How getting sober helped me embrace my queer identity

Keegan Williams
Keegan Williams. Photo provided by Keegan Williams

I woke up in a daze. I stumbled to the bathroom and saw my face was swollen, caked in dried blood. After cleaning up, I visited my friends in their bedroom and pleaded for forgiveness.

It was July 12, 2018. I was staying at their apartment while preparing to make a 60-mile move across Colorado.

I had gotten too drunk. Again. I ended up falling in their bathroom in the middle of the night. When they got up to see what happened, I mistook their concern for judgment and yelled at them, so they told me. I didn’t remember.

In our college days, we’d all get a little sloppy. It was fun! We liked to party. After graduating, they started to drink moderately, just on weekends. My drinking habits escalated.

I’d made a handful of alcohol-fueled missteps in their company, and they’d always been able to look past them.

As I stood at the foot of their bed, trying to explain myself with tears in my eyes, I saw the exhaustion in theirs. I was met with no smiles or nods of understanding. It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with my mom a month prior, after blacking out at a family event in Nebraska. She was angry, and there was no longer much room for compassion. We’d been through that. 

The people in my life were no longer putting up with my destructive habits, and I knew I might finally have to seriously reckon with a life-changing action that I’d never been able to successfully tackle before: I needed to quit drinking. 

The move ended up being the most important decision I’d make in my adult life, offering opportunities I’m certain I wouldn’t have been able to take on otherwise. It was also pivotal in my ability to fully actualize my identity as a queer and trans person, something I’d been unable to wholly confront until that point. 

As I approach my first five years booze-free, I see just how much my life has changed, and how little of it would have been possible had I kept drinking. 

The person beneath the addiction

Keegan Williams
Keegan Williams. Photo provided by Keegan Williams

I returned home to Northern Colorado that July evening, exhausted by the previous night and the realization of what was to come. I quickly connected to my sober friends, religiously listened to a recovery podcast during my hour-long commutes to and from work, and begrudgingly began attending Alcoholics Anonymous every day. 

A few weeks after that fateful night, I moved to Denver. It was my first experience living in a big city, and in retrospect, it was the stepping stone that got me to Los Angeles in 2020.

It took me years to have the confidence and self-assurance to even move across the state, so moving across the country seemed entirely unattainable during my drinking days. I often reckon with the numerous instances I blacked out in the familiar streets of Fort Collins and miraculously found my way home or, plainly, the obscene amount of money I was able to drop on my habit at the time given my fairly low rent.

By Spring 2019, I started to introduce routines into my life that I had always known I’d wanted but could never actually bring myself to do. I embraced a vegan diet and started working out. I walked everywhere, all the time, and got a sort of “high” simply from that activity. 

To feel a sense of fulfillment just by taking care of myself, by elevating some of the most simple things in my life, it was almost like its own recreational drug. When years of my life often boiled down to when I was getting my next drink, this new sense of clarity was often overwhelming but also invigorating.

As I stowed away my first six months of my sobriety, the way I thought of myself began to shift, too. I’d lived the span of my adult life unable to interrogate the stagnant, unchallenged version of myself, stunted from my teenage days, and finally, I was able to examine the person beneath the addiction.

Alcoholism Stunted My Personal Growth

Keegan Williams
Keegan Williams. Photo provided by Keegan Williams

I moved out of my parents’ house in March 2013, when I was 19 years old. Of course, I drank as a teenager, but it was fleeting: parties, prom, maybe sneaking some booze from the liquor cabinet and mixing with my dad’s Diet Mountain Dew whenever I had a friend over and felt a little rebellious.

Once I was on my own, it was different. I knew people who could buy it for me, and I started to make a habit of drinking by myself. It was part of an unfamiliar and exciting playground of possibilities as a young adult, and it was a time where alcohol and drug use still felt incredibly novel and “cool.”

Once I started drinking in a more problematic, untethered way, it was as though the rest of myself was just put on pause. Alcohol was my main gig; it was my identity. It didn’t give me extra space to think through my sense of self as I was shifting into adulthood. 

I came out as gay when I was nearly 14, and in 2007, I was one of maybe three out kids in my high school. It was a lot to contextualize on my own, but it was impossible to ignore. Looking back, it was fairly obvious I was queer, but at the time, I struggled immensely with confidence and embracing myself.

I most resonated with femininity and some of the popular goth and emo subcultures of the time, but this wasn’t reflected in how I showed up in the world. Like many teens, I tried on a lot of different costumes, or smashed them together, to see how they fit. 

Trapped in an Ill-Fitting Costume

Keegan Williams during their teen years
Keegan Williams’ teen years. Photos provided by Keegan Williams.

By 19, I was still fully figuring out who I was and who I wanted to be. I identified as a cis gay man. My wardrobe still felt like a discombobulated mish-mash of ideas, and I was more focused on how I was perceived socially than on how I actually felt. 

I buried interests because they weren’t commonly shared. I was in college, and while I was out as queer and still somewhat alternative, I dulled myself down to blend in just enough that I wasn’t alienating myself in this new chapter. 

As I ventured closer toward that fated sobriety date, I started to care a little less what people thought, but it didn’t translate to being a more authentic version of myself. 

Looking back, I see little fragments where I would try to embrace the more authentic elements of myself: the femme, the alternative, the overt queerness I see radiating in myself today, but it was a muted version. It went maybe 10% and fizzled out. 

By 2018, I was drinking every day. It often felt like self-medication, an easy coping mechanism to fall back on since I hadn’t really adopted any alternative, healthy options.

Drinking in excess allowed me to easily avoid confronting the issues plaguing my life and those elements of myself that I’d so deeply buried (at least until the anxiety hit me the next morning and the cycle restarted). Ironically, this strategy at the time felt safer and easier, and only in retrospect could I see how much harder the constant flow of alcohol truly made my day-to-day life. 

After work, it’s the only thing I focused on. If I wasn’t going out with co-workers to drink, I would stop by the liquor store and drink until I went to bed. My alcoholism left me no space to actually sit with myself, to decipher, “Is this the person I truly am? Who am I really? Who do I want to be?”

When I hit my personal “rock bottom,” it was the responses of other people that finally got me to re-evaluate. I didn’t even realize how far I’d strayed from my authentic self, how clearly unhappy I was as I drowned my problems with alcohol.

Shedding My Old Skin

Keegan Williams
Keegan Williams. Photo provided by Keegan Williams

By mid-2019, when I was more than six months sober, I began to figure myself out. I also realized that my past understanding of who I was did not line up with reality.

I was already using “queer” over “gay” to describe myself. Maybe it was another one of those little moments shining through before I could really contextualize it — today “queer” feels entirely encompassing of my sexuality, gender, identity and self, but initially it just felt comfortable and I didn’t think much more about it. As I approached a year of sobriety, I realized my sexuality was more expansive than I ever let it be before. 

I am attracted to people of all genders!

Men were just what I figured out first. I’ve always looked at women and femmes with a sense of appreciation and desire and maybe even a bit of jealousy — but it wasn’t until this time that I realized it was simply a different attraction, like two distinct colors or feelings under the same umbrella.

I also started to really unpack my relationship with my gender.

Any time I ever uttered the word “man” in relation to myself, it felt wrong. I had to force it out either with pseudo-confidence or like it was a joke. Even as a kid, being labeled as a boy always felt peculiar to me, but I didn’t dare question the adults in my life who did so. It never fit, but in the days of my active alcoholism, I never really cared to dig deeper. 

Once I’d given up booze, I thought about my gender all the time.

I’ve always been more in touch with my femininity. I feel much more like a princess than I do a warrior, but masculinity was thrust upon me. People see my body, my face, and in turn treat me as a man. Aside from some fleeting dysphoria, I’m generally pretty content with my appearance, just less content with how society tends to automatically categorize it.

Finding My Whole, Authentic  Self

Selected works by Keegan Williams
Selected works by Keegan Williams. Artwork provided by Keegan Williams

2020 was a queer and trans awakening for many folks because of the pandemic. With the unprecedented amount of time to sit alone at home inside our own heads, it offered many queer and trans folks abundant time to confront and come out with their authentic selves. I had already opened the floodgates on these pieces of my identity after sobriety, and the consecutive months spent alone during the pandemic only worked to intensify these conversations.

My style changed drastically. I discarded my plain clothing and began to fill my closet with an array of pastels, florals, patterns, crops, and skirts. I started to disclose to a few close friends that “queer” extended to my sexuality and my gender, even though I wasn’t quite ready to label it beyond that. 

I journaled all the time, something I hadn’t done since I was a teenager. I dug deep into my brain and really began to understand myself fully. Another common early-pandemic trope I embraced: I reconvened with my teenage self. 

I latched onto the things I loved but eventually dropped due to fear of peer judgment. I started to openly embrace bubblegum pop and the happy hardcore music I previously loved in secret, which later culminated in my regular habit of going out dancing. In addition to the soft and colorful styles entering my wardrobe, I reconvened with my inner emo kid and comfortably explored the more alternative and goth-leaning aesthetics I’ve always loved, the other side of my “style binary” so to speak. Beyond that, even though I was always out and open about my queerness, I allowed myself to overtly embrace some of the more feminine elements of myself, increasingly less concerned with how palatable my queerness was to others around me and more concerned with what felt genuine and comfortable to me.

In the midst of it all, I made the decision to move to Los Angeles. I remember back in 2016 thinking I might never leave Northern Colorado. I’d been there my entire life. It was safe. It was familiar. It would have allowed my addiction to thrive for longer, and I wouldn’t have to face the discomfort of growth.

By 2019, the thought of staying in my home state for the rest of my life made me sick to my stomach. 

Despite the raging pandemic (and the fact that I wasn’t even able to visit the city I was moving to before I made the plunge), I ventured more than 1,000 miles west to my new home in Hollywood in September 2020. A few close friends knew that I was nonbinary, but I officially came out five months after moving and announced my updated pronouns (they/them).

When I think through the past iterations of myself, I see that this is the way I’ve always been. I never fit into the boxes that, even as an out gay kid and young adult, I so desperately attempted to.

While this new clarity was largely due to my recovery, I admit that a lot of it is simply my age and how long it took the world to catch up with the broader spectrum of LGBTQ+ identity. I’m sure if the language was around when I was growing up in the ‘90s and 2000s, if trans and nonbinary representation were more easily accessible, I might have had the realization before I started drinking.

I also recognize the sort of second adolescent era that many queer and trans people experience, hitting their mid-to-late 20s and embracing a new sense of self that they were unable to fully embody as teenagers.

That said, I’m sure I would have fully realized my identity sooner in my adult life had I not been so bogged down by my alcoholism.

At my core, I’m the same person I was before sobriety, of course, but all of the excess, all the sludge I was dragging behind me, compounded from the confused and insecure years of the past, is gone. In any given year of my five years of sobriety, I grew and experienced more profound self-actualization than the entirety of my adult life prior. 

As eerie as it is to imagine the stifled, lost person I would be today without sobriety, it sheds light on my endless gratitude — to finally have an honest relationship with myself, to know who I am and be entirely open to the person I have yet to become.

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