Queer and Sober

Here’s What To Say (and What Not To Do) When You Meet a Sober Queer Person

If humans were to go extinct today, and aliens of the future were forced to use only popular memes from the year 2022 A.D. to study American queer life, then they might understand American gay men as simple, alcoholic sex addicts who only traveled to three places a year: Fire Island, Provincetown, and Mykonos. That isn’t to say that those aliens, disinterested as they may be, might be shocked by us as a community. In fact, they might even hail from a planet that only has three vacation spots that support life.

What those aliens might not see, however, is that there was once a secret community of queers – sober queers – who were rarely represented in memes. They might not know that these mythological sober queers were only the stuff of whispered legends passed down from queer elders to warrior twinks in the smoky, shadowy back rooms of circuit parties of yore. They might not know that there were also once questions and comments which triggered these legendary beasts, sending them back, wounded, to their sad, lonely caves littered with the shards of their discarded mocktails.

And perhaps, if you’re reading this, you didn’t know that those questions and comments existed, either. So, without further ado, let’s go over those common, often well-meaning utterings that potentially trigger the sober queer people in your life – and those utterings that don’t.

Like, at all?

The dreaded “like, at all?” is usually preceded by the incredulous, disconcerted, “You don’t drink?” It’s triggering because it negates the sober person’s last statement, “I don’t drink,” and forces them to repeat themselves and thus waste valuable oxygen.

If a person says they don’t drink and doesn’t end that statement with implied ellipses or a qualifier like “before 11,” then they don’t drink. Like, at all.

You can’t even have one?

Peer pressure doesn’t work. OK, it may have worked on everyone who wore a Hollister shirt in 2001, but it doesn’t work on alcoholics. OK, so it may have worked on every alcoholic ever, but it doesn’t … OK, peer pressure is bad. When you’re asking someone if “they can’t even have one,” then you’re basically asking them, “You can’t even be normal for, like, five minutes?” This is exacerbated when you accompany the plea with a pungent shot or fluorescent cocktail held inches from the sober person’s face.

Are you OK talking about it? Is it OK if I ask why you don’t drink?

This is fine. Instead of putting the person on the spot, you’re giving them a chance to be as open or as coy as they want. And it’s totally fine and normal to be curious. This is your chance to find out if the person you’re talking to is sober for life or just for the night.

I can sympathize. I have to have a glass of wine after work every night. 

OK, but do you black out and sh*t your pants afterwards, Deborah? If you can have only one glass of wine without subsequently having fifteen glasses of wine and then a nervous breakdown followed by an unscheduled trip to Chuck E. Cheese, then you don’t have a problem. You have anxiety. Actually, you might not even have anxiety. You might just be alive. 

If someone is telling you that they have a drinking problem, then there’s no need to compete with them or even to meet them at their level. They probably don’t want you to. They probably just want to talk to you about Only Murders in the Building.

Peer pressure doesn’t work. OK, it may have worked on everyone who wore a Hollister shirt in 2001, but it doesn’t work on alcoholics.

But you drink coffee.

And? Does drinking too many coffees make you black out and slash the PTA President’s tires because she “didn’t pass the vibe check?” Does it make you back your car into a tree because you were scream-singing “You Oughta Know” and ripping up a picture of your ex while trying to reverse out of your therapist’s driveway at 9:30am? (Your therapist wasn’t home.) Does it make you burp and fart at the same time during the climactic note of your audition for The Music Man? Ok, well maybe drinking too many coffees could make you do the third thing. But having a coffee drinking problem is simply not the same as having an alcohol drinking problem. It’s not as spiritually, emotionally, or physically harmful, nor will it threaten your standing in the Harper Valley PTA.

Oh, so you smoke cigarettes, but drinking is bad?

See above. Also, did I openly and unreservedly judge you at some point and just, like, forget? Because if I did, then my bad. Go ahead and tell me which of my life choices are good. But if I didn’t – and I’m pretty sure I didn’t – then shut up, please. You’re not my doctor. And even if you are my doctor, then still shut up, please. Everyone knows smoking is bad. Just fill my Truvada prescription and look at this weird thing on my leg.

Are you sure you should be going home with him?

I’m sorry? He has had two drinks. He is buzzed at best. If I were to only date men who drink less than two drinks every Friday night, I would be dating my hand.

Why don’t you reserve your judgment for people like, I don’t know, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh?

Is it OK if I drink around you?

This is empathetic. This is courteous. This potentially opens the door to a longer, more illuminating question about the person’s sobriety. Good job.

Why don’t you reserve your judgment for people like, I don’t know, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh?

You know, I was telling Fabio, it actually isn’t that weird hanging out with you. I was thinking you might bring us down or make things awkward if you hung out with us, but you’re actually really fun.

This is a backhanded compliment. And fuck Fabio.

Did you ever have, like, a really low moment? Like, when you hit rock bottom?

Why would you ask this? It is 11 A.M. We are at brunch. I just want to slam back pancakes and talk shit about Fabio.

Oh, that doesn’t actually sound so bad.

So, on the off chance that I just told you about my rock bottom—which was truthfully one of many—then you should probably keep your thoughts about what constitutes a “bad” rock bottom to yourself. Like, I’m sorry that I didn’t go full Girl on the Train and try to solve a murder? 

If someone has decided to quit drinking, it was probably for a good reason. They realized, at some point, that death was knocking at their door — and that their only way out was to burn their whole house down. So, if you’re not an addiction counselor or literal judge, then stop judging. The best thing to presume when someone says they quit drinking is to simply assume that they’re a lot happier because of it. Be glad that they’re here in front of you, smiling and thriving, instead of getting Eiffel Towered behind a Chuck E. Cheese. 

Is it difficult being sober in the queer community, when drinking and drug use are spotlighted, and even exalted, in our culture? 

Wow, this is a good question. Also, yes.

Is it difficult to date in the queer community when there are so many people who maybe don’t understand your addiction?

This is also a good question. Also, yes.

Doesn’t that make you feel a little lonely?

Yes.

I don’t know what to say.

Good. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to just … listen.♦


Evan Lambert (he/they) is a career journalist, essayist and short fiction writer who has written for Out, Queerty, Mic, and the Santa Fe Writer’s Project. If you liked today’s piece, then give him a shout on Insta at @icantevannnn or check out his other work at www.evanlambert.contently.com.

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