By Laura Latzko, September 2016 Issue.
Each summer, there’s a camp for LGBTQ youth that promises opportunities to meet peers, to find role models and mentors, to create community, to discover more about yourself and your identities and to evolve as a leader.
Which is why more than 300 youth from throughout Arizona – as well as Massachusetts, Washington, New York, California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Kentucky and Florida – applied in hopes of being selected to be a part of this life-changing experience.
Established by one n ten’s director of programs Kado Stewart, in 2008 as part of her Prescott College senior project, Camp OUTdoors! had just over 40 youth in its first year and has been growing consistently every year since.
This year, 150 to 175 young people – ages 11 to 24 – will head to Prescott from, for Camp OUTdoors! Sept. 2 to 5.
Finding Your Tribe
According to Mike Schneider, assistant camp director and one n ten youth center program coordinator, camp is the first time many of the youth are around other LGBTQ youth.
“For a lot of campers, this is the first official LGBTQ event. Some of them don’t have another LGBTQ friend,” Schneider said. “It’s usually the first time in their life that they know there is some sort of support out there.”
For transgender and gender non-conforming youth, who made up 40 to 50 percent of the camp population, Stewart said being around others like themselves can be especially affirming.
“If you look at history, and even the past few years, trans folks have been made to feel like they don’t exist,” Stewart said. “Having youth be able to meet other youth, mentors and volunteers that identify as transgender or gender queer is really important because it really validates them, knowing there are other people that might be going through similar struggles.”
A Sense of Community
At camp, youth are encouraged to get to know people of all ages and all experiences, which Stewart said is an important part of community building – not just at camp.
“We need to come together to support each other and show, one, we are not invisible; two, we can’t be erased; and, three, that we are stronger together,” Stewart said.
Developing a stronger sense of self, building a community and finding sources of strength are especially important for LGBTQ youth, Stewart said, because of the issues they often face outside of camp, which can include bullying violence, homelessness as well as discrimination from faith organizations, family members and classmates.
Although society continues to progress, with LGBTQ people gaining such rights such as marriage equality and the right to serve openly in the military, Stewart said an open and inclusive camp for LGBTQ youth and allies is still needed.
“The issues facing LGBT youth are not the same as the issues facing LGBT adults who have their own autonomy to be able to make their own decisions in their lives,” Stewart said. “The issues facing LGBT youth are very pressing. Even though our LGBT youth have fought for marriage equality and are looking for equality in the workplace, the issues [they are facing] are definitely more personal.”
It Takes A Village
Community members are essential to making camp a success each year, serving as volunteers, workshop leaders, counselors, mentors and role models for the campers.
This year, representatives from Phoenix Pride, GLSEN, members of the Grand Canyon Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and Phoenix Women’s Chorus, local drag queens and State Senator Katie Hobbs will serve as counselors and lead workshops or activities at camp.
According to Schneider, adult mentors play an important role in shaping the lives of youths at camp.
“Sometimes, they don’t have an adult that identifies as LGBT in their lives, so it’s the first time they’ve received support from an adult who identifies similarly to them,” Schneider said.
Although the exchanges between mentors and mentees may only last a few days, Schneider and Stewart said they make a lasting impression.
Many youth have grown up at camp – starting out as campers and moving up to such leadership roles as counselors in training (CITs), members of OUTscouts!, volunteers, workshop leaders and counselors.
As part of the CIT program, youth 20 to 24 years old take on leadership roles in cabins by aiding counselors and leading activities.
OUTscouts!, a program for Arizona youth that has developed out of camp, allows participants opportunities to go on outdoor trips and learn wilderness skills throughout the year, and also take on leadership roles at camp by leading wilderness-based workshops.
Youth play in important role in leading and shaping camp each year, and are encouraged to apply the leadership skills they learn at camp in their everyday lives and in their communities. As a result, a number of campers have gone on to start GSAs at their schools and help to run LGBTQ programs in their communities – and that, Stewart said, is really what it’s all about.
Former Campers Leave Their Stamp at Camp
OUTscout KJ Williams, 20
As a former church camp counselor, a current member of the Arizona Army National Guard and a lifelong lover of the outdoors, KJ Williams found that taking on a leadership role at CampOUTdoors! was a quick but natural progression.
During her first year at camp, Williams admired the OUTscouts! and said she hoped to be a similar type of role model for other youth. One year later, Williams is returning to camp as OUTscout!
“I felt inspired by them, and they are the group that everyone looks up to, and I knew I wanted to be a part of that,” Williams said. “It’s pretty nerve-wracking knowing there’s going to be 11- and 12-year-old kids looking up to me, but I think that together … as the OUTscouts! as a whole, we look out for each other, and we make sure we are all on our A-game all the time.”
Williams was raised in a religious Phoenix home, and had little contact with the LGBTQ community and was kicked out of her family after coming out.
“I was very secluded as a kid and didn’t really know anything about the LGBT community … For those first three or four years being out, I didn’t even know this community existed,” Williams said. “Then coming in and being in classes about how to fight for what’s right and how to play a part in our community … it definitely motivates you to, once you get home and get off that mountain, do something about it.”
For a time in her life, Williams said she felt resentment and anger toward the church. Through camp, however, she was able to get back in touch with her spiritual side and find an inclusive and accepting church.
“There was a core part of me that always knew that I was faith-based, and I was spiritual, and I just wanted to be somewhere where I could feel accepted and loved for who I was,” Williams said. “… I didn’t feel that way until I found this church at camp last year.”
CIT Bryce Brown, 24
Bryce Brown grew up in Kingman and relocated to Flagstaff in 2010 to attend Northern Arizona University. Growing up in a small town, Brown said, he didn’t have an LGBTQ group or support system. Still, Brown came out to his family as bisexual at age 15.
During his first year at Camp OUTdoors!, which he described as a chance to be a leader and to find himself, Brown began to use the name “Bryce” and never went back.
“It took me four days to realize I’m not the person I thought I was,” Brown said, adding that he came out to his family as transgender last year.
According to Brown, coming out to his family the second time went smoothly because of what he’d learned at camp.
“Now my mom calls me her son, and my sister is talking about how she has the best brother,” Brown said “I never thought that I would be able to come out and say most of that stuff to my family, and now everything is OK.”
This year will be Brown’s fourth time at camp, and second year as a CIT. The support Brown received at camp in his first two years, he said, continues to motivate him to help younger campers in his role as a CIT.
“When you are a little bit older, you may be a little bit wiser,” Brown said. “And you can remember being that age, and … the things [campers] might be going through and give them, from personal experience, some advice.”
According to Brown, he works hard to apply what he learned, especially about gender identities, in his everyday life. For him, this often means having informed discussions with others.
“It’s definitely easier to stand up for yourself after going to camp,” Brown said. “If someone calls you the wrong pronoun or something, you are able to step up and say, ‘Actually, let me educate you about this.”
CIT Caleb Schultz, 22
According to Caleb Schultz, every year at Camp OUTdoors! is a new experience. In the six years that he’s attended camp, Schultz has evolved from a shy camper to an enthusiastic OUTScout and, now, a more confident CIT.
Growing up, Schultz camped every month with his family and, to this day, he savors moments in the great outdoors.
It was this love of the outdoors, combined with a desire to meet other LGBTQ people, that initially prompted Schultz to go attend Camp OUTdoors!
“Just to be out in the quiet of nature is nice,” Schultz said. “When you walk around, you just stop, and you listen, and you hear the sounds of the birds and the forest.”
Schultz came out at age 16 and said he’s found acceptance in his own family over time, but growing up in Mesa in a conservative Irish Catholic family, he often felt out of place.
“I was the first ever to come out in my family,” he said. “When I came out, it was going against the grain of everything they had planned for me. So, I kind of felt a little bit isolated, a little bit out of the norm.”
At camp, Schultz found both family and community.
During his two years as a CIT, Schultz said he acted as a “big brother” to teens in his cabin. He also tries to engage new campers, just as others approached him his first year at camp.
“Once I got there, immediately five to six people came up to me who I’d never met. They were unbelievable to me and were genuinely interested in what I had to say,” Schultz said. “[As] this little weird, awkward 16-year-old, I definitely needed that, and that’s the experience I bring when I go to camp every year.”
The chance to meet people from different parts of the country, and hear their stories, keeps Schultz coming back to camp every year.