Georgia’s Own Queer Youth – Their Experience of QYLTS Camp

By Jessica Fisher and Kalli E.

The Queer Youth Leading The South (QYLTS) Camp convened on Wednesday, July 16th on  a cool, bright day in Georgia. The welcome mat rolled out for young people from seven southern states going from Florida to Mississippi, with even a couple guests from California.

The camp was held on the beautiful campus of Agnes Scott College, a private liberal arts women’s college in Decatur, Georgia.

The sense of community was felt almost instantly, as youth were showed to their dorms and settled into the space for the next three days.

The first evening included discussions on conflict management and a Trans Justice Workshop.

It was powerful to have the Trans Justice Workshop the first night, as language around gender identity is often the most necessary tool used by people to address their gender confusion. We were able to see that on the first night of QYLTS camp, as two youths, one from California and one from here in Georgia, expressed an interest to go by different pronouns and/or names, in an effort to explore their gender identity and to address their gender confusion. For some it was their first time in a safe space where they could explore their gender identity without fear or backlash.

And, as one Georgian trans youth put it, it was nice to not be the only trans person in the room.

The end of the first evening came way too quickly. Lots of us youth were tired and ready to sleep, but wanted to stay up and socialize, to meet the new people from across the country. Four days was too short a time to spend in such great company.

One of the great things about the space provided at this camp were the gender-neutral bathrooms. Waking up on the morning of the second day and having the option of showering in a gender-neutral bathroom, a trans-identified bathroom, a male-identified bathroom or a female-identified bathroom was a reassuring thing – it reassured the queerness of the space, and encouraged a feeling of safety and belonging.

On that flipside, without being pessimistic, it feels necessary to be critical of the fact that shortly during the second day we lost one of our gender-neutral bathroom spaces within the camp space due to the many different people and activities/events that were going on at the Agnes Scott campus on that Thursday. We were able to designate different bathrooms as gender neutral but having to move them at all still shows the need for these conversations and education. Gender neutral bathrooms are helpful for everyone, cisgender people included!

The second day was powerful, important and busy. There was a weird framing, having to discuss recent events happenings in Atlanta – the attacks against two trans women of color on MARTA and the attack on a gender non-conforming individual at Little Five Points – as we intended to use MARTA to get to Little Five Points.

Despite these things, our group, the camp participants, had a great experience travelling via MARTA, and being in Little Five Points (despite maybe, the lots of walking). The opportunity to be in Little Five Points and to visit Charis Books, one of the oldest feminist bookstores in the United States and the only one currently existing in the Southeast.

That second day continued to get better with a visit to a local community center, where we were able to experience a presentation by an organization called Cop Watch. Which was an opportunity for us to be empowered around something that can be absolutely scary, and that is dealing with cops. We were presented many skits during our time with Cop Watch, and we had some chance to laugh, and laughing at these sorts of things can be seen as kind of downplaying the seriousness of the issue – but I think with such a serious issue being able to laugh at it reminds us that we do have power over it, and that we have our rights.

The second day ended with a very important session. A presentation and discussion around safe sex, and particularly within that, Partner Negotiation.

We were able to talk about the S.T.O.P. method, which is: Say No, Talk it Out, Offer Explanations and Provide Alternatives.

We also talked about the Consent is Sexy campaign, a campaign that attempts to normalize, regularize and popularize consent, which is really crucial, especially on college campuses across the country.

Hands down day three was most inspiring. The day started with a session on ‘Understanding White Supremacy and Racial Justice’ including caucuses around identity and a white caucus (to step away and allow space for the People of Color caucus and the Mixed Identity caucus and so that people self-identified as white could explore and further understand their white privilege).

We also observed oppression in an intersectional light via the Octopus of Power and Oppression Model, which shows White Supremacy, Capitalism and Patriarchy to be interconnected and to have eight branches from those three categories including things like Racism, Ageism and Cisgenderism.

To go along with that model we looked at the four levels of oppression; Institutional, Inter-community, Interpersonal and Internalized. Unpacking those things deeper campers observed the ways that oppression and attacks can be overt and covert. These are important concepts to carry with us as we continue to organize in our GSAs throughout the state and it is critical that we don’t leave any of our identities behind while doing this work. Racial justice is a queer issue and justice for one group isn’t enough to free us all.

That was all before noon of the third day, and by noon campers had eaten lunch and were traveling to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, for a tour of the center and sites local to it and relevant to the history of MLK Jr. and people of color in Atlanta and in the social activism movement in America.

That trip can not be understated. Visiting the King center, reading all of the history, inspiring and heart-breaking and wonderful as it all was, and going to see MLK Jr.’s birth home as well as the original Ebenezer Baptist Church. Realizing the way that mainstream education can white-wash this history, this black activist history. The way we hear two or three minutes of the ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ in school, but don’t learn about the economic justice MLK was dreaming about, or the end to the Vietnam war he was preaching for, or the racial equality for every race that he marched for. As young activists, it was reaffirming to spend time learning fuller history of this activist that was taken away far too early in his life and in his work.

Campers came back from that excursion to a moment to bond and release the tension that had been building up over the camp – noticing the great forces we stood against, and working through our own thoughts, feelings and emotions. Campers had a chance to participate in and enjoy a talent show.

From bassoon and violin playing, to poetry reading and singing, to dancing and group karaoke one thing that is very clear is that southern queers, along with being really awesome activists, are really talented and passionate.

The final day was an intense one, as campers engaged in a micro-community complete with a capitalist economy, a university, a government, a bank as well as cops and a jail. Exploring the different ways that capitalism affects different socioeconomic groups we observed (or didn’t observe as was the case for those acting the upper class) how those who were poor were more likely to be arrested, as were people of color, regardless of whether or not they were poor or middle class. We observed the way in which the poor class was turned away from and exploited by the university. The bank, it was shown, charged higher rates to the poor and gave supplies to the rich for free, while the jobs provided less pay for more work depending on one’s class.

It was an emotional exercise, but it was not the final punctuation, and necessarily so. To finish out the camp we looked at how we could take everything we had learned and apply it to our GSA’s, or to starting a GSA or community organization back where we live, and then we were able to connect with the youth in our state and our state lead to discuss next steps, which, amongst Georgia youth, was a positive, optimistic and energized experience.

There’s a lot of work to be done between here and next year at Alabama, watch out Georgia, because here we come with a crew of amazing youth leaders!

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