I met my soulmate at adult summer camp

I met my soulmate at adult summer camp

I liked camp as a kid, but I never really fit in, until, at age 48, I found Out and Out Toronto’s Jamboree

When I was growing up in North York, camp was a regular part of my summers. My parents, neither of whom was outdoorsy, wanted my siblings and me to experience nature. So, when I turned 10, they sent me to an overnight camp for Jewish kids in Haliburton. I liked it more than I thought I would: I was an avid swimmer with no qualms about jumping into a cold lake, and I loved sitting around the campfire as the sun set. I attended until I was 14, then joined another camp, where all of my friends worked, as an administrative assistant. It became my summer ritual.

Still, it was the 1960s, and I was a young woman coming to realize I was different from the rest of my peers. No place—let alone a camp in cottage country—was inclusive of queer people back then, and I often felt like a square peg. As my friends gossiped about which boys they were crushing on each year, I remained silent. I worried, in a cabin full of teenage girls, that I’d be found out. I was shy and reserved, and I stayed that way.

My camp days were many decades behind me when, in 2003, a friend invited my then-partner and me to Jamboree, a week-long adult summer camp exclusively for LGBTQ people, in Haliburton, just a 30-minute drive from my old camp. I was 48 at the time, and I wasn’t sure I was up for jumping in the lake with abandon. I also worried about feeling out of place—an anxiety carried over from my summers as a preteen. But the Jamboree site happened to be where my partner had camped as a child, and so we viewed it as fate. We agreed to make the most of a week by the lake.

We arrived on a Sunday, and my fears were realized immediately. The first people I saw as we walked toward the lake were a group of five men, all buck naked, wading at the shore. The beach was clothing optional, part of the open and welcoming philosophy of the camp. I froze: what exactly had I gotten myself into?

Parts of Jamboree felt familiar. We shared a cabin with 12 other people, sleeping in bunk beds. There was a mess hall, with all the camp staples: hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza. There were nightly campfires with sing-alongs, s’mores and ghost stories. But everything had an adult twist: there were cocktail nights, and for those abstaining from alcohol, 12-step meetings. There were no counsellors to keep us on a schedule or stop us from hooking up with other campers in their cabins. Campers organized dance parties, including Wigless Wednesday, a drag fashion show. And, of course, there was the nude beach.

Keeping to myself proved difficult. In total, there were 270 campers that week, all queer or trans. They had travelled from all over—the U.S., Switzerland, even Australia—to spend a week with like-minded people. I found myself canoeing and kayaking with folks who were only out during their one week at camp and remained in the closet to the rest of the world; for them, Jamboree was a crucial refuge, a place where they were safe from judgment, bigotry and violence. Many attended the camp in search of community, especially those estranged from their families because of their identities. For the first time, I wasn’t the odd one out. I was part of the pack.

I slowly came out of my shell as the week wore on. I attended morning yoga on the dock. I led dance classes. But where I truly broke out was at the talent show. Back home, standing in front of an audience would have been a nightmare for me, but at camp, I revelled in it. I got onstage wearing a slinky dress and a long wig, with dozens of campers watching me. As “Save the Last Dance for Me” by Michael Bublé began to play, I put on my best acting face and reacted to each line of the song as though he were singing the lyrics directly to me. The crowd laughed at every overdramatic gesture. No one even knew it was me until I threw my wig into the audience and revealed myself. Everyone cheered, and I felt an uncommon sense of belonging. Here, I could truly be myself.

The next year, I vowed to go again. Even after my partner and I split, adult camp became my new summer ritual. In my fifth year, in 2010, I volunteered, helping to organize cabins, rides to Haliburton and activities for campers. While it meant working during my summer vacation, it had its perks—I got my own cabin, and I could get to know more campers through the committee than I would have as a participant. That year, at a meet and greet with Toronto campers a week before Jamboree, I met someone who was headed to the camp for the first time—and alone. We hit it off immediately. During the week at camp, we hung out in the mess hall and by the campfire. When we came back to the city, we started seeing each other, and we’ve been together ever since.

This year, I attended Jamboree for the 15th time. I’m no longer squeamish about the clothing-optional waterfront. In fact, I start off every week at camp with a plunge in the lake.

Cheryl Cohen is semi-retired and does volunteer work in Toronto.

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