April 16, 2019

Alcohol & our stories

Alcohol & our stories

When it comes to drinking we all have different stories to tell and different attitudes around our choices. All of these stories deserve to be heard. If you’d like to share yours come along to a consultation session for LGBTIQ women and non-binary people in May, more details here. 

Nancy Sinclair shares her story, she also spoke with some of her mates about drinking and their experience. 

I have a friend who can really hold her booze. She spent most of her 20s working in hospitality, so is accustomed to a life of fairly heavy drinking. My other friends and I would always joke that going out with her was going to be dangerous; every time we met up I’d insist on a dinner date so that my stomach would be thoroughly lined to prevent any disasters if I tried to keep up with her.

So, we’d drink a bottle of wine over dinner, find a bar, and stay there ‘til close. The next day, I’d nurse a hangover, and swear I have to stop matching her drink for drink.

Then, next time I see her, I’d do it again. This was our routine.

 

Recently, I made a new friend, who I was meeting at the pub. I’d bought a jug as I waited for her. Throughout the night, I’d notice myself refilling my glass from the jug a lot more regularly than I could refill hers. When I suggested another jug, she declined. I went and bought myself a schooner. As we were leaving, she told me that a mutual friend of ours had warned her not to match me drink for drink, because I’d drink her under the table. So she was pacing herself.

I thought about my friend who can hold her booze, and realised that to other people in my life, I was that friend. I thought about some of my social circles, and took mental note of how much everyone drinks. In some groups I was the heavy drinker, in others, somewhere in the middle. Surrounding myself with the people who drink more than me had sheltered me from the realisation that to others, I was a big drinker.

I only drink socially, never alone. But I’m social almost every night of the week.

 

As a queer woman who drinks regularly, I’m in good company. According to data from the 2018 SWASH survey, 88% of lesbian, bisexual and queer women and non-binary people drink alcohol, compared to 64% of women in the general population.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) suggests that drinking no more than two drinks a day reduces the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol consumption; nearly half (49%) of SWASH respondents drink more than that on any occasion. Over half (51%) of respondents drink more than once a week, with 11% drinking 5 or more days a week, the category I’d put myself in.

I didn’t always drink so regularly. When I was younger, I’d drink less often, but more in a single sitting. Now, I’m more likely to have 3 or 4 drinks and call it a night, most nights. This is reflected in the SWASH data, too: younger drinkers are more likely to drink two or fewer days a week, and older drinkers more than three times a week. Younger drinkers are also more likely to report binge drinking (5 or more drinks in one occasion) than older drinkers. It’s kind of comforting to know that my drinking habits reflect the stereotype of an ageing queer woman.

 

Stereotypes are strange. While they’re often based in some truth (there are a lot of us who like cats, Tegan and Sara, and vegetarian food), and are sometimes useful for signifying your identity (how many of us have cut our hair or got a piercing to flag other queer people?!) when they start to homogenise our experiences, and squash them into one, tidy narrative, there can be harmful consequences.

So many of us drink, and we all drink differently. If we want to create a truly comprehensive picture of how we drink, in order to assess the risks to our communities, we need to talk. It’s not just enough to listen to me and hear how I drink, even if I fit the stereotype of the ageing queer woman who moves from drinking in the club on weekends to in my house on weekdays (and weekends). Despite being a stereotype, I’m not representative of our broad and diverse community, none of us are. We all need to be heard, to create a picture that’s rich in detail and diversity.

I spoke to a few of my friends to understand how they drink.

Billy, a friend in their late 20s told me:

“I drink a couple of nights a week. Mostly with my friends, partner or workmates. I seem to drink more in summer and around Mardi Gras season, and am often completely over alcohol when winter rolls around. My friends are similar. If someone is going through a period of time where they’re not drinking, I’ll meet up with them for a coffee or meal instead. It’s not as fun to drink when your friends aren’t! Some of my mates drink a lot, and can be a bit of a liability. But I also know that sometimes I’m that person! I try not to judge the alcohol use of people in my life (and myself!) It’s such a large part of our culture and most of us go through phases in our lives of drinking too much and probably being a bit too loose.”

Maria is 40, and says:

“I drink almost every day (maybe 2 days off a week). Sometimes 1 drink, sometimes a couple, but rarely more than 3 in a sitting. I’m consciously trying to pull back after my alcohol usage spiked while working for a male dominated union, where alcohol was an expected part of workplace culture. I often find it difficult to go more than a night without, because alcohol is so much a part of how we socialise, and always present in LGBTIQ spaces.”

Anna is 20, and she said:

“I feel as though there’s this expectation as a queer woman that you’re either super into going out and drinking hard or against it altogether. I’ve definitely noticed that I drink less as I’ve embraced my LGBTQI+ identity more, partly because of the lack of inclusive spaces, and partly because sometimes I feel I’m caught in the middle of those two stereotypes.”

Shanelle is also in her late 20s:

“I reckon I drink every day, at least. It’s something I’ve sort of battled with for years. I went from being a binge drinker when I was a teenager, and then in my early twenties, since I started transitioning, it’s just steadily grown. I probably drink about a bottle of wine a night. Generally between 6-8 drinks a night, I reckon. I hate it. It’s not even necessarily something that I want to be doing. It almost feels like this thing I don’t have a lot of control over, and I’ve tried a lot of times to cut back and do something about it, but I don’t know. Whenever I meet other trans people who don’t have any sort of alcohol and drug issues, I just don’t understand. Because I don’t understand how you can exist without it. It’s a shitty medication in a lot of ways.”

My friend Alice is in her 30s, and is one of the 12% of LBQ women and non-binary folk in the SWASH data who doesn’t drink. I asked her about what it feels like to be queer and a non-drinker:

“So I gave up drinking permanently about 5 years ago. Some of my family have struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction, and after being diagnosed with a depressive disorder I decided to prioritise my mental health. A big part of that was not consuming drugs and alcohol while on my medication. It only really dawned on me after I quit how almost everything in Australia is centred around drinking. Most queer spaces/parties/venues are heavily saturated in drugs and alcohol although in my experience what differs with them (as opposed to hetero/mainstream whatever you’d like to call it) is that when I say that I’m sober it’s respected, and even encouraged (weirdly enough). Whereas at a mainstream or hetero bar/club/event my sobriety is questioned at length. Why exactly? How long since I’ve had a drink? How am I even there? Aren’t I uncomfortable? etc. For me queer spaces feel safe in almost every aspect. I do think there should be more spaces (everywhere) that don’t centre drinking culture but alas I think that’s a cultural problem.”

My friend Prue is in her 50s and also doesn’t drink anymore:

“I don’t drink because I can’t guarantee my behaviour. I was a bit of a party girl and I got myself into some dodgy situations. I came out late and found myself acting like a teenager in girl bars trying to learn about how to be. I kind of joked it was called my Bachelor of Lesbianism. It was really quite painful. I wanted my coming out to be a positive thing and did not want to be dumping my maladaptive behaviours onto somebody else. I used to write ‘be otherwise’ on my arm to remind myself to not self-medicate because I was shy or felt vulnerable. I realised that drinking and drugging were not working for me…I stopped over 10 years ago and I am enjoying life much more since that time, more present, more funds to do the things I want to do, like travel.

I don’t have a problem with people drinking in LGBT spaces. I don’t have the desire to drink anymore to give me courage to pick up a girl. It was tough in the beginning but I got use to people hassling me because I didn’t drink. People don’t generally do that to me now, I don’t know why. I think having people who don’t drink around gay populations sets a good example. To be gay does not have to be synonymous with excessive drug and alcohol abuse.”

 

These attitudes to drinking are all different. I can see some similarities among my friends; Anna and Alice both value the idea of queer spaces that don’t centre around alcohol; Billy and I both have moments of being ‘the liability’; Shanelle and Maria both drink most days, if not every day; Prue, Shanelle, and Maria have all had problems with how much they drink; Billy, Maria and I all socialise with booze. But we all have different stories to tell, different attitudes around our choices. And all of these stories deserve to be heard.

Nancy Sinclair is a part-time writer and student, and a full-time member of the LGBTIQ community.

Want your voice to be heard? ACON’s is conducting community consultations with LGBTIQ women and Non Binary people about drinking in our communities. You’ll get a reimbursement for coming along. More information here.