05/11/2015 03:11 pm ET Updated May 11, 2016

Happy, Sober and T

May 5, 1998 is the last time I drank alcohol or took a drug.

I was an unemployed film worker, living in a giant house in the suburbs we couldn't afford. That evening, I had a singularly pathetic Cinco de Mayo party with a bottle of Sauza Extra and a twelve-pack of Bud Lite.

After years of denial, I was done. The next day, "el seis de mayo," I went out and found a group of people to help me.

It had been a little more than a year earlier that I had told my wife and a therapist about a secret I'd held tight since I was eight; I wanted to be female. I didn't know it yet, but a big part of getting sober was going to be about accepting who I was.

Homosexuality had only been decriminalized in the Los Angeles of my early youth for a few years when it was slowly dawning on me that I was more female than male. I was horrified; I thought I was the only boy on planet earth who wanted to be a girl. There no role models for me except absurd ones or whispered-about "perverts."

Gender was a fortress at the end of the fifties. Nothing was worse for a boy than being called a sissy, a fag, a little pussy, or worse; a girl.

I felt alone and hopeless, and at the age of nine or ten, I solemnly swore to myself no one would ever know how I felt, ever. I gradually created a persona that was mostly invisible; I wasn't terribly athletic or a great student, and didn't hang out with any particular crowd. I had fewer and fewer friends as I moved on to high school.

I went away to college in 1969 at the peak of youth rebellion. I found a way to fit in; Alcohol, drugs and rock n' roll. Drugs and alcohol provided two critical things for me; a way to belong socially, and release into oblivion from what I feared most; the nascent woman within.

What was I afraid of? Exposure. Humiliation. Rejection. Shame. Losing my family. Perceptions installed by a terrified preteen in a dysfunctional family; I didn't know what else to do. I hated myself for who I was afraid I was.

I came back to Los Angeles and got a job working in a film lab; my dad knew a guy.

I now had money for weed, Stoli, Tequila, beer and record albums. I eventually joined another dysfunctional family; the main workforce of the film industry; the world's best-paid, best fed labor camp. I began to get into relationships with one alcoholic woman after another; we always broke up because of my crazy hours and drugs.

I always tried on their clothes when they weren't home.

I was making thousands of dollars and spending it on cocaine and in sushi bars where I would sometimes consume twelve sakes and two or three twenty ounce Sapporo beers. I drank with efficient urgency.

I met my wife at a self-help seminar, though our paths had crossed; one of the first times she saw me, I was at a wedding and had a bottle of Champagne in each hand; she knew what she was getting into.

We had kids. We bought a house, and life was pretty good, although work was always iffy. I stopped doing cocaine, which felt very adult and responsible. My drinking continued unabated.

At the therapist, my wife and I agreed I could go to support groups for my "thing" as long as I dressed out of the house. I knew of a place where I could do that, and I stepped out into a cold night in December dressed the way I'd wanted to be my whole life. Where could I go and be with my people?


Bars were where trans people were, and still often are. When I began to go out for "support" that's where I found it.

I was soon going out at least two Saturday nights a month, then more. I fell in with a crowd of bad girls; I was elated. I was smoking cigarettes for the first time in my life; I was finally getting to authentically be sixteen at age forty five. The girls I was hanging with all drank like fish, so I fit right in. My wife somehow knew that this was something I had to do and let it be.

It was a dizzying mix; my latent sexuality was blossoming, my expression was flowing and I was having fun. Bars are a central part of LGBT culture because it is often the one place where we can express ourselves openly without fear; we are simultaneously vulnerable, affectionate, angry and defiant.

We all overdid everything. All of us drank into blackouts more than once.

After I got sober, I still needed to hang out, so I went back to the bars. I still dressed like a slut, but I drank tonic water and lime. I drove my friends home and looked out for them.

Hanging around in a bar is not a recommended way of getting sober, but sobriety is rooted in finding authenticity as much as it is in abstinence.

LGBT people have much higher substance abuse problems than the general population. We live in a culture that tacitly encourages our self-hatred; we are more likely to kill ourselves, be killed and experience workplace discrimination because of who we are. Sobriety in a world of pain is conditional; moment by moment, day by day. It's not about perfection; we are not saints.

I took a celebratory coin to mark my seventeenth year from my sober friends, yesterday; embossed on one side are the words "to thine own self be true." There is no cure for being who we are; being who we are is key to recovery -- any recovery.

I like to think of my recovery, and self-love, as a revolutionary act.