First published at Between the Lines News on August 5, 2010
“Remind me, dear,” I said to my partner Mark on the way to the airport, “what I am absolutely, positively not doing again next year?”
“You are not doing Camp next year,” he dutifully replied.
We had repeated this dialogue many times in the weeks leading up to Campus Pride’s annual Leadership Camp, a week of intense workshops and other activities for LGBTQ and allied college students, which was held this year at Vanderbilt University July 20-25.
This was my second year volunteering as a faculty member, and oddly enough, my second year making a pact with Mark to bar me from returning. My reluctance stemmed not from any doubts about the program’s value. Quite the contrary, Camp is one of the most worthwhile experiences I have ever had the privilege of joining. However…
However, I crave my so-called “free time” in the summer for research and personal projects. It’s the only time when I can have the kind of uninterrupted schedule needed for serious writing. Moreover, I didn’t relish the thought of a week in the Nashville heat in late July, eating college cafeteria food and sleeping on a vinyl mattress in a humid dorm room.
Sleeping, that is, in the rare moments when we were actually permitted rest. Our Camp schedule stretched from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day, with sessions on various aspects of LGBTQA leadership and development. At the end of each day we held faculty meetings to “process” what had occurred. Processing has its place, but after a grueling day I’d personally rather chew on tin foil than sit in a circle and share how I’m feeling. (“I’m feeling like someone who’d prefer to be sleeping right now, thanks for asking.”)
So what did I learn at Camp this year?
I learned that there’s a brilliant group of young leaders poised to do amazing things. Indeed, they are already doing amazing things, making progress on their campuses and in their communities, often against powerful odds.
I learned that neat boxes into which we place ourselves and others often do a poor job of capturing reality.
I learned about privilege, a subject that I—like most privileged people—tend to avoid. I hope I learned greater sensitivity to those at the margins of our (already marginalized) community: the gender variant, the differently abled, the economically disadvantaged.
I learned that there’s a time for action, and then there’s also a time for just being in the moment—to reflect, to “process,” to listen and learn. There’s a time to work within existing structures, and a time for revolution.
I learned what the “srat squat” is. And that hardly anybody looks good in bright orange.
I learned that insight sometimes happens in the strangest places—as it did for a friend of mine who was almost moved to tears by a drag performance in the talent show on the last night of Camp. “I had forgotten,” he told me, “about the simple value of joy.”
I learned—yet again—that despite talk of a “post-gay” generation, young people still struggle to form their identities and to express those identities with confidence and integrity. They need our encouragement and support. And we need theirs, too.
Truth be told, one of the things I find unsettling about Camp is that it forces me to confront my own insecurities. As the “Gay Moralist,” speaking and writing and debating about gay issues, I’ve developed a pretty hard shell. One needs it in this line of work.
But one also needs to strip that shell off every once in a while and make oneself vulnerable. As we often said at Camp, disequilibrium is the price of growth. I experienced both disequilibrium and growth in my week with the campers.
I learned from the speakers—including Robyn Ochs, who taught us about the varieties of sexual orientation and expression; Brian Sims, whose coming-out story as a gay all-American college football player spotlighted the better side of human nature; and transgender activist Mara Keisling, who urged us to put our voices into action and have fun in the process.
But mostly I learned from the youth. Their integrity inspires me.
I’m not a sentimental person, and I’m certainly not given to hyperbole. But when students describe Camp as “the best five days of my life thus far,” as so many of them did afterward, I get it. And I just might have to return.
For more about Campus Pride’s work, visit http://www.campuspride.org. To learn more about Camp and see photos, go to the Campus Pride blog at www.CampusPrideBlog.org.