CampOUT, a Youth Leadership Retreat
Spending Martin Luther King Day weekend in a six-by-three bunk with a young gay man above me that snored wasn’t how I expected to have one of the most enlightening and inspiring moments of my entire life.
Miami-based Pridelines Youth Services has been dedicated to educating and empowering South Florida’s LGBT youth and their straight allies in a safe and diverse environment for over 30 years. This year marks the third year the organization has hosted their CampOUT weekend in Fort Lauderdale. The three-night event was filled with fun, learning and growing experiences for everyone, this writer included.
Shortly after arriving to the Elk’s Lodge Youth Camp in Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, I noticed that I was one of the first campers to arrive. There was a counselor from Pridelines there that greeted me, showed me where I’d be staying, and gave me the lay of the land. The campsite consisted of six 12-person cabins, a fire pit, trails and a mess hall. I sat at one of six picnic tables waiting for the arrival of more than 50 LGBT youth ready for what many of them called the highlight of their year.
After the bus arrived and I helped pull luggage off the bus they rolled in on, name tags complete with a mini flashlight were handed out and campers were ushered to their cabins. Being a veteran of school campouts, I selected a bottom bunk near the bathroom and by a window. I couldn’t help but smile as beds were claimed, then unclaimed. All of the counselors are involved with Pridelines in one way or another, with several of the counselors being former campers themselves.
At the opening ceremonial campfire that first night, everyone introduced himself or herself one by one. When it came to my turn, I told everyone that I was a writer for South Florida Gay News and that I was there to do a story about Pridelines and CampOUT. I told them if they saw me sitting around looking at them and writing things down that I wasn’t being that creepy guy at camp, I was just writing my observations down. I told them that I wanted to maybe sit down with a couple of them and talk about their experiences, but as I learned, all I had to do was watch as the magic of out-and-proud youth made this man a believer in where my community is going.
I never had gay youth groups or anything like CampOUT when I was 14 years old, the age of the youngest camper there this weekend. I had two gay friends and they were the only other gay kids in my school. What I first thought was people dividing off into cliques, turned out to be friends saying hello before they went their own ways to find new friends.
All of the workshops for the weekend were centered on strengthening the LGBT community, safer sex and self-empowerment. The most intriguing and inspirational workshop for me was one on the transgender community. Jessica Lam, whose story of gender reassignment surgery after fathering two sons gained national attention and airtime with Larry King, made a presentation on the umbrella of being transgender and what falls under it. After her slide show, there was a six-person Q&A panel. All of the panelists were transgender individuals, three of whom were between 16 and 18 years old. To hear a young person describe how they’re just starting hormones or how their grandmother has pledged to pay for half of their mastectomy is something I’ve never heard of.
Youth these days, even with all the stories of bullying and suicide that have been sensationalized in the media, have it so much better and so much easier than generations past. I applaud the parents of these kids who know who they are and are willing to help give their child the best life possible. I have to admit, I am a bit jealous of the three of them.
I also have to admire the brashness and the eagerness to learn these kids have. I wore a tank top to breakfast on Saturday morning, and I had several campers ask me about the red ribbon and dates I have tattooed on my left shoulder. When I explained one date was the date of my HIV diagnosis and the other was the date I lost my first friend to AIDS, they were taken back, yet wanted to know more. I had one camper grill me for two hours on how I contracted it to what it’s like to live with it. Word got around I was positive and more kids came up to literally just hug me and say they were sorry.
The fun came to an end Sunday night with a bonfire and drum circle. I’m looking down at my wrist right now at the rainbow bracelet I’m wearing from that night and I’m on the verge of tears. The thoughts, memories and confessions that were made that night are some I will not soon forget.
Towards the end of the bonfire, one kid broke down sobbing, sharing that he was so happy to have a place where he could be himself for a change.
If I could have hugged every single one of them and told them that I have their back I would have.
I went to CampOUT on assignment. I went with the goal of writing about what we can teach the youth of today. But roles were reversed.
Instead of thinking of ways we can teach others, take a moment to see what you can actually learn from them. When you do that, I hope you can find the blessing that I did.