LGBTQ Campers: Their Side of the Story

Summer camps are great for children. They learn social skills, they become more independent, they connect with nature and they gain self-confidence.

The camp experience offers a nurturing environment away from the technological distractions and hostile vibes of the city. Children from small towns and rural areas can expand their horizons.

However, for LGBTQ children, camp life may not be an easy and fun transition. Their sexual orientation can be the cause of rejection from fellow campers, making their camp experience difficult, and at times, traumatic.

Ninety-two percent of LGBTQ youth say they hear negative messages
about being LGBTQ. The top sources are schools, the Internet and their peers. Four in 10 LGBTQ youth say the community in which they live is not accepting of LGBTQ people. LGBTQ youth are twice as likely as their peers to say they have been physically assaulted, kicked or shoved at school.

These are just a few sad truths the Human Rights Campaign — the largest civil rights organization that seeks equality for LGBTQ Americans — discovered when doing an LGBTQ youth survey.

Adolescence is a time when things such as peer influence and peer relationships are emphasized. This emphasis is even a bigger deal if the adolescent is LGBTQ or is still trying to figure out his or her sexual orientation.

Adam Bryant Miller is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He says that peer influence, especially peer rejection, is associated with a lot of mental health issues and mood disorders.

“A lack of social support from peers is one of the most consistent factors implicated in the onset of adolescent depression and even suicidal thoughts and behaviors,” he says.

Statistically, LGBTQ adolescents tend to have increased rates of mental health problems.

“We don’t know exactly why this is,” Miller says. “However, some theories and research studies suggest that it’s because of a lack of support regarding acceptance of their orientation.”

“This is especially true when these individuals lack family support,” he adds. “Sadly, LGBT adolescents have even higher odds of experiencing suicidal thoughts and behaviors, and have even completed suicide.”

In this situation, the most important thing for the psychological well being of the adolescent is support from his or her family.

But there are several resources available for families in such situations, including PFLAG — whose slogan is “Parents, families, friends and allies united with LGBTQ people to move equality forward.”

Another resource for families is the website effectivechildtherapy. org, which provides important information about finding providers who practice empirically based treatments.

And a great way of letting kids and adolescents be who they are is sending them to summer camp. Camps are known to help them improve their creative expression and participation in a community environment. It also makes them explore and expand the definition of who they are.


In America, the majority of summer camps aren’t organized based on the campers’ sexual orientation, which can sometimes cause LGBTQ kids to feel unsure about attending summer camp because of their fear of rejection.

But there are certain summer camps that are specifically organized for these kids. Their aim is to give LGBTQ individuals more support by surrounding them with other kids who share similar life experiences regarding their sexuality.

A few examples of these types of camps are Camp True Colors, in Minnesota, for those who identify as LGBTQ and are living out of home or at risk of homelessness; Camp Aranu’tiq, in New England and California, for transexual and gender-variant youth ages 14- to 18-years-old; Camp Ten Trees, in Washington state, a camp for LGBTQ youth and LGBTQ or nontraditional families; Wonderfully Made Camp, in Philadelphia, a weekend-long camp; the Spiritual Pride Project, in Texas, a camp that helps LGBTQ young adults explore their spirituality in relation to religion; Camp Lightbulb, in Massachusetts, a nonprofit overnight camp for LGBTQ youth ages 14-18; and The Naming Project, in Minnesota,one of the few faith-based organizations for LGBTQ.

Every summer in Durham, North Carolina, QORDS, the “queer oriented” camp for adolescents provides the traditional camp experience for those individuals. QORDS offers a wide range of creative and artistic activities as well as outdoors activities. Campers attend workshops on songwriting, drag performance, dance, creative writing, spoken word poetry, the history of LGBTQ music, the history of LGBTQ organizing in the South and self-defense.

They form music groups and write songs together to perform at the end of the week. They also do karaoke and host dance parties. And the campers are able to test their physical skills at activities like hiking, canoeing, aerials or wading in creeks.

“The idea for this camp came up after North Carolina lost the fight against Amendment One, which amended the state constitution to prohibit gay marriage,” says Tavi Hancock, founder and treasurer of QORDS. “This decision affected legal rights of many parents and families in the state and LGBTQ  families were feeling discouraged.”

“So the four of us who founded QORDS just wanted to do something celebratory for LGBTQQIA youth and youth of queer and trans families.”

All of the camp counselors at QORDS are LGBTQQIA identified, and the cabins aren’t assigned by gender. Instead, they’re based on age and it’s a discrimination- free camp.

“We start the week with the campers creating the values and behaviors that will guide us at camp,” Hancock says. “We hold workshops on topics related to economic class, and this year we held POC (people of color) and white people caucuses.”

She says that sometimes campers have discussions with one another about these topics, and they usually tend to come out of camp having learned and grown in those areas.

Hancock says after this experience the campers gain confidence, support and new friends. They learn how to organize in their own towns around LGBTQ issues and, overall, have one week where they can freely be themselves without negative feedback. She says that some campers have told her that camp was the first time they really felt happy.

Some of the things she often hears among the campers are, “I don’t feel judged here,” “I can be myself here,” “I don’t know any other LGBTQ kids in my school or town,” “I can try out new pronouns or gender expression here,” “It’s really fun” or “I made good friends with the other kids and staff.”

QORDS has also been a life- changing experience for Hancock.

“The counselors grow and change and feel like we can be our best selves at camp,” she says. “I’ve actually made some of my best friends through meeting other QORDS organizers.”


The United States has experienced much growth in the realm of LGBTQ support over the last few years — including, most recently, the legalization of same- sex marriage on June 26, 2015.

Another step forward for the LGBTQ community was the change of the Adult Leadership Policy of the Boy Scouts of America. This private youth organization used to prohibit “known or avowed homosexuals” from being members of the program.

But on July 27, 2015, the Boy Scouts removed the restriction on openly gay adult leaders and employees. Boy Scouts of America is composed of nearly 2.5 million youth members between the ages of 7 and 21, and approximately 960,000 volunteers throughout the United States and its territories. Consequently, the change affects a lot of people.


Hugo Fernandez is an LGBTQ 21-year-old student who went
to summer camp when he was 15 years old. He went to Culver Camp Summer Academy, a military camp in Indiana. Hugo says he didn’t tell the counselors he was gay, but he told his friends.

“At first I was a little scared that they would reject me, especially since we only knew each other for a few days, but that was who I was, and I couldn’t hide it from them,” he says. “When I finally told them, they completely accepted me.”

In terms of the difficulties someone LGBTQ has to go through while at camp, Hugo says there aren’t any.

“I don’t remember experiencing any awkward or hard situations,” he says. “I think that sadly you can find discrimination in any environment, but usually summer camps are well prepared for handling that kind of situation.”

“Summer camps promote integration and the counselors, at least in the camp I went to, were prepared for dealing with issues related to religion, diet restrictions, sexual orientation and others.”

Hugo advises other LGBTQ adolescents who are hesitant about summer camp to take a chance, as it was a positive and life-changing experience for him.

“I learned a lot at camp, and not only to ride a horse or play tennis. I made amazing friends, and I felt completely free to be myself,” he says. “You are very likely to find other people that are in the same situation as you and people who will accept you for who you are.”