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Putting the camp back into the gay

Community: The Out and Out social club celebrates 25 years of Jamboree

When Geremy Vincent joined Out and Out 28 years ago, it was a different time. Gay marriage wasn’t even a dream on the horizon. In fact, gays and lesbians were not even covered by the Ontario Human Rights Code. Your job, your home, your physical safety, none of it was protected.

The idea that gays and lesbians could meet outdoors in public and conduct activities openly was radical when the recreational group Out and Out began in 1980.

“I came out in 1974,” says Vincent, now 55. “When I moved to Toronto in 1977, besides bars and bathhouses, there was nowhere else to meet men. When Out and Out began, suddenly there was a reason to talk to people. It wasn’t a bar where you’d say, ‘Want to f—?’ and then there was nothing else to say. It was revolutionary almost. I started to develop friendships and a social network. In a bar, you get a lot of bullshitting. If you’re on a hike, there’s something in common.

“But in the first years, we had a little newsletter and your full name never appeared in it. This was prior to 1986, when we weren’t under the Human Rights Code. Before that, you could be fired from your job or kicked out of your apartment and there was no recourse.”

Today, of course, gays and lesbians enjoy full protection in Ontario. But Out and Out is still seen as an alternative to the pick-up scene. And it’s also seen by some younger members as a chance to find out about the sort of history that older gays like Vincent lived through the first time.

“It really is a space for a variety of people to come together,” says Lali Mohamed, who just turned 26. “It’s one of the few spaces where genuine, multi-generational community development can flourish. As a young person who’s really interested in story-telling, it’s great to meet older people in their 50s and 60s, to talk to people who lived in gay Toronto in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s. It’s really cool to talk about the bathhouse raids, their first Pride, what it was like to be a gay person of colour in the ’70s.”

Mohamed’s own first experience of Out and Out came, as has been the case for many members, through Jamboree, the club’s signature event, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Jamboree, an eight day-long summer camp in the Haliburton area, offers people a chance to live in cabins by a lake and enjoy everything from swimming and kayaking to beach volleyball and softball to singalongs, cookouts, drag shows and anything else that might happen at a gay summer camp.

“I joined four years ago,” says Mohamed. “My best friend invited me to Jamboree. I went for five days and it was one of the most magical experiences of my life. Kayaking and volleyball, all that sounded really exciting to me. I’m just a nice working-class boy from the west end who never went camping, and I thought I would love to learn how to kayak and canoe and swim a lake. I’m now absolutely in love with the club.”

Jamboree has had a similar effect on many. For Shevon Northcott, attending her first Jamboree in 2008 was life-changing. “I just worked from home. I didn’t know anybody. I was ridiculously nervous. But everyone was so amazing and friendly. It was the gateway to me feeling comfortable in new places. The comfort level that existed with the people there helped me a lot. Since then, it’s like going home. It’s like seeing the relatives you love to see, but don’t see very often. I realized there’s no reason to stay quiet. It definitely helps you to come out of your shell.”

In fact, Northcott, who lives in Burlington, says her attendance at Jamboree has led to her finding out about the gay community in her own town. “I ended up joining a gay bowling league. I didn’t know anybody, I just showed up. And I met my partner there and invited a number of people to Jamboree. I would have been much more nervous without Jamboree. There’s just no place on earth where you can get up to what you can get up to at Jamboree. You can do whatever you want or nothing at all. At Jamboree, somehow it all makes sense.”

Both Jamboree and the wider club have also become more varied over the years, making the club more welcoming. David Langan, the president of Out and Out, says the club currently has 600 members. He admits that most members are between 35 and 50, and that membership tends to dwindle toward the younger and older poles, but he points out that more than one-third of the membership is female.
And Lali Mohamed says membership is becoming steadily more varied. “There is a really rich diversity. When I joined the club, there weren’t a lot of younger people. There are more young people now, more trans people, more people of colour.”

That increased diversity is what persuaded Carol Pasternak to rejoin Out and Out. Pasternak says she had originally joined 15 years ago, but only stayed for a year. “Fifteen years ago, I was newly out and I was looking to meet women. And there just weren’t a lot of women. I wanted to wait until there was a critical mass of women, which there is now.”

Pasternak rejoined Out and Out when her partner, Audrey Kouyoumdjian, was approached by a woman while in line for the 2009 Inside Out film festival.

“All of a sudden, this woman comes up to me and says, ‘Are you familiar with Out and Out?’” says Kouyoumdjian.

“She just started with such a welcoming kind of enthusiasm. I said it sounds like fun.”

Kouyoumdjian says Pasternak instantly said yes to the idea of joining Out and Out, and the two say the experience has been an eye-opening one. “Carol and I both jumped out of the closet from our married lives. We were both married for 25 years, we both have three kids. I didn’t have a lot of gay male friends. But at my first Jamboree, all the men were on the dock. There were 5,000 bottles of nail polish and they were all polishing their nails. I thought, ‘Isn’t this cute?’ And I sat down and started polishing my nails with them and chatting.

“We saw at Jamboree that there were fat, thin, tall, short, black, white, educated and not educated, whatever you are, it’s okay. We’ve been marginalized all our lives, so we know everybody has to be included. It’s really a loving group for everybody. Everybody is respectful, and respect is something we’re lacking today.”

“I guess I did lead a pretty protected life in the ‘burbs with my kids and the PTA,” says Pasternak. “Audrey and I were in the closet. Now, through the community I’ve met trans people. But at Jamboree, you live with them, you know them.”

That’s the whole point, says Langan, to Out and Out and the wide variety of activities available for a $35 annual fee. If someone thinks of it, he says, it can be organized. That means everything from hula hoop lessons to bike rides to movie sing-along nights to board games. And for those still trying to escape the bar scene, Langan says the club is now advertising in those.

“I’ve heard from people who say they’re tired of spending all their time in bars. We made up posters with our new slogan—600 New Friends—and we’re trying them out in bars.”

Vincent, the only person who will have been to all 25 Jamborees and who stresses that he’s single, says the need for that alternative is as pronounced today as it was 28 years ago. “I know a couple of guys who didn’t come out until their 40s. They go to a bar, it’s full of 20-year-olds. You go to an Out and Out potluck, there’s myriad skin tones, a variety of ages, men and women. It’s real, you don’t have to pretend to be somebody else.

“I’m 55. That’s like a straight 70. But in Out and Out age doesn’t matter.”

But lest anybody think that the club can’t involve sex, Anthony Mohamed, a member for 20 years, says that’s not necessarily so. “I’m not saying sex doesn’t happen and it’s great when it does. But because it’s not the primary purpose, it takes all the pressure off.”

Mohamed says Out and Out is more about events like Jamboree.

“Who wouldn’t want to be around 200 LGBT people where you just want to run around being kids?”
And that, in the end, is what Out and Out boils down to, says Langan.“We’re still trying to figure out if we’re putting the gay back into the camp or the camp back into the gay.”

 Jamboree. $582. Sun, Aug 18-25; $407. Aug 21-25; $275. Aug 23-25. Subsidies are available. Register at outandout.ca.