When I first walked in the door, I was handed a Post-it note with the number 13 on it. This meant that I was randomly assigned to sit with a group of other people who had been randomly handed the number 13. There were nine people in our group, and there were . . . well, at least 13 groups, probably a few more than that. Each group had a facilitator; our facilitator was an asexual woman called Sara Beth. The other members of our group included a heterosexual father of a gay son (his son was also at Camp Courage but was randomly assigned to a different group); a heterosexual devout Methodist woman who said her pastor had saved her life (she wouldn't say how, because that was too personal for her to be comfortable talking about it) and then her pastor came out as gay and left the Methodist Church for the Metropolitan Community Church, so she wanted to support him as he had supported her; a very young woman who identified as heterosexual and said she was just there to support her gay friends, yet also mentioned having had quite a few crushes on women herself that just hadn't led to actual relationships; three FTM transsexuals who knew each other previously and circumvented the random group assignments to find their way into the same group as each other; two rather quiet middle-aged gay men who had each come there alone; and me (also attending alone).
After a few introductory speeches, the first major project of the day was to compose a "story of self," explaining what motivates us to work for marriage equality - preferably using as many concrete details as possible and a plot to keep the audience interested. The goal of composing this story was to be able to tell it to voters as a way to help them relate to the issues of marriage equality on a personal level and hopefully to motivate them to start supporting marriage equality as a result. The story was broken into our parts to help guide us through the process of creating a plot for it. Here's mine, broken into the four parts:
Introduce the characters:Several people volunteered to tell their "stories of self" over the microphone to the entire camp. The first was a very young black man (I think he was 19) who had come out to his parents in North Carolina at the age of 16 and been beaten up by his father and kicked out of his home. He then went from one foster home to another (I think he said he was in seven different foster homes) before running 30 miles on foot by the side of the freeway to escape the last foster home and stay with his sister. He made several more attempts to reconcile with his parents, but none of these attempts worked. (I particularly liked the fact that when he described his mother trying to urge him to turn straight, his response to her, as he described it, was not the usual, "I can't help it! It's not a choice!" but rather the much more empowering assertion, "I don't want to turn straight, Mom." He didn't make any claims about whether or not he could have turned straight if he had wanted to, because that was irrelevant since he didn't want to.) After his efforts to reconcile with his parents failed, he decided very spontaneously to move to California in search of a better life in a less homophobic state. He arrived in California just in time to see Proposition 8 pass.
On August 19, 2007 at the California State Fair, I met Susan, whom I had been corresponding with online for a few weeks. She was 41, and a year earlier she had left a 10-year registered domestic partnership. I was 31 and had never kissed a woman in my life. I had been waiting 16 years for it, but I was waiting to find the right one.
Character encounters a challenge:
We got engaged February 19, 2008, when it wasn't yet legal for us to get married. When the court legalized same-sex marriage the following May, we still couldn't get married because Susan had to wait for the courts to dissolve her domestic partnership with her ex, which wasn't going to happen until after Election Day. Every weekend when I visited Susan, I saw bright yellow "Yes on 8" signs on lawns all over her extremely conservative neighborhood.
Character makes a courageous choice:
I wrote down the addresses of all the homes with "Yes on 8" signs on their lawns and wrote letters to those people, explaining why I believed they should not support Proposition 8. I also wrote letters to the editor of the local newspaper, made signs and put them all over five counties, and generally did everything I could think of to prevent Prop 8 from passing.
The outcome of the choice:
Unfortunately, Prop 8 did pass. But two months later I moved in with Susan, and we're still working to try to repeal Prop 8.
The second was a Japanese-American bisexual woman who was raised by two mothers who were in the military and were not at all out to their families. Throughout her childhood, whenever she was at home she called both her mothers "Mom," but whenever she was away from home she called her non-biological mother "Auntie" and explained that this was her mother's good friend. This included making up elaborate explanations for her mother's relatives about why her mother's best friend slept in her mother's bedroom. The daughter - the woman speaking to us at Camp Courage - grew up to join the military herself, and is now in a relationship with a woman which she must hide from the military in exactly the same way she had to hide her mother's relationship before.
There were others, but those are the two who seemed to me the most memorable. The next item on the agenda was guest speaker Lieutenant Dan Choi, who was a wonderful speaker and, incidentally, just as gorgeous in person as on TV. (His boyfriend has made quite a catch!) He started out by reciting an Arabic poem in both Arabic and English, explaining that the poem was a sort of "story of self" because it was about identity (specifically, the identity of an ancient king whose name has long since been forgotten though the poem has not, because the self being told is not actually what's most important in a story of self; the most important thing is the way the story serves others, rather than the way the story serves oneself. He joked that he doesn't understand why so many people know about him being gay, because he had only told three people: his mother, his father, and Rachel Maddow. He described his parents' reactions when he came out to them - complete with imitations of their Korean accents - and those reactions were of a sort that could only have been spectacularly painful for him; it surprises me how often people are able to speak of such painful events as people did throughout Camp Courage without emotionally falling apart just from speaking of it. And he said early on that the story of self he had told was only three words long, and that the huge reaction of the military in firing him for it showed just how incredibly powerful the mere words "I am gay" really are; at the end he referred again to his story of self being only three words long, and said that although many people assume the three words are "I am gay," the three words are actually "I love you," because all of this happened as a direct result of him falling in love and expressing that, and no matter what the military does to him, he refuses to stop saying those three words.
Later in the afternoon, we did role-playing sessions to pretend we were canvassing voters. We had a basic script to work with, along with instructions to spend most of our time listening rather than talking, because voters are mostly persuaded not by logic and reasoning but by feelings and emotions, and feeling listened to and understood makes them feel the benevolent emotions they need to feel to be persuaded. We were encouraged to work abbreviated versions of our "stories of self" into the conversation at some point, but mostly we were just instructed to listen. If they said they voted for Prop 8 because they were concerned about their children, we were supposed to ask their children's names and ages, ask what they were concerned would happen to their children if same-sex marriage remained legal, comment that some people are afraid that children will become gay if they hear about other people being gay, ask whether they're concerned about that, point out that at some point their children will hear about the existence of gay people and ask what they would like their children to hear at that point, and throughout the entire conversation, bend over backward to avoid making any assumptions whatsoever and to maintain a polite reaction no matter what. The fun part of these roleplaying sessions was getting to play the role of the homophobic voters: we largely made up our roles as we went along. I said I had eight children and I always vote exactly the way the Pope tells me to on all issues.