We Are A Special Interest Group Within AA

Deirdre S. who for many years maintained the first international meeting list for agnostic AA groups, spoke at the We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers International AA Convention held in Austin, Texas in November 2016. Her talk about the history of special purpose groups in AA is extraordinary.  

00:01: Wow. Hello. Hi!

00:06: Hey, I’m Deirdre S, and I’m a cross-addicted alcoholic.

00:12: I’m so glad to be here, because after this week, I need a lot of meetings, and that’s what we’re providing. Okay.


00:26: I think I have everything I’m going to say written down, but no timers, please. I really want to thank the organizers. I organized many, many conferences, not in AA, but in other venues, and I know how difficult and challenging it is. I also want to thank the Board for surviving the process. It’s been two years in the making and it is so impressive. I’m happy that it came off, and it’s great to see old friends and to meet new people.

01:04: I’m not going to give a qualification tonight. If you want my qualification, that guy who’s recording this, he’s probably got copies out there because I gave it two years ago. I was trying to figure out what to talk about, and I prepared by speaking to some older members in New York, who knew the three people who founded the agnostic meetings in New York. I heard them, several of them, talk about special interest groups, and they had a lot to say about it. I thought about it, and that was different than what I was asking about, but I let the information sink in, and I ended up taking a dialectical materialist view of it. So, here it is.

01:58: When it comes to what the struggle is that we are in, it’s crystal clear. We are all, all of us here in this room and outside in AA as a whole, are in a struggle stay sober. We struggle to make certain that the hand of AA will always be there, and we are responsible for having it there for people who are hurting themselves with alcohol.

02:25: There’s no doubt that we represent a movement with a goal to further recognition and acceptance within AA for people who are agnostics, atheists, freethinkers and others. In a way we are just like women, just like African-Americans, just like the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members, the younger people, the seniors, the professionals, the special needs people, the Native Americans and others. We are a special interest group within AA.

02:59: Special interest groups themselves have a really interesting history and I knew nothing about it. They’ve been called special purpose groups or special composition groups, and there were arguments about whether there should be these groups at all within AA, or if they should be just called meetings, or if these meetings should even exist. There was discussion about whether there could be clubs or whether they should have a clubhouse. The language has been parsed to the nth degree, and I’m not sure I understand all of the minutiae of it.

03:38: Special interest groups themselves were controversial in AA for many years. There was a huge discussion about them in the mid-1970s, that led Dr. Jack Norris, Chairman of the General Service Board, in 1977 to say this, and I quote,

We have never discouraged AAs from forming special purpose meetings of any and all kinds to meet the needs of interested individuals, but we have been hesitant to consider as groups, those that might seem to exclude any alcoholic for whatever reason. Many members feel that no AA Group is special and therefore, no group should be labeled as such, even to give the impression that it is special. However, the fact that such groups do exist, these groups feel that labels serve the purpose of attraction, providing a double identification, and are not intended to imply exclusion of other alcoholics.

On the same issue, in October 1977, in the Grapevine, somebody named KS wrote,

Members of special groups are certain that many of their kind would never be able to get themselves to an AA meeting if they had to enter through a regular group. Whether or not we agree with this thinking, the point is that many alcoholics do believe it and they believe it seriously enough to form these special groups and make them work.

05:01: Now, I was talking to Bob F., in New York City, about his memories and experiences as a African-American atheist in AA. He told me that they recently found a letter at Intergroup at the office. They just uncovered this letter. It was from 1957, and it was written by a member of the Rivington group in Harlem, asking if black members could participate in the Intergroup delegates meeting. Isn’t that something? Now, the first meeting in Harlem was started in 1945, so this is 12 years later. Twelve years is a long time, and I don’t know what the answer was in the immediate… In that… From 1957, or how long it took. But what Bob told me was that, right up into the 1970s, there was de facto segregation existing in New York City. A black member of AA, could go to any meeting they wanted to, but they had to sit in the back, and they couldn’t share unless that was a meeting that catered to black members.

06:10: A lot of people know the book, Living Sober. That book saved my life, I tell you, Barry Leach, an old-timer and gay member in early AA, was the one who wrote that, and he also wrote, Do You Think You’re Different? He talked about the struggle for the lesbian, gay, bi, transgendered and queer, although it was just at that time called gay meetings to be recognized, listed and eventually embraced by AA. In 1937, just a few years after the creation of AA meetings, a man came in who was, and you’ll excuse the language here, a “sexual deviant.” A rancorous discussion exploded, and it only ended when Dr. Bob spoke in favor of letting the man in. Bill W, called Dr. Bob’s intervention the beginning of the Twelve Traditions. Bill said in 1968, it was the last time he got to speak at the General Service Conference, that the only pertinent question about an individual is whether the person is a drunk. If the answer is yes, then the person can be a member. Bill went on to say, “Now I think that the import of this on the common welfare has already been seen, because it takes even more territory into the confines of our fellowship. It takes the whole world of alcoholics. They’re charter to freedom, to join AA is assured. Indeed, it was an act in general welfare.”

07:46: So by 1945, there were enough alcoholics who are gay or lesbian to warrant the question of whether they should have their own meetings. The discussion went to Bill W, and the decision was put off. But you know, any good idea has legs, and it gets going anyway. The first exclusively gay meetings were held in a private home in 1971, but I suspect that there was a lot more going on underneath, that was happening anyway. The first one that was held in a public space was in a church in 1972.

08:30: Pressure was building on the General Service Office about listing gay meetings in the world directory. The question went before the Conference of Delegates in 1973, and there was a very hot and heavy discussion, so hot and heavy, that they tabled the matter for a year. That sounds like typical AA, right?


08:57: So, it came around again in 1974. There was another big nasty discussion. The most hateful terms about gay men and lesbians were thrown about. All of the other matters on the agenda were tabled because this discussion was going on so long. It finally ended when one of the non-alcoholic doctors on the Board of Trustees went to the microphone, and he asked the group, “I understand that when your people’s groups wanted to be listed, you didn’t go through all these shenanigans, did you?” And people said, “No, they hadn’t.” And he said, “Well, when the Women’s groups wanted to be listed, you didn’t go through this?” And again they said, “No.” And then he goes, “Well, why the hell are you guys picking on this guy?” And that ended the discussion.


09:56: So, they took a vote and with only two people opposing it, there were a lot… Two people from Toronto.


10:08: Oh joke.


10:11: Okay. So that’s 1945. The question comes up. 1945. It is settled in 1974, okay? 29 years, alright? You see a pattern here?


10:29: As for the assertation that it was easy for women to form a meeting of their own, that is not quite so. In Cleveland in 1941, women formed the very first special group to ask for and get recognition in AA. There had been a lot of resistance to women attending the meetings. A woman’s presence was considered a disturbing factor. There was worry about hanky panky.


11:00: Once it was accepted that women needed and could get sober in AA, the growth was explosive. The myth that AA wouldn’t work for women prevalent at the time was over. In the 1980s, there was an increase in the religious fundamentalism nationwide and that was reflected in AA. As a result, there was a controversy over special interest groups, and David L, told me about one in San Antonio, Texas. It came to a head at a local steering committee meeting, where a group of transgendered people had asked for their meeting to be listed. When the discussion was scheduled to come up, the steering committee swelled from the normal 30 people to 300 people. Some men there raised hell about women’s meetings again, and about gay meetings, saying that there should be no special interest groups. And this is in 1980. Three hours of acrimonious discussion followed, and apparently the transgender meeting withdrew its request, which is a shame.

Jan Hus Church

12:04: In 2011, I had a conversation with David L, one of the three founders of the New York meeting called, We Atheists. The meeting came about after an advertisement was placed in the 1986 issue of Free Inquiry. The ad focused on people who were in AA but were having trouble with all the God stuff in the meetings. Harry from California, the man who placed the ad, got three letters back from New York. David L, Ada Halbreich and John Yablon, all wrote and he helped put them together. They began meeting in Ada’s apartment, and the first meeting was held September 10th, 1986. A space was found in Jan Hus Church, and because Jan Hus was having a problem with the name of We Atheists, they ended up being… Oh, what is it? It’s, We Humanists. And that meeting still exists, it still meets. David told me that in the 1980s, some Intergroups were still refusing to list agnostic meetings. As for agnosticism, he felt that more people needed to come out and speak up about their lack of belief. One of the things that the three New York City founders believed in passionately, was that the agnostic, no prayer meetings needed to stay in AA, and not to attempt to form a group outside of the organization.

13:30: So based on this quick history of special interest groups, I’d say that the problems that some meetings are having being listed are right in line with AA history. As an organization, we know that it moves very, very, very slowly. But the way that one fights an enemy is different than how one struggles with an opponent. And again, it’s different than how sisters and brothers resolve their differences, if they can. And I don’t mean to imply that the clashes over listings and the use of a different version of the Steps have not been painful. Relationships are broken, business meetings get hot. Rash decisions are made. And I know that when we had some negative interactions with New York GSO about our website, they were very painful to me personally.

14:22: So, let’s do a reality check about where we are and what, in my opinion, is driving this question. Since their foundation in Los Angeles in 1980, there’s been a lot of growth in the no prayer meetings. I am known as the woman who updates the agnosticaanyc.org website, so let me start there. September 11th, 2001 fell on a Tuesday, the night of my home meeting. After the attacks we called each other to see if everyone was okay. Luckily we had not lost anybody in the agnostic meetings in New York. However, everything below 14th Street, all the way Downtown was in lockdown, and our meeting was at the LGBTQ Center on 13th Street, and they were closed because of the crisis. We had to decide what to do. We made calls to our members. It was not easy to reach people because there were problems with the phone service. I mean, this big antenna was on top of the World Trade Center and it was gone, and so a lot of phones didn’t work, a lot of cell phones didn’t work.

15:32: The point is, we had a hard time reaching people in our group. Once it was clear that our meeting place was closed we decided that we would go to the diner we usually went to, which was on between 14th and 15th Street, on Seventh Avenue and have an informal meeting and socialize. That may seem strange, but it was a big comfort to see those beloved faces of our members on that day, and it meant a lot to us. It was just after that, that my husband Charles P, floated the idea of having a website where New York City members could check in and see if there was a meeting happening or not. The website came to exist in 2002. He carefully wrote a questionnaire about what people wanted on the website and what it needed, and he created it. The website started with a list of New York City meetings, frequently asked questions, and a list of national meetings put together by Leonard V, and some meeting scripts and some other things.

16:33: Once the national list was assembled, the question of how many meetings there are kept coming up. Now, I took over the website from Charles in 2006. It’s 10 years, I can’t believe that. So, as of 1997, that’s the year I came in, there were probably 26 meetings nationally, and somebody might have a better list, but that’s what I understand. As of September 2001, there was 36 meetings nationally. 2003; 38, 2004; 57, 2009; 71, 2010; 89, 2012; 99, 2013; 151. Two years ago when I was standing at the podium at the other WAFT Conference, the first WAFT Conference, I announced that there was 181 meetings, as of that day, on the website. One year later, there was 288 meetings. So, 181 to 288. So, that was one year 100 meetings were formed, 100 flowers bloomed basically from that experience. The growth has slowed a little bit. So right now, as of two days ago, when I last counted our website had 320 meetings listed.


18:10: Now, according to the WAFT website, there are 311. According to agnosticaanyc.org, there are 320. Well, that brings up the question of, why two lists? And this is a sort of a side discussion, right? But, Why two lists? Before 2014, our little facts only website was the one and only national list. We put it together and maintained it as a service. Recently, a member who travels the country, and who’s been extremely, extremely helpful in correcting list errors and refining the listings, rightfully asked me, “Well, who will maintain the website when you are gone?” And that’s the problem with the New York City website. The WAFT website, I believe, has a group behind it, and I could be wrong, and has a board of directors, and it has an overall structure of some sort. In New York, we have several people who concern themselves with the website, and we need to have a back-up plan, and trust me, I know that we’re going to have one better than the one we have now, which was, I left the information with Charles in case the plane goes down. I’m like, “Here take this. It’s nuts, you know.”


19:31: Anyway, if New York is responsible for maintaining the list, that would be a lot of work for the next person who takes it over whenever that will be. So, John and I are going to have a few discussions before I go to talk about the WAFT website and the New York website, and try to shift responsibility or figure out what to do exactly. And absolutely, we do not want to leave anything to chance so that people won’t be able to find us. So we’re going to figure out what’s the best solution for those who are out there still suffering. The friend who also keeps the list clean, asked me if I or the website or the next person keeping it going would have a financial incentive to do the work, and my answer is a resolute, no. At this time the website is paid for on my credit card. I collect from the agnostic meetings in New York City, the cost for the web hosting and the domain name registration and that is all. I update the website as my service commitment. I hope this practice of no financial incentive continues after I’m no longer doing the service.

20:49: But let’s get back to that 320 number. That number of meetings and people have a real weight in AA. As we have seen by the gathering in Los Angeles, and here tonight, those 320 meetings represent thousands of people, and decades and decades of sobriety. This is a material force that must be dealt with by our larger organization, AA. We can see the steps and missteps in that direction. There have been agnostic meetings at international and some regional conferences for years and they are crowded. There was a call for a book to be put out about the spirituality of agnostics, and then that was canceled sort of, and then some other thing came out that was called, “Many Paths to Spirituality”, as if there’s just one destination, many paths, but we’re getting there.


21:53: October, the Grapevine had a couple of stories in it about people, sober stories, that didn’t end with somebody turning in a hotel room to the Bible.


22:09: The differences we’ve been experiencing in AA are not about listing. They’re not about getting ourselves added to the list. That is simply a manifestation of something bigger. The big issue is still our primary purpose. This brings us to the message of AA and having it there for people who are still suffering. How do we conduct ourselves in this disagreement? My experience depends on how you view the opposite side. Are we enemies? No. Are we opponents? Not even. Are we sisters and brothers in the struggle who are having differences? Yes. Sibling rivalries can be horrible. I refer you to Cain v Abel as an example.


23:05: But if we keep this tumultuous history of special interest groups in AA in mind, and continue to press our sisters and brothers in AA to recognize our equality, just like the black members did, just like the women did, just like the lesbian, gay, bi and transgender folks do, just like the Native Americans did, all of these discussions are going to yield gradual progress toward greater AA inclusion. If we keep creating new meetings, if we keep attracting people to sobriety, if we keep on that sober path, one day at a time. If we continue to build AA, and including making regular donations from our meeting as prescribed in the pamphlet, the AA Group, if we continue to reach out and speak up for ourselves and join service at every level, this difference, sisters and brothers, will be resolved, no doubt painfully, no doubt imperfectly, but it will.

24:55: Thank you.


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Scott J
Scott J
1 year ago

Thanks for posting this transcript.  I appreciate hearing the history of special interest groups, as I am currently starting one myself, an atheists & agnostics group. I just want to put this one thought out there, a different way of looking at what is a special interest group and what is considered as have no special interests whatsoever.  A “regular” AA meeting has the special interest of supporting those with a Judeo-Christian worldview.  An atheists & agnostics group has the special interest of supporting those with an atheist worldview.  A secular group neither promotes nor supports any particular worldview, i.e.… Read more »

John S
2 years ago

Here’s a recording of Barry Leach’s talk about the origins of Tradition Three, referenced in Deirdre’s talk in Austin. Barry was speaking at the International Convention of AA held in Montreal, Quebec in 1985, fifty years after the founding of AA. The talk is interesting. I first heard it when Joe posted it on Rebellion Dogs Radio a few years ago. During his talk, Barry plays a tape of Bill W. telling the story of Tradition Three, but you will notice a significant difference in Bill’s telling from the version that appears in the 12×12. Also, incidentally Barry talks about… Read more »