By spring semester of my sophomore year, I was fully cognizant of the turbulence at Gordon College. I began to recognize poor leadership and distrust of the administration, as well as a pervasive fear in the air, creeping up from the ground like a layer of fog. Though many of my fellow students protested in earnest, particularly with regards to discrimination against LGBT+ people, I stood stock still, knee-deep in the confused tangle of issues at Gordon.
But sometimes, action has nonlinear roots.
Every summer since elementary school, my brother Henry and I would hop on a plane from Nashville to San Antonio, and head for our favorite place in the world—Laity Lodge Youth Camp. LLYC is a Christian foundation camp in the Texas Hill Country, tucked away in a canyon, right on the Frio River. We discovered LLYC because my musician parents were hired to play gigs at some of the adult retreats—they signed my brother and I up for the youth camp, and the rest is history. I spent eleven summers in that canyon.
I know that a lot of kids grow up going to camp. I know about “camp highs.” I know they can seem formulaic and cultish. But Laity Lodge was different. Yes, it was beautiful, with those warm canyon walls against the green river. And there was plenty to do, amidst waterfronts and ziplines and ceaseless activities. But those could be found at any camp. What made Laity Lodge so special were the people—good southern folks who looked me in the eyes to say I’m glad you’re here. These were people who had time to sit with me, to ask me questions, to validate me in some small way. That pressure that I typically felt to excel—in school and beauty and sports and social life—all evaporated when I went to camp. Instead, I felt a tremendous sense of belonging. Summer after summer, I returned to increasingly familiar faces.
At Laity Lodge, I discovered spiritual openness. I learned to let people into my messy web of fear, desire, and shame. I never knew how spacious my insides were. Everyone there seemed to have a brightness about them, and soon, I did too. We would bask in one another’s shine. My oddities were celebrated, uncertainties welcomed. Everyone, and everything, belonged.
One after the other, Henry and I shifted from camper to counselor. My two greatest and longest camp friends, Virginia and Kate, continued right along with me. As we all grew and changed, camp was our oasis, our place to always return and relearn how to breathe.
Most of Laity Lodge’s population was from Texas, so out-of-staters, like us Tennesseans, were a bit anomalous. But really, Henry and I liked it that way. Camp was our safe haven, far from Franklin, Tennessee and all of our hometown friends. We could be whoever we chose at camp.
Yet, we did convince one high school friend, Chanse, to start working at camp. We knew he would be perfect—both wildly entertaining and socially intuitive, Chanse had a knack for making even the most peculiar kids feel included and validated. Wasn’t that what Laity Lodge was all about? So Chanse was hired, and he started working as a counselor. My brother and I were right. Chanse loved camp, and camp loved Chanse right back.
Once we were all off to college—Henry at Baylor, Chanse at Northwestern, and myself up at Gordon—Laity Lodge became our reunion ground.
The summer after my first year at Gordon, I started to notice things that I hadn’t before in the canyon. Why are all the support staff jobs based on gender? Why aren’t we allowed to talk about sexuality with campers? Why is everyone white? Laity Lodge is not affiliated with any denomination—it has more of a Just Plain Christian identity. Yet, despite this neutrality, I discovered quickly that my probing questions were not welcome. I received puzzling stares, complete with a why would you ask that raised-eyebrow.
I remember inquiring of Chanse, who is half-black, what he thought of the homogeneity. He was disinterested in the question—I suppose Franklin, Tennessee, where we both grew up, was just as white as Laity Lodge. Chanse had long before accepted his difference..
Even with my puzzlement, I loved LLYC. My goofy friends and teenaged campers supplied me with endless entertainment, and the Texas heat was just what I needed after my first New England winter.
Typically, after a couple of summers as a counselor, people apply for “central staff” positions, the highly coveted leadership roles. Each position has some sphere of influence—whether counselors, cooks, media team, etc. Every central staff member gets a special walkie-talkie. It was like an elite club.
That fall, we all applied for central staff—me, Chanse, and most of my friends. While I applied for a few different positions, uncertain which one I would like the most, Chanse knew exactly what he wanted. He applied to be one of two Programmers, the duo that plans out all of the themes and skits and corresponding events for each session. Chanse, a theatre major at Northwestern and genuinely one of the funniest people I have ever met, knew he was a shoe-in—we all knew it. He had started plotting themes with another projected programmer long before he had even submitted an application. Henry in particular, who had been a programmer the previous summer, had full confidence in Chanse.
Winter rolled around, and slowly, individuals were contacted about central staff positions. Though I, along with many of my friends, did not receive a central staff position, Chanse did. I was thrilled. He couldn’t have been a better fit. Plus, I had never witnessed a person of color in a Laity Lodge leadership position, so I found Chanse’s programmer-ship to be especially exciting. He would be the face of Laity Lodge Youth Camp for a whole summer.
After the staff announcements, camp talk quieted down for a bit. By this time, it was spring semester of my sophomore year, and the intensities of Gordon’s campus demanded my full attention. Chanse was busy too, balancing multiple theatre productions and improv troupes at Northwestern. He had also started a weekly video series called “Triangle Face Tuesdays,” where he would put on some ridiculous costume and dance within a chosen theme. The videos always ended with him making a “triangle face,” which was a rather unsettling smile. The purpose of the videos was to be ridiculous and absurd. They received all kinds of attention, leading to a sort of fan following.
One February evening, I was sitting in our campus coffee shop doing homework when I received a call from my brother.
“Hi Henry—what’s up?”
“Do you have a second?”
“Well, no, not exactly... Chanse just got a call from camp directors. They’re rescinding his programmer application.”
I opened and closed my mouth. What? Why? Henry went on to explain that camp directors were deeply displeased by Chanse’s Triangle Face Tuesday videos he had been posting on Facebook. They thought the content was inappropriate, with Chanse cross-dressing and wildly dancing. One director called Chanse to tell him that he was not the kind of person Laity Lodge wanted to represent the foundation.
And just like that—no warning, no request to take down the video, no choice—Chanse was cut down.
My brain swirled into one giant question mark. How could Laity Lodge, my favorite place in the world, fire a phenomenal human like Chanse when he didn’t even break any rules? So what if he was cross-dressing? What’s so offensive about him stepping outside of the gender binary? Haven’t actors regularly cross-dressed since the time of Shakespeare? A thick layer of dread crept up my body. I began to wonder: if Chanse was more like the frat-boy staff members—more masculine, more white—would he have been given options?
More than anything else, I was hurt. I could not believe that this safe haven for misfits could suddenly decide that there was such a thing as too different. LLYC was my refuge while I waded through garbage at Gordon. Camp was where I began to recognize God. But now, it all seemed like a lie, like reading the fine print of their who’s in who’s out gospel message. The belonging place was excluding. Laity Lodge died to me then and there. I knew I couldn’t go back.
A few days after, Chanse posted another Triangle Face Tuesday video on Facebook, with him dancing to Icona Pop’s single “I don’t care.” He captioned, “I was recently fired from my job at LLYC for posting triangle face Tuesdays where I was dressed as a girl. Although I do not normally wear women's clothing when I'm not acting, it is saddening and disheartening to see people be so close-minded and full of contempt for that which they do not understand. I cannot wait for the day when we, as humans, embrace everyone's differences and celebrate them.
TLDR-everyone is different and we shouldn't care, we should just love it. HAPPY TRIANGLE FACE TUESDAY.”
Unlike Chanse, I couldn’t just say, “I don’t care,” and move forward. I couldn’t stop talking about it. I would bring it up with anyone who would listen. But for some reason, most of my camp friends didn’t seem all that interested in talking about Chanse. I called Chanse’s co-programmer, a close friend of mine at the time, and she lashed out at me for bringing up Chanse at all. Other friends were sympathetic, and sad that Chanse wouldn’t be there, but they didn’t see the discrimination. I heard a lot of, “Yeah, that was handled poorly,” but no one was crying for justice. I wanted people to rally together, to protest Chanse’s firing. But no one really wanted to. Quite frankly, not even Chanse wanted to. He had opportunities for serious media attention should he have wanted it, but he didn’t. He didn’t want more drama. He wanted to be able to focus on his acting, thrive at his college—like every student wants.
I sent letters to the camp directors, highlighting how disappointed and hurt I was by the decisions made to fire Chanse, and how poorly these choices were executed. I pointed to fear of the other, exhibited through homophobia and racism. The reply I received was polite, but curt: we are neither racist nor homophobic. We had to respond to inappropriate behavior.
At some point, it occurred to me: I could continue working at camp for as long as I wished, and never have to worry about being fired like Chanse was. Because I am white and heteronormative, I will always receive the benefit of the doubt. This is privilege. And the same thing at Gordon College—while LGBT+ people protested to legitimize their sexuality, to reclaim their personhood, I would always have the choice of whether or not I wanted to participate. I could very well carry on in my college career and choose to not be affected by these policies because I am heteronormative. Knee-deep in that mucky campus, I had a singular moment of clarity. This is privilege—the choice of whether or not to be affected.
Mid-semester, when I joined the campus activism and began protesting outside of Gordon’s chapel, I did it with Chanse in mind.
I don’t think that the camp directors are bad people. I don’t think that they are actively homophobic or racist. I don’t think that Gordon College’s administrative members are villains, either. That would be too simple.
But this dualistic thinking—where there is not room for everyone to come as they are, where fear of the other dictates choices—must be called into question, cracked open, and flooded with the third-eye type of seeing that grounds us in spaciousness and numinosity.