Glitter in the Woods: A Week at 'Camp' Camp

09/01/2015 07:25 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2016

Nestled in the woods alongside a splendid lake, about 45 minutes outside of Portland, Maine, there emerges once a year the most wonderful LGBT space in the country. No, Disney World hasn't set up a new outpost and no, it's not an Indigo Girls theme park. It's called 'Camp' Camp, a LGBT adult summer camp, and for nineteen years, folks from all over the world who identify with some color on the LGBT gender and sexuality rainbow have been flocking to this Brigadoon-like place for a magical summer experience.

I first heard about 'Camp' Camp five years ago after reading Joel Derfner's wonderful memoir Swish, but the stars didn't align themselves for me to go until this summer. I had never been to overnight camp before and I was hesitant, but from the handful of 'Camp' Camp alumni whom I met over the years, they always spoke about the place as if they had drunk some crazy Kool Aid, returning there summer after summer. Could it really be that good? In the end, I realized, there was only one way to find out, and so, with my single bag packed -- I was a light packer compared to many of the gay men who schlepped two or three suitcases, some with just shoes -- I boarded my flight to Portland, not knowing a single soul and a bit petrified. Would this just be like almost every gay bar experience in my life in which I felt myself standing along the sidelines while cliquely gaggles of gays ignored me?

The answer quickly made itself apparent. As I walked into the lodge at 'Camp' Camp, it was like being welcomed in a big warm embrace, at times, literally so. People couldn't wait to greet me, ask me questions and make me feel right at home. There were over two hundred people there this summer from so many walks of life. Men, women and folks who didn't identify with any one gender category. Folks in their 20s up through those in their 60s and 70s. Teachers, pastors, professional opera singers and retirees. Singles and couples (some with and without their partners present). Urban dwellers and individuals who lived in remote outposts.

As if I had fallen through Alice's looking glass, the week that followed was one of sublime fun and exuberant liberation, coupled with a profound sense of being accepted for who I am as a gay man. 'Camp' Camp has everything you could imagine at a great summer camp: arts and crafts, sports, boating and swimming, plus some delicious food (don't worry, there's no bug juice or chicken nuggets on the menu). But it's at night when 'Camp' Camp really comes into its own. On the night of the first full day, the camp hosts its Barn Dance and campers, many outfitted in cowboy shirts, boots and bandanas, square danced all night to a live band. As I promenaded and dosey-doed around the room to the caller's instructions (all with a handsome boy on my arm), watching the smiling faces of my fellow campers, I felt like I was having a bit of an out-of-body experience. When was the last time I felt so uninhibited and free? Honestly, I couldn't remember. In the evenings that followed with a game show night and karaoke, I found myself laughing and grinning in ways that I hadn't for a long time.

The fun culminated on Thursday with 'Camp' Camp's Tea Dance, an annual tradition which features a costume parade. I didn't have time to pack an outfit, but a quick trip to the Beauty Parlor, 'Camp' Camp's cabin that was full of more wigs, dresses, heels, outfits and makeup than a season of RuPaul's Drag Race left me walking out with the most dazzling rainbow-sequined jacket and black pants outfit that would transform me that night (beard be damned) into Liza Minnelli. Indeed, it was this act of dress up, of unadulterated play that permeates 'Camp' Camp. So often we in the LGBT community, even those of us who are fiercely out of the closet, still find ourselves, consciously or not, hiding parts of our identities, hesitant to take risks. But at 'Camp' Camp, many of us felt for the first time that we could embrace our truest selves while simultaneously trying new things. From climbing a bit on the ropes course despite my petrifying fear of heights to learning a whole Bob Fosse-esque dance number for the talent show as part of the camp's Broadway Dance class, I found myself uncovering new parts of my identity and challenging myself in new ways.

But hands down, the most gratifying part of 'Camp' Camp were the other campers. For maybe the first time in my life, I had entered a judgment-free zone where people were always positive, smiling, warm, welcoming and kind. Sure, we told fun, dirty jokes along the way and poked fun at each other, but this new sense of camaraderie was foreign to me. While many people in the LGBT community have faced harassment from the straight world, I had found as a gay man that some of my most emotionally traumatic experiences had come from other gay men who were often quick to insult and reject me. But here at 'Camp' Camp, people actually were quick to offer words of encouragement from the stained glass instructor who praised my happily misshapen project to the freely given moral support to the terrified camper who was scared to go down the zipline. And in a world in which we are inundated with texting, emails and of course all those impersonal hookup apps with headless torsos, how wonderful it was to leave my cell phone off and packed away for the week, as phones, while not entirely verboten, are restricted to a small area on the camp grounds. Instead, real meaningful and deep conversations happened throughout the day over a game of cards and while singing around the campfire. And plus who needs texting when each camper gets to design their own paper "buddy bag" where other campers can leave flirty notes and cute messages for each other?

On Saturday, the last full day of camp, I was in the final session of my daily Rainbow Group, one of fifteen or so small groups into which we had each been divided for the week to play games, talk and get to know each other on a more interpersonal basis. As we did some final activities in our group, I found myself uncontrollably sobbing. The experiences of the week, the friends I had made, the joy I had found, had touched me deeply. Not one to cry at the drop of a hat, I pulled myself together to get on with the day. But later on, in the Closing Circle where campers have the opportunity to share their experiences, I found that my tears were not the exception but the rule. As people shared their stories, which often brought more tears to the listeners, I was struck by how shockingly similar people's experiences were: tales of not feeling accepted in the LGBT world, of depression and poor health, of being insecure. At 'Camp' Camp, though, all those issues disappeared, at least for a little while. 'Camp' Camp ends with a ritual known as the Walk of Angels, an event that is as beautiful as it is simple, and one that brings emotional closure to the week's experiences. And while I can't tell you what happens at the Walk of Angels for that would spoil part of its magic, if you go to 'Camp' Camp (and I hope you do), I'm pretty convinced that you too will be transformed.

It is now a day since I've returned to "real life." I'm exhausted -- I never fully adjusted to living in a cabin with 15 other people -- , but I'm also filled with a sense of hope and optimism that I haven't felt in a while. As I spent time going through the pockets of my dirty clothes from the week in order to do laundry, I came across my fake eyelashes from the Tea Dance, still covered in glitter. I look forward to reapplying them at 'Camp' Camp next summer, but in the meantime, I know that the sparkle, memories and new friends from this magical week will keep me smiling until then.