I never went to ‘camp’ as a kid. Not the way they do on American television and not the way that Australian kids do either, with their much-hated pilgrimages to Canberra to learn about civic responsibility. As a weird, introverted, only-child, organised activities and compulsory bonding were not really my things. So, it was weird when I found myself on top of a mountain at 28, sharing a cabin with 15 other humans, making friends and participating in structured craft time. Weirder still was how much I loved being there.
The mountain was in Angelus Oaks, outside of Los Angeles and the camp was A-Camp, an annual event run by Autostraddle a website and online community for queer women and their friends. 300 queer women and trans folk make the trek up the mountain every year for five days of activities and talks about sex, art, whiskey and feelings. Oh, and a ton of dancing.
Being gay is exhausting. Through each day, I feel as though I am carrying a sack of potatoes on my shoulders. Some days there might only be two in the sack, but other days are filled with sideways glances and ridicule hurled from car windows and I am crushed by the full weight of homophobia. Even the sunniest days are tinted with anxiety; homophobes look like everyone else after all. A-Camp promised a space where I could put the bag down altogether.
The night before I left, I asked my girlfriend if she thought there would be any bears on the mountain, in case my social anxiety wasn’t enough to worry about.
‘Probably not.’ We were in bed and she was distracted by some colourful game on her phone.
‘Do you think people will be like naked? Like they always are on TV at womyn’s festivals?’
‘Surely not! That’s like, an older generation thing, right?’
‘I don’t know, do you think they’ll be having a lot of sex?’
‘They probably have an official policy on sexual activity right?’ My girlfriend is a big fan of official policies.
‘Not that I’ve read in any of their materials. Helen asked me if there would be drugs too.’
‘They’ll definitely have a policy on that!’
‘What do you think I should wear? Specifically on each different day, what should I wear? How many cute dresses and how many button-ups?’
‘You’re going camping with a bunch of lesbians, I don’t think it really matters.’
‘Of course it matters!’ I had no idea what to expect and my desire to impress my brand new queer friends was more stressful than the knowledge of how jetlagged I would be after the 14-hour flight to Los Angeles.
I needn’t have worried. I could have worn a plastic bag and someone would still have told me I was beautiful every time I turned around. Our first night together, my cabin sat in a big circle and one by one, everyone introduced themselves, shared their pronouns and talked at length about their cats. Every cat story was met with coos of appreciation and even the girl who had a fish instead of a kitty was showered with love. This was a community to which I could belong.
The next day, I learnt how to bind books, took photos and made postcards. The day after, I made zines, brewed witchy tea, talked about fatness. Then, writing workshops, oracle card art and reading in the sunshine. My new friends and I cried as we talked about eating disorders, about fathers that hurt us in all the ways they could, about building new families with each other. Between the structured activities, mediocre food and the pool parties, we leaned into one another and shared our stories.
For many of us, camp is the only place we are visible. In the real world, we are odd shapes with sharp edges that we quickly learnt to dull to make life easier. We hide corners of ourselves and gloss over our shiny parts because we’ve learnt that otherwise the world can be hostile and dangerous. Several of my new friends were not out anywhere but at camp and many of them had uncomfortable or non-existent relationships with their families. In our five days together, we didn’t talk much about identity, or sex or even queerness. Instead, we talked about family and about community. About how we might build safe, supportive and inclusive communities for each other.
On our last morning together, I wondered out loud whether this might be what straight people feel like all the time – unburdened by the anxiety of other people and the near constant fear of violent rejection. A few of us were sitting in the sun, clutching caffeine and waiting for breakfast.
‘Maybe what straight men feel like? It’s as though we’ve been given a week off from being prey.’ She was right that straight, white dudes didn’t really have to understand what it was to feel like prey all the time. Men are usually the predators, hardening their skin and sharpening their teeth against our bones. Stepping out of our roles as prey hadn’t turned us into predators though, instead we let our skin soften, let our walls fall, let each other come crashing in with sweet ferocity.
The morning after the tragedy in Orlando, one of my new Camp friends sent me a hug over the internet and told me that she was sending hugs to each person on her friends list that she knew identified as LGBTQ. Instead of anger – to which we were absolutely entitled – my community responded with softness and love. We checked in on one another, offered self-care tips and reminded one another that even in the moments when the world seemed too unsafe to venture outside, we still had each other and when we closed our eyes – we still had the mountain.
It was only days, but then it was weeks and then months and decades and then eons and I had only ever been this gentle femme on top of a mountain where family sprouts from the earth like flowery weeds. In that week we transformed from anxious and tired young queers into mountain oracles, with all of the knowledge of the earth at our feet.
We sat together in the airport one last time, blinking against the brightness of other, non-queer people. I asked everyone what they were going to take back into their lives with them. Everyone agreed that they were going to be kinder, more gentle – with everyone around them but especially with themselves.
So I came home soft, with pieces of mountain growing in my marrow, making me stronger but not harder.
Image: Andrew Collins
Gemma Killen is a PhD Candidate in Gender Studies at the Australian National University. Her current work focuses on the ways in which queer women’s identities become embodied and are made meaningful in online spaces. In 2015, Gemma moved to Canberra from Adelaide where she wrote for the Adelaide University magazine OnDit. She was also published in Wet Ink, an Australian magazine for emergent creative writing. As a writer, Gemma wants to produce gender-focused work that is accessible and creative.
This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.