Pattie Gonia Makes Every Day Camp
The environmentalist drag queen found the community they craved as a queer teenager at a YMCA summer camp. Now they’re determined to share that experience with as many LGBTQ+ kids as possible.
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Wyn Wiley, also known by their drag name Pattie Gonia, told their story to producer Maren Larsen for an episode of The Daily Rally Podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I think that birds sing to each other in the morning as a way of asking each other if they made it through the night. It’s like doing a little roll call of, Hey, did you make it? Did you make it? And I think that queer people do the same thing. I think that why we are loud and proud and celebrate pride and are who we are is to do our version of shouting across the meadow, our version of a little roll call of like, Are you here? Did you make it? I made it.
My name is Wyn Wiley, but you might know me as Pattie Gonia, Patricia Gonia, if ya nasty. I’m a drag queen, I’m an environmentalist, and I’m a professional gay person. As Wyn my pronouns are he/they and in drag, my pronouns as Pattie are she/they.
Most all of my drag is inspired by the outdoors and by nature. There are so many species that exhibit queerness, and so many of my drag looks are based on that, but also so many of my drag looks are taking very masculine outdoor gear and making it into the gayest little outfits you’ve ever seen.
That’s the very visible, very outward-facing side of drag. But really drag is an art form that queer people use to express their femininity, to go on a personal journey to community organize, to be an activist.
So that is what I do.
As a little queer kid growing up in Nebraska, the first spaces I ever felt myself were in my backyard. I would literally just jump off a swing set and perform Cats, the musical. I would make mud pies. I would just observe all the insects and nature and squirrels, and I just felt so alive. A lot of that changed in middle school and high school, when I started to encounter homophobia, and I was told that for me being gay, I was not natural. I was wrong. I started separating myself from nature a lot.
I had two really vivid high school experiences attached to nature. They were both summer camp experiences. One was with Boy Scouts, and this other summer camp experience was this YMCA summer camp called Camp Kitaki.
I went to both of these summer camps every summer from freshman year of high school to senior year of high school, and going to both of these camps for the first time was just night and day different.
I remember being at a Boy Scout summer camp, and just the amount of homophobia that was there, and insecurity that was there, and toxic masculinity that was there, and militarization that was there, was just astounding to me. I always just remember being on edge. But I didn’t know any better or different. I thought this was what men or boys were supposed to do.
But then going to this YMCA summer camp, Camp Kitaki, at the end of the summer was the most relieving experience ever. I could be myself, other people could be themselves. It was so freeing and welcoming and a lot of the counselors themselves were queer.
Camp Kitaki’s slogan is, “Where the magic never ends.” And I really feel like that magic is really meeting people where they’re at and helping them succeed. Really being an open place for youth no matter where they’re at. A lot of the campers that go there are from different economic backgrounds, and camp is just a really great equal playing ground for kids to grow in a relationship with each other.
I think that YMCA summer camp of Camp Kitaki saved my life in high school in a lot of ways. It was the only space that kept my relationship to the outdoors alive growing up.
If I think about why I go outside, it is to connect with that little queer kid that was sitting there in that backyard in Nebraska. It’s to connect with that high school kid that was at summer camp. It’s to take back a lot of life that I feel like I couldn’t live because I was too worried to be who I really was.
So when Pattie was born, I knew that it was gonna be important to me to try to find some sort of a summer camp thing that I could give back to, and I found Brave Trails, which is such an incredible space for queer youth to have a summer camp experience that’s created by LGBTQ people for LGBTQ people. Even the med staff is LGBTQ, so you’re having transformed healthcare at our summer camp. It is a dream, and it is such an important space where we can use the outdoors to find out more about who we are. I want that experience for every queer person.
I remember the first time I went to Brave Trails as a counselor. The first night I was there at camp, there was a drag show. It was so amazing to see these kids perform, and throw on different outfits, and throw on different wigs, and make these fantasies a reality, and perform for each other. The crowd would go wild after every single performer. It was an environment where people felt so supported. When people feel so supported, the brilliance that can happen is out of this world.
Honestly, I get asked all the time who my favorite drag queens are, and I’m like, “My summer campers at Brave Trails.” A hundred percent. Seeing these kids take the stage and perform drag with more confidence than I could ever muster myself as Pattie was so inspiring, and I was like, the youth, they got us, they’re gonna be just fine. I am a grandparent drag queen now, just Grandma Pattie.
But there is a huge come down after coming back from Brave Trails, reintegrating into the world after being in a space where you’re around 100 percent queer people. Things have been hard lately. It’s a more polarized and divisive world than ever. But I think that there is an invitation to keep the magic alive. In my life, I just want to keep that magic of summer camp alive no matter what I do. I think we’re all kind of just waiting at the sidelines for an invitation to play and be our true selves.
I think if I could give a younger version of myself one piece of advice, it would be to find your other little birdies to sit in the tree with and sing with. It doesn’t have to be a lot of birds, it just needs to be a few. But find your people to check in with and make sure that you’ve made it.
We need queer people in the outdoors, not only for ourselves, but also for each other. There’s a lot of people out there that need to see other queer people exist and be happy and be proud and be in the outdoors.
Wyn Wiley is an environmentalist, diversity and inclusion advocate, and climbing, surfing, skiing, and hiking drag queen. They co-founded the Outdoorist Oath, a nonprofit that creates a more diverse outdoors through education and community building. You can follow them on Instagram @pattiegonia, and see their work with Brave Trails at bravetrails.org.