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3 min

Linking tomorrow’s leaders

Leonardo, a young man with a shock of pink in his otherwise dark hair, smiles as he surveys the energy and bustle of his first day at Camp Fyrefly.

“I was not expecting a camp like this, because my only other camp experience was one that was basically for straight people. Here, I do not have any fears. I can be myself — just be Leonardo. Meeting all of these people, and everyone sharing a little bit of their lives, makes me happy.”

Now in its third year, Camp Fyrefly is a queer leadership camp for young people aged 14 to 24. This year, participants came from across the country to attend the four-day session held in Edmonton from Jul 6 to 9.

Originally from Mexico, Leonardo (who, like Camp Fyrefly’s other youth, only offered his first name for publication) is now active in Toronto’s queer community where he volunteers with Supporting Our Youth.

“The camp is making us more confident,” he says. “All of the things we are learning here — being yourself, being able to express your true feelings, not being afraid to be gay — we can take back home to the other youth who are working in our communities.”

“The firefly is one of the only animals that produces its own energy, which I think is a poignant symbol for the camp,” says Kris Wells, the camp’s director and cofounder. “We want to move youth from feeling at risk to feeling resilient in their communities, so that their own light can glow in dark times.”

The camp begins, as in any gathering of people who do not know each other, with people triangulating, looking for friendly faces, seeking level ground. However, with young people this process is accelerated and the furtive glances are soon met with smiling faces.

Several conversations break out as campers haul pillows, sleeping bags and luggage into the courtyard of the Bennett Centre, an outdoor education and conference centre operated by the Edmonton Public School Board. Rainbow accoutrements are de rigueur, with bracelets, badges and pins everywhere.

Lindsay, a young woman from Red Deer with glasses and a wry sense of humour, is reconnecting with several friends. “This is my second year in a row attending the camp. There aren’t many places to go in Red Deer for gay people,” she notes with an arched eyebrow.

As the campers get settled into their mixed-gender cabin assignments, pod leaders, all youth themselves, arrive to introduce themselves. As the main unit of organization and affiliation at the camp, pod members gather a few times a day to work on pod activities and tackle group chores.

One thing the pod leaders stress is the importance of mixing with everyone, as opposed to simply pairing off. In fact, the camp has a strict anti-hanky-panky rule, enforced by a designated staff member.

Love and hormones aside, one of the main challenges at Camp Fyrefly is choosing among the impressive smorgasbord of workshops on offer. Campers can attend workshops on sexuality and spirituality, DIY zine creation, using theatre to address world issues, safely addressing homophobia and hetero-sexism — there’s even a seminar on Reiki.

The camp also brings in a few high-profile members of Edmonton’s queer community for discussions with the youth. One such session, entitled Out In The Police Force, featured out Edmonton Sgt Danielle Campbell.

“In high school I thought I was the only lesbian in Canada,” she tells the youth. “I wish I had a camp like this when I was younger. I would have been there.”

One of the most unexpected things at this gay youth camp is the distinct feeling that sexual orientation and gender have ceased to matter. As a result of everyone presenting their queerness explicitly, the issue — which seems such a core part of most queer people’s identities — almost evaporates. It is a sneakily vertiginous experience where queer becomes the new normal.

“The surprise about this camp is how normal it really is,” agrees QC Gu, one of the youth coordinators who helped design this year’s activities. “The camp is just a leadership camp — kids coming together having fun. The other surprise is the adults who come to this camp grow just as much as the youth.”

“We had 25 adults apply for our adult leader positions before we received our first youth application,” says camp coordinator Jill Delarue. The adult leaders teach workshops and bring their professional skills to the camp, all of which are donated.

“Knowing that a camp like this exists touches a chord in people,” observes University Of Alberta professor Andre Grace, cofounder and unofficial father figure. “We have had tremendous support from the LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer] community in funding the camp.”

This year, Camp Fyrefly offered spots to 55 youth and 12 adult leaders. The camp still had to turn 12 youth away.

“As the camp continues to grow I think about the other dozen who did not have a place,” says Wells. “My future hope is that camp funding will increase so more youth can attend.

“We currently run the camp as cheaply as we can so that we can get as many youth to attend as possible,” he notes. “Those who could not attend this year we will put on top of the list for next year.”