In 1969, an AA group for gay alcoholics in Los Angeles met for the first time. The six men gathered together that evening chose the name “Alcoholics Together” for their group. Membership in the Alcoholics Together group grew rapidly. Soon there were Alcoholics Together meetings starting in other parts of Los Angeles. Throughout Southern California in the 1970s and 1980s, and in cities as far away as Boston and Toronto, Canada, the words “Alcoholics Together” and its acronym “AT” became synonymous with gay Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
The Alcoholics Together groups in Southern California used a unique meeting format that included what was known as the “double anonymity clause.” At AT groups the secretary opened the meeting by reading:
Hello everyone, this is the Wednesday Night AT meeting. My name is __ and I am an alcoholic and a homosexual. This is a meeting for alcoholics and their gay friends. However, we ask that only alcoholics participate in the discussion. If you do not wish to identify as gay, the secretary will direct you to another meeting.
Following the Serenity Prayer but before “How It Works” was read from Chapter 5 of Alcoholics Anonymous, the secretary would read:
As I said before, I am __ , an alcoholic, and a homosexual. We will now go around the room and identify ourselves, starting on my left.
AT’s double-anonymity clause would become the focus of much debate in AA.
[Jerry got sober in 1968.]
There is a saying in AA, “Until we gave up our old ideas, the result was nil,” and one of my old ideas was that I couldn’t stay sober because I was gay. Finally, when I identified with the other gay people who were staying sober, I had to give up that old idea.
In 1968, I was going to meetings in San Francisco. l still wasn’t out to anybody. This was my little secret. Apparently, I wasn’t keeping it very well, because Don, Gordon, Roland, and some of the others (gay AA members) befriended me.
I talked to them about this horrible secret I was keeping. I’d had five years in AA, and many, many slips, keeping my secret. I believed God wasn’t going to help me at all. They convinced me that God would help me stay sober, and that I could be gay and lead a productive life, so I starting having a more healthy life, stay sober the most I can and I even exercise and take supplements as korean red ginseng to keep the body clean. I was part of the need they saw for a meeting where being gay could be talked about openly.
But the thinking was that I was an example of the gay people who weren’t making it in straight AA. [Laughing] It’s my fantasy to think they said, “Okay, we really need a gay meeting to help this turkey along!” But it was their nurturing, encouragement, and friendship that helped me.
I never thought of myself as self-supporting. I knew that once people found out I was gay I would never be able to advance or participate [in society], yet here [at the Fell Street meeting] were some very successful people …. I’m not saying my head was turned by wealth, but that my excuses for not getting sober were no longer valid. I’m a drunk. I’m a queer. Why should I even try?
Nobody confronted me. Just by their example they were saying, “Jerry, you’re lying to yourself.” There was a man at that meeting who ran __ ‘s first campaign for senator. It wasn’t that we became friends, but that he was so visible in his life. I thought, Wow. Senator __ is where he is today, in part, because of a gay campaign manager. Those people in the beginning, up on Fell Street, taught me how to be comfortable with myself, and that nothing was wrong with me. I was gay.
Some of the regular AA meetings in San Francisco were [attended] by a lot of gay people …. These meetings were very integrated; it wasn’t the gays on one side and the straights on the other.
How did you know that other gay people were there?
People weren’t out in the public sense. When they would speak from the podium, they wouldn’t say “my wife” or “my husband.” They would say, “My friend” or “My friend living with me.” They might say, “My roommate is driving me crazy!” So you’d think, If it’s your roommate, then just move! … And you’d put it together that they were talking about the turmoil of a romantic relationship. The turmoil wasn’t because they were gay. It was just the natural course of events, and the solution was to try to work it out through the Steps of AA and Al-Anon.
I arrived in Los Angeles in 1969 and started going to meetings here. Los Angeles has a huge gay population, and the meeting structures were very much the same as they were in San Francisco prior to the start of the Fell Street Group. I met gay people right away.
I hadn’t been in Los Angeles long when I saw an advertisement in The Advocate that said, “Gay friends of Bill W.? Call this number.” A man named Al B. had put it in. A bunch of us called, and we decided that we ought to meet. We met at Troy Perry’s house. Troy was starting the Metropolitan Community Church, and we met up in the attic because the living room was being used for services. There were six of us: Al B., Bob G., Jerry H., Jim 0., Lee F., and me ….
By the second or third meeting, we’d decided to try to list our group in the Los Angeles AA directory, but Central Office wouldn’t put the [letter] “G” for “Gay” in the listing, and that presented us with a dilemma. So we decided to call [our group] Alcoholics Together, and to tell the gay people we saw at regular meetings about it, and that’s how we spread the word ….
The idea was that we would have this thing called Alcoholics Together and attract gay people to meetings. It wasn’t to be looked upon as a competing program, but as a funnel. Gay people would be more comfortable meeting with other gay people, and … then they’d start going to regular meetings.
We quickly outgrew Troy’s attic. I don’t think we met there for more than a month because by the third or fourth meeting we just couldn’t fit any more [people into the room]. The Mary Lind Foundation offered us a place [to meet], and we moved to their Carondelet Halfway House. Carondelet had a big meeting hall and we filled up two tables in no time. Within a month or two there were thirty to thirty-five people attending on a regular basis. Then [the group] moved to an office building on Hollywood Boulevard, at Sycamore. We rented the room by the month, which allowed us to hold as many meetings as we could. Within six months of our first meeting on [Sycamore], there were 100 to 125 people. And when the women started to come around, it grew even more.
A year after [the six of us] first met, there were easily 200 people in Alcoholics Together, and meetings were starting in other parts of Los Angeles. The word was out, and the [Los Angeles] AA Central Office wanted to know what the hell was going on – what this “AT” thing was.
They elected a man named Don G. to attend our meeting, and it is my understanding that Don went back to the Central Office and said, “There’s nothing we can do about this meeting. It is a regular AA meeting. [Jerry laughs] And what’s more, the fact is that every guy I know in AA was there!” So Don was instrumental in not having AT perceived as a competitive program, and that was very important to me because my loyalties were with AA.
Since the first meeting was a men’s stag, by virtue of the fact that it was all men, we decided there ought to be a lesbian meeting. But there weren’t enough lesbians to have one, so Bob G. and I became honorary lesbians. We would sit with Marty, and some of the other women, and have a meeting, and it wasn’t long before there were enough women to have their own women’s stag meeting. [Laughing] So that was my only cross-gender experience!
When we moved to Sycamore Street we decided to refurbish the place, and everybody was supposed to come up on Saturday and help.
So Saturday I went over there, and as I’m walking up the stairs, I hear all this hammering, and ripping, and sawing, and I think, Oh, good, We are really doing it! And when I got to the top of the stairs I looked into the room. I saw two lesbians, holding a sink out from the wall, while a third one fixed the pipes. And across the room at the window, I see two guys hanging curtains. That was my first introduction to a different culture than the one I’d been dealing with all my life. Growing up on the streets of Brooklyn, then spending six years in the military, then coming out gay, I was in a state of cultural shock.
More AT meetings started to spring up around the city, and [we] began to hear [people] saying things like, “I’m sober one year, and I haven’t been to a straight AA meeting.” That’s how it dawned on us that AT had become a program unto itself or, rather, a structure of meetings unto itself. That wasn’t the intent, but AT had now taken on a life of its own. And, people were staying sober. So under the heading of “If it works, don’t fix it,” that’s what happened.
In 1974, the AA General Service Office in New York said they would list gay meetings in the World Directory so we would now be included in the book. Then, around 1982, the Los Angeles Central Office agreed to list us, if we became AA groups, so each AT group had to vote on whether to remain an AT group or become a standard meeting~ when you identified you would say, “I’m an alcoholic,” rather than, “I’m a gay alcoholic.”
There was a contingent of people who were very happy being in Alcoholics Together, and now they were being asked to give up their emotional ties to their sobriety, and their original identity. There was a certain level of comfort in being able to say, “I’m a gay alcoholic.” But being gay was not viewed as the problem. It could have complicated your alcoholism, but it neither caused it, nor was it the solution. That was always very clear at AT meetings.
The original six of us wanted the meetings to be standard AA with a “G.” We never would have had AT if they’d allowed us the “G” in the first place! So we split up, and went to every meeting to give our pitch. We covered them all, from the Valley to Hollywood. We told everyone that . . . we’d never meant for AT to be a competing program. Each group held a vote, and they voted overwhelmingly to rejoin AA, or, I shouldn’t say rejoin, but to become standard AA meetings.
Some of our financial processes had to be changed. For example, money from the Seventh Tradition basket would now go to AA, in the standard percentages because, by that time, we had our own published meeting list and our own answering service. The AT Center had to become an Alano Club, as opposed to AT headquarters. And the vote was that this would occur. The Alcoholics Together Alano Club in Los Angeles is still going today. No AT meetings are held there; Alcoholics Together is just the name they gave the Alano Club.
Do you know what prompted the Central Office to start listing gay groups when they did?
I think part of what brought on the change was that the Los Angeles Times was going to publish a story about it, and we had to ask them not to do so. We told them we didn’t consider it dirty linen, or a hassle, or discrimination, although it probably was. Because we knew that in other cities, like Philadelphia and New York, the Central Offices were listing gay meetings, so it was kind of surprising that Los Angeles wasn’t, and we certainly didn’t want that as a point of publication. Lee F. talked to the reporter, and it was agreed that we would work it out. Whether the reporter had already talked to Central Office, or if that was the motivation for them to come around, I don’t know. But by then, there was a lot of positive publicity about the gay movement. I think they were just waking up and coming to grips with reality. Let me give you an analogy.
When I was growing up, my father was in AA. He was not thrilled with my being gay, and for several years, I was estranged from my family. When I was living in San Francisco, I went to an AA convention in Berkeley, and I brought a friend with me to meet some of my family members, who were also attending the conference. My friend was effeminate, to say the least, and I introduced him around to everyone, saying, “Hi, I’m Ed B.’s son, and this is my friend Norman.”
I knew my parents were going to be upset, but I didn’t realize how much. My mother and father were taken aback by this boldness~ and they communicated that to me. Now fast-forward a few years. I’m living in Los Angeles, and I’m starting to talk to my family again, in a calm and loving way: and one day, I get a phone call from my father. “I want to come down and have lunch with you,” he says.
And [laughing] after I pick myself up off the floor, I tell him that would be okay. And my father flies down, just to have lunch. Over lunch he says, “I want you to call your friend Norman and tell him he should run for the [AA] Central Office job I have.” At the time, my father was the Northern California representative to the AA General Service Office in New York.
“Norman?” I say. “The guy I introduced you to in Berkeley?” “Yes.”
“What? Are you kidding?”
“No,” he says, “I’m not kidding. I want you to tell him. Norm just busts his chops for the program up there.” He tells me he’s on every committee, et cetera, et cetera. I got tired just listening to how much Norman did.
“Why don’t you ask him yourself?” I said.
“I did. He told me he won’t do it. He’s afraid he won’t get elected [because he’s gay].” My father had been involved in AA service for a number of years and was widely respected. “If I nominate him, they’ll vote,” he said.
So I called Norman. I said, “You’ve got the job, Norman. All that my father has to do is put your name in, and you’re elected.” But he wouldn’t do it. Still, I was taken aback by the turn in my father’s thinking: It took maybe six years, but there it was, and that showed me how powerful the program is.
I think a lot of people came around like that. They began to see how serious gay people were about their sobriety, and how hard they worked, doing [AA] service at meetings, at the Central Office, or as general service representatives. My father put himself on the line nominating Norman because there was going to be no mistake once he stood up that Norman was gay!
To see my father change from the terrible person I thought he was, to the open-minded, nurturing person he has become. I always thought my father’s mind was set in cement, then reinforced with rebar, with just a little more cement on it, [laughing] and I hate that he proved me wrong! But there it is. When I’m struggling with some thing, I always remember [my father]. I think, You can change, Jerry. If an attitude is holding you back, you can change.
I hope I haven’t given you the impression that I was any kind of a spearhead in all of these things, as much as I was just going along because, at the time, I was twenty-eight going on fourteen. Once I got to the meetings, I certainly participated on a physical, spiritual, and emotional level, but these were not my creations.
When I was about four years sober, a friend of mine, a roommate, was shot in my back yard. He was selling heroin. I was four years sober, and I wound up in jail. I had nothing to do with it, other than he lived with me, and I was only in jail for a day while the police investigated the shooting. But when I came out of jail, I thought, Hmm. This isn’t the way other AA people spend their afternoons.
So you see, I really am brilliant! When all else fails, read the directions. I took the Steps, as they were laid out, and my life has changed dramatically. I am employed. I’m a homeowner. I have strong family ties and friendships.
From time to time, you have incidences in your life that tell you why you’re sober. When I was a year old, the family put me up for adoption. My father’s sister took me in and saved me from the adoption process, and when my mother and father got back together, they brought me to [live with them] in New York. My aunt is now 103, and for the last several years, I have been her caregiver. So the circle is complete. But it couldn’t be, if I were drinking. These are the gifts of sobriety.
From “The History of Gay People in Alcoholics Anonymous” Published by The Haworth Press, Inc., 2007.