I first started going to strip clubs when I was about nineteen years old, ushered in by my close high school friends who had begun working there as dancers. This was my induction into an awareness of club life, the sex trade, and other cultural touchstones that have long been at the core of the experiences of my queer elders, family and friends. But one of the most impactful new elements this transition introduced into my life was alcohol.
As a new initiate at the clubs, I watched the ways in which alcohol became a tool for creating atmosphere, generating revenue, and relaxing clients. I also saw it used as a form of medication, a more affordable and readily available means for workers to manage their lives, survive their schedules, and cope with the structural difficulties that for many had led them to the sex industry in the first place.
I had never had the same access to alcohol as I suddenly did, nor found its consumption so tied to interacting with and making connections to other oppressed people. Though I come from a family that has struggled with addiction for generations, observing its role in largely queer, Brown, poor spaces taught me new insights into its unequal consequences in the lives of different kinds of people. This shift in my understanding, brought on by observing queer club life, helped me come to view the role of addiction in my own family through new lenses.
During my childhood, when my Black, working class uncle spent all of his money on a drug addiction, it destroyed his marriage, lost him his kids, and severed many of his ties to the family. This I was painfully aware of as a young person. It wasn’t until I was much older I came to understand that my white, middle class grandfather had been struggling with alcoholism my entire life. It wasn’t merely different cultural practices around disclosing addiction, nor the unequal social and legal penalties tied to different substances, but also my grandfather’s access to healthcare, financial stability, and the privileged perception of his professional status that made his addiction much more manageable, and my awareness of it almost nil.
All of these revelations have reemerged for me recently, being a part of a new scene, a new city, and confronting them yet again in my newest community. Clubbing and alcohol are central to my social circle, meaning I spend a great deal of time around drinking, being bought drinks I don’t want, watching how relationships change under alcohol’s influence, and explaining to people why I choose not to drink.
Talking about alcohol in queer communities, particularly in relation to our social lives, is a daunting challenge. It’s hard to speak critically about something so undeniably integral not only to our modern culture, but our collective history. Clubs and bars have for decades been some of the only safe, welcoming and community-controlled spaces for us to gather and socialize. They are places where our movements have organized, our lives have been affirmed and our history has occurred.
Moreover, that history has taught us that the regulating and policing of our bodies is a red flag, a reoccurring tool of the state, the nuclear family and other oppressive social orders, in quelling our resistance. This is important to acknowledge. It’s also important to acknowledge the multiple uses of alcohol, and the host of reasons that many–like my friends who work as strippers–might claim its consumption as self-care, part of their survival tactics. Yet, while celebrating our history in clubs and bars, I also think it is worth discussing how the need for such spaces may have changed, be changing, and how our reliance on alcohol–one encouraged out of historic social practice, but also out of racism, classism, local geography, and aggressive marketing–has a wide range of impacts on our communities, and does not affect us all in the same ways.
In our era of corporate pride, where capital and consumerism are more heavily tied to queer identities than ever before, alcohol and club culture are heavily marketed to our communities. The companies that target us as consumers are often lauded for doing so. Yet by branding these elements as something inherently queer, something innate to our spaces, the invasive corporate world makes the same tacit assumptions that we have been battling for decades: That queerness is uniform in class, race, geography and gender.
Defining queerness around a culture of consumption assumes that all of us can consume at the same personal cost. Friends of mine go out to clubs and bars and can spend a week’s salary on drinks and entrance fees, making a much greater personal sacrifice to participate in queerness than some of their wealthier counterparts. For those of us without healthcare, or struggling with undiagnosed physical, mental or emotional traumas, the potential to become addicted to alcohol is much higher, and our ability to overcome addiction and its effects on our bodies–without access to expensive therapies and treatments–is more greatly inhibited. The simple issue of living far away from the clubs and bars–which are often in wealthier neighborhoods–means that finding one’s way home at the end of the night can be a much more treacherous project for some than for others. And leaving a club drunk when you are trans, Black, Brown means you are much more likely to be stopped, searched or harassed, and end up in legal trouble and facing violence others can more easily avoid. DUIs and other alcohol-related charges don’t mean the same thing to queers who can’t afford lawyers, time off of work, or who are undocumented.
The discussion I want to have is not one about prohibition, morality or health. I believe what people need to feel well, safe and protected varies, and cannot be universally determined for all spaces, all times, for all communities and all people. But I do think we can look openly at the effects alcohol has on our community–especially those across it who experience multiple forms of oppression–and think about not merely what its role has been, but what its role will be as our movements and lives struggle onward.
We are wary–as we should be–when others define health, define normal for us. Having resisted it for so long, we are critical whenever we are told what we should do with our bodies, what is good for us and what is not. So I pose the question to my own community: Do we need alcohol/club culture to be queer? Can we imagine a queer culture without alcohol, or one with a different relationship to it?