Imagine a bunch of LGBTQ+ individuals struggling with addiction and mental health issues such as body image, gender identity, relationship disorders, and self-esteem all in one place.
That’s precisely what R12 is, a special rehab center dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community.
First established in December 2017, R12 – formerly Resort12 – is the only LGBTQ+ rehab outside the U.S. The LGBTQ+ facility is part of The Cabin, an upscale rehab center located in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand.
At a glance, this place looks like an open-air spa. Each center is equipped with 15 premium en-suite rooms and a swimming pool. The Cabin also has a gym with hunky personal trainers and their own hospital.
But beyond the facade is a slew of challenges for those who reside in it – especially for those in R12.
“We have discarded the word ‘resort’ because we do not want people to believe in any way that they are coming here to relax. There is a lot of work to do," Stuart Fenton, R12’s program director, told VICE.
Studies have shown that LGBTQ+ individuals are more susceptible to alcohol and drug abuse. Not only are they prone to sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, cases of rape and non-consensual sexual interactions are also common as a result of “chemsex” - the hazardous combination of drugs like crystal meth (“Tina” or “Ice”), mephedrone (“Meow” or “M-Cat”) and GHB (“Gina” or “Gee”) with high-risk sexual activities.
For many clients, the idea of sharing their dark and sinister stories in a mainstream rehab predominantly filled with heterosexual people can be daunting.
Fenton, who is 16 years sober, said it took him awhile before meeting other LGBTQ+ individuals he could relate to when he first started recovery. “Here, our clients meet their own community on their very first day,” he said.
But it hasn’t always been easy. Fenton shared that it was quite challenging in the first couple of months, when they first experimented creating the LGBTQ+ program.
“For example, we’ve learned that we have to take their gadgets away from them because Internet and dating apps can be triggering,” he said. But those aren’t the only things they’ve had to confiscate. “We did have clients bringing sex toys and lubricants. Sometimes I think: ‘Where do you think you’re going?,’” he chuckled.
The center has, understandably, had to find other ways to entertain their clients. Dance, theatre, karaoke nights – done often in drag – are some examples of past activities in the center.
“There was a guy here who used to be a choreographer for very famous people,” Fenton said. “He was here over Christmas. He choreographed a drama that was basically about reindeers snorting cocaine and crystal meth… We competed against other rehab centers and won by a mile!”
Then there’s also artwork as part of their therapy. Maureen Siraphisut, R12’s art therapist, said that based on her experience, LGBT+ clients are generally more creative and this allows her to give more challenging tasks and topics.
In one session, one of the clients, an openly gay man, drew a face of a person throwing up a rainbow. “The drawing was basically about ‘purging gayness’,” said Maureen, adding that it illustrated "internal shame" that the client struggled with.
And it helps even more that clients feel they are understood at R12. Here, the three primary therapists identify as LGBTQ+. The staff members are all Thai and include several gay men who work as support staff as well as two chefs: a transwoman and a lesbian.
“Growing up, I was bullied a lot for being gay,” Tate*, who has left primary treatment, told VICE. “Being in a like-minded community at R12 provided me an element of safety. I don’t have to edit myself or explain my substance use and how it relates to sex.”
Yet R12 clients are still allowed to interact with other clients who are non-LGBT from other facilities, which Tate said has been useful for him.“Part of recovery is to learn how to function and be completely comfortable with myself and who I am as a gay male in predominantly heterosexual environment,” he said.
Kyle*, who has also left primary treatment, admitted that his experience at R12 was rewarding. For many years he had denied his own sexuality, which contributed a lot to his alcohol and substance abuse. “For the first time in my life I am connecting to people in my community [LGBT] and not pretending to be someone I’m not,” he said.
From a parent’s point of view, Chris* said that his gay son’s experience at R12 successfully provided him with the tools to recover as well. “I was happy when I first heard that The Cabin has an LGBT division. It is basically up to my son now to overcome his addictions,” he said.
Despite the raving reviews, there is however, one significant downside: the center’s exorbitant cost.
Most people will find this type of private rehab beyond their budget, with a 4-week treatment costing about $14,900. As a comparison, the average income in Thailand is around $800 per month. This is why most clients at the center are from countries like Australia, U.K., U.S., Canada, and European countries.
Fenton stated that half of potential clients ultimately decided not to apply for the program because of the price. For these individuals, Fenton usually redirects them to public treatments in their respective countries as well as 12-Step meetings, such as Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholic Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, and others. Chiang Mai for instance, also has LGBT Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
“The rehab I went to [when I got clean] had a great reputation but it was rusty with broken beds, and mice and cockroaches in the kitchen. It was nothing like this place,” said Fenton. “There are addicts and alcoholics out there who wouldn’t go to that kind of rehab. They need places like this to get clean. It’s just a fact.”
Because of costs, while an LGBTQ+ rehab does sound ideal, most LGBTQ+ Thais and Asians who struggle with drug addiction will need to do other things to remain sober like attend 12-Step meetings and find a sponsor.
In Asia, drug use is significantly higher among men who have sex with other men diagnosed with HIV, according to a 2010 Internet Sex Survey. Another 2009 study in Thailand also identified an association between HIV prevalence and a history of drug use. Clearly, there is a real need to make rehab centers like this more accessible to the public.
But for now, Fenton and those at the center celebrate the victories borne of what they’ve built – which sometimes go far beyond just treating addiction.
One client did not identify himself as gay or queer, but wanted to “explore” by trying on makeup and teasing his hair.
“He just wanted to have the freedom that he never had in his life,” Fenton said. “I think it’s wonderful.”
*These individuals agreed to speak to VICE on condition of anonymity. Names have been changed for privacy and protection.
Amahl S. Azwar is an openly gay Indonesian writer who resides in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Follow him on Twitter.