Z. Zane McNeill

Queer joy comes alive at this summer camp haven

“For so many kids in the south, there is no safe space to be a child.” A music camp in Tennessee welcomes all youth who identify as girls or non-binary to rock out.

Photographs By Melanie Metz
Text by Zane McNeill
National Geographic Magazine

When I look at the below images what I see is queer joy.

These photos show some of the messiness and fun that is queer childhood. In one image, a child with purple hair holds onto another with an arm outstretched. They are smiling and running, looking like they feel free.

Fifteen-year-olds Sam Mazurek and Carson Branham take part in the opening assembly at the Girls Rock! camp in downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee.

For so many kids in the south, there is no safe space to be a child and do things like those documented in the photographs—acts of embracing and leaning on each other, singing, gossiping, or telling each other secrets.  

Many still fall prey to narratives that assume queers only exist in big cities.  The reality is that queer folks everywhere often go through extremely complicated true lived experiences.

Ten-year-olds Maggie Gill, Vivian Caldwell, and Macy Merciers wait between performances at The Signal, a downtown Chattanooga music venue that supports girls, transgender, and non-binary youth for a week of creativity and community during the Girls Rock! summer camp.

Left: Summer campers hold up their phone flashlights during a concert in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Right: Local musician and songwriter, Janelle Jezebel, autographs the arm of Reed Sileas Balthrop as fellow summer camper, Elsy Perez, reacts. 

I was recently part of a panel discussion at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville about queer organizing in Appalachia. At that event, an older woman, who identified as an ally, asked whether we thought our culture “had gone too far” in regard to transgender rights. Her 10-year-old grandchild had come out as transgender and the family questioned whether the child was actually trans or just confused. She pointed to various reports claiming that children were medically transitioning too early and regretting it later in life.

Y’all Means All: The Emerging Voices Queering Appalachia