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Being a Lesbian in AA

How do you manage terminal uniqueness when you are in fact unique? A minority AA member from Portland reports.

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A level playing field? Photo via

By Michaela Miller

05/16/13

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AA is a man’s program. It was designed to help alcoholic men fix their lives to go on to become better providers, fathers, husbands and sons. The main guiding voice, left to your own interpretation, is Him. He suggests the framework in which your quest for sanity and sobriety should look like.

It is up to the individual to decide for themselves what their program will look like. I spent a lot of time eradicating the visual of the Christian God’s face when I came across the words He, Him and God. I didn’t realize I knew "His" face by heart until I ran across those words in the Big Book. Every time, that bearded iconic image would appear in my head. Now I see it as a symbol for something I’ve created to be my own. I don’t have any image at all: I get to choose my Higher Power and I have chosen for it to be fluid. Not etched out in my memory or pinpointed, but ever changing and only wanting what’s best for me.

The fear of judgement, hate speech and infringing on people’s spiritual beliefs is all based on experience.

I’ve adhered to a male-dominated AA since I first came in over seven years ago. I am a minority within a minority within a minority: In recovery, woman, lesbian. Out of a sense of survival, I have sought out meetings based on where I feel most comfortable in lieu, sometimes, of where the most nurturing form of recovery might be. Nobody ever told me it was ok to question where the suggestions were coming from; they just told me to follow suit as the AA forefathers did, and to see it as a blessing.

In terms of life after recovery—fellowshipping, and the friendships I'm supposed to build to carry me through—I’ve never really identified with most people in recovery. I have tried all kinds of tricks and program-related suggestions to work this out. Young people in recovery are dominated by straight people, and I found overall I typically had nothing in common with younger members beyond our shared alcoholism. Most women’s meetings were predominantly straight and I felt like a token lesbian, never quite safe enough to share with rigorous honesty.

The fear of judgement, hate speech, and infringing on people’s spiritual beliefs is all based on experience. I’d love to leave everyone up to their own maturity to decipher my program from theirs, but nothing quite beats someone cross-talking about how being heterosexual is going to get them into heaven. These are real fears in my real life and inside of AA, two things I have learned to keep mostly separate. I had accepted it as my fatal terminal uniqueness, but I think it’s more than that. I think it is the overall tone in which our members are socialized in their own lives and how they take that into our safer space of AA.

AA is supposed to level the playing field. We’re all suffering alcoholics who are here to help.

A few years ago I showed up to a new-to-me GLBT meeting. I was hoping to find some women I could identify with, my own age, who were lesbian. When I got there I noticed there were only a bunch of men, mostly older, and I immediately thought I had misread the schedule. I was the only female in a group of 20 or so men. I felt embarrassed and wanted to run out the door as fast and discreetly as possible. I whispered to the man next to me, “Is this a men’s meeting?” He leaned over, and said, “Nope, you’re welcome to stay.”

I stayed for the meeting and returned a couple of times before I decided to make it my home group. My decision to stay was based on the insecure and helpless feeling I got when I entered the room and found only men. I wanted to be there in case any women showed up. There are a few more women now, though it’s hard to say whether or not I had anything to do with their arrival or staying.

Balancing principles before personalities can be challenging when your mental safety depends on whoever is in the room. Its not like we get to do a background check, and we all know we’re sick people. I have some really sweet gay friends in that group, but for the most part I feel trapped and forced to accept it.

There aren’t many other GLBT meetings in Portland to go to. I don’t really feel like the men in recovery see me as a human—a woman, with a life I am trying to save—but more just a body that fills the seat. They sometimes refer to me as “The Token,” which is funny—right? Until it isn’t. Until I don’t have a voice of my own and my home group can’t stop talking about penis size or ass at fellowship—a time I reserve for developing a deeper connection for my fellows.

I feel isolated. I feel watched, judged and out of place.

I have learned to accept what I have and make it work, but what is it about women my age (I'm 35) in recovery? Do they exist? Where are they? For over 20 years women haven’t equally filled the seats in my home group. When I asked what the old-timers thought the reason was (a topic they never consider until I bring it up) they said it maybe had "something to do with gay vs. lesbian history.” My home group is one of the only GLBT groups that isn’t segregated by gender, so I find it odd that it is still an issue. They have gently suggested that if I don’t like it here, there are plenty of other meetings I can check out and to "call your sponsor." Both of which are entitled and passive aggressive ways of dealing with the problem.

I question the principles before personalities sometimes in reflection of my own experiences. Is it a matter of acceptance? Is it something I am doing wrong? Does it really matter? I can say it’s a little of everything. It does matter. As a woman I am socialized to be passive, to acquiesce so as not to seem aggressive. But as a lesbian I have learned that safety is first in matter of heart and health—and to fight for it.

AA is weird territory, where you shouldn’t ask questions because your life depends on following the suggestions of your forefathers (and foremothers). Even though we go to AA to feel whole again, what it has really taught me is to keep myself split into loose compartments so I don’t overtly compromise my lifeline and usefulness by intersecting the fragilities and inequalities with real life experiences in an AA meeting. Plus, I haven’t really implemented my sobriety in a useful way into my real life yet because the uniqueness of my sobriety is a threat to some of my drinking friends.

Before you naysayers tell me to "call your sponsor," my bet is that you’re mostly men—straight, or non-minority.

When is the last time you thought, "Wow, I wish I had more straight people to identify with in recovery"? Being a minority is real everywhere you go. Sexism, institutionalized racism and misogyny exist in AA too. At what point am I allowed to talk about it there?

Michaela Miller is a pseudonym for a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

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