A Safe Place To Be Gay and Get Straight

By Jason Parsley 09/09/14

The first LGBT treatment center paved the way for other programs to embrace more sensitive and aware treatment practices. PRIDE is still going strong 28 years later.


The PRIDE Institute, America's first recovery center devoted to the LGBT community, opened its doors at the very height of the AIDS epidemic. It was 1986 and gay men were dying left and right. Many of them were turning to drugs and alcohol to take away the realities they faced everyday, not only from a plague that was sweeping through their ranks, but from other common problems seen in the community such as discrimination and homophobia. 

“Back then we dealt with a lot of homophobia — internal and external,” said co-founder Ellen Ratner of PRIDE Institute in Minnesota. “I think what made a difference is that we dealt with internalized homophobia.” 

That year the PRIDE Institute made history, becoming the first of its kind in the world, a substance abuse treatment center exclusively for gays and lesbians. Today having an LGBT-only treatment center isn’t a novel idea. There are many others, one is even nearby in St. Paul. And many treatment centers are, or at least claim to be, gay friendly.   

But 28 years later PRIDE is still going strong despite the advances of gay rights and mainstream acceptance of the LGBT community. 

“We only take LGBT people clients. That is so unique in itself,” said Molly Gilbert, Director of Business Development at PRIDE. “There are a lot of places that are LGBT friendly, or have an LGBT wing. But here is a place where LGBT people will receive trauma informed care and find a staff that is experienced in dealing with the LGBT community. This is a place where people can say ‘I’m finally in the majority for the first time in my life, and I don’t have to explain myself.’” 

Ratner is especially proud of the work she did at PRIDE in those first few years. She believes the facility really made a difference in a lot of people’s lives. 

“We did outpatient surveys and found that we had a higher success rate than other places,” Ratner said. “Our patients did better.” 

It’s been decades since Ratner has had any involvement with PRIDE though. She left the corporation in 1990 and is now working as a journalist. 

She attributes the early success of PRIDE to the fact that they dealt with all of the major issues gays and lesbians faced, such as the internal and external homophobia mentioned above. 

“The ways gays and lesbians met back then were known as the three Bs — bars, baths and bushes,” Ratner said, explaining that gays and lesbians faced a lot of difficulties just being themselves. “We speculated at the time that there was a [direct correlation] between being out to your family and sobriety.”

So family became a core component of their program. 

“We also had a family program that sometimes included their partners or straight families. They would really learn to give support to their family member. Who would have thought a gay person's lover or family would come?” she said. “That was just radical back then.”

But Ratner wanted to not only help her patients become comfortable with their own sexuality — she wanted them to feel comfortable in the “straight” world as well. 

“We used to take patients to straight and gay AA meetings so they could be comfortable at both,” she said.  

Ratner, who was openly gay back then, had been a gay rights activist for years. 

“I was out on the streets marching around since the 1970s as an activist,” she said. 

At the time, the 35-year-old Ratner was recruited by the now defunct Addiction Recovery Corporation for the PRIDE Institute. They asked her to put together a manual for the family program, and then to do research and service training. In order to fulfill that responsibility, she put together a team of professionals in the substance abuse field from all over the nation. 

“I had already been working in the gay and lesbian community in addictions,” she said.

The president of ARC at the time, Lawrence E. Bienemann, told the Boston Globe in a 1987 article “any inpatient drug and alcohol treatment center has a difficult time meeting all patients' needs. In the chemical dependence field, there is general insensitivity to issues specific to the lesbian and gay population. At ARC, it's only recently that we have begun to train staff to guard against homophobia."

Bienemann told the Globe that he wanted to address the statistics that were showing one-third of gays and lesbians were chemically dependent. 

"That's three times the national average," Bienemann said in 1987. "Given those statistics, there's a real need for a separate treatment center."

And apparently 28 years later those figures still remain about the same. According to PRIDE’s brochure, up to 33% of the lesbian and gay community have trouble controlling their alcohol and drug use; LGBT people are two to four times more likely to experience depression and anxiety than heterosexuals; and many LGBT individuals remain closeted in mainstream healthcare settings.

Studies though are scarce in the area of LGBT substance abuse. But according to one report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) 20 to 30% of the LGBT community abuses substances, while only 9% of the general population does so. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention also states that LGBT individuals are more likely to use alcohol and drugs; have higher rates of substance abuse; are less likely to abstain from alcohol and drug use; and are more likely to continue heavy drinking into later life.

PRIDE’s main program is a residential treatment program that includes health education; LGBT issues in recovery; HIV and chronic illness trauma; grief and loss; relapse prevention; spirituality; coping skills, physical health and exercise; expressive arts therapies; tobacco recovery education and a sexual health program.

Besides the residential treatment program, they also offer a partial hospitalization program with lodging and intensive outpatient services with many LGBT exclusive and/or friendly halfway house options in the city. 

According to PRIDE’s official brochure the treatment center “specialize[s] in the treatment of substance abuse, sexual health, mental health issues, and their manifestations within LGBT clients. Our treatment program is preferable to ‘one-size-fits-all’ mainstream programs that do not understand or address issues specific to LGBT individuals. At PRIDE Institute, members of the LGBT community are affirmed and celebrated.”

Their clientele is mostly male, but otherwise very diverse. 

“We have a wide gamut of ages here, and a wide gamut of socioeconomic status, career people etc.,” Gilbert said. "We recently admitted an 86-year-old.” 

PRIDE is a 12-step influenced abstinence-based program. Standard residential treatment is 28 days. It’s a 42-bed facility located outside of Minneapolis in the small edge city of Eden Prairie. Cost for the 28-day program is up to $22,000, up from $11,000 in 1986. Since 1986 more than 16,000 clients have gone through their program. 

One such client is Matthew Zajic, 28, who recently graduated from PRIDE in August. This is Matthew's fourth time going to PRIDE for treatment. He insists this time is different and he wants to stay sober and his newfound attitude has made all of the difference. 

“The other three times I just wanted the certificate,” Zajic said. But even that was a challenge; the first time he voluntarily quit after a week, and the second time he was kicked out. “This time I was working with a sponsor. I had an amazing counselor. I had a therapist. I built a sober community inside and outside of PRIDE. I was willing to listen. I was open.”  

Even though his first three times weren’t so successful he still says PRIDE is the treatment center of choice if you’re gay. 

“I think PRIDE is an amazing treatment center,” he said. “But I think if you’re going to treatment because you want an easy solution, you’ve already completely fucked yourself over because it won’t work.” 

However, Zajic admits his experience at PRIDE wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows. 

“There are a lot of bad things about PRIDE, but there are a lot of bad things about every treatment center you could go to,” he said. “For me I needed someone that’s really going to dig deep and figure out why I’m unhappy. It’s an addiction and I need a solution. This place showed me that.”  

The PRIDE Institute today is especially proud of their sexual health and awareness program that Todd Connaughty, director of clinical services, helped implement five years ago. It specifically focuses on gay men with crystal meth addiction and sexual compulsion issues. 

Crystal meth is the drug of choice these days for many of the clients that go through PRIDE. And that addiction is often tied to sexual compulsion. 

“It’s our number one used drug,” Connaughty said. “Sex and meth though are intertwined. It’s hard to separate the two issues. Straight treatment programs haven’t been able to address both issues. We think it’s important to address both at the same time.”

In the early years of PRIDE, alcohol was the most prevalent drug of choice followed by cocaine, Ratner said. 

Over the years the treatment center has changed hands several times. Today it’s owned by Universal Health Services, a company that owns hospitals and behavioral care centers around the country. They also own other PRIDE Institutes, but those facilities, Gilbert said, only share the same name and owner, but are in no other way connected to PRIDE in Minnesota. 

Even though Ellen Ratner hasn’t been involved with PRIDE for decades, she still recalls fondly her days leading the treatment center. She even notes that their phone number, 1-800-54PRIDE1 or 1-800-54PRIDE, is still the same. 

Looking back at those years she does have a couple of regrets. 

“I wish we had done more research. And published that paper that was done and ready to go. The world should have known what we learned there. One of the things we found was that if you drank two or more drinks you would not have safer sex. Back then that was a life and death issue. There was no cocktail, when you got AIDS you were dead.”

Jason Parsley lives in Boynton Beach, Florida and is the Associate Publisher of the South Florida Gay News. He last interviewed the acting US Drug Czar.

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Jason Parsley lives in Boynton Beach, Florida and is the Associate Publisher of the South Florida Gay News. Find Jason on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.