How to Party at Pride If You're Sober
Mental preparation is just as important as a backpack full of seltzer.
Photo by Zackary Drucker for The Gender Spectrum Collection.
June is Pride month, a time synonymous with parades, rainbows, glitter, and obviously, parties. It’s a time for the LGBTQ community to gather, cut loose, and be ourselves in all our queer glory.
For some of us—myself very much included—celebrating who we are can be a scary prospect that leaves us feeling vulnerable. It can make us feel like turning to booze and/or drugs is the only safe way we can open up and show our true selves, which isn't possible or safe for those of us with addiction issues.
I can’t trust myself with alcohol, a hard truth I learned through many bad decisions and even worse consequences. Getting sober meant removing myself from everything booze-related for about a year before I could handle the fact that other people can drink, but I can't. For the last six years, I’ve had to adjust my lesbian life to exclude drinking. That was extremely difficult when it came to most Pride festivals, because so many LGBTQ events are held in places centered around alcohol. I wanted the rush of being part of the community, but felt like an outsider instead.
The longer I was sober, though, the more I found that there are a lot of LGBTQ people navigating these non-alcoholic waters. In 2017, approximately 19.7 million American adults (aged 12 and older) struggled with a substance use disorder, and general estimates for the LGBTQ population are much higher, although the specific numbers aren't yet clear. Dr. Brian Hurley, the director of addiction medicine for the County of Los Angeles, said long-term data on the LGBTQ population is tough to assess, since sexual orientation has only recently been added to governmental surveys, “and most trans folks are invisible in most of those surveys.”
“Being a sexual and gender minority generally is stressful in a heteronormative world,” Hurley said. “We see increased rates of the use of alcohol, tobacco, and other intoxicants.”
With all of this in mind, more Pride celebrations are taking sober people into consideration. For WorldPride in NYC this year, sober people will walk in The March, complete with a DJ, followed by a sober river cruise. The Houston Pride organization hosts Skate Sober, the official dry Pride night where you can skate substance-free. In Denver, there’s a specific Queer n’ Sober Dance. In San Francisco, the Castro Country Club Sober Stage features a drug- and alcohol-free space to enjoy a picnic and some music. However, these events are still outnumbered by those where alcohol may be present.
But no matter where you celebrate, there’s a way to have a good time without using. Here are some tips and tricks worth thinking about if you want to have the best sober Pride ever.
BEFORE YOU GO TO PRIDE
Find a Buddy
We learn some of our most important life lessons when we’re in kindergarten; this is one of them. Having a friend with you during Pride who knows that you’re sober, that you’re going into the weekend with some wariness, and what warning signs to look for that might indicate you're uncomfortable is clutch: One trigger for substance use can be feelings of loneliness or isolation, and this is one way to get ahead of it. It’s awesome knowing you have someone who will leave with you if need be, or is just on the same page as you are.
Beck Gee-Cohen, the director of LGBTQ programming for Visions Adolescent Treatment in California, said he takes teenagers in his program to Pride to show them they can have a good time without substances. “Going with people who know you're sober—whether they’re sober or not—is the most important thing,” Gee-Cohen said. “Have that conversation before you go, and say, ‘Hey, I may get overwhelmed, can we just check in with each other?’”
I pick one friend and tell them that I’m going to ask them some pretty simple questions to ground myself in reality, like, “Can you reaffirm for me that I’m not somehow lesser-than because I can’t do all this partying?” If your buddy isn’t a sober person—and mine usually aren’t—I ask that they ask me how I’m doing throughout the day, but especially when we’re out in the evenings and the party starts getting wilder. It's helped me just knowing there was someone on my side who was a cheerleader and a sounding board.
“For my first sober Pride, I was so scared. I had no idea how I was going to do it," Gee Cohen said, "I went with some friends who are also sober and who had more time than I did—they were just stupid, and they made me laugh and helped draw me out.”
Make sure to have non-alcoholic drinks with you so you don’t have to depend on the event for your favorite flavor of La Croix or Diet Coke. Not every event will allow you to bring in your own drinks—if that’s the case, assess whether you want to move on to something different.
Already having a drink in your hand is an easy way to avoid the always-annoying question “Why aren’t you drinking?” So many people ask that as if it's the same as asking your favorite color, instead of a deeply personal thing! It’s OK to gloss over what's behind your sobriety—that’s no one’s business and totally up to you to share. I like to prepare an answer in advance, like, “I’m not drinking today,” “I’m on antibiotics,” or, “If I drink alcohol, my werewolf shift comes earlier in the moon cycle.”
An exception to BYONAB: Buying someone a drink is a classic pick-up move. If a babe asks whether they can, ask for something non-alcoholic or that you both pick out some fun pride swag instead. Or both: Stay hydrated and receive gifts from hotties!
Throw Your Own Sober Pride Party
If Pride events in your area don’t include sober-friendly ways to celebrate, plan one yourself! It’s probably easiest to do this during the day, especially if you’re inviting anyone to participate, not just sober people. Having a theme or specific event at your party can give it some focus beyond drinking.
Even if you decide against a theme (why you would, I’m not sure), tell potential partiers ahead of time that this is a dry event. Decide if you want kids and pets there, and have a variety of non-alcoholic beverages to drink.
Center Yourself—And Your Sobriety
Mental preparation is just as important as a backpack full of seltzer. Start your celebration ready for a positive experience and with every intention of having one hell of a time with your friends and your community. Gee-Cohen recommends reminding yourself, "I'm going to have fun, I'm going to be present, and I'm going to enjoy this.”
This was a game-changer for me. My initial approach to these events was dread: I assumed there was no way I could enjoy myself if I wasn’t hammered, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy. It took time to realize I was having largely the same experiences—I was just more in control of them and could commit them to memory.
For folks in 12-step and other recovery programs, pre-Pride is a good time to go to meetings, or you can plan to hit one up after all the events. These meetings can be a source of accountability and stability for people with substance-use issues and can help keep the Pride parties in perspective. What do I mean by perspective? When I’m feeling tempted to drink, I think about how much I hated waking up the next day with regret, and how much alcohol actually fucked with my life. The desire to avoid those feelings overrides the immediate desire to get lit up.
AT PRIDE CELEBRATIONS
You’re here! You’re sober and queer! Now what?
Find Other Sober People
Find the sober areas or booths (if they’re available) where you can connect with people who understand what you’re facing. If these booths exist at your Pride celebration, you’ll also likely find resources available to LGBTQ folks, like community-specific sobriety programs and gatherings. That camaraderie is part of what makes Pride such a special event for everyone.
Sober Pride is fun because you actually remember everything you see and experience with the people you meet. “I didn’t see much when I was using at Pride. I was sunburned because I was passed out in a lawn somewhere,” Gee-Cohen said. Go and actually watch the parade, wander the booths, and interact with the people out celebrating their existence. Make friends. Deepen your connection to your community.
In environments where I’m primed to be sensitive to partying, lulls in activity can give my brain free time to think about cravings, triggers, or other troubling thought patterns. Find ways to volunteer at Pride events if you can—this is a rewarding way to contribute while keeping yourself busy.
Get in touch with your local Pride organizer to see if there are opportunities to help out, whether that’s with set-up and breakdown or otherwise making sure the parade goes off without a hitch. Pride events in larger cities, like New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle, have links on their websites specifically for volunteer activities.
You’re at an event called Pride for a reason! You’re there to celebrate every piece of you, even and especially the parts that may have felt shameful, whether that’s your gender or sexual orientation, your relationship with mental health, or your struggles with addiction. “It's not all shame, and it's not all pain. We are resilient, we are fun, we have fabulous lives, and we can thrive,” Gee-Cohen said.
Take the energy you’d normally put into using or drinking and make your outfit extra cool—add sequins, bust out that new waistcoat or cutoff, or try out a new makeup look. This is your time to show everyone exactly who you are. Also, not being a mess or hungover at Pride is amazing because you don’t look (or feel) like death during brunch. That extra confidence is helpful when you're around so many babely humans.
Know When to Leave
Knowing when it’s time to bail (and that it’s OK to bail) is about being aware of your surroundings. Maybe you had a good time that morning, but you’re getting a bit tired in the afternoon, and your mood is slipping. Maybe it’s getting later in the day, and people are partying harder. “When I see someone crying or throwing up, that's my cue to leave,” Gee-Cohen said.
It’s also OK to not attend Pride at all if you think it's best to wait until you’re in a better spot in your recovery to join in in the future. It took me a while to figure out that I’m also proud of my ability to stay sober—and that my community is proud of me, too. That's a part of my identity I can't separate from the others—and venerating that is kind of the point.
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