They like to party — without the booze. A new LGBTQ social club is drawing the sober, the sober curious, and drinkers looking for a break from the bar sceneFebruary 21, 2020 9:46pm

Feb. 21-- CHICAGO-Phoebe Claire Conybeare left alcohol behind in 2017, and with it many of her friends in the LGBTQ bar and party scene.

"I was just so desperate for connection with other queers," said Conybeare, 30, of Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood.

When she learned that another member of her young women's sober-curious meetup, Hollie Lambert, identified as queer, she was thrilled. Conybeare and Lambert, 27, hit it off at a lunch that morphed into a six-hour conversation. They had so much in common, Conybeare said, from problems with alcohol, to embracing sobriety, to yearning for a connection with other LGBTQ people who had walked the same road.

"What we missed was just hanging out and partying, and we wanted to have that kind of environment, but not to go to a bar or party where there would be drugs and alcohol," Conybeare said.

Unable to find a sober LGBTQ party scene in Chicago, they formed their own, Chicago Queer Sober Social, and boldly planned their first event. They would have been happy to have drawn one guest, they said, but in the countdown to last month's inaugural event at Colectivo Coffee in Logan Square, the buzz built, both on Facebook and in local LGBTQ groups.

Some guests arrived more than an hour early, according to Conybeare, and at the end of the evening, more than 100 people had crowded into the coffeehouse, some proudly sober, some interested in sobriety and many of them social drinkers who cheerfully abstained for the night in the hope of enjoying a more sincere social scene.

A deaf person showed up, as did LGBTQ people of all races, sexual orientations, genders and gender expressions, Conybeare said.

"We are so excited," said Lambert, a software engineer. "We feel like it's the birth of this whole movement."

The pair booked a larger venue, Reunion Chicago in Humboldt Park, for a second party Tuesday night that drew 90 people.

Alcohol and queer identity have been interwoven for decades, with many events, from parties to drag shows to Pride parades, involving heavy drinking. Studies indicate that LBGTQ people are at a heightened risk for alcohol and substance abuse, with researchers pointing to discrimination, violence and stigma as likely causes.

Conybeare, a sales analyst, grew up closeted in a small town in Michigan. Her cover was that she was an ally, or a strong supporter of gay rights. Her secret was that she was in love with her best friend, a girl.

She came out of the closet eight years ago when she moved to Chicago but kept her sexual identity secret from some of the people in her life.

"I found I was spending so much time with my queer people, drinking and partying-it was the only way I felt connection. And I was still dying inside because I wasn't integrating my life," by being consistently open about being queer, she said.

She rejects the label alcoholic but said she experienced alcohol addiction, from which she says she is fully recovered. The turning point, she said, came in November 2017, when she went out drinking with friends. Her partner, who has epilepsy, stayed up waiting for her, even though sleep deprivation put him at risk for seizures. Conybeare came in so late that her partner only got two hours of sleep, and the next morning he had a seizure and hit his head.

"There was blood, and I just was like ... I have to stop (drinking)," she said. "It wasn't for (him), it was for me. It was seeing my actions were really affecting somebody I cared about."

Today, she said, she has strong negative views on the marketing of alcohol, and hates that drinking has become almost synonymous with queer liberation.

"I feel very strongly that people are hungry for connection and are starting to see through the lie that alcohol has sold us," she said, referring to the idea that drinking is in some way feminist, or a way to celebrate your identity as a sexual minority.

Lambert, who describes herself as in recovery from alcohol addiction, said that she's been sober for 3{ years.

"I just realized at a certain point I didn't want to use alcohol to numb my emotions," she said.

The atmosphere at the first Chicago Queer Sober Social was loud and lively, according to Conybeare, with many participants saying they were drinkers who wanted to socialize in a different atmosphere.

"This is so nice," she said they told her. "I can actually talk to people."

"It felt very friendly and open," Lambert said.

"A lot of people were commenting on how different it was to have this space where you could approach a stranger and have a conversation, and the topics got really real. People were talking about mental health and topics that wouldn't come up if you were sitting with someone in a bar."

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