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LGBTQ+ Camp For Adults

LGBTQ+ Summer Camps For Adults May Sound Silly, but They're a Much-Needed Sanctuary

A game of dodgeball at Camp No Counselors.Campers go head to head in dodgeball.

There was a lot of colorful chatter on the hour-plus bus ride to Camp No Counselors's first LGBTQ+-specific weekend. The bus took us from Los Angeles to the Lake Hughes area and included 10 gay men, one lesbian, and a female counselor, all of us anxiously theorizing about camp. Would people be having sex at camp? There were rumors of a porn star attending: was that true? Was this actually a Mike Pence-sponsored conversion camp? I sat toward the back of the group, silent and nervous, musing over potential answers as we entered a weekend I anticipated being too shy to participate in.

CNC creates sleepaway experiences designed as an escape for working adults and, clearly, everyone on this bus was ready to let loose in an environment for queer persons (and straight ally friends and family) and totally, fully be themselves for a weekend. Alex, who was attending his sixth camp and who identifies as bisexual, anticipated another great experience.

"Two of them were the best weekends of my life," he told me.

"That's quite a superlative thing to say," I replied, trying to pinpoint the best weekends of my life. I came up short. But could he be right? The thought hung above we we bused our way into 72 hours of pride, self-expression, and sexual expression, a band of colorful characters roaming the Californian wilderness.

LGBTQ+ Camp No Counselors campers around the fire.Queer campers gather around the first night's campfire.

An outdoor room of our own.

This inaugural queer camp was attended by roughly 60 people: about 45 men and 15 women. Most of us were gay men, followed by gay women, followed by a handful of bisexual persons, and rounded out by a smaller handful of straight friends. Genderqueer and transgender persons were notably missing from the LGBTQ+ family gathering, but we were a racially diverse bunch. The scale's tilt toward men was particularly pronounced, so much so that a late-arriving group of lesbians left. When they found out there were so few women — and no actual lake on the premises — they supposedly forfeited their $400 camp admission fee and hightailed it out of there.

Some people I talked to were there to heal a bad breakup, some for vacation, some to try their hand at anal sex.

Jacob Lawrence, CNC's Luke Wilson-doppleganging program director, sketched the weekend out to the entire camp on Friday. "Here at CNC, what you do does not define you," he explained. "Like the plot line in a porno, it really doesn't matter." Lawrence shared some rules — no late-night swimming, mind your drinking, smoke only in the smoking areas, etc. — and then we were let loose.

And let loose we were. The atmosphere at the camp was decidedly rainbow, and people were eager to get to know each other, to be themselves, and — for some of us — to make out. We mingled and got new friend jitters out of the way by campfire that first night with the help of some spirits. I quickly glommed onto a trio of friends: a gay guy named Danny, his straight friend Jason, and a lesbian named Roxana, my weekend BFF, to unpack what was happening around us. It was immediately clear that people felt a rare freedom to be themselves at camp: strangers placed hands on shoulders and pecked cheeks as if old friends; they raced to the bar to toast to each other; they introduced themselves to say hello or to request a hit from a weed pen.

The author lets loose at Camp No Counselors.

This type of comfort and safety is needed in a nation where our president speaks at an antigay summit. While there were rare political conversations (Lawrence stressed that politics and work were conversationally "off limits" in our camp experience), people were clearly working through drama, like a young man I spotted making out with four guys before almost falling in the campfire. Counselors spirited him away and, as camp rumors revealed, this guy's ex-boyfriend was also at camp — and they were back together by the weekend's end. Supportive environments like this are as important as ever given a vice president who reportedly wants to hang us all — but they aren't exactly new. From Camp Trans in the '90s to movements like the Radical Faeries, queer people have long sought refuge and independence in the forest. Current political trends have exacerbated this need for getaways and other camps — Club Getaway Camp Out, Camp OUTdoors, A Camp, Camp Aranu'tiq, and more — have similarly created safe spaces for a vulnerable population. CNC is no different — but for me, it did feel newly relevant and more appealing given the hostility LGBTQ+ people have increasingly felt and faced in the last year.

It's no wonder people traveled from all over the country to camp. Some flew from San Francisco, others from Austin. Someone took an Uber from Anaheim, while another carpooled from West Hollywood. My friend Alex came from Chicago, Roxana from Riverside. They all came for different reasons, too. Some people I talked to were there to heal a bad breakup, some for vacation, some to try their hand at anal sex: the experiences, the desires, and the wants of campers were as varied as their queer experiences.

Lawrence noted that he hoped queer persons could use these weekends to reclaim often unsavory childhood camp experiences.

These motivations represented a group eager to take risks and face fears as many campers — myself included — were flying solo, wandering into camp blind. This was the scariest part for me paired with my being man-ish and non-sporty in an environment assumed to be marked by gender roles and sports. Still, I conquered some fears with a little push from Roxana: we played kickball and volleyball, practiced archery, and swung on a ropes course. At one point, I climbed a telephone pole during a frightening trust exercise and, switching off the anxiety receptors in my brain, jumped into open air for no other reason other than a group of people I had met hours ago told me I should — and were there to cheer me on in support. It's funny how you can successfully compartmentalize your anxieties in an environment where everyone "gets you," where you don't have to constantly explain your identity, where your filters can be turned off. Clearly, I was a different person at camp (and my therapist would be very pleased by this).

A game of flip cup at Camp No Counselors.A game of flip cup at Camp No Counselors.

This was exactly the sell for some, like a Mid-City LA-based young man who wished to remain anonymous: he — like a handful of others I met — used the camp as a way to process his coming out before sharing his sexual identity with friends and family. "For me, trying to come to terms, this was an amazing weekend," the young man told me. "Being an introvert, this was welcoming . . . This was lovely."

Queer camps are not built in a day.

Jacob Lawrence is CNC's program director and, at the LGBTQ+ camp, was the camp director and the de-facto ringleader of the weekend who had been involved in the planning process for months. This iteration has been in the works for over a year, the CNC concept tweaked with the help of LGBTQ+ campers who had requested a weekend just for them. With little details like rainbow flags and having more dodgeball games, CNC was able to create a "nonjudgmental space" to emphasize that "magic of camp."

Lawrence noted that he hoped queer persons could use these weekends to reclaim often unsavory childhood camp experiences. A few people shared haunting memories of childhood camp memories, including yours truly: during a kickball game, I was briefly razzed by a straight camp counselor for dodging a ball instead of catching it as a second baseman, handing the opposing team two points with my gay sports gaffe. (Note: I have no idea how to play kickball and defaulted to dodgeball. The counselor and I later shared a drink where he explained that he's working on his agro sports predispositions — and that the gay camp was therapeutic in working through this.)

Lawrence was most struck by how queer campers instantaneously came together in comparison to some of their other camps. "A lot of times, on the first night of the regular camp, there's still a little bit of that uncomfortable feeling it out," he said. "At this camp, it felt like from the very beginning everybody gelled and it was all of a sudden a magical group that know each other. It was an instant, 'Here we are! We're a family!'"

This was the chorus of the weekend: we're a family. Whether it was a camp-wide game of "musical flip cup" or the slip-'n'-slide climax of a camper-vs.-camper relay race or a talent show where a cute boy rapped along to Nicki Minaj's "Truffle Butter" (I'll never not think of him when I hear that song), the weekend was one giant trust fall. When people were too sexually aggressive, other campers stood in to say that wasn't cool. When my friend Jason woke up to hear his childhood home in Santa Rosa was lost in the fires, other campers offered shoulders to cry on. When Roxana wanted a dance partner to Britney Spears's "Gimme More," I was there, despite being a staunch, stiff anti-dancer, a too-self-serious stick in the mud needing to take himself less seriously. This is the type of camaraderie that made itself known and it was truly magical. When else in my life would I willingly stay up until 3 a.m. three nights in a row only to wake up at 7:30 a.m. to the sounds of two grown men in the bunk next to me sucking on different body parts? There are no other weekends. It was special.

Still, some work is still to be done in queering camp, and Lawrence made it known that he's anxious for input from campers. I heard some grumbles about the lack of women, demands for more queer-targeted music, requests for different theme nights (Togas and Rainbows was suggested over the Band Camp and Candy Land we had), and a place for queer history panels or discussion groups. There was a desire for greater, more nuanced queer diversity and experience represented, both in campers and leadership. Hopefully, these things will likely be addressed in the next iteration to prevent some of the serious oversights: straight counselors totally missing jokes about bears (double entendre!). Details, obviously.

The LGBTQ+ Camp No Counselors campers and counselors pose for a photo.The entire group of LGBTQ+ campers and counselors. Photo courtesy of Camp No Counselors.

The Future of Queer Camp

Was this the best weekend ever? Truly, it might have been. There was a safety here, a wild specificity that queer people like myself are rarely treated to. Sure, my bunk was a noisy cave of snores and, yes, someone left poppers in my shower and, of course, I lost a game of dodgeball by not being able to catch or throw — but it was good fun. The weekend was a nourishing escape that I didn't anticipate: it challenged me to let all my baggage around being cool, intelligent, and sexy go, to experience life without diagnosing it. It reiterated how therapeutic queer-only spaces are. No one needed to explain themselves. We understood each other. And even when we didn't, we supported each other no matter what.

As Alex said, that's the point. "This is what camp does," he said. "It brings people together . . . It's a chance to leave behind life and meet and connect with people solely based on content of character. I think that's beautiful."

You and me both, dude.

Image Source: Photos courtesy Camp No Counselors
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