We’ve still got far to go

First published at 365gay.com on July 31, 2009

I’m not usually a touchy-feely, share-your-emotions, “Trust the Process” kind of guy. I’m a philosophy professor. I revel in cold, hard logic.

So it was with some trepidation that I signed up as a faculty member for Campus Pride’s annual summer Leadership Camp—which, since it was mostly run by lesbians, student-activities directors, and lesbian student-activities directors, promised to involve a lot more “processing” than I’m normally comfortable with.

To me, “faculty member” normally means strolling into a lecture hall a few times a week, speaking, answering questions, and then retreating to my office while TA’s keep students at a safe distance. Here, it meant being a full-time camp counselor, den monitor, relationship-advice provider, and taskmaster. (Faculty are volunteers who pledge to raise money to support Camp; students’ tuition is subsidized by donations.)

To me, “camp” normally means archery, canoeing, bonfires, and so on. Here, it meant six straight days of workshops—on subjects ranging from Working with Media, to Leadership and Privilege, to Fundraising Tips, to Resume Building and more—with a schedule running from 8:30 a.m. to at least 11 p.m. every day. (We did get to make s’mores, once.)

And what did I learn during this intense time with our movement’s future leaders?

For one thing, I learned that our right-wing opponents should be afraid. Very afraid.

The 50 campers were some of the brightest, most energetic, most thoughtful college students I’ve encountered in over a dozen years of teaching. I could comfortably retire from advocacy work tomorrow knowing that these young people are primed to take over.

But I won’t retire tomorrow, because I also learned anew how much work remains to be done.

One of the main reasons I volunteered for Camp was to explore a personal concern: namely, that my “Gay Moralist” angle is rapidly becoming obsolete. Sure, there are still people who believe that same-sex attraction is wrong, shameful, unnatural, and so on, but these people are allegedly being replaced by a new generation for whom gayness is a non-issue. For this new generation, coming to terms with gay identity is scarcely an accomplishment—or so rumor has it.

The rumor is badly wrong.

The truth is that even among bright, energetic, thoughtful, educated GLBT youth, the struggle for self-acceptance is often painful. That’s not merely because adolescence is painful, period. It’s because personal identity and social identity are intertwined, and these kids have family, neighbors, teachers, elected representatives and even friends who are NOT THERE YET.

I wouldn’t deny for a second that, on average, GLBT youth today have it easier than their predecessors. One of the most poignant moments of Camp was watching the students—most of whom are around 20 years old—interact with 84-year-old movement veteran Frank Kameny. In 1957 Kameny was fired from a government job for being gay, which sparked him to spend the rest of his life fighting for equality. This year, Kameny finally received a formal government apology. When President Obama signed the memorandum granting partner benefits to federal workers, he handed his pen to Kameny.

It’s because we all stand on the shoulders of people like Frank Kameny that these youths may see more progress in the next decade than he witnessed—and personally fought for—in the last half-century.

And yet, the fear of rejection is still present, and real. The closet, though shrinking, is real. The pain and the tears and the wasted energy…all real.

These obstacles are especially formidable for those at the margins—for example, those whose identities don’t fit into neat gender dichotomies, or those whose challenges are compounded by issues of race, religion, class, and so on.

We spent a lot of time talking about “privilege” at Camp. As an affluent able-bodied white guy who frankly enjoys his comfortable surroundings, I find such discussions unsettling. And as someone who spends a lot of time fighting the religious right—not to mention detractors within the GLBT community—I’ve developed a pretty hard shell. One needs it in this line of work.

Yet for all my resistance to touchy-feely processing, I’m grateful for an opportunity to be jolted out of my complacency. I’m grateful for the visceral reminder that, despite all of my education, and the nation’s progress, and my own best intentions, I still have a lot of learning to do.

I left Camp with a deeper sense of the movement, its challenges, and my own role in it. And if that could happen to me—a jaded 40-year-old philosophy professor—I can only imagine how profoundly the youth were transformed. My thanks to all who were involved.

For more about Camp or to support its work, visit CampusPride.org.