Summer camp is a place of firsts — messy, uncomfortable, and exhilarating firsts. First time away from your parents, first time building a fire, first kisses. Pick any tree, rock, or bunk, and there's a solid chance campers are making out behind it. Personally, I had my first kiss at sleepaway camp down by the creek with a mysterious, cool older guy — a major brag for straight, eighth grade me — while my friends watched from behind the trees.
When I was 15, we even had speed dating as an evening activity. The Abercrombie & Fitch-clad senior girls division would sit in a line across from the sweaty senior boys on wooden benches in our chapel building and rotate spots every few minutes. The big question of the summer was which girls would be asked to the end-of-summer dance.
Those adventurous, hormone-filled adolescent years of trying to understand why sitting on the corner of the couch feels so good can be a lot to navigate, especially when you’re thrown into the middle of nowhere with 200 other teens and no parents. Add questioning one’s sexuality or gender to the equation, and you’ve got some pretty complicated math. Now, at 24, my friends and I joke that our camp “breeds the gays” because so many of the people we went to camp with, myself included, have since come out. The more I’ve spoken with queer people about camp, the more I’ve seen a pattern emerge: Though many of us questioned our sexuality and gender identity at camp, most of us truly came into our queerness after we aged out of color war and campfires.
Representation matters, and in the the 2000s and early 2010s, cisgender and heterosexual identities and relationships were the only ones visible in camp culture.
So where was this queerness while we were at camp? Representation matters, and in the 2000s and early 2010s, cisgender and heterosexual identities and relationships were the only ones visible in camp culture. (When I say summer camp, I’m primarily referring to the sleeping-in-bunks-for-two-months-in-the-woods type of camp filled with privileged, mostly white children.) When I went to camp, there wasn’t yet a transparent space to talk about and explore queerness. “I didn't know a lot of people who were comfortable coming out at camp,” says Ariel Rehr, who was a camper at Pennsylvania-based Perlman Camp in the early 2000s and is now the assistant director of communications and development at the same camp. “I don't think it was particularly unsafe. It also didn't feel openly safe.”
This lack of queer vocabulary and representation at camp at the turn of the century isn’t surprising — it was merely a reflection of the zeitgeist. It was the era of, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Same-sex marriage was yet to be legalized nationally and wasn’t accepted by most people. We were just learning that “gay” wasn’t a bad word (shoutout to Hilary Duff’s iconic, homophobia-conquering 2008 “That’s So Gay” PSA). Outwardly queer conversations and relationships weren’t common. People weren’t having these conversations much anywhere, especially not in the dining hall over grilled cheese and tomato soup. Trans and non-binary people lacked the visibility in mainstream media that has come to exist in recent years. Even as recently as in 2012, just 3.5% of U.S adults identified as members of the LGBTQ+ community, compared to 7.1% in 2021.
The irony of this hush-hush attitude towards queerness is that summer camp has long been a place that promotes self-discovery and challenges campers to be the best version of themselves. It’s a comforting environment that encourages self-exploration for some. A two-month escape from regular life and a chance to be whoever you want to be, for others.
Dubbs Weinblatt, a genderqueer trans Jew who attended Jewish day camp in the late '90s, found camp to be a place of personal style exploration. “I could dress how I wanted to — Umbro shorts, a T-shirt, and a hat, and no one said anything,” they tell Refinery29. “Whereas at school, it would be like, ‘Why are you wearing that?’ or ‘Girls don't dress like that.’”
At my camp in the Pocono Mountains, drag was quite popular, though it was never officially recognized as or called drag. Everyone was entertained by a male counselor in a skirt and makeup — it wasn’t weird or different. In fact, it was celebrated. “At least once a summer, some macho sports man counselor would run a class and say, ‘Let’s wear dresses and play soccer,’” says Seth Waxman, a trans man who went to Windsor Mountain International Summer Camp in New Hampshire as a camper and later as a staff member. “And then you'd just see like 30 boys running around on the field all in dresses.”
One summer for my camp’s annual lip sync competition, my brother gave the performance of a lifetime dressed up as Sharpay Evans with the wig, skirt, crop top, and all. In 2009, for my camp’s costume party, I proudly volunteered to dress up as a basketball boyfriend and walk around with my glammed-up bunkmates on my arm, unaware that one day I’d have a glammed-up, date-night-ready girlfriend on my arm.
For those few campers who had begun to explore their sexuality and gender in the 2000s and early 2010s, camp had a quiet queerness, which in hindsight was deeply impactful. Acts such as a counselor subtly wearing a small rainbow button or having a queer-adjacent haircut made substantial impacts on campers, letting them know there was a place for them. Henry Weltman, a camper and then later staff member at sleepaway camp, remembers finding solace in one of the only out gay counselors. “He was like a beacon to me,” he says. “He was the most comfortable person I had ever seen in their skin. I remember having a couple of one-on-one conversations with him where I felt understood and seen in a way I had never felt before. And now I recognize that feeling was the same feeling I feel now when I relate to other gay people.”
Much has changed since the 2000s — including an overall greater acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community. Waxman, who went from camper to counselor, experienced this shift firsthand — thanks to online culture. The internet often plays a leading role in queer people’s coming out journeys. It’s a place that many, including myself, turned to when questioning their identity and learning about queer culture. “My first year as a camper in 2012, people still saw ‘gay’ as an insult,” he says. “By the time I was on staff so many of the kids were gay and were having complicated conversations about gender theory, and it's because they have Instagram, YouTube, and Tumblr to learn from, and then they bring that knowledge with them to camp.” Waxman says he “credit[s] all of [his] queerness and gayness to being able to look at whatever the fuck [he] wanted on YouTube. It’s like you had to wait until you got to college or went out to nightclubs to see gay stuff for the first time.”
Luckily, summer camps are evolving alongside Gen Z with the heteronormative and gendered tentpoles of camp being rethought. Conferences such as Foundation for Jewish Camp’s S’more Wellness: Mental Health & Gender are held to equip camp staff with the knowledge they need to create welcoming, inclusive, supportive, and celebratory environments for the LGBTQ+ community. In and out of the bunks, gender is being taken out of the equation.
At the aforementioned Perlman Camp, a Jewish sleepaway camp in the Poconos, activities and sports are no longer separated by gender — instead, campers are divided by age. Sleepaway camp Camp Tawonga provided all-gender bunks for the first time in 2019. While camps are encouraging campers and staff to be proud and open about their queerness, Rehr, the aforementioned directors of comms at Perlman, notes how conversations between staff and campers have to walk “a really fine line” to ensure boundaries are being upheld and respected.
Outside of traditional summer camps, programs specifically for LGBTQ+ youth have emerged and seen rapid growth. Brave Trails, an LGBTQ+ leadership organization for youth and families whose primary program is their summer camp, has a current waitlist of about 1,000 campers. Programs like these are opening up new opportunities for queer youth whose families can afford these programs (some organizations do provide scholarships for those that cannot). “A lot of our campers are coming from spaces where part of their life is accepting and supportive, but not all of it,” explains Jessica Weissbuch, Brave Trails co-founder and director. “A lot of folks don't have any queer friends or might not be in a town where it's accepted,” she says “Even in 2022. Even in big cities like L.A.”
A lot of our campers are coming from spaces where part of their life is accepting and supportive, but not all of it. A lot of folks don't have any queer friends or might not be in a town where it's accepted. Even in 2022.
Jessica Weissbuch, Brave Trails co-founder and director
Much of this progress is being led by queer staff who were once campers — and it can have a lasting impact on campers. Just a few summers ago, one of Weltman's campers felt comfortable enough with him to come out for the very first time. “It just felt good to know that I had fostered an environment that allowed for personal growth and queer conversation,” says Weltman.
Other camps are moving a bit slower when it comes to creating a more LGBTQ+ friendly environment mostly because staff doesn’t have the expertise to know what changes should be made and how to go about implementing them. Accompanying this unknowing is fear. At the end of the day, summer camps are businesses like any other. Businesses that need to stay afloat during harsh economic times.
In Weinblatt’s experience (they were the associate director of education and training at Keshet, an organization that equips Jewish organizations with the skills and knowledge to build LGBTQ-affirming communities in order to help queer youth have the supportive camp experience), they’ve found that some camps are afraid to lose funding from more conservative donors or be seen as too progressive or controversial.
“To get things that have been done a certain way for a really, really long time [changed] , you kind of have to kick and yell and make a big fuss,” adds the innovation lead at a Texas day camp, who asked that her name not be used for the story. She knows this big fuss well. This year, she pushed for “his” and “her” to become “their” on the camp website and in printed materials. One of the camp directors initially pushed back out of fear of “politicizing anything” and not understanding why this minor change was so important to make.
“If a queer child is looking at camps with their parents and they look at ten different camps, and we're the only one that says ‘they're’ instead of ‘his’ or ‘her,’ that's huge,” she says. Those really little things that we can do to be intentional, that could make a huge difference to somebody else.” Ultimately, she succeeded and was able to update the language.
We can only hope more and more camps do the same and adopt these changes. As for me, while my dream of having a girlfriend at camp was not in the cards, it’s comforting and exciting to know future campers will get to more freely explore their queerness behind any tree, rock, or bunk they can find.