Page001The South doesn’t have the best reputation for being liberal or accepting. My own state of North Carolina has become somewhat of a police state and bills are being passed on a near daily basis that restrict our rights. Unless you are a white upper-class male you can’t vote and unless you live somewhere not North Carolina, you can’t get a safe abortion. But you can carry a concealed weapon into a bar. So that’s something (says the pacifist with the Quaker upbringing).

In the midst of all of this frustration with my home state, Liam and I traveled deeper into the south last Friday afternoon for the most unlikely of events: Camp GB. Through the Campaign for Southern Equality’s We Do Campaign, Li and I got involved with a rather ragtag group of renegades called the Gender Benders. They are a rapidly growing non-profit organization consisting of trans* and genderqueer folks—mostly young folks—who offer each other support, education, and resources for mental health and physical transition, to name but two. We have been blessed to attend a couple of legal workshops and Liam was invited to present his work on spiritual reconciliation, which was received with so much positivity that we carried a glow in our hearts for weeks. Out of that opportunity rose a discussion about a day-long retreat. That discussion turned into the possibility of a weekend retreat and Camp GB was born.

It was born five weeks ago, to be precise and it was built on a prayer and a spitball. There was dust in the coffers and no time to plan but these hard workers made it happen. My hat (you know, that straw fedora with the black band?) is off to the two original members/leaders and their respective partners. They embarked on a mad Internet fundraiser and in no time had all that they needed and then some to house and feed every single member that wished to join us, free of charge. In the end, the attendance, at its high point, was likely around 30 (the overall membership is into the 200s, but distance/jobs/short notice made it difficult for some). At Sunday’s family/friends meeting we saw numbers well into the 40s, but more about that later.

So there we were, two old fogies lugging our bags up the porch steps on a Friday evening. The air was thick with the humidity that would stick to us like Saran Wrap for the remainder of the weekend and the porch was already full of beautiful young people in all states of glorious gender non-conformity. I will admit that I was full of trepidation and experienced the first of several moments of self-consciousness. I would estimate that the average age of this group falls around 22 or 23, maybe even younger. We are twice that and then some. I was acutely aware of my silver hair and Li’s face well-lined with character. The camp was held at Ivy Acres in Piedmont, South Carolina, and is an RV Campground for those 45 and older. I imagined that the campers thought we were wayward old folk, heading up to the office to check in. I could hear the creaking in my joints.

Yet, as they welcome every single person they encounter, so too did they welcome us. They welcomed us as allies, as compatriots, as their pastor (by the end of the weekend, Liam was being introduced as such) and his wife, as friends and confidantes. I felt an overwhelming motherly love toward each of these incredibly brave souls. These are my heroes. Each of them–where they are now and where they have been and where they are heading. Some of them I had met, briefly, during one of the previous workshops or meetings; some of them I had seen only on Facebook. By the end of the weekend, I felt as though I had formed the first groping tendrils of bonds that will last a lifetime.

I’m not going to recap the schedule, but I will refer you here, should you wish to learn more. Suffice it to say that our time was jam-packed with a wide variety of offerings. We had meditation sessions and breakout groups and a Spirit Walk (which, sadly, I slept through as I had hit a wall of emotional overload and came away with a particularly nasty headache) and meetings to learn more coping skills (who knew that my own husband could still teach me a thing or two about getting through panic and anxiety?). I had the wonderfully good fortune to co-facilitate a partners and allies group, which I expect will lead to more support of my own ministry. And the food! Oh, the food. Dancing! Birthday cake! Team building exercises filled with laughter and camaraderie!

I could go on and on about what an amazing time was had by all, but what I really want to say is this: these people really are the bravest human beings on the planet. They are the intrepid explorers of the road far less traveled. They are, by turns, exuberant and introspective. Many are fledglings, just shaking their tentative wings in preparation for flight. Several are confidently pointing the way, having gone before and beaten back the underbrush. My own husband is early in his physical transition and it seems that testosterone becomes the great equalizer—at times I felt surrounded by pre-teen boys ranging in age from 20-50. I know that he felt a true kinship with these young men and women and those that blow my mind by being able to see their own fluid place on the gender spectrum that is neither one nor the other.

At the close of the weekend, we wrapped with a family and friends meeting that was facilitated by a local family therapist, Landa Basham. We had gone for a tour of the extensive and beautiful grounds and came back to see the porch, living room, and front yard filled with parents, friends, siblings, partners, and children. All of them there to offer various levels of support. I really had managed to hold my tears all weekend (unusual for me as I am a crier, but I think the constant laughter kept my weeping at bay), but I admit to misting up then. Growing up as “other” I never had this kind of support system, and I know my husband would have benefitted from a group like the GenderBenders. Their mantra has become “You are not alone,” and I felt that so keenly in that moment. While some family members were still expressing doubt and hesitancy and insistence upon using birth names and pronouns, some were not there at all.  Yet the overwhelming message was clear: no one was going through this stuff alone. Each of these pioneers has each other. A whole group of caring individuals that love each other unconditionally and accept each other where they are and where they’ve been and where they are heading.

I realize that this sense of magic will wear off quickly. We return to the real world and instantly we are confronted with life and all of its discrimination. I already see members, who just spent a weekend wrapped in the loving arms of acceptance and encouragement, struggling against self-doubt, self-hatred, deep depression, and even suicidal impulses. As a much older woman who has been there (yes, I have been there), I want to take each of these children (to me they are children, my children) and shake them by the shoulders. I want to tell them to look around at each other and remember that they have all that they need to succeed right here. They are part of the luckiest group in the world; a group that holds each other up and lets the light shine through the cracks and into the deepest, most hurt part of their souls. “You are not alone.” And, when they are ever in doubt that their lives will never be more than they are right now, they should look to these two old veterans and be reassured: it really, really does get better.

In the meantime, to my dear Gender Benders: I love you. I am grateful for each of you. You, you are my heroes.