Updated: Nov 4, 2021
Editor's Note: CDC studies show that gay and bisexual men, lesbian, and transgender individuals are more likely to use alcohol and drugs, and have higher rates of substance abuse than the general population. We asked Brandon Herman to share his perspective on addiction and recovery as a queer person.
Growing up in the late 80s/early 90s, the first association with gay people that I always heard
was... AIDS—which seemed to have been collectively agreed upon as the worst disease you
could possibly have. Before I even consciously understood how this info related specifically to me, I could feel that it was bad news for me. Then, when I was in high school, Matthew Shepard was killed. The message I got as a young queer person was that if I didn’t die as a result of being gay, I’d be killed for it. So I learned to hide.
Drugs and alcohol made me feel okay
I spent so many hours of the day pretending to be someone else, I had no practice being my
true self; I didn’t even know who that was. Drugs and
alcohol allowed me an illusion of
authenticity in that, while I was intoxicated, they muted the fear so that I could feel comfortable revealing myself—for the duration of that drunk or high. Short-lasting as the
effects were, they nonetheless became indispensable to me—at any cost.
They also numbed the shame I felt.
Queer people are second-class citizens at best. Queerness may be on-trend in entertainment
and in some, specific, progressive locations, but by and large, I do not enjoy the same liberties as heterosexual people.
For example, in most places in the world, if I wanted to walk down the street holding the hand of the person I’m dating, I’d need to assess and weigh the risk of harassment... or worse. Gay epithets are still put-downs—shorthand for telling someone they’re less-than. And—let’s face it—the majority of parents aren’t hoping their kids will be gay or trans, even if for no other reason than that their lives will be “harder.” That’s not equality.
And that’s not even touching on the more extreme ways queer people are oppressed and brutalized worldwide—which, for those of us who aren’t homeless on the streets of LA or living in Saudi Arabia, might be far from view, but are very real and constant dangers for those who are. I’m talking about cruelty like violence against queer sex workers—people who are vulnerable in their lack of legal protections and limited in their options, especially if they were disowned from an unaccepting home at a young age, and thus deprived of education and resources. And I’m talking about cruelty like how the death penalty is the legally prescribed punishment for consensual same-sex sexual acts in a number of countries, including six UN Member States… the fucking death penalty.
Without ever having visited the Middle East, or ever having been the victim of a violent hate crime myself—just from the knowledge that this is the world I live in—I came to believe that I am disgusting, that I am wrong, that I don’t matter. And drugs and alcohol killed the pain of that.
I’m not saying that I’m an alcoholic and drug addict because I’m queer. There are obviously plenty of straight people who suffer horribly with alcoholism. And for those of us who are both queer and alcoholic, who knows where alcohol use due to alcoholism and alcohol use to cope with internalized homophobia intersect or diverge. But it helped me in my recovery journey to see why I needed drugs and alcohol so much—not just as an alcoholic, but as a person in pain over living in a world in which I’m not fully accepted or equal.
Once I saw what my attachments were to anesthetizing myself and to protecting my
unmanageable alcoholic lifestyle at the cost of relationships, career, and well-being, I was able to have compassion for myself and to simultaneously heal the “queer wound.”
Pride in recovery
My experience as a queer person in recovery has been that the unexpected byproduct of waking up to the lie that I won’t be okay without drugs and alcohol, has been waking up to the lie that I’m not okay because I’m queer, however deeply that belief might have been buried.
Recovery taught me authenticity—true authenticity—not the fake authenticity I got from a high. When I showed up in the rooms of recovery, “rigorous honesty” was emphasized as key to achieving sobriety. That was bad news to me because I had learned that it wasn’t safe to speak my truth. But I wanted to change my life. As I practiced telling the truth—at first just about my alcoholism—I grew in my ability to be authentic. I realized that I had actually robbed myself of so many opportunities to feel love by not allowing people to see who I was and respond to the true me. I hadn’t given people the chance; I had decided for them. I love how often I’m wrong. I love how often I’m surprised by people, which is only possible when I risk vulnerability.
Dishonesty, fantasy, escapism—these were my coping mechanisms as a young queer person. In recovery, I found that my fellow alcoholics and drug addicts were using these defenses too, regardless of whether or not they were queer. The happy accident here has been that in seeking a solution for my addiction, I’ve experienced profound growth and self love as a queer person. The CDC states that the LGBTQ community shows greater rates of drug and alcohol use and abuse than the general population,* as if the challenges of being queer itself weren’t enough.
The bright side that I’m pitching here is that for those of us who make it to recovery, what it has to offer us in terms of alchemizing the pain of our queer experience may be far beyond what most of us walked through the doors for.
In other words: get sober, and as a bonus, get to love your queer self! ‘Cause (in the words of Gaga) you were born this way, baby!
* ‘Gay and Bisexual Men's Health: Substance Use’, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Brandon Herman is a Los Angeles-based artist and writer whose work has been published in Artforum, Dazed, Flaunt, V, and Vice.