10.31.19 Tampa Bay Bureau Chief’s Desk

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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I’m nearly two years younger than the educational organization D.A.R.E., or Drug Abuse Resistance Education, and my early schooling reflects that. Preventative programming was all the rage in the early 90s.

D.A.R.E. was designed to provide students with the tools to resist drugs, alcohol and other high risk behaviors. It still exists today, albeit without the same fanfare, led by police officers in thousands of classrooms across the country. Among other things, it’s committed to helping students from kindergarten through grade 12 “resist peer pressure and live productive drug and violence-free lives.”

It’s exactly what I swore to do as a graduate of D.A.R.E. Ohio’s efforts in the fifth grade. During the ceremony I proudly pledged that I would avoid drugs and alcohol until the end of my days.

I didn’t. I wasn’t alone, however; decades of independent, evidence-based research deemed the program ineffective and found that few D.A.R.E. grads honored similar pledges. It’s one of the reasons the organization broadened its objectives in the early 2000s.

That’s not to say that the program was entirely ineffective; it was for me. I had no interest in alcohol until college, where I tried a 95% orange juice/5% vodka screwdriver (or 10) just before turning 21. I also avoided cigarettes for two more years until I was 23, nicotine being my particular drug of choice. It was a habit I finally kicked just over 10 months ago at 34, an age at which I can still barely stomach OJ.

D.A.R.E. wasn’t the sole reason I avoided drugs and alcohol. My late father struggled with addiction his entire life, a fact which contributed to his early death a few years ago, and my mother and step-father have been in recovery for decades. My parents were never shy about what substance abuse can do to a person, to those that love them or to innocent bystanders—for which I’m grateful.

Still, it didn’t stop me from having to take a sobriety test at the age of 26. As we often did, my friends and I had closed down Georgie’s Alibi, St. Pete’s former LGBTQ hotspot, after drinking far too much for far too long. I’d driven there from across town and then stubbornly drove home.

I didn’t go straight there, however, since I fell asleep at a red light—one that I nearly rolled through. It’s a fact that’s as horrifying to reflect on as it is to read, and one that I’ll likely have to write a dissertation about once my mother finishes this column.

Thankfully a police officer came to my aid, jolting me awake with the flash of his red and blue lights before I could hurt myself or anyone else. He called me a cab, towed my car and warned me not to do it again.

I haven’t and I won’t, though I still drink. My husband and I just don’t drive afterwards, not even after one. It’s remarkably easy given the advent of ridesharing services; we still go out on the weekends, we just do it responsibly.

In the last three months, we’ve spent around $200 on Lyft rides. By comparison, a first offense DUI can result in up to nine months in jail with $2,000 in fines—and that’s before lawyer fees and if you don’t kill yourself or someone else.

It’s something that’s weighed heavily on me as of late. Too many members of the LGBTQ community drink and drive, and too many of us remain silent about it. It’s never been excusable, but there’s no reason for it in a world of Lyft and Uber. I think it’s time that our community is more vocal about that fact and I’ve pledged to be. I D.A.R.E. you to do the same.

We focus on another danger facing the LGBTQ community in this issue: conversion therapy, which purports to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. We talk to Tampa Bay and Central Florida survivors of the discredited practice as cities throughout Florida battle to ban it.

Another battle is underway in Tampa Bay news, as Hamburger Mary’s Tampa alleges that discrimination from the Dept. of Health in Hillsborough County led to its closure in a new lawsuit.

We also head to the second annual Venice Pride and in Central Florida news, honor the late and legendary entertainer Carmella Marcella Garcia.

In Arts and Entertainment, we check into “The Gay Bed & Breakfast of Terror” with director Jaymes Thompson ahead of Tampa’s Spooky Empire. We also go singing at Savoy in Orlando.

Watermark strives to bring you a variety of stories, your stories. I hope you enjoy this latest issue.

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