The Naming Project started far from lake-laden central Minnesota. In the basement of a Minneapolis church, Murray and Jay Wiesner, then co-pastor at Bethany Lutheran Church, led a weekly Sunday afternoon drop-in for LGBT youth. After connecting with a pastor who had always wanted to do a LGBT summer camp, the three decided to create one.
The men had attended church camps when they were young and found the experience “life-changing,” said Murray, who works for GLAAD in New York City. “We really wanted to re-create that experience in an affirming environment with good role models.”
A typical day here is classic church camp: A bell announces breakfast. Bible study and bonfires. Canteen and arts and crafts.
But there are also daily discussions about gender in the gazebo, or the “gay-zebo,” as campers call it. Group discussions might focus on LGBT rights. Arts and crafts involve great amounts of glitter.
By Wednesday of the July camp, the lodge’s hallways were wallpapered with colorful tracings of the campers’ figures, which they filled with poems, song lyrics and drawings. Daniel Heiden, 18, had himself traced in a dancer’s pose. He drew his eyes as musical notes. Across his chest: a bold rainbow and the word, “PROUD.”
Heiden grew up Catholic in Bismarck, N.D., where “you don’t really have churches that are super accepting of diversity,” he said. “It’s so much harder to relate back at home at my own church,” he said. “Here, I feel connected. Whereas back at home, I feel at a distance.”
Even at a friend’s more liberal church youth group, Heiden remembers the leaders saying they’d “accept gay people,” he said. But, they added, “according to the Bible, it’s still wrong.”
Heiden disagrees. Through four years of camp, he’s learned that the Bible “is all about love,” he said. “There’s no exclusion. God loves us all. There’s no asterisk.”
Camp has given Heiden the confidence to come out to his family, friends — and, in an effort to start his high school’s first gay student association — on the front of the Bismarck newspaper. Last year, he was voted homecoming king.
Lighting candles on the lake
Liv W. can sense when it’s about to happen: the crying.
She was 14 years old and had just started telling family members she was a lesbian when she first attended camp. The first few days were fun. Then things deepened. At the bonfire, singing, she became overwhelmed.
“Personally, I don’t cry. Ever. Except here,” said Liv, now 18, who requested only her last initial be used. “You are just so loved. And you’re never judged.”
As the sky darkened on the third day of camp, the teenagers packed onto a pontoon, setting off for the center of Bay Lake. They sang, laughed and took selfies. Camp director Greg Fedio lit three candles in the boat’s center.
“Tonight,” Fedio announced, “is Dolly night.”
He then explained the “gospel of Dolly Parton,” reading her quotations and playing her songs on an iPhone, through small speakers. “She speaks for a lot of people like us — where our outside might not match our insides, our insides might not match our outsides,” he said. Then he queued the finale: “Travelin’ Thru,” a song featured in the 2005 film “Transamerica.” In her agile soprano, Parton sings:
“God made me for a reason and nothing is in vain
Redemption comes in many shapes with many kinds of pain