I went to a gay campground this weekend. And honestly? I can’t think of a better thing to have done for Pride month. Quick note. The image I drew for this is representational. Not meant to be an accurate depiction of me or anything. I mean, I don’t want to set unrealistic expectations. 😀
Something that has frustrated and perplexed me about myself in the past is that I’m kind of shy until I get to know someone. Also, I can find socializing a little tiring unless I’m making a real connection—then I could talk to someone for hours. Experience has made some sense of this, but it doesn’t stop entering new social spaces from being a challenge. But I like to challenge myself. Every time I’ve seen any growth in my life, any time I’ve kicked off some of the dirt from the tires and felt myself moving forward, it’s because I challenged myself.
This past weekend, I finally got to take a friend up on his invitation to Campit Outdoor Resort in Michigan. I’d been looking forward to going for a while—COVID having scuttled plans last year—and was so happy to be going. Of course, days before I go an oil spot in the parking lot caused me to slip and screw up my knee. I was visiting my family in Michigan for the week, having a fantastic time catching up with them after not seeing them for over a year and a half. And then I made the mistake of walking in a Walmart parking lot. Somehow my foot slipped (on a sludgy oil spot) under my upper thigh, and I fell backward, managing to catch myself a little. A quick self-inspection made it seem like I just had a scuffed knee. But it still felt tender to walk on. I can’t lie; it threw me off. I pretty much feel like I’ve been in my late twenties for over a decade. But, man, when it’s a pain to walk, it undoubtedly ages you. But I iced it down. I took Ibuprofen. By Friday, I headed off to the campground with an occasionally stiff knee but otherwise felt fantastic. All that being said, there was a tiny whisper in my head: This is the perfect excuse to back out.
I try to be kind to myself in general, but this time I told that little whisper in my head to fuck right off. And I’m so glad I did.
I’m not going to go into the specifics of my stay at Campit or anything. That’s not out of some misplaced sense of shame or wanting to protect the innocent—or the gloriously not-so-innocent, as the case may be. It’s more that I found it a little special, and it’d feel like I was cheapening it to try to recount it publicly. But as I sit here on Sunday night, typing away at this journal entry, I can’t help but feel something that is bracingly familiar—that bitter-sweet comedown from when you’re surrounded by your tribe.
My experience with this is mainly in the context of comic book or sci-fi conventions. There’s a heady rush of just knowing you’re surrounded by people who like the same things you do. And when you must leave it and re-enter “real life,” it can be challenging. I say this as someone who grew up and lived in the Midwest, mostly in smaller towns or cities. I always felt like the odd man out. No one my age liked the music I liked. Barely anyone liked Star Trek: The Next Generation. No one had even heard of Doctor Who or Are You Being Served? except for my teachers! Obviously, we live in a very different world, where the geeks inherited the Earth, and sadly it wasn’t the utopia one might have hoped. But in my high school days, it was very different. I fell into the drama club crowd, which I loved, but even then, I felt like an imposter in some ways. I imagine it’s far different growing up or living in a bigger city. There are more opportunities to connect with larger groups of your tribe. Although I’m sure it can also be a lonely feeling when that doesn’t happen.
If you’ve ever felt that feeling at something like a convention about comic books or whatever geeky think you might be into, imagine having that feeling about something you never chose.
My early experiences in connecting with other queer people in queer spaces were bumpy. I was 19, pretty damn fit from a couple of years working as a stock boy at K-mart, fresh from being out of my mom’s well-meaning, but sometimes oppressively careful eye, and I bounded out into the world with expectations. These were pretty thoroughly crushed, and led me to enter into a deep depression, gaining a ton of weight, and fleeing my new life. It took most of my early 20s to escape that cloud. In some ways, I’ve still not escaped it physically. I literally carry the weight of that time around with me.
But one of the issues I had back then was that I met a group of gays that were generally a friendly bunch, but we had some terrible boundaries, and I’m not sure we had all that much in common except being gay. And that can honestly only get you so far. But you take what you can get, even in a decently sized (though by no means huge) city. There was one exception. One person was threatened by me, competitive, and honestly just sort of a lousy human (at the time) being who contributed significantly to my life there falling apart. But be was also young, and hurting, and seeking attention. I can look at that now with a better sense of understanding than I had at the time. And, certainly, my own part in it. For my part, I know I felt things too deeply. I got too attached. I was like a sheltered, horny, shy puppy. It wasn’t a great mix. I did not fit into any of the easy categories a gay man was supposed to at the time. Things have changed remarkably as far as “community expectations” for gay men, however. Very much for the better.
This brings me to Campit. I’ve gone to another gay campground (Buckwood) which was a fantastic time. But—maybe it was because of my priorities at the time—it felt more focused on the sex side of things. Which I had absolutely no issues with. And of course that’s undeniable and wonderful component of Campit. But something I felt at Campit I did not there was a real sense of community. Remember how I said things had changed for the better? Well, that doesn’t mean it’s anywhere near perfect. As a “bear” and perhaps even a “daddy bear” at this point (if you live in a college town, you’ve basically made a daddy bear by your late 20s), there’s been a seismic shift in how we’re perceived in the gay community. I could write an entire journal about cliques, destroying the ladder you just climbed up, etc., when it comes to the bear community.
But for now, it’s enough to say that there’s still a lot of work bridging the gap between the L and the G and the B and the T and the Q and the A. Let alone the people of color who cross-section with all of those. I want to acknowledge that because I think it’s important, but also because I felt like Campit—as I experienced it—made genuine efforts to make everyone feel included. For example, were there primarily white-bearded cis men at bear/cub weekend? As much as anyone can say by pure observation, I’d say yes. But that wasn’t all there was. And the next weekend is trans weekend, for instance. One of the great pleasures of the weekend was people watching. Not just checking out people by/in the pool (though that certainly was part of it) but also just seeing the variety of people who came.
Take Me to Your Leader
I was fortunate to have had a friend there who helped me acclimate and introduced me to people. I feel like going there would have been a lonely experience for me if I hadn’t had that. As I said, I’m shy. I do not like to impose. I feel bad if I feel like I’ve crossed a boundary or made myself a nuisance. I make efforts to be bolder, go for what I want, articulate that to others, etc. But at my core, I’m still unsure of myself in a lot of ways. Thinking of myself as sexually desirable is sometimes still a challenge, even though I’ve certainly had more than enough evidence over the years to support this notion. I still have to fight hard in social situations not to be overly affected by other people’s moods and emotions and recognize the validity of my own. But man this weekend just felt so easy.
Saturday night, most everyone went for a walk. I stayed by the campfire, very nicely stoned, watching the fire pulse and undulate under the blackened wood. I watched the hues in the center shift from brilliant orange to purple and heard dance music on the stage by the pool. I listened to the grunts of pleasure from behind the curtained deck area. Soon everyone would be back, and we’d have some great conversations. But in that beautiful moment, a tension I didn’t realize was even there was released. I could breathe a little easier. I was in a queer space. Here the rules of what a long-term relationship is or could be are thrown out and rewritten. Here the notion that we could be united but still individual felt like more than a nice concept. Here deep moments of conversation could be punctuated by turns in a sling without any shame, or fuss, or worry. Here the inherent danger and thrill of a darkened wood, shadows moving in the night, existed naturally with giant glowing letters that spelled out “Happy.” Here a drag queen could pour birthday cake vodka in your eyes. I think that last bit was accidental. It all felt so bright and fleeting and precious. But it’s only fleeting for me. It still exists, and it’s still out there. That thought makes me both misty-eyed and fiercely protective of it.
Look, I realize I’m romanticizing the hell out of this. It could have been horrifically cold, rainy, or miserable there instead of the perfectly hot days and cool nights I got. Or I could have been one of those people who just wandered around searching for a connection and never finding it. I hope they did, but I suppose statistically, there will always be some people who just can’t connect. Whether because of bad luck, being walled off, or both. Plus, when you’re just visiting Wonderland, you might not even notice there’s a queen lopping off people’s heads. I’m sure Campit suffers from all the same dramas and mishaps and foibles that plague any human enterprise. But for a weekend, it felt like a place that was truthfully welcoming. Maybe when I go back (and I will be going back), the bloom will be off the rose. But this notion that Campit was special was a thought that was echoed back to me again and again by the people I met and talked to—whether it was their first time or they’d been coming there for years.
So even if the cynical side of me wonders about how the experience would hold up next time (this could very well be a coping mechanism to deal with the ennui of separation from it), most of me just enjoyed basking in the glow of it—coming home, telling my partner all about it—recounting the good stuff as best as I could. It opened my eyes to how vital such queer spaces are. Queer people walk in the straight world all the time. Being straight is still very much the default, and—understatement of the year—it can still be perilous for LGBTQIA+ people. These sorts of queer spaces are pretty much nonexistent in my town, which is strangely devoid of any gay “scene” despite being a college town full of gays. So, I’d forgotten how valuable it was and how much I missed it.
So, here I am. It’s Sunday night, approaching Monday. I have the day off tomorrow to decompress and reacclimate. I got to cuddle with my partner and watch TV. I opened up a ton of packages I got over the last week I was gone. When I have the convention “come down,” the best solution I can find to fighting the sense of sadness that comes with it is trying to inject as much of it as I can into my daily life.
So that’s what I want to do here.
- To try to remember that my love and desires are valid and beautiful.
- To be proud of who I am and be as brave as possible when I must come out again and again in ways large and small.
- To create those queer spaces, in microcosm, where I can. Like gay movie marathons. Or going to see Rocky Horror Picture Show at the drive-in.
- To be honest about having an open relationship (if someone for some reason cares) and ignore the boggled eyes of people who don’t understand how that works.
- To challenge the notions that we think are part of some natural order because we were born to it but are, in fact, things some old white dudes thought of to keep their power.
- To push away the mild embarrassment that I’m still figuring this stuff out.
- To be kind to myself and my body and challenge the notion that I need to contort myself into any box to be loved and accepted. Even as I keep trying to be healthier and improve myself.
Being queer is not about doing all these things all the time. Your definition may be very different than mine. To me, however, part of being queer is striving for these things. Or your own personal version of it. It’s about trying to be better and not just a different flavor of the usual oppression, judgment, or pettiness. I want to carry a little of that light within queer spaces out with me into a world that desperately needs more love and more connection.