July, 2012 / Author:

It’s billed as a queer-positive summer camping experience and is based on Edmonton’s Camp fYrefly, which has been running successfully for several years. In fact, the Edmonton camp was visited by local lesbian film maker Jennifer Davis and four Winnipeg friends. They were so impressed by how it gave GLBTT youth confidence that they came back to Winnipeg, set up a committee and began raising funds.

The result was Camp Aurora, established in 2007 and now about to enter its fifth year as a place for LGBT youth to meet for fun, friendship, education, counselling — and above all, a place to feel safe and be their authentic selves with like minded people. Here they are far from the madding and often maddening crowd; away from any fear, bullying, homophobia or closeted existence.  The walls, barriers and defence rings can be taken down for a time.

The only one of its kind in the province, Camp Aurora is made possible through the Rainbow Resource Centre (RRC) and the hard work of more than 40 volunteers and organizers. Financially it is supported by the contributions of individual donors, local businesses and organizations such as the Winnipeg Foundation.

The camp offers a chance for youngsters ages 14 to 18 to make new friends without having to hide who they are. Socializing through various group activities, bonfires and one fierce dance party, each camper has the luxury of letting their guard down and just being themselves around one another.

This year’s camp will be held Aug. 28—31 at Camp Brereton and you can find out more at the website: www.campaurora.ca. The deadline for applying is July 15. In addition, you can apply to be a peer youth leader at the camp if you’re age 21—25. The application deadline for those positions is June 1.

Chad Smith, executive director of the Rainbow Resource Centre, says the camp has room for about 50 young people, be they gay, bi, lesbian, transgender or simply their straight supporters. “The places fill up quickly so it’s important to register early,” he says. “We only charge $25 per person and the other costs are subsidized by fund raising. In hardship cases we even cancel the $25 fee.”

He says they get applications from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario and have even had a few inquiries from the U.S., proving there is a great need for gay youth camps where participants can feel safe and have fun while being themselves. One camper travelled from Flin Flon to attend.

“The feedback we get shows this four-day experience can be life changing and some deep friendships are made,” he says. “One camper told his parents he was attending just to support a gay friend but after the Camp Aurora experience he actually decided to come out himself to his parents.”

He says Day One usually has a more subdued atmosphere since participants may be a little anxious about what to expect. By the end of camp it’s much more lively and relaxed, with many people forming lasting friendships. The agenda includes time for games and relaxation, along with workshops on sexuality, homophobia and other relevant topics.

Rue (or Dustin) has attended for the past four years and realized he was gay at age eight. He was also totally out at school from Grades 7 through 12. “I had a supportive sister at the same school and if anyone gave me a hard time she threatened to smash her guitar on their heads,” he laughs. “No one dared bully me.”

 “I didn’t know what to expect at the camp but two of the first people I saw there were friends from school  and I hadn’t known they were also gay,” he says. ”That was a pleasant surprise. It’s great to be able to be yourself and not hide.” Rue came out to his own parents at age 12 and he says the camp does help many young people feel more comfortable about who they are. It gives them more confidence if they decide to come out after they have the camping experience.

“My advice for campers is to keep an open mind,” he says. “I made some amazing friends by being there. After four days you become like a family and it changes you at a deep level.” Now that he is 20 he is too old to be a camper but has applied to be a counsellor or peer youth leader at the camp. He enjoys the mental liberation and freedom of camping as well as the creative workshops. 

“We have made masks and dream-catchers, so it can be quite fun,” he says. “You also get to wear whatever you like so that also helps in expressing who you are, be it a hippie or a pagan.”

Melissa is 18, is bisexual and is out to her family. She was involved with the youth group at the Rainbow Resource Centre and has also been to Camp Aurora several times. She says it changed her life. “The first year I went we had a sharing circle and talked about why we had gone there and what we hoped to get out of it. There were plenty of tears. People said they needed a place where they didn’t have to hide things and Camp Aurora provided that.”

She says a lot of bonding took place and she felt she was part of a family. She has stayed in touch with many of the people she met. “When you share everything with a small group for four days you  build up a good support system,” she adds.

She says young GLBT people should just sign up for the camp and not worry about having a bad experience. She believes it will change their lives as it did hers. “Don’t let others hold you back or talk you out of it,’ she says. “I may have been nervous at first, but I can tell you it was a fabulous experience and everyone was so supportive. It’s also a lot of fun — you can swim, hike, sit around a camp fire or do arts and crafts. You also learn a lot in the workshops.”

It’s both a chance to learn and to share, while having fun and making new friends, she says.

– Peter Carlyle-Gordge is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer.

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