Arielle Clark, 28, grew up in a sober household in Louisville, Kentucky, and was never drawn to alcohol. But when as a teenager she began her process of coming out, alcohol suddenly became ubiquitous in her social life.
“When I was growing up and I was kind of figuring out my sexuality, all of a sudden I was inundated with alcohol,” Clark told NBC News.
Going to Kentuckiana Pride, her home state’s largest gay pride celebration, at 16 was Clark’s “LGBT puberty” moment, she said. While she witnessed the heavy presence of alcohol at the event, she felt accepted. Her next milestone, friends said at the time, would be turning 21 and being able to go to the gay bars.
Clark quickly realized that alcohol use — and, in many cases, dependence — were large parts of the LGBTQ social scene that she had been introduced to. She eventually decided gay bars were not for her, but she had a hard time finding a social alternative.
That’s when she got the business idea for Sis Got Tea, a tea shop that she hopes will provide a safe, alcohol-free social space for Louisville’s black queer community that is accessible to people with disabilities. While she continues to fundraise for the shop’s brick-and-mortar space, she has been hosting pop-up events around the city that aren’t centered on alcohol.
“It took until my mid- to late-20s to finally find a group of black, queer women where I could finally relax my shoulders, and I really want to provide that for the community,” Clark said.
Sis Got Tea, which Clark hopes will open later this year, will be among a new wave of queer, alcohol-free social spaces and traveling events that have popped up over the last few years and serve as alternatives to gay bars. While sober social spaces and events have become popular among younger Americans more broadly, they are particularly noteworthy within the LGBTQ community — where substance abuse is disproportionately high and gay bars have long served as unofficial community centers and safe havens.
Indiana resident Morgan Roddy has been making chocolate truffles and desserts for more than a decade. With the support and encouragement of her wife, Roddy opened the high-end chocolate shop Queer Chocolatier in Muncie, Indiana, in 2017.
She said she decided to make the name of her shop explicitly LGBTQ after the state’s governor, Mike Pence, was elected vice president. She feared his anti-gay track record would force some people to go deeper into the closet — so she wanted to come further out.
“I knew there would be a lot of people who would feel safer if they were quiet about their sexual orientation,” she explained. “I decided to take space and hold it for those who would be feeling vulnerable in these times.”
For Roddy, keeping Queer Chocolatier alcohol-free is a commitment to keeping the space accessible to patrons of all ages and those recovering from substance abuse. She also believes it will foster a better environment for political discourse and community activism.
“As a queer woman with a masters in sociology, ‘third spaces’ are places where ideas are shared and relationships are built,” Roddy said. “Without alcohol, there's less pressure to engage in sex-centered conversations or hookup culture as well. Allowing for people to thrive and flourish in third spaces without alcohol has the potential to bring about some truly radical changes.”
Across the country in Portland, Oregon, Ori Gallery in 2018 launched a creative and community-organizing space for trans and queer artists of color. The gallery was founded by Maya Vivas, a ceramic and performance artist, and Leila Haile, a tattoo artist and community activist.
Aside from offering a rotating gallery space, Ori Gallery also offers free or low-cost workshops and organizes meetups for LGBTQ artists of color.
Ori Gallery was not originally intended to be a sober space — people are still allowed to consume alcohol at private events — but since the gallery’s organizers prioritize youth in their programming, alcohol is not provided at the venue’s regular events. Maintaining alcohol-free environments is often a way of ensuring that queer spaces are accessible to young people under 21.
In Los Angeles, Cuties has become a popular destination for daytime socializing among the city’s LGBTQ community. Virginia Bauman, the venue’s queer owner, opened the café in 2017 after a successful IndieGogo fundraising campaign. Bauman said she wants Cuties to serve as a casual space that can reduce isolation and promote greater connectivity within the community.
“Having spaces that are accessible from an economic standpoint where people can just be for long periods of time … without having to justify their existence, or without having to justify why they’re there, is one of the biggest opportunities that I still see for queer communities,” she explained.
The absence of alcohol sales, which produce relatively high profit margins, can be a financial obstacle, according to Bauman. In order to compensate, Cuties started a fundraising campaign to bring in additional money to help keep the venue afloat.
‘We’re tapping into a need’
In a number of cities across the U.S. — and beyond — LGBTQ event organizers and online communities are bypassing the overhead of a physical space altogether and are focusing on intentionally alcohol-free social gatherings that are not dependent on a specific location.
Photographer and queer activist Cyrus Golestan is the co-founder of Trans in the Wild, a nonprofit that provides resources to New York’s LGBTQ community. Last month, he hosted his first alcohol-free party in an apartment building basement in Brooklyn. The idea was to “overcome winter gloom” with “sober fun,” according to the party’s promotional flyer.
“We used to have so much fun as kids without any type of substances,” Golestan, 29, said. “Why can’t we just get together and play?”
After posting the promotional flyer, Golestan said he received an influx of positive messages. Many of those who wrote to him expressing interest in the party told him they “do partake in alcohol sometimes” but were “excited that this is a healthier option,” he said.
Golestan said he does not identify as sober, but he recognizes how he has used alcohol in the past to cope, especially during his college years before coming out as trans.
“I was trying to be something that I wasn’t,” Golestan said. “Being closeted even from yourself is this really stressful thing that alcohol let me escape from.”
Golestan’s experience of using alcohol to cope with isolation is not unique. A study published last October in the journal Psychiatric Services found LGBTQ stressors, like discrimination and stigma due to one’s sexual orientation or gender identity, “contribute to the development of substance use disorders among some LGBTQ young adults” between 21 and 34.
Golestan’s first sober party attracted over 30 people, which he considered a success, so he is already in the planning stages for the next one on Feb. 22.
Last month, a new alcohol-free LGBTQ social meetup also debuted in Chicago. Aptly named the Chicago Queer Sober Social, the event was organized by Powerbabe, a sober queer community founded by two tech professionals, Phoebe Conybeare, 30, and Hollie Lambert, 28, who have both been sober and in recovery for two years.
The event, which is scheduled to take place monthly, is not part of a structured recovery program and is marketed simply as an alcohol-free social community. Conybeare said she and Lambert saw the need for a safe space for those who decided to abstain from alcohol for any number of reasons.
“Most sober spaces online and IRL catered to a cisgender, heterosexual and monogamous crowd or were program-based,” Chicago Queer Sober Social’s Facebook page says. “Most queer social events were focused on bars and parties where drugs and alcohol would be present.”
The group’s first event was held in a coffee shop and drew over 100 attendees. Given its success, the next Chicago Queer Sober Social, scheduled for Feb. 18, will be held in a larger venue.
“People were extremely grateful for the space — many were thanking us throughout the night and excited about attending future events and offering to help us organize,” Conybeare told NBC News. “We now have a small list of volunteers just from our first event. Response from the community has been incredibly supportive, and we're so glad we're tapping into a need.”
In North Texas, KT Kershen, 27, who has been sober and in recovery for four years, said she started an alcohol-free social group last year due to a “personal need for connection and a sense of community.”
“The experience of intense loneliness that comes at the intersection of being both queer and sober drove me to create a space for myself and for others like me,” she said, noting that as a queer atheist woman she felt like “an outside” in the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program.
Kershen said Queer Sober Society initially started as an online group for North Texan LGBTQ people in recovery, but she said it has since morphed into an in-person meetup that connects at least once a month. The group organizes mocktail parties, game nights, bowling outings and other alcohol-free events.
“It is my hope, and I am going back to school to get a bachelors in psychology to prepare for it, that Queer Sober Society will one day be a nonprofit organization that provides a safe space for folks like me,” Kershen said.
The United Kingdom is also seeing queer sober parties pop up. Misery, a queer sober collective focused on mental health and healing, launched in 2019 and hosts events in London and Berlin. Queers Without Beers, which started in 2018, started as an online community and then started organizing sober meetups in different U.K. cities, including monthly pop-up “bars” in London, Bristol and Manchester.
“Everyone is welcome,” Laura Willoughby, the founder of Queers Without Beers, said. “We have people who are going through traditional recovery, the local muslim LGBT group, students who have never really drunk as well as people looking to cut down or just socialize without the pressure of needing to drink all evening.”
‘The possibilities are endless’
Arielle Clark, who in November exceeded her $10,000 fundraising goal for a physical Sis Got Tea space in Louisville, said she’s encouraged by the queer, alcohol-free events she has heard about popping up across the U.S. and abroad.
While she looks for a permanent home for Sis Got Tea, aiming for a 2020 debut, she said she plans to continue hosting pop-up events to provide options for those who don’t want their social life centered on alcohol.
“As we move further into creating these sober spaces, I think we'll identify more needs within the LGBTQ+ community that intersect with sobriety,” Clark said. “The possibilities are endless.”