When I look back at how I slipped out the back door of evangelical Christianity when I was twelve — early enough that my sexual orientation and gender identity weren’t particularly in play — I’m grateful. While it didn’t necessarily erase the pressures and frustration I felt in a community that leaned heavily Baptist, I tend to think that opting out in order to follow my curiosity about modern paganism spared me a lot of grief. Where some of my friends struggled with how to be themselves in churches that seemed to thrive on misinformation propagated by groups like Focus on the Family, I could at least take comfort knowing that there was a place waiting for me in the pagan community when I was old enough to get out of town.
As an adult, I’m still uneasy about the way Christianity and the LGBTQ community often stand at odds with one another, and how a handful of very loud, conservative Christians continues to monopolize the public discourse about our lives. I’m disheartened by the way that words like “values” and “morality” have become synonymous with discrimination and hate. As a non-Christian, I’m skittish when I meet people who profess that faith because I’m so accustomed to withstanding a constant barrage of messages from their fellow believers that tell me I am less worthy, even evil.
I suspect this is why watching Camp Out, a 2006 documentary about a Christian camp for LGBTQ teens, was difficult for me. It’s like running into a bad ex and discovering that they’ve not only stopped doing a thing that hurt you when you were together, they’ve taken up something you’d wished they were willing to do before the split. You want to be happy about it, but…well, it smarts a little.
Do I have to say how amazing it is that something like The Naming Project and its camps exist? That even a handful of kids can have a safe space for part of the summer that tells them that they are okay, that they are loved and lovable, and that who they were born to be is no impediment to their faith is heady stuff in the world we live in.
As I watched Camp Out, I was consistently amazed by how clear and true this message stayed throughout. The sheer sincerity of it all blew me away. When there was discomfort among the campers over a game of Truth or Dare, the staff didn’t shy away from sexuality as a concrete issue. They engaged it because their goal is to help these kids be whole people, and to own who they are with pride and confidence.
I was also fascinated, as a participant in faith traditions much smaller and younger than Christianity, by how the counselors used themes and traditions from within Christianity to create activities that supported the campers’ experience and development. It sounds hokey, but Camp Out made me want to better develop what I do.
On a practical level, the filmmakers struck a good balance between engaging the campers and staff directly versus simply being observers. They want to show us the whole experience from beginning to end, and I think they succeed. Camp Out on the whole was reasonably well-shot, well-edited, and kept me engaged.
I worry about saying this because of my own experiences and biases, but it’s hard not to feel like the picture that Camp Out paints is too optimistic.
After a little more than an hour of watching these campers form a cohort and feel supported and enjoy some great personal development, I felt bad that they had to go back out into the world as it is. It’s been four years since Camp Out came arrived on screens, and while there’s been progress, there hasn’t been much. We’re still living in a country where just this week Senator John McCain filibustered to prevent even the discussion of a bill which could have repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and an aide for Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss posted a violent anti-gay slur from his Georgia office. Many LGBTQ people can still be fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We’re still seeing adoption and marriage parity bans on ballots. Meanwhile the Ted Haggards of the world are still pushing reparative therapy and telling kids that they’re going to hell for how they’re wired.
In short, I’m angry for these kids. It bothers me that they have to go back into the teeth of congregations and communities that exclude them.
The film doesn’t tell us very much about how this works out for these kids in the end. I’d have liked to see a little of that, maybe a visit to one or two of them six months later. Some exit interviews, maybe. The lack of context at the end of Camp Out seems to me like it wants to give viewers – especially viewers who aren’t members of the LGBTQ community – a sense of closure that leaves me concerned that people will feel like this camp is enough. It’s not.
I am glad that Camp Out exists. I think it gives a face and a voice to a too-small (and often too-silent) group of people within Christianity. I think that it’s missing some useful information. Even so, I hope lots of people watch it, think about it, and talk about it. This is the sort of thing that changes minds, both within Christianity and without. I’m in no hurry to go convert, but Camp Out made me think about whether I could be smarter or fairer in my interactions. It’s also given me food for thought in terms of thinking about what my own practice looks like, and how I can more effectively use it to support myself.
It’s good. I’m going to watch it again. I think other people should see it. I just think it’s more of a conversation starter than a finished thing, and that if watching it gives you the urge to pat yourself on the back, you might want to pause and look around before you do.