Camp Lightbulb Offer Shining Summer Experience for LGBT Youth

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

Since that first dismissal from the Pilgrims, Provincetown has actively cultivated its image of a central depot welcoming those who deviate from the commonly held “norms” of society. It was indeed under this light that founding Director Puck Markham developed Camp Lightbulb to bring lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer teens together along the shores of Provincetown beginning in August 2012.

“I think if you ask most gay people, if you can tap into the hurt or the loneliness, you can help,” says Markham, whose spark ignited after numerous personal summers to Provincetown in conjunction with heighted awareness regarding the stressors and subjugation of LGBTQIA youths.

Markham says the camp’s goal is “creating peers and community where you are not judged or being isolated, and you are being celebrated.”

“I came away with new ideas about gender and sexuality that made me really want to explore both for myself anew,” says Gabriela Bell, a camper who is returning to Provincetown this summer after first attending Camp Lightbulb last year and on its inaugural winter camp in New York City. “It wasn’t just campers were allowed to express individuality, but our individuality was celebrated and helped to flourish at camp.”

This isolation transcends merely gender identity and sexual orientation, but also along socio-economic lines. “I operate a need line policy; whoever signs up we ask them, ‘Do you need any support?’” Markham says. “Then it’s about finding the funds.” Along these measures, Camp Lightbulb has gained funding through private donations and case-specific funding in pursuit of crafting a completely inclusive camp experience.

This latter contribution metric has permitted the expansion of those who attend the camp, with Camp Lightbulb bringing in campers from the Ali Forney Center of New York, Waltham House, and Boston GLASS.

Recruitment is a mixture of new and returning campers. Of the new campers, 25% of inquiries arise directly from them, while the remaining 75% are based on parental or support worker inquiries. Overall, these efforts lead to a cohort size of roughly 30 campers between the ages of 14 and 17, last year hosting 32 campers, 15 female, 12 male, and 7 transgender campers.

Despite the variance across campers, the experiences begin almost immediately.

“When I arrived at camp, I was a little shy at first since I was surrounded by some big personalities and people who already knew one another from Camp Lightbulb’s summer camp...but I quickly began to love them and grew close to them,” says Natalie Wilcoxen, who recently participated in Camp Lightbulb’s New York City Winter Camp, and whose interest in Camp Lightbulb arose from her girlfriend’s positive experience.

Adding to the comfortable experience, Camp Lightbulb balances diversity of experiences within its staff and guests over the course of the week. “The whole camp and the counselors and the volunteers, there is just the philosophy that we are all different but we all share incredible life stories, and the camp runs in a way to gain” says Linda Rohler, Camp Lightbulb board member, volunteer, and retired teacher.

However, beyond these concerns, part of the experience of Camp Lightbulb that Markham and campers alike emphasize is simply the typical summer camp experience that teens, irrespective of sexual orientation or gender identity, would praise. “I remember going to summer camp as a kid and how much I enjoyed it, but I was in the closet,” Markham says. “That whole idea of creating a summer camp for gay kids seemed something I felt strongly about.”

“Camp Lightbulb was incredible because it was exactly like a ‘normal’ camp regardless of the LGBTQ part, except for the fact that it was even above and beyond what I would expect from any other summer camp,” Bell says.

Pulsating throughout the week of activities is a newly imagined theme for each year. Last was “Follow the Rainbow”, this year’s around simultaneously shedding labels and embracing individual truths of the campers. Over the course of the week this theme is transmitted through five sub themes — Art Lab, Summer Camp Fun, P-Town Campus, Great Outdoors, and Self Discovery; each of these oriented at leveraging Provincetown throughout the entirety of the week, while retiring to next-door Truro where campers have exclusive access to a hostel.

“We have a clubhouse in town at the Center of Coastal Studies, so we might do sand-sculpting, or we might do journal writing with a local author,” says Markham, explaining a deliberate holistic view of camp-life, from faith leader meetings, to wellness discussion, to going to a drag show.

Of course, the situation of Camp Lightbulb in Provincetown is not merely by convenience. Long heralded as an LGBTQIA sanctuary on the Eastern seaboard, Markham had come across the town like many before him, merely as a vacation destination. The internal inclusiveness of the camp, therefore, meshes well with the community in which it is situated and from where it pulls.

“I’m sure if I had found Provincetown earlier in my life, I would have understood more about myself earlier,” says Zoë Lewis, a singer-songwriter, musician, and storyteller, who translates her affection for the inclusivity of the town into regular workshops with campers in lead-up to the annual camp talent show.

“I knew the community could support Camp Lightbulb in terms of acceptance, so that the kids would walk down the street and would be accepted and feel it,” Rohler says. This synergy between LGBTQIA and Provincetown affections, however, is not allowed to linger idly. Instead the usage of residents — summer and year-round — are integral to the Camp Lightbulb summer experience.

Bobby Miller, a photographer, writer, and poet, who has documented the LGBTIQIA movement from the 1970s onwards, typifies this deployment of natural Provincetown resources, rooted in his own career of promoting the newly identified and next generation: “I would like to show them that one can do anything one puts their mind to and inspire them to expand their interests in the arts”.

It is within this connection between past and present that Camp Lightbulb flourishes within itself. “LGBTQ youth increasingly have the opportunity to receive leadership training in affirming, LGBTQ-friendly environments” says Julian Cyr, a Democratic candidate to represent the Cape & Islands District in the Massachusetts State Senate, and former Chair of the Massachusetts Commission of LGBTQ Youth.

“It’s lovely to see their bond grow and how they look out for each other,” says Lewis, who meets campers at the onset and tail-end of their summer experiences, particularly noting the strong friendships cultivated through the mixture of adventure and quiet relaxation that campers are able to enjoy over their time at camp.

This closeness and shared experiences culminates at the end of camp with a talent show put on by the campers for the ever-expanding community of attendants just before the campers depart.

“I didn’t want to leave a space that felt so safe yet so exciting, which was a strange feeling for me, since I usually look forward to going back to the comfort of my own home,” Wilcoxen says, “but this camp was the exception; I never wanted to leave.”

Of course given the digital age, campers do not have to be in the same geographic area to stay in touch with one another, as many Camp Lightbulb attendants remain close on social media.

“There is an ongoing group text with varying levels of participation that I occasionally will write in,” notes Bell, “but I often find joy just looking at it and reading about what is happening in the lives of other campers.”

The sentiment that has been felt by campers has precipitated to the staff as well. Along with a New York Winter Camp, Camp Lightbulb recently completed its first Spring Break Camp in Los Angeles, and plans on hosting a Camp venturing out to London in August after its keystone session in Provincetown