It's been more than a decade, and I still regret not joining the Gay-Straight Alliance in high school.
I grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, a city I remember making headlines only a couple times: Once when Field of Dreams, filmed nearby, was released, then again a few years later, when an attempt to bring diversity to my nearly all white town resulted in a series of cross burnings.
The homogeneity that catalyzed one of Dubuque's darkest moments isn't lost on me. If I had joined the newly launched Gay-Straight Alliance in 2000 or 2001, people would suspect I was gay more than they already did, and I wasn't ready for that.
It's far from surprising that many LGBTQ activists are either inspired or haunted by their upbringing. The divide between life in parts of America that are LGBTQ-friendly and those that aren't often runs deep. It's one Kristen Becker, a Provincetown-based comedian, knows well.
Becker moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, when she was ten, but has spent most of her adult life on the East Coast. When she returned for her high school's 20 year reunion, she saw an article in the Shreveport Times on the dangers of being queer in the South. "It was a holy shit moment," she said. "Twenty years later, a high school student was telling the exact same story I would've told in high school." The moment was one of several that led her to start Summer of Sass.
The idea behind the program is simple. "We took young queer adults living in the South, brought them to Ptown, and watched how they thrived when they could be themselves," Becker said.
Provincetown has long been a haven for queer people, one of America's most accepting LGBTQ communities. And giving queer youth a chance to experience a place like that, so far removed from their communities back home, is the kind of formative experience that can change—or save—lives.
This summer (their "proof of concept year," Becker called it), the program was small. Two 18-year-olds were the program's guinea pigs: Teddy, a self-proclaimed "gay dude" from Bossier, Louisiana, and Sam, a trans boy from rural Texas. A third participant was included unexpectedly: A 25-year-old trans woman of color named Khloe made an emergency call to Becker, who bent the rules to include her. (She's still living and working in Provincetown today, with no intention of leaving.)
Becker housed them with "host families" to whom participants paid some rent, earned through summer jobs. "We find them the right job, we find them the right bed. They come just to exist," said Becker.
She hoped the magic of Provincetown would have a transformative effect, and it did. "It blew their minds that gay people walked down the street holding hands," she said.
Teddy described his first moments in Provincetown with wonder. "It was so much smaller than I expected—a cute town you'd see in a Nicholas Sparks movie. I fell in love with it in that moment."
It was Memorial Day Weekend when he first arrived and saw the community as tightly knit, friendly, and unabashedly gay. "It was a culture shock," he said. "There were gay couples kissing on the street; guys hit on me! It was my first time there weren't people giving me dirty looks for wearing my Make America Gay Again shirt."
Working at The Human Rights Campaign Store, selling those very shirts all summer, he met visitors who shared their life stories, including an 80-year-old man living on a farm who said he could only hold hands with his partner while in Provincetown. "Hearing those sad stories helps me help people now that I'm back [home]," Teddy said.
Provincetown's economy is famously tourist-driven; the local population booms from around 1,000 wintertime residents to almost 90,000 over the summer. Some 20,000 seasonal workers arrive each year to fuel the region's $1 billion annual tourism industry. In Provincetown, hundreds of summer jobs are held by international students and temporary workers, who come to the US on J-1 and H-2B visas. Both programs are tightly regulated and logistically essential to the local economy; threats by President Trump to curtail or eliminate the former this August sent business owners into a panic.
That was another motivating factor in Becker's decision to start Summer of Sass. There are plenty of jobs to go around, she thought—why not give them to teenagers who are being oppressed at home, and show them how much better it gets?
Dany Soucy, owner of the Beach Market Sandwich Shop, where Sam worked this summer as a sandwich maker, was happy to help an LGBTQ person in need. What's more, given the resort town's increasingly older population, Soucy said the shop is in need of summer help—there are so few young locals these days that Provincetown's high school closed in 2013. Soucy had straightforward hopes for what Sam would gain from his summer experience: valuable work experience and self-confidence.
Teddy said the shifts he felt made those goals seem quaint.
"[This summer] was the first time I ever held hands in public," he said. "I love myself now. I don't feel shame anymore. And it was the openness—this whole energy from Ptown that's so happy and accepting."
Sam, the other young Summer of Sass recipient, said he saw issues he's faced with anxiety fade over the course of the summer, something his mother noticed when he went home as well.
"They're empowered, they have a sense of self," Becker said. "They've always heard, 'You are not enough because of who [you] love.' And they go back saying, 'Not only am I enough, but gay people have big fancy houses by the beach. I can do whatever the fuck I want.'"
Teddy is spending time at home now before starting at a local college in January. Following an article in The Shreveport Times he was featured in (the same on that inspired Becker to create SAS) and other online coverage, he said he's been getting Facebook messages from other queer Southern youth. "I try to help as much as I can," he said. "Summer of Sass better equipped me to have those conversations."
Becker said she hopes many others will be able to have an experience like Sam and Teddy's, but she isn't an expert when it comes to running a nonprofit.
Her immediate goal for the program is to raise enough to hire an experienced executive director. From there, within five years, she hopes Summer of Sass will have a house in Provincetown with enough beds to house 15 or 16 kids at a time.
To raise funds, Becker's selling a "resistance coloring book," featuring Provincetown-based artists and their interpretation of resistance.
But even at scale, Summer of Sass' reach is limited. Just as Democrats hope the Trump administration will motivate new voices to enter politics around the country, Becker hopes Trump will lead to LGBTQ people paying more attention to what's happening outside of cites.
Becker's experience founding Summer of Sass has further fueled her desire to give—and go—back home, to where she grew up. "It's part of a missing link as a culture for [LGBTQ people]," she said. "'Back there' stays back there. Maybe it's time for us to start actually escorting the people who haven't caught up yet into the future."