As the last feature during our celebration of Pride this month we interviewed Andrew Cao, a LGBTQIA+ identifying student in recovery.
*Trigger warning: this blog contains personal testimony of experiencing homophobic and racist treatment.
Interview with Andrew Cao
Q: What unique challenges have you faced in your recovery as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community?
Andrew: There are several unique challenges I have faced in my recovery as a handsome asian bisexual young man. I’d like to mention first that the loneliness I have faced in my experience has been present throughout.
I attend 12-step peer-to-peer support groups and they are, in my area at least, white and straight. Looking out in the room and seeing no one reflected back that looks like me is depressing. I am okay most of the time but when thinking about it, it does bring up this sadness. Having little to no one to share my identity as a POC and a member of the LGBTQ+ community also has left me often too apathetic to correct any micro insults about my identity. The comments like,”I don’t care you’re gay,” or, “race doesn’t matter.” Well intentioned but its impact is erasing me.
Another unique challenge is coming out to my recovery community. Before I was out, I often heard homophobic and heterosexist comments. I still do. Something about knowing the attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community from the community, and still knowing I had to come out otherwise I would relapse, creates a conflict that I would say was traumatizing. It wasn’t just a personal decision anymore to come out but a political one. I had to tell everyone this is who I am and I should still be accepted. Additionally, as a POC I have a harder time still finding shared experience. Even in the gay meetings, often it is still white. Never-mind finding another asian who’s queer and in recovery, although I have met someone and I love them (shoutout to Gillian).
Another challenge I find is in the way I can meet romantic partners. It is through free dating apps only since I avoid gay bars and nightclubs because I cannot stand kissing a drunk mouth. I have encountered racism in these dating apps and drugs as well. Actually, some profiles are only dealers and buyers of drugs or underage drinking. That’s what you get when using a free online service that reveals your location (Grindr). Lastly, the one huge argument I had with my friend growing up in recovery was related to this. He told me it was shallow and sad to be on free dating apps and having multiple romantic partners. Without anyone else to back up my experience, I was left to defend myself. And at the time, I was not understood by him. I am not even sure I am today.
Q: What barriers do you think LGBTQIA+ people face in seeking recovery?
Andrew: First to come to mind is housing. Have they been accepted in their original home or have they been kicked out? The truth is a harsh reality that when coming out, a significant phenomenon is getting kicked out of the house. Second is treatment itself. I don’t know anything specific off the top of my head but I believe little research is out there on treating LGBTQ+ with substance use disorder. Even less if there is an additional identity layered on top such as BIPOC.
By the way, to anyone who thinks it doesn’t matter, it does. Without proper training and experience, it is awkward to talk about marginalized identities and that will be reflected between client and counselor.
Another barrier I can think of is finding a supportive recovery community that is liberating for LGBTQ+. I have not found such a place. The best I can think of is looking somewhere online or moving to the city. I haven’t done so yet because my nose has been in the books, but this has been the dream and why I go to school.
The last barrier I’m considering is the lack of voice we have in the recovery community. When is my voice reflected in the pamphlet or magazine? This leads me to having to do a lot of my own exploration to hope and guidance in literature. I am so grateful that I went to school to become a clinical social worker because it was there that I found resources that have been so helpful in navigating my complex identities.
Q: How inclusive has your experience been within a CRP?
Andrew: I met a couple of other POC in the LGBT+ community within my CRP and that is amazing. However, my struggles shouldn’t be ignored. My first year, I heard “fa——” tossed around in the game room and at least one student never spoke to me. I’d like to think I am pretty approachable and present normally, and it’s in that confusion that I question if it’s because I’m queer. Even if not, being ostracized like that is painful.
I am lucky to have a recovery house on campus where 30 of us lived my first year. It was roomy enough to find your own group and get comfortable, but small enough to see when you’re not welcome. However, nothing besides whatever the campus had in terms of policy protected me. There was no writing asking the CRP to aspire to be anti-racist or anti-heterosexist. Also, the therapists and director may have asked me what it is like being a POC and LGBTQ+ in the CRP, but never have I been asked by a fellow member. I have had to assert it myself and just hope it would be welcomed. It has been at times but there is always that chance that the person I know won’t welcome my experience. That’s scary. But it is just part of it all. Coming out fully and unapologetically always will be triggering. There is no getting around that. Again, for me it is still better than the alternative where I live in secrecy and shame.
Q: In what ways can CRPs and campuses work to be more inclusive and representative of your perspective and experiences?
Andrew: This was my focus for the second year living in collegiate recovery housing. I wanted for all in the space to be liberated. I didn’t have that language at the time, but I knew something had to change. There was too much pain. Whether I was successful or not I have not measured, and today I am laughing at my failures trying, but hey I tried.
As far as how to increase representation from campuses and CRPs of my perspective and experience I do not know if that is possible in the near future. College is white and straight privilege. If someone had the answer to actually justly redistribute the power and wealth in this country then it is that someone that could give the answer. That’s complex.
As far as what a CRP can do I have tried a couple of actions and have some ideas there. Starting the second year, I created a core group that would host bi-weekly house meetings. I used Brene Brown’s book ‘Dare to Lead’ as a theoretical template for this group. This core was to uphold community values and aspirations. At the time, I did not have the language to describe anti-racism and anti-heterosexism which I regret looking back. The main idea was for the core to establish the cultural norm in the CRP though, and I think that was achieved. It took work. I had to be willing to reach out to everyone in the CRP. Even those that never reached out to me. Then I had to take action, all in a short amount of time.
Still nursing old wounds from resentments was a complex work and was all done in my little amount of free time. It was hard but I was advised by the director it would be better.
An idea I have for how CRPs can be more inclusive is having an event where everyone attends where a consultant is brought in to host an anti-racist and anti-heterosexist workshop. Lastly, I believe that the most amount of resources should go to those with the least amount of resources. Insofar as counseling and support goes, a little extra TLC can go a long way for the first year member who is in pain and confused about whether they truly belong or are welcomed in the CRP.
I am fortunate that since first coming to the CRP, I felt brave enough and was safe enough that I was open and assertive about my identity. I figured this would give everyone the chance to prepare how to best support me (or get out of my way).
Q: Which resources have been particularly helpful to you?
Andrew: Particularly helpful resources was having an outside private practitioner therapist work with me year round during my involvement in a CRP. Their expert knowledge as a clinical social worker helped me shape my understanding of community and what I was experiencing. Also, the function of a dedicated group of professionals from the campus supporting the CRP is paramount to its success. As an LGBTQ+, cultural competency from them is specific to my successful stay. Another huge resource was the chance for servant leadership. I think giving back to a CRP is a duty, second to a joy. Having the opportunity to be a visible member is empowering and I think any CRP should allow that for the liberation of all identities.
Q: If you could offer words of support to LGBTQIA+ folx thinking of joining a CRP what would you say?
Andrew: Hey! I think I know what it’s like to be afraid of being unseen, unheard, and again scared to show your voice. You are worthy, you belong, and you are beautiful. College is going to go by fast and the memories you create with the recovery community will be cherished. I had no idea I was going to but I have made the best of friends and my education has enriched life beyond belief. Be kind to yourself and be brave. Find and lean on your supports. They will be spirit saving. You are not alone because I’m here for you. My first time meeting the community, I was so scared and lonely. The best wisdom shared with me was that everyone else is too. That’s just being human. The truth is I found, they were lucky to have me. And you too.