Sober Queer Spaces Gaining Ground

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Saturday September 4, 2021
Originally published on July 30, 2021

Creating a rainbow oasis of diversity and inclusion in a hostile environment — sometimes violently so — is what LGBTQ bars have always been about. In past decades such an establishment would often operate on the fringes of the law, with police raids and being outed in the media a constant threat. Yet, they were also spaces of connection, community, and, especially in the '80s with the advent of AIDS, political activism.

But where are LGBTQ people who want to drink less — or not drink at all — supposed to go?

It's a question that concerns more and more people as they seek sober avenues that empower and fulfill, especially if they are in recovery. (For more on this, see EDGE's "Living Sober" series, where LGBTQ personalities discuss sobriety.)

The answer: Queer-owned cafes, tea houses, creative community spaces both online and in the real world — even high-end chocolate shops. Such sober queer spaces do exist; they are gaining ground (even despite the COVID-19 pandemic), and they're bringing new visibility with them.

It's a trend that's been gathering momentum for a few years. In 2020, NBC News reported on how alcohol-alternative LGBTQ spots were popping up across the nation in unexpected locales — from the online Sis Got Tea in Louisville, Kentucky, to the brick-and-mortar Queer Chocolatier in Muncie, Indiana.

Some of these new spaces preserve the same defiant political charge of the traditional gay bar. Queer Chocolatier, for instance, was founded as a direct response to former Indiana governor Mike Pence's vice presidency; as Morgan Roddy, who started the company with her wife, told NBC News: "I knew there would be a lot of people who would feel safer if they were quiet about their sexual orientation," so she "decided to take space and hold it for those who would be feeling vulnerable in these times."

Aside from the legal and social challenges that the community still faces, there's the question of personal health. As Finlay Games, a transgender writer in recovery, notes in a recent essay at Healthline, the "irony is that although queer venues have historically been places of safety, they also pose a risk to a community that already has a higher incidence of drug and alcohol use."

That's not surprising, considering what young LGBTQ people often have to face simply to accept themselves, let alone engage fully with the world.

"Formative experiences of shame and stigma contribute to symptoms of depression, anxiety, trauma, and substance abuse," licensed counselor Jeremy Ortman told the author of the Healthline article. Alcohol is readily available and often used as a coping mechanism — plus, drinking can have a highly social element no matter what one's sexuality or gender identity might be.

Finding alternatives to social drinking doesn't mean forsaking the social comfort of queer spaces. The LGBTQ community still needs such places to call our own, places where we can — as Games noted in the Healthline essay —†"kiss my partner in public without checking over my shoulder first."

Salon recently reported on the rise of sober LGBTQ spaces, including Portland coffee shop Little Woodford's, where the rainbow flag flies proudly even though, the Salon article noted, homophobic vandals periodically rip it down.

Owner Andrew Zarro was philosophical about this, saying, "it comes with the territory — but we make sure to get the flag right back up there" because, he added, "representation matters and spaces like this matter."

As for being a social space where it's caffeine, and not alcohol, that characterizes the drinks, Zarro acknowledged the reality that liquor still plays a role in people's default expectations.

"When people think of gay spaces or queer spaces, they immediately think of a nightclub or bar," he told Salon. "They don't necessarily think a bright coffee shop, but we're happy to change that."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.