For the fourth summer in a row, LGBTQ+ young people from all over West Virginia will gather this August to learn from LGBTQ+ leaders in the state and gain skills in organizing and self-advocacy.
The Appalachian Queer Youth Summit, a summer camp run by the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, is free and open to young people ages 15 to 19 who identify as LGBTQ+ or come from LGBTQ+ families. This year’s camp is being held in Morgantown. Applications are being accepted now.
Mollie Kennedy, community outreach director for ACLU West Virginia, said the idea for the camp came about through conversations about how to support LGBTQ+ people in a place like West Virginia, where they might not expect such support, and how to focus on youth.
"(Young people) are potentially the ones who are the most isolated, cut off from other LGBTQ people, especially if they’re not supported at home," Kennedy said. "How do we create something for them that helps them feel empowered and connected to others like them, and give them an opportunity to feel safe and feel like they have a place in West Virginia if they want it?"
Even if the summer camp had been around when Kennedy was a teenager, Kennedy said she isn’t sure she would have had the courage to tell her religious family she wanted to attend "gay camp."
"I came from a pretty religious background," she said. "I was closeted for a while. I didn’t really talk to any of my family about this until I was an adult out in the world."
But even the existence of the summer camp would have helped her at the time, she said.
"Knowing that there were people who cared about this community that I wanted to more loudly be a part of, but wasn’t really sure if I could for a while would have sent me the message that there wasn’t actually anything wrong with me, that I was fine the way that I was," Kennedy said.
Kennedy’s work to found the camp was the basis for her being awarded the Rainbow Pride of West Virginia Power of One award, which is given to recognize people who create a "positive impact on the lives of LGBTQ+ West Virginians," according to the organization.
In its first year, 2020, eight or nine young people participated in the camp virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, between 35 and 40 teenagers are expected to attend.
The guests for this year’s camp are still being worked out, but camp organizers are talking with staff from the ACLU’s national chapter and the makers of a zine, author Neema Avashia, among others, communications director Billy Wolfe said.
Representatives from Kin Ship Goods, a Charleston-based apparel store, will also bring a portable press to make a camp T-shirt.
Kennedy said the goal for the teenagers is to leave feeling like they can advocate for themselves and others and be intersectional thinkers who think about other communities.
"We recognize that the life that you live as a queer person is going to involve self advocacy, always," Kennedy said. "And so we want to give them those tools, as well as those examples of you could be like any of these people: you could run for office, you could have a family, you could run a business, you can go to a big city and have an adventure, you can come back, you can stay — there are no rules for you."
Jaye Hicks first attended the camp as a 17-year-old in 2020. She’ll return this year as a junior counselor.
Hicks, who identifies as a gender nonconforming lesbian, has a chronic illness that kept her out of public school made her feel isolated. But she found a community at the camp.
"I came across the camp in one of the lowest points of my life," Hicks said. "And so being handed over a community of people that I could actually connect with, on like, on a silver tray essentially, was incredibly important to me. It’s even more important now, I’m getting better, kind of. But I know I can always turn to them if I’m going through a patch."
Hicks said the camp made connecting with and building relationships with other LGBTQ+ young people easy.
"It’s all over the country but I know specifically in this state, queer youth do not have spaces to be safe," Hicks said. "So, all of us have put up walls around ourselves to protect ourselves. So finally having a space where we can put those walls down, it makes it so much easier to actually talk and exist around other people. Because we all have those walls and those similar experiences, it’s easier to relate to things. And relating, especially, especially in these types of circumstances is going to build relationships stronger than anything else."
In addition to providing a safe place for the teenagers, Wolfe hopes the camp helps teenagers become more involved in the political process in a way that causes change.
West Virginia doesn’t have a statewide Fairness Act, which would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.
Lawmakers earlier this year passed a law prohibiting gender-affirming care for transgender young people except for kids considered at-risk for self-harm or suicide. They also passed a religious freedom bill opponents worry may be used to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people.
"We know it’s certainly not all going to change tomorrow," Wolfe said. "Hopefully a lot of it does change with the next generation. So, we want to be mindful of that now and we want to see them get involved now."
In light of the new law, and an inundation of "hostile, anti-democratic bills" passed in Tennessee, Texas and Florida, Wolfe said, this year’s camp will focus on "queer joy."
"It really takes a toll on the mental health of queer youth, I think particularly trans youth because they’re so in the crosshairs of these legislators," Wolfe said. "And so we want to really, as much as we can, provide a counter to that for the summer, a place where people can sort of relax, unclench, and not just that, but actually celebrate who they are. Not just survive and be resilient, but love themselves for who they are."
Hicks said she’s learned things at camp she’s already taken with her into adulthood. Beginning next month she’s starting a job with Pollen8, a organization that provides treatment and reintegration programs for women affected by addictions.
"I’ve taken all of the skills I’ve learned in camp and just helping with the ACLU in general, because of the opportunities I’ve been given at camp and it’s brought out a passion I didn’t know I had," Hicks said. "I am someone who I have found loves going out and talking and informing. I love tabling at events to bring more information and talk to all these unique and interesting people. And I could not have any of those skills or experiences if I didn’t get involved with the camp."