This summer I worked at a summer camp. Apart from my many mixed feelings about the intersections of my queer identity (queerity, perhaps?), I had a goal – to start discussions around queer youth experiences at school, at home, with friends, and at camp. When I was initially assigned to a younger group of kids, I decided to aim for at least ensuring that the hall was a safer space. Luckily, I was added on for another session, and transferred to the West Coast to work with upper middle and high school students. With a co-worker, I started a discussion group that met three times during the run of the camp.
I was truly surprised and encouraged by the discussions that were held in those three 50-minute sessions. I expected that the discussions there might go a little farther than a “typical gsa”-type conversation (if there is such a thing), and I was optimistic that the combination of location and reputation of the camp for social support and openness would foster generally positive and constructive conversations. And I was realistically predicting that if we got enough participants to continue that far and if they came with respectful and open attitudes, then we might get into one or two really open and helpful conversations, by the last meeting. By the end of the first meeting, we were talking about fluidity of identity, the variation of queer identities and terms from person to person, and a few students even opened up and shared some coming out stories.
Not only were these students able to hold a mature and respectful discussion, without things devolving into a policing war or an entirely unrelated line of conversation (and without much moderation) but they were honest. They very quickly became able to trust each other, the other leader and myself, and themselves. They believed in the importance of having such a group, and of making it as safe a space as possible, and they maintained that environment.
Certainly not ever group is like this and even a majority of high school students today might not be equipped to carry on a civil, relatively safe discourse about LGBT, etc. issues. But there seems to be a trend towards education, acceptance, and reframing discussions and creating space in a progressive way, at a surprisingly quick rate. Which is fantastic, as well as critical.
If we are to work towards a society of compassionate, open, listening adults, then we have to give youth examples to look up to, and environments in which to learn how to do that in a world far from acceptable, let alone ideal. We have to give them space to feel safe. We have to guide them into building their own community, so they can own it and continue to foster and recreate it for themselves, as they lead the next generation into their own stage of the revolution.
In my rather small (about 13 per session) group, in the span of just three weeks, I had a student approach me about a situation in which he felt unsafe and unsure of what to do. Keep in mind, this was in a setting with a strict honor code and very specific policy relating to LGBT, etc. bias and harassment. This student felt safe to approach me because of the space that had been made and the experiences in that space I, the other leader and, most importantly, the other students, had shared. I know that this need is much greater throughout the country (and in others); in public and private schools, outside of school, in social groups and academic groups and activist groups and artistic groups and much more.
I’d like to thank the thousands of adults who dedicate themselves to leading and making these spaces available. Your work is truly invaluable. You are a gift to our youth and to us, and an inspiration.
As always, I’d love to hear your experiences and opinions, whether you’re someone who partakes in that space or would like to have one; as a youth, friend, family, leader, or anyone else. What trends have you seen in youth discussions of LGBT, etc. topics around you? What kinds of queer youth space exist near you? What are some helpful and not-so-helpful parameters of that space? Most importantly, why is queer youth space important to you and those you care about?