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.

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