Sunday, April 29, 2012

S.'s STORY: FINDING A SOULMATE IN SWITZERLAND

Name: S.
Roles in Girl Scouting: girl member, Girl Scout camp staff member, volunteer at one of the four World Centers
Location: Birmingham, UK

I grew up on the east coast of the USA and early on, from my elementary school years, I never really fit into my community’s conservative mould.  My childhood was a happy one but I always knew I was different from the regular crowd of girls.

The ice was broken for me early in my adolescence when one of my siblings came out to my parents. Despite their reaction, nothing seemed more natural to me. My thirteen-year-old self was quietly supportive, but all I could do was hole myself up in my room, studying and practicing violin, ignoring the arguments on the other side of my closed door.
 
Deep down, I knew I, too, was the same.  But I didn’t want to worry about breaking the news to my parents just yet.  I had time.  

My first crush arose sooner than I expected.  It was at music camp; she was a cellist.  
I felt strongly for her and I was convinced she thought the same about me, but after the two weeks of grueling rehearsals and lessons ended, I never heard from her again.  I wrote her a ton of letters but she never replied.  Maybe it was all in my head.  

Then I joined Girl Scouts. Late. My best friend in high school had also become a new member of Girl Scouts and the troop was planning exciting ski vacations and a camping trip to the Virgin Islands.  I loved  Girl Scouts after the very first meeting.  My Girl Scout leader said it was about time I finally joined; she had been waiting for me to become a member for years.
Fast forward to 1996, the summer before I was to attend university.  My Girl Scout troop had planned a trip to Switzerland to attend a session at Our Chalet, the international centre for Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in the Swiss Alps.  I was terrified. I had never been abroad and I wasn’t a huge fan of being far away from home. 

The minute the plane took off, I changed and there was no looking back.
  We hiked, hiked, and hiked, and met girls from around the world.  We didn’t stay in the Chalet itself; we camped and brought much of our own food and equipment.  It was amazing.  We endured torrential thunderstorms, freezing cold nights, and glorious days.  There was a group from England staying in Squirrel House (a small building also not connected with the main Chalet), and the girls in both our groups became friends.  This is how I met M., who is now my wife and parent to our six-month-old son.
I liked M. a lot during our time in Switzerland, but she was so quiet.   I, on the other hand, was talkative, chatty (maybe too chatty sometimes), and quite bubbly for her calmer British demeanor.
When I returned home from Europe there was a letter waiting for me from England.  It was from M.  
I immediately wrote her back, my heart racing the entire time I scribbled a reply.  We wrote letters like this for two years.  Every Tuesday, there would often be a letter waiting for me in my mailbox.  Then in 1998, M.’s family planned a trip to the USA during my summer break.  During this particular summer, I was living at home with my parents in Connecticut and working at a Girl Scout day camp.  I was woozy with excitement at the prospect of her arrival and we even talked on the phone once when I was in my dorm room at university. 
Her family came to Massachusetts to spend time with distant relatives, but M. was keen to escape her family holiday and take a train down to Connecticut to visit me.  (She had no idea what public transportation is like in the States!  I thought that was going to be the end of our friendship!)  Somehow, my mom and I found her at the train station and she stayed with me for three days. I was on an absolute high for that week.  We sat in my backyard, watching the stars and talking about everything…except our sexuality. 
It was devastating when she had to go, but I vowed to get writing as soon as she left.  We wrote non-stop again for another year and the following summer, I worked as a volunteer at Our Chalet.  It was an amazing experience and probably the best days of my life.  I was confident in who I was, but I didn’t share my feelings about M or my sexual orientation with anyone.  I wasn’t ready.  I was ready, however, to visit M. on my own and explore my feelings further.  We saw each other again briefly but suddenly I was back in the States once more.
Why didn’t I tell her how I felt?  We both left each other in tears at the airport.  I knew it must be love because I had never experienced anything that painful in my life.  That next Christmas, I wrote M. a coming out letter. 
I didn’t write about my feelings for her, instead talking about my general feelings about being with women.  Ten days passed and I couldn’t eat or sleep.  Then I received an e-mail reply from M. (this was one of our first emails)…a very polite email, but one that didn’t indicate anything more than acceptance for who I was. 
The following summer I decided to work in the UK as a camp counselor.  (This was awful, as British camps do not compare to American camps.) I visited M. at the end of my camp season and that is when everything happened.   
Our first night together, we went to the seaside in Wales to visit her great uncle and grandmother.  We had an attic room with a sea view.  We talked, flirted, and kissed.  It had been four long years; we were in love, and that entire week passed in a blur.  We decided to maintain our relationship the best we could with our newfound independence from our parents and the aid of email.
M. worked in the States for the following two summers.  The first summer, we were housekeepers on an island and lived in a rich family’s garage.  Finally, in the autumn of 2003, I secured a teaching position in the UK.  We have lived together ever since in Birmingham, England.  
We had our civil partnership in the summer of 2010, and I now have dual citizenship.  The last year has been even more amazing with the birth of our son.

Thanks to Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, I met my partner, secured my future, and discovered who I really am. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

F.'s STORY: EVERYTHING I REALLY NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT BEING NON-HETERONORMATIVE I LEARNED AT GIRL SCOUT CAMP

Name: F.
Years in Girl Scouting: 20+ years
Roles: Gold Award recipient, Girl Scout camp staff member, national advisory board youth member, international conference delegate, volunteer at one of the four World Centers
Location: Massachusetts, USA

When I was maybe twelve years old, despite having access to limited knowledge and possessing a scant vocabulary to express myself on the topic, I told my mom that I didn't "think it would be that bad to love a woman." 

Her response was, "F., I thought you'd say that one day.  You enjoy hugging me for too long."
...

As you can imagine, growing up in a Roman Catholic home where the notions of incest and being queer are erroneously conflated didn't allow for many opportunities to talk about and process my sexuality.  I grew up in a small, conservative town in Northwest New Jersey with a 96% white population and little diversity to speak of.  I don't think a single person was "out" at my high school, unless I maybe count myself (I had told about three people by the time I graduated that I was "bisexual").

I went to church every week until I was seventeen.  I not only went to church and actively participated in that religious community, but also was the girl who wore a crucifix necklace on school picture day.  I finally broke away from Catholicism shortly after the priest circulated a petition at mass calling for marriage rights to only be extended to straight couples.  I remember watching my grandmother sign the petition and passing the clipboard to me; I remember feeling enraged and hopelessly frantic and actually crying while sitting in the pew.  

Prior to passing out the petition, the priest had actually stated, "We believe that [G]od promotes equal rights for all...but sometimes, some people don't deserve those same equal rights."

LGBTQ people clearly did not have a home in this church.

Even in my younger teen years, I didn't conform to the Christian dogma, interestingly enough, and found myself acting out in some unhealthy ways when it came to relationships with men.  "Promiscuous" isn't exactly the right word, since my relationships were not sexual ones, but I definitely kissed a lot of guys, had a number of transient relationships, cheated on some of those guys, and moved through the cloud of heteronormative dating with a deep sense of detachment.  The unhappier I was, the unhealthier my choices were.

From the ages of fourteen to eighteen, I had an absolutely desperate, debilitating crush on a beautiful girl, C., whom I first met in my 9th grade World History class.  She was so brazen and intelligent; she was a drop-dead gorgeous firecracker.  I'm pretty sure that nearly every single member of the male high school population also had a crush on her, which made my situation feel all the more desperate.  Pining after and lusting over this girl didn't get me anywhere, which really left me feeling isolated and angry and helpless.  It seems that I projected my confusion and bitterness about the situation outward, since I later learned that C. somehow thought I "hated" her.  

The summer after high school mercifully ended, I worked at a residential Girl Scout summer camp in the mountains of Pennsylvania.  I began going to Girl Scout camp at the age of nine and had spent five glorious, magical summers amongst the woods, sleeping in canvas platform tents and nearly busting my vocal chords while belting out songs non-stop.  I loved it and I adored my counselors.  

It was one of my last summers as a camper -- at the age of thirteen or fourteen -- when I first came into contact with someone who did not neatly fall in line with my preconceived understandings of sex and gender expression.  At check-in, I remember urgently asking my mother if the staff member with the short, cropped hair and baggy cargo shorts was "a boy or a girl."  Though the moment was fleeting and I never even interacted with that counselor, I still have such a clear memory of standing in the dining hall, utterly baffled and yet knowing that something was significant about the revelation slowly taking place.

When my family was no longer able to afford the fee for the one-week camp sessions I attended, I was devastated and counted down the summers until I was old enough to be on staff as a paid counselor at Girl Scout camp.  Camp was the place I felt not only safe but fully alive.  I was beyond excited to be back.  I had learned to rock climb at Girl Scout camp.  I learned to hike and kayak and sail and canoe.  I learned to light a fire and gained confidence in my own skills.  And that summer, as a fresh high school graduate and first-time Girl Scout camp counselor, I also got smacked in the face with my first full dose of non-heteronormativity.

Lots of the female counselors dressed in "boy clothes!"  There was so much short, cropped hair!  I was pretty sure I picked up on some subtle flirtations amongst my colleagues, too.  I did make an ├╝ber faux pas at one point that summer, though, when I saw that a coworker had a Claddagh ring and asked her what her "boyfriend's name" was.  Yup, turns out she had been dating another female counselor all summer and I hadn't realized.  Hello, heteronormative mindset and inaccurate assumptions.

 
I think what I mainly noticed about the women who I suspected might be queer at camp was that they struck me as especially strong, self-assured, dynamic females.  That might actually be a decent characterization of most of the people that end up working at Girl Scout summer camp, but nonetheless, I found myself quietly admiring these women.  It was refreshing and cathartic for me -- after four years of disguising/not acknowledging my sexual orientation -- to at least be in a community where not being straight was clearly okay

Most of all, though, that summer was important to me because of the opportunity to be a mentor for girls and young women in the camp environment I so cherished.  The experience was just enhanced because of the supportive, inclusive community I was a part of.

I moved to Western Massachusetts that fall and began studying at Mount Holyoke, a liberal arts women's college known for being very academically rigorous and very diverse in terms of the student body.  The Princeton Review Guide's annual book, The Best [300-Something] Colleges, consistently ranks my alma mater in the Top Ten when it comes to "acceptance of the gay community."

Despite the abundance of queer/same-sex relationships on-campus and even the existence of a small trans* student population, I didn't date any women/queer classmates at college.  I didn't really feel "gay enough" in comparison to all my "out" peers, which was difficult to reconcile since this doubt was also coupled with a hearty helping of "femme invisibility."  In an effort to stop passing for straight, I even put "LTBQ Safe Zone" stickers on my dorm room door and wore some ever-so-subtle rainbow jewelry...to no avail.  I was too timid to approach any women for the first time and too seemingly-straight to attract any interest from others.  I resigned myself to dating men again and was in a few more deeply unsatisfying, unhappy relationships.

However, the summer after my first year of college, I returned to Girl Scout camp and something important happened: I kissed a girl for the first time.  A girl I actually really liked and fell for really hard.  I was nineteen and though she was a bit younger, she had a self-assured and self-aware vibe that drew me to her.  She played the guitar and was wild and smart and compelling.  She was already "out" and somehow, one night, we ended up having a conversation that led to me disclosing that I was attracted to women.  I remember lying beside her on a small, striped cot mattress and having my breath catch as her fingertips just grazed my forearm.  Every sensation was magnified and I actually felt that coursing electrical energy that romance novels falsely make you believe is commonplace.  It was real for me then, though.  For three long weeks, I was obsessed with E.  I wrote her poems.  I made her little gifts.  I barely slept and spent most of my time thinking about when I would see her next.  She ended up pursuing a relationship with another woman, which left me feeling crushed for a little while.

My most pivotal experiences with women, though, wouldn't come until a few years later.  I graduated college and found myself working at another Girl Scout camp in Massachusetts...while also being engaged to a guy.  We were emotional equivalents but I had zero physical connection with him.  He knew that I was attracted to women and had never had the opportunity to explore my sexuality, yet we still were planning on getting married.  That summer at Girl Scout camp, though, some crazy things happened.  Suddenly, I found myself -- for the very first time -- the object of another woman's crush.  

I had been utterly oblivious to S.'s hints and invitations, and it wasn't until I was leaning against her knees at an Ani DiFranco concert that I suspected that maybe she was flirting with me.  I wracked up the courage to finally end my engagement and then began my first, legitimate relationship with another woman at the age of twenty-two (after ten full years of knowing something wasn't fitting right between me and menfolk).  I fell in love with another woman, and it was exhilarating because so much did fit between the two of us.  For the first time, I was truly interested in intimacy and I fully participated in sex, rather than begrudgingly conceding to sexual activity.  I had thought of myself as someone with very little libido in my relationships with men, but now discovered that the combination had just been wrong.  

I decided I was meant to love women.

Uncertain how to reconcile my previous life of heterosexual crushes, dates, boyfriends, and partners, I decided that the term to describe my sexual orientation was now "pansexual," even if I didn't quite feel that I was currently attracted to males.  Interestingly, I worked at a year-round YMCA camp the fall after I graduated from college and was harassed repeatedly by a male coworker after explaining my sexual orientation.  Since I consistently do seem to pass for "straight" unless I'm on the arm of another woman, this was my first experience with sexual harassment on the basis of my identity.  My coworker brought up my sexual orientation regularly during staff meetings, made inappropriate "jokes," and used the moniker "Peter Pan" to refer to me.  Though I was working at a camp facility, I was shocked and dismayed at the palpable differences in community culture between the YMCA camp and the Girl Scout camp environment I had felt so safe in.  There's something to be said for a female-centric, female-empowering space and the kind of unrivaled support that exists within that type of community.

S. and I were together for a year, spent some time apart, and ultimately made our way back to one another -- as friends, at first -- in 2012.  We like to say that we started Relationship 2.0 at that time.  We now run a resident Girl Scout camp on the West Coast together as a Camp Director - Assistant Camp Director duo.  Our life together is pretty awesome.

Of all the skills I have honed and all the adventures made possible due to my involvement in Girl Scouting, though, I am most grateful for the Girl Scout camp experience.  Girl Scout summer camp programs have shaped me as a educator while also providing needed "soul nourishment" -- connecting me with a community of powerful women, highlighting the pervasiveness of cis/heteronormative culture, and ultimately helping me find the most healthy and love-filled relationship I could ask for.

I also now identify exclusively as lesbian...though I guess I actually prefer the term "queer," since the former word is incredibly fetishized.  

I don't think that the degree of personal reflection on my identity would have been possible had I not participated in the secure and engaging community that constitutes Girl Scout camp environments.  Even while attending a top-notch women's college with hordes of women's studies majors and lots of engaging classrooms discussions on LGBTQ rights, I still felt stymied in that living community.  I needed the freedom of the outdoors and the Girl Scout camp experience in order to fully feel safe in tentatively first exploring (and later acting upon) my sexual orientation.

PARTICIPANT INTERVIEW OUTLINE

The below interview questions are intended to serve as prompts, with the aim of eliciting diverse, rich narratives from participants.
___________

How do you identify in terms of sexual orientation?  Gender expression?  

What was/is your involvement and role in Girl Scouting/Girl Guiding? How long have you been a member? In what capacities? 

What led you to believe you were gay/lesbian/bi/trans*/queer?  What made you know for sure? 

Who was the first LGBTQ person you were exposed to? How did you know they weren't straight? 

Tell me your coming out story. Did you feel supported?

What aspects of your life changed after you came out, if any? 

• What do you think being gay/lesbian/bi/trans*/queer meant when you came out? What influenced that perception? Has your view changed since then? 

Tell me about the first time you were around a majority of LGBTQ people.

What unique experiences have you dealt with that you think your straight peers or colleagues haven't encountered?

• Describe your first non-heteronormative crush and/or any pivotal romantic or intimate experiences.

• Do you believe there is a LGBTQ-related stereotype pertaining to Girl Scouts' membership?  If so, what do you think it is?  Where do you think it comes from?  How do you feel about it?

• Describe any personal transformations that occurred for you in a Girl Scout/Girl Guide context, whether in a camp environment, in a troop or group setting, on a destinations trip or at an international jamboree, etc.

• How has Girl Scouting/Girl Guiding impacted your personal identity as a member of the LGBTQA community? 

• Describe your perception of how LGBTQ individuals fit within the Girl Scouts organization.  To what extent do you think Girl Scouts provides social justice-based curriculum to educate its members about the LGBTQ community?  Do you think Girl Scouts should do more?  Less?  

ANTI-GIRL SCOUT LITERATURE

Some Articles and Images from Folks that Don't Like Girl Scouts

(Or, "A Motivating Factor for This Project")

_____________________
GSUSA recently gained quite a bit of national attention in late 2011 and early 2012 following a transphobic viral video campaign to "boycott Girl Scout cookies" that criticized GSUSA for allowing trans* girls to participate as full members.  The full video is no longer available online, but a transcript is available here


The girl in the video above is affiliated with Honest Girl Scouts, which actively disseminates anti-Girl Scout propaganda such as the below flyer:

Comedian/actress Joan Rivers also shared some tasteless comments via Twitter on the topic of trans* Girl Scouts in fall 2011:
_____________________
Heterosexuals Organized for a Moral Environment (2010). This article remarks on the "lesbian-feminist doctrine" and references Manahan's "On My Honor" in the concluding paragraph, again suggesting that the American Heritage Girls "uphold traditional values" while Girl Scouts "have lost their way."
_____________________
Schilling, C. (2009). This author is concerned that Girl Scout publications encourage young women to pursue the following careers:

ambassador, congressperson, artist, filmmaker, labor union organizer, fund raiser/grant writer, lawyer, lobbyist, mediator, professor, public affairs officer, researcher, religious leader, senator, web master, blogger, journalist.

The article also bashes the inclusions of lyrics to songs such as "Independent Women" by Destiny's Child, "Hammer and a Nail" by the Indigo Girls, and "Imagine" by John Lennon in GSUSA materials.
_____________________
A caricature of Girl Scouts that blatantly suggests pedophiliac overtones.
 Segelstein, M. (2008). This article criticizes Girl Scouting's "steady, well-documented leftward slide" and points to the American Heritage Girls as a more wholesome alternative.
_____________________
Dillusioned with the "increasing secular focus of existing organizations for girls," parents in West Chester, Ohio founded American Heritage Girls for their daughters in 1995. AHG describes itself as a Judeo-Christian focused organization.
_____________________
Another inappropriate cartoon purporting to depict Girl Scouts.
Chastain, J. (2007). This article asserts that the national organization has "run amuck" and identifies Girl Scouting as a "tool of the radical feminist movement [and] anti-God, pro-abortion, pro-homosexuality."
_____________________
Dexter, P. (2007). An article with a very similar tone to previously linked pieces, referencing GSUSA's promotion of gun control, homosexuality, masturbation, environmentalism, and "programs that focus heavily on a narcissistic devotion to self."
_____________________
A scene from the 2009 film "Whip It," criticized by Jeremy Clyman, M.A., as a "lesbian fantasy, disguised." Actresses Ellen Page and Drew Barrymore are members of a roller derby team called the "Hurl Scouts."
_____________________
 
 

AN INTRODUCTION

In 2009, I read an infuriating article by a conservative pundit that commented on the supposed dangerous socialist leanings of Girl Scouting.  
The article referenced a 1997 work entitled, On My Honor: Lesbians Reflect on Their Scouting Experiences.  I promptly purchased a copy from eBay that same day.  I devoured the collection of anecdotes, and as a longtime Girl Scout and seasoned Girl Scout summer camp staff member, I found the entire collection extremely salient.  Indeed, there's even an essay that begins, "All I Really Need to Know About Being a Lesbian I Learned at Girl Scout Camp."

I have spoken about On My Honor to many of my Girl Scout connections, lent the book to several friends, and have since developed a strong interest in developing a 21st century edition.  I specifically am interested in incorporating members of the trans* community and their Girl Scout experiences into this 21st century iteration, in addition to including the experiences of individuals who identify as "allies" and not just queer.



I emailed Nancy Manahan, editor of the 1997 work On My Honor, and received her endorsements to go ahead with this project.  I've never attempted anything like this and have certainly never blogged before, so I thank you in advance for your help and understanding in this process.  Rather than having this project culminate in a hard copy book, I'm ultimately envisioning this as an online project and archive that can continuously be added to.



I'll be relying upon a method of collecting and analyzing qualitative data that is known as ‘‘grounded theory," which essentially means that this project will be rooted in on-going discovery.  Rather than beginning with a theory and then "proving it," I'm simply asking questions within an area of study and allowing the generation of theory from the data that is gathered.  Primarily, this project is about collecting stories and cultivating community.

...On a side note, for me, it's an especially important time to be examining this topic since Girl Scouts USA just celebrated its 100th Anniversary in March 2012

 

SO, HOW'S THIS GONNA WORK?

I'm hoping to conduct semi-structured interviews (via phone, email, Skype, or in-person communication) that will be guided somewhat by a broad question set.  I won't be sticking to a rigid interview schedule, though, as I really want individual participants' experiences and responses to shape their own anecdotes.  I also will gladly accept submissions and stories through the blogosphere.  Participants will also be asked to "e-sign" a consent form (maybe this is a give-away that I was a Psychology major...).

To start, I'll be asking participants to consider the following questions:

  How do you self-identify in terms of sexual orientation?  Gender expression?

•  What was/is your involvement and role in Girl Scouting/Girl Guiding?  How long have you been a member? In what capacities?


Some additional questions I'd like to explore:

  Describe your first and/or pivotal romantic or intimate experiences, your crushes, your moments of longing or confusion, etc.  Anecdotes!  I want them!  Tell me a story.

•  Describe any transformations that occurred in a Girl Scout/Girl Guide context, whether in a camp environment, in a troop or group setting, on a destinations trip or international jamboree, etc.

•  Any musings on how Girl Scouting/Girl Guiding has impacted your personal identity as a member of the LGBTQA community, the importance of Girl Scouting/Girl Guiding for LGBTQA youth, and other broader commentaries of this sort.

 

Do you want to be interviewed?  Ready to send me your story? 

Email me at scOUTofthecloset@gmail.com and let's get cookin'.

For the sake of cogency, consistency, and flow, I will be editing interviews and submissions.  Of course, I will do my best to maintain each author's distinct voice.

I will respect any and all requests for anonymity in this project, whether you'd like to remain completely anonymous, would prefer to be known by your "camp name," want only to be identified by your location, or are comfortable sharing your full name.

Please pass the word on to friends, coworkers, and other Girl Scout people who might be interested in sharing their stories.  Let's create a movement.


"Peace out, Girl Scout," as they say.
Stefanie




[Disclaimer: This research is an entirely personally-motivated, independent project and is not connected in any way with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, Girl Scouts USA, or any other national Member Organizational within WAGGGS.]