The Rainbow Group
By bob k
On Saturday, October 26 of last year, at the Alano Club in Oshawa, some courageous folks held the first ever LGBTQ-friendly AA meeting in the Durham region. It’s called, appropriately enough, the Rainbow Group.
In other locales, such an event would not reach the threshold of “shocking news,” but we’re talking Oshawa, where many necks are red and freethinker meetings are viewed as “not really AA” and where something very disturbing occurred at an AA meeting I attended some five years earlier.
During introductions at the Oshawa Men’s Meeting, an extremely distraught member (about a year sober) confessed that he had come very close to drinking the previous evening. With a growing rage as he relayed the events of less than 24 hours earlier, he told us about his son coming out to him and his wife. He didn’t use the word “gay.” Instead he used an extremely offensive f-word, long gone for most of us. “My son is a f_____!” The word that is also used to describe a bundle of sticks was used more than once. He wasn’t talking about a bundle of sticks.
His distress had been exacerbated by his wife’s relative calmness at the household-shattering news. His two closest relatives were letting him down, and jeopardizing his sobriety. The homophobic slurs went on and on without interruption from the chair, and many heads nodded sympathetically. I’m embarrassed to say that I was frozen like a deer in the headlights.
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, Inclusion and Diversity workshop,
International Convention of Secular AA (ICSAA), 2018
Over the years, AA Agnostica has filed some cool reports on new secular meetings. Some time back, Roger C adopted a sort of Joycean “stream of consciousness” style to bring us a very in-the-moment account of the first gathering of We Are Not Saints in east Toronto. In the Spring of 2017, I sojourned with Craig C. out to Peterborough to report on, Kawartha Freethinkers. On March 12, 2019 the excitement was at St. Luke’s United Church, 353 Sherbourne St., Toronto, as We Are Diversity held its first meeting, an LGBTQ-friendly gathering of secularists.
The new Saturday night group in Oshawa is not secular, but there are some points of connection with the secular AA demographic. “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… For the LGBTQ+ alcoholic or addict, troubles double.” (We Are Diversity)
At the Kawartha meeting two years earlier, two gay men were in attendance, and one said, “We don’t really have a problem with God, but we hoped that with the ‘Freethinkers’ name, we’d find less prejudice than at traditional, local meetings.” They found it to be so.
Many fundamentalists are vehemently opposed to special-interest meetings.
A perfect Big Book about a perfect program MUST be perfectly good for one and all, after all. If comments such as “You’ll never get sober without God” or “You need to inventory your sexual perversions” drive ’em away, alcohol will bring ’em back! The book thumper position is that the 12 Steps are perfect exactly as they were written by God in late 1938. Bill Wilson, agent of the Lord, merely held the pen.
The book worshiper recognizes no need for special gatherings of women, agnostics, natives, gays and lesbians, or anyone else. One wonders why these populations were forced to fight for their seats at the recovery table, if we’re all “just the same?”
Come join us, and we will mould you. Suppress your differences – they will only stand in the way!
Of course, black people needed their own meetings as we spiritual white folks didn’t allow them into ours, back in the day. That was a different matter, I guess. In the early days, women alcoholics were not enough like men to be accepted, while today, they are not unalike enough to hold separate meetings. The history of AA is not a proud one in some respects. In theory, Alcoholics Anonymous is very inclusive. In practice, your mileage may vary. You may even have to state your case before a Human Rights Commission.
If You Build It, They Will Come
A little over ten years ago, Joe C and some others started Toronto’s Beyond Belief meeting, and people came. In spite of ridicule of its founders, it stayed. In spite of ill-informed gossip, it stayed. In spite of a vicious fear-mongering campaign, it stayed. In spite of delisting and disenfranchisement by the local intergroup, it stayed. A second secular group opened its doors a short time later, and then a third, in Richmond Hill.
These “agnostic friendly,” meetings, so often described by detractors as “not real AA,” were surviving and thriving. Other similar groups have since been formed in Newmarket, Hamilton, Ajax, Whitby, and Kingston. People are being helped to get sober, and to stay sober. The absence of prayers at these gatherings indicates that supplication to the Creator may not be the key sobriety-producing ingredient. Underserved portions of the alcoholic community have found new homes.
The LGBTQ community faces similar prejudices, albeit neither systemic ones nor overt ones. AA puts no restrictions on the queer community, but the reality is that Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women, and the prejudices of those individual human beings very much matches that of the broader society. No rational person would even try to make the case that the spiritual nature of the 12 Step program ensures that no AA members are homophobic.
At the new LGBTQ meeting in Oshawa, many participants spoke of their joy at having this new “safe space.” Oshawa isn’t Biloxi, Mississippi, but neither is it San Francisco.
A need is being met.
Just before the start of the first secular meeting in Peterborough (Kawartha Freethinkers), I remember my exhilaration as we kept going to fetch more chairs. Ollie, Val, and Jim had built it, and they came. I had anticipated six or eight, and hoped for ten or twelve. Twenty-one people came. At the inaugural “We Are Diversity” gathering this past March, thirty-five folks showed up. Many weren’t within the specific double demographic, but were friends and supporters. For months the group survived. But then, sadly, because of a lack of attendance, the last We Are Diversity meeting was held on November 5th of last year.
Obviously, many of us had low expectations regarding the turnout at the Rainbow Group in “the Shwa,’ but forty to fifty folks showed up! Congratulations to the group’s co-founders, Michael and Amy. This LGBTQ+ group, destined to contribute to the recovery of many alcoholics, already has several members. One teary-eyed newcomer expressed her gratitude to the speaker for changing her perception of AA. Perhaps she’ll meet my friend Bridget, a self-described “young queer with funny hair.” Two years ago, Bridget was seeking help with her serious drinking problem, but struggling to find connection in the conservative rooms of Oshawa AA.
Also an atheist, Bridget found both sobriety and a comfortable home group at Whitby Freethinkers. Some months back, we were thrilled to present her with a one-year coin. In March, I took her to the first ever “We Are Diversity” meeting, and she trekked down there every Tuesday with Andrew until the meeting closed.
The Rainbow Group in Oshawa isn’t secular per se but it’s secular-ish, in that there’s no Lord’s Prayer closing. In general, the LGBTQ community has not been well-received in the “church world.” It’s unlikely that the less spiritual and the non-spiritual attendees of the Rainbow Group will be called “belligerent savages,” by the spiritual members.
So, secular groups are continuing to be built, and people continue to come. The LGBTQ groups face similar discrimination, but the courage of the few is serving the needs of the many. More and more, we are coming to understand the power of community in the healing of alcoholism and addiction. The broader community of traditional AA remains entirely unharmed, in spite of warnings that the sky would fall. Alcoholics from all demographics are being helped in spaces comfortable for them.
That’s a good thing.
Bob K. is the co-founder of the Whitby Freethinkers Group just east of Toronto. He is the author of Key Players in AA History, first edition published in 2015.