Summer Camp, Only Different

Like most kids, I went to camp. Unlike most other kids, I only went once.

I hated camp … with a passion.

My one and only experience was at Camp Pinnacle – a Christian camp in Clayton, Georgia. I was one of a herd of GAs (or Girls in Action for those unfamiliar with Southern Baptist lingo) trundled off for the summer by our parents to swim, make leather wallets and of course, spend hours in chapel.

Like most 8-year-olds, I desperately wanted to be liked so I was appalled when our cabin’s supervisor “buddied” me up with the most unpopular kid in the whole camp, an albino girl with skin more transparent than my own and freaky pink eyes. I guess she was nice enough, but as someone who was desperate to not have my pariah status at school repeated at camp, I loathed her – and my enforced connection to her. I was mercilessly ridiculed by the other kids for being forced to hang out with the weirdo and I longed for her to take the hint and stop following me around. No such luck. I was latched to the albino all week.

I missed my home. I missed my own room. Most of all, I missed my dog. I hated camp and would never, ever repeat the experience in my life. Camp reminded me too much of my own outsider status, even at that tender age, and how the rulers of the world can spot the outsiders right away and group them together with ease, then ignore the ridicule and discrimination they face.

Ten Midwestern teenagers have had a truly different camp experience than my own – an experience that has helped them learn to come to grips with themselves – their own outsider status in the world – and in the end find a way to reconcile their spirituality and sexual identities.

A new documentary called “Camp Out” chronicles the experience of these kids who have found themselves caught in the battle between religion, politics and sexuality. The camp gives them a safe place to explore these issues and their role in the world.

The camp, in Deer Lake, Minnesota, about two hours outside of Minneapolis, began about three years ago through the Naming Project, which started as a drop-in place, providing safe space for GLBT teens in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.

Kirk Marcolina, one of the director/producers of “Camp Out” knew of the camp and he and co-director/producer Larry Grimaldi decided to produce a documentary about the kids and how this safe camp has helped them change and grow.

“When we got to camp we thought this would be a huge political statement of a movie,” said Grimaldi. “The beauty in the movie is that when we got there we realized these are just kids trying to find their place in the world. They’re just trying to figure out what it means to date, what it means to fall in love, what it means to be part of a community and they weren’t out to make a political statement, they were just out to be themselves and the courage to be yourself when you’re different from other people is an amazing thing to possess and these people all possessed that.”

The teenagers, six boys and four girls, included 15-year-old Tim, an often depressed, recovering drug addict who has a hard time making friends with others and 17-year-old Jesse, the great looking popular boy who struggles with being the object of everyone’s affection.

Grimaldi said it was amazing to watch the boys change.

“Tim learned that he could have gay friends and make relationships with other boys that wasn’t about romance. Jesse, the most popular kid, learned the same lesson through Tim. Jesse was made fun of in school. He was a kid felt like he had to change his clothes and appearance to fit in. It’s hard to put up a façade and be someone you’re not. The boys especially learned that friendship is an important tool in the world and it’s something you can’t give up on,” said Grimaldi.

Grimaldi said all of the teenagers blossomed at the camp and, in the end, did find new ways to be in the world and were better people for having spent time in a safe place exploring their sexuality and spirituality. Grimaldi hopes that those who see the movie will recognize these kids in themselves.

“I hope people look at the humanity in the kids and the film and see themselves, their kids or their nieces and nephews. I hope they realize we’re all just human and we all have the right to be the person God wants us to be and that’s being true to yourself. Anything less, or making anyone feel guilty for who they might love, is really a bad thing. I hope the film begins a discourse about the subject and bridging the gap between sexual identity and spirituality and lead to some change, because until religion changes, politics won’t.”

And wherever that little albino girl from Camp Pinnacle is today, I hope she, too, has found her place in the world. I regret not being able to see her humanity and my inability to recognize her in me. I hope she can forgive me.