Clean Sober and Proud started in Metro Vancouver, but it's setting an example across North America

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      Giuseppe Ganci can remember when Pride wasn’t much fun for people in recovery. After spending his younger years partying with alcohol and drugs, he managed to go clean more than a decade ago with the help of the New Westminster–based Last Door Recovery Society.

      Fresh out of rehab 11 years ago, he and eight other Last Door alumni headed off to Pride in Vancouver, hoping to celebrate with their community.

      “It was really my first Pride without substances,” Ganci, Last Door’s director of community development, told the Georgia Straight by phone.

      But after watching the annual parade through the West End, they felt out of place. That’s because all their friends were getting drunk and all the parties were in nightclubs.

      “Because we didn’t drink and do drugs, there was this feeling like it wasn’t our Pride anymore,” Ganci recalled. “We didn’t stay downtown.”

      Understandably, they didn’t want to be triggered into relapsing into drugs and alcohol. But rather than feeling sorry for themselves, they regrouped and decided to do something positive about it. Their discussions led to the birth of Clean Sober and Proud, which was the Last Door alumni’s way of reclaiming a festival that had meant so much to them before they went into treatment.

      It started with the group borrowing a truck, filling it full of balloons, and joining the next year’s Pride parade.

      “We danced and we had the time of our lives,” Ganci recalled.

      In the early years of Clean Sober and Proud, some were reluctant to join the festivities because they didn’t want to be outed as an alcoholic or addict. According to Ganci, 20 people participated in the second year and 30 people in the third year, dancing wildly to pulsing music blaring out of loudspeakers.

      “Fast-forward 10 years later: it’s now hundreds of people involved in the Pride float,” he said. “The ripple effect has been felt in other cities across the country and in the States. They’ve seen what we do and they’re entering recovery floats in parades.”

      Seven years ago, the Last Door alumni launched the Untoxicated Street Festival at Pride for those not interested in boozing in the clubs. At first, it didn’t attract very many people. “We couldn’t even give away tickets,” Ganci said. “Nobody wanted to go. They wanted to go to the bars.”

      This year marks the 10th anniversary of Clean Sober and Proud. And the Untoxicated Street Festival has become a roaring success. On the evening of August 5, it will feature one of RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants, Trixie Mattel, along with many other entertainers at the corner of Bute and Davie streets.

      Untoxicated also offers an opportunity for people at Pride to ask questions about recovery, whether it’s for themselves or for family members or friends.

      “Our committee of nine people really started a conversation where it’s okay to be clean and sober,” Ganci said.

      Watch this video of Clean Sober and Proud, which was created last year.

      In this regard, he suggested that the growing popularity of Clean Sober and Proud and Untoxicated mirrors the evolution of the LGBT community. In the 1980s and 1990s, Ganci said, some avoided attending Pride because they didn’t want to reveal their sexual orientation in public. Then about a decade ago, people battling addiction weren’t keen to have this publicized by jumping on the Clean Sober and Proud float.

      “There was the exact same conversation: ‘How about if people see me?’ ” he noted.

      But eventually, Ganci said, it became cool to be clean and sober.

      “It’s happened dozens of times where I’ll go to a meeting or I’ll be somewhere and I’ll have this person say, ‘Hey, I was at Pride a couple of years ago—fucked up—and saw your float. And something happened and I decided to go into rehab, and I’m like a year clean now,’ ” Ganci said. “It’s a pretty cool feeling.”

      He added that Untoxicated attracts people who never had any problem with addiction but who don’t want to get obliterated during Pride.

      Clean Sober and Proud is one of many events organized by Last Door, which offers residential rehab-treatment programs for male adults and male youths. There are also adjunct rehab-treatment programs for families and partners of all ages and genders.

      The cofounder and director of development, Louise Cooksey, told the Straight by phone that when people complete treatment, it’s important for them to feel like they’re part of a viable community. She emphasized that Last Door aims to reduce the stigma for people in recovery. It also helps them avoid the feeling that they’re invisible, which is another way of being stigmatized, according to Cooksey.

      The society’s staff rely on a large number of volunteers to help the programs succeed.

      “I think one of the biggest overlooked resources we have in our fight against these overdoses and addiction is people with lived experience who are successfully clean,” Cooksey said. “You don’t hear from them very often. I think we need to hear from them.”

      The Untoxicated Street Festival is a free Pride event taking place from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the corner of Bute and Davie streets next Sunday (August 5).