The afternoon of Aug 28 marked the end to four days that queer youth at Manitoba’s Camp Aurora will probably never forget. As the 25 campers, ranging in ages from 14 to 21, gathered around a circle to say goodbye, they knew that it would not be forever. For underneath the tears that were shed with the thought of returning home, each camper likely left invigorated by the experience.
In its second year, Camp Aurora attracted youth from across Winnipeg and as far north as Gillam, Manitoba. The only one of its kind in the province, the queer camp is made possible through the Rainbow Resource Centre (RRC) and the hard work of over 40 volunteers and organizers. Financially it is supported by the contributions of individual donors, local businesses and organizations such as the Winnipeg Foundation and Manitoba Health and Healthy Living.
Hosted by Camp Manitou just west of Winnipeg, one only had to walk in so far as the front door before they realized this camp was not like most others. Several adjustments were made to the physical space of the camp prior to their arrival. Washrooms were made gender-neutral by hand-made signs that covered up their traditional divide. As well, a rainbow flag was raised each morning which flew high over the camp.
For many queer teenagers, Camp Aurora offered a chance to make new friends without having to hide who they are. Socializing through various group activities, bonfires and one fierce dance party, each camper had the luxury of letting their guard down and just being themselves around one another. Cameron Brown, a gay 17-year-old, recounts that the chance to meet new people was the best part of his camp experience. “Coming here was a challenge,” he says. “I don’t usually say hi to new people…. [But] I was surprised at how welcoming everyone was.”
Aside from the regular activities one would expect at camp, a variety of educative workshops took place that gave answers to the questions campers were waiting to ask. These included two sessions on gender identity and expression that were tailored for the needs of MTF and FTM transgender participants. However, the biggest hit at the camp was the drag workshop, which gave youth the chance to take the stage later in full make-up and costume among Winnipeg’s top drag performers.
Ultimately, Aurora provided these youth with a sanctuary where they could escape the judgment, persecution and harassment they may experience in their lives. The camp’s student programming liaison Sarah Dack finds this to be the greatest reward. Hired by the RRC to ensure the camp got off the ground, Sarah says, “of all the paperwork, cancellations and frustrations over organizing; none of it mattered when I heard one of the campers say that this was the first time in his life that he had been respected.”
As queer youth continue to come out at younger ages, the need for support continues to grow. As campers exchanged tearful goodbyes at the end of the four days, one thing was certain: they were taking home much more than the arts, crafts and campfire songs they had acquired along the way. For many, they were taking home new leadership skills and increased resiliency.