By the third day of my first Burning Man I was ready to call it quits. My feet hurt, and I was exhausted from constantly interacting with strangers, but at the urging of a friend, I ventured out into the heat to go to a "smoothies and dance" party. Little did I know, the party was in a cluster of queer camps just down the street from my home base.
When I walked into the party, I was quickly struck by two things: how much better the house music was than any other camp I'd experienced, and how few queer-specific space I'd encountered in my explorations. Immediately, I felt the relief of finding something I hadn't even realized I was missing.
In 2009, the Burning Man organization made a queer sex-positive camp remove a sign depicting two men in a sexual act. This sparked the banding together of several queer camps into a group now known as the "gayborhood". The gayborhood was initially quite the controversy. Some folks argued that we shouldn't be segregating ourselves, and we should spread out through the burn and queer it up as a whole. Now, however, the community is thriving with more placement requests than any other village at the 70,000-person festival. Being there, I realized how vitally important queer-specific spaces are even among the most alternative scenes.
Even though I had been to a number of regional burns (Burning Man sub-events held around the world on an exponentially smaller scale than the big burn), I headed to Burning Man with only a vague idea of what to expect: something resembling a queer anarchist utopia. And while I did meet amazing people of so many different identities, I also saw my non-binary partner get consistently misgendered. I heard a visibly queer friend get heckled for how he chose to display his body and express his identity.
So while it's undoubtedly true that much of Burning Man is arguably "queerer" than the default world, I still needed a queer space, and that's exactly what the gayborhood offered. It was this hidden-in-plain-sight haven free from the surprising aura of heteronormativity permeating the burn.
While overall an incredible experience, Burning Man made me truly appreciative the community atmosphere of regional events - an atmosphere I found surprisingly lacking at the big burn. Consistently, my favorite part of regional burns is the freedom people feel in stretching their wings and trying on new aspects of their identities. I've had so many friends struggling with their gender or sexuality feel empowered to introduce their new selves over the course of the event. Whether it's a new nickname, experimental pronouns, or just different fashion decisions, there are near-infinite avenues to explore. By dipping their toes into these new identities, they're able to slough off the ill-fitting skins of everyday expectations.
Now I've known I am bisexual since before I knew what bisexuality was. As a pre-teen, I knew women were attractive but assumed that was just a universal, objective truth. I was definitely interested in boys and obviously not gay, so why did I feel like such an outsider?
When talking about celebrity crushes and whichever Backstreet Boy was the hottie du jour, I had to hold myself back from swooning over Willow from Buffy. I couldn't figure out why I got so nervous around that cool senior girl who was so nice to me as a shy freshman.
Still, the burner community has played a huge part in my self-discovery. I've discussed and debated so many facets of identity at regional burns. I've examined labels to see which ones fit me best. I've learned about the history of the bisexual community. I've finally settled comfortably into my choice to identify as bisexual, meaning I'm attracted to genders like mine and genders different from mine. Without my burner family to inspire, educate, and challenge me, I don't know if I would have been able to reach the same level of introspection.
So yes, there were some issues with inclusion, heteronormativity, and even my own anxiety at Burning Man, but there were still so many moments that I wished I could reach back and show to my confused 13-year-old self. Spinning fire while drinking from a bottle of champagne. Discussing the intersections of gender and sexuality with a complete stranger at a tea house. Biking off into the desert alone to look at art - an adventure that normally would have terrified me.
Each one of these moments nourished me in ways I rarely find in the default world. Each one soothed parts of me that have been hurt intentionally or unintentionally by my mainstream experiences. Even my negative experiences at Burning Man validated and strengthened parts of me, giving me new courage and confidence.
In the end, Burning Man was a power experience that I definitely plan on repeating in the future. While I'm well aware of the cliche, it changed my life in ways I never expected. I'm returning from the desert refreshed and re-energized, ready to work hard on building and supporting my communities. The gayborhood showed me the power of an accepting, intentionally-created community, and I'm excited for the possibilities of bringing that acceptance to a greater scale, both at home and on the Playa.