The following is a guest post from Eric Yoak, Camp Pride 2012 alumnus and sophomore at Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky. Eric is an active member of ALLYance at MSU and serves on the Planning and Public Relations Committee.
About two weeks before July 17th, I received a call late at night from a friend asking me to take his place at a conference due to family emergency. He told me that everything was paid for: food, room, supplies. All I needed to do was find a way down there. Well, who would turn down a free trip to Nashville? I know I wouldn’t. Little did I know that I would be receiving so much more.
I, and the friend who drove me, arrived to Vanderbilt University to check in for the week. I walked in thinking I was a replacement for someone who couldn’t make it. I went to the events on the first day and learned that this conference was more than just another conference. It was a safe haven for people like me who identify to anything other than the social norm; in my case, a gay man.
On my second day, I took a workshop with Robyn Ochs. In this workshop, everyone filled out a survey and scaled our identities on a continuum of 0-6; zero being strictly heterosexual, and 6 being exclusively homosexual. What surprised me was the fact that there were so many people who identified in ways similar to me. I always thought that people had had different scaling on their identities, but here was proof that I was not just thinking. It was fact. Of course, we have to take into account this was an LGBTQIA community camp, so the results were much more controlled.
Then that night, Justin Utley treated us to a concert. Justin is a singer/songwriter raised in Utah by a Mormon community. He told us of his two-year experience with conversion therapy, his love life, and his inspirations for his music. Being a singer myself, gave me hope that there is more that I can do to make my dream reality. Also, if anyone ever sees him, please make sure to remind him of the pen he didn’t give back to the guy at Camp Pride. He can keep it. I just want him to realize how star-struck I was.
On my third day at Camp Pride, we had an event with Glenne McElhinney. During this event, we watch the documentary, “On These Shoulders We Stand.” This documentary is based on pre-Stonewall history and is every educational and emotional. I can honestly say I have never been so inspired by a movie, expect Spice World, which everyone at Camp Pride KNOWS is my favorite.
Hearing the stories of people who were in the thick of the madness, in the heart of the fight, gave me more of a reason to fight back now. I hear about their struggles and see my own mirrored back in one form or another. Life with these kinds of prejudices and discrimination, if you give in, isn’t a life at all. If you are able to move past these things, and make a life all your own, then you will be able to live as you were meant to be, the way God intended: free and independent.
Later that day, we heard from Stephanie Laffin, who is a former casting director, and works as the Secretary of the Board of Directors for the It Gets Better project, an LGBT anti-bullying movement that incorporates the use of media to send messages across the globe telling people in harsh situations to stay strong and keep going, because life gets better.
When we heard of the things she was doing with this organization, I automatically knew she was an amazing person and she was involved in an amazing thing, and I wish to someday be like her. (Stephanie, if you’re reading this, hook me up. We can definitely come up with some great ideas if we combine our mastermind personalities. Just kidding about the hook up.)
On Friday, Camp Pride played host to the Season 1 winner of NBC’s Fashion Star, Kara Laricks. When she spoke, she talked of becoming a teacher, which was my second choice of profession (after music), then of her love for design, then her life as of now. She has a beautiful partner, they are happy and Kara is extremely successful. When I asked her my question, which was, “Where do you want to go from here? What is your dream for the future?,” she started to tear up. Then she replied,” It’s cheesy to say, but I am here. I am doing what I want.” She echoed the longings my heart had had for years. I have wished to say that since I was little, and still do, and hope to one day be able to tell that to people.
Friday evening, Mara Kiesling, the director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, hosted a lecture about who she is, what she has done, and where she wants to go from here, though I think she would have wanted to go back a day, as she had had lunch with the First Lady, Michelle Obama, and told us about it. Mrs. Obama, if you ever read this, please make sure to speak with Mara more. She is an amazing individual who can definitely weave an amazing tapestry of words.
Friday night our entertainment was a night of spoken word and poetry with Kit Yan. Kit has a way with words, and he is a beautiful person, inside and out. Kit, we didn’t speak much, but you should know that I was the one who has never been to Hawaii.
Kit shared his story with us and inspired me to do more with who I am and where I am going. He shared an interesting tidbit of information he discovered in Economics class about supply and demand. To me, this also opened up a Pandora’s box in people’s minds about how if more people were to stand up and take more action, there would be less of a fight for the things we need, though this was probably me just looking more into things than should be.
Saturday, our last full day, was graduation. When we were all sitting in our seats, we were able to hear from the Pride Leaders and the faculty just how much we mean to them. I never thought that I would have so much impact on people, though I had hoped I would. We all received our certificates and we were ready to face the world as more educated human beings, but not before getting to hear a speech from Zach Wahls, the young man who spoke in defense of marriage equality as an ally and became a viral sensation. He and I share some similarities, if you can believe it. We were both Boy Scouts, though he actually finished, and he and I have books, though his is finished and mine is still on chapter 1.
He spoke about growing up in a same-sex household, his guilt he felt when making rude comments about people in middle school, and his decision to move beyond that and become an advocate. I, myself, used to be a boy who was so scared of the steep social ladder that I made the jokes aimed at people, while hiding things about myself. Then, when I accepted myself, I decided to stop caring what others thought and came out, though in a different way than Zach, even though his story is way more amazing than mine. Being from Kentucky, his story inspired me to show me that someone from even the smallest and most remote of places, though I am not sure how remote Iowa is because I have only been as far west as Missouri, can make a huge impact just by speaking their mind.
Sunday, we had our final exercise. We stood in a circle, a few people were selected to be in the middle and the rest of us shut our eyes. The speaker then asked the middle group to touch the people’s shoulders that fit into their mind as the right person to do so, with orders like, “Touch someone who has inspired you,” “Touch someone who you respect,” and “Touch someone who you care about.” Every time, and with every group, she always asked, “Touch someone who leads with pride.” Someone touched my shoulder every time. It was during this activity that we all knew how important this week was to us and how close we had all gotten. To me, this was the day when I knew I wasn’t there as a replacement for someone who couldn’t make it. I was meant to be there, with these people, with this amazing instrument of education.
To Shane, Lisa, Ma, Stephanie, Robyn, Nikita, Spencer, Kennedy and so many more, thank you for being my educators for a week of incredible experiences.
To Justin, Mara, Kit, Marissa, Kara, Glenne, and all the other guest speakers, thank you for coming to camp and sharing your stories. The hour you had to speak was life changing for each of us.
To Den 1, You Go, Glen Coco’s!…and…I guess even some for Gretchen Wieners. We were selected at random to be grouped into dens, but we were meant to be The Glen Coco’s. We shared so much during den sessions and throughout the week I was able to get to know each and every one of you more closely, and I know we were supposed to know each other. You all continue to inspire me everyday and I hope to remain life long friends with you.
To the amazing people I met at Camp Pride, keep on working. We are getting there.
To the people I didn’t get to speak to too much, I still love you and respect you whole-heartedly. Get in touch with me.
To all Camp Pride individuals, watch out for Honey Badgers.
Before closing this article, I want to echo the words of a wise philosopher, who I have had the chance of meeting personally, and falling asleep in his workshop. (Sorry!) “If you don’t like something, ‘Change it!’” – Shane Windmeyer.
Dedicated to: those lost in the fight for equality, and those still fighting today.