Queer Sober Spaces Are Thriving. Now We Must Protect Them

Booze-free LGBTQ+ events are popping up over the UK – and this is why they're vitally important.
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Megan Key’s struggles with drugs and alcohol go back decades. As a teenager going to an all-boys grammar school in Birmingham, she was prescribed Prozac for her depression, which she would later start overdosing on, causing rashes to come up on her skin.

By her twenties, she was binge drinking heavily with Birmingham’s club scene, while also taking pills, speed and acid. On the inside, she was trying to cope. Key had body dysmorphia, after years of being bullied for her weight, and was also coming to the realisation the she is a transgender woman.

In 2008, after a summerlong of taking cocaine with friends during the Euros football tournament, she had a breakdown. “My psychiatrist said to me, if you don’t face up to being trans, you won’t see 40, and I knew it,” reflects Key. She quit drugs, but continued binge drinking until 2017, before giving up alcohol altogether in March last year.

Today, Key is a trustee at the London LGBTQ+ Community Centre, which is set to open its first bricks and mortar site on December 1 after crowdfunding more than £100,000. The six-month pop-up in Blackfriars will provide a sober space for the queer community, including a cafe and support services.

Studies have shown that LGBTQ+ people are at higher risk of alcohol and substance abuse than their heterosexual, cisgender peers. One UCL study in February this year found lesbian, gay and bisexual people are significantly more likely to report alcohol and drug misuse than straight people. A 2020 study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, which analysed the previous two years of the Global Drug Survey, concluded: “Trans respondents reported a greater need for help with reducing substance use than cis[gender] respondents.”

For Key, who is now in her forties, drink, drugs, smoking and food “were all ways of trying to cope with a lack of control about [her] gender identity”.

Megan Key, who's a trustee at the London LGBTQ+ Community Centre.
Megan Key
Megan Key, who's a trustee at the London LGBTQ+ Community Centre.

The pop-up is one of a growing number of spaces seeking to diversify those on offer to the queer community, too often limited to pubs and clubs where alcohol and drugs are in circulation.

In January, Maryann Wright set up Sappho Events which hosts sober events across the UK for queer women, trans and non-binary people, such as pottery workshops, boxing tutorials and book readings. “It came from a place of wishing there was more for people to do other than go out and drink,” says Wright. “We have to get better at providing a wider range of spaces that are accessible for people.” Then in August, an LGBTQ+ cafe and bookshop called The Common opened in Bethnal Green, east London.

In the capital, other organisations have provided LGBTQ+ sober spaces for years, like Elop in Walthamstow, which offers counselling and social support groups, and the Mosaic Trust, which runs a weekly youth club in Kilburn. In June, The Outside Project opened its own LGBTIQ+ community centre in Southwark, with weekly coffee mornings among its activities, having relocated from a site in Clerkenwell, first opened in 2019.

“We need spaces to come together and connect in healthy ways, where we can remember it the next day”

- Megan Key, trustee at the London LGBTQ+ Community Centre.

For Key, it’s “hugely important” that there are sober spaces for LGBTQ+ people. “We’re more likely to suffer with suicide and self-harm, we’re more likely to have substance misuse problems, we’re more likely to be ostracised from our family, we’re more likely to be discriminated against in the workplace,” she says. “We need spaces to come together and connect in healthy ways, where we can remember it the next day, where we can form long term relationships.”

Eleanor Higgins, an actor, writer and producer, went sober in 2016 and has used these spaces to help keep her on track.

She explains how “drugs and alcohol were normalised quite early on” during her experience of the queer scene. “I did notice that my heterosexual counterparts weren’t doing it to the same degree,” she adds.

Higgins says she used drinking as a “coping mechanism” in her twenties, including for the difficulties she experienced as a teenager figuring out her sexuality. “There was internalised shame, and I definitely think that that was a part of my getting out of it,” she explains.

Sobriety has not always been easy for Higgins, who briefly drank alcohol last year after a friend died. But, for her, it’s the only option. “Me and alcohol, I have like an allergic reaction,” she says. “It manifests in a way that I become like Jekyll and Hyde.” These days, she goes sober clubbing with friends to places like east London’s Dalston Superstore, and has been to LGBTQ+ yoga classes and activities by Sappho Events.

Eleanor Higgins
Eleanor Higgins
Eleanor Higgins

Outside London, more LGBTQ+ sober spaces are being set up, alongside veteran ones like Manchester’s LGBT+ Centre, opened in 1988. (The centre is temporarily closed while a new one is under construction, expected to open in March 2022.) In Birmingham, the Sol Cafe opened in June, hosting a queer book club and gender affirming make-up sessions. In Brighton, campaigners are preparing to open The Ledward Centre, billed as an LGBTQ+ community and cultural space. A group called Queers Without Beers has run monthly sober socials in London, Manchester and Bristol since 2018, with meet-ups planned in Derby and Hastings.

While more LGBTQ+ sober spaces appear to be opening, there are fears for their longevity, especially given the harsh climate for queer spaces generally.

In 2017, a UCL study found that the number of LGBTQ+ venues in London had fallen by 58% since 2006. The Covid-19 pandemic appears to have exacerbated matters. The charity Birmingham LGBT, for example, ran a sober cafe for years, but was forced to shut it due to the pandemic. It is now fundraising £3,000 to make this space Covid-19 safe, including openable windows to improve ventilation.

“For a lot of our clients, they still carry a lot of shame around who they are.”

- Toni Hogg, service manager at Antidote.

With queer people at an increased risk of substance misuse, LGBTQ+ specific support services are essential, including the LGBT Foundation in Manchester’s recovery team and Antidote in London. For Toni Hogg, service manager at Antidote, there is a clear link between the trauma experienced by LGBTQ+ people and addiction issues.

“We grow up listening to all the negativity in the media, at school, in the workplace and all the other places where people might make comments about LGBTQ people, which quite often can be negative, and we internalise that,” they say. “For a lot of our clients, they still carry a lot of shame around who they are. I think this impacts, obviously, a lot of drug and alcohol use, particularly around intimacy.”

Toni Hogg
Daniel D. Reimer
Toni Hogg

Among the support services offered by Antidote are drop-in sessions, a monthly social and a six-week programme for those – particularly gay and bisexual men – who are struggling with chemsex issues, where drugs like GHB are used during sex.

For Key, LGBTQ+ sober spaces were vital to her embracing herself as a trans woman. She recalls one trans-specific community centre called Gender Matters in Wolverhampton, which closed in 2015, where she received counselling. Inside, there was a common room, with big sofas, a pool table and a television. It took her two years to walk into that common room, she says, because she was “too ashamed of being trans to speak to anyone else about it”.

Finally, she did – and she found a sense of community. “When I got the courage to walk into that space, it was like I could exhale, because there were people like me and I felt like I wasn’t on my own anymore,” she says. “You’re never gonna do that unless you have sober safe spaces. So that’s why I think they’re important.”