by Ken J

Growing up a little gay boy in a small Nebraska town in the 1960’s, I think I was alcoholism waiting to happen. I actually did not know what was wrong for me. I just knew I didn’t fit in.

In 1969 I was actively escaping through reading anything I could find. I read about the Stonewall Riots in NYC. There were unfamiliar words in the article, so I got out the dictionary and looked them up. Even at that young age I identified and realized I was not alone. I got the message that one day I would be with people like me. I also somehow knew that I needed to keep this revelation to myself. And I began keeping secrets. Living a life full of secrets became a coping mechanism. The less people knew me, the less chance I would be rejected. Standing in the back of the room was safer than being in the front row. Hiding the truth about who and what I was also allowed me to be a person that I thought would be more accepted. Of course we all know that none of that works.

What worked for me was alcohol. It was the social lubricant that made life livable. I began my drinking at 13, sneaking drinks from my parent’s liquor cabinet and dipping into the vats of wine my sister and her husband were brewing on their farm. I would ride my bicycle the five miles to get to her farm, and then spend time in the root cellar with awful vintages of strawberry, rhubarb and cherry wines. And I loved it all.

I didn’t pretend to have a girlfriend, but I didn’t share who I was with everyone

At 16 I was accepted to spend a year as a Rotary Exchange Student in Brazil. It was my first geographic. Upon arriving in Brasilia in June of 1975, my host parents took me for lunch and ordered me a beer. I said, “I’m only 16.” To which my host mother replied: “There’s really no drinking age in Brazil.” I immediately knew that I never wanted to leave. My year in Brazil was brilliant. I found people who were very different, who had a value system much different from where I was from. I became a stronger person, and my self-esteem actually improved. Of course, I was drinking daily. Because I could.

I was able to find gay people in Brazil. Although it wasn’t really that accepted, there was a greater degree of tolerance. Especially in Rio de Janeiro. I spent the majority of my weekends there, on the beaches, in exclusive nightclubs, and in absolute dive bars. I learned very well how to be the model American Exchange Student Monday through Friday. And then wild gay party boy on the weekends. I truly led two lives.

After my year in Brazil, I went back to my home town in Nebraska. I finished my senior year then left for college, which was only 300 miles away. I felt like I was chained to that miserable town. Three years later I was invited by the University of Nebraska to seek education elsewhere. Another distinction accomplished. I became the first member of my entire family to ever be kicked out of college.

Three years after that, I had actually created a life for myself in Phoenix. I had a good career, a house with a pool, and a couple of cars. I also had a massive alcohol problem. I was 26 years old. One day, I just lost all sense of control and became delusional. I drank for two weeks straight. I cared about nothing but drinking. On the Monday morning after Halloween I took the first step in reaching out for help. I asked a woman I worked with to take me to the ER. She came and got me, took me to the hospital, dropped me off and said, “Don’t call me again.” And that was the beginning of my real life. Three days later on November 6, 1985, I went to my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. And I have been gifted with continuous sobriety from that day.

a good career, a house with a pool, and a couple of cars

My sobriety began in LGBT+ meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. At 26, I don’t know if I would have had the courage to come to AA if there hadn’t been gay meetings. And even if I had come, without gay meetings I might not have stayed. There was a safety that I needed. Fortunately my sponsor made it clear to me that I needed to become a member of Alcoholics Anonymous as a whole, not just a special interest group.

Service commitments became my thing. I loved working on conferences and panels. I spent nine of my first ten years in Intergroup. I was extremely active in both the gay groups and in the general AA community. But continuing with my life of secrets, I still led two lives. I had a gay life, and a straight life. That was the way it was for me in AA, at work, in school and with my family. Granted, I didn’t pretend to have a girlfriend, but I didn’t share who I was with everyone.

In 1996, when I was 10 years sober, they were planning the annual anniversary of Alcoholics Anonymous in Phoenix. The theme was “The Diversity of AA.” There were going to be six speakers, a newcomer, an old-timer, a Hispanic American, a Native American, an African American, and a gay person. I thought that was really progressive and amazing. Until they asked me to be the gay speaker.

He told me to get over myself

I’d been taught that you never say no to an AA request, so I agreed. But I wasn’t happy about it. I was faced with sharing my biggest secret, one I had been nurturing for 35 years. As the date got closer, my anxiety and frustration grew. I went to lunch with my sponsor, an older man with 40 years of sobriety. I said, “You know, the newcomer, the old-timer, the Native, Hispanic and African Americans don’t have to say why they are there. I actually have to say that I’m the gay speaker.”

He replied, “Oh, I think they already know.” He told me to get over myself. And it’s really that simple, isn’t it? We put so much time and energy into trying to be who we think people will like and accept. They are usually able to see right through our masks.

The anniversary night arrived, and in front of around 3,000 people I came out. It was like my breath stopped for a moment. Then my two lives began to come together.  I no longer had to hide. And that led me to be the man God meant for me to be, in all aspects of my life.

When I was fairly new, I remember my grand-sponsor, a woman named Gene L., telling me, “If you live this way of life, work the steps, and be an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous, there will come a day where you can hold your head up. You will find the dignity and the grace to be who you are. Who you are!” I am now 35 years sober, and Alcoholics Anonymous has given me exactly that: the peace of mind and the serenity of the soul to be who I am.

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