Lesbian Summer Camps

1975 – 1991

Lesbian Summer Camps

1975 – 1991

Theme: Lesbian

This essay written by Torfrida Wainwright was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

As a lesbian or potential lesbian you belong to a tribe of very special womyn. We want you to join us this summer to share some of the things that make us special. . . . Do yourself a favour – take a break from the patriarchy and start the new year on a high. [1]

Between 1975 and 1991, lesbians organised nine summer camps in Canterbury, in two series – from 1976 to 1978, and from 1985 to 1991 – and also a separate weekend camp at Nolan House in Kirwee in 1981. These camps represented more than a network of friends going on holiday together; they were a deliberate attempt by lesbians to intensify their experience of lesbian community and create an alternative to the heterosexual world.

The 1970s camps were initiated by Christchurch feminist lesbians who wanted somewhere cheap to take their children on holiday, and somewhere private where they would not have to deal with the negative reactions of straight people. As the 'Christchurch Women's Study Group', they booked Journeys End campsite near Loburn in North Canterbury. Advertised by word of mouth, the camps were attended each year by about 30 lesbians and their children. The campers were diverse, with non-feminist 'bar-dykes' alongside women rediscovering the matriarchy. They took musical instruments and made songs, told stories, swam and sunbathed, played cards, shot and cooked possums and created a lesbian language. As one camper put it, 'Lesbians were invisible in the wider society at that time. There weren't the lesbian books or music that were around ten years later. At camp we created our own reality.'

The second series of camps were held at the Boys' Brigade Camp, Waipara, from 1985 to 1987, at Stavely Campsite in 1988, and at Leigh Camp, Loburn, from 1989 to 1991. At first unaware of the earlier camps, the organising group changed gradually each year, keeping continuity through overlapping membership. Several had been involved in lesbian communal living projects and women's peace groups; some, like the earlier organisers, had taken part in lesbian and women's festivals, peace camps, holiday camps and communal land projects in Europe and America. They tended to be more middle class than the earlier organisers; more had come out through the women's movement, and they called their camps 'Womyn's Summer Camps', inviting both lesbians and 'lesbian-oriented' women.

Lesbian Summer Camps poster

Torfrida Wainwright.

Cover of Lesbian Summer Camps registration form, 1991.

These camps were bigger, more structured, and widely advertised in lesbian and feminist magazines and organisations throughout New Zealand and overseas. They attracted lesbians from around New Zealand and were a focal point for travellers from other countries.

Cautious about publicity (many lesbians had experienced confrontations with opponents of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill in 1985), the organisers booked the first camp as the 'Women's Health and Fitness Club', and did not publicly advertise its location. The period was one of challenge and questioning among Christchurch lesbians, and the organisers were initially wary of potential conflicts, for example over children, access for disabled women, and how the all-Pākehā organisers could make Māori lesbians welcome. The 1985 camp had a tightly pre-organised programme, but later camps quickly became less structured. The conflicts did not happen – lesbians came to camp overwhelmingly to relax and have fun. They played softball, canoed, tramped and ran a huge variety of workshops on everything from massage to mask-making. For many lesbians, the camps were a safe space to try out teaching and presentation skills. There were concerts, dances, home-made videos and a circus. Short affairs and long relationships started and ended. Huge circles of women welcomed newcomers, debated how to deal with intrusive teenage boys at the swimming hole, and invented ad hoc rituals to celebrate lesbian heritage.

For many looking back from 1993, the strongest memory was of the communal swimming and sunbathing, the feeling of safety and freedom that came with being naked in the sunshine among so many other lesbians. Back in the city the euphoria spilled into rounds of parties, and in 1987 a weekend mid-winter camp was held at Arthur's Pass.

About 130 women and children attended the 1985 camp, with about 80 staying for the whole ten days. Numbers peaked in 1987 at about 150 women and 20 children. A children's programme was provided at Waipara, with paid workers and separate on-site facilities; but the Stavely and Loburn sites did not allow such convenient arrangements, and the number of children dropped accordingly – in 1989 about 85 women and a few children came. Loburn was a smaller, less comfortable site; the proportion of younger campers rose, activities became more informal, and for the last two years no childcare was offered. About 50 women came in 1991, with 15-20 staying all week. [2]

The second series of camps ended partly because of the difficulty finding site-owners willing to lease to lesbians. However, a Wellington lesbian who attended many of the Canterbury camps helped to organise a similar camp near Wellington in 1992.

Torfrida Wainwright


[1] Leaflet advertising 1986 camp.

[2] Numbers were derived from the registration books; they are approximate only.

Unpublished sources

Summer Camp records, 1976–1991, in possession of Torfrida Wainwright, Christchurch

Wainwright, Torfrida, interviews with Ali Watersong, Aspen, Bronwen Dean, Jicca Smith, Joy Gillespie, Kathryn Algie, Lorraine Anderson, Marg Curnow, Morrigan Severs, Soren O'Neill, Sue Odlin, 1992

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