33 | Getting Campy

Meet the Guests

Julie Kabb LOVES CampOut Camp. As one of the 17 original families in attendance, Julie and her family are gearing up for their 4th summer at camp. Julie and her wife, Lauretta and their 6-year-old daughter Talia, have been attending and bunking at Camp every year with their close family friends. Talia has tried many new activities like Rock Climbing and Tubing while at Camp, but nothing stacks up to her first time on a horse (Gus) when she first turned 5. Julie also played an instrumental role as the pitcher on “Team Ballers” during CampOut’s first ever (now) annual softball game, while Lauretta enjoys time in the state of the art Music Studio. Julie is the Senior Director of Business Development at Brookfield Retail Properties and lives in Chicago, Illinois with their rescue pup GiGi and family bunny, BunBun.

As a former year-round Camp Director and camper of over 20 years, Emily Ferdman and co-director Keely Finnegan started CampOut Family Camp after recognizing a void in programming for families in the LGBTQ community. Emily & Keely created a unique experience designed specifically for families to feel safe, comfortable and celebrated—all while being able to get back to nature, try new things and connect both with other families and each other. Emily spent over 20 summers at the host site, Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods Camps in Decatur, Michigan. Emily spent seven years as a Director on the year-round team for Lake of the Woods. Although she left camp in 2012, she cherishes her continued connection to the camp experience and relationships built via CampOut. Emily now works in technology sales at LinkedIn. She lives with her girlfriend, Ali (and celebrated “first lady of CampOut), in Chicago and Sawyer, Michigan. Contact CampOut at CampOut@Lwcgwc.com.

Joseph Brooks, his husband Bradley, and their 6-year-old son Miles live in Milwaukee. They first attended CampOut two years ago with a small group of gay dads and have returned every summer since—bringing with them more families. CampOut has provided a wonderful and very meaningful family vacation—a vacation that continues to be the highlight of their summer, and something that Miles looks forward to very much! Spending time with new and old friends, the breach front, tubing, the team challenges, and horseback riding are among Miles’ favorite things at camp. Three years ago Joseph and a small group of Milwaukee friends started Miltown LGBT families—a social/networking group for LGBT families in metro Milwaukee that has since expanded to other areas. The group hosts regular events for its members and provides advocacy and resources to local schools and healthcare organizations—helping to build community around LGBT families. CampOut has become an annual event for this group with many families participating every summer.

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Episode Transcript

Emily M.: My partner was a camp kid. He still sings songs he learned at summer camp. I was not. I went to Family Week in Provincetown, which I affectionately called Queer Camp. After the first year of making new friends and learning the ropes, I just, I barely saw my parents at Family Week from the first morning workshop to my curfew, I was immersed in my community of fellow queerspawn teens. I love learning about other LGBTQ family spaces around the country. I just get really excited every time I learn about a summer camp space hosting and LGBTQ family camp weekend. They’re like really popping up all over the country and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s also a really different experience from Family Week in Provincetown where drag queens beckon in you into their evening shows and ice cream is for sale on every corner. With me to talk about some of these other types of LGBTQ family summer camp space are two parents who have attended one of these camps for several years and the organizer of CampOut in Michigan. Welcome Joseph Brooks, Julie Kabb, and Emily! I’m going to start with the favorite question that I love to ask all of the guests who is in your family and how was it formed?

Joseph B.: My name is Joseph Brooks and in my family is my husband, Bradley, our son Miles, and our two little dogs. Our family was formed about six years ago when Brad and I adopted Miles. We went through a private domestic adoption process, worked with an agency here in Wisconsin after much investigation, got selected by Miles’ birth mother, and that was kind of the beginning of our journey

Julie K.: So my wife, Lauretta, and I have been together going on almost 20 years and we have a seven year old daughter, Talia. Lauretta actually carried Talia, we went through a bank and used an unknown donor. In addition to the humans in our house, we also have a few furry friends. We have GG, a rescue pup, and we were accidental bunny owners, as of last July, of a bunny creatively named Bun-Bun.

Emily F.: Oh, I wasn’t prepared to answer because I’m not a family camp attendees. My family includes myself and my girlfriend, Allie, who is known as the first lady of CampOut and she attends camp out with me each summer and we are celebrating our five year anniversary.

Emily M.: Emily, can you tell me more about CampOut?

Emily F.: Camp out was really inspired largely by Julie and Julie’s family and a real awareness that at the time, there was a big gap in LGBTQ families attending summer camp or at the time what was traditional family camp experiences for families like ours. I have been a long time camp director and really am passionate about the camp experience. And after transitioning from working at summer camps professionally, understood that there was a real missed opportunity to offer LGBTQ families the opportunity to come to camp and experience camp and enjoy all of the wonderful activities and get to meet other families in the same way that straight families have been, at least with our camp, coming to for many years. And so we launched CampOut camp in 2016 we were able to have over 20 families join us the first year and have been growing pretty significantly ever since.

Emily M.: So Julie then, it sounds like maybe you had some sort of hand in the getting this all started, so how did you get involved or learn about CampOut? And then what was your first year like being in a space like that?

Julie K.: CampOut is an old summer camp that exists for all kids from all over the country, usually from June until August. And then there’s another family camp that takes place prior to CampOut. So I actually am family friends with one of the owners of the camp that hosts it. And when we were starting our family seven years ago, it was kind of at the height of when a lot of our friends and people in the community were starting to have kids. It made me think that it would be great to do an event that targeted this community. It be a great, nice escape for families to go and be able to just experience all the activities, not necessarily just with each other, but just have that opportunity to try things like water skiing, horseback riding or rock climbing. And so I’ve been a huge advocate. Year one was amazing, and like Emily said, it’s only grown.

Emily M.: So Joseph, you weren’t one of the original families, if I’m not mistaken. So how did you learn about CampOut and then what was it like the first time you attended?

Joseph B.: So we live in Milwaukee, and some Milwaukee friends had gone the year prior and really enjoyed the experience and came back and shared it with us. And so we went back with them the second summer with a small group of friends and just had a really fantastic time. It’s a nonstop, really fun weekend, not only for the kids but also for the parents. We’ve gone with friends and every year we take more friends with us and we also have just made a lot of really great friends from other parts of the region here, including Minneapolis and Chicago and Michigan. Anytime that you can kind of be in that sense of community with your kids, it’s really important because it just normalizes our families.

Emily M.: Well I’m really curious. So I went to a family week in Provincetown, the largest annual gathering of LGBTQ families in the world, but it’s different because it’s in the small town on Cape Cod and everyone just stays in their own accommodations. So we had activities and youth camp spaces, but I never attended a sleep away camp. Julie and Joseph are you big camp kids and camp teenagers? Is that like one of the reasons I got you inspired to be so excited about going to a summer camp as a family?

Joseph B.: Growing up I went to a few summer camps, so I was kind of familiar with the concept, though I wouldn’t say that I was necessarily a huge camper. I think just the opportunity to spend a weekend in semi-rustic accommodations, spending the weekend in the country doing all the kind of fun outdoors-y sorts of things. it’s beautiful. Summer Michigan weather is just fantastic, right? So even if you’ve maybe not had the traditional camp experience, it’s definitely worth it. I always describe it as sort of like Dirty Dancing except you know, there’s not as much naughtiness. It’s slightly different, but shares the idea of just being together, making friends, and having jam-packed days with all kinds of really fun stuff to do. It’s great.

Julie K.: I’m actually the youngest of four and one of my older brothers and sister went to an overnight camp and I joined them. It was about eight hours away. I can’t believe my parents sent me. I went for one year and then they actually closed the camp. So I never got to experience summer camp like that as a child going year after year. I was a camper for a year, a counselor for a year, and I’m a CampOut camper for four years.

Emily M.: Joseph, you mentioned already that you have like friends that come with you. So it sounds like you do know other LGBTQ families in your area. Do you frequently connect and choose to be in LGBTQ family spaces year-round?

Joseph B.: Yeah, I’m fortunate. A couple of years ago, a lesbian friend here in Milwaukee, who’s married and has children, and I worked together and got to know each other and decided to start a group here in Milwaukee called Mil-Town Families. And it’s an organization that we’ve been able to do some fundraising for and we receive some local support from our local LGBT foundation that puts on all sorts of community kind of family friendly events over the course of the year. And so it’s been great, you know, being a leader of that group and building it up over the past few years and inviting others to come in and help to lead. It’s also been fantastic just to get to know all of these families, some of whom literally live blocks away from us that we probably wouldn’t have known otherwise. So it’s been a real treat. But we also do a lot of education and advocacy work. We do things at back to school time to make sure that our kids go to school with books that represent families that look like ours, we do some advocacy with school boards and principals and we’re also positioned to respond as an organization when our families run into challenges with their health care system or their school district, etc. It’s been a real pleasure and we’ve really just built a great group of friends through being involved.

Emily M.: That’s really cool. Emily, if you could talk more about how you make a summer camp that functions in a totally different way for most of the summer, a space for LGBTQ families? Are you training staff? Are you changing restroom signs? How are you preparing a space that wasn’t necessarily built with LGBTQ folks in mind and making it really a celebration of our families?

Emily F.: Sure. I think that’s a great question. I think there’s a lot of nuance involved in that, but at the end of the day, our goal is creating a safe space with the opportunity to have a really good time and taking advantage of activities and experiences that likely aren’t accessible to the majority of our campers on a regular weekend, whether that’s horseback riding, rock climbing, waterskiing, etc. So we want to make sure that, of course everybody feels safe and comfortable, but what we found over time is that we all know why everybody has joined and signed up for the weekend – to feel safe and be excited about meeting other families. But we don’t spend a ton of time around focusing on LGBT families in terms of a lot of conversation or sessions and themes. We’re proud of why everybody’s there and we’re celebrating all of the different ways that our families have come to be. But I think just the fact that everyone is there together and has repeatedly returned and enjoys the experience and is nurturing friendships year over year has been enough to engage our families and have them return. So that’s just been part of our success. We don’t have trainings or speakers come in, but we do make sure that everybody feels safe. We do ensure that our staff has a training prior to CampOut starting. So we have board members from Family Equality to briefly share a little bit around appropriate language and making sure that everybody is comfortable with the origin of our families and being respectful and mindful. We do of course make sure that all of the bathrooms have signs that are gender neutral and things like that. So we know why people are here and we’re celebrating that, but we also are just focused on in the community in terms of enjoying the weekend together.

Emily M.: I don’t know if I’m going to word this exactly how I want to, but what I’m thinking about is the difference between camp and an event like Joseph, you described – having an event in your local community in a play space area or a park or even to a lesser extent Family Week in Provincetown. It is a town that is explicitly LGBTQ focused, intended for that community because today the town is really built around LGBTQ tourism. Yet there still seems to me that there’s still a difference between that and being at a summer camp where it’s just other queer families. There’s staff supporting you, but everything you’re doing, all the people you’re around, is all queer families. There’s nobody else who would challenge or intentionally make any families feel uncomfortable in any way, which is still a possibility when you’re in a wider community space. Is there a feeling like that you are truly in a space that is just for us when you’re there?

Julie K.: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely correct. The backdrop is camp. It’s in this very small town in Michigan, but you would never know that. But to Emily’s point, it’s not necessarily talked about if you will. It’s just kind of, we’re all there and we all know that we feel safe and comfortable and every family is made up very differently too. So, you know, sometimes it’s single parents, sometimes it’s multi-racial families, sometimes it’s trans families. The nice thing is that there’s no need to explain your family or define who you are or how you became a family. It’s just kind of understood that we’re all here just to have a nice experience and, candidly, to give the kids the time of their lives for four days to unplug. People are not on their phones, except to take pictures and things like that. But you really are experiencing the outdoors and there’s really no question of, am I going to be comfortable here? Am I going to feel safe here? That’s just kind of understood.

Emily M.: Do you ever feel your own behavior changing in a space like that? The first time I ever saw my parents hold hands in public or do any sort of public affection was when I went to Provincetown when I was 12. I just had never seen it cause they never felt comfortable enough. So I know that there would almost be like a difference in how our family interacted and how I felt and behaved just because I felt like I was in a space that was safe. Do you, do you feel any difference or change in how your family interacts in a space like CampOut?

Joseph B.: Yeah, sure. I don’t know. I guess it’s a hard question to answer. I mean, our family, we’re out every day. I’m at work at school in our neighborhood and I recognize that we’re extraordinarily fortunate to be able to live that life and have people around us every single day in all aspects of our life who support us and recognize our family is no different from their own. That’s our everyday space. So going to Camp, it doesn’t feel all that different in terms of our family dynamic or how we interact with each other or how we interact with our friends at camp. I would say that one of my favorite things about camp is that it is out in the country, so there’s not great reception and it’s one of the few weekends out of the entire year where my husband and I don’t work. We put our phones down, we don’t bring any technology with us and it’s really just about having fun and being with family and friends and new friends and just enjoying and embracing the experience.

Julie K.: I would agree with Joseph. I mean, like I said earlier, we’re fortunate to live in a big city and I don’t know how familiar you are with Chicago, but we also live right near Andersonville, which is a very gay or queer friendly area. There you could definitely exhale, but I think we try and live our life and teach our daughter, whether it’s their school or work, that it’s okay to be yourself. So I don’t feel that CampOut offers anything more from a day to day than we’re currently getting living our life in Chicago. What I will say is I grew up a seventies kid and miss the days of going and taking your bicycle and catching fireflies and hanging out with the neighbors and just come home when it’s dark. I would say that safety is more applicable in this area, than the environment and being ourselves. Our daughter’s probably on the cusp of running around with her friends and coming back in 15, 20 minutes. But there are kids that are teenagers that just kind of meet up every summer and they’ll play basketball or go water skiing and then meet back up with their parents or their families or the other campers. So I think it offers more of a comfort level from that perspective, if that makes sense.

Emily M.: Yeah, absolutely. I started attending Family Week when I was 13 and that first year, walking around at night with the other teenagers and just talking and playing games on the beach was so much fun. And then as I got older and my curfew got just a little bit later, I stayed out until the last possible second. I’d be up in the morning, I’d go to workshops and I just wanted to spend every moment with these friends I was making. And these friends I was seeing year after year. When you’re around other LGBTQ parents, is there a difference in the way that you talk about your family in some way? In most cases, LGBTQ families have gone through a lot of work to either be formed or certainly it takes a lot of care and bravery to form our families or to come out and be ourselves. So there is some additional pressures then often to be a big happy family at all times. When you’re in LGBTQ family spaces, do you feel a little bit freer to vent at all?

Joseph B.: So I mentioned early on that my husband and I adopted our son through a private domestic adoption process and have an open adoption with our son’s birth family. And you know, for a lot of heterosexual families that had their own children biologically, it’s a very foreign concept. So to be around other families who have had children through any number of means, including the same way we did, it’s sort of refreshing because there’s not a lot of questions. I get it. Other LGBTQ parents get the challenges that are involved, and understand open adoption and the extended family that becomes part of your own. So it’s an opportunity to be around people who get it and who have kind of a very similar shared experience and can trade ideas and suggestions on how to navigate some of those processes.

Julie K.: Yeah, I would say it didn’t really dawn on me until Joseph mentioned it, but the one thing that I was very grateful for and also surprises me, is that especially the first year it felt like there were more two dad families than two women. And when we got there it was like, these are families all like us. And then we looked around and they actually were like us, but they were still different within the camp group. So it was diverse, even within a diverse subset.

Emily M.: Does that spark new conversations with your children about what they’re seeing? Do you talk about how families that are part of this community that we all occupy can look so different and can be formed in such different ways than our own?

Julie K.: It’s so funny. I think from my perspective as a parent, I get more worry or anxiety around it than I think the kids even notice. I remember when our daughter started school, when she was in preschool or kindergarten and she rattled off like all the Mommies and Mamas and Daddies and Papas the kids had in class, instead of just saying moms and Dads. She went through every iteration of every kind of family that she had known when she was referencing parents. And I thought, wow, that’s great that she doesn’t really differentiate that everyone has their own family and their own sets of parents. And that families can define themselves however they want. So I think it’s more us that we’re wondering, are they gonna notice? I think everyone’s doing just fine.

Joseph B.: Yeah, I would say that’s also the beauty of places like CampOut. When you raise your kids in environments that are diverse, even within a diverse group of people to begin with, it’s just their community. They don’t notice a difference because those are their people. The opportunity to raise a kid from the get-go in that environment is honestly much different from my own upbringing. To your point, Julie, I probably notice it more than Miles does because those have been his people ever since he’s been a baby.

Emily M.: That’s awesome. That’s one of the things I really love about queer community and queer spaces is our ability to stretch and fold in new people into how we can see family.

Joseph B.: This is like a total side note. But a few weeks ago I went to Miles’ school to chaperone this field trip, and I was having lunch with this little table, his little buddies, and one of his little friends asked, Miles has two dads? He was asking me the question then I’m like, yeah, two dads. And he’s like, well, which one are you? Are you the one who picks him up or drops him off? And I’m like, I’m usually the one that drops him off. And that was it. They just went on and the rest of their lunch and we talked about other things, but it was so normal, you know? And so I feel like that’s kind of hopefully the next generation.

Emily M.: So sort of the big thing that’s been encompassing a lot of this conversation now is do we make queer spaces just by being in that space together? It sounds like just by gathering in a space like CampOut, it’s making that space queer and it’s making it totally normalized. Does that sound right?

Julie K.: I think you’re spot on as it relates to needing CampOut to be defined. Emily Ferdman does an amazing job of even marketing and just the name of it the camp. I think we’re defining it just by who the people are that are coming. I personally don’t need to drive into a rainbow of balloons. I’m comfortable there knowing that when we walk in we’re kind of crossing the lines of safe space, queer space, comfortable space, everyone’s welcome to be yourself space. I personally don’t know if they need to do much more in defining the space itself.

Emily M.: Joseph, any thoughts on what makes a queer space?

Joseph B.: Yeah, ditto. As long as there’s some common understanding that this is a safe place, I mean we could probably invite some heterosexual families with or without LGBTQ children and it could still be a very friendly LGBTQ space. It’s maybe more than just the fact that there’s gay families there. I think it’s just kind of this common understanding that everybody comes to the table feeling safe.

Emily M.: I hope this is inspiring some listeners to look into CampOut and into other LGBTQ family camps around the country. Or even to join me at Family Week in Provincetown this summer. There’s a lot of folks out there who are doing the work to try to make these spaces possible for more and more families.