Southwest Virginia’s diversity camp an unexpected oasis of inclusion

By Justin Ayars, JD

On a hot and muggy Wednesday in the middle of June, I gassed up my SUV and made the long trek from Richmond to Craig County, Virginia. If you’ve never heard of Craig County, you’re not alone. Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, Craig is a small, rural county that straddles the border between Virginia and West Virginia. Located about one-hour northwest of Blacksburg, this part of the Commonwealth is as beautiful as it is remote. As I drove through the twisting mountains, I witnessed breathtaking landscapes, an alpaca ranch and even a donkey rescue family farm. Upon arriving at my destination, I was greeted by cooler air and a sea of friendly faces. My experience at Diversity Camp was about to begin.

The Birth of Diversity Camp
For the past four years, the Roanoke Diversity Center (RDC) has hosted a Diversity Camp for teens and young adults at the Craig Springs Camp & Retreat Center (Craig Springs Camp), which is owned and operated by the Disciples of Christ Church. According to Diversity Camp’s founder and director, Joshua Olinger, “This is the only LGBTQ summer camp in Virginia.” Prior to founding Diversity Camp, Joshua had worked as a staff member for the church’s campsite for six years. Joshua’s extensive work at Craig Springs Camp gave him the idea to rent out the facility from the church and create a week-long LGBTQ camp operated by the RDC. The church, which is very LGBTQ-friendly, was very supportive of Joshua’s idea and in the summer of 2013, Diversity Camp was born. Now in its fourth year, Diversity Camp boasts 30 campers (ages 8-28), 20 counselors and attracts participants from a 100-mile radius that spans from Roanoke to Richmond and Martinsville to rural communities in Tennessee.

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The Power of Our Evolving Language
As Joshua concluded my introductory tour of the campsite, he noted that “over half of the campers this year identify as transgender, gender non-binary or gender-queer.” In fact, he continued, “we’ve been talking about some of these terms in our workshops and how they can help people embrace their authentic selves and explain who they are to others.” Having grown up in an era when the word “queer” was considered a derogatory epithet, I was curious to learn more about how younger generations are choosing to express themselves through language.

My curiosity brought me to an afternoon workshop about sexuality and language. Located in the large common area inside a rustic building, this workshop attracted about 20 high school students and young adults who sat in in a large circle of chairs alongside several counselors and a group discussion leader. The hour-long conversation about the evolving lexicon within the LGBTQ community was fascinating. However, I found the most interesting comment was a color analogy volunteered by one of the counselors. He started by staying that the color “mustard yellow” has always existed in nature.

However, it wasn’t until the invention of mustard as a popular condiment did the phrase “mustard yellow” enter our vernacular as a color within the “yellow” spectrum. Similarly, he proffered, the same can be said for the evolving language emerging from within the LGBTQ community. While concepts like “gender-queer,” “asexual,” and “pansexual,” may seem new, the feelings these words describe have always existed—only now, we can express those feelings through language.

After the workshop, I sat down with Blacksburg native Megan Jameson (16) to talk about the subject of language further. She cautioned, “We should not assume that everyone is supposed to know some of the new languages that’s evolving within our community.” On the other hand, she continued, “Just because some people didn’t have the experiences that we, as younger people, are having does not make our experiences invalid. The words that we use to describe ourselves and our feelings are valid, even though others might not think that they are.” Megan then candidly explained some of the challenges she faces when it comes to the language of gender identity. “I was assigned female at birth and primarily identify as female. But sometimes that label doesn’t feel right inside. It fluctuates a lot. At times, I don’t feel I have a gender. It’s hard to describe because I don’t really know all of my feelings.” Megan’s answer exemplifies one of the reasons Diversity Camp exists—to explore and wrestle with those feelings in a safe and supportive environment.

A Safe Space for Everyone
Every camper I met emphasized how Diversity Camp is a unique place where people can be their authentic selves, form lasting friendships and create a true sense of community. Alexander Denny (17) is a Danville native and identifies as a trans man. As we swayed back and forth in rocking chairs atop an old wooden porch, he shared, “It’s hard for me to be my authentic self in Danville because it’s very gender conforming. I returned to Diversity Camp this summer because I feel comfortable here and can be more open and free in my gender expression.”

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Later that afternoon, I sat by the pool with counselor Gregory Rosenthal—an assistant professor of history at Roanoke College and a co-founder of the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project (an undertaking that Q Virginia magazine reported on in a past issue). Like many campers, Gregory emphasized how Diversity Camp creates a vital sense of community “that is beyond measure.” He explained, “Many campers come from homes where their biological parents are not supportive of their identities. Many are also from rural school districts and counties where they may not feel they can safely be out. Here, young people interact with fellow LGBTQ youth and have a normal teenage camp experience. We’re really trying to create a safe space, and we have.” As we dangled our feet in the cool water and looked out across the pool full of campers laughing and splashing each other, Gregory noted, “Swimming is a great example. Think about the gender non-conforming and trans kids. To strip down to a bathing suit, swim together and be comfortable with their bodies is so important. There’s no other camp, probably within 1,000 miles, where you can go and do that.” For Gregory, the sense of community and comradery amongst the counselors is just as important as it is for the campers. “I came back to be a counselor for a second year because of the great friendships I made with fellow counselors. Diversity Camp is really camp for us, too.”

An Oasis of Inclusion
As the workshops ended, campers dried off their pruning skin from hours in the pool and the sun began to set, everyone gathered around the nightly campfire to eat candy, sing songs and make s’mores. Looking around the campfire (with gooey, chocolate-covered marshmallows running down my face), the feeling of community and comradery was palpable in the sticky summer evening air. As I said my goodbyes and climbed back into my SUV to begin my long journey home, I realized something… I had arrived at Craig Springs a total outsider and was leaving feeling like part of a family—a family that was created within an unexpected oasis of inclusion in southwestern Virginia: Diversity Camp.

Quotes from Diversity Camp

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Megan Jameson (16), Camper – Blacksburg
“Diversity Camp is a good way to explore myself in a safe environment. It’s not a cis-normative, hetero-normative place. It’s just such a queer environment and it’s really good to put aside a week of my life to just be as queer as I am and not have others judge me.”

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Ethan Parker (15), Camper – Roanoke
“Although I identify as gender non-conforming, I usually use he/him pronouns because it’s easier for people to understand. But here, I don’t have to worry about that.”

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Kaye Pacifico (28), Camper – Martinsville
“I identify as gender-fluid, two-spirited and gay. I find Diversity Camp liberating because I can finally express myself and not be afraid to be who I am.”

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Joseph Cunningham (23), Camper – Clifton Forge
“At camp, you can just let loose and be yourself without fear of judgment. By the time it ends, most everyone is crying because this is home for us. This is a family. When it’s over, we have to go back to reality and for some people that’s a challenge.”

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Alexander Denny (17), Camper – Danville
“Diversity Camp helped me realize that being true to who you are doesn’t mean that you have to conform to who you think you are. It’s important to be comfortable in who you are and try to find peace within all of the noise.”

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Nick Dinkel (21), Counselor – Roanoke
“I wish I had camp when I was younger because I didn’t know who to talk to or what resources were available. Camp provides a sense of community and helps me come closer to figuring out who I am as a person.”

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October Obenour (20), Counselor – Basset
“I identify as gender-queer, pansexual and a-romantic. My favorite part about Diversity Camp is watching each other grow and change over the years. I see people changing their names and pronouns and learning a lot about themselves. It’s so wonderful to help each other learn about ourselves.”