Gracie Aghapour is one of the founders of Girls Rock Charleston, a week-long summer program whose mission is to empower girls and trans youth through music education, DIY media, and creative collaboration. Its second run takes place this week.

Well, firstly queer means something different to different people, and that’s a really big part of it, I think. It involves having people ask you about your identity. If you say “queer,” people don’t often know what it means because it is different, so there’s some agency in it. People can’t just label you. For me, it’s like a home. It’s a place where I can just allow all the things about myself to be together, to be contradictory, to be changing. Being queer is about bringing all the parts of me — my gender, sexuality, politics, family — at the same time. For example, I’m totally at home being a boy-kissing lesbian, being a Persian femme in a floor length dress and Ralph Lauren boots, and bringing my prissy butch BFF and my high-school-teaching roommate to my parents’ dinner table for lamb and bread. It feels both inherent and also a right that I choose every day.

Activism is especially tied into my queerness. When I think about the queer community in Charleston specifically, I’ve been wondering about what it is that bonds us with each other. I think a lot of queer folks here feel uprooted, and so we find ourselves in a process of both continuing to uproot ourselves to get free, and also grounding ourselves again. To do that, we build with each other. There’s a certain trust that comes with feeling like someone else is also seeking liberation, that we are connected, that there’s a real need for each other. A part of what defines the queer community is that need, more than the aesthetics, the color, or the partying that might be more central in communities outside the South.

One way that I seek liberation here is through organizing. There are quite a few queer folks organizing with Girls Rock Charleston, and we explicitly do not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender expression. One example of this is that we decided that our LGBTQ organizers and volunteers did not have to be closeted at our summer camp, which, unfortunately around here, is pretty radical. Lots of straight folks think that closeted means lying about your sexual orientation, but because of the assumptions our culture is built on, it’s so much more complicated than that.

For example, one day after a guest band performed during lunch, one of the women in the band mentioned having a boyfriend while answering a question during the Q&A, and of course this mention raised no eyebrows, as it shouldn’t. Later in the week, a volunteer mentioned to the girls in her instrument class that she’d gotten in a car accident with her girlfriend that morning, which was why she was late. Some straight people would classify that as coming out of the closet. It’s a small act like that — choosing to not censor ourselves in the smallest ways —that can be so difficult and yet so powerful. And the very expectation that in the moment we choose the word friend instead of girlfriend or something like this is the kind of homophobia and implicit uprooting that our culture has shown us.

Some people will argue that campers are too young to hear that, but we know different. We know that being an LGBTQ person is not abnormal, perverse, or X-rated. We know that being a young person is a time of deep identity search, and to think that young people are not already thinking about sexuality and gender is underestimating them. And we also know that the trust built through honesty helps the campers believe us when we tell them how much we value their expression of self, that they are important to the Charleston community, and that they totally rock.

Spending time with rural LGBTQ people for the last few months was humbling and taught me a lot about the conditions that other folks around the area are facing. (Aghapour recently returned to Charleston after spending a few months working with Southerners on New Ground, a regional LGBT group, in their efforts to organize North Carolinians for the vote against the anti-same sex marriage Amendment 1.) For example, the threat of queer peoples’ physical safety, while certainly a common experience here in Charleston, is widely normal in rural parts of the South. It seems so important that we connect with these folks, support them, and learn from them. Because there’s so little infrastructure for support in places like that, people are radical and creative with their strategies about safety and liberation for themselves and each other. If we’re lucky, together we’ll be able to see what’s worked and what hasn’t and build something long-lasting here in our home state and across the South. So much of the work to be done is talking with each other. At the end of the day, it all seems to come down to relationships, which I don’t think is something I’d really realized before then. What we’re doing is finding each other, talking, and seeing each other for who we really are. This compassionate and thoughtful work of understanding each other is something that the queer community in Charleston does really well. And I am continually grateful for that, and excited by its power.

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