Gephardt News Gephardt Stories & Voices on Service St. Louis Fellowship Program

Work with LGBTQ+ youth inspires “The Queer Experience” art show

Sophie Lin ’26 (left) and Chethan Chandra ’26, two of the curators of “The Queer Experience: Joy as Resistance” Art Exhibition, held information sessions in September for artists interested in displaying their work in the show. Opening night for “The Queer Experience” is Oct. 20 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Stix House; the exhibition closes Nov. 14.

By Sophie Lin ‘26 
2023 WUpan Fellow 
St. Louis Fellowships Program

This summer, I had the honor of being the inaugural WashU Pride Alumni Network Fellow through the Gephardt Institute’s St. Louis Fellows program. The St. Louis Fellowship is a 10-week summer experience in St. Louis where students receive funding to conduct unpaid internships in civic and community engagement. Specifically, as the WUpan fellow, I was committed to engaging in issues faced by LGBTQ+ St. Louisans.  

Nat Hilterbrand, the inaugural director of WashU’s Spectrum Office and one of my interviewers for the position, recommended I get in touch with Shira Berkowitz. Shira is the Senior Director of Public Policy and Advocacy at PROMO, an organization advocating for queer Missourians state wide. They are also a co-founder of Camp Indigo Point, an Illinois-based summer camp for queer youth ages 8-18. After speaking with them, I decided to split my summer internship between both organizations.  

The result was an endlessly fruitful summer: I was a policy intern at PROMO, and I loved representing the organization at Pride events—including St. Louis, St. Charles, and, on one memorable occasion, a Wells Fargo ERG happy hour. However, the experience that taught me the most was my week at Camp Indigo Point, serving as a beleaguered camp counselor for nine over-excited, technology-deprived high school freshmen.  

My kids, as I still fondly refer to them, reminded me of who I was at their age—but with one notable difference. At Camp Indigo Point, sequestered between stands of sun-drenched trees, the campers found a safe space to express their identities and live genuinely as themselves. They talked about their home lives; their schoolyard crushes; their gender transitions. They woke up each morning excited to try new pronouns and new names for the day, and they showed me drawings of their favorite characters and photos of the cats they missed at home.  

Though I was in sore need of a long shower and a quiet night to myself, I loved every minute of it. I had spent high school tucking my own queerness into quiet corners: hesitant text messages, anxious late-night conversations, my WashU admissions essay. I saw that Camp Indigo Point gave these kids a fundamentally different experience. There, in broad daylight, they were queer, exuberant, loud, unapologetic

At the end of the week, the staff held a bonfire where the campers had a space to share out—in song, poetry, or speech—about what camp had meant to them. One of my kids told a story about how he realized he was transgender when he accidentally told his parents he was a “trans boy” instead of a “tomboy,” and he realized that it fit. Another spoke about how their camp experience had taught them to express their true identity for the first time, freely and without fear. Yet another said that Camp Indigo Point was the only place on earth where they felt safe and accepted for who they were. 

I turned away from the rainbow benches around the fire, and I cried. 

The irony is that Camp Indigo Point is held in Illinois, because safe spaces for queer folks, especially queer youth, are becoming increasingly rare in Missouri. Two weeks after I returned to St. Louis from camp, one of my PROMO supervisors moved to Minneapolis, fleeing the anti-queer legislation that had just been passed in Jefferson City this June. Even as I returned to WashU’s campus, sequestered from the rest of the city, I felt the change in atmosphere like an oncoming storm. On the first day of fall semester, a St. Louis City judge ruled on a Cole County lawsuit and refused to halt the enforcement of SB 49, removing the right to gender-affirming care for most transgender youth in the state of Missouri.Two weeks after that, the Washington University Transgender Center halted all care for transgender youth, even those previously exempted by Missouri law.  

I will admit that many days, despite the best efforts of a queer community that is vibrant, bright, and enduring, it feels like the world is only becoming more hostile. But simultaneously, because of the opportunity for community engagement I was afforded this summer, I am inspired every day to resist hostility by holding space for joy.  

“[Camp Indigo Point] was specifically founded in the Midwest, amidst a rising global rhetoric that being queer and/or trans…is somehow able to be legislated away, our rights to exist as ourselves gone…” said Shira, when I asked what inspired them to found Camp Indigo Point. “This camp turns that narrative upside down.” 

My experience at the Camp Indigo Point bonfire, as well as the ongoing battle for queer rights in Missouri, served as the catalyst for “The Queer Experience: Joy as Resistance,” a student art exhibition. After seeing my kids fully able to express themselves, I was inspired to create a similar platform for queer WashU students. To, as Shira puts it, turn the narrative upside down. Now, more than ever, it is crucial to uplift stories of queerness: not merely the tragic stories of living in the margins, but also the triumphs. And furthermore, in a state that is becoming increasingly hostile to the LGBTQ+ community, the mere act of expressing LGBTQ+ joy is an act of resistance.  

“Queer joy can be found, but it can also be created by yourself and the world around you,” said artist Bridget Chung, who submitted a work for the exhibit. “Love should never have to be hidden.” 

“The Queer Experience,” which opens on Oct. 20, features pieces about friendship, acceptance, sexuality, pleasure, and romantic love, among other things. To me as a curator, it is a collection of everything worth protecting—and worth fighting for—about the LGBTQ+ experience. My hope is that in viewing these works, the wider WashU and St. Louis community, allies and queer folks alike, will feel the same. “It’s something bigger than just an art show,” said Sophie Devincenti, Student Engagement Specialist for the Gephardt Institute. “It’s creating a space for gathering…and impact that expands beyond just opening night.”  

As a non-partisan, tax-exempt institution, Washington University itself may not advocate for the election or defeat of a particular candidate or political party. Views and opinions offered by guest writers are their own and do not constitute University sponsorship, support, or endorsement of any political candidate, political party, or political action committee.