Sitting on the dock on sunny afternoons with your feet trailing into the lake. Crowding into a huge hot dining hall for food you’d never get to eat at home. Whispering across bunks after lights out.
Those of us lucky enough to have gone away to camp as kids will remember the strange mix of freedom and security, the thrill of being away from home, the chance to discover yourself in a new environment.
But for those kids who’ve already discovered that they’re different from their fellow campers, the experience can be less than positive.
“There was no queer at camp. You couldn’t be. You couldn’t even suggest it,” says Jen Keystone, board member of Camp Ten Oaks, a summer camp for queer kids and kids of queer parents.
“It was hard enough when I did finally come out to my girl friends,” says Keystone. “When we went to camp everyone knew you didn’t make any jokes, you didn’t talk about it, because the trees had ears as they say. It was nothing you’d ever want to have to deal with. Kids can be so mean, any age of kid.”
Although Keystone has a longstanding love affair with summer camp (“I’ve been going to sleepover summer camp since I was six. That’s 18 years of camp –10 years as a camper, eight years as staff. So that’s my whole life, almost”), she remembers how hard it was for her younger brother, also queer, who didn’t keep to the closet.
“I think he was 13 or 14,” recalls Keystone. “He had an incident with a camper, a homosexual encounter, and it went over really badly. The other kid told everybody or suggested things to his fellow campers and they jumped him in the cabin. They surrounded him, pushing him yelling at him –‘you faggot,’ ‘you homo’ — all these really nasty things. And that’s not uncommon at a summer camp if you exhibit any homosexual tendencies.
“At the beginning of that summer, going to camp knowing that we were both gay, I said, ‘This is not the place for you to experiment. This is not the place for you to talk about this.’
“So my summer camp experience, yeah, great. I loved summer camp, I loved the activities, I loved my friends, I loved all that. But there was no place for gay.”
Initiatives like Camp Ten Oaks are changing all that. A weeklong program for kids ages eight to 17, Camp Ten Oaks was founded to provide a place for queer kids — both who identify as queer and trans, and the children of queer and trans parents — to partake in all of the pleasures of summer camp in an accepting atmosphere.
“For some it’s the first time they’re meeting someone with a similar family structure,” says cofounder and camp director Julia Alarie, “so it may be saying, ‘My dad is trans,’ or, ‘I have three parents,’ or coming to camp and saying, ‘Actually, I’m bi.’
“There’s bridging that takes place where kids are suddenly seeing their parents reflected in their peers looking at the LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer] youth, who are themselves looking at their peers and thinking, ‘Whoa, I could totally have a family.'”
The six-day program, now in its second year, is held at the Camp Kalalla campsite in the Gatineau Hills, approximately 45 minutes from Ottawa. The 108-acre lakefront property allows for all of the traditional camping activities, including swimming and canoeing.
Holly Wagg, cofounder and president, was inspired to start a queer summer camp after two summers of working at Mountain Meadow, a camp for the kids of homo families in New Jersey.
“I would say I had a life-changing experience at Mountain Meadow,” says Wagg. “Before I was the person who asked the question, ‘Why would a camp for LGBTQ campers be necessary?'”
But after her experience at Mountain Meadow, Wagg became a believer in special spaces for queer youngsters, a belief she shares with Alarie.
“It’s one week where they get a break from the homophobia they may experience in their everyday lives,” says Alarie. “When you’re young finding that likeness –someone who can share your experience — really matters.”
In addition to being the driving force behind Camp Ten Oaks, Wagg and Alarie are also romantic partners. When asked if they’re planning on kids of their own, the answer is a resounding yes, but not in the immediate future.
“I feel like we have 40 kids of our own ’cause our campers feel like our extended family,” says Wagg.
This year 40 campers are set to participate in Camp Ten Oaks, running Sun, Aug 20 to 26. That number is almost double the 22 campers in the inaugural year. Campers are split into groups, starting with the eight- and nine-year-old junior acorn campers, or JACs, all the way up to the leaders-in-training, ages 16 and 17. Wagg says all of the age-appropriate activities are run from a social-justice perspective.
“Last year during a sewing workshop we talked about sweat shops. You can find social justice concepts in any of our daily activities.”
Getting the second year going has been a lot smoother for Camp Ten Oaks. Alarie recounts the story of sitting down to the first staff orientation in spring of 2005 and giving the assembled volunteers the update: “I told them, ‘Well, we have one camper registered and we have a little bit of money, so, we hope it’s going to happen.'”
By the same time this year, all the money had been raised and the campers were queuing up. Wagg attributes the difference to the fact that Ten Oaks is no longer an unknown entity.
“When you’re starting something new it’s the chicken and egg,” says Wagg. “They need to see it can run and be successful and be responsible with the money, but you can’t run it without that support.”
Now that the idea has caught on, the struggle will be to grow at a rate the organization can sustain.
“We had parents registering left right and centre and now we have a waiting list,” says Alarie. “We can only do some much with our resources. We’re aiming for 20 more [campers] next year and 20 more the year after, but we’re still going to have a waiting list.
“The three-year strategic plan is all about growing the program we have, and because the ratio of staff is one-to-two we’re also looking at significant volunteer increases.”
Tricky, when the camp is entirely staffed by volunteers.
“They’re there ’cause they really want to be there; because they love summer camp but also because we love the environment,” Wagg says of the camp staff, who number 18 this year.
With camper fees on a sliding scale to accommodate low-income families, the majority of the money to run the camp –$24,000 this year for 40 campers — comes from grants, fundraising events and private donations. An annual bowlathon in Ottawa makes up the biggest chunk of the costs; grants like one for $2,000 from the Lesbian And Gay Community Appeal help to make up the difference.
Both Wagg and Alarie are quick to acknowledge their volunteers, from the eight board members to the camp staff and fundraising crews, for making Camp Ten Oaks possible.
“A lot of people have a tendency to look at it as the Holly and Julia show but we certainly aren’t doing it alone,” says Alarie.
She also credits the parents of Ten Oaks’ first batch of campers for trusting them with their little ones.
“The parents in the first year took it totally on faith that we were going to put on this program,” she says. “We did right by them but the parental support has been phenomenal. It also speaks to the general amazingness of the community we serve, that willingness to experiment and try new things, caring for each other, caring for our children.
“When we cofounded this program I never expected… for the kids to show up one way and to leave different, a little more proud of who they are. There isn’t a lot of programming dedicated to those issues. They explore that amongst each other.”
One of Alarie’s favourite stories from last year’s camp experience was passed on to her by one of the staff members, who happened to observe an exchange between three young campers, two of whom were sisters.
“The camper who wasn’t the sister said to them, ‘My mom has a partner. Does your mom have a partner?’ and the little sister said, ‘What’s a partner?’ Her big sister nudged her and said, ‘You don’t have to play dumb here. It’s actually safe.'”