I am a transgender man and a recovering heroin addict. In March 2013, a dear friend and social worker picked me up from my ex-girlfriend’s house, where I was languishing on her sofa, stuffed with Ben and Jerry’s and what was probably fentanyl-enlarged heroin. It was one of the few times toward the end of my run when I was satisfyingly wasted. Still, I knew it was over; the junkie game is rigged for failure, and mine was destined to end in an institutional stay or death. Because I had a good friend looking out for me, I could choose the institution.
My experience in rehab in the RJ Blackley Alcohol & Drug Abuse Treatment Center in Butner, North Carolina, was largely positive. I was asked if I wanted to be on the men’s or women’s ward, a question that apparently was pure luck of the draw. Trans men who came after me were not necessarily offered this choice.
But after I was finished with the twenty-day treatment, I could find no halfway house, Oxford House (a group housing situation where recovering addicts self-regulate by following house rules), or other long-term rehab that had a place for an out transgender man. Calls were made but the lack of responses spoke volumes. Places that might have had space, such as homeless shelters, seemed terrifyingly unsafe.
Now there is a place in Durham where gay and queer and trans people can land. While it is a private institution with few openings, it is a far cry from anything I could find in 2013.
Daniel Wilson is executive director of LaVare’s House, the only recovery house in Durham whose focus is entirely LGBTQIA. LaVare was Wilson’s mother’s name. She suffered throughout her son’s addiction, enabling it on some days but always loving him, believing he would someday overcome. When she died, Wilson honored their relationship by creating LaVare’s House with money from her estate.
When I shared with Wilson the impossibility of finding a sober house after I got out of treatment, his animated response was candid in the way I recognize in sober people.
“If you asked me my opinion on transgender people [before LaVare] I would have told you they were confused,” he says. “But then I get into this thing here and start taking transgender people in, and boy, did my eyes open. I could open three houses today and have ’em full. That’s a crisis, in my opinion. People are concerned and sympathetic, but they’re like me before I went into this: they don’t know and they don’t understand. It’s gonna take education and time.”
The transgender population is notoriously difficult to statistically define. For starters, there is no one way to define “transgender,” and many of us cannot or are afraid to out ourselves. The one way statistics are conclusive is that transgender women of color suffer more violence, often leading to murder, than any other members of the LGBTQ community. Violence and death from outsiders loom large.
“I try to stay focused on the bigger picture, which is, try to get as many people sober as possible in the gay community, because I didn’t want people to have to get sober while they’re in the closet,” Wilson says. “When I was in an Oxford House, I would go to the gay bars on the weekend and ‘let myself be gay.’ I’d have one tonic and lime and just be gay and relax. That lasted a very short time until I was drinking and drugging again. I won’t blame my relapse on this, but what it did do was make me have secretsand for us addicts, keeping secrets is a deadly thing.”
The secrecy required for me to “pass” for male in treatment was exhausting. It was terrifying being in the general population with white supremacists, gang members, and good old boys. My recovery is a testament, in part, to my finely honed personal survival skills. But some trans and gender-nonconforming people may not have those skills. Recovery from addiction demands full-throttle focusa vulnerability and an honesty that preclude deception.
I spoke with a LaVare’s House resident named Marcus, a black transgender person who was five months sober. He had as complicated a nest of gender, sexuality, and presentation as anyonethe masculine pronouns are by Marcus’s choicebut he did share with me, emphatically, that as soon as his recovery had a firmer hold, he would transition from MTF. He shared with me that his pastor father had tried to “beat the gay” out of him.
It has been a joy to watch Marcus and other folks at LaVare’s House emerge from the seemingly self-imposed devastation addiction imposes to become something closer to themselves. For us, merely to be alive is sometimes miraculous. And to see gay, queer, lesbian, and trans people thrive, despite whatever drama and discomfort necessarily comes with learning how to navigate one’s healing mind, much less the world, is nothing short of triumphant.
This historical moment we find ourselves in offers some insight into how we might proceed, how communities transcend the bureaucracy, the draconian public policies, and the gambles our state legislature takes with our lives every day. Addiction recovery in the Triangle is a testament to the hardiness of Southern character, which has survived some of the worst our country has had to offer. Here in the South, we seize freedom with our own hands.
Sam Peterson is the author of Trunky (transgender junky): A Memoir of Institutionalization & Southern Hospitality, released in November 2016 by Transgress Press.