(Editor’s note: This article appears in the current May/June 2016 print edition of Boston Spirit magazine. Subscribe for free today.)
Puck Markham is 45 years old, and came out when he was just 18. For a teenager to come out at the height of the AIDS crisis, and amid all the attendant homophobia, was a very brave move. But unlike many men of his generation, Markham doesn’t believe in romanticizing the notion that today’s kids have it infinitely easier. Sure, American culture has caught up and young people questioning their sexuality can find many more helpful resources at a much earlier age. But they also face emerging challenges—from navigating adolescence in the era of pervasive social media-based bullying, to navigating comparatively new frontiers of fluid gender identity. Circumstances have changed, but the need for support and belonging remains the same.
“For kids, coming out is still a very isolating experience,” says Markham. “Even those who have their parents’ support still have to find out what it all means for them: What are things going to be like for them? Who will their friends be? And then, of course, there are the kids who are kicked out of their homes with no support.”
Markham has made it possible for kids of all kinds to find support and feel a sense of community. Camp Lightbulb, a nonprofit he founded in 2012, is uniting LGBTQ young people in ways that foster inclusion, personal growth and self-empowerment. And it’s just getting started.
WHAT IS CAMP LIGHTBULB?
Camp Lightbulb is a weeklong overnight summer camp for LGBTQ youth held in Provincetown. (This year’s dates: June 25 through July 2.) The camp allows those ages 14 to 17 to connect with other young people who share their experiences. And though the bunk bed accommodations are provided at Truro Hostel, most activities—from scavenger hunts and concerts to dance parties and workshops—are held in Provincetown, so teens get to experience a famous and historic arts enclave that supports and cherishes its LGBTQ associations. It may be the first time many of these young people can experience an environment where they are not merely tolerated, but celebrated.
“These kids come from across the country, and for one whole week they get to experience what it feels like to not be the odd one out,” says Markham, who previously enjoyed a successful career in the financial services sector. Though his coming-out was greeted with contention from his mother, Markham was nonetheless raised in the Netherlands, historically a very progressive place for LGBT rights. (In 2001, it became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriages.) He was inspired to found Camp Lightbulb in 2012 after hearing countless stories of young people who were experiencing merciless bullying, being driven to depression and, in the most dire cases, even taking their own lives. Camp Lightbulb (which contains the letters LGBT in its name) was designed to bring a “shining light” into the lives of young people. Its logo was even inspired in part by the work of Keith Haring, the 1980s graffiti artist known as much for his sense of humor and irreverence as for his status as a proud gay man and activist.
Markham’s brainchild is already making its mark. Camp Lightbulb’s first installment brought together nine young people, and enrollment has doubled with every subsequent year.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
According to The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth crisis intervention and suicide prevention organization, LGB youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight peers, and nearly half of young transgender people have seriously considered suicide; one quarter have attempted. These statistics barely scratch the surface of the sense of isolation, alienation and ostracization that young queer people face. And it doesn’t matter where you come from. Markham says that the backgrounds of campers vary widely. On one hand, he recalls one camper who comes from an affluent family in a Boston suburb, yet is the only out student in her entire private school. (“If you’re the only out person in a school in one of the most liberal areas of the country, that shows you how much things have stayed the same,” says Markham.) On the other hand, he recalls receiving a letter from a religious mother in the Bible Belt: though she was still struggling to accept her gay son’s sexuality, she wanted to find him an inclusive summer program now that he had been banned from attending his usual summer church camp.
Camp Lightbulb also works to ensure that some of the LGBTQ community’s most marginalized members are welcomed here. About 40 percent of attendees receive some form of scholarship, making it possible for young people with low economic means to attend. About one-third of campers reflect communities of color and about one-third are transgender. “This generation of kids is very focused not only on their sexual identity, but their gender identity,” notes Markham. “There’s an enormous focus on who they are from a gendered perspective, and how they should relate to each other in that way.”
He recalls one camper, designated female as birth but beginning to identify as a boy, who came to the camp through placement with the Massachusetts Department of Children & Families. The camper’s immigrant parents were strongly opposed to trans identification, refusing to cut their child’s hair. Camp Lightbulb was a tremendously empowering experience. “She asked to use the male restroom, and we said ‘of course.’ The look of excitement was tremendous. It was such a huge thing.”
WHAT IS IT WORKING ON NOW?
Markham recently made the move to focus on Camp Lightbulb full time, becoming the nonprofit’s first paid employee. And though the summer camp will continue to be held in Provincetown, he recently moved to Los Angeles to identify new potential donors, grant opportunities and partner organizations. He’s intent on ramping up the camp’s programming — and in fact, over the winter it staged its first “Holiday Camp,” a LGBTQ youth outing to New York City. Ultimately he hopes to expand Camp Lightbulb’s initiatives so that it offers experiences for young people every two to three months: from ski outings to European jaunts. The idea, says Markham, is to help as many young people as possible find a comfortable and inclusive home away from home. “What they take away from these experiences is that they really are part of a community.” [x]
For more info on Camp Lightbulb, to donate, volunteer or register a young person, visit camplightbulb.org.