Drag classes at summer camps help youth explore their identity

Daniel Gallardo a.k.a. Gaia Lacandona, faculty of education doctoral student and community mentor for CampOUT! drag workshops, discusses the impact of the workshops.

Two adults in drag makeup and costume at CampOUT!

Daniel Gallardo (on the right) is one of two drag parents at CampOUT! Photo credit: Aaron C.

Remember putting on a cape and pretending to be a superhero when you were a kid? Young people can imagine being whomever they want once again this summer at CampOUT!’s drag workshops.

The summer camp for queer, trans, Two-Spirit, questioning, and allied (2S/LGBTQ+) youth from across B.C. and Yukon runs from July 4-7 on Gambier Island, offering drag workshops, leadership building opportunities and community, to help young people aged 14 to 21 explore leadership and their identities.

Daniel Gallardo a.k.a. Gaia Lacandona, a doctoral student in the faculty of education and community mentor for CampOUT! drag workshops, discusses the impact of the workshops both on the youth attending, and on Daniel themself.

What are drag workshops?

At CampOUT!’s drag workshops, I adapt my academic work to teach young people how to explore identity and what it means to be human. We start with ‘quick drag’, an exercise to help gain self-confidence. Here, they have five minutes to grab items from the dress-up area and apply some makeup like eyeshadows and glitter. Then, we experiment with different types of movement: walking the runway, pretending to be an animal outside or an alien from outer space. And then we work on a drag name. Sometimes campers know immediately what their name is, while others take time. Some of my drag children are TBAs, and that’s OK.

Next, we go into more depth with makeup, starting with sketching on paper and then moving to the face. It becomes like a makeup studio with a queer community painting each other and having fun. Finally, all the campers bring their drag creatures to life and become part of my drag-chosen family. 

What do the workshops teach campers?

Drag allows us to imagine otherwise, and helps us see beyond others’ perceptions of us or the categories they might put us in, including colonial notions of humans as superior to and separate from the rest of nature. The magic of drag is that it physically lets you see yourself differently.

I ask campers to imagine the characters or alter egos they had as children—what did you dream of becoming? I want them to embody their imagination and free themselves from social constructions that have been imposed on our identities like gender and the nuclear family. What happens if you start constructing differently?

I encourage campers to think about decolonializing drag, including considering the inherent hierarchies in the terms ‘drag queen’ and ‘drag king’, and moving towards reclaiming terms that have been used to shame the queer community in the past, such as drag monsters.

And this isn’t a new thing. David Bowie started developing Ziggy Stardust and other personas after being inspired by Jayne County, a drag queen and main character of Andy Warhol’s only play.

What is CampOUT!?

I’ll be one of the volunteers who help at CampOUT!, which has been running since 2009. We are a beautiful intergenerational community of 2S/LGBTQ+ folks who collectively learn about decolonizing, anti-racist and disability justice approaches to education. We’ll pack a boat with boxes of materials and head off to the island to help 65 young people build leadership skills and self-esteem, foster hope and resilience, and connect them with community to support their well-being. This year we celebrate our 15th year and welcome our 1,000th camper.

CampOUT! is mostly funded by donations, and unfortunately has limited space. We had nearly 200 applications but only 65 spaces.

What impact do drag workshops have?

The most beautiful aspect of the workshops is the reaction of the campers. For many, it was the first time they felt safe to be whoever they want. Many are grateful for the opportunity to experiment outside the limitations our social system has given us—the first time they can wear diverse clothes regardless of their gender assigned at birth, the possibility to feel what they want to feel. I have a ‘proud drag parent’ badge that the campers made for me to wear, and two of my drag children went on to become cabin leaders, so we are becoming a whole dynasty.

When I came back from camp last year, I cried for hours because, as volunteers, we also dreamed about a place like this when we were young. I witnessed campers gain networks of support and heal from wounds they never should have suffered. I left camp with my heart, body, mind, and soul completely full of the most fabulous memories. Words aren’t enough to explain the TRANSformative intergenerational love felt at CampOUT!

Interview language(s): English, Portuguese, Spanish