CARRBORO Abby Hilton was home in the water.
A competitive swimmer since elementary school, she specialized in the 400 meter medley, swimming all four strokes.
The difficulty came outside the water, in the locker room. At some meets, there were separate changing rooms for male and female swimmers.
Hilton didn’t feel comfortable in either.
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A self-identified queer athlete, Hilton said she felt more at home at meets where swimmers of both sexes shared a locker room and entered individual stalls to change.
“I had a great relationship with my teammates and coaches,” Hilton said. “The hardest part was the male-female division in swimming.”
“I don’t subscribe to binary ideas of gender.”
Now Hilton, 25, is organizing a summer “queer youth circus” for other queer and trans young people. But instead of a pool, she’ll be teaching them to climb silks and move through the air.
She and others will perform Saturday at the Cirque de Carrboro, a fundraiser for the circus, Fluid Revolutions, which is an aerial arts camp set for Aug. 17-21 at the Flowjo studio in Carrboro.
The fundraiser is from 2-7 p.m. Saturday at Southern Rail, 201 E. Main St. It also features a youth showcase hosted by Mayors Mark Kleinschmidt and Lydia Lavelle, of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, with spoken-word performances by the Sacrificial Poets and hip hop dancing by Brothaz Unique.
You can see the swimmer in Hilton’s broad shoulders and strong back.
But she “always thought it would be cool” to be a trapeze artist. She started taking aerial lessons about two years ago and got the idea for a camp for queer youth.
She prefers the word queer to gay or lesbian because it can mean people attracted to others of the same sex, people who are transgender and/or people who don’t identify as one gender. (Hilton says she tends to use “they” and their” in conversation but doesn’t get upset when people refer to her with a female pronoun.)
It does take a lot of trusting yourself to put yourself in the air and know you’re not going to fall.
Abby Hilton, aerial artist
The aerial arts can help those struggling with their identity, she said.
Especially for those who are non-conforming, “sometimes you just feel like it’s impossible you’ll ever grow up in a healthy lifestyle,” she said. “There’s just no support.”
But learning to climb a silk, or swing from a trapeze, or even trust your partner in a routine, can build body awareness and confidence, she said.
“It has been something that has allowed me to start trusting myself and trusting my body, which are two things that are difficult for queer people,” Hilton said. “It does take a lot of trusting yourself to put yourself in the air and know you’re not going to fall.”
The queer youth circus is a program of the Youth Community Project. The youth development nonprofit, which meets out of the old PTA Thrift Shop office at 115 Main St., wants to establish a teen center in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area where teens can explore their passions. If the summer aerial arts program is successful, it could become a year round program.
Hilton acknowledges teens today have the Internet and some schools have gay-straight alliances. But she says many young people who don’t fit easy categories still struggle.
“There are still youth who are not out, so even though there are things like that it hasn’t fixed the problem,” she said. “Being queer is still every bit as hard for youth as it was for me.”
And that’s where she thinks climbing a silk or hanging from a trapeze can help make sense of things.
“When you’re upside down that throws you off; your whole perception of the world is off,” she said. “Up is down. So I’m hanging by one knee. Where is my other leg?”
“When you’re spatially challenged to figure out what part of your body is where that begins to build an awareness of your body even when you’re not upside down.”