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.
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).