Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls: Role Models, Riot Grrrls and Revolutions

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Feature image from Dania Maxwell / The Oregonian

I was never a kid who went to camp. My parents were broke, and I wasn’t a fan of having to wake up early in the summertime anyway. But when my dad read about a brand new day camp, he clipped the article out of the local alternative weekly for me. Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls cost only $20 for the week, and he hoped it would inspire me to learn to play the used drums he had bought me a few weeks before to celebrate my eighth grade graduation.

I filled out the application, got my acceptance letter, and wrote the dates of the camp on my calendar in marker. At 14, I was a painfully shy and very insecure kid. I had few friends, thought I was hideous, and spent most of my time reading books, watching Buffy and listening to music. I wanted this camp to turn me into a rock star.

Now there are Rock ‘n’ Roll Camps for Girls all over the world, but the first one happened in the summer of 2001 in Portland, Oregon. I didn’t know that the camp would eventually have its own building, that the idea would spread all over, that there would be a documentary and all sorts of press for years to come. I just really hoped I would fit in and also learn to play the drums.

I quickly figured out this wasn’t a place where I had to worry about fitting in — everyone accepted each other. There were girls who were dressed punk, and girls who looked like they were the popular girls at their schools, in Gap and Abercrombie, and girls who looked like they didn’t care about clothes at all. Weirdly enough, clothes didn’t end up defining who hung out with whom. It wasn’t like anything I had ever experienced. I had discussions with counselors — all volunteers, mostly in their twenties — about feminist issues and they talked to me like I was smart and what I had to say was interesting. Most of the girls were learning new things and taking risks and we were all working together because at the end of the week we would be on stage at the showcase. We were also all working together to figure out what room we were supposed to be in — the first year of camp took place on a huge college campus and everyone was constantly getting lost. There was no time to tear each other down.

that's me at 13!

I learned about zines from Nicole Georges, I learned about fat-positivity from Nomy Lamm, I discovered riot grrl music years after it happened but at the exact time I really needed it in my life. There was a self-defense class that made me feel like I could be physically powerful, which was not a feeling I had experienced before. We stood in a circle and took turns screaming and I discovered how loud my voice could be. I got to know adult women — musicians and camp volunteers — who were awesome because of who they were and what they did, not because of how skinny they were or because boys liked them. For the first time in my life, I had actual role models.

via victordom.tumblr.com

In the fall I started high school. I was still shy, but I was excited about playing my drums. I listened to Sleater-Kinney CDs in my bedroom nonstop. I spent a lot of time thinking about Carrie Brownstein. A lot of time.

The next summer, I went back to camp. It was even better than the last year. It was held in a small building they rented, instead of in random rooms all over a college campus. It felt organized, like a real summer camp instead of a class project. Everyone being in such close quarters inspired more socializing and spontaneity, like impromptu lunchtime dance parties in the yard to Le Tigre songs. As Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls grew up, I was doing some growing too. My shyness was slowly fading. I was excited instead of terrified about the showcase, and it was easier to make new friends.

This was the year when I started to realize a lot of the camp volunteers were probably not straight. It was also the year I started thinking more and more about how I might not be either. It didn’t seem as scary anymore. Near the end of the week, I was chatting with a friend I had gotten close to the year before, who was also learning drums. She was older and wiser than me and I was amazed that she wanted to be my friend.

“Who’s your favorite drum teacher?” she asked.

“Umm I really like Rachel, she’s so nice. But I think Jordan is the cutest,” I said, feeling like it was a very daring thing to say. Jordan looked like a tiny butch elf. I had listened to her band’s music and it just sounded like noise to me but there was something about her that I liked.

“Jordan is really cute,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said, feeling more confident. “I have a crush on her. I’m bisexual.”

“Yeah, I’m bisexual too,” she said.

That was the first time I came out to anyone, and it was pretty amazing to do it in an environment where I knew no one would judge me. Not that I made a general camp announcement or anything, but I could have, and it would have been fine. I felt lighter. The whole world just seemed less frightening.

That week Sleater-Kinney played a benefit show for the camp and I was invited to dance on stage along with some other girls. OK, so I was too shy to actually dance on stage. I just stood there. But it was still amazing.

brave enough for a dykey haircut at 15

The third year I went to camp, I was about to turn 16. Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls finally had its very own building instead of a borrowed space. I had survived two years of high school. I was still shy, but I had an inner confidence that I didn’t have before. I was starting to accept my body for what it was, with the help of so many talks about body image at camp. I was beginning to suspect that maybe, in a post-high school world, being queer would actually make me cooler instead of making me feel like more of an outsider. I got to have a conversation with Carrie Brownstein and I tried to be chill about it even though all I was thinking was, I want a girl like this to be my girlfriend. (Carrie, if you’re reading this, I’m 24 now so it’s not creepy if you want to hang out sometime.) I decided to branch out from the drums—I had been taking lessons for a while anyway—and learned to DJ instead.

I really want to live in a reality where every girl has the opportunity to go to a Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls, or at least has an experience where she feels completely accepted, has positive role models and gets to meet Carrie Brownstein. Sometimes I try to imagine an alternate reality where I never went to camp, and I see a life full of crash diets, being afraid to leave my apartment and hating my queer self. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, and I could have figured things out on my own eventually, but I know Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls had a huge impact on who I am today. As an adult I’ve volunteered and given money, and I tell every girl I meet she should go. I figure it’s an investment in the future, because of course I want a future where all women are strong and confident and know how to rock out, or at least scream really loud.

this post is part of our extended coverage of rock n' roll camp for girls!


Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.

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Maeve has written 3 articles for us.

39 Comments

  1. Thumb up 0

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    It is a dream of mine to make music with others like me,
    Women who love and are warriors.
    This will be awesome for me exponentially.
    I am grateful to share this dream with AS.
    Get the word out of my mind and on-line.
    Manifest steps.

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    Go Maeve!
    Go Rock Camp!

    As a volunteer, seeing these transformations—campers growing to fit the safe space, campers learning about feelings, honesty, patriarchy and privilege, campers figuring out who they are—all those things are so hopeful. Camp gives me so much hope and pride in the girls of the future. I wish so bad that I could’ve gone.

    I’m totally confident that the message and lessons of Camp will continue to grow because the kids really do give back once they age out, which as a mechanism proves the power of the positivity in the community.

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    Before I clicked on this I though ‘I bet there’s a picture of Carrie Brownstein rocking out’. I couldn’t really have been wrong. There just had to be.

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    This is a fantastic post! Thanks so much for sharing.

    If you’re ever considering volunteering for a camp in your area, don’t hesitate. It can be just as life-changing an experience for the volunteers who get to share in the lives of campers, be part of an incredibly important and fulfilling experience, and meet other great people…

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    Oh shit, this article just made me shed a tiny tear. I’m gonna go ahead and blame the finals-induced sleep deprivation. I never went to camp, but I did take acoustic guitar lessons in 8th grade so I could be more like/have sex one day with Ani. That whole thing didn’t really work out for me, but I did meet Carrie Brownstein last summer in Chicago at one of the Wild Flag shows, and ohmygod… Still grinning about it.

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    I love this, Maeve!
    I would have been thrilled to have known more queer women when I was that age. Looking back, I actually knew a lot of queer people, but they weren’t out; and even though I was in a generally supportive environment I felt alone a lot. Rock n Roll Camp sounds amazing.
    Also, I just want to say that I know Maeve in real life, and when I met her first year of college she was this totally cool, badass feminist with great taste in music and I was super impressed, and that’s why we’re friends now. So thanks, Rock n Roll Camp, for helping make her like that!

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    The first year they had this in Montreal was just a couple of years ago. I went to the end of camp show in a huge beautiful church space where I’ve seen other bands (Patti Smith being probably the most memorable). Every band got a standing ovation and I got really choked up a bunch of times.
    The next year my band got to play for them on their lunch hour and then we answered a bunch of questions. I’ve never been so nervous before a show even before shows that you know, in the grand scheme of things I suppose I was supposed to be nervous for.
    The whole atmosphere just really, really rocks. So um…yeah, this year I volunteer for sure.

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      OMG THERE IS ONE IN MONTREAL OMG JUST GOOGLED AND AM TOTES GONNA APPLY OMGGGGGG..so basically like thank you for directing my attention to this “montreal” and of course Maeve for your lovely piece that hath inspired me to get involved in what appears to be an incredible opportunity to help young girls grow comfortable in their own skin. Super tempted to mention on the application that I heard about the camp on Autostraddle…

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    My ex ran a rock camp and I was so bummed that I didn’t hear about it until I was too old to attend. Then, when pouting about that, ze told me there’s a Ladies Rock Camp! I almost peed myself. It’s a bit expensive but the money goes towards helping girls go to Rock Camp so I’m fine with the donation. I’m signed up to go to the Portland, Oregon Ladies Rock Camp in June AND August with friends. It shall rock.

    So, if you’re sad you didn’t go to Rock Camp as a kid, go to Rock Camp as an adult!

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    This is such an awesome and positive and inspiring story, thank you for telling it to us!!
    I went to (sleep away camp) in the Canadian Rocky Mountains for 2 weeks every summer from ages 10-17, and then I went back as a camp counseller for a few years too. I honestly believe that camp shaped me more than any other experience in my life thus far.

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    A lot of women at my school are involved with Rock Camp, and have been talking about it in my gender studies class, and there was even recently a benefit concert at my school for it. I have been sooo jealous. I would have so preferred Rock Camp to Christian camp, it would have helped me tons. I also love Portland (which is why I live here now) and would have also preferred to go to camp in Portland than in the woods somewhere near Olympia WA.

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    Great article! Got me all emotional! I wanted to go to this camp so bad in high school, but at the time there wasn’t one near where I lived. I settled for maintaining my all-girl punk band in a sea of unwelcoming all-boy classic rock cover bands. That was great enough but I still think if I had gone to camp, I’d be a more advanced, more confident musician than I am now.

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    I taught at the Rock and Roll Camp for Girls in the mid 2000’s. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I was so geeked when they accepted me to teach. I flew myself out to Portland and stayed with people I meet through Lesbian Connection. Is that still around? I think I used to get it quarterly in the mail. Anyway, I remember meeting my riot grrrl idols and teaching side by side with them. The kids were terrific and talented and full of life. I met some wonderful friends and cherish my summer there.

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