Camp was amazing. I am exhausted. The kids are alright.
Last week, 85 queer, transgender, and queer-friendly teenagers filled the building of our little Arkansas church to share activities, laughter, tears, sweat, creativity, and passion together. I was a “parental”, or what most folks would call a camp counselor. Spending the whole week with other queer adults providing safe space and support for queer kids was a tremendous nourishment for my soul.
I’ve decided we need to make a world where we get to be Queer together all the time. Straight people get to be around straight people all the time, everywhere they go. Cisgender people can expect to be around cisgender people in every space they occupy, daily. They just take for granted that the people around them are usually like them. And those of us who aren’t like them, we’re expected to keep our mouths shut about how we’re different. I know the social consequences of being the only openly trans person in an office, or the queer person, or the autistic person. We are expected to hide parts of ourselves that are integral to who we are, so the people who aren’t like us don’t feel uncomfortable, even though their insecurities are really not our problem. It’s even become second-nature to censor ourselves so we don’t upset the cis-hets.
Last week I didn’t have to censor myself at Queer Camp. I didn’t have to pretend some key part of my identity doesn’t exist. Even cooler, I was surrounded by people who shared these attributes with me. I felt at home. This needs to happen more than one week a year. And not just when we’re getting together for the kids. We need this deep community connection as adults, and we need it often.
My team co-leader cuddled with me at the end of Monday in the hallway of the church. That felt reminiscent of when I was in Seattle and had daily access to physical intimacy from a number of good friends. Cultivating active community where physical touch is normal, healthy, consensual, and nurturing is so underrated in Arkansas.
Halfway through the week, Jason Moore — yes, the director of Avenue Q and Pitch Perfect — showed up to help lead the campers’ film production project. I noticed him sitting in the auditorium on Wednesday and walked over to find out who the adult stranger in our midst was. We ended up talking for hours. Turns out he’s from Fayetteville and hadn’t been back in town for years. While many of the kids went fan-girly over his fame and fanfare, I found myself bewitched, bothered, and bewildered for a much rarer reason: Jason Moore is perhaps the most gracious human being I have ever met. When Jason walks in a room, he draws all the energy around him like a lightning rod. He commands that energy with indescribable grace, organizes it into gentle encouragements and humble suggestions, and disperses it back into the folks around him like rich seeds dropping into fertile soil during a light spring rain. He is kindness and brilliance incarnate — and he flew all the way to Arkansas from New York City just to hang out with us at Queer Camp like the kids were his very own beloved children. He learned their names. He played games. He was 100% down to earth, and just an absolute joy to be around.
Early in the week, I caught myself developing a crush on the Kitchen Lead. This startled me, because I’m typically attracted to gay men, and she is very much a lesbian woman. I dismissed the attraction all week in favor of focusing on my duties with the campers. The single most attractive feature that draws me to a person is competence, and she has plenty of that. Competent people tend to already be busy with all the important things going on in their lives though, and I assumed she wouldn’t be interested. But wouldn’t you know — she messaged me Saturday after camp to ask if we could get to know one another better!
Since then, we had our first date: a Quorum Court meeting where we both spoke out against the Republican Justices of the Peace’s efforts to expand the county jail and imprison more of us instead of investing in the drug rehabilitation and mental health services our communities need, and lack. I got up in front of the court to talk about how I was abused as a child raised by law enforcement professionals, and how I believe we need to heal the authoritarian culture within jails and police departments before we give any consideration (or taxes!) to expanding that culture. My date heard me lay my ugly truth out in full public witness — and she still wanted to hold my hand by the end of the night, so I guess the dating is going well. Thanks, Queer Camp!
Callie and Andi directed and led the camp this year with outstanding prowess. They took feedback, made adjustments, and rolled with the punches unfailingly. They handled crises. They organized the whole kit and kaboodle. They lifted the kids up, and lifted us volunteers up, and made the whole experience safe, honest, and real. If someone had told me five years ago I’d be spending a week in a church volunteering for a youth camp, I’d have thought they were out of their mind. But Callie and Andi, and the volunteer team they brought together, made it all worth showing up for. They helped turn a church, a place known for its history of harming queers, into a place that gave us healing.
Already we’re planning better things for next year’s Queer Camp. It’s a high bar as-is. Teaching queer youth how to hold space for one another, to heal their own hurts rather than oppressing others as they’ve been oppressed, and to recognize and resist bullying amongst themselves, is no small task. We’re talking about major cultural changes that take shape one conversation at a time. But next year, we’re going to build upon what we’ve learned in 2022 and hold such a space even better.
In the meantime, we have a whole year to explore being kind to one another, giving the love we want to receive in our communities, and practice being the kinds of adults we want our queer youth to grow into.