Why do we drink, what does it do for us, when is it a problem, and what can we do to drink in a way that’s good for us? San Francisco community members gathered at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center on November 4 to discuss these salient questions and the role that alcohol plays in our lives at “Real Talk: Can You Party Smart?” a public forum hosted by San Francisco AIDS Foundation.
Michael Siever, PhD, founder of The Stonewall Project and Magnet, moderated the event. Panelists included Hunter Rose, an HIV testing provider at SFAF and former bar-back at bars in the Castro; Anibal Mejia, a harm reduction drinker and behavioral health services provider at the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center; Carlton Paul, a long-time bartender at SOMA’s gay cruise bar Powerhouse; Sean Allen Murray, a community member in recovery; and Patt Denning, PhD, a service provider and harm reduction expert. Many community members also joined in the open dialogue to share their thoughts and experiences related to alcohol.
What does booze do for us?
Are we drinking because we like how it feels or what it does for us, or are we drinking because it’s expected of us in certain situations? Panelists shared obvious reasons like, “it lightens me up,” and “I like the taste of beer,” in addition to more complicated thoughts on why we drink.
Paul shared his perspective, as someone who’s witnessed how the gay community drinks in bars for over 13 years. One thing he’s noticed are patrons who specifically come to Powerhouse with the intent to drink excessively. “If someone’s coming in to forget something, he’s going to drink until he forgets. They’re using alcohol as a weapon to calm their brain.”
Mejia also noted an internal motivator to drink—as a way to keep emotions in check. “Parties are, for me, a mixed bag of anxieties. I’m excited, I’m happy to be there, I might be dreading seeing one person. There’s a lot of different emotions going on. One of the things people do with alcohol is to try to get their emotions where they want them.”
Attendees also shared how alcohol—as many might suspect—is used as a way to ease into social situations. Rose speculated that going out and drinking is one way that people in San Francisco become part of the queer community. And Mejia explained that he drinks at gay events as a way to relate to others, fit into the gay community, and feel less critical of those he meets.
“I don’t have much in common with other gay people. I’m a fairly introverted person, mostly. I studied art history, anthropology. How many people in the room care about anthropology? [A number of participants raise their hand]. Well, that’s actually pretty good [the crowd laughs]. This is something that gay culture does. We prune ourselves down to make ourselves fit in. We wear certain clothes, we talk about certain things, we don’t talk about others. For me, to get comfortable enough to want to go home with somebody, or to want to talk to somebody, or make new friends, I basically need to lobotomize myself to the point where I can talk to whoever. If I was sober, I’d be much more critical. I’d be grinding my axe of riotous indignation all the time. And it’d be great how to learn how to do it sober. I’ll let you know if I ever figure it out.”
Real Talk attendees also thought that external factors were important contributors to why we drink, and how much we drink.
How much we’re served at restaurants and bars may be one reason why people drink more than they intend to. One audience member shared his insight into “the gay pour” that happens at many of the bars in Castro. “It’s kind of a joke among my friends and in my social circle—even among my straight friends. A drink at a gay bar is going to have a lot more alcohol in it than if you’d get it at a straight bar. It’s half the glass with a little splash of soda on top.”
Attendees also thought that social expectations play into how often and how much we drink. Which may be why Denning pointed to the increase in drinking around the holidays, and the reticence people have to seek help for alcohol overuse until after the holidays are over. “As if they just can’t imagine getting through the holidays without drinking or overdrinking,” she explained.
When is alcohol use, or the gay bar scene, not such a good thing?
Audience members spoke about consequences like hangovers, and lapses in judgment that they considered problematic. “Waking up—and thinking, oh my God, I said that? I didn’t just say it once, I said it five times. Realizing that—oh wow—my judgment really was impaired. If I didn’t drink as much, I would not have said certain things. That’s one of the big problems with alcohol. That was something I didn’t want to do. And maybe I did enjoy it at the time, but I certainly don’t enjoy it now.”
One audience member described with fondness the role that gay bars have played in his coming-of-age as a gay man, but now that he’s gotten older, the resentment he feels at the financial toll going out and drinking takes.
The panel and audience also took the time to discuss problems that people may confront when or if they seek help related to reducing or quitting drinking. Denning summarized research showing that on average, people who know they have a problem with alcohol wait an average of ten years before they seek help. One reason they wait is because, she explained, people think that once they seek help, their friends or family will jump on them and tell them they’re an alcoholic and they have to quit using alcohol entirely. But abstinence does not necessarily have to be the solution for those who wish to change how they drink.
One audience member described his search for a solution that eventually led to a harm reduction approach.
“I’ve been drinking basically since I was a teenager. I don’t feel like it reached an out of control status, and then life happened in the last year. And then I knew that I was going downhill. I knew that I was having problems with it. I was talking to a therapist about it, and seeking ideas from my friends. My friends are smart but they had a lot of really bad solutions. And it was very binary. It was, ‘give it all up and go to AA’ or ‘figure it out on your own.’ I think that’s a pretty depressing place to be. If those are your only two options. It took me forever to find out what harm reduction was and to find a therapist that could specialize in that who could actually give me some help.”
Can we talk about alcohol use to help ourselves or others?
So how comfortable are we talking about drinking—and helping our friends, family, or others whose relationship to alcohol may be causing harm to themselves or others? The panel and audience members agreed that talking about drinking—and confronting someone else about their drinking—can be challenging.
Carleton said that from his perspective, people don’t seem to like to talk about drinking because it makes others feel awkward. A member of the community shared that, “people look at almost like you’re an alien species when you talk about it—that you don’t drink.”
But many community members expressed concern over how to have those difficult conversations with friends or others about their drinking. One suggested starting a conversation a day or two later—rather than the same night that there are problems. Murray said that you can’t worry about a friend’s defensiveness about their alcohol use—if you’re truly concerned about him or her—knowing that they may or may not be ready to hear what you have to say. Another man in the audience suggested simply commenting on a friend’s behavior or issues caused by drinking—without using any judgment.
Terry Beswick, manager of Castro Country Club, a community space for LGBT people in recovery, suggests meeting the person you’re concerned about on their level. “You have to meet people where they are, and ask questions. In my experience, the less you say, the better. It’s about listening, and demonstrating, while also remembering to take care of yourself.”
For more information, check out the following community resources.
The Stonewall Project provides harm reduction-based counseling, treatment and support services to gay men, men who have sex with men, and trans men in San Francisco. For more information, call 415-487-3100.
The Stonewall Project’s Walk-in Alcohol Harm Reduction Group welcomes people interested in drinking more safely, reducing how much they drink, moving towards abstinence, or who are already abstinent. It’s held at 4200 18th Street #203 in San Francisco every Tuesday from 6 - 7:30 p.m.
Harm Reduction Therapy Center in San Francisco and Oakland provides individual treatment, holds groups, and will host a free 4-week holiday support group starting in December. For more information, call 415-863-4282.
The Castro Country Club provides space for Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs to meet and also includes a volunteer-run café and place for people to socialize that doesn’t involve drinking. Visit Castro Country Club online or stop by at 4058 18th Street in San Francisco.
Learn more about how to avoid hangovers, be safe when you’re drinking, or reduce how much you’re drinking using this handy guide.
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