The Big Room: Beyond LGB and T
At a recent CAMP Rehoboth Board of Director’s retreat, I asked our Board members to describe their function in our organization without using job titles. For a brief moment I saw confusion in their faces, but then with rising confidence, descriptive words began to be spoken aloud around the circle. Within a couple of minutes a very different view of the role each of us plays in the organization emerged, one that did not depend on what committee we chaired or what office we held. A view that forced us, for an instant, to step beyond one of the many hard-edged definitions we use to explain who we are in the world.
From the moment of birth, we are defined by our heritage, our skin color, our size, our shape, and our religion. As we grow up, more layers are added: our IQ, our skills, our failures, our education, our wealth, our health, our looks—the list is endless. Then we get to our sexuality: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, straight, gender fluid, genderqueer—and so many more, I’ve never seen two lists exactly same.
So many labels—and not one that all by itself could adequately describe a single human being.
On March 24, Kristin Beck, the former United States Navy SEAL who came out as a transgender woman in 2013 spoke to a full house at the CAMP Rehoboth Community Center. Her military achievements are extensive, and her awards include the Bronze Star with Valor, Purple Heart, Defense Meritorious Service, and many more. A book and the documentary film Lady Valor: The Kristen Beck Story, have made her life and her coming out story available to the world. She is a human rights activist and a lecturer, and continues to consult at the Pentagon.
As Kristin spoke to the crowd at CAMP Rehoboth, and answered questions afterwards, she touched on several points of particular interest to me. First was her frank discussion of the assumptions that our society makes on determining how we define what is masculine and what is feminine. “I’m really a tomboy.” She laughed. She went on to talk about how her body and looks did not define her femininity.
Secondly, she had quite a bit to say on the subject of the closet, and how dark and lonely and painful that experience can be. She then asked us to consider the concept of a world without closet doors or walls. “What if we were just all in one big room?”
Her “big room” idea has stayed with me long after the evening ended, especially since we were actually in the space in the CAMP Rehoboth Community Center commonly referred to as “the big room.” Both the CAMP Rehoboth space—and the CAMP Rehoboth philosophy of creating a “home for all”—and Kristin’s closet-less world concept suggest a place without walls. In that world there is no need of walls because we are all equal—and because all those words used to describe us, become irrelevant to who we are as human beings.
Kristin expressed deep concern for young people and the large numbers of transgender teens who take their own lives rather than face the pain and fear that comes from breaking down the walls that surround them. Her solution: if you see someone lonely give them a hug and a word of encouragement.
Those of us who are gay and lesbian, because of our experience should be the first to empathize with others, and yet, for whatever reason—maybe our own buried fear and confusion—we too often are the first to judge others.
In the same Board retreat I mentioned earlier, we continued an ongoing discussion on the meaning of diversity—not as a quota, but how we change our way of thinking at a foundational level to create areas of broader interest throughout our organization, our community, and our state.
Though my work at CAMP Rehoboth in recent years keeps me out of my studio most of the time, I still view my body of work as an artist in two parts: one realistic, that other, while not entirely an abstraction, certainly an abstraction and simplification of figures, shapes, and objects, mixed with a certain amount of symbolism. I’m especially fond of abstract figures identified only by eyes and heart.
We connect to one another through our eyes and with our heart—with vision and love. It is in that place of vision and love that we find Kristin’s “big room.” It’s in that place of vision and love where walls disappear, and closet doors are ripped off their hinges, labels are tossed in the trash, and our differences cease to matter.
In the years leading up to the construction of the new CAMP Rehoboth Community Center and Courtyard, an additional vision statement was added to the mission statement created when CAMP Rehoboth was founded, 26 years ago. That vision, as we’ve said many times over the years, is “to be the heart of the community.” That vision also identified the Center as “an inclusive space with and without walls, which creates and nurtures a focal point for connecting people, activities, and resources—embracing diversity as an essential component. The Center is the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community’s contribution to creating a home for all.”
If we are to continue to live fully into the challenge of that vision statement, we have no choice but to break down as many walls, and dispel as many labels as we possibly can. We must use our vision to see without judgment into the hearts of all our brothers and sisters.
In that Board exercise describing our function, I understood with clarity that despite all the work I do at CAMP Rehoboth, my biggest function always has, and continues to be, as “the keeper of the vision.”
Now I know how to look for someone to take my place when the time comes.
Murray Archibald, CAMP Co-founder and President of the Board of Directors of CAMP Rehoboth, is an artist in Rehoboth Beach. Email Murray. The photos are details from two of Murray’s 2004 “vision and heart”paintings.