MAKANDA, Ill. — The middle schoolers at Camp Indigo Point were hanging out by their cabins after swimming in the lake, practicing the ukulele and stuffing foil packets with ground beef and vegetables, which were now roasting on the fire, seven minutes on each side.
Arin Webber, areal estate agent turned camp counselor, was competing against heat and hunger for the campers’ attention. Still, while they waited for dinner, she nudged the campers to open up a bit.
What were they proud of? she asked the group, nearly all of whom identified as transgender, gender nonconforming or queer and had come from across the country for a week sequestered in the woods.
“Being myself and not caring what other people think,” said Ginny, a camper who was wearing the dark-green romper and platform wedges she had been traversing nature in with surprising ease.
“In heels!” Ms. Webber added.
“Slay!” fellow campers called out, a term intended as the highest form of praise.
Indigo Point was conceived as an oasis, a rare place where campers could seek some distance from an outside world that could be a minefield of adversity for young people wrestling with their gender identity.
Eloise and Rowan eating dinners they cooked over a campfire.
The camp, held for the first time this summer, was organized in a hurry, partly in reaction to conservative politicians across the country aggressively pushing anti-transgender legislation — efforts that advocates say have contributed to a darker climate for a community of young people who are already uniquely vulnerable.
Many states have passed laws limiting transgender students’ participation in school sports. Others have restricted classroom discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation. In Alabama this spring, the governor signed a law threatening prison time for doctors and nurses who provide medical care to help a transgender child transition. The Texas governor said such care should be investigated as child abuse.
The political friction comes as the number of young people who identify as transgender has nearly doubled in recent years, according to a report released this year. Experts say that young people increasingly have the language to explore their gender identities and that even the notion of what it means to live as a transgender person is shifting. Some teenagers seek out hormones or surgeries to transition to another gender, and others do not. Some treatments used in gender-related care carry medical risks.
At Indigo Point, even some of the youngest campers were acutely aware of the political currents.
“Sharing the parts of me that are queer could be illegal,” said Eloise, an 11-year-old from Michigan. “That just feels like a really scary possibility.”
Organizers hoped to give campers a chance to spend time with other young people like themselves — and also let them simply experience summer camp, with all the fun and frustration that comes with piling into cabins with virtual strangers. They played tag, tie-dyed T-shirts, made s’mores, summoned spirits with a Ouija board and sang along to a Backstreet Boys song they somehow knew the words to, though it was released long before any of them were born.
And sometimes, in conversations around the campfire, they talked about family members who refused to use their preferred names, about friendships that had frayed.
The program drew 96 children from 26 states, ranging in age from elementary school through high school, to a sprawling old Girl Scout camp in southern Illinois. There were vast woods, hiking paths and open-air cabins with no electricity and certainly no Wi-Fi.
There is a magic to summer camp, even one that lasts just a single week. Friendships form fast — and so can a community, with a vocabulary of its own. Here, campers who stood up to classmates who said hurtful things about transgender people were “slay.” So was an otherworldly lunar moth discovered by a camper named Rowan.
Conversely, things that were not — or did not — slay were variously assailed as dusty, crusty, musty and, harshest of all, “slayn’t.” An ignominious roster grew to include the scorching heat, politicians who supported anti-trans legislation, nosebleeds and campers who went the whole week without showering.
“Literally musty,” said a camper from Iowa named Timber. “Literally crusty.”
The stinky roommates, the cramped quarters, the bug bites, the separation from home — all of that bred irritation and anxiety. Every day, a few campers left early or came close to it.
The campers were divided into “villages” and cabins by age but were not neatly divided along gender lines, an impossible task as many campers and counselors were nonbinary and the very purpose of the camp was to be a haven from the strictures of gender norms. Organizers wanted to create an environment where campers felt like they had the freedom and security to explore, testing out different pronouns or swimming shirtless for the first time.
One afternoon, as other campers splashed in the lake, Eloise was on the shore, curled up with a book on the porch of a wooden shed with a sign calling it the “Lakefront Hilton.”
She had needed time to find her footing. By Wednesday, about halfway through the program, she started making friends. She was contemplating returning next year, though the heat and bugs were a drag.
“I would hope there’d be more privacy,” she said.
“Air conditioning!” said Ginny, who had just walked up. “Air conditioning!”
“For the first year, and with what little resources we had — I’m so proud of you guys,” Ms. Webber, the counselor, said.
“Y’all are tough,” Ms. Webber added.
“Kind of have to be,” Eloise said.
A.J., a camper from northern Illinois, was apprehensive about the experience but formed a particular bond with Timber just a few days into camp.
They were both sopping wet after climbing out of the lake. Timber, 12, noticed a quote that A.J., 14, had handwritten on his tote bag, a line from a book they both loved. After that, they were nearly inseparable.
They joked around, but they had deeper conversations, too. A.J. talked about his strained relationship with his father and how he had decided to keep his distance.
“He’s musty, bro,” Timber replied.
On the last afternoon, they had to go their separate ways. The middle schoolers had been split between two clusters of cabins. A.J. was in Whippoorwill; Timber, who had multicolored hair and went a whole day with “gay” scrawled on his nose, was in Hilltop. A minor scandal ensued after a game of spin the bottle, and middle school campers lost the privilege to cross between the two villages.
By Saturday morning, their final morning at Indigo Point, the knotted-stomach feeling from the first day was back, but for different reasons. A week earlier, campers were anxious about making friends in an unfamiliar place. Now, they would return to their regular lives, their regular friends, their regular struggles.
In the dining hall, a question was posted on a wall: What will you miss most about camp? On sticky notes, the campers replied:
“The gay ppl.”
“Not having to wonder if people around you will accept you.”
Soon, the campers’ families would arrive to take them home, setting off on long drives winding out of the woods and back into the world. But before that, A.J. and Timber vowed to return to their lives with their bond still intact.
They would text, they promised, and see each other at camp next summer, picking up right where they left off.