The Transgender Community Seeks a Safe Space in Recovery

By Christine Rodriguez 06/02/13

The saying goes, "The men with the men, the women with the women." But The Fix learns that those who don't identify with either still face many problems in the rooms.

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Twelve-step programs can be a hard pill for some to swallow. Anyone can go, so there is room for a host of bad experiences. Being transgender and in the rooms adds an additional layer of difficulty to the program. While being gay, lesbian and bisexual is now much more accepted in society, the transgender community is still underrepresented and much misunderstood.

Eric got sober at 23, and a little over a year later he transitioned from female to male. He lives in a conservative city in California which has a very small transgender community. After Eric came out, he found most of his 12-step buddies supportive, but it did put a strain on some of his relationships. Not long after his transition to male began, his sober guy friends encouraged him to attend a men's meeting that needed more support.

The unfortunate reality for transgender people is that there is still not enough cultural competency surrounding their needs, even within the agencies that offer services for transgender people.

Not long into his attendance there, he was asked to lead the meeting, which he did for about three weeks. He tried to lay to rest his fear of making other men uncomfortable because he is FTM (female to male). Slowly but surely he began to feel a part of the group—that is, until he found that his presence there had come up as a topic during one of the business meetings. "One of the guys said, 'If we're gonna let her in this meeting then we might as well let all the other dykes in too, and I just don't feel comfortable.'"

While Eric knew that not all of the men in the group felt this way, his worst fear had become a reality. And because he was still early into his transition, he didn't feel like putting up a fight, so he made the decision to stop attending that meeting.  

Some might believe an interim solution to such difficulties would be for transgender-identified individuals to attend LGBT meetings. But unfortunately transgender people are often as alienated by the gay community as they are by the heterosexual community. The "T" in the LGBT community has for decades been left unexplained and forgotten.

This is in part due to the fact that the transgender and genderqueer community fundamentally challenge what is historically believed about gender—the idea that your gender should match the sex you were assigned at birth. Those who grew up in the 1950s and '60s have an even more challenging hurdle to jump, considering that the culture they were raised in was fixated upon the differences between the "two" sexes.

Keisha, a 59-year-old, African American transgender woman, hit home this point when she spoke with me about coming to terms with her gender identity. In 1978, Keisha was 19 years old and there was no information available about transgender people, "not even in the library," she recalls. Because of the intense cultural stigma, the only way Keisha felt safe to explore her gender was to lock herself in a hotel room with drugs and try women's clothing on in secret.

As a society we have come a long way in acceptance toward the transgender community; there are even transgender characters popping up on television shows geared toward youth, like Glee's character Unique. But despite all of these promising steps, there's still a long way to go.

Which is why the need for 12-step meetings geared toward transgender people is one that can no longer be ignored. More and more people are "coming out" under the transgender umbrella as genderqueer, gender non-conforming and transgender. And with the amount of trauma and family conflict they face, often with almost no help or guidance, these people would greatly benefit from a safe place in the rooms of recovery.

The unfortunate reality for transgender people is that there still isn't enough cultural competency surrounding their needs—even within the agencies that offer services for transgender people. And how could there be, when the DSM has categorized transgender people as having "gender identity disorder?" This diagnosis was recently changed in the manual's new addition but the damage has already been done; years of being marginalized by healthcare professions have taken their toll on the.

Heather Garber, a social worker at a New York City non-profit who provides therapy for LGBT youth, tells The Fix, "The fear of walking through the door of a social service agency where the provider might not be empathetic to—or aware of the needs of—transgender individuals is often so great that some never seek help for their addictions." Change within agencies, especially those funded through government, is slow. Twelve-step groups have a unique opportunity to pick up the slack.

Despite the barriers transgender people face to getting sober, both in and out of the rooms, more and more transgender people are making their way to the rooms of recovery. Most of the people The Fix spoke to shared a similar story that led them to the rooms, in which drugs and alcohol helped them express their authentic self and experience their gender—or gender expression—while simultaneously escaping it. 

Another common thread was not being conscious of their gender in their first year or two sober. Jay, a female born, genderqueer identified Brooklynite found support in young people's meetings and LGBT meetings, both with a large sampling of folks who fall all across the gender and sexual identity spectrum.

"Once I started feeling comfortable with my surroundings, that's when I became more comfortable to allow what was inside of me to come out and shine a little more or overtake anything that was fearful," Jay said. "It was a slow evolution, kind of like I was in a cocoon, and instead of busting out of the cocoon it was more like peeling the layers off throughout the years. I'm still evolving to this day. I feel genderqueer, but I feel more towards the masculine side then the feminine side." The same point was repeated by several other members of the community—that without getting clean and sober they would have never been able to transition or express their gender identity. The gratitude for the clarity that sobriety gave them was palpable.

Sara, a 20-something biologically female, genderqueer identified, native New Yorker, initially had difficulties with 12-step programs' gender-specific suggestions. "The women with the women and the men with the men" was particularly confusing. Sara found that finding her way to meetings that felt safe was the key. Reflecting on her path in recovery, she explained that recovery helped to soften her ideas of gender and sexuality.

Finding a higher power was key to her learning to accept herself and not being so affected by how people view her. "People's responses to me have nothing to do with me. AA has taught me discipline and connected me to my spiritual life," she said. "My sexuality is connected to my human life, and my spiritual life connects me to my higher power, which gives me the feeling that it's all gonna be OK. I have access to that spiritual life and no one can take that access from me." She added that the perspective that has been most helpful to her is the saying, "We are spiritual beings having a human experience."

There are no easy solutions for transgender people in recovery. While transgender meetings might be of great benefit to those in larger cities, such a specific focus is less feasible in smaller communities.

But there are many things people in recovery can do to make those who identify as transgender feel more welcome. You can consider reworking gender specific suggestions—such as "the women with the women and the men with the men." You can add notations to listed men and women's meetings to let transgender people know whether or not they are welcome. You can become a trans-ally and educate yourself on what it means to be transgender and genderqueer; fortunately there are a number of sites to help with this.

That way, when a transguy like Eric walks into a men's meeting, he is welcomed with open arms. You can spot those who are uncomfortable with it, pull them aside, and educate them. You can remind them, "The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking." Change comes slowly, but we are responsible for moving it along—even when we are the first ones heading down the road.

Christine Rodriguez is a writer, blogger and independent training consultant in New York City.

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Christine Rodriguez is a writer, blogger and independent training consultant in New York City. You can find Christine on Linkedin.