We Are Diversity

We Are Diversity

Being a part of the LGBTQ+ family, we face many unique and distinct challenges. Our rates of drug addiction are estimated to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20-30%, versus 5-10% for the general population. Alcohol{ism} is at 25%; 9% for the general population. Tobacco, approximately 2-3 times higher. Marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines and all narcotics… as well as prescription medications – ALL intoxicants have significantly greater use/abuse among our population, typically in the magnitude of at least 100% greater.

Andrew H., “Inclusion and Diversity” workshop, ICSAA 2018

By bob k

It was March 12, 2019 and my trip to the first meeting of what we believe to be Canada’s first-ever secular LGBTQ+ meeting began in Whitby at 5:15 pm. In the strange way that life sometimes works,  weaving nuances of unexpected complexity, my trip from Whitby to the We Are Diversity meeting in Toronto, began some 18 months earlier. That is when Bridget N. began attending the freethinkers’ group in Whitby founded by Craig C. and myself, in late 2013, at the instigation of, yes, you’ve guessed it, Joe C. That sonofabitch is EVERYWHERE!

Over the preceding year or so, Bridget had been trying AA. In spite of being still in her twenties, she had a serious drinking problem, and the side effects of that were becoming quite debilitating. Unfortunately, as a self-described “young queer with funny hair,” who was also an atheist, she was extremely uncomfortable in the church basements of traditional AA meetings. That much-ballyhooed, wonderful feeling of no longer being alone, was not something that came to an odd-looking, young secularist amid the horde of folks declaring that God had helped them where they could not help themselves.

“Brothers and sisters, can I have a hallelujah?”

No?

Making it out to these epic “firsts” in the world of secular Alcoholics Anonymous is a kick for me. Sadly, I may be forever beyond more exciting pursuits. Nonetheless, I’ve been to the first-ever meetings of the Freethinkers’ groups in Whitby, Ajax, Mississauga, and Kawartha . I was also at the first “We Are Not Saints” meeting in East Toronto, and to anniversary celebrations at Beyond Belief, Newmarket, Peterborough and Whitby. No extensive rumination was required in deciding to trek to “We Are Diversity.” Almost immediately I thought of how much Bridget would like to take it all in.

I was right.

Stigma

Stigma, discrimination and oppression – please let’s not kid ourselves – although we live in predominantly enlightened times… this is something we all have to deal with in varying degrees.

Andrew H., ICSAA (International Convention of Secular AA)

Even in today’s world, alcoholics sometimes feel the sting of discrimination as the result being labelled  “alcoholic”. Not everyone in the worlds of employment, insurance, Little League coaching or dating, have sympathy for those with a problem seen by many as stemming from their own bad behavior. As alcoholics, each and every one of us should have an extra level of understanding, and empathy, for minority groups. Many AA members have that. Other AA members do not.

I Feel No Need

Toronto secularists were a minority that was vigorously persecuted by Toronto’s other sober alcoholics. In truth, the oppression was spearheaded by a small number of aggressive people. The Blues Brothers were “on a mission from God,” and these crusaders were as well. They were organized, and they were persuasive. They used the age-old strategy of fear-mongering. In 2012 “Beyond Belief” and “We Agnostics” felt not only the strong disapprobation of their alcoholic brothers and sisters, but suffered having their agnostic-friendly groups kicked out of Toronto AA.

The forces of hate, prejudice and exclusion had won the battle. It was a sad time for the minority who had simply wanted to run their groups their way, as per the principle of group autonomy.

The disenfranchised groups have been restored to the fold, thanks to an action taken by Larry K. at the Ontario Human Rights Commission. In fairness to traditional AA, and to Toronto Intergroup, there have been some very positive changes over the past two and a half years. It is expected that the new attitudes are lasting, and hoped that they will spread to other regions.

In terms of being embraced by the broader organization, Alcoholics Anonymous, the LGBTQ+ community is in need of similar steps forward of their own. Until that happens, special interest LGBTQ-friendly meetings are not only desirable, but necessary.

For the LGBTQ+ alcoholic or addict, troubles double.

Three years ago, Andrew H. found a home at Toronto’s first secular AA meeting, Beyond Belief. In his words spoken at the 2018 secular conference: “I am queer. A gay man. An alcoholic. An addict. An atheist. A liberal. A vegetarian… Damn!! That’s too many labels.” The non-secular LGBTQ+ meeting had introduced him to the Big Book, and his reaction was a simple “Ugh!” Ironically, at around two years sober, Andrew ventured into the 12 steps, but not the stone tablet version. “I determined that it would be beneficial, personally, to do the work at becoming a better person… The benefits to me have far outweighed any negative aspects.”

New meeting, New Hope

After a smooth cruise from the extreme eastern burbs, we located the venue and nearby street parking. Anticipated problems in that area did not materialize. I have dear friends who would have gratefully thanked God for His loving intercession into the parking needs of out-of-towners.

For those of us who consider the best thing about churches to be the architecture, the architecture wasn’t disappointing. St. Luke’s United Church is a beautiful building of 1887 vintage. A Trip Advisor reviewer wrote: “From the outside, this church looks like a castle.” The church website shows evidence of a magnificent interior, but we were spared from the upstairs. More Providence, perhaps, although Meeting # 2 is going to get us a look at the ground level.

An unimpressive entrance led us to a basement that was delightfully unchurchy. As we wended our way along the narrow halls of what felt like catacombs, we journeyed back in time to an era of low-ceilinged cellars and exposed pipes. The oil-based paint peeling from the walls added to an ambience suited to a horror movie Saw came to mind. In spite of being mediocre at best, that film sparked as many sequels as Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. To my great embarrassment, I must confess to having viewed most of those. Rigorous honesty sucks sometimes.

A room of substantial size awaited us, and there were about 25 chairs arranged in a circle, with lots of space all around. Natural-born cynic that I am, I thought, “That’s optimistic.” It wasn’t. I don’t take a lot of delight in being wrong, but in this case, it was DELIGHTFUL! More chairs were added before the start, and yet of few more for late arrivals. The new group’s website, very simply named We Are Diversity, estimates the first meeting attendance at 35, exactly matching my own guess.

That’s a success by anyone’s calculation. Possible Ontario’s most well-attended first secular meeting in our now nine and a half year history.

Andrew along with some friends had done all the work necessary to start a brand new meeting, and there is definitely some work involved in doing that. Here we were at the opening night! Bridget and I were not the only non-downtowners, as I recognized fellow secular AA-ers from Mississauga. My old pal Eric T., who now lives in Ancaster, looks incredibly healthier than he did when I met him seven and a half years ago. Sobriety can produce some marvellous changes, notwithstanding that Roger C. and I looked a lot better as pot-smoking hippies, so many 40-ouncers ago.

The “We Are Diversity” group seems to have been extremely well-organized and well-orchestrated. There were some coffee problems as the electrical systems in hundred year old buildings can be temperamental. No one much cared. This wasn’t about coffee.

Andrew chaired, and as typically is the case with meetings of the non-religious type, the readings were minimal. My careful listening detected interesting modifications – some big, and some small. Look for those when you come to visit the group. All are welcome.

I don’t know Andrew really well but that he had gifts for those who had contributed to the birth of the new group surprised me not at all. Secular medallions – momentos of a night that I think will have historical significance – were presented to a variety of folks. Recipients included the rest of the steering committee: Kirsti M., Len B., Matthew D., and Matt P. There were also commemorative coins for early contributors, Stephanie R., and Candice M., as well as to a few folks who made financial contributions: Murray J., Gillian L., Don C., and Regina C. Eric T. got one for being the speaker, and Joe C. was rewarded for having the longest hair, as I remember it.

The set-up had led me to expect a discussion meeting, and we sort of got that with the popular secular format of a shortish (10-12 minutes) speaker followed by comments from the peanut gallery, on a “pop-up” or “popcorn” basis. Eric shared mainly of the remarkable life improvement that has come his way over 7 years of sobriety, and his great thankfulness to Toronto AA’s secular community for that, dare I say, blessing.

Be Kind

Comments were interesting.

I can not bring to you the meeting in its entirety. I wish that I could, as it was pretty special. About 15 people got to share, and the sharers were about as diverse as the attendees in general. Of those who spoke, easily half had relatively new sobriety, or were just coming back. No one yelled at them to “SIT DOWN AND SHADDUP!” as was supposedly the Standard Operating Procedure in the mythical days when everyone did everything right. Talk was tough, and prospects were bullied into sobriety with “precise directions” delivered with not the slightest shred of kindness. Success rates then were well above 100%, apparently.

“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly sat down and shut up…” Something like that.

1991 has become “the good old days” from the perspective of 2019. Back in 1991, 1991 was simply “now,” and the mythical “good old days” were years earlier. AA is in love with glorifying some magical era of yesteryear.

My late father got sober in AA in 1961, and I recall asking him if AA was tougher in the old days that it was now (1992). His response was simple and, somewhat myth-busting: “There are preachers now, and there were preachers then. My sponsor NEVER raised his voice to me.” I’m an AA history geek, and I’ve seen no reports of Bill W. lecturing Dr. Bob at their iconic first meeting at the Seiberling gatehouse. It’s also clear that Bill did not bring the gift of “God.” Bob already had that from two and a half years of Oxford Group conditioning, ” …but I still got tight every night nevertheless.” (AA Big Book, p. 178)

Back to 2019. There were several in early sobriety who expressed renewed hope prompted by this new resource. One man nearing 80, was 41 years sober, and he had a few tales that included as the young gay man’s experience, 60 years ago, of being sent away for “conversion.” He made reference to a dark but touching 2018 film, Boy Erased, in which the conversion theme is addressed. Things have changed in 60 years, but only somewhat.

Another older guy, one of the secular supporters from outside of the meeting’s main demographic identified as “N.” There were hearty laughs as he elaborated that “N'” stood for “Not gettin’ any.” The atmosphere was palpably one of camaraderie, joy, optimism, safety, gratitude, kinship, love and more. The word “ineffable” is an absolute dandy to trot out for grand occasions in our lives where things more easily felt than described. The words at the meeting were less important than the hugs, the laughter, and the tears.

Bridget shared: “I am grateful to be here, and thankful to find such a safe place. I feel surrounded by the care of my fellow LGBTQ+ atheists and agnostics. Oshawa’s highly faith-oriented meetings aren’t exactly very welcoming for someone like me: a young, queer atheist woman. I am at the outer margins  of most local groups.” (Insert the Oshawa redneck joke of your choice here _______.) Although Whitby Freethinkers is not an LGBTQ+ type of meeting, Bridget found a group-wide inclusive attitude that she had not found elsewhere.

Moving Forward

Bridget also works with a sponsor. One of her frustrations with traditional AA in Oshawa, was that none of the “Get a sponsor! Get a sponsor!” people would, or could, answer her question as to who, as a lesbian woman, she should get. Obviously, some were just as happy to see her get lost. That could have been devastating had she not found Craig C., and the Whitby Freethinkers where she’ll be collecting a one-year coin on April 29th.

Come one, come all. Special interest groups are sometimes accused of being exclusive, while the reality is that they are often the very model of inclusivity.

Bridget also suffered from other demons poorly understood by even the more well-intentioned folks of Oshawa AA. If there are other members from the LGBTQ community, and the math itself would lead to the conclusion that there are, they are mostly on the down-low, for the sake of their own recovery.

Two years ago, the first meeting of “Kawartha Freethinkers” in Peterborough drew a couple of gays, who declared that, although they weren’t much bothered by the “God issue” that is a plague to so many of us, the name “Freethinkers” produced the hope that they might encounter a more tolerant attitude about the “gay issue” than they were being met with elsewhere. They were right. There was a lot of emotion that night two years ago, when a new level of diversity came to a small town.

There was also a lot of emotion eight days ago, when a new level of diversity came to a big town.

Come and visit the group. You will find an atmosphere of camaraderie, joy, optimism, safety, gratitude, kinship, love and more. What you find may be exactly what you are looking for, and in trying to talk about the meeting later, you may find a need for the word “ineffable.”


We Are DiversityThe “We Are Diversity” group meets Tuesday nights at 7:30 PM at St. Luke’s United Church, 353 Sherbourne St., Toronto. The meeting is secular, LGBTQ+, addict-friendly, and you might even encounter some delightful lemon squares. To visit the website, click on the image.


Key Players in AA Historybob k is an aging 60’s hippie who is loving the secular AA movement, and thrilled at the opportunity to get on the firing line with the LGBTQ+ community. bob is the author of the hundreds-selling book KEY PLAYERS IN AA HISTORY.

We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome, some day.

Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome, some day.

We’ll walk hand in hand,
We’ll walk hand in hand,
We’ll walk hand in hand, some day.

Oh, deep in my heart,

We shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace, some day.

Oh, deep in my heart,

We shall all be free,
We shall all be free,
We shall all be free, some day.

Oh, deep in my heart,

We are not afraid,
We are not afraid,
We are not afraid, TODAY

Oh, deep in my heart,

We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome, some day.

Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome, some day.

—  Joan Baez


32 Responses

  1. David P. says:

    Thank you Bob for sharing this beautifully written piece. I am honoured to have known you for almost 4 years now, and am grateful for Bridget and her sharing each Monday night in our Free Thinkers meetings.

    Wonderful piece here sir!

    • bob k says:

      Thanks for your kind words. We are delighted that Bridget will be celebrating a year on the 29th of this month at Whitby Freethinkers.

  2. Galen T. says:

    Just one more thought, Bob. It is particularly helpful and effective to have this article come from a person who has such a broad and deep knowledge of the history of AA.

    • bob k says:

      AA has a long history of being unwelcoming to minority groups, in the early stages at the least–fallen women, upright women, Catholics, blacks, atheists, LGBTQ, etc. “We are average Americans.” A lot of average Americans have strong prejudices.

  3. Ray R says:

    Good job Bob. Great to see a new group for LGBTQ+ get off to a great start. For ANY young person to walk in the meetings to try a get sober is a miracle. So for Bridget to find a happy group and to feel part of AA is magical. I go to the Whitby freethinkers and there are a lot of similar meetings in Victoria B.C. and Brighton U.K. We need to keep an open mind and put a smile on our face to encourage the newcomers.

  4. Bridget N. says:

    Thank you so much for writing this, Bob, and for driving me in from the ‘burbs to go to this awesome meeting!

    I find myself overwhelmed with gratitude, for the kind words here, and the fact that I can go to two meetings back to back and feel completely comfortable being myself at both. Our Whitby Freethinkers meeting and the people at it helped get me sober and have offered such support to me, from the moment I walked in the door. I can’t wait to see how We Are Diversity evolves, and to be a part of it. Keep coming back, folks!

  5. Where do you think AA is in an evolutionary scale from zero to one-hundred? Or what inning do you think we’re in if you love American sports analogies? Are we in our twilight or early days? We are evolving.

    Thanks to all – bob k, AA Agnostica, the founders of We Are Diversity and everyone who supported this page in history – for a great meeting and review. It’s good to record our history. Firsts abound in AA and our secular sisters, brother and non-binary others are part of this evolution.

    It makes AA fun for me; I tired from repetitive strain disorder. For me, while I have some favorite books I love to return to often, I don’t want to go through one book over and over again. I want to read one and then another and then another. It keeps the mind engaged and hopeful. I like new meetings, too. Imagination is the only limit it seems to ways of expressing AA in a meeting format.

    Here are a few other local firsts:

    Tuesday at CAMH’s (Centre for Addiction & Mental Health) Queen St. West Campus we have Toronto’s first nooner – the 12:15 to 1:15 Queen Street Secular AA meeting. It serves an unmet need in that neighborhood for day-time AA. Some who come like the time – not the format because they work evenings. Other secular meeting seekers also find evening AA difficult to attend and more evening secular meetings doesn’t/wouldn’t offer more opportunity to flex-working shift AA members. So, here’s a shout out to the new Queen @ Ossignton CAMH Secular AA meeting. The meeting, so far, is well attended by CAMH clients and the greater Toronto AA community. For newer member, they now have a day that they can count two secular meetings in one day if they are keeping a 90-in-90 score card. From Queen Street Secular Nooner, there are great cafes and restaurants nearby and you’d be a short transfer to either We Agnostics at 8 PM or We Are Diversity at 7:30.

    GTA Intergroup (Greater Toronto Area) now has “type” as a way to search AA meetings. Added to mens/women, LGBTQ, speaker, open, closed, discussion, big book, etc, as of this month, you can search “secular.”
    Check it out at GTA Intergroup Meetings.

    So far, nine of our meetings “without a prayer” are included here.

    I hear that a women’s secular AA meeting is in the making for the Toronto recovery community.

  6. Craig C. says:

    Congratulations to those involved in the implementation of We Are Diversity – another shining example of the inclusivity of secular AA. Although I agree with Bob that there are many ‘moderates’ in mainstream AA that understand the meaning of ‘keep an open mind’, there are sadly still militants that do not have the capacity (constitutionally incapable?) to recognize their own hypocrisy. However, we shall continue to respond to bigotry with love – thanks for your lovingly written article Bob. Your passion for recovery and the true meaning of unity in AA continues to inspire. My goal is to get down to this meeting as soon as I can with my dearest Bridget…

    • bob k says:

      Many thanks, and a special shout-out for helping that girl tremendously.

    • Bridget N. says:

      Say the word, Craig, and we’ll go! I think you’ll enjoy it almost as much as I do 🙂 You rock!

      I’ve long felt that, if the world was perfect, we wouldn’t need special groups for folks like me to feel more welcome and comfortable, because we’d all celebrate what makes us all different as well as what makes us all similar. Until then, I’ll keep coming back to all these wonderful secular and/or LGBTQ+ meetings!

  7. Galen T. says:

    Thanks, Bob, for your article about what sounds like a wonderful and much needed meeting. I hope it inspires like meetings across the lands.

    I do wonder, however, about your cinematic tastes. Saw? Though in the spirit of full disclosure, I admit to seeing Love Actually four times.

    • bob k says:

      I was taken to the Saw movies by someone EXTREMELY attractive. What’s your excuse? Thanks for remarking on the new meeting, and I hope your time in Sweden was marvellous.

      • Galen T. says:

        I don’t have an excuse that matches yours. However, my wife wanted to see it, and so we sat down together to watch. But the other three times I saw it are on me; it must be my sentimental side.

        I spent most of my three Sweden weeks in Stockholm and loved it. It is a wonderful city.

        It is so good to see all these positive responses to your article. It helps me to feel hopeful about the future of AA.

  8. John S. says:

    It’s exciting to read about a new meeting starting up. My hope is that one day all AA meetings will be secular.

  9. Murray J says:

    Anybody else feel we are on the threshold of a dream? The dream is to establish more roads to recovery, for all who wish to get clean and sober. Lots of work awaits but what a great ride so far.

  10. Eric T says:

    Honoured to be a part of this beautiful community. Safe 24 all!

  11. Dan L says:

    Thanks Bob I am an unabashed fan of your writings great and small. When I read about this sort of event it always makes me think of bridge club ladies clutching their pearls and getting the vapors when a forward thinker attempts to introduce some “inferior” person to the herd. “Oh my god!” they gasp. “If they invite someone from another church we might as well bring in one hundred hungry communist jackals to tear everyone to pieces and feast upon our quivering flesh! Where do you draw the line?”

    Take that Toronto Intergroup!

    I was introduced to AA at a very progressive treatment center which prepared me quite well for my journey into sobriety. I was taught that there is no “line” and there will be no “line”. The Third Tradition does not include the word “except” or “but”. It stands by itself and is not superseded by any other Tradition or combination of traditions. I would not stay as a member for five seconds without the enthusiastic observance of the Third Tradition.

    This program is for all who suffer including the person who is addicted to watching beer commercials on TV and has nowhere else to go. I would suggest that people who disagree with me should be thrown out but they get to stay too. The rest of us are responsible for trying to mitigate the harms they have done in our name. Everyone has the right to practice AA in the best way that suits them. That especially includes everyone who I think is doing it wrong.

  12. Matthew D. says:

    Beautifully written – a very sensitively drawn picture of a much-needed addition to AA, a group founded on the values of compassion and inclusiveness.

    Coming out isn’t merely a gay issue – every addict and every alcoholic faces the same scary prospect of rejection, intimidation and victimization… here is an opportunity for us all to stand together as one community under AA.

    • bob k says:

      Well said. Alcoholics and addicts have some idea of the lash of discrimination. It’s not a big ask that we project that enough to empathize with other minority groups. All the best moving forward. The new group will help many people, and that’s the key issue.

  13. Neil F. says:

    Very well written article Bob. Congratulations to the members of the new meeting and all those who support them. Happy to hear that it was an incredibly successful opening.

  14. Barry S says:

    Bob…I enjoyed the read. It’s impossible to have too much inclusivity (is that a word?)…. Anything we can do to improve this, as groups or individuals, should be encouraged.

    May the “We Are Diversity” group enjoy many, well attended, meetings to come. No doubt, more lives will become meaningful because of it’s creation.

    … Why don’t we have lemon squares?… It’s the lemon squares… That’s the secret!

    Peace Out Hippie

  15. Stan says:

    Awesome article Bob, brings me a better understanding of AA’s declaration of responsibility.

  16. Metka says:

    Thanks aging 60’s hippie! As always … so well written and so full of wisdom and wit. Great to know you and share the path. 😉

  17. Michel D says:

    Thanks Bob,

    It is always great to remember that we are “non longer alone” as secular members of AA. Our group – Secular Sobriety in Ottawa – celebrated its 3 year anniversary on March 1st. We are looking forward to having other secular groups in the city in the years ahead.

    All the best to the We are Diversity group!

  18. John M. says:

    A great read, Bob — very tongue-in-cheek and serious at the same time. Sounded like a fantastic opening night and a group I’ll have to pop by on a Tuesday evening very soon.

  19. Thomas Brinson says:

    Thanks Bob for a delightful and informative introduction to the “We Are Diversity” group in Toronto. I especially appreciate their description as being “secular, LGBTQ+, addict-friendly”…

  20. Amy says:

    It is so nice to hear (and read) about someone finding that home group that really feels like home. We all deserve that in our recovery. It would have been so difficult for me to get sober had I not found that place. Glad that members of AA are pushing forward to create the safe spaces where people can truly open up – discover the principles of the program and find freedom from the disease.

  21. Murray J says:

    I am overjoyed that this meeting took place. Thank you to the organizers who put in really hard work to make it happen. I wish I could have been there but like Bob says, I too am an aging hippie. I have some nagging mobility issues. Continued success to the group!

    • Andrew H. says:

      I would simply like to acknowledge my immense gratitude to Bob K. For his open-minded approach to our community, as well as our plight to achieve, as well as to maintain sobriety. Kudos to you Bob, for a well thought out and written piece.

      • bob k says:

        I appreciate the kind words. I’m getting a lot out of my involvement in this. There’s truth in the notion that if you want to raise your self-esteem, do estimable acts.

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