Thinking Queerly: the value of queer friendship

An introvert by nature, I spend a lot of time by myself, but I have always cultivated close friendships with like-minded queers who understand that word—queer—to be more of a verb than a noun: to queer, as in, to challenge or critique the norms, roles, and labels that are assumed to be fixed and stable. Because queer people tend to have a fluid, adaptable understanding of themselves and of their place in the world, the same principles tend to hold true in queer friendships. At least this has been my experience. 

I met one of my closest queer friends at a twelve-step recovery meeting, two and a half years ago. What follows is the story of how we met, and how we’ve helped, challenged, and yes, queered each other throughout our friendship.

I was newly sober, and it was my second twelve-step meeting ever. Equal parts nervous and skeptical, I slid past the small group of queers who were smoking and chatting by the entrance. I found a seat near the back of the room, and pretended to be occupied with my phone as my mind and heart raced out of control. 

“Hi! What’s your name?” I looked up, startled. “Uh, Adrian.” “Really nice to meet you, Adrian. I’m glad you’re here.” As this kind stranger returned to their seat, I noticed that their appearance was gender-nonconforming, and I wondered if maybe they were trans.

As the meeting began, the chair asked those who were willing to be a temporary sponsor to raise their hand. The person who’d just introduced themself to me put their hand up. As the chair read the opening statements, I felt like a stranger in a foreign land where I didn’t understand the customs, laws, or language. Then the chair introduced the night’s speaker—a gay man who had been sober for over ten years. I could hardly fathom staying sober for ten weeks. But I recognized myself in the speaker’s story, in his inability to manage his drinking, the consequences of which finally drove him to seek help.

After the meeting I forced myself to hang around as people with this or that many days, months, or years of sobriety introduced themselves to me and gave me their phone numbers. Finally I approached the stranger who’d said hi to me earlier, and asked them to be my temporary sponsor. “Absolutely,” they said. “Call me later this evening and we’ll chat.”

I did call them that night, and every night for the next several months. They helped me through cravings, talked me off ledges, listened without judgment as I disclosed the ugly details of my past and my character. They slowly introduced me to the tools and principles that had gotten them sober, and that they promised would get me sober, too, if I used them. They patiently endured my endless, nagging doubts and fears, skepticism and stubbornness. And they guarded one secret that I’d kept from almost everyone in Louisville: the fact that I was trans. 

When I moved to Louisville, I “went stealth”—that is to say, I actively concealed the fact that I was trans. Because I was stealth, I did not feel comfortable sharing in meetings—for fear that I would accidentally divulge some detail about my life pre-transition, and my secret would be out. The only person who I spoke openly with was my sponsor, who was emotionally intelligent, and who seemed to relate more to my experience than most cis people, even though they did not identify as trans.  

Once I had about six months of sobriety under my belt, I quit going to meetings and drifted away from the recovery community. I couldn’t get past my paranoia and social anxiety, my fear of being “found out” and treated differently because I was trans.

Some months passed. During this time, I came to terms with the fact that the stealth lifestyle was hurting my mental health. I began living openly trans. Some more months passed. Then one day, I received a text message from my sponsor that said: “So, this may or may not come as a surprise to you, but I have realized that I don’t identify as a man. I think I’m a trans woman.” Though the text caught me off guard—we hadn’t spoken in a bit—the news it contained did not. From the moment I had met her, I had wondered. 

We decided to meet up, but this time it was not to talk about sobriety; rather, it was to talk about gender and her own journey of self-discovery. She told me about the clues that had been there all along, the reasons she hadn’t seen them, and about her worries and fears around coming out and transitioning. She told me that our conversations had helped her come out to herself, and that my choice to be visible had helped her find the confidence to come out to others.

As we went our separate ways, I marveled at how poetic and beautiful, how strange and really, how queer our relationship was. Both of us had radically evolved—not just alongside each other, but as a direct result of our encounters with one another. And as is often the case in queer romantic relationships, the dynamic of our relationship was fluid rather than fixed, with her playing the role of mentor in my early recovery, and me playing the role of mentor in her early transition. 

But the story does not end there. A few months after this meeting, I was in the midst of a breakup, and found myself experiencing urges to drink again. Worried I would relapse, I decided to give the program another chance. When I got the meeting, I witnessed how supportive and accepting everyone was of my sponsor. They were using her chosen name and pronouns, and genuinely saw her as her true gender. Over the next weeks and months, I gradually built trust and began to let my guard down. I started sharing in meetings, and even spoke openly about my experiences as an alcoholic trans man. 

As our transitions and recoveries continue to evolve, we continue to play myriad roles for each other: wingman, cheerleader, fashion consultant, accountability partner, sounding board. Our roles are fluid, changing from day to day, moment to moment. I expect this to continue, because I expect our identities and perspectives to continue evolving. This is what makes us such good friends, and such good queers.