Queer Camping, Then and Now

Two rainbow colored disco balls hanging from a tree with other trees in the background, photographed from below

Every summer there is a mass of minuscule pilgrimages throughout the United States as people of all ages and backgrounds gather together to camp and collectively experience nature. Early this summer in the Happy Valley Conference Center, tucked into the wooded hills of Santa Cruz, college students from throughout Northern California gathered together for NorCal T-Camp. Founded in 2011, T-Camp is a gathering place for trans and non-binary college students to congregate and talk about issues, challenges, and joys relating to their lives all while finding an affirming and loving community. Though the concept of gathering together like-minded people is not unusual, the history and need for queer camp spaces is unique. Queer people need spaces where they can be themselves and escape the homophobia and transphobia of the world. Camping was initially promoted as a way for mostly white, upper-class men to leave cities perceived as feminizing and industrializing, but it was not long before queer people grabbed hold of camping as a means to leave behind the strict structures of life.

The Democratization of Camping

Camping as we now imagine it—as time spent away from your permanent home, with the intention of returning—began in the United States in the late 1800s as some people began to look for an escape from the industrializing cities of the East Coast. In part, these cities began to make some newly middle and upper-class professionals feel like they were cut off from the natural world outside of the city, which they saw as Edenic and primitive. Urban spaces also became markers of all the ills of modernization, including the feminization of the working class. Industrialization meant that, for some, work in the city was less physically taxing than before as many new machines could be operated regardless of the operator’s physique. Some men, believing themselves stuck in a feminine and industrialized city, reacted by retreating to nature to “rough it” and reconnect to the land, their national identity, and their masculinity. The labor they performed while out on the landscape became a hallmark of the “good camper,” and even the leisure activity aspects of camping are still expected to be strenuous (such as hiking) in order to be well done. Roughing it was encouraged by a variety of male authors that connected outdoor activity with national identity. There was no formal camping community at the time, and although a handful of guidebooks existed, there were few resources out there for the complete amateur. Camping remained for a short while an exclusive activity and an expertise kept within the group of (mostly) men who had the time and resources to escape to the woods for up to three months at a time. But it did not take long for camping to begin to open up to a broader audience.

An illustration of two people paddling a canoe on a lake with trees on nearby shores.

An illustration in William H.H. Murray’s Adventures in the Wilderness; or, Camp-Life in the Adirondacks 1869 guidebook. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

In the late 1800s, while most people who camped were still well-to-do white Americans, one guidebook contributed to the long process of the democratization of camping by advocating for the expansion of the socioeconomic status and identities of campers. William H.H. Murray’s Adventures in the Wilderness; or, Camp-Life in the Adirondacks 1869 guidebook caused an enormous increase in the number of folks traveling from the city to set up camps in the mountains. Murray drew on spiritual and pragmatic lessons when creating his guide and wrote it for a lay audience that may have never been camping before. This new style of guidebook taught people not only where to go but also what to bring and who to talk to. It also offered ways for some people outside of the upper class to retreat into the woods by providing low cost camping solutions. Murray was an advocate for female campers as well and believed that the spiritual and physical revitalization brought about by being out in nature should be available to everyone. Camping was still an exclusive leisure activity and most people who camped were still well-to-do white Americans, but Murray’s guide began the long process of the democratization of camping through the expansion of the socioeconomic status of campers. Later, the automobile helped to continue this trend and allowed new people to camp. While Murray did not specifically intend for his democratization of camping to produce summer camps for queer youth, his first nudge in the direction of communal camping trips with people from a variety of backgrounds has helped us get to where we are now.

Although the idea of who could be a camper was expanding, camping was still a male dominated domain. This was in part because camping practices were largely modeled after military survival techniques and the military was not yet open to female recruits. Many military technological innovations—such as the Coleman lamp—became camping staples, and many guidebooks recommended that unsure campers talk to veterans in their area in order to get more information about camping. Military methods, along with the Woodcraft Indians program, also became a key part of the Boy Scouts of America handbook in 1910. Government pamphlets and camping guidebooks all represented nature as a place where boys could go and become strong American men.

Camping has provided a way for some queer people to perform a version of American identity more likely to be widely accepted. Just as camping could create strong American men, camping could also be a way to avoid persecution through escape and fulfill the expectations of an American national persona. For people in the closet who cannot be openly queer, camping offers a way to maintain the veneer of a heteronormative identity. Yet many queer experiences of camping and outdoor leisure subvert this connection between masculinity and outdoor recreation.

Queerness Flourishing in Camps and Festivals

A poster advertising the Civilian Conservation Corps with a faceless white male figure dressed in blue pants, shirt, and hat holding an axe and smiling. Text on the poster includes A Young Man's Opportunity for Work Play Study and Health

Poster by Albert M. Bender, Illinois WPA Art Project, 1935.

Although they have not always been able to do so openly, queer people have always camped and found communities in the woods. In the beginning of the twentieth century, we begin to see more openly queer people in the history of outdoor leisure. For instance, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was created in 1933 as a place for young, unemployed, unmarried (and mostly white) men to gain trade skills and a rugged American masculinity. In practice, these camps of young single men regularly became areas where queer spaces were established and enjoyed during the leisure hours around the camp. Much of the information that we have on the daily life in the CCC comes from Happy Days, the CCC’s weekly newspaper. In these papers, campers could write about their activities and run articles on individual members, and it is through these articles that the queerness of the past comes to light. Although some of this queerness is subtle, such as two separate camps in California naming their adopted cat mascots after the gay writer Oscar Wilde, much was out in the open. Trans women such as Miss Agnes of Company 1413 were popular members of the camp, working and playing alongside the men of the CCC. Playing with gendered presentations was a common pastime and different groups within camps formed for people to share their interests in activities such as muscle building, hanging out in the nude, or putting on theatrical performances for their fellow campers.

In the 1970s, only a few years after Compton’s Cafeteria riot and the Stonewall riots, a proliferation of queer women-run camping events created new spaces for women to congregate in nature. Women-only camping trips have long been a part of camping culture and have provided women opportunities to come together and escape patriarchal heteronormative ideals. The 1970s lesbian music festivals were a new expansion of this “women-only” tradition and sought to form creative and exclusive spaces for women. At first, many of these “women’s spaces” were transphobic; although there have been efforts to make these spaces more inclusive now, some remain transphobic and biphobic. Not all queer spaces are equally open, and many are not meant to be. Cities have never had as many queer female spaces as queer male spaces, and even in the heyday of lesbian bars in San Francisco there were only ever a handful to choose between. The wilderness became a place of retreat not only from heteronormativity and homophobia but also from the increasing dominance of gay male spaces in city centers. Queer butch aesthetics became well defined and moved towards a rugged and outdoorsy “masculinity” that reflected this shift out of urban centers and into backwoods spaces. Flannel button down shirts, work boots, and short cropped hair cuts have since been staples of the butch look for queer women throughout the United States. Being out in the woods gave women freedom to express themselves in new ways, by wearing different clothes, abiding by different schedules, and escaping home and city.

Black and white photograph of a person androgynous in appearance wearing a polo shirt, cowboy hat, thick leather bracelet, and small hoop earrings

Queer butch aesthetics. Image from Gretchen Ludwig, 2006.

Outside and Proud

Having spaces away from the pressures of heteronormative daily life allows for the production of a more visible queer community that makes possible greater political action and personal care. These kinds of spaces—where one can exist without fear of persecution or ridicule—are vital to the health and well-being of queer individuals and the queer community.

A movie poster showing a group of people in a car driving down a dirt road.

Image from Eureka Pictures.

Camping can create safe spaces for queer people to avoid the gaze and pressures of the rest of society—a theme regularly taken up in pop culture. Nature is generally recognized as a place where people can express identities and affections they otherwise have to hide. Often focusing on the stories of white men, films such as Brokeback Mountain and Wet Hot American Summer show how leaving the familiar spaces and dictates of home communities, either through work, leisure, or a fluid space between the two, can allow people to enjoy romance that is otherwise taboo. In one scene in Wet Hot American Summer, JJ and Gary, two cisgender straight white men, stand in the doorway of the dining hall after having just discovered that two of the other male campers, McKinley and Ben, are in a relationship. There in the doorway, they yell inside in intense voices “This is for you!” Instead of following through on what appears to be a threat to their fellow campers because of their queerness, they bring inside a chaise lounge as a gift to the happy couple. The comedy of this scene revolves around our expectation that because McKinley and Ben have not been able to fully escape heterosexual spaces they will be punished for their love. Instead, the viewer is greeted by a celebration of queerness.

T-Camp and gatherings like it are the latest chapter in a longer history of queer camping expeditions. There are now queer camps for leadership training, adult women, Christians, families, youth, backpackers and hikers, adults, and many more. Queer summer camps provide a unique landscape where queer people can leave behind trials and tribulations and enter a world of comfort, care, and nature. By providing activities that allow campers to creatively express their feelings and identities, camps let queer people of all ages learn more about themselves. The goal of these spaces is to help people know that they have a community and that they are loved and accepted for who they are. Despite the origins of camping as a way to escape a feminizing city and enact a heterosexual masculinity, camping has become a way for marginalized communities to find some solace in the shade of the trees—even if it is never a complete escape from the world. Being out in nature is an important way queer people are able to connect to their communities and to their own identities. The pilgrimages taken up by queer people in the United States every summer create a community in the woods where they can be out and proud.

Featured Image: Disco balls decorating a tree at Kampout Fresno 2011. Photo by David Prasad, 2011.

Juniper Lewis is a graduate student in Cultural Anthropology at University of Wisconsin–Madison. Their work focuses on Christian camping trips in the United States and the production of ecotheological knowledge, but queer studies is a prominent side interest of theirs. In their free time, Juniper is a musician, pizzaiolo, and podcast enthusiast. Twitter. Contact.