Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin
queerbychoice

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Camp Courage, Day Two

I meant to write a post a little over a week ago about Day 2 of Camp Courage, but I got distracted by other aspects of life - including, to a significant extent, by the aftereffects of Camp Courage itself. But I think I'd better get around to it tonight, for fear that if I don't, I'll never get around to it at all. (My Day 1 post is here.)

Day 2 began with a pretend cocktail party in which we were all supposed to introduce ourselves to people from other groups who we hadn't previously talked to, and tell our "stories of self" to each other. I introduced myself to a woman who I was sure was a straight ally, but who turned out to be a lesbian. (So much for my gaydar!) She was about 50 and had been married to a man first but came out as a lesbian to her family when she was about 40. She and her wife got married shortly before Prop 8 passed. She was from a fundamentalist family that has largely rejected her ever since she came out to them.

We then returned to our groups and never spoke again to the people we'd met during the pretend cocktail party. I realize Camp Courage wasn't supposed to be a social function where the point was for everyone to get to know everyone else, but, well, I'm generally about as uninterested in meeting strangers as it's possible to be, and even I was frustrated all throughout Camp Courage about not having much of any opportunity to talk to people outside my little randomly assigned group of ten people. It would have helped to at least be randomly assigned to a different group on the second day.

To be fair, there was a social gathering on Saturday that took place after the official Camp Courage had ended for the day, which I could have attended if I'd chosen to, and I also could have volunteered to join a voter canvassing group the following weekend (this past one) in which I could have gotten to know more of the people from Camp Courage. But I live an hour's drive from Sacramento, and Camp Courage lasted from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. both days. By the end of all that, with an hour-long drive home still left ahead of me, I really didn't feel like attending the social function with a bunch of people I didn't know in the slightest. And the voter canvassing effort the following weekend took place slightly south of Sacramento, whereas I live an hour north of Sacramento. That would have been even more than an hour's drive, and I wasn't feeling up to that so soon after spending the entire previous weekend at Camp Courage. I mean, perhaps I should have felt up to it; I am unemployed right now, after all, and I'm sure there were people who did help with the voter canvassing effort who worked full time for the five days in between those two weekends. But, well . . . some people are extroverts and enjoy constantly spending time with people around. Some people are single and may also be motivated to participate in such things in hopes of getting a date. I'm an extreme introvert and not single at all, so spending a second consecutive weekend driving such a long distance and then being surrounded by strangers all day instead of home with Susan sounded like torture to me. Hopefully there'll be future voter canvassing efforts a little closer to my neighborhood that I can volunteer for instead. But I don't think any such future efforts will ever be very much closer to my neighborhood, because I noticed that according to the bulletin board in the front lobby that asked people to indicate their county, I was the only person from my county who attended Camp Courage Sacramento. And there's never been a Camp Courage farther north than Sacramento, despite the fact that it's a four-hour drive from Sacramento to the Oregon border. There just isn't enough population density up here to draw anyone's attention.

Anyway, the next project of the day was to compose a "story of us." This is like a "story of self" except that it interweaves parts of other people's "stories of self" and tells how the other people have affected you. It's used for the purpose of reinforcing the emotional bonds between the members of a group, so as to strengthen one's fellow activists' commitment to continuing to work with the group to achieve the activist goals of the group. Unlike when we learned to compose our "stories of self," we were not given time to write down a "story of us," nor were we given worksheets for doing so, nor even an especially clear explanation of the concept. One of the leaders of Camp Courage, Lisa, told her own "story of us," referencing the stories told by various people from all the different groups who had spoken in front of the entire room the previous day, and saying how those stories had helped to renew her trust in her fellow human beings. After that, each group of ten or so people was asked to compose a group "story of us" (referencing the stories told only by the people within that particular group), and the spokespeople from a few groups told those groups' "stories of us" at the microphone in front of the entire room.

I don't think I would have gained much understanding of how "stories of us" are supposed to work, if not for the fact that one of the group spokespeople irritated me by saying in his "story of us" that being gay is never a choice. This provoked me to spend the 45-minute lunch break composing my own "story of us" in response and asking Lisa if I could tell my "story of us" at the microphone in front of the entire room, because she had mentioned that there might be time for a few more people's "stories of us" after lunch. She asked me what my "story of us" would be about, and replied that she knows other people who have said they are gay or lesbian by choice, but she doubted that there would be time to it me into the program. As it turned out, the only additional "story of us" that was told after lunch was told by one of the group facilitators - a transman named Ben - and I think his inclusion after lunch had been planned significantly in advance. Anyway, I didn't end up feeling that I had been excluded from telling my "story of self" because of an aversion on the part of the organizers to letting queer by choice ideas be heard, but rather because they didn't know me and really didn't have time to fit me in at such late notice. Also, I hadn't had time to really finish figuring out what I wanted to say before I asked to speak, so I wasn't in a position to explain as clearly what I wanted to say as I would be able to do now. (My group's facilitator, Sara Beth, overheard me asking to speak and responded enthusiastically; she also helped suggest many ways to better integrate the stories of other group members into my own. My resulting "story of us" might have had much less "us" in it without her help.) But here, for the benefit of my readers here, is my "story of us" that I would have told if I'd had the chance.
Several of the speakers here at Camp Courage, like many people in other LGBT forums, have described feeling "different" from other children or teenagers when they were young, and then concluding that the difference they had felt was that they were gay. Personally, I didn't have that experience. When I was 15, I didn't feel that I was inherently "different" at all, and I had never felt at all attracted to girls. But I decided I didn't think something as profound as the love I had felt for various boys should be limited by something as shallow as the body that someone had been born into. So I decided I wanted to learn to be attracted to girls - and I succeeded. It turned out to be rather easy, in fact - nothing like the stories that ex-gays often tell about struggling for years to repress their attractions and still feeling them as much or nearly as much as ever.

But it's always been problematic for me to come out to people, because the "story of us" (to use the Courage Campaign's phrase) told by most of the gay community insisted that I had to have been "different" and really attracted to girls all along, even though I'd never noticed any such attraction. The point of coming out to people is to finally be able to explain to them who we really are and be understood and loved for our real selves as we perceive ourselves, yet whenever I came out to people, those people were likely to assume that I must have always felt "different" and I must believe that I had no choice, that I was born bisexual. Having people assume that about me made me feel like I was no closer to being understood for my real self than I had been when people thought I was heterosexual. I wanted the people I loved to understand both parts of my life: my current experience of myself as bisexual, and also my previous 15 years' experience of myself as a heterosexual. But when I tried to correct people's assumptions and explain what I actually felt, all too often I was told that I must be confused, that I couldn't possibly be remembering my own experiences accurately, and that no other gay or lesbian or bi person in the world had ever felt that they had any choice about being gay or lesbian or bi.

So I started a website called QueerByChoice.com to tell my own "story of self" once and for all, so that I wouldn't have to keep telling it individually to every new person I came out to. I started a Queer by Choice mailing list that helped me find other people who said they had chosen to be queer too. That mailing list became my own personal queer community, and as long as I stayed in that community, I knew I was safe - everyone there would believe and accept and understand me for who I really was.

But now I'm engaged to be married, and I can't get married until Prop 8 is repealed. I want to be able to get married, so that means I need to find a way to work with other queer people to repeal Prop 8. And that's why I came here to Camp Courage yesterday and today. Unfortunately, it's still difficult at times. I've heard a few speakers here at Camp Courage - and many people in other LGBT forums - saying that being gay is not a choice. Well, I recognize that it wasn't a choice for you. My fiancée tells me it wasn't a choice for her either. But for me, I believe that it was a choice, and I believe that just as each of you is the best-qualified person to speak about your own personal experience, I am also the best-qualified person to speak about my own personal experience.

So I want to ask all of you to try not to speak for any other people, not to make assumptions about what "all" people in this room or in the gay or lesbian or bi or transgendered or queer communities may think or feel or experience - so that we can all work together toward our shared goals with the greatest possible respect for one another's very different identities. You have the right to hold the opinion that everyone is born with their sexual identities - even me, no matter how much it certainly doesn't feel that way to me - but I have an equal right to believe that no one is born with any foreordained sexual identity - not even you, no matter how much it certainly may feel that way to you. We all have the right to our opinions, but we shouldn't let our differences of opinion or our different life experiences prevent us from working together respectfully to advance our shared goal of equal rights.

In my group here at Camp Courage, we discussed the fact that, as Mike put it, "the G, L, B, and T mean something different to every person." Mike used to think that being gay meant that he had to drink and party all the time, until he hit rock bottom and realized he needed to redefine it. Brian just returned from Japan, where being in a same-sex couple meant that if your partner was from a different country, the relationship couldn't last - there was no way for either member of most such couples to gain citizenship or the right to permanent residence in their partner's country. And there are three transgendered men in our group - Tyx, Trevor, and Dylan. None of them are letting themselves be limited by something as shallow as the body that they were born into - but each of them is at a different point in a different life and has a significantly different perspective. And they have all been frustrated by not hearing more transgendered issues discussed and included at Camp Courage. Then there is Sara Beth, our group's facilitator, who is asexual - an identity that isn't included in the usual GLBT acronym, yet that fits pretty clearly into the term "queer." She donates so much time and energy to this cause, yet the cause still excludes her from its acronym - just like it excludes me whenever its spokespeople say that being queer is never a choice.

There are also several heterosexuals in our group. One is Paul, whose son came out to him and invited him to attend Camp Courage. He's trying to figure out how he fits in here as a white Christian heterosexual male who doesn't feel that he's ever personally experienced being discriminated against. Another is Bonnie, who was inspired to come here because her Methodist pastor came out to her as gay and left the Methodist church for the Metropolitan Community Church, because the Metropolitan Community Church recognizes same-sex marriage while the Methodist Church doesn't. And then there is Rel, who keeps saying she's not quite sure why she came here to Camp Courage at all. She says she wanted to be here to support her gay friends, but she's also mentioned that she's had crushes on women. But she identifies as heterosexual - perhaps because she doesn't feel "different" either. She doesn't fit comfortably into the queer community's "story of us," and hardly any member of our group really does. Yet all of us came here because we want to work to support the cause of same-sex marriage. All of us are valuable to the cause, so even though all of us can find things to disagree with each other about, I want to ask all of us to make more room for those disagreements and strive to include each other in all our diversity instead of allowing our disagreements to divide us.
So I never got a chance to say any of that, and I would really have liked a chance to say it. But it took me quite a while to put it into words, and by the time I did, there was no time left to fit me into the schedule. I can believe and accept and understand that; I don't feel that I was deliberately excluded for inappropriate reasons. But I'm telling my story here instead now, and I hope to be able to volunteer for future Camp Courages and get a chance to tell a story like this at one of them, now that I've had more time to prepare it in advance, because I still feel that it does very much need to be told.

Anyway … after lunch, we learned techniques for persuading friends and family members to support marriage equality. Lisa and a group facilitator role-played two versions of a conversation between neighbors - one in which the lesbian neighbor yelled at the homophobic neighbor and called her a homophobe, and another in which the lesbian neighbor asked questions about the homophobic neighbor's motivation for having a Prop 8 sign up and mostly listened, not being very confrontational. The latter example ended with the two neighbors discussing the fact that they both had children and arranging for their children to play together, not really pushing the issue of the Prop 8 sign but rather establishing a continuing relationship in which the Prop 8 sign might be brought up again later after a greater rapport was established. The latter was obviously more useful in terms of potentially eventually persuading the homophobic neighbor to start supporting marriage equality.

However, this also left me feeling that straight allies are in a much better position to do this sort of persuasion than actual queer people are, because really, who the hell really wants any sort of continued relationship with someone who is personally involved in calling off one's own wedding? Who really wants to subject her or his own children to going over to the house of that sort of person to play with that person's kids? I think that it would be somewhat less uncomfortable for a straight ally, because at least it's not the straight ally's own marriage that's being called off. Less might also be accomplished by a straight ally - because the straight ally wouldn't be a living example of a queer person being non-scary - but the straight ally could always arrange to introduce the homophobe to some queer friends after the homophobe has made a little more progress toward being tolerable company. It just seems like there are some very difficult lines to be drawn between the movement goal of persuading all homophobes to become allies and the individual goal of not filling one's own precious free time and social life with dangerous idiots.

I should point out, though, that the relatively nonconfrontational example - the "good," more-effective-at-persuasion example - did not require the lesbian neighbor to say nothing at all about being hurt by the Prop 8 sign. It just required the lesbian neighbor to maintain an attitude of really wanting to hear more about the homophobic neighbor's motivations for opposing same-sex marriage and wanting to be liked by the homophobic, wanting to explain how the Prop 8 sign made her feel hurt, but wanting to explain this in a way that tried to avoid in any way offending the homophobic neighbor. It basically required the lesbian neighbor to sincerely want to be friends with the homophobic neighbor, because unless she did sincerely want to be friends with the homophobic neighbor, it would be pretty much impossible to remain so determinedly focused on merely speaking about being "upset" or "hurt" or perhaps even "angry" without ever allowing one's voice to actually sound angry. Lisa acknowledged that a sincere desire to establish a continuing relationship with the homophobic neighbor is necessary for this persuasion to work. However, she did not say anything about the fact that, well, it seems to me that for a lesbian neighbor to sincerely want to be friends with (or even to regularly converse with) a homophobic neighbor is sort of unhealthy on the part of the lesbian neighbor. I don't know; I guess other people are more inclined than I am to just focus on what they have in common with a friend or acquaintance and not worry too much about the other aspects of that same friend or neighbor that are utterly horrifying. ("Even though I find Dick Cheney's politics horrifying, I can still enjoy socializing with him in nonpolitical contexts, because we do have some shared interests, like our shared love of duck hunting" ... oh wait, bad example. That's not a safe shared interest, is it?)

I suppose the bright side of all this is that we were also repeatedly told to recognize that some people will just never be persuaded to change their minds, no matter what, and that we should not waste our time trying to change these people's minds. Instead, we should try to figure out whose minds we do have the ability to change, and focus only on persuading those people.

Anyway, we paired off within our group to practice persuading friends and family members to support marriage equality. One person in each pair pretended to be a homophobe, while the other person tried to persuade that person to support marriage equality; then we switched roles so that everyone got a chance to try doing the persuading. I found that when I played the homophobe, I was surprised at how difficult it was to try to avoid being persuaded to stop my homophobic behavior and listen to reason. On the other hand, when I played the persuader, the persuasion seemed to be making no progress whatsoever - but perhaps it was really making more progress than was visible to me.

One of the last projects of the day was to pair of again within our group - this time we were paired by geographic area of residence - and persuade each other to commit to working on an activist activity together after Camp Courage ended. This was not role-playing; it was a real commitment to activism. I was paired with Rel, who expressed an interest in making a video to combat stereotypes, and I'm supposed to meet her at a library in her neighborhood tomorrow to work on the script. We were also each asked to write down three other activist activities to commit to working on (individually or with whoever we wanted, not necessarily with our geographically assigned partner) after Camp Courage ended. This list of goals will be mailed to us after one month, to remind us of our commitments. I liked the fact that such an effort was made to transition us from attending the camp to actually putting the skills we learned there to work in real activism.
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