Sober Queer Spaces: inclusivity, resistance & joy
Image: Author's own, at The Standard Beer in Cincinnati, Ohio, which had (at time of visiting in 2021) had a non & low alcohol craft beer and seltzers.
My local drag bar is the queerest, safest space I know. Every weekend at Play in the Butchertown neighbourhood of Louisville, Kentucky, performers dressed in lavish costumes bend the rules of gender in front of an overly enthusiastic audience. Queers of all shapes and stripes stumble to the stage to tip the queens and the occasional king. Most of the men linger when the gogo boy leans down to give them a cheek kiss. Drunken bridesmaids shriek with delight at the spectacle before them. And every night, the emcee invites you to cheer for the behind-the-scenes staff who create the atmosphere: “Give it up for your beautiful bar staff! Who the hell is drinking tonight?!”
As drag gets more and more visible, some queer people feel alienated by its increasingly younger and straighter fanbase. But never fear, the city caters to them as well: there are hole-in-the-wall bars (Big Bar), bars with patios and trivia on warm nights (Chill Bar), and various underground bars and show venues where punk queers can cling to the last vestiges of counterculture as they cling to a bottle of gin. And if you consider yourself past the prime age for nightlife, there’s always drag brunch at Le Moo – with bottomless mimosas, or whiskeyed coffee if you’re feeling butch.
In cities across the US and other Western countries, queer spaces are becoming increasingly easier to find if you’re willing to purchase a drink or three. But spaces for community members who can’t or won’t consume alcohol are more difficult to come by. But how did alcohol become synonymous with queer spaces, and what does it look like to separate the two? Can we build queer party spaces, without the booze? And how do sober spaces cultivate connectivity, joy, and community?
In most societies ruled by Abrahamic religions, homosexuality has long been a contentious topic. Author Garry Wotherspoon sums it up in his book Gay Sydney: “Much of [Australia’s] law, particularly that part which relates to ‘morality,’ is a direct derivative of past church law relating to ‘sin.’” Where religion has been codified into law, you will undoubtedly find restrictions on human sexuality. Far from stamping out behaviours considered “immoral,” these laws have the effect of pushing these behaviours out of the public eye. Secret brothels, alleys, and untamed wilderness became places for queers to meet covertly.
The advent of Prohibition in the United States pushed the consumption of alcohol underground as well. Speakeasies with bolted doors and secret passwords became the norm if one wanted to drink alcohol outside of the home. This was familiar territory for queer people, who had decades of practice with concealing their public meetings. After the lifting of Prohibition and the end of World War II, bars came back into vogue. But the cultural associations between alcohol and criminal activity never quite vanished, so many bars were owned by organised crime gangs. The mafia and queer people had similar goals: conduct less-than-legal activities outside of the public eye. Thus an uneasy alliance was formed on the basis of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Money laundering bars turned a blind eye to the sexual preferences of their clientele, and queer people gathered in the relative safety of a business whose mission was to avoid the scrutiny of the cops.
In the 1950’s, cities such as San Francisco, Boston, London, and Berlin became hotbeds of queer activity, drawing “sexual deviants” from surrounding areas. As queer people congregated and looked for members of their own community, bars became increasingly important ways to access knowledge, resources, and form relationships. Younger queers learned patterns of behavior from their elders in a relatively safe environment away from the eyes of the law and prying neighbors.
As queer people found more and more power in these places, police sought to take that power away. Raids on gay bars became more common in the western world, culminating in the infamous Stonewall Riots in New York City during the summer of 1969. A police raid on the mafia-run Stonewall Inn pushed gay rights activists, including Marsha P. Johnson and the Gay Liberation Front, to take to the streets demanding equal treatment under the law. This incident has been enshrined in the canon of gay history and has cemented the concept of the gay bar as the center of gay culture in the west. In his book Gay Bar: Why We Went Out Jeremy Atherton Lin writes: “Enough time has passed that gay bars, once a scourge, have become monumental in their own way.” Bars are the first place where many queer people can unabashedly be themselves, as a form of resistance to heteronormative society. To question the place of the gay bar in queer culture can be seen as questioning the rights of queers to exist in public spaces.
In areas where queerness is forbidden and alcohol restricted, queer individuals face extra barriers to forming communities. In Lebanon, a nation that is noted for its lax attitude towards alcohol compared to its neighbors, queer communities lacked the partnerships with organized crime that made gay bars possible in the the US. Instead, queer people – mostly gay men – turned to coffee shops.
If the goal of ‘going out’ is to see and be seen, as Atherton Lin says in Gay Bar, then a Dunkin’ Donuts is as good a place as any. Since the early 00’s, the American coffee chain has become a place for Beirut’s young queer men to gather and surreptitiously check one another out. But not without dangers; it is common practice for managers to evict men who exhibit “conspicuous behaviour,” which anthropologist Sofian Merabet says is code for behaving too effeminately. Outdoor cafés with views of the main streets of downtown provide the same venue for older men with larger wallets. Like-minded men can discover potential friends or lovers and pursue the relationship somewhere more private. All of this is accomplished without the social consumption of alcohol.
When compared to the gay bars in the US, UK, or Europe, this method of community building is considerably more fractured. It relies on covert gestures and coded language to avoid eviction and prosecution. The result is what led Merabet to write in 2004 “one might contend there is no such thing as a ‘gay community’ in Lebanon at all, providing, of course, one defines a community as a coherent and encompassing group of people sharing similar, even if competing, positions and aspirations and where the sexual preference becomes a cardinal point of identity construction.” Without spaces to gather publicly without fear, Beirut’s community of queers lacked the centrality of their western counterparts.
Activists in Lebanon have since begun opening their own safe spaces, such as Helem, which means “dream” in Arabic. Since 2001, Helem has served as a physical space for queer Lebanese to gather, while also providing much-needed services such as legal representation, community workshops, and short-term emergency housing. While Helem and other NGOs are vital for the survival of a community under persecution, their more formal atmosphere creates an unequal substitute for the casual connections that can be made at a bar or café.
Safe Sober Spaces
Image: author's own of alcohol-free negroni and mule, with (alcohol) Prosecco at The Alcove, in Cincinnati. The Alcove is a side project of MadTress Brewing, which released the first non-alcoholic craft bee in Cincinnati this year
Around the world, there are millions of queer people who cannot or will not drink alcohol for religious, health, economic, or other personal reasons. Spaces such as bars can be difficult to navigate when pressures to drink come from both other patrons and one's own sense of nerves. Bars are off-limits to underage queer youth in some countries, while in others they are hard to come by due to restrictions on the production and sale of alcohol. So for the many individuals left out, what do safe and casual queer spaces look like?
In 2017, researchers Swati Vijaya and Debanuj Dasgupta studied the emergence of queer cafés in India. While many queer spaces are virtual in the increasingly online country, large cities often contain small hole-in-the-wall cafés that are meant to be safe spaces for queer individuals. Though these ventures face difficulties with authorities, real estate politics, and cross-caste acceptance, they fufil the need for queer people to meet and form community. As opposed to bars, these are daytime spaces that foster conversation, debate, and art creation. They often host poetry readings and encourage the sharing of oral histories.
As Lebanon and India have shown, cafés already act as sober replacements for bars. If the concept of queer coffee and teahouses spread to more countries, cities, and neighborhoods that are accepting of queer people, it could revolutionalise the way communities form without needing alcohol or underworld connections as a lubricant. “When I was coming into my queer identity, I was surrounded by alcohol,” says Arielle Clark, owner of Sis Got Tea, a Kentucky-based tea company. “I’d go to events, and at first I’d be like ‘Oh, I’m not going to drink.’ Folks would either respond with ‘Oh are you in recovery?’ or ‘No, you want a drink, I’ll get you something!’ So there’s a lot of pressure… it’s either I drink, or I must have had a drinking problem.”
Since she first had the idea for Sis Got Tea in 2010, Clark has noticed a change. “Being sober and LGBTQ can definitely coexist, it’s just that not a lot of folks were out about it because LGBTQ life is so entrenched in alcohol and drug use. Luckily, there’s been that turning point [in the culture] of being sober and turning away from those types of things, particularly with mental health becoming more a part of the conversation.”
When sober safe spaces are planned carefully, they can also be used to create community among individuals that are often left out of queer conversation. “I looked back on my experiences as a Black, LGBTQ woman, and started thinking about all the things that I wished I had growing up,” Clark says. “White, gay, CIS, able-bodied men tend to be at the forefront of the LGBTQ movement, and spaces are built around them.” Clark’s goal for her company is to create a physical space in the form of a teahouse that is intersectional in every way. “I would like to see a lot more accessibility and a lot more accountability. Not just in terms of race, but in terms of ability level and more fat-friendly spaces.”
While bars and cafés operate at different hours and attract people with different interests, they serve the same purpose: to create community. When provided with access to sober spaces, queer communities become more intersectional and accepting of all members of the community. These spaces are inherently friendly to all religions and health conditions, as they remove the social pressures of consuming alcohol. They also benefit from the lack of a dress code, which can be used by some alcohol-serving queer spaces to discriminate against races or gender presentation.
Sober spaces are open to all ages of the queer spectrum, allowing younger members to interact with their elders without the dangers that alcohol can bring. The threat of dating violence decreases in the absence of alcohol, helping queer individuals feel safer meeting someone without worrying about spiked drinks or overindulgence. And these spaces don’t have to come at the expense of the classic, revered gay bar. If queer joy and free expression are acts of resistance that gay bars protect, sober spaces certainly don’t infringe upon that. Rather, they open the door for all queer people to engage in those acts regardless of their personal relationship with alcohol. It’s providing alternatives for those that could benefit from them.
Ultimately, it’s about creating the choice and the opportunity to take your tea steamed instead of Long Island Iced.
Zac Jones-Gómez is a freelance food, culture, and travel writer based in Louisville, Kentucky, USA. He has been sober for 2 years and counting, and owns the food and lifestyle blog “The Kitchen Gent.” In his spare time, he adds too many books to an ever-expanding “want to read” list. (@thekitchengent)
Gay Sydney, by Garry Wotherspoon
Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin
Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights by Ann Bausum
‘Eat Cake And Read Lesbian Poetry’: Visiting Queer Cafés In Urban India, YKA, by Swati Vijaya And Debanuj Dasgupta
‘Disvaowed Homosexualities in Beirut,’ MERIP, by Sofian Merabet
‘Raising the Bar: A Brief History of Gay Bars.’ worldqueerstory.org