Writing by T. Elliot. Illustration by Berenika Murray.
TW: contains mentions of alcohol abuse.
If you are worried about your own or someone else’s drinking, you can call the Drinkline Helpline Scotland on 0800 7 314 314 for free, weekdays 9am-9pm and weekends 10am-4pm.
The first time I went to a gay bar was in Fresher’s Week. I don’t remember who I went with – in fact, I don’t know that we ever spoke to each other again after that night – but I do remember feeling ashamed of myself because I wasn’t having fun. My biggest ‘shameful’ secret however, was that I didn’t like alcohol.
The plan for my social life when I arrived at university consisted of drinking too much, clubbing, and going on dates with men. For 18 years, I had assumed I would enjoy drinking and that I would ultimately be attracted to men. These were things I simply never questioned about myself. I believed heterosexuality and alcohol consumption were necessary to bring happiness to my life. And for a long time I stumbled down these paths, convinced they would be the making of me. As it happens, I’m a lesbian who now abstains from drinking alcohol – who knew?
Heteronormativity relies on an outdated and arbitrary understanding of gender which finds its way into everything, including drinking. In this space, genders are bizarrely assigned to drinks; sweet drinks and cocktails are ‘feminine’ or ‘women’s drinks’, whilst drinking alcohol ‘straight’ (pun not intended) and drinks such as beer or cider, are associated with ‘masculinity’ or ‘manliness’.’ Those in the queer community wishing to escape from societal expectations of gender will not find respite in the heterosexual drinking scene. This means that designated LGBTQ+ spaces represent the only environment in which we are truly able to escape from the constraints of heteronormativity, celebrate our differences and feel completely ‘authentic’ and free. Yet alcohol is central to this socialising in the LGBTQ+ community, particularly within the commercial gay scene (gay bars, gay clubs, drag shows etc.); a drinking culture which is considered safe and liberating.
Looking back, there was always something in the way of exploring and embracing my queerness. In my first year of university I went on a few dates with men, most of which took place in bars and pubs and needless to say, I did not have an enjoyable time on those dates. Yet the alcohol I consumed prevented me from realising that I wasn’t interested in men at all – despite being fully aware of my attraction to women, I was adamant that I would ultimately be attracted to men too (compulsory heterosexuality, my old friend). I put bad dates down to maybe having had one too many, or maybe not being relaxed enough, not being focused enough, that the bar was too loud etc., and always drinking just enough to overlook that my interest in men was non-existent and blame the alcohol. I wonder now if this was deliberate, if I desperately, unconsciously refused my queerness because I didn’t know what it meant to be queer. Regardless, the clarity I thought alcohol gave me was never there.
For too long I gave in to the social pressure to drink from both within the queer community and university social life, because I honestly didn’t understand how to be queer and not drink alcohol, nor did I feel like I could ‘fit in’ and have a ‘proper’ student experience if I gave up alcohol. People who choose sobriety sometimes get a lot of flak, but we don’t believe we have some kind of moral high ground and we don’t necessarily think drinking is bad. What bothers me is that people think that my not drinking will ruin their evening, and that because I don’t drink, I apparently don’t know how to have fun. Not that any sober person owes you an explanation of their life choices, but I chose sobriety because I get to be my best, loudest and proudest lesbian self, and there many other reasons why people choose sobriety.
I respect that for many LGBTQ+ people drinking can be a positive and liberating experience, and that the commercial gay scene can provide wonderful safe spaces. That just wasn’t the case for me, and recognising that was instrumental in fully embracing my sexuality and myself. Whilst some people might believe I’m missing out on an integral part of queer life, sobriety has taught me that there are so many ways to be queer but more importantly, so many ways to be queer and happy.