At Camp Lost Boys, manhood is rooted in love, not shame

This reporting was supported by the Trans Journalists Association.

In the woods between Denver and Colorado Springs, under the kind of wide-open sky and crystalline air only found near the Rocky Mountains, a project to reshape masculinity was underway. It happened every time two men held each other close, confessed some deep-seated need or fear, offered help, or wondered aloud how to heal. It happened in group conversations about mental health, aging, dating, allyship and spirituality. 

These men had not shown up at Camp Lost Boys to reshape what masculinity in America looks like — at least, not on the surface. They had come to join the world’s only sleepaway camp and largest gathering space for adult transgender men. Through recreating a traditional summer camp with activities like archery, hiking and swimming, the goal is to encourage trans men to take up space and express love for their own masculinity — something that does not come easily for many.

Replacing shame with self-love is a key goal at camp, said Rocco Kayiatos, founder and executive director of the Intentional Man Project, the nonprofit that makes camp happen three times a year. 

“Being a man is often seen as a terrible thing, particularly if you come from a queer space … and we internalize that,” Kayiatos said. For transgender men, being able to find happiness and peace through a masculine gender expression often comes alongside an inherent shame associated with being a man, he said, and that shame also comes from others in the LGBTQ+ community.  

“Culturally, men are weapons,” he said. “I had to go through layers of dismantling my own hatred for men to be able to become a man.”

From May 10 to 13, 150 men explored the breadth of their masculinity when it was celebrated, and used, as a tool to nurture and to build — not to destroy. And it happened effortlessly, because they had been doing it all their lives. 

There is a missed opportunity for cisgender men to learn from transgender men, who often think more deeply — and more critically — about their maleness and the shame associated with it in ways that break down toxic masculinity, Kayiatos said. Consciously deciding to be a man requires thoughtfulness that can reshape masculinity from the inside out and help dismantle patriarchy, he said. 

The problem, he said, is that transgender men are often invisible, within and outside of the LGBTQ+ community. To Kayiatos, the core cause of that invisibility is shame. “It’s like swimming in a sea of shame, and shame and fear, which to me are synonymous in some ways,” he said. So replacing that shame with love becomes even more vital — but it is exceedingly rare for transgender men to have space to do that communally. 

For Brian Michael Smith, a prominent trans actor and board president of the Intentional Man Project, having such a rare space where trans men can be fully and authentically themselves has the potential to provide liberation beyond the trans community. 

“We don’t realize how much we’re carrying around that isn’t ours. It’s programming, it’s conditioning, it’s generational trauma, it’s consumerism, it’s all this external stuff that we think makes us who we are. And as trans people we have to confront these ideas about ourselves earlier on than most people do. We have to go into that inward truth, because we won’t survive unless we do that. And cis people can go for a long time, just living in these ideas of themselves,” he said. 

And as hundreds of anti-trans bills try to legislate trans people out of existence, Camp Lost Boys brings trans men together in defiance of that, Smith said. At camp, transgender men can make the most of being among such a large community. 

They exchange vital information on long-term health during gender transition, as well as personal experiences with gender-affirming surgery and different methods of hormone therapy. While the camp does not offer medical advice, it does offer a space where trans men feel safe to ask each other intimate questions about their health at a time when trans people don’t feel safe at the doctor’s office and are mistreated by medical providers

The camp opened with icebreaker prompts, but soon, old and new friends independently discussed coming out to their families, anxiety over coming to an all-male camp, how to love their bodies through dysphoria, and the joy found in milestone moments like the first time they went to the beach after top surgery. 

The camp gives young trans men the chance to seek advice on aging through gender transition from men in their 50s, 60s, and 70s — as well as advice on financial wellbeing, reaching retirement and self-care. These kinds of in-person, intergenerational conversations are incredibly rare for trans people and showed the younger men — sometimes for the first timewhat their own futures could be like in their 50s and beyond. 

Orion Pevehouse, a 19-year-old college student from Madison, Wisconsin, was relieved to see his own future reflected in the experiences of older trans men. If these trans elders had survived everything up to this moment, including the spread of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s and all the political hostility faced by the LGBTQ+ community, then he can survive the attacks against queer people going on right now, he said. 

“I have never seen that many trans guys in one space. To be honest, I haven’t seen this many trans adults, ever,” he said. “I have never seen an old trans person. And it just gives me a lot of hope that … I’m gonna live my entire life like this. And that’s just really exciting.” 

At Camp Lost Boys, Pevehouse sought advice from Jamison Green, a past president of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health who has written extensively about the lives of trans men. Green, who is 75, is seen within the community as the premier historian of trans men and a changemaker for pivotal advancements in transgender health policy. 

Pevehouse wanted to know how he could become more confident in his identity as he continued his transition. At camp, it was powerful for him to see so many trans men who had already gone on that journey and come out the other side confident in their gender expression. And by the last day of camp, Pevehouse was able to stand up with a microphone in front of over 100 other men to share his feelings, without any nerves, about what camp had meant to him. 

He had initially been anxious about coming to camp, he said, since he was going to be around men who had transitioned decades ago. Pevehouse worried about being “trans enough” in comparison. But after seeing so many men enjoying life in different stages of their transition, he said he realized that there is no one way to be transgender — and that masculinity is not a monolith. There are no tests or criteria for campers to prove their eligibility for camp; if they register, their masculinity is accepted. 

A number of camp attendees live stealth — as cisgender men in day-to-day life, with no one outside of family or a few close friends aware of their status. Others live in rural towns with no other out transgender people that they know of, or in coastal cities with plenty of LGBTQ+ spaces but few that welcome men in the same way as other LGBTQ+ people. A few campers travel from other countries; trans men flew in from Denmark, Canada, and Mexico.

On the first night of camp, which always takes place from Friday through Monday, all campers gather for icebreakers. For Pevehouse and campers much older than him, the simple act of seeing so many generations of trans men standing together was incredibly moving. The intense sense of relief and excitement was palpable. 

Jay Austin, a 68-year-old trans man and board chair for the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, said that witnessing so many powerful young trans men at camp gives him hope for how the future will change for the better for trans people. 

“I may not get to see the liberation, the transformation of our society, but I’m hopeful,” Austin said.

Green hopes the young men at Camp Lost Boys will take away from the experience that they have a future, despite the current bleak political environment. What’s important, he said, is that these young trans men live their lives and find joy, even if that means turning off the news. Trans people cannot be outlawed or erased, he said — no matter how the 2024 presidential election goes — and the community will find new ways to express itself and join together. 

“If you just let your fears overtake you, where do you go? What happens then? I just hope that young people realize that we’ve all struggled. We all have struggles ahead. We’re stronger together. And there is a future,” he said. 

For young trans people to picture that future, it’s necessary for them to understand their past — which is a community effort. Many important moments in trans history only live inside individual experiences that must be shared, Green told the entire camp on Saturday night. 

For an hour and a half, he reflected on the major advancements that allowed trans men to access medical care and to find community with each other. The 1995 FTM Conference, the first and largest gathering of trans men in the world at that time, was a pivotal moment. Green worked to organize the conference, which he sees as the predecessor to Camp Lost Boys. 

In the camp cafeteria, he asked others to chime in with their own memories. Trans elders and advocates shared stories of pioneering Black trans men like Willmer “Little Axe” Broadnax, a gospel quartet singer active from the 1930s to the 60s, and Kylar Broadus, founder of the Trans People of Color Coalition.  

Jevon Martin, a longtime trans advocate focused on providing services to trans people experiencing homelessness and a lack of gender-affirming care access, shared the stories of some of those pioneering Black trans men that night. He has previously worked to share the stories of Black trans men, including those who experienced the spread of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s and 90s, he said.

“I feel like the best way to really know who we are as humans is to ask questions, to tell stories, to learn where we come from, how did we get there?” he said. “And then talk about, where is it that we need to go? What is it that we want it to look like?” 

Martin wants to see more Black trans men coming — and consistently returning — to Camp Lost Boys to join those conversations. The camp offers roughly $60,000 in scholarships to cover the cost of registration, as well as lowered sliding-scale costs, but that does not include travel to camp; and the cost of travel by plane or car can be prohibitive, especially for trans men of color. Trans and gender-nonconforming people are among the lowest paid LGBTQ+ full-time workers in the country, and trans people of color face higher poverty rates than white trans people. 

On top of those financial barriers, some Black trans men have expressed to Martin that they are nervous to travel to a remote, rural location. He has conversations with them to try and dispel stereotypes that Black people don’t go hiking or camping. 

Camp Lost Boys will not be held without at least 35 percent of trans men of color registered to attend, and at least 15 percent senior-aged men, Kayiatos said. He will pause registration to bring those demographics off of the waitlist first. Despite those efforts, some campers still cancel last-minute since they cannot afford travel. Being able to sponsor travel would help address those disparities, and Kayiatos has been applying to grants for that purpose. 

For El Baker, a 34-year-old living in Detroit, meeting other Black trans men and other trans men of color in Colorado made him feel comfortable to take up space as a bigger Black man for the first time. He had always tried to make himself physically smaller, even in interactions with his family. But at camp, he said he felt loved — and invited to take up space — in a way he never had before. 

“All the reasons I found to step back are reasons to step forward here,” he said, during an emotional closing ceremony. 

For many, Camp Lost Boys is a literal lifeline. Campers have struggled, and continue to struggle, with suicidal ideation and depression. Recent data from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law found that 81 percent of transgender Americans have thought about suicide, and 42 percent have attempted it. For trans men, the unique isolation that they experience in both LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ spaces often exacerbates the already prevalent rates of suicidal ideation affecting the entire trans community

“I can’t tell you how many emails I get of people writing to me being like … ‘I’m on the waitlist. Can you tell me if there’s any way I can get in, I’m going to take my own life,’” Kayiatos said. “I just let them in.” 

Kayiatos is acutely aware that there could be other trans men signing up for camp who don’t tell him that. When he’s planning Camp Lost Boys, those are the men he’s thinking about — the ones who need brotherhood as a matter of life and death, who were completely alone before this experience. 
But at Camp Lost Boys, it’s hard to feel alone for too long. Through early morning hikes in Colorado’s pine-dotted plains and group meditations, through late-night yurt dance parties and group stargazing trips, the retreat is meant to bring men together — and closer to themselves — in a way that will get them to carry that love into their daily lives.

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