Overcoming Addiction: Finding Recovery through powerful self-expression

Barrett Gargala

“You don’t look gay.” I’ve heard it 1,000 times. Who are you to label me? I get to choose how I see myself and today I choose joy.

Being queer to me has nothing to do with who I love but how I feel. I want other people to realize the power in expressing sexuality- feminine, masculine, or other. The end.

I believe we’re all human and constantly in the process of discovering who we are, how we feel, what we like, and how we fit in. All I ever ask of the person next to me is to be open to collaboration, communication and self awareness.

I don’t need everyone to agree with me and my beliefs, but feel it’s necessary for everyone to respect others beliefs without criticizing the way they choose to live.

Editor’s Note: Like many members of our Queer Kentucky community, Barrett has lived through trauma and addiction. We encourage any and all folx to tell their stories of overcoming adversity in hopes to inspire someone else. We value and appreciate the vulnerability of those who share to help others.

Learn more about Barret and her journey of coming out and addiction via the Zen Life podcast. Episode 68: “Addiction Does Not Discriminate” The story of recovering and loving back to life after addiction.”

“There is no story more raw and real than the one of our guest today.  Meet Barrett Gargala.  Shannon and Brittany first met Barrett when she was just a young, ’20- something’ trying to make it in the business of Lululemon. 

Little did they know, Barrett was struggling with some dark addiction demons that traveled with her since her college days. 

Barret first started avoiding her problems early into her college days and it wasn’t until 18 months ago that she finally sought the help she always needed.  As Barrett says, “you could have put me in a steel box and I still would have been an addict.”  Learn more about Barrett and how she is still learning to love herself back to life after addiction.

Night life entrepreneur, Louisville’s ‘Cherry’ Bomb blazes a Queer trail

What does the word queer mean to you? How do you identify?

Queer to me is the defiance of gender and sexuality. It’s anarchic. It’s as equally controlled or chaotic as you want to be. Some people use the term queer as an umbrella term for all people in the LGBTQ+ spectrum, and some people dislike the word because of it’s pejorative roots. But let’s get one thing straight – we aren’t – and anything we want to call ourselves shouldn’t be considered anything less than what we want it to be, even if it originated as a rude or hateful term. Being queer to me is not needing to be masculine or feminine or anything beyond or between. It’s absolving yourself of the guilt of saying “this isn’t what boys do” and allow yourself to express your feelings without any boxes. It’s moving past concern about what others may think about what makes you happy, or who makes you happy. It challenges what a partner or partners means for you, they can be masculine or feminine presenting, non-binary, trans, or any other identity or a combination of. I identify as queer.

Why? Or why don’t you identify as anything at all?

For a long time I identified as just gay. Like a lot of young people growing up in the late 90’s and early 2000’s – I assumed for a long time that I was bisexual because of society telling me I should be one way, and my brain and heart telling me another. But as I have grown to love myself, and those around me more – I have identified as queer for the abilities to make the word what I want it to be. I am attracted to more than just cis males, I have built strong friendships and romantic relationships with people who identify all over the spectrum, and I don’t think just saying I’m gay can withhold my identity anymore. Though sometimes I use gay and queer interchangeably, I find less of an issue with reclamation of queer than I do gay, having grown up in the heyday of teenage boys calling everything under the sun gay when they disapproved. I have never been called a queer in a derogatory way, not saying this is the same for everyone, just my personal experience.

Where are you originally from and explain how was it growing up/living in Kentucky?

I am born and raised in Louisville KY. I grew up in a somewhat bizarre upbringing – as I can’t remember my parents ever being married (I think they divorced when I was 3?) and my mother raised myself and my sister in Louisville, while my dad had joint custody of us and lived on a farm in Elizabeth Indiana until I was about 9 or 10. We moved a lot, my mother got remarried to a wonderful man who taught me a lot about loving people who are not your blood family, but chosen family – and I gained two siblings from this marriage. My dad eventually remarried again and moved to the Highlands where I spent my teenage summers riding skateboards down Bardstown Road, going to shows at Pandamonium and the BRYCC House, and immersing myself in punk culture – where I learned a lot about saying fuck you to rules and boxes. I also learned a whole lot about queer theory, vegetarianism, anti – capitalism, atheism, and a whole bunch of other subjects through those older than me who were always quick to teach young kids that punk was more than just angry music – it was about fighting against what society says you should do. Living in Louisville is such a wonderful experience and I am so happy to see how the city has grown and become super accepting almost everything. I would see the artsy and

forward thinking thriving city during my custodial weekends spend in the Highlands, and the down home southern family experience with my mother in the south end. I feel like these two parts have made me who I am today.

What would you say to any person struggling to come into their own identity?

Only you can decide who you are. And what you may be right now doesn’t have to be your final form. Humans are constantly evolving, your tastes will change as you grow, you will experience things for the first time and maybe hate them and years later you’ll do it again and love them. Don’t feel like you have to have all the answers RIGHT NOW, some things just come with time. Your friends and family have must listen to your desires in identity when you speak about them, and you do not have to maintain a relationship with anyone who is toxic or blocks your happiness. There is always someone out there for you to connect with, and luckily in 2019 we can do so via the internet much easier than approaching someone in public.

How does your own identity run how you carry yourself? Or does it?

My identity allows me to wear whatever I want, to connect with people over so many different topics, and to make strong bonds with my chosen family. It gives me an excuse to be me in whatever way that is for the day.

What issues do you see in the queer community?

If your fight isn’t intersectional, it isn’t a fight to be had. We create a lot of spaces for white, cisgendered, able bodied people without the second thought on if the space is welcoming, accessible, or comfortable for someone who is POC, non binary, trans, disabled, or any combination thereof. As a white queer man in society, I am afforded a lot more liberties than someone who is anything else. People fought so hard for gay marriage, but some forget that our battle will constantly assume new forms and we must continue to fight until everyone is on the same playing field. LGBTQ+ people (especially QTPOC) are more likely to commit suicide, be assaulted or murder, or find themselves homeless than their straight or cis counterparts.

While I have been lucky to not see much in my own community, I still see a whole lot of racism, sexism (that goes for y’all “vaginas are gross” gays out there), transphobia, and ignorance (especially involving HIV) in other places and it really bums me out.

What do you think would solve those issues?

Besides cis white gays pulling their heads out of their asses? Probably people educating themselves on how we have evolved and grown as a culture, as a community, and as something more than just a “disease” that they used to kill us for. Ask people their pronouns, work on volunteering your time somewhere, create a safe space for your friends to meet and enjoy themselves, recommend your friends you trust for jobs, check in on them (IMPORTANT!),

and most lastly, if you see something (and it’s safe) say something. Remove problematic language from your vocabulary, get tested and don’t refer to being HIV negative as “clean”, and that you vote with your dollar aka stop giving shitty companies money!

Do you feel excluded from the “mainstream” queer community? Why or why not?

I don’t really know what I call mainstream anymore? Sure I love drag performances (support your local queens as much as you do Ru girls!), I enjoy the first couple Lady Gaga records, I saw Cher perform earlier this year, I’ve been to gay bars in other cities and gay weddings here and far. I probably still know most of the words to La Vie Boheme from RENT. I go to Pride most years and sometimes in other cities. I think most things that are “typically queer” can be fun, and some of them I don’t care for. Just like I enjoy listening to Beyonce as much as I do Converge, watching MS3TK as I do ANTM, and seeing bands play in the basement of Spinelli’s downtown as I do travelling 3 hours to watch Lizzo perform – I don’t expect everyone to enjoy the things I do, and what they enjoy (so long as it isn’t hurting anyone) doesn’t bother me. My only hope is that mainstream queer culture is inclusive to ALL LGBTQ+ people as it grows, and not just the white ones.

Where do you feel “at your best” (safe, happy, fabulous, comfortable, etc)

Some of you probably know me from my proclivities as DJ, or playing an instrument in a band – and that’s a feeling I always find to be one of the best. Expressing my art for people to consume and enjoy themselves. I feel at my best surrounded by friends dancing, watching drag, sharing a meal, or relaxing at someone’s house. My chosen family makes me feel as safe as my real one does, and I would give my last dollar to any one of them should they need it.

Who influenced the life you live now?

My mother. She’s always accepted me for who I am. She let me be a weird theatre kid (bet you didn’t see that coming, did ya?) through middle school, a wild and loud music playing young adult, and has always told me she loves me for the person I grew up to be. She taught me a lot about compassion, about putting others before yourself when need be, how to listen, how to laugh things off, how to cook, and most importantly, how to accept everyone for who they are no matter who you think they should be. She was always letting 5 and 6 of my same aged step-brother and I’s friends stay the night on weekends. She drove us to Bardstown road to go to shows or terrorize the neighborhood. She’s accepted every partner I’ve brought to a family function and still reminds me constantly that a smile is the best gift you can give to someone you don’t know yet.

I’ve met a lot of people over the years, probably too many to name, who have shown me new and exciting things in the world and expanded my mind in how people evolve and grow. I am truly blessed to have such a great partner, friends, and co-workers. To work for a company who gives young LGBTQ+ a place to serve good food, listen to Panic At the Disco and connect with all kinds of people local and visiting. Bars and spaces who give me the room to throw parties focused for queer people, drag shows, or a space where people can enjoy themselves. Older LGBTQ+ people who show me that getting older shouldn’t be something we’re afraid of, but something we should look forward to. And those who have educated me and given me the opportunity to learn about the way other people are and present themselves, you are the true stars.

I invite all of you reading this to connect with me, let’s build a stronger network of queer people to create our own spaces and allow ourselves to celebrate life together. Let’s bounce ideas off each other. Let’s all remind each other that we are not alone in this world, and that our uniqueness is what makes all of us incredible people.

Catch me at any of these and come say hi. Let’s be friends!

Titty Tiki Tuesday at the Limbo (a weekly drag and variety show, every TUESDAY) Qiergarten at the Limbo (a LGBTQ+ patio party – June 1st and July 6th are the next ones) House is Home at ALEX&NDER (a super cute day party June 9th thrown by some of the best DJs in the city – Rhythm Science Sound)

Emo Nite (yes, like you used to listen to in 8th grade) at Barbarella – June 14th

HAUS Louisville at Barbarella (a monthly drag & burlesque show & dance party) – June 15th

Smedley Yeiser to host Pride Riot in Western Kentucky, honor OUT Paducah

PADUCAH – Many small rural communities are creating safe spaces and pride events for their communities. Western Kentucky activists with OUT Paducah are leading this movement and were asked to be the guest of honor for a large Pride event.

On June 29, Smedley Yeiser is hosting Pride Riot, a one night only pop-up venue to honor 50 years of pride since the Stonewall riots. OUT Paducah is the guest of honor for the event.

It’s also to celebrate where Paducah is now, where it’s been, and where it’s going with LGBTQ+ Pride, said Pride Riot event coordinator Jeremy Byassee. 

“With political, religious and moral debates, especially here in the Bible Belt, I don’t think there’s any other way to get fairness and equality without coming together despite those issues with diversity,” Byassee said. “I genuinely feel everyone is seeking support from one another with that common goal of tolerance and freedom.”

The mission of OUT Paducah is to provide an accepting environment to enhance the personal growth of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth in McCracken County. OUT Paducah advocates for community awareness and acceptance of young people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. 

Through outreach, OUT Paducah, service providers learn about and increase their sensitivity to the needs of sexual minority youth. OUT Paducah provides LGBTQ youth with positive role models. It promotes their self-esteem and the integration of these youth into the larger community. OUT Paducah assists families with resources and referrals.

The venue for Pride Riot, Smedley Yeiser+Juniper Room, is owned by very supportive and wonderful straight allies, Byassee said.

“There will be a stage set up with 12 various entertainers, plus me, your host,” he said.

There will be Pride Drag King and Queen of Southern Illinois, and the rest are all local queens, belly dancers, a few burlesque artists and a fire breathing act!

“My event, PRIDE RIOT, has had very little backlash,” Byassee said. “And it doesn’t faze me a bit. It’s beyond humbling for me to have an outweighing amount of support. When I was 21, I know things would have been a lot different if I could go to space to see or maybe even perform in a drag show”

After show party will include dancing and karaoke! The show cover is $10 and the entire event is for 21 and over.

PnP culture is killing us: Queer man leaves the parTy, embraces pride

Story by Jimmy Cheatham, Lexington

Art by Joshua Riley

Queer. To me, that word means living outside of the heteronormative/cisnormative world that we see everywhere we look. I’ve been queer long before I identified as a cis gay man. Growing up in rural Kentuckiana I always knew there was something queer about me and that I did not fit into the mold that my society and culture expected of me. I’m 35, and while we still have a long way to go, LGBTQ+ representation was not a thing you saw in the media when I was a child and it certainly wasn’t taught in grade school. To Wong Foo was released in 1995, I was 12. Ellen came out on her television series in 1997, I was 14. Will & Grace first aired in September 1998, I was 15. Prior to this, I had no knowledge of any LGBTQ+ culture and thought my queerness was something to reject. Conforming to the norm felt obligatory, yet was unachievable.

Addict. Such a cringeworthy term to most. Not something one would aspire to become. The word itself comes from the Latin word addictus which means to sacrifice, sell out, betray, or abandon. Those definitions ring true to me. What began as recreational drug and alcohol use at 16 to escape my inability to erase my queerness, eventually led me to inadvertently sacrifice everything else of any value in my life. Smoking weed and drinking booze led to snorting coke and popping pills. Every line I said I would never cross, was eventually crossed with ease. I would never be a “junkie”, I may do a lot of things, but I’ll never be as bad as “that person” …until I became “that person.” By the age of 25 I was injecting meth and life was a spiraling shit storm with a one-way ticket to rock bottom. Rock bottom happened in 2012, at 28, when I was arrested and eventually told I had 2 options: jail or rehab. A queen would never choose jail, so I chose the latter. I’m grateful that I didn’t choose to keep digging to make my bottom even lower {insert gay joke here}.

Recovery. A refreshing term that insinuates survival. That’s what it means to me. I survived a sinking ship. Addiction typically leads to either jails, institutions, or recovery if you’re lucky. The unlucky ones get buried. With the rate that our fellow humans are perishing from overdose related death, I consider myself to be very fortunate. When I began my journey of recovery, I didn’t really know who Jimmy was because I had spent so many years hidden behind the veil of substances. After completing a 28-day treatment program, I entered a long-term 12-month recovery program for men. I began to get a sense of who I was and who I wanted to be. A vision for a future began to materialize and, for once in a long time, I had hope. I worked low paying jobs in the beginning, but I was the happiest I had ever been. I made friends who were also in recovery and I no longer felt alone in life. Eventually I began to unlearn all those toxic ideas about my queerness and I began to embrace it lovingly. Not only was I recovering from addiction to substances, but I was also recovering from the indoctrination of dangerous societal and cultural beliefs and dogma that being LGBTQ+ was inherently wrong. The need to feel like I had to conform slipped away and I embraced, and am still in the process of embracing, every little part of me. There are no good or bad parts, there only parts that are more difficult to embrace.

Pride. One definition is “delight or elation arising from some act, possession, or relationship.” That is the definition that most resonates with me. I take delight in being a gay man. I take pride in standing as an ally to every person who identifies as LGBTQ+. Being a minority has taught me to empathize with others who are oppressed and marginalized, and I am proud of that. I am proud that I took adversity, in the form of addiction, and turned it into a strength in my life. I am turning my life experience into a career and will be entering grad school in the fall, with an end goal of becoming a clinical social worker and helping other LGBTQ+ individuals with substance misuse issues. I am so proud that I have chosen to travel this path. As queer folx, we all face many obstacles in life, even if substances aren’t a part of everyone’s story. No matter the obstacles, there is always hope to be found and pride to be had.

Papa John’s employee furthers company’s diversity and inclusion

Meghan Stevens

What does the word queer mean to you? How do you identify?

I don’t think we can really break down the meaning of what it means to be Queer without recognizing the historical hurt and inherent insult that comes along with it. In the past, it has been weaponized as a pejorative that’s been hurled at LGBTQ+ people for decades.  I don’t believe we can disregard its historical context as it becomes more popularized. Today, I see folks across the LGBTQ+ spectrum working to reclaim it. For some people it’s an act of healing. For others, it’s a painful memory of what they were called to their faces and behind their backs.

To me, Queer is an all-encompassing identity under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, a term used to describe people who do not identify as cisgender and heterosexual. Categorically I would fall under this header, but I personally identify as a gender non-conforming lesbian. I’m attracted to people who identify and present as female/feminine. I also identify as a woman but do not subscribe to the gender conforming binary. I believe I can identify as a woman without feeling obligated to shoulder every characteristically feminine marker society can place on us. I work hard to help people see past the binary; to look outside of what expectations the public has placed on us and how we present in association with our gender.

Where are you originally from and explain how was it growing up/living in Kentucky?

I was born into a Military family and came back to Louisville permanently when I was around 2-3 years old. I’ve been in Louisville since then and it certainly is my home. I consider myself very lucky to live in the most progressive city in the state. Attending Butler High School in Jefferson County where I was able to help start the Gay-Straight Alliance was an exciting and freeing experience. I felt like our voices, even as as teenagers, were welcomed and supported.

I attended Morehead State University in Rowan County from 2009-2013 for my undergrad degree and it was a very different experience. It’s a much more rural county with some of the unfortunate stereotypes attached to it. I didn’t come out till after I had moved back to Louisville because a supportive environment was much harder to find in a red county.

Since moving back to Louisville in 2013 I’ve had the chance to travel to different communities nationally and experience what being an LGBTQ+ person is like in much larger and more accepting cities, as well as more closed-minded and smaller communities. While Louisville is not perfect, I am so grateful for the progress this city has made and continues to make.

What would you say to any person struggling to come into their own identity?

Take your time. There is no rush and no timelines matter but your own. You don’t have to have it all figured out by a specific time and there is no final answer. Our identities flex and change over time so be open to new experiences that will allow you to learn more about yourself at a deeply personal level. Research online and try to find a community with similar interests to yours. In person and online support can give you a peer group to discuss new ideas and odds are, someone has experienced something similar to what you are going through now. Be patient, trust your gut, and surround yourself with affirming family and friends.

How does your own identity run how you carry yourself? Or does it?

For 10+ years I identified as bisexual. I told myself that I could date and have relationships with women till I got older, grew out of it, and I’d marry a man. The more time passed, the more unrealistic that seemed. This ‘phase’ of being attracted to women didn’t end and I was vehemently against marriage as a concept at the time. It took a lot of therapy and self-discovery to come to terms with my identity as a lesbian and the closet I had to come out of. After doing that personal work I was proud of the hurdles I had overcome and the effort it took to get to this place. Now that I am out in my personal and professional life, it has opened doors for me that I never would have expected.

Professionally, I’ve been with the same company for 11+ years. I started at Papa John’s when I was 17 and a Junior in high school. I worked at corporate and franchise Papa John’s restaurants throughout high school and all 4 years of college. During my time in the field I was never comfortable enough to come out to my coworkers. I was afraid that disclosing would put me at risk for losing my job or the target of unfair treatment. After completing my undergrad, I was fortunate enough to land a job at the corporate office.

Since 2014 I have worked on various teams within Papa John’s headquarters and gotten to work under incredibly influential and inspiring people. Most important to me was the creation of our Diversity & Inclusion committee. I was chosen to sit on the committee from its inception and it’s changed my outlook on what corporations and their employees can do to push for change. I’m active on committees such as corporate social responsibility and community relations. I participate actively and consult with various employee resource groups (ERG) and I’m the current president of the LEAP (LGBTQ+ for Equity, Advocacy, and Promotion) ERG. Getting to help facilitate change from the inside has been such an eye-opening experience and one I plan to grow into a future career.

Since our ERG formation, we have been relentless about examining our policies and practices to transition to a more inclusive work place where people don’t have to worry about job security because of who they are. In the past year our ERG has been fortunate enough to update our EEO statement to include sexual orientation and gender identity, added gender neutral restrooms, and confirmed compliance with the World Professional Association for Trans Health standards for employee benefits. We are also in the process of researching the creation of a gender transition workplace policy as well as completing the Corporate Equality Index with the Human Rights Campaign. Locally, we’ve sponsored initiatives with Kentuckiana Pride Foundation and Louisville Pride Festival along with the UofL LGBTQ+ center and the Louisville Youth Group. It’s been such a humbling experience to be a part of this monumental culture change that we’ve been working at for the last year. Getting to dig into corporate advocacy has been a true joy and an experience that I will continue to peruse. I’m thankful that I get to use my activism and advocacy background in a meaningful way that will impact people’s lives.

Getting to bring my whole self to work not only benefits my sense of belonging but provides the company with a deeper knowledge of LGBTQ+ experiences learn and grow from. I’m thankful that I get to leverage my identity for the betterment our employees and customers alike.

Do you feel excluded from the “mainstream” queer community? Why or why not?

Thankfully, I do not feel excluded from the mainstream queer community. Being a woman in LGBTQ+ spaces mostly dominated by men can feel uneven when misogyny comes into play. But overall as a gay white woman, I don’t face the same alienation that more vulnerable parts of our community do. This is my driving motivation to create a safer and more affirming community for folks within the LGBTQ+ community.

Where do you feel “at your best” (safe, happy, fabulous, comfortable, etc)

I will always feel safest around my loved ones and people I trust including my close friends and family. My partner and I travel frequently and love getting to see other LGBTQ+ landmarks, hot spots, and bars when possible. I feel most powerful at work and in meetings getting to lead initiatives for social and policy change.

Who influenced the life you live now?

From the beginning my mother, aunt, and grandmother have all had a huge influence on my life. They raised me to be a self-assured, confident, and outspoken individual.

Throughout my school years, teachers who took a stand for minorities and socially/economically disadvantaged groups were superheroes in my eyes. Seeing people use their privilege to help make the world better for those who don’t have what they do was an awakening for me. Currently queer, trans, and cisgender women of color have some of the biggest hurdles and struggles facing them in society. I am continually in awe of their strength and determination to continue to show up and do the work when the system is actively working against them. The bravery they continue to show day in and day out is incredibly inspiring and strengthens my conviction to continue playing my part in making our communities safer for them. Even as queer woman, my privilege as a white person affords me opportunities that I am called to use to advocate for folks with the deck stacked against them.

Facing the Queer truth, embracing self

Sarah, Elkhorn City

I grew up in Elkhorn City, Kentucky. My childhood was spent playing in the mountains, riding ATVs and horses, and collecting Hot Wheels. I was always a tomboy and hated wearing the frilly dresses my grandmother made me wear to church every Sunday. That just wasn’t who I was, and I just never felt comfortable in feminine clothing.  Despite that, I was expected to fit into a very traditional feminine mold and follow the status quo: grow up, meet a boy, marry him, and have a family.  

I was fortunate to grow up with friends who had same-sex parents.  Going to sleepovers at those houses taught me that two women CAN have a family and that their family was just as normal as mine.  Despite having that experience, the cognitive dissonance during my adolescence was real.  I had boyfriends and I felt attracted to them, but something was missing. My first crushes were the Pink Power Ranger, Laura Dern in Jurassic Park, Clarice Starling, Gwen Stefani, and Sporty Spice.  All powerful women, yet the idea of dating a girl seemed so foreign, so taboo, so far out of my grasp.

I suppressed it. I dated men. I married one. Then I met a woman who made me realize what was missing all along, and everything came grinding to a halt.  I realized that I’m the only one in control of my life and my identity. It was time to step out into the sunlight.

Coming out of the closet at 29 years old was not my plan, but I couldn’t stay contained in that little heteronormative box any longer. One day everything hit me: I couldn’t do this anymore. My mental health was at an all-time low and I felt hopeless. Helpless. I woke up wishing I was dead. I went to sleep hoping for another life.  I have a master’s degree, I have a fulfilling career as a social worker, and I’m a homeowner.  Why was I so damn miserable?  

The answer was staring me in the face. I had to live my truth.  I came out – and it felt exactly like the moment Dorothy steps into Oz for the first time.  My life went from black and white to color.

I’ve lived in Louisville for the last few years and I have surrounded myself with a loving group of queer folk from all kinds of backgrounds.  I can’t say how lucky I am to have this community. I have learned so much from these friends who are gay, bi, pan, lesbian, trans, non-binary, and HIV+ and I truly credit them with the courage it took to walk out of that closet with my head held high.  

My only goal in life is to be the person I needed when I was younger, and I’m finally taking steps to do that.  Embrace who you are and love yourself for it.

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