Tom Hill argues that it’s time to rethink anonymity—and that addicts in recovery should learn from the gay liberation movement.
Marty Mann, a pioneer of recovery advocacy, traveled the country in the 1940s and ’50s to challenge preconceptions of what a recovering alcoholic looked like—especially when the alcoholic was a woman. When billing herself publicly, Mann advertised herself as married. In actuality, she lived most of her adult life with a woman, Priscilla Peck.
We all have our closets to contend with. Mann was able to out herself as an alcoholic, but not a lesbian. Already stigmatized by her gender and her disease, disclosing her sexuality would have undermined her credibility as an activist.
Today the atmosphere is different. After 40 years, countless legions of “out” gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people have formed proud, visible communities and a constituency of considerable political clout. Coming out as a gay man or woman may continue to carry personal risk, but one thing is clear: visibility has greatly reduced the stigma of living openly.
The challenges and consequences of coming out as a recovering addict are similar—and so are the benefits. Standing proud, being visible and being vocal about our addictions will pave the way for changes in medicine, public policy, and education. By fighting anonymity—putting a public face on addiction and declaring, “We are everywhere”—we can form wider communities of support and celebration. We can all stand as living proof that recovery is real, and help is here.
Because my use of substances was linked to the ambiguity of my sexual identity, I came out of the closet as a gay man in early recovery. I equated coming out as one small part of my newfound “rigorous honesty” and an essential part of my recovery. It was a simple and liberating act of personhood. Beyond this personal breakthrough, I was quickly made aware of the political impact that coming out could have.
But in the process, I was taken aback by assumptions that I would retreat back into the closet—this time about my recovery. Why on earth would I want to hide that? Everyone around me had been privy to my acts of public drunkenness. Didn’t they have a right to see me as an upright and productive citizen?
The tradition of anonymity in Alcoholics Anonymous is concerned with the protection of individuals and the institution. Members are encouraged not to disclose their membership, especially to the media. But going public with one’s recovery is another story—just not a story we hear very often.
The analogies that I draw are not just personal, nor are they accidental.
Members of the recovery community, like the LGBT community, have a long history of discrimination. Both groups can face considerable risks and consequences in coming out: in getting a job, in housing, in the courts and other areas—and in relationships with family members and friends. Gay people, substance users, and people in long-term recovery from addiction, like I am, are harshly judged as sick, immoral, sinful. We have been blamed for, and been on the receiving end of, a rash of social problems, including street violence and the spread of HIV/AIDS.
In response to violent attacks, stigmatizing remarks, and acts of discrimination, the LGBT community has stood up proud, visible, and vocal. When the AIDS epidemic (blamed on gays and addicts) hit the gay community in the 1980s, community leaders mobilized action to organize medical and prevention protocols, challenge public policy, and educate their own community and the public.
This was accomplished with a dire sense of urgency due to the increasing death rate, and an outrage that everyone was looking the other way. At rallies and marches, community allies joined people with HIV/AIDS to chant, “We are all HIV-positive!” This sent a message of solidarity that the stigma of one segment of the community would be shared—and diffused—by all.
More recently, following a series of recent gay teenage suicides, the LGBT community rapidly responded with a media campaign that challenged school bullying while simultaneously sending a message of hope to LGBT kids.
I envision the day that the organized recovery community is prepared to take that kind of timely action—to stand up for vulnerable members of our community who are under attack with the same sense of urgency and timeliness.
Where is our outrage for the young people dying of heroin overdoses, people locked up or mistreated and scorned as useless parasites or public nuisances? Where is our solidarity with those who are currently where we once stood? And for the public, they see and experience all the trouble caused by addiction, while recovery remains hidden, those in recovery shamed into silence.
The public—and policymakers and the media—remain enraptured by the active addiction of celebrities and woefully uninformed about the reality of recovery. Who will stand up as living proof that we are everywhere and that recovery is real?
We all have a right to recover from addiction. As growing numbers of people cross the line with family members and loved ones, others are following. What started as a trickle of people willing to come out publicly about their recovery has grown into the tens of thousands.
At Faces & Voices of Recovery, we have developed recovery messaging and trained more than 3,000 recovery advocates to tell their stories with a purpose (and without violating the traditions of a 12-step program). The numbers will continue to grow, but only if we urge people to come out.
In our plea, we need to be patient and nonjudgmental of those who, for whatever reason, choose not to come out. Not everyone will choose to, nor should they. There are other ways that they can support our movement.
Every year on October 11, the LGBT community conducts National Coming Out Day. All across the country, events are held on college campuses and in communities to present opportunities for people to come out in safe and supportive environments. The day is a celebratory event, but also elevates the value of coming out as an act of political importance.
As the recovery advocacy movement matures, there are lessons we can learn from those in the LGBT community who have done it before us. We all have closets to contend with. There are real challenges and real pain outside. But as more of us come out, the better it will be for the ones behind us.