Liz Petray watched as teenagers piled into the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church wide-eyed and looking a little skeptical one morning this July. She knew exactly how they were feeling.
They had come to attend the Fayetteville church’s inaugural “Queer Camp” — a non-religious summer camp for LGBTQ youth. The event hall had been stripped of all religious imagery, but the significance of the venue still weighed on people’s minds.
Petray, 31, who identifies as somewhere between intersex and transgender, has personally experienced hatred from Christians. She is haunted by the frequent and casual nature in which people from her hometown of Beebe, Arkansas, told her that trans people should be killed — nearly every comment followed with, “It’s just God’s word.”
When she found out Queer Camp was in the works, Petray reached out to Pastor Clint Schnekloth directly, despite her lack of faith.
“I want to be a part of this,” she told him. “You need someone in the room who isn’t going to get weird about calling out the pastor.”
Good Shepard’s Queer Camp is the first of its kind in Northwest Arkansas. It launched months after the Arkansas General Assembly passed two anti-trans laws, including one that prohibited physicians from providing gender-affirming health care to transgender minors until a U.S. district judge blocked its enforcement in July.
“Clint was talking to some of the families in the area whose children would be impacted by all this,” said Conner Newsom Doyle, Queer Camp director and Good Shepherd youth director. “They were talking about how their kids didn’t feel they had a space for themselves that was safe and had a strong sense of community.”
Schnekloth and Doyle wanted to give the children a place to belong.
Since the inaugural camp session, Good Shepherd has presented more events for LGBTQ youth, like a back-to-school event in August. The church has transformed into a neutral space where children and teens can be free among friends.
The church has also hosted camper-organized events and Queer Camp Lite, an overnight camp in November.
“We’re trying to do a lot of things to continue to keep that community strong by providing a space for them to continue to gather periodically,” Doyle said, “while also creating a space for more and more people to come into this group.”
A safe space is rare for many LGBTQ youth. Of 12,000 LGBTQ teens surveyed in the United States by the Human Rights Campaign in 2018, 27% said they could “definitely” be themselves at school. Just 26% said they felt safe at school.
For some, the announcement of Queer Camp raised questions.
“What is the programming going to be, you know?” said Joseph Porter, president of the board of directors at Northwest Arkansas Equality, Inc. “It was like, ‘Why are they doing it there?’”
But the camp programming had nothing to do with the church. Good Shepherd has long been known as an LGBTQ-affirming church, listed on NWA Equality’s website and a national database created by an organization that helps the LGBTQ community find safe houses of worship.
“It’s important to have these organizations because it shows not just kids but also parents that there is a community for these kids to exist in and be themselves,” Porter said. “And also, as these things get traction, our legislators have to recognize that these are people too.”
Petray grew up going to church, because that is what one does in a small Southern town, she said. But her Sunday-morning church routine fizzled out as she endured more and more harassment from people who made assumptions about her gender identity and sexuality.
What stuck with her the most was how her tormentors used God as a scapegoat, like religion was their free pass to judge her. When Queer Camp began, Petray thought a church was a questionable choice of venue for LGBTQ programming.
“A real reason people are skeptical and it’s so hard to mend that wound is that the church environment, even some of the more progressive ones, are very good at putting a happy face on real problems,” Petray said.
The first full day of camp began the morning of July 6 as participants cycled through five activities: hair and styling, recreation, performing arts, fine arts and outdoor experience.
Petray met the kids for the first time in the church’s courtyard. She started by handing out a book of 10 plays she wrote, each based on mythology woven with LGBTQ themes. As the kids read the scripts, it was not long before they started to relax. This was a safe space after all.
“I think, honestly, one of the big things that helped them unwind was that, you know, they’re seeing someone from the community that’s talking about their same experiences and also not talking like a preacher,” Petray said.
The energy at the church rose both figuratively and literally. One young girl ordered several Red Bulls through DoorDash and chugged two — her own version of liquid courage.
The kids got to choose their favorite stations for the rest of camp. They decorated the church’s parking lot with colorful chalk-art spaceships, flowers and cartoons. By a nearby creek, they scoured the water for macroinvertebrates and looked for birds in the trees. They hosted a fashion show and played Newcomb-style volleyball, in which players catch the ball and throw it over the net. On the final day, the theater kids performed their plays on the stage in the event hall for the rest of the campers.
Doyle said the camp was never about religion.
“Our only goal was to help foster community for the underserved,” he said. “I’ve heard from multiple parents about how, last year, their kids didn’t have any friends. They were alone at school. Now, they have a huge friend group specifically because of Queer Camp.”
Some of the campers now show up to Sunday services at Good Shepherd as atheists or agnostics. Schnekloth sits with them, listening as they argue against his own beliefs, giving them a space to share their feelings as people who have come to their own conclusions about religion.
“Some of those kids actually respect that enough that they come to church fairly regularly, just because of the community,” Petray said. “And they like knowing that it’s a space that doesn’t expect them to take one approach to that community.”
The camp helped others find a place to belong as well. When Petray graduated high school in 2009 and left for the UofA not long after, she decided it was time to officially come out after knowing her identity since she was a child. When the news got back to her hometown, it created what Petray calls a “generational rift.” She received death threats constantly — some coming from her own brother’s mouth.
After that rift formed, Petray felt disconnected from other adults in the LGBTQ community. Queer Camp was the one of first places where she felt welcomed and at home. “Miss Lizzy” was a camper favorite.
Planning for next year’s Queer Camp is already underway, and Petray knew she would participate again, even before the first camp session was over.
“The kids would mutiny if I didn’t,” she said, laughing.