As Puck Markham jetted around the globe, the haunting statistics about the plight of gay teenagers seemed to follow him. And it dawned on him that gay adults like him need to take responsibility for helping them.
Markham, an Air Force brat who’s now a social entrepreneur, was on vacation in Provincetown in the summer of 2010 when he first came across numbers like these: Gay teens, who are at greater risk of being bullied, make up 40 percent of homeless youth and are two or three times more likely than straight teens to attempt suicide. After he got back to London, a YouTube campaign called “It Gets Better” — meant to help gay teens persevere — got underway and began publicizing the same numbers. Months later, when Markham visited Australia, the public education effort was cresting there, too.
“After reading the same thing in three different countries, I had to do something for my community,” Markham recalled recently. “These are my kids, in a way. They’re going to be me 20 years from now.” So he decided to act on a thought that had occurred to him previously: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teenagers needed a place where it’s normal not to be straight, but also a place where they could just be kids — swinging on tire swings, jumping from docks. They needed a summer camp.
A year and a half later, Markham is days away from welcoming a dozen 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds to a campground in a quiet part of Provincetown — the summer destination where he now lives part-time. The week-long Camp Lightbulb will be among the first of its kind anywhere. Markham spread the word online, and limited the applicants to New England kids who have permission from their parents. Next year, he hopes to widen the search, and to include those who have been rejected by their families. This year, he says, every application mentioned the same things: “I want to meet people like me”; “I want to feel not alone”; and, of course, “I want to have fun.”
Camp Lightbulb’s schedule looks like the carefree agenda of any other s’mores-and-mosquito-filled camp: sports in the morning, arts in the afternoon, bonfires at night. Then again, movie night on the first day features a film about a 13-year-old boy who attempts suicide after being rejected by his friends for being gay. On day four, campers will participate in a drag workshop. Instead of segregating campers along gender lines, each tent will house a boy, a girl, and a transgender camper, if possible. Counselors will talk about their coming-out experiences, something they might conceal at a traditional camp.
Markham knows not everything will go smoothly. “There will be arguments; some won’t like the food,” he says. He adds, “They’re going to be regular kids.” And that’s exactly the point.
So, if Camp Lightbulb is such a good idea, why did it take so long for something like it to pop up?
The idea is, of course, a social conservative’s worst nightmare. Many camps focus on certain activities — horseback riding, say — or on kids with particular needs, like disabilities. But a camp based around sexual orientation? For teens? The old accusation that the LGBT community tries to “recruit” young people still stings, and may dissuade gay adults from helping gay teens, who are declaring their identities earlier and earlier.
But perhaps there’s a deeper reason. One thing that unites most every gay and lesbian adult is the experience of coming out, an awkward process under the best circumstances. Afterward, people move on, building lives, careers, and families.
Yet memories of the pain never go away. In response to the It Gets Better campaign, thousands of diverse gays and lesbians — from older women to gym-toned tough guys — uploaded strikingly similar messages urging teens to look past their present suffering. Many speakers broke down on camera. Those tears were heartfelt, but perhaps gay adults have an even greater responsibility to gay teens than a 30-second video.
Recognizing that, restaurateurs around Provincetown solicited donations for Camp Lightbulb from their customers. Markham, who put up money of his own, also held fundraisers in Provincetown and New York. And he’s recruited camp directors, counselors, and other staffers who want the same thing: “If, when they are 25, they can look back and think, ‘You know, that’s where the good things started to happen, that’s when things started jelling for me,’ that would be great,” he says. Camp Lightbulb takes its name from the light that he hopes will switch on in participants’ heads.
As he talks about these goals, Markham himself barely stifles a sob. “I just want them to be able to look back and say, ‘For that one week in Provincetown, I felt like I was home.’ ”