When Old Friends Turn Ugly

When I came to New York at the end of the ‘80s, the social pattern of life went something like this: Uncle Charlie’s on Greenwich after work; the Spike and the Eagle on the West Side Highway for a naughty late Saturday night; Rounds on East 53rd Street to window shop the rent boys every once in a while; and The Works on Columbus at West 82nd Street for a weeknight drop-by where maybe one would get lucky. Now, all these landmarks are gone, for better or worse, replaced by newer watering holes and newer patrons to populate them

Each generation of our kind has an internal map of its era, it seems, superimposed on Manhattan’s grid and lit by the boozy glow of the bars of the day. Listen to the nostalgia of a certain group of men for the Anvil or the Fifth Circle, or of a more recent cadre of women for Henrietta Hudson or Meow Mix, or of some in the trans community for Club Edelweiss.

Other cities and towns may have fewer choices of “homosexual drinking establishments,” as one fellow I know calls them, but it is still largely the case that these places are some of the most recognizable and important institutions in the LGBT community. Long before there were community centers, gay bars were where we went to find each other and to find ourselves as we learned what it meant to be gay or transgendered. They still sponsor softball teams, raise money for AIDS organizations, and provide a shelter against the storms of homo- and transphobia.

Additionally, alcohol brands still routinely tempt us with sponsorship of our events that we struggle to refuse as ethically complicated.

As has often been noted, our rights movement began at a bar, and as is less well acknowledged, was likely fueled not only by outrage over police harassment, but also by beer and shots. Bars have been strangely both the incubators of our liberation and the cages of our dependence.

Studies disagree about how much we drink, but the older studies from the ’70s suggested that about 30 percent of LGBT folk drink “problematically,” compared to 10 percent of the general population, though some researchers think that’s an overestimation. Certainly, there is consensus that LGBT-identified folk drink more than average.

Actually, in the not too distant past, male homosexuality was thought to cause alcoholism. We drink more and longer into life than other people, especially lesbians for some reason. And while we continue to be rightly concerned about club drugs and flash-fire flare ups—like what we’re struggling with now over methamphetamine—alcohol has been a steady stupefying presence over the decades, rivaled only by cigarettes in both its stickiness as an addiction and the wide swath of destruction it’s wrought among so many of us.

A lot of us had our first sexual experiences under the influence, and the connection between high-octane risk-taking that might lead to the transmission of HIV or other STDs on the one hand and being at risk for domestic or bias-related violence on the other seems undeniable. Clearly, alcohol has been there to anesthetize both the jitters around asking that cutie if they want to dance and the deeper, darker disquiet of internalized homophobia. Self-acceptance around our homosexuality may in fact be a key indicator for gay people staying sober. That’s why we take pains to dig into those kinds of issues in our substance abuse counseling at the LGBT Community Center.

Alcohol in the LGBT community is kind of like an old friend who keeps showing up. Sometimes they are comforting to have around, but at other times, they just won’t leave or even go all “Fatal Attraction” on us.

When it’s time to reach out for help, it can be hard to know where to go. We’re lucky in New York City to have an extremely vibrant recovery community with gay-friendly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings available throughout every day of the week. In fact, the venerable High Noon meeting at the Center on Sundays routinely has more than 300 attendees and can feel like either an old school tent revival meeting or an Off-Broadway showcase, depending on the week.

While formal treatment programs have come a long way in understanding our issues, there are still markedly few LGBT-specific detox facilities, rehabs, or treatment centers around the country.

The old mythology of homosexuals and other so-called deviants being unavoidably destined for madness or suicide is being challenged every day now by people living vital and stable lives of dignity, accomplishment, and joy. We should continue to examine our complicated relationship with our old pal alcohol in order to avoid living outdated stereotypes of liquid self-destruction.

The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center will hold a community forum on alcohol and the LGBT community called Queer Spirits at 7 p.m. on Thursday, February 22, co-sponsored by the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at CUNY. For more information, go to gaycenter.org or call 212-620-7310. Christopher Murray, LMSW, is a substance use counselor at the LGBT Community Center and an instructor at the Alcoholism Council of New York.