This March, I boarded a plane headed for San Antonio, Texas to attend Camp Tazo, a three-day escape from the real world billed as a chance for me to leave my comfort zone and return to a simpler time of bunk beds, arts and crafts, canoes, talent shows, and campfire sing-a-longs. The kicker? Our camp director would be none other than RuPaul’s Drag Race favorite Alyssa Edwards, who had selected a group of 30 campers from over 5,000 applicants.
I knew very little going in. I knew there’d be no alcohol, meaning this would be less of a party weekend and more about experiencing the activities with a clear mind and no emotional buffer. I knew I had the option to either observe from a journalistic remove or fully participate, and I knew that the only way I’d have any kind of meaningful experience (and any chance of writing a good story) was if I was in the fucking canoe, as it were. So I packed a whole lotta denim and decided to put myself in Alyssa’s hands.
As someone who attended sleepaway camp for years, I knew that the only way I’d get through it was with some connection to the outside world, so I decided to capture my experience in a series of letters … to my mom. Because yes, I was that girl who cried all through the first week of camp and begged to go home. What can I say, I’m a double cancer.
The first day of camp was disorienting. I woke up having no idea where I was, crammed as many mini bar snacks as I could into my bag, and met the other campers for breakfast, by which I mean that I sat alone at a table across the hotel restaurant. Eventually we gathered in a large empty room downstairs where we adorned ourselves with name tags and grabbed our branded Tazo water bottles — is it really a press trip if there aren’t branded water bottles? I grabbed a few more snacks (you never know!) and boarded a literal school bus.
I beelined straight for the back, of course, and it felt strange not to be holding a discman loaded with Garbage (by Garbage), or the A*Teens’ ABBA Generation. I tried to be friendly and strike up conversation, realizing that I’d be spending the next three days with the people around me and I should probably make some friends. Making friends quickly used to be something I was exceptionally good at: all you need to do is say something funny and/or mean and someone will like you. It’s a habit I’ve attempted to shed as I’ve gotten older and found that the people it attracts are usually not the kind of people you actually want to be friends with. But it’s my go-to move in new situations, so I shot out a few pithy barbs and assumed my role as the fat, funny trans girl.
Once we got to camp — a beautiful resort deep in the woods — the ice breakers started. Our head counselor led us through a game where we found someone we hadn’t met yet and told them what we hoped to get out of camp, and another who we created a secret handshake with — through some latent muscle memory I was able to fully recreate Lindsay Lohan’s handshake from The Parent Trap. I realized quickly that being aloof and disinterested — my usual modus operandi — wasn’t going to serve me well this weekend. Barely an hour into camp and people were already crying.
I had a choice to make. I could stay aloof, observe from the sidelines, make a few jokes, and safely keep myself removed from the experience the campers were sharing. Or I could fully commit and be present for the entire weekend, come what may. Girl, I told myself, the story is only going to be good if you’re in the fucking canoe or whatever. Make the s’mores, meet new people, be a real person.
Eventually, it was time to meet our camp counselor. We on the dock as Alyssa Edwards, in full regalia, zip-lined across the lake to join us around a fire. There, the purpose of the weekend became clear. We weren’t here for some wild three-day party with a fun yeehaw aesthetic, we were here for a weekend-long therapy session. Alyssa asked us each to share something personal about us, and as I listened to each of the campers share their stories — one camper had left behind a baby for their first weekend away, another was an older woman starting a new career after 20 years in the military, another was taking a well-deserved break from caring for a family member with cancer — I realized that for many of these people, this would be one of the singular most special weekends of their lives.
So that night, I learned how to line dance and two-step. I belted my heart out to Disney classics around the campfire while roasting s’mores. I talked to people I would have ignored on the street in New York, too wrapped up in my self-imposed bubble. And … it was fun.
I woke up the second morning of camp surprisingly refreshed — despite being kind of an indoor girl, I’ve always loved sleeping in the woods, not that my private cabin was really roughing it, per se. At breakfast it was announced that we’d have our choice of activities for the morning, but when I reached the sign-up sheet for canoeing, it was already full. Instead, I decided to try “metaphysical axe-throwing.” I have an infamous affinity for knives, so it seemed like a match made in heaven.
But throwing an axe isn’t easy! My first few tries didn’t even glance the target, but on my last throw I nailed the target. I’m not sure about the metaphysical part, but the actual axe-throwing? I snapped.
That afternoon was a good ol’ fashioned color war, complete with a relay race. I’m not exactly sporty, but I helped our team win the relay by eating an entire Fruit by the Foot in under 15 seconds — some of us are just talented, what can I say?
The part of the weekend I’d been dreading was the talent show, where we’d be split into different groups to rehearse in the afternoon and then perform for Alyssa’ approval that night, and I almost decided to sit it out. But Camp Tazo was all about getting out of your comfort zone, so I woman’d up and join the choir group. At my suggestion, we decided on a gospel rendition of Alanis Morissette’s 90s classic, “Ironic.” Our choir director decided I’d take the bridge as a solo. During rehearsal it became clear I’d need to drop down into a low register, which was instantly triggering. The further I’ve gotten into my transition, the more my dysphoria has centered around my voice. So not only was I going to sing in front of 50 people, I’d be purposely deeping my voice — it doesn’t get clockier than that.
Suddenly it was showtime, and I stepped out onto the stage — with no warm up, the unprofessionalism! — and gave them my best James Brown. And you know what, mom? We slayed.
Before Camp Tazo ended, I got the chance to talk to Alyssa one-on-one. She told me that when she’d been approached by Tazo to run their first camp, she wasn’t sure what exactly she was getting herself into, but like me, she thought it was important to give herself over to the experience, which included watching all of the application videos the finalists submitted.
“Everyone here, I felt I could relate in some way, shape, form, idea, fashion,” she said. “When hearing the stories, oh my gosh, they were all so sincere, and so real. That really translated to me. People that were trying to overcome something. Or people that felt like they needed this.”
“There are some people that are actually not living this thing that we call life,” she said. “For them to leave and come here for a few days, that probably must've been a challenge. But it might've been a challenge that needed to happen to them, and for them.”
Summer camp is an experience that, for queer people especially, may not yield very fond memories, so the chance for them to experience it as an adult while surrounded by other queer people was a unique opportunity. “I would go to church camp every single summer,” Alyssa said. “But I was always so nervous, and it wasn't until I got into drag that I met my tribe, and met people that I was able to relate on a very natural level with. People here can be their authentic self. It's all-inclusive. Literally. And know that it's safe here. It's always scary to have that fear of, ‘Will I be welcomed? Will I be celebrated? Will I be liked? Will I not be?’ There's so many what-if questions. I think that, even for myself, that I've always struggled with in a group setting. Believe it or not, I was very socially awkward as a little boy. Very.”
That, I found hard to believe.
“The person I am today is not the person I've always been. But I see people that I went to high school with, even in my first year in college, and they're like, ‘Justin, you never had anything to say,’" she explained. “And I'm like, ‘Now I can't shut up!’"
Well mom, it’s time to get on the bus and go back home. I’m not sure what I’ll take from this experience back to the real world — I don’t know if this kind of singular experience can really be applied to the real world — but I can’t deny that for a few days, it was fun to be a kid again, to remember a time before I thought I was too cool to look stupid, to make new friends,
And if nothing else...honey, I threw that damn axe.