Some of us don’t have the benefit of ambiguity when we’re children; the ability to choose when or to whom we tell. I was never really in the closet as far as anyone else was concerned. So, coming out was less a declaration, more a confirmation. Some of us just are and I was one of them. I just was. I just was a camp kid.
Like many young queer children who just are, I attracted a fair amount of attention; from classmates, teachers, strangers in the street. Being camp meant I was a target, but not always in a bad way. As profoundly life-altering as the abuse I received was, I was still able to form a tribe of my own at school and even help the less visible gay kids become more visible.
Colouring myself a role model is pushing it a bit – but stick with me on this one.
I was a flaming beacon of gayness
Being the camp kid was pretty rough, but I’d be lying if I said it was always bad. Being so visible meant I was a target, yes, but it also meant other queer kids could seek me out – and seek me out they did.
There were a handful of queer kids in my school and they were all my friends. We’d group together in class exercises, we’d avoid the ball in P.E, we’d become friends. I’m under no delusion that I didn’t seek these kids out too, I was no lone wolf. I’m also under no delusion that I shielded my fellow queer kids from all their pain. But, I was that flaming beacon of gayness at the centre of our tribe, which brought us together and that counts for something.
Visible queer children offer those less visible an opportunity to see what life outside the closet could be like; the good and the bad. If anything, we’re the (sometimes unwilling) litmus test to see if it’s safe to come out.
Turning visibility into action
As well as the hardships being obviously-gay at school brings, it brings opportunity. I was still a popular person amongst the outcasts (straight and gay a-like). I was able to demand an enviable turnout to parties (which were infamous in our sleepy town, because my Mum laced the punch with Lambrini) and I had a large group of people to call my friends. After school, we’d frequent the local youth club.
The Ark was a Christian youth club ran by the Christian Community Church. As a result of being one of the more gobby attendees, I winded up on an informal steering group of young people who frequented the club. I’d attend meetings and we’d suggest ideas for activities. I organised a coach load of us to go to a local adventure park, we did charity stuff. It was fun but it was short lived – turns out Christian youth clubs don’t like gay kids using it as a place to meet and snog.
With Ark no longer our refuge, my tribe and I sought out a local action group; set-up in joint-venture by the local council’s Youth Service and the national charity, The Children’s Society (also, Christian in foundation, ran by a Texan!) We were an experiment to see if local young people could help shape the local government’s policies, which affected their lives.
We were quite famous by the time the group came to an end. We’d enjoyed front page headlines, BBC 6 o’clock features on national TV. We fought the injustice of age-discriminatory curfews in our town, we influenced regional Council Executives with a training course we’d developed ourselves called “Big Cheeses” (we worked “snaps” into the agenda, from Legally Blonde) We even received a Philip Lawrence Award at a ceremony hosted by Sir Trevor MacDonald, taking me to London for the first time. We were doing some cool stuff.
But, throughout all this, I was still that flaming beacon of flaming gayness and along with me came a host of queer individuals. Some as interested in local government policy and youth participation as I seemed to be, most (honestly) just along for the ride. So, without much encouragement from a wonderful Youth Worker, (herself a raging lesbian) I helped to found the region’s first LGBT+ youth support group.
We eventually found a temporary home at the YMCA (you can say what you want about organised religion, but they’re organised!) We’d teach each other about safe sex, relationships, but mostly we’d have a laugh and just, be.
It as a special space that wasn’t just for my friends and I but for other queer kids in the region that sought us out and came along to seek support and kinship (maybe even a cheeky kiss!). The group became a more sustainable flaming beacon of gayness, one where LGBT+ kids could realise they’re not alone and start to build the skills they weren’t able to build in the mainstream, in school, at home.
The group ran for a while, beyond my tenure as a co-founder and I’m pretty proud my flaming gayness was one of the sparks that lit this beacon.
Visibility is power, power is progress
Whilst being unable to hide meant my school years were the most painful of my life, it has to be said that being me – all feathers and bowers – is also what eventually saved me.
Our culture (too) often holds the performance of hyper-masculinity in high esteem and shuns effeminacy. We were taught to be the Will, not the Jack in Will & Grace. But really, we need our camp kids and we need more camp role models because visibility (accidental or not) is power and with power, we get progress.
I wonder, with the emergence of young, gay and camp role models in recent years like, Olympian Adam Rippon, Olly Alexander of Years and Years, Jonathan from the Netflix reboot of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race – with all these camp gay men with empowered stories and messages of strength, maybe we’re catching on?
Maybe today’s queer kids will have the camp role models they need so that being young and different isn’t as hard as it once was.