DEERWOOD, Minn. – The pontoon ride across Bay Lake to camp takes just five minutes. But campers describe it as a journey, remembering each second of their first time: the wind, the sun, the new faces. The feeling of arriving on this wooded island — a place where, for once, they can be themselves.
"It's such a feeling of coming home," said Farley, a transgender 16-year-old.
For one week each summer, a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teenagers gather at this camp to explore their spirituality alongside their sexuality. To sing silly rhymes at nightly campfires. To hear that being Christian and being gay isn't a contradiction.
The groundbreaking Naming Project Summer Camp has been around for a decade now, inspiring sister camps and drawing young people from across the United States. Over that time, the gay rights movement has swept Minnesota and the nation, and same-sex couples have gained new rights. But civil rights on paper don't always translate to acceptance in school hallways or church pews.
Campers at this summer's session, the first since Minnesota began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, have intimately experienced how much has changed in recent years — and what work remains.
"Thinking back 10 years ago, a lot of those kids were really in a place of struggle: 'Does God love me? Does God accept me?' " said Ross Murray, one of the camp's directors. "There is still some of that. But many are really aware that there are Christian communities that are much more open — that there are places of acceptance.
"It's not just us."
Transgender teenagers are trekking to the camp in growing numbers in search of their own acceptance. In its first year, the Naming Project attracted no transgender campers. This year, many of the 16 campers are transgender. (The camp directors don't have an exact count, because they don't ask.)
Gay rights and marriage equality have been rolling along "so quickly," Murray said. But for the broader LGBT community, challenges still abound.
"What is the case for transgender people in terms of employment discrimination?" Murray said. "What is the case with bullying in high school?"
On benches beneath tall trees, the campers sang a hymn, Murray leading with his rich baritone, strumming a guitar. Pastor Sue Schneider then began her sermon, telling the teenagers that their bodies are sanctuaries — holy places. "So whatever else people say about you, remember that. That overrides everything else," said Schneider, who is the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Madison, Wis., but here is simply "Mama Sue."
She anointed each of the teens with "virtual oil," pressing the cross into their hands, forehead and feet. "You are a child of God," she said, looking each camper in the eye.
Farley smiled as the pastor placed Farley's hand on his forehead.
Growing up in Wisconsin, Farley was sometimes overwhelmed by unhappiness, feeling out of sync with his body. Thanks to surgery and testosterone, his skin now "fits a little better," he said. But those changes laid bare other struggles he had pushed aside, Farley added. "Now I have to focus on all the other normal worries." High school. Friends. Dating.
Farley, who asked that his last name not be used, had gone to a YMCA camp shortly before coming out. Rooming with girls "was an awkward thing for me," he said. "It made me feel badly because I didn't view myself as female, but I was being treated as one."
But this camp was different. In the big lodge, campers stay with whatever gender they feel closest to. During his first days on Bay Lake last year, Farley was overwhelmed by "so much love and support — unconditional love," he said. "And you look around you and you've got gorgeous stars, a breeze, the trees, the water. It can be an emotional time."
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
Oh sweet Jesus if you're listening, keep me ever close to you
As I'm stumblin', tumblin', wanderin', as I'm travelin' thru."
Others began singing along. In the candlelight, one camper's shoulders shook as he broke into tears. Liv turned toward him, leaning in. Another camper reached out, putting a hand on his leg.
Jenna Ross -- 612-673-7168