As a non-conforming 17-year-old (not identifying as male or female), Cassi Jolitz craved a summer camp that was a good fit. Jolitz wanted all the staples—late-night chats and shared meals—and, of course, bonding with adolescent peers.
Last summer Jolitz found a tribe at Pride Discovery Camp, a five-night camp hosted in UW-Milwaukee’s dorms. The camp, which takes place from June 21 to 26 in 2016, welcomes high school students who identify as gay, trans, lesbian or bisexual.
For Jolitz, who was about to be a senior at Appleton North High School last summer, the immersion among others “who had similar interests and passions” proved to be life changing.
“Getting to know those people has proven to be a great thing in my life,” Jolitz says. “(Pride Camp) is a wonderful experience and you can learn so much about not only the LGBTQ+ community but also yourself.”
In the fall, Jolitz will return to Milwaukee, enrolling at Milwaukee Area Technical College.
Launched in 2013 alongside other niche overnight camps (with topics like technology and the environment), Pride Camp thrived in its first year, only to be eliminated the next. An anonymous donor has kept the camp alive the last two summers, with room for 12 teens. This summer, due to the donor’s increased funding, there is space for triple that amount, says Jen Murray, director of UWM’s LGBT Resource Center, which sponsors the camp. Milwaukee Pride also provides a full scholarship each year that’s raffled off during PrideFest. The registration deadline is June 14 and the cost, including room and board, is $580.
“We’ve had youth come from Illinois and Minnesota, and from across the state,” says Murray, adding that there are many return campers.
Another reason it’s at UWM: the campus houses one of the state’s largest archives of LGBT materials, including pulp fiction and romance novels, historical accounts of Milwaukee events (with a pre-1960s emphasis), and autobiographical experiences from the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City.
A typical day at camp begins with breakfast at 8 a.m., followed by programming until lights out around 10:30 p.m. Panels bring in role models and leaders. On a career panel, employees at local companies and non-profits, such as Pathfinders, BMO Harris, Robert Baird and PNC Bank, offer advice on potential careers while members of the LGBT Bar Association of Wisconsin educate teens about their legal rights. Teaching the history of gay rights is another topic so that campers can then discuss.
On the first day, each camper writes down first impressions of one another, which are later shared and discussed, all designed to encourage an authentic self-identity, and “to explore what it’s like to lead from your heart and from your whole self,” says Murray.
Campers also write a letter to their future selves about goals, aspirations and dreams. That letter is returned to them on the final day’s graduation ceremony as a take-home gift, and a reminder of intentions set at camp.
There’s also a strong focus on fostering social justice advocacy and leadership surrounding gender identity back at their high schools. This can include becoming involved in an LGBT chapter or helping to start one.
Sixteen-year-old Caleb Weinhardt, a junior at Shorewood High School this fall, is one of those return campers. He identifies as trans male and attended the camp last summer and in the camp’s first year (2013), too.
“My favorite part of camp has been being a part of an accepting community of LGBT people that are my age,” says Weinhardt. “A lot of LGBT events and groups are focused on adults, and it can be difficult to find people I have that kind of connection with in school.”
“Attending Pride Camp has made me a more confident person. Being around a group of open-minded people who I can relate to is really helpful for learning about my own identity, and how to respect other identities. It has also helped me to find a group of friends that I can stay in contact with, that share my interests and values,” he says.
Lance Weinhardt, Caleb’s father, has witnessed the transformation in his son, too.
“After (Caleb) attended, he started to become more of a leader, even more confident, and more resilient to all kinds of challenges that he faces,” he said. “Being in a setting where he feels completely safe to be himself and in fact is celebrated for who he is, in a world that is sometimes not very enlightened, is invaluable.
“I believe the camp is life-changing for many of the attendees, and in some cases, life-saving. Eventually, I hope that camps like this won’t be needed, because society is evolving for the better in understanding and accepting LGBTQ kids.”
“These youth are our future. That’s what excites us about this camp,” says Murray.