You could tell this camp was special from the moment the visitors disembarked from the water taxi. For starters, the camp director met us at the dock decked out in translucent fairy wings, salmon-coloured shorts and an exuberant grin.
“The purpose of the camp is to create a space for sexual minority and gender-variant youth that is their own,” explains Rod Knight as he leads the way back to Camp Fyrefly.
“It’s a safe space, a space where for once they are the majority and no longer the minority,” he continues.
“And it’s also to give them some leadership skills to take back to their own communities,” he adds.
The camp — targeted towards gay, lesbian, bi, trans and queer youth aged 14 to 24 — started in Edmonton in 2004 as a university-community educational project led by André P Grace and Kristopher Wells from the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta.
The camp expanded this year to include sites across Canada.
Camp Fyrefly BC, the only camp of its kind in this province, took place Jul 2-5 set on a spectacular island enveloped by the mountains and the waters of Howe Sound. It’s serene, peaceful and simply breathtaking.
“This is basically a sanctuary for everyone who is in any way different: whether they’re an allied youth or queer youth. It doesn’t matter. It’s treated like a family of acceptance and support,” says camper Dallas Bennett, 17.
Through workshops and activities, the camp offered youth opportunities to discuss and enhance their understanding of queer issues in areas such as health and sexuality, arts and performance, and sustainable living, as well as to hone their leadership skills with help from volunteers in a variety of fields.
On Saturday, gay Members of Parliament Libby Davies and Bill Siksay also spoke to the youth about their experiences in politics and dealing with queer issues on the political agenda.
“This is, for a lot of youth, a very liberating experience — an emancipating opportunity to just discuss things that are on their mind a lot but they don’t have the opportunity or even the safe space to talk about it,” says Knight.
Among the workshops, campers could take an improv theatre workshop based on teamwork, scene-building, character-building and acceptance. There were also workshops on coming out, understanding two-spirited people, HIV, puppetry, event producing, organic farming and exploring gender and sexuality through the crafting — or recreating — of dolls.
“It gives the youth a chance to take some really traditionally-gendered stereotyped toys like Barbies and GI Joes and doing whatever they want with them, which is a variety of things for people,” says camper Tam Gorzalka.
Some of the youth cut their Barbie’s hair to make her a lesbian or added plasticine to create new genitals.
“I think toys and clothes are the two most heavily gendered and stereotyped things that we have to deal with as kids so it’s sort of about claiming something that wasn’t always open to you or it was open to you but you didn’t want it,” says Gorzalka.
For Veronica Zaparniuk, 15, some of the best moments involved participating in more traditional camp activities, like swimming and canoeing, surrounded by queers and allies.
“It’s for people like me and other people that are different and it’s interesting to see everything in between the spectrum. It’s been really, really fun. Everybody’s so happy and stuff and their food is actually good. I thought it would be like macaroni forever,” says Zaparniuk, who lives in Abbotsford.
Nineteen-year-old Tommy Laflamme went to the Edmonton Fyrefly last year and was so happy with the network and resources he acquired that he had to return to camp this year. The BC-raised youth says being at Fyrefly allows him to fully express himself in a way he can’t otherwise.
“Coming to camp, you can be who you are, what you are, and they won’t judge you. You don’t even get that feeling they’ll judge you,” he says.
“Even in university, people won’t judge you but sometimes you’ll get that look. Here you never get that feeling.”
In contrast, Laflamme says he’ll often wear a large coat when he’s in Edmonton to conceal his brightly coloured clothing.
“Some things that I’ll wear here that I won’t usually wear anywhere in public. At camp Fyrefly, I just go all out.
“It’s what you should be doing, going all out and express yourself.”
Going all out is what many of the youth featured in the camp’s talent shows were doing too. The shows gave the youth a chance to express themselves and show off their talents — everything from singing to monologues to dancing to Britney Spears’ music.
Miyuki Hayashi was among the musical acts during the first installment of the talent show. She sang and played piano to huge applause. Hayashi says she has been to other camps in the past but “nothing as good as this.”
“I think it’s just that it’s such a safe environment and it’s really hard for queer youth to find somewhere like that. We’re all here together and we’re all safe together.
“It’s gorgeous here, I love it, except for the mosquitoes,” she adds.
“When we were doing the talent show last night it didn’t matter what somebody did or if they messed up at midpoint, everyone got the same amount of applause at the end so it’s just really nice to have a group of your peers support you so strongly,” says Bennett.
“I think just feeling like not isolated because you’re surrounded by people who’ve gotten through the same thing. You can talk to people about anything regardless of whether that’s, ‘oh I really like this movie’ or something to do with queer issues because they come from similar backgrounds and experiences. You don’t feel like if I slip up and mention something about the gay community it might affect what people think of me.”
Cody Johnson, 14, says he had a relatively easy coming out in Richmond compared to the experiences of some fellow campers.
“When I came out I was very supported. From talking to other people at the camp, some people didn’t have as easy a coming out, but my parents were supportive and my friends were,” says Johnson, who was initially (needlessly) worried about not making friends at camp.
Knight says Fyrefly BC’s 44 campers came from a variety of backgrounds and while some of the youth still struggle for the support of their family and friends, many campers, like Johnson, have found support at home.
Some parents are so supportive, he adds, that they “actually contacted me months ago saying this camp looks great for my kid, please let him or her in.”
Knight says he received calls from parents across BC, including some who live in traditionally homophobic or heterosexist communities.
Because some of the youth live in communities with few openly gay and gender-queer people, the connections they make at Fyrefly are that much more relevant, Knight indicates.
“They can leave with specific resources for them, specific networks that they can talk to, whether that’s other youth, youth leaders or adult volunteers. They can contact them afterwards. They can continue accessing the support throughout the year.
“It’s like any camp,” he says. “You’re going to go make some hopefully lifelong friends, people that you’re definitely going to be in touch with long after.”