pride playgrounds

Clothes optional: How adult LGBTQ+ summer camps bring a modern twist to a hot weather tradition

Adult LGBTQ+ summer camp gif

For some kids, summer camps are about chicken fighting in lakes and toasting s’mores over the campfire. They form seasonal bonds with their bunkmates that fade into nostalgia through the school year, only to be rekindled the following June. But for many queer adults, sleep-away camps were a source of anxiety, leaving the relative safety of their homes and being thrust into a world of isolation and bullying. 

Fortunately, several summer camps across the US aim to rectify those negative experiences by providing safe spaces for queer adults. They create sanctuaries where participants can indulge in iconic summertime activities ranging from archery and crafting to LED-lit dance parties. But most importantly, adult LGBTQ+ summer camps foster a supportive sense of community away from our sometimes isolating heteronormative mainstream society.

GayCities packed a weekender bag to experience queer camp firsthand and chatted with some of the leaders who create welcoming spaces for adults to rediscover their sense of play.

Discovering radical inclusion at Something Queer

Adult campers pose in front of a skeleton sculpture at Something Queer, a camp for the adult LGBTQ+ community
Photo by Mike Ciriaco for GayCities.

At a superficial glance, it appears to be an ordinary summer camp. Nestled in the idyllic hillsides of Northern California, energetic campers frolic from their rustic cabins to knot-tying workshops while the smell of flapjacks wafts through the air. But a closer inspection reveals that the knots being taught aren’t the traditional bowlines and hitches used to secure tents but the single-column ties utilized in Shibari, the Japanese art of rope play. And those pancakes browning on the outdoor griddle bear a striking resemblance to the male anatomy. It’s clear this camping experience is something different. Something adult. Something queer.

The brainchild of gay San Franciscans Justin Boren and Danni Pomplun, Something Queer (SQ) is an annual weekend-long summer camp experience for LGBTQ+ adults hosted at Saratoga Springs Retreat Center. Accommodations range from tents and RVs to private cabins, and for those looking for a more iconic summer camp experience, communal dorms replete with bunk beds are available. But while SQ embraces an archetypical backdrop, it forgoes the regimented structure typically associated with summer camps for a more laissez-faire approach to recreational activities. 

“Our job really is just to create a container for all the magic that’s created by others.”

Justin Boren, Something Queer

“Our job really is just to create a container for all the magic that’s created by others,” Justin Boren told GayCities. “The morning starts when you want it to start. You’ll find a variety of activities that are entirely coordinated by the people who show up. This year, workshops will be things like body movement or primordial breathwork, a workshop on rope play, and one on figure drawing. Once people have explored that, then the day is left for clothesless hikes and lounging by the pool. And, of course, multiple little parties and dancing.”

Boren has been a lifelong camper, starting with his Boy Scout days and continuing into adulthood with his participation in Burning Man, the annual week-long event in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert dedicated to artistry, social experimentation, and mind-bending bacchanalia. As such, he personifies the spirit of SQ. 

Something Queer LGBTQ+ summer camp
Photo by Mike Ciriaco for GayCities.

“I think the confluence of my experience in summer camp, my Burning Man experience, and our collected desire to foster community is where, if there was a Venn diagram, Something Queer is right in the middle of those three pieces.”

The Burning Man community is guided by the 10 Principles, a decalogue of tenets that include precepts such as “immediacy,” “gifting,” and “participation.” As an event conceived and heavily populated by Burners, these principles are baked into SQ’s identity, most noticeably the concept of radical self-expression. Saratoga Springs’ campgrounds showcase a variety of visual art pieces, from inflatable luminescent mushrooms and LED faux-campfire installations to the stylized Mexican-inspired skeletons of San Francisco-based artist Simón Malvaez. Those who attended Burning Man 2023 may recognize Malvaez’s unique aesthetic from his work on “Nosotres,” a towering Mictlan-inspired wooden monolith inscribed with nonbinary visages. 

“The 10 Principles is kind of our touchstone,” explained Boren, also known by his Burning Man name Papa Smurf, which aptly alludes to his role as a patriarch of the SQ community. “Part of our mission for Something Queer is to give artists a platform to present their work,” Boren said. “Having art as part of the experience makes it much more exciting for those people who don’t get to go to  Burning Man.” 

In addition to radical self-expression, SQ embraces the principle of “radical inclusion,” endeavoring to create a safe space for all sexual, gender, and racial identities. 

“One thing that sets SQ apart from other gay or queer events is that we’re really trying to be purposeful in the community that we’re fostering. How can we make sure that we have greater representation from folks in the trans community? How can we make sure we have greater diversity as far as race, ethnicity, and people of color? How can we ensure that we have more women there? These are all questions that we really worked through. I think that that also ties into trying to be as radically inclusive as possible.”

This desire to cultivate community is a characteristic SQ shares with many other LGBTQ+ adult summer camps.

Tea for two (or more) at ‘Camp’ Camp

A group of participants covered in colorful paint at 'Camp' Camp, an adult LGBTQ+ summer camp
Photo courtesy of ‘Camp’ Camp.

‘Camp’ Camp is the opposite of SQ — geographically and structurally. Located in central Maine, this self-described “America’s premiere LGBTQ+ summer camp” offers guests a more traditional week-long camping experience focusing on activities. To Kerry Riffle, owner and director of ‘Camp’ Camp, establishing a routine is an ideal way to foster community.

“Our activities start at 7 a.m.,” Riffle told GayCities. “Everybody’s free to choose what they want to do. So you get up and have breakfast. We do have our rainbow group meetings, which are like little homeroom meetings, which make it easier to meet people since most people are there vacationing with, you know, 250 strangers essentially. There’s everything from arts and crafts, like pottery and stained glass, to canoeing and mountain biking. Our new campus has a bowling alley. We have fitness classes. So whatever, wherever your interests lie, there’s something for you to do at camp.”

Adult LGBTQ+ summer camp attendees play in a lake at 'Camp' Camp.
Photo courtesy of ‘Camp’ Camp.

While ‘Camp’ Camp differs from SQ regarding regiment, they align about the importance of creating safe spaces within the LGBTQ+ community.

“There’s a culture of acceptance and support that’s sort of endemic to all summer camps,” Riffle said. “It fosters real community spirit. And it’s a place where people come to feel supported and try new things. We have people who come and try an activity they never thought they’d like and then go home and put a stained glass studio in their basement.”

For Riffle, the sense of community that ‘Camp’ Camp cultivates for the LGBTQ+ people is reflected in his favorite event of the week, the traditional tea dance. A long-time staple of queer

culture, these daytime events offer a more laid-back social atmosphere, as opposed to nighttime dance parties. It also provides an opportunity for often-disparate parts of the queer community to interact.

“We do a tea dance annually on Thursday afternoon,” Riffle said. “It’s one of the penultimate events at camp. But my favorite thing is any given year, I can look out on the dance floor and see a 20-something twinkie guy dancing with a 60-something butch lesbian, and they just have the biggest smiles on their face. They’re having the time of their life. And it’s just the little things like that. But that’s one that I can rely on every year to glance out on the dance floor and see a human combination you probably don’t see out in the ‘real world.’ “

Although ‘Camp’ Camp and SQ’s approaches differ, they still share the notion of radical inclusion within their communities.

Creating community at Easton Mountain

Two guess pose outside at Easton Mountain, an adult LGBTQ+ summer camp.
Photo courtesy of Easton Mountain.

While most queer summer camps create safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community, Easton Mountain is notable for establishing a year-round community that has dedicated itself to the camp’s mission. John Stasio, a Boston-based body worker active during the height of the AIDS crisis, founded the upstate New York retreat center as a way for men in his community to create deeper connections with each other.

Easton Mountain’s experiences are divided into individual themed weekends, which they refer to as “camps.” Gay Freedom Camp is a transformative retreat with workshops, rituals, and sensual healing. Spirit Camp emphasizes friendship, and an autumn Singles Weekend side-steps the swipe for a chance to meet face to face.

Yoga at Easton Mountain, an adult LGBTQ+ summer camp
Photo courtesy of Easton Mountain.

“When you’re at one of our camps, a typical day would be to get up in the morning, and we usually offer yoga and or meditation in the morning for those who want to do it, then we have breakfast. After breakfast, there are usually different choices of workshops and activities that you can do,” Freddie Freeman, director of marketing and communications for Easton Mountain, told GayCities. “And those workshops can be anything from discussion groups to music, arts, or even sensual massage. So it can run the gamut.”

“Our biggest mission is to create community. People get a chance to empower themselves.”

Freddie Freeman, Easton Mountain

As with the other queer camps, Easton Mountain also emphasizes the importance of creating community.

“Our biggest mission is to create community.,” said Freeman. “And people get a chance to empower themselves. They’re in touch with their sexuality in a way that is integrated. This is a more holistic experience. It’s education. And people come away from these experiences feeling like they found a way to really get in touch with themselves.”

A place of self-discovery at Camp Lost Boys

Three adult campers at Camp Lost Boys, a camp for transgender men.
Photo courtesy of Camp Lost Boys.

While inclusion of the entire expanse of the LGBTQ+ community is often welcome, sometimes shared, lived experience can create an even more intimate and impactful experience. Camp Lost Boys aims to carve a niche brotherhood specifically for trans men. Describing itself as “the world’s only camp experience dedicated exclusively to transgender men,” this male trans haven offers several weekend-long experiences in locations across the country, with upcoming events in Pennsylvania and Oregon. The organization originated from a desire to fill a void within this corner of the queer community.

“There are a lot of services for the larger LGBT community,” explained Rocco Kayiatos, the founder and executive director of Camp Lost Boys, who identifies as “a man who has had a transgender experience.”’ 

“But there aren’t a lot of services that focus on trans men. And even within the services that do exist for trans people, the majority of them tend to be focused on survival,” Kayiatos told Gay Cities. “And this one was about inviting people to think about thriving and stepping into a space where they could go beyond just getting their basic kind of survival needs met, but instead form a deep connectivity to themselves.”

Like SQ, Camp Lost Boys takes a hands-off approach to participation, letting the individual dictate how they want to spend their time, which Kayiatos describes as a “choose your own adventure.”

“There are activities from morning to night,” said Kayiatos. “And there are also facilitated topics going simultaneously. So somebody can really do whatever they want. They can do high ropes, tie-dye, archery, or have a conversation about what it means to be a dad. How to access health care, how to be financially fit at any age.”

Camp Lost Boys caters to trans men from 18 years old to septuagenarians. (The oldest camper so far has been 76.) Kayiatos’ most profound memory from the recent outing involved a shy teenager struggling with his identity.

” A 19-year-old came through and was kind of like shoulders slumped over, a  little nervous, self-conscious,” Kayiatos said. “On the last day of camp, he decided he would just share on the mic about what it did for him. And he introduced himself by saying, “It’s me again, b*tches!” and then kind of confidently took up space in this way, which really made an impact on everyone who was there.”

For some queer people, adult summer camp experiences are about au natural hiking and experimenting with shibari. But for others, rewriting one’s childhood camp experience or creating a new one celebrates the queer community’s power, resilience, and joy.

Don't forget to share:

Your support makes our travel guides possible

We believe that LGBTQ+ people deserve safe vacations that allow them to be their authentic selves. That's why our City Guides aren't locked behind a paywall. Can you contribute today?

Cancel anytime · Proudly LGBTQ+ owned and operated