I'm painfully early and alone. Cucci's Critter Barn at Kremwerk, 7 p.m., the invite said. I should have known drag queens wouldn't start until at least 8:30. The room is empty, but sultry crimson and lavender LEDs keep me company. The music is a presence, but I don't have to shout when ordering a tonic and lime at the bar. As if not to offend, I add "for now," and the bartender laughs. "I like that. You'll get to the liquor eventually," she says, and tells me no charge. For a moment I'm flustered and feel conspicuous. I find a seat in a corner and wait.
Sobriety came to me first as an exercise in financial restraint. I had been spending roughly $200 a month on alcohol—not an outlandish amount, but it adds up. There were other reasons to experiment with being dry, too, like physical and mental health, but when it came to telling friends, frugality seemed like the simplest rationale.
"It's a little like coming out," Fried, a lesbian friend, told me during my first week. Fried's been sober for a year now. "There can be a social stigma to it. People think that sober people are uptight, or broken in some way, or sick. And that's really unfortunate, because it's the healthy choice."
Although it's not unique to queer culture, the dominant role booze plays in our social networks has been making me wary. Nearly every night of the week, gay bars host dance parties, drag shows, fetish nights, TV/movie viewings, trivia, and karaoke. And even if the event isn't officially sponsored by a beer or vodka brand, you can be sure that plenty will be flowing. Even when connecting on your social app of choice, the natural next move—besides sex—is to grab a drink together.
Chris Stedman, author of Faitheist, quit drinking six years ago, when he realized he was unhappy with the decisions he had been making under the influence. "A lot of us struggle to really embrace our desires. We have a fraught relationship with them, and alcohol can be a disinhibitor." I called him because he's mentioned his sobriety on social media, and I've long admired the interfaith work he does as a queer atheist. "But if the only way to move past some of my shame and pursue my desires is by using alcohol, then I think that's a problem."
It can be a tricky call to make. While booze has spawned plenty of guilt and regret in my life, I can honestly say that it's also helped me access parts of myself that I might not have otherwise. Liquor played a key role in my ability to come out; two or three drinks in, I could let slip how hot I thought a male friend was, or I might try striking an unfamiliar femme pose.
Seth, trans masculine and sober for 18 years, remembers me in those days. Even at work, he saw right through my straight act, and so when we met up again years later to discuss my sobriety and his, I couldn't help but remember how much I relied on his encouragement back then just to come out.
"The hardest thing for sober people to do," he said, "is to reach out to someone." That was exactly why I wanted to get together, to use the lack of alcohol as an excuse to connect. I'd relied on alcohol as a social catalyst for years; it's nice not to need it.
Loneliness is a common denominator among the sober queers I've talked with. Chris described it as "standing on the edge of the experience" and feeling like "everyone else is participating in this thing that I'm not."
The easy solution might be to associate only with sober people, but that's not an especially appealing prospect. "That would just limit my life in a way that I don't want," Fried explained.
Over time, I learned it took less and less alcohol for me to sing karaoke or dance or strike up a conversation. I started to realize that without booze I could be more present, that I could face desire nakedly. Full sobriety, it struck me, could be an opportunity to engage socially without a chemical veil—something that seems anathema, if not downright subversive, during Pride.
And Kremwerk turns out to be a perfect place for a test run. My friend Eamon, who is sober, has sent me dozens of invites to see him perform, and now I'm finally here—early enough to have any seat in the house. The social insecurities prompted at the bar fade into the night. The show is impressive, hilarious—I can't tell if Eamon is more gorgeous in or out of drag. Conversation comes more easily than I'd expected, but it's still nice to have that glass of tonic in my hand, even if it's not actually rearranging my brain chemistry. It's only the next morning that I realize I forgot to tip all evening. The guilt tickles my conscience, but it's not nearly as vicious as on mornings after drinking, when my mind raced through blurred memories, praying desperately I didn't make an utter fool out of myself.
"Is it weird to do drag sober?" I asked Eamon later, over coffee. "I mean, you're always performing in bars, right?" We first met in a bar, Pony, on karaoke night.
"I'm finding ways to keep myself busy in party situations," he said. "So I can still be out and with people, and not a total recluse. And I got to a point, especially in drag, where it would be so hard to move around a busy bar, I got used to not drinking much."
"But I'm sure plenty of people want to buy you drinks."
"I'll tell them, 'Oh, I don't drink.' A lot of times I feel like I need to say something so they don't think I'm judging them. But I really like soda water and bitters. I'll have a Red Bull if I'm feeling crazy—or needing to feel crazy, I guess!"
The people I've reached out to agree it feels great not to need alcohol for a good time. Chris also mentioned how sobriety has made consent a much clearer factor in his sex life. We're all looking to connect better—with ourselves and the people around us—and alcohol, for me, can so easily impede connection: friends who don't remember your conversation later, lovers too wasted for sex, whole mornings squandered on recovery. I've been on all sides.
That said, I'm not holding myself to a time frame. "People will say, 'Oh, I'm gonna do it for a month,' and it's like the whole time they're thinking about the end of that month," Eamon pointed out. I've always considered sobriety an absence, or a penance, but I'm not thinking of it that way now. I'm thinking of it as a way to have a clearer head and more energy to fill longer days with more ambitious endeavors.
Queerness has a decorated history of fashioning alternatives to routine, breaking norms. I'm not saying sobriety is for everyone, but trying it out for myself has given me confidence, happiness, and much-needed perspective.