Since the very beginning, there have been special composition groups in Alcoholics Anonymous.
And their acceptance, sadly, has always posed a problem. “‘Special’ groups have always been viewed with suspicion, alarm and sometimes outright hostility within AA.” (Special Composition Groups in AA1)
We nonbelievers are thus not alone when it comes to being treated as outsiders or outcasts.
We shall look at four of these special groupings, pretty much in the order in which they came to be recognized within the fellowship: Women, Blacks, Young People and the LGBTQ community.
The first women in AA were not immediately well-received. When Dr. Bob was told that a woman, Sylvia K, was on her way to his AA meeting in Akron in the late summer of 1939, “Dr. Bob threw up his hands and said, ‘We have NEVER had a woman and will NOT work on a woman.’” (Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers, p. 180)
As it turned out, Sylvia was the first woman to achieve long term sobriety in AA and her personal story, “The Keys of the Kingdom”, appears in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th editions of the Big Book.
Another early woman member of AA wrote an article in the AA Grapevine in June of 1960 called “For Men Only?” She reported attending her first AA meeting at “Bill and Lois’s brownstone house” on April 11, 1939. She was the only woman alcoholic at that meeting. She reports that many of the older members treated her as a “freak” and the newer male members would sometimes say something like, “If there’s one think I can’t stand, it’s to see a woman drunk!” While overall most of the men “fully accepted me as one of themselves… there remained a curious loneliness, nonetheless”.
Acceptance of women in AA did not come quickly, nor was it universal.
As the author reports:
I thought the corner had been turned, that no one could ever again imagine AA was “for men only.” Imagine my shock and horror when in December 1959, twenty years and eight months after my solo landing in AA, a woman member in a great midwestern city I was visiting told me of several AA groups in the city who would not receive women as members – stated flatly that they did not want women in their groups. Several men with us corroborated her story, adding, before I could catch my breath, that it didn’t matter so much in a big city like theirs where there were plenty of other groups a woman could go to, but what bothered them was the fact that this was true in many small cities and towns where there was only one group, so that in effect this meant denying AA to women alcoholics.
The author of this article, named as “Anonymous” when it was published in the Grapevine in 1960, was actually Marty Mann.
Marty had her own problems with the Big Book. Early in that article, she writes: “This was a man’s book, entirely about men, obviously written by and for men, and a particular kind of men at that – religious men”.
In her biography “Women Suffer Too”, also published in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th editions of the Big Book, it is also pretty clear that Marty was not a big fan of the “God bit” in AA. She writes, “I couldn’t stomach religion, and I didn’t like the mention of God or any of the other capital letters. If that was the way out it wasn’t for me”.
But clearly what worked was the fellowship, one alcoholic talking to another alcoholic:
I went trembling into a house in Brooklyn filled with strangers… and I found I had come home at last, to my own kind… I had found my salvation. I wasn’t alone any more. That was the beginning of a new life, a fuller life, a happier life than I had ever known or believed possible. I had found friends, understanding friends… Talking things over with them, great floods of enlightenment showed me myself as I really was and I was like them.
Marty Mann would not only become one of the more important women in early AA, she became one of the more important people in early AA. Bill was her friend and sponsor, and one of the few people who knew that she was a lesbian.
With the encouragement of Bill Wilson, she founded the National Committee for Education on Alcoholism, Inc. (NCEA) – eventually renamed the National Council on Alcoholism – which first opened its doors on October 2, 1944. According to Bob K, its core message was:
Alcoholism is a disease, and the alcoholic is a sick person;
The alcoholic can be helped, and is worth helping;
Alcoholism is a public health problem, and therefore a public responsibility.
“These ideas are so universally accepted today, that it can be difficult to imagine that they were both revolutionary and counter-intuitive at the time.” (Key Players in AA History2)
Marty wrote two key books on alcoholism and played a major role in bringing about the “Hughes Act”, the Comprehensive Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation Act of 1970, which enhanced the federal government’s role in alcoholism treatment and prevention and was a key part in shaping the understanding of alcoholism.
She made her last public appearance at the AA International Convention in 1980 in New Orleans. She was greeted with thunderous applause. Marty died just a few weeks later on July 22 at the age of 75.
Women’s groups were, and a great deal of credit is owed to Marty Mann, the first “special composition” groups in AA, with the first group specifically for women launched in June, 1941 in Cleveland, Ohio.
In February of 1964 a first national conference for women in AA was held in Kansas City, Missouri. Forty-five women were present at the first conference and one has since been held annually ever since with attendance now in the hundreds. “The permanent motto of the event is, ‘The Language of the Heart Will Be Spoken Here’”. (Special Composition Groups in AA)
As is recorded in the Special Compositions Group document, “AA is inescapably a part of the society in which it exists. And when the Fellowship was founded – and for three decades thereafter – de facto discrimination against Blacks was accepted in many places”.
Some of this discrimination is demonstrated in Pass It On, when Bill Wilson invited two Black alcoholics to the New York City meeting. A couple of AA members were outraged and “ready to secede from AA and walk out”. After some discussion a “compromise method of permitting blacks to come to meetings as ‘observers’ worked” and became a model for Blacks at AA meetings. (Pass It On3)
Deirdre S gave a rather wonderful talk at the Austin Convention in 2016 called A History of Special Interest Groups in AA4. She reported talking to a friend, Bob F, who “said that up into the 1970s de-facto segregation existed. As a Black member of AA you could go to any meeting, but you had to sit in the back and couldn’t share unless it was a meeting that catered to Black members”.
This is no doubt why Black members of AA formed their own groups early on. By 1945 there were Black groups in Washington, DC, and St. Louis, Missouri. (“Jim’s Story”, which appeared in the second and third editions of the Big Book, was written by “the originator of AA’s first black group” in Washington.) In 1947, the first colored group began in Harlem. But still they were not well accommodated. Deirdre’s friend Bob F reported that a letter had been sent to Intergroup in New York City in 1957 “asking if Black members could participate in the Intergroup delegates meeting”.
It is generally acknowledged that “AA has never enjoyed a percentage of Black membership equivalent to the percentage of Blacks in the general population”. (Special Composition Groups in AA)
Black meetings have never been and are not now a separate category in the AA Directories and in most Intergroup meeting lists. It is also worth noting that it was not until 2001 that the first “Conference-approved” pamphlet by and for Blacks, “AA for the Black and African American Alcoholic”, originally called “Can AA Help Me Too? African Americans Share Their Stories”, was published.
Sixty years to produce a “Conference-approved” pamphlet for Blacks and African Americans?
Meetings for young people – women and men under the age of 35 – began popping up in 1946. They were begun in Philadelphia, San Diego and New York City. “Young people’s groups were often regarded with suspicion by older groups. Not uncommonly, they were not included in the local service structure because they were ‘not AA’.” (Special Composition Groups in AA)
But the movement continued to grow, with more and more meetings across North America. The first International Conference of Young People in Alcoholics Anonymous (ICYPAA) was held in Niagara Falls, New York, in April of 1958. “It was immediately accused of being some kind of non-affiliated splinter group… ICYPAA leaders kept insisting, ‘We’re not a separate movement or a breaking-away from Alcoholics Anonymous’.” (Special Composition Groups in AA) Indeed, there is mutual support and respect between ICYPAA and the General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The LGBTQ community has been an important part of making AA more inclusive.
In fact, we owe these folks one of the most important traditions in the fellowship, Tradition Three: “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking”.
In 1937, an alcoholic approached one of AA’s co-founders and said, “Dr. Bob, I’ve got a real problem to pose to you. I don’t know if I could join AA, because I am sex deviate”.
There is quite a kerfuffle. “(T)he group conscience began to seethe and boil, and it boiled over. Under no circumstances… could we have such a disgrace among us!”
As Bill put it, “our destiny hung on a razor’s edge”.
(D)ear old Bob looked around, and blandly said, “Isn’t it time folks, to ask ourselves, ‘What would the Master do in a situation like this?’ Would he turn this man away?” And that was the beginning of the AA Tradition that any man who has a drinking problem is a member of AA if he says so, not whether we say so. (The History of Gay People in Alcoholics Anonymous5)
Next, of course, would come the question of gay special composition groups.
And the earliest record of that comes in 1949 in Boston when Ed S approached Bill and told him that he wanted to start a “specialty” group. Of course, Bill wanted to know what kind of specialty group. And Ed replied, speaking very slowly, “H-o-m-o-s-e-x-u-a-l”.
Bill’s response was simple, and very much consistent with his non-authoritarian approach to the fellowship and its membership. “Whatever you do to discuss your problems, and to stay sober, if you will go to any lengths to achieve sobriety, please do so.”
“So in 1949”, Ed concluded, “queer AA came to Boston”. (The History of Gay People, p. 66)
However, that group did not last and it would take another two decades for official and formal gay groups to be launched. This occurred between 1968 and 1971 in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Washington.
As Audrey Borden tells us:
The first group to fit my modern definition of a gay group… was, in fact, the Friday Night Fell Street Group in San Francisco, established in early 1968. This group was
started by gay alcoholics, for gay alcoholics;
held in a public venue, rather than a private home; and
publicized as a gay meeting, inside and outside of AA.
The Fell Street Group was also one of the first gay groups to appear in the AA World Directory in 1975, and it was eventually listed in the local San Francisco directory as a gay meeting. (The History of Gay People in Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 77)
What must be understood though is that at that time homosexual acts were criminal acts, even between consenting adults in private homes. It took a very progressive Prime Minister in Canada, Pierre Trudeau, to decriminalize homosexual acts in 1967, saying quite simply that “the State has no right in the bedrooms of the nation”. And it wouldn’t be until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
So there were problems, and not just in AA.
But also in AA, even if we try to pretend otherwise. The pretense that we in AA are perfect, open and accepting could well be called Tradition Thirteen.
Again, going back to Audrey: “In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, gay AA groups and their members were subjected to surveillance, harassment, and other forms of intimidation by some of the more homophobic members of AA… Meetings were invaded in an attempt to shut them down”.
Meanwhile efforts were being made to list gay meetings as a separate category in the AA World Directory and in local meeting lists.
The issue of listing gay groups as separate “special purpose” groups in the Directory was first discussed at the General Service Conference in 1973. It turned out to be far too rancorous and the debate was tabled for a year.
It came back in 1974 and turned into a two day debate about listing these special purpose (or special composition) groups. On Wednesday “you could tell that the issue was split right down the middle – pro and con”. On the Thursday late in the evening “you could sense that something was happening. Everybody, as it is in AA, had [had] a chance to get it off [his or her] chest”. A delegate from Canada then moved to list gay groups in the World Directory. And the motion was passed, virtually unanimously (128 to 2). (The History of Gay People in Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 93-94).
The battle was over. The issue was first raised with Bill in Boston in 1949 and it was finally resolved in 1974, twenty-five years later.
The first conference or “round-up”, organized by an ad hoc group of gay AA members in Northern California, was held in San Francisco in 1976. Notice of the conference was published in the AA Grapevine Calendar and over 200 people attended, some from as far away as Vancouver. Subsequent conferences have drawn up to two thousand people and have been held in places like New York and San Francisco.
Various efforts over the years were made to have a “Conference-approved” pamphlet for LGBTQ members of AA. In 1984 the General Service Conference actually voted not to publish a pamphlet for gay and lesbian alcoholics. That decision was eventually overturned and in 1989 AAWS published the pamphlet “AA and the Gay/Lesbian Alcoholic”.
By that time there were over three hundred cities in the United States which specifically listed gay and lesbian special composition groups.
We Agnostics as Special Groups
Do we agnostics in AA constitute special composition groups?
The answer is very simple: yes and no.
Let’s start with “no”.
We AA secularists are not a special group precisely because our primary message in our fellowship is one of inclusivity: that an alcoholic is a member of AA if she so declares regardless of belief or lack of belief. Here is the Agnostic AA Preamble:
AA agnostic meetings endeavour to maintain a tradition of free expression, and to conduct a meeting where alcoholics may feel free to express any doubts or disbeliefs they may have, and to share their own personal form of spiritual experience, their search for it, or their rejection of it. In keeping with AA tradition, we do not endorse or oppose any form of religion or atheism. Our only wish is to ensure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in AA without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs, or having to deny their own.
Our primary message in this preamble merely echoes the primary purpose of AA which is “to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety”.
Interestingly, the Literature Subcommittee which in 1976 was working on a proposed pamphlet for and by agnostics and atheists in AA felt the same way. “This type of pamphlet does not fall under the category ‘special groups of alcoholics’ literature but concerns a more fundamental and worldwide problem that has resulted in much misinterpretation of the AA Fellowship.”
Indeed. As they explained:
This pamphlet would affirm in clear and concise fashion that “the only requirement for membership in AA is a desire to stop drinking” and that our founders and the group conscience of the fellowship does not and has never considered an alcoholic’s spiritual beliefs as necessarily relevant to the achievement of healthy and happy sobriety… This pamphlet will probably also help the God believer in AA to understand his/her own spiritual values better, as well as to develop tolerance and understanding of many newcomers to AA. (History – Proposals to Create a Pamphlet for the Non-Believer / Agnostic / Atheist Alcoholic6)
As we shall discuss in Chapter 11, this pamphlet has never been published. And if anything the misinterpretation and misunderstanding of AA within AA has grown rather exponentially in the last four decades.
And now the “yes” answer to we agnostics in AA as a special composition group.
If it is helpful for the secular alcoholic to be distinguished from “the God believer in AA” – which is certainly the case today – then, yes, indeed, her groups and meetings should be listed as “special composition” in the AA World Directory and in Intergroup and Central Office AA meeting lists.
Or vice versa. Just saying.
The times they are a-changing with an ever growing percentage of non-believers in North America. It is hard to predict the “composition” of Alcoholics Anonymous when the time comes for it to celebrate its one hundredth anniversary.
We conclude this chapter with a quote from a talk delivered by Jackie B at the Sedona History Symposium in 2015: “Studying and sharing the history of marginalized people in AA is about looking honestly at our past, not to wring our hands at our failings, but to learn from our mistakes and grow towards greater inclusiveness and effectiveness, like any good AA does in their individual recovery.” (Recovery Plays of Jackie B7)
1 Special Composition Groups In AA: http://www.barefootsworld.net/aaspecialgroups.html
2 Key Players in AA History, Bob K (Toronto, Ontario, AA Agnostica, 2015), p. 209.
3 Pass It On (New York, AAWS, 1984), p. 317.
4 A History of Special Interest Groups in AA: https://aaagnostica.org/2016/12/15/a-history-of-special-interest-groups-in-aa/
5 The History of Gay People in Alcoholics Anonymous, Audrey Borden (Binghamton, New York, Hawthorn Press, 2007), p. 15.
6 History – Proposals to Create a Pamphlet for the Non-Believer / Agnostic / Atheist Alcoholic: https://aaagnostica.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/History-Proposals-to-Create-A-Pamphlet.pdf
7 Recovery Plays of Jackie B: http://www.recoveryplaysofjackieb.org/about/
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