Like other rock camps, Olympia-based Queer Rock Camp is a brief reprieve from reality for beginning (and experienced) musicians. Youth between the ages of 12 and 21 receive basic musical training, start a band with their peers and at the end of the week, perform the songs they write. But QRC, which was founded in 2011 by Girls Rock veteran Molly Fisher, is much more than band camp. It is a supportive community, one where youth are free to explore identity politics and queer/trans issues, facilitated by volunteers knowledgeable about the resources available to combat the problems LGBT youth face. And there are many problems. Most LGBT students report verbal harassment at school; for nearly 25%, the verbal abuse escalates to physical violence. And though only 10% of the general population identifies as LGBT, 40% of homeless youth are LGBT.
The year-round activists who make Queer Rock Camp happen know that for queer youth, making music can be much more than something fun to do. It is both a tool and an outlet. It is a sonic attack on the rigid rules of gender and grammar. For young people who have experienced marginalization and oppression, music can provide a path and a lifeline to a community of like-minded people who accept and embrace their difference. “Intergenerational queer and trans community is so crucial, especially as people who are often estranged from biological family,” says Katie Haaga, a 23-year-old volunteer. “Supporting queer and gender nonconforming youth and giving them room to explore their identities and find their voices is especially important!” That is why Queer Rock Camp is open to anyone, musical experience or not; all instruments are provided, and those who attend learn a variety of skills, from tuning drums to setting up a PA system. The cost of attendance is based on a sliding scale. And though Queer Rock Camp has “rock” in its title, musical exploration is encouraged in much the same fashion that gender exploration is.
Though the camp’s obvious focus is queer and gender nonconforming youth, there is a tangible emphasis on the ways in which various other types of oppression – racism, ableism, classism, sexism – are similar to, and intersect with, homophobia and transphobia. “The face of the music scene still to this day is a lot of guys, and particularly white guys, playing music,” says Bex Berryhill, a volunteer who has been involved with Queer Rock Camp since its inception in 2011. “It’s not because they have more interest or talent or skill at music, but that’s who is encouraged from a young age often to get involved or jam with their friends or pick up an instrument that is loud and takes up a lot of space. A lot of rock instruments, they demand attention and that’s something a lot of queer and trans youth are not supported in pursuing, for the most part. “
Queer Rock Camp is the first of its kind, and it addresses a need for which the demand far outweighs the supply. Though QRC has added a second week-long session to be held in Seattle this year, the camp still receives twice as many applications for campers and volunteers as they can accommodate, from as far away as Germany and Australia. Some of the volunteers who come from far-flung locations have taken their experience at QRC and started similar organizations elsewhere. “We’re already seeing a number of similar camps starting to pop up. In the works for summer 2015, there’s a group that’s organizing a QRC in southern CA and one up in Vancouver BC,” Bex Berryhill says. Bex started out as a drum teacher and band coach; now she’s involved in logistics at every stage. It’s a common theme for Queer Rock Camp alums: those who get involved, stay involved, and often take on increasing positions of responsibility. They form bands and forge ties. Many volunteers are former campers who’ve aged out and have moved on to become guitar teachers, coach other bands and provide continued support.
While Queer Rock Camp continues to expand – the hope is that Queer Rock Camp will soon branch out and become its own nonprofit separate from Stonewall Youth, the affiliated nonprofit in Olympia which hosts QRC under its umbrella – that is not the ultimate goal. That, Bex says, is “to live in a world where queer rock camp and programs like Queer Rock Camp are no longer necessary, because there just is totally equal and accessible resources and support and access to people of all genders and sexualities and backgrounds. I feel like that’s the lifelong-term goal – actual representation in the music scene.”