My parents were the type of middle class people who wanted to give their one and only child the kind of childhood they couldn’t have dreamt of when they were growing up. So they sent me to summer camp. Every summer, they followed their personal training clients from Manhattan to Martha’s Vineyard, cheering them on as they did step aerobics. Meanwhile, I went to camps where I learned to scramble atop tiny capsized sailboats in the sound and watercolor pinkish-purple mountain ranges, fading into the distance.
At ten I graduated from day camps to overnight camps. I went to horse camp, gymnastics camp and even farm camp, where I “harvested” a chicken and adopted vegetarianism (a practice I stuck with for nearly a decade). But, other than plucking feathers out of flesh and, one day, discovering a single log of poop (not mine) in a pool where I was swimming, my experiences of sleepaway summer camp were overwhelmingly positive.
That’s why when a coworker invited me to A-Camp, Autostraddle’s LGBTQ+ camp for queer women and trans people (sponsored in part by REI), I couldn’t believe my luck. Four days of fun in the sun with my people? Sign me up!
That’s how I found myself sitting on the crunchy carpet of a cramped, warm single-room building called the Library at the end of my time at A-Camp. I was performing my first tarot card reading, my leg falling asleep across from a tall woman with curly, mousy brown hair. As I flipped over the Ten of Cups, tears welled up in her gentle eyes. It signified family, the card’s advised anecdote for her current relationship troubles. It was a moment of vulnerability, the kind that doesn’t happen very often in the circles I run in outside of camp.
That same morning I had hiked to the crest of one of the hills overlooking the valley the camp was nestled into, and posed for a picture beneath the blue-and-white sky with a woman who had spent $800 in braces, countless doctor visits and a year of her life training to prepare for that very moment. When she returned to her wheelchair at the base of the climb, she told me her next goal was to backpack along the Appalachian Trail. Sign me up for that too.
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The night before I had stood clutching a ginger-flavored kombucha and learning to solve a Rubik’s cube from a woman who was very much still learning how herself. She sang a confusing song that was supposed to help her ascertain the ways in which to twist the plastic near a roaring campfire at the REI s’moresfest. The murmur of more than a hundred LGBTQ+ people played behind her words. A starlit sky felt nearly touchable above us, holding us close to the warm California ground.
Before that, on the night of my arrival, there had been an opening ceremony for camp. I arrived early, took a seat, and watched as people slowly made their way up the aisles. Shocks of brightly colored hair, rainbow paraphernalia and glitter adorned my fellows, a cliché of queerness ever so welcome in my heart. I settled deeply into the hard white plastic of my chair, and my body felt tightly packed with a foreign feeling—of a complete lack of worry about how I was being perceived.
We all have it: that terrible sinking feeling when someone’s interpretation of us is different than our own. It’s that gut-jump when you look in the mirror and realize there was spinach in your teeth for an entire day, a day when you’d been feeling yourself.
For me, that feeling comes up most often around gender. I’m nonbinary and often pegged as a man and then a woman and then a man again in the span of a single hour, without changing my clothes or mannerisms. It’s confusing, to say the least.
But at camp, that feeling simply wasn’t present. It was like an air-conditioner you hadn’t even noticed being on suddenly turned off: blissful quietude of the soul.
It’s interesting. I hear all the time that nature doesn’t discriminate, that the outdoors is for all and that no one cares about my sexual orientation or gender—and that it’s not worth mentioning. That’s why there was something magical about being surrounded by more than 400 LGBTQ+ people, people who understand in their bones that while nature doesn’t discriminate, people outside do; that the outdoors is open to all, but barriers exist for many people; and that I carry my sexual orientation and gender with me wherever I go, and every time I talk about who I am and who I am with, I have to come out of the closet again.
At camp, I was simply free to be me.