At thirteen years old, few things rival the thrill of summer camp.
Every year, more than 11 million young people across the United States leave home for a world where friendship bracelets and fireside stories reign supreme.
Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, summer camps have provided young people with a meaningful social experience, a safe place to build important life skills, and an escape from the stress of city life.
More than a century later, camp has become an American rite of passage — but that doesn’t mean it’s always been accessible for young people and their families.
For most of the 20th century, summer camp has been expensive, exclusive, and designed — at least in part — to teach young people to live out heteronormative gender roles in their adult lives.
But at Camp Lilac — Ohio’s only summer camp that prioritizes the needs of trans and gender non-conforming campers — staff not only reject those gendered ideas, but work to reimagine them.
Young trans and queer people thrive when they are protected and supported
When AJ Solomon’s younger sister was still a preteen, she came out as transgender.
Their mom, JodiLyn, was kind and supportive. With a MA in Education and decades of experience in the classroom, JodiLyn learned everything she could to help keep her daughter happy and safe.
But after a few years of attending a sleepaway summer camp she loved in Northeast Ohio, AJ’s sister was sent home early without notice, along with a handful of other trans and queer tweens.
According to AJ, the organization informed parents that the campers “weren’t a good fit,” and that staff were not prepared to address the needs of young LGBTQ+ people living with mental illnesses.
A different camp experience was clearly needed, not just for AJ’s sister, but for countless other at-risk youth.
Camp Lilac is created
LGBTQ+ youth struggle with far higher rates of depression, anxiety, addiction and housing instability than their cisgender peers.
In fact, more than 40% of transgender people attempt suicide in their lifetimes.
But when young trans and gender non-conforming people are met with acceptance and support in their own homes, schools and communities, that percentage plummets. Further, when they’re able to build meaningful relationships with other trans and queer people, they often flourish at home and in school.
AJ knew how important it was for their sister to have a safe, meaningful summer camp experience as she entered teenhood.
So AJ called their mom, JodiLyn, and along with Ann Williams — the grandmother of another LGBTQ+ camper sent home early — the pair devised a plan to create a camp of their own, where young trans and queer people could experience they joy of being themselves.
A summer camp where gender diversity is the norm
At Camp Lilac, gender diversity and non-conformity are common threads among campers, so young people never have to worry they’ll be singled out or misgendered.
Instead, campers between ages 12 and 17 are invited to be themselves — many for the first time in their lives.
Countless young trans and queer people grow up in places where LGBTQ+ resources and communities are hard to come by, which makes the relationships campers and staff build together at Camp Lilac all the more important.
20-year-old John Cowan — a former camper and now counselor at Camp Lilac — says his experience at camp changed his life as a young trans person in Northeast Ohio.
Thinking back, he sounds wistful: “You can go to a support group where you talk to people, but it’s way different when you’re actually able to go somewhere and be around other people who are like you.”
“It changes your whole perspective,” Cowan says. “It’s like nothing else, and it’s something I wish every trans person could experience.”
What do campers do at Camp Lilac?
When he came out as transgender in high school, Cowan’s parents were kind and supportive. But in his hometown, there weren’t many LGBTQ+ resources available — or many other queer and trans kids for him to talk to.
When he arrived at Camp Lilac, it was the first time Cowan had ever seen so many LGBTQ+ people in one place.
Unlike most summer camps, Camp Lilac groups campers by age group rather than gender.
During the day, campers choose from more traditional summer camp activities like hiking, swimming, boating, archery, high ropes courses, rocking climbing and arts and crafts — or options that cater more specifically to LGBTQ+ campers, like tutorials on how to create safe chest binders.
Ann Williams, Camp Lilac co-founder and longtime RN, helps make sure campers living with mental illnesses and other medical needs are taken care of while at camp.
JodiLyn Solomon says staff have also included sensory spaces, where campers can take time to cool down if they’re overstimulated by noise or social interaction — a common experience among neurodivergent people.
“People have all kinds of identities and abilities,” Solomon says. “I want people to know that’s something we’re thinking about.”
For Solomon, it’s all about creating a space where young LGBTQ+ people are able to thrive — and making sure campers take home a new sense of confidence and community.
‘That tops everything’
When they were twelve or thirteen years old, AJ Solomon stopped going to summer camp completely: “I just didn’t understand why I was so uncomfortable with it.”
On their nineteenth birthday, from their bunk at Camp Lilac, Solomon sent an email to friends and family coming out as a trans person, like their sister did years earlier.
Now, AJ is studying to be an art therapist, hoping to bring that expertise back to Camp Lilac.
In 2021, Camp Lilac’s two-week virtual camp cost $450, but AJ says fundraising efforts, scholarships and donations help cover the cost for campers who aren’t able to pay out of pocket.
“We want to make sure anybody can come to camp,” AJ says. “We just want to let them be kids for a little while.”
Eventually, AJ wants to expand Camp Lilac’s programming to parent and sibling-focused LGBTQ+ groups and retreats — along with winter and weekend retreat options for LGBTQ+ youth
“I look at the experiences these kids get to have and a small part of me is jealous I didn’t have that,” reflects AJ. “But now I know that kids in the future won’t feel the way I felt — and that tops everything.” 🔥
This story was made possible through the support of the Akron Community Foundation.
- Learn more about Camp Lilac by going to their website.