“A place where teens can forget ‘fitting the mold”

Source: Sault Star
Website: http://www.saultstar.com/2012/04/08/a-place-where-teens-can-forget-fitting-the-mold

Rainbow Camp free from abuse for youth who don't suit straight sexual model

Everybody needs a safe place, where they know they can be accepted for themselves, and don't have to fear being bullied.

For many adolescents, however, those places are few and far between. Even with gay-straight alliances forming in many high schools, bullying continues against young people who identify as gay or lesbian, or who even have family members who are gay or lesbian.

Bullying is a big part of that pressure, says Harry Stewart, one of the key organizers of Rainbow Camp, whose purpose is to provide a place free from abuse, where youth who don't fit the straight sexual mold can be themselves and feel safe.

Stewart said that even without overt bullying, the social pressure to "fit in" creates a lot of stress. "There's a lot of pressure on gay and lesbian people to fit the mold," Stewart said in a recent interview. "Many in our generation married because of that pressure to be like everyone else.

“Sometimes a gay kid might not even know anyone else who's gay — they think they're the only one. Maybe for some of them, camp will be the first time they've met other openly gay youth."

Stewart and his partner, Chris Southin, are members of the board of directors of Rainbow Camp, slated for Aug. 5-10 at Camp McDougall in Thessalon, east of Sault Ste. Marie. Registration begins the second week in April at www.welcomefriend.ca.

The concept began with a group of local United Church members, and grew out of the Focus on the Gay Family conference, now an annual event in Algoma. The board comprises people of different ages and sexualities, and the group has been incorporated as a non-profit organization.

Speaking of sexualities, the group identification has become increasingly inclusive, and the initials for it have expanded rapidly. In a single generation, "gay and lesbian" has become LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexualtransgendered) and then LGBT2SQ (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgendered-two-spirited-queer/questioning).

Stewart said many young people in this group call themselves simply "queer," a word once used pejoratively and now being reclaimed; it's also a whole lot easier to say.

There are few camps where young people, who are gay or lesbian, bisexual or simply questioning their own sexuality, can go and relax, knowing they can safely be themselves. There's one in Ottawa for those aged 6-12, but nothing in Ontario for the vulnerable 13- to 17-year-old group.

This doesn't mean that there are no models, Southin said.

"We didn't want to re-invent the wheel," he added.

"There are camps we can learn from and model on."

Camp Ten Trees in the Pacific Northwest is one such camp, and one of the things Rainbow Camp plans to learn from Ten Trees is how to screen camp applicants. Screening is crucial to making sure that the camp experience is safe and positive.

There's no shortage of staff for the August camp; the person in charge of programming is an Algoma University professor, and the board has received many offers from who wish to particate.

The plan is to have two counsellors for every eight campers. Camp staff will take sensitivity training as well as instruction in the safe management of a summer camp. One or two board members will be at the camp everyday, and there will also be a United Church chaplain on staff. The board welcomes proposals from local artists to run workshops.

As for health and safety, the camp is prepared to cope with dietary restrictions and, with the Thessalon Hospital close by, emergency care is only a few minutes away.

Emmy Pantin and Jennifer Lafontaine, of Digital Storytelling Toronto, attended the Focus on the Gay Family Conference, calling it "the safest space they had ever encountered.” Pantin and Lafontaine facilitate digital storytelling by people who may not have had the opportunity or resources to tell their stories. The board hopes
that Digital Storytelling will be able to participate in Camp Rainbow.

"This camp has huge possibilities," Stewart said.

Focus on the Gay Family has turned into an annual event, and sparked the formation of Gay-Straight Alliance groups at both Algoma University and Sault College. Support for the Rainbow Camp has been enthusiastic, organizers say.

While this initial camp is a single week, Rainbow Camp has growth potential. Camp Ten Trees in the Pacific Northwest currently runs two week-long camps every summer, one for LGBTQ youth, and one for youth from non-traditional or LGBTQ families

There are no gender quotas.

What the board wants to do is simply fill the camp,Stewart said.

"We could take up to 55 kids," Stewart said, "and there aren't that number of gay youth out in Algoma. We're looking for participation from all over Ontario, and also Michigan."

The cost is $275 for the five-day camp.

Anyone wishing to sponsor a camper can contact a board member through the camp's website. The camp also has a Facebook page: www.facebook.com/welcomefriendassociation
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