Sober Queer Spaces Are Giving LGBTQ+ People a Place To Just Be

Across the country, queer cafés, mixers and stores are providing options that aren't gay bars — and that's revolutionary

January 21, 2022
Sober queer café

On any given day in Los Angeles, LGBTQ+ locals and tourists have few choices when it comes to finding other queer and trans people — at least, in a space that’s not a bar. The go-tos, especially for cisgender gay men of legal drinking age, are gay bars, largely found in the tony city of West Hollywood. But for everyone else who identifies as LGBTQ+, such spaces are less than ideal, and for youth and those who are sober or in recovery, they aren’t an option at all.

That’s one reason Virginia Bauman and her business partner Iris Bainum-Houle opened Cuties, a queer-owned, -operated and -focused café in East Hollywood. Open daily from mornings into late afternoons, with events often hosted in the evenings, Cuties is an accessible, alcohol-free spot for LGBTQ+ people to just be — something Bauman says doesn’t exist much elsewhere in the city.

“There’s no comfort in loitering at the LGBT Center,” Bauman says. “There’s no reason that you need to have to be at Cuties; you don’t. And that’s one of the magic things about coffee — it’s incredibly accessible.”

Cuties might be one of a kind in Los Angeles, but it’s one of many sober LGBTQ+ spaces across the U.S., whether brick-and-mortar locations or pop-up events. Gay bars have long been a staple of queer communing, organizing, protesting and of course hooking up, but alcohol-focused environments aren’t ideal for a sizable facet of a community that also faces increased risk of addiction and substance abuse issues.

LGBTQ+ cafés and bookstores have also long been a large part of our history, of course, but they’ve also often been harder to sustain than nightlife venues, especially considering how much alcohol brands spend on courting the valuable pink dollar.

“The initiation into queer life usually involves alcohol and nightlife,” says Josh Hersh, a former wine buyer who lives in New York City. “But can we envision other ways?”

Last year, Hersh was inspired to create a project called Queeret, a “global movement” uniting queer introverts by providing monthly events called Qalm, which offer quiet, sober spaces for coffee and conversation. It was Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special “Nanette” that gave him the idea for Queeret, which he is currently working to expand into seven new cities.

“[Hannah joked] ‘Where do the quiet gays go?’ and when I heard that … it was sort of a lightbulb moment and it really spoke to something I was feeling,” he says. “I’d been in New York for about two and a half years, and when I heard that I was like, ‘Where do the quiet gays go? How do I find them?’ So it just felt like a really deep calling that I felt for a while.”

For both Bauman and Hersh, the sober aspect of their respective spaces was built into their initial launch, largely for accessibility. Cuties was always intended to be an intergenerational space, Bauman says, and Hersh, who no longer drinks, says he sees alcohol as antithetical to what introverts who come to his events are looking for.

“Alcohol can give you this feeling of being more brave or courageous, but at the same time it doesn’t lead to the same sort of connection that introverts really love,” he says. “It kind of gives a false sense of connection.” Hersh adds that introverts need environments that aren’t overstimulating, as nightclubs tend to be.

“When we’re able to create an environment that is not intense on the senses, then we don’t need [alcohol],” he says, “because we’re not struggling against the environment. When you feel comfortable and safe, then we can open up.”

This isn’t a notion specific to introverts, either. “You don’t have to be sober to want sober spaces,” Bauman points out. She said when they surveyed the options LGBTQ people had in L.A., she decided Cuties could “create more value … by focusing on spaces that lend themselves to being sober.”

“The more spaces we have that are not centered around an activity, that you don’t have to give a reason for being there, that’s a revolutionary thing,” Bauman says.

For more than a year, Cuties was home to a regular queer recovery group meeting, and they offer up their shop after hours to others who are in need of a space for gathering and support.

Another bonus to being a sober space is the accessibility for queer people of all economic situations.

“When people come to the city, we are one of the only visible places to go to meet people outside of an evening alcohol-centric event that is also cheap,” Bauman says, “and that is a big, big deal.”

Outside of Cuties and Queeret’s events, several other queer sober spaces have been able to provide that same opportunity for communing across the country. New York’s Bluestockings bookshop runs a regular event called Sober Queer Drink and Draw, and Safer Spaces NYC’s Sober Queer Mixer, is an alternative to club culture offering coffee, conversation and games at Think Coffee. Odd Fox Coffee in Greenpoint is gay-owned, as is Long Beach, California’s Hot Java, and a new queer Black-owned shop in L.A., Bloom & Plume Coffee, just opened right next to its preexisting floral arrangement shop. NYC’s Body Politic queer feminist wellness collective puts on regular events including book clubs, hikes and workshops, all alcohol-free.

There’s also plenty of opportunities for sober gathering outside of New York and L.A. Philadelphia is home to the historic LGBTQ+ and feminist bookstore Giovanni’s Room. There’s Back to the Grind in Riverside, California, and Queer Soup Night, a pop-up event based in Brooklyn but with events around North America, some of which are sober. In San Francisco, Wicked Grounds Kink Café and Boutique is completely sober, as is the legendary Castro Country Club, which serves coffee and sandwiches and also hosts daily 12-step meetings for those in recovery.

In the South, there’s events like Queer Kentucky’s Queer Sober Monthly Meetup and Yoga Practice, as well as Charlotte, North Carolina’s Comic Girl Coffee (which also sells comic books and graphic novels). Just a two-hour drive west will take you to the collective-owned radical bookstore Firestorm, a staple of Asheville since opening in 2008.

In the Midwest, locals love the queer-owned spaces Rainbow Bakery in Bloomington, Indiana, as well as Chicago’s Lakeview Rewired Cafe. In Hazel Park, Michigan, Studio Werq provides an open workshop space for LGBTQ+ people to access free and low-cost artistic programs, workshops, open studios and showings, as well as other alcohol-free events.

The Pacific Northwest has Seattle’s queer women-owned Squirrel Chops, while Portland, Oregon’s Grindhouse Coffee is alcohol-free. Denver’s Mutiny Information Coffee, which is open late, sells books and also serves as an occasional performance venue.

As with any space for marginalized people with a significant population who struggle financially, the difficulty lay in keeping doors open and events thriving. Cuties recently raised $12,000 in a successful Patreon campaign, but has still had to downsize staff to keep up with the cost of running a cash flow–positive business.

“We are working to build more business value so that we don’t have to rely on the Patreon forever,” Bauman says. “But the Patreon has given us time to figure that out, and we are rushing to find the answer.”

That said, Bauman doesn’t believe Cuties will be forced to close its highly necessary space in the near future. Their events are successful and followers are faithful, as dedicated to the space as it is to them.

“We just need spaces to be,” Bauman says, emphasizing that she loves L.A.’s other LGBTQ+-owned nonalcoholic businesses, like Folklore Salon and Project Q. “But you can’t just go in there and take up space,” she says of them. “It’s just not built for that and they have a business to run.”

“The more spaces we have that are not centered around an activity, that you don’t have to give a reason for being there, that’s a revolutionary thing,” Bauman continues.

As revolutionary, Hersh suggests, as gay bars.

“I think bars very much have a role to play still. I don’t think they should be shut down or anything like that. It’s not like subtraction, it’s addition,” he says, “creating more options, more spaces, for each other.”

This article originally appeared in them. Through the lens of today’s LGBTQ community, them provides news and commentary on topics ranging from culture and politics to style and entertainment.

Link to original article at them: Sober Queer Spaces Are Giving LGBTQ+ People a Place To Just Be | them.

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