of “identity-politics” as Solomon puts it was voiced in a reported argument for agnostic/atheist literature – that is would comfort the inflicted and also inflict the comfortable. Okay, those are my words but the letter to the AA Literature Committee echoed the sentiment that such a pamphlet would bring comfort to those who identify and bring understanding to those who don’t. In reading Sober & Out I was reminded that I can be more open-minded and “I am responsible” when any form of harassment or prejudice is present. I can’t imagine anyone in recovery not getting some take away from this new Grapevine book.

    Another great read, AA Agnostica!

    • I LOVE your story about a fellow warning against an inappropriate share with, “There are gentlemen in the room.” Wow, that says so much about his character.