Meet the LGBTQ Summer Camp That’s Changing Lives

Photo: Brave Trails

Camp Brave Trails invites LGBTQ youth to a summer experience unlike any other.

Summer camp holds a special place in the American psyche. For many, it’s a gateway to lifelong love of nature and outdoor recreation. But for queer youth, traditional summer camps—with their gender-segregated cabins and ever-present teenage drama—can be tricky places to navigate, let alone relax and rewind. 

Enter Brave Trails, a national nonprofit that runs leadership-focused summer camps for queer youth. 

“We like to describe Brave Trails as a traditional summer camp meets leadership institute,” explains Jessica Weissbuch (she/her), who founded the organization with her wife, Kayla Weissbuch, in 2015. “We have all the traditional camp stuff—archery, swimming, hiking, dance, theater, and arts and crafts—all with a 100 percent queer twist and a lot of glitter.”

The Weissbuches first had the idea for the camp in 2014. On a car ride back from the movies, a deep conversation about life goals explored a shared hope to leave their mark on the world, tracing the formative experiences in their own lives. For Kayla (she/her), those were the summer camps she attended every year as a child. Meanwhile, Jessica—a licensed marriage and family therapist at the time—was inspired by her work with queer youth, especially in the youth leadership-development space.

“We wondered, ‘Could we combine our passions?’” Jessica recalls. “And that’s how Brave Trails was born.” The Weissbuches were then both working full-time jobs. So, they spent nights and weekends filling out accreditation paperwork, looking for venues, and leveraging every contact to make their queer summer-camp dream a reality. “For the first three years, Kayla and I worked from 7 p.m. to midnight every night after our day-jobs,” she adds. “It was a pipe dream. We didn’t know what we were doing.” 

But they stayed persistent with the moonlight efforts, making calls and finding critical support when it was needed most. The first year, they had 43 campers enrolled. Then, “to see it double and then triple and just continue to grow,” Jessica says, “it’s been astounding.” 

Kids at Brave trails summer camp Photo: Brave Trails

Today, Brave Trails hosts around 420 campers at its locations in California and Maryland every summer, offering traditional camp activities as well as leadership presentations, public speaking lessons, workshops on identity and mindfulness, and education about queer history and queer rights. Brave Trails also works to meet its campers year-round needs: In addition to summer camps, it organizes both online and in-person meet-up groups, connects California-based queer youth with therapists, and hosts weekend-long family camps in Los Angeles.  

The Weissbuches’ work has also garnered the notice of larger partners. In 2021, The North Face reached out to help. The outdoor apparel brand ultimately donated $70,000 to Brave Trails and launched a line of Pride-themed clothing and accessories in connection to the partnership. This year, that collaboration will continue, with TNF increasing its charitable donation to Brave Trails (to the tune of $100,000), and with other notable additions to its Pride-related outreach. Perhaps the most exciting: social media storytelling with environmentalist celebrity and drag queen Wyn Wiley (aka “Pattie Gonia”). Wiley’s photos and video will both raise awareness about Brave Trails, and help welcome queer youth into the outdoors. 

“Brave Trails has long been an incredible team and resource for the LGBTQIA+ community,” explains Eric Raymond, director of social impact and advocacy at The North Face. “Their dedication to creating vital experiences for young people to connect with the outdoors and with each other—and to tap into essential shared human experiences—aligns with The North Face values and focus to increase opportunities of exploration for everyone.” 

Even with all the recent attention, organizations like Brave Trails remain few and far between. But, they are, says Weissbuch, absolutely essential, echoing Raymond. That’s because queer youth tend to spend a lot of time guarded, having to worry about whether people are going to react to them with discomfort or even violence. And even in safe, supportive spaces, LGBTQ youth often fall into the role of educating those around them: in terms of what it means to be queer, or have a non-conforming gender identity or sexual orientation. 

“In most family and social situations, [LGBTQ youth] have to have that armor on and explain themselves and make sure everyone around them is respectful of their pronouns,” Jessica explains. “In Brave Trails, we take those barriers away, and they can just drop into being a kid and having fun. And then with the leadership aspect, they can really drop in and learn.”   

Simply put, it’s the kind of youth program that Jessica wishes she had experienced. 

“If I had had something like Brave Trails,” she says. “I would have come out a lot sooner.” 

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