Welcome to the Queerburners unofficial guide to going to Burning Man... and surviving!
By this point you’ve heard of Burning Man. You’ve seen the videos of glowing people dancing in front of big art in the desert. Your friends have been, or at least, maybe you met someone at a party who wouldn’t shut up about how it transformed their life. Maybe you’ve resisted going in the past; maybe that’s because you have a mistaken impression of what’s going on there or what it’s all about.
In any case, Burning Man is so different from everything else that it’s probably safe to say it’s not what you expect.
It’s a temporary city, in the desert, created entirely by those that show up. The first rule is No Spectators and everyone there is expected to participate by building something, creating something, or participating in something.
There is music there, but it’s done by people who decided they want music at Burning Man. There is art there, but it’s created by people who decided they wanted to build something cool for Burning Man. There is cinema and restaurants and bars and roller skate rinks and temples and tea houses and detective agencies and massage parlors and art galleries and dance parties, all built and run by people who wanted to make it happen and specifically want YOU to interact with what they’ve created.
What do you do there? You wander around and check out what everyone else has made and marvel at the sheer imagination of your fellow humans. You get involved in their creations and volunteer to help out. You make friends with people you normally would never talk to. You have fun doing strange things that you’d never thought you’d be doing. You PLAY. You build your own art or structure, you invite others to join in your vision and make it happen. You create. It’s a city and the opportunities and permutations of what you end up doing are limitless.
PapaTua from the r/BurningMan Subreddit
For queer burners, Burning Man has been an especially hospitable place over the years due to its principles of Radical Inclusion and Radical Self-expression. The 2019 Burning Man Census had only 64.9% of participants identifying as heterosexual or straight.
People feel free to express any identity imaginable, so things like public nudity, or a 60 year old man dressed like a french maid aren’t even unusual enough to catch your eye.wurzel from the r/BurningMan Subreddit
There are many options when it comes to camping at Burning Man. Almost 80% of the population choses to join an organized camp. That gives them a camping location assigned by the Placement department. Basically, what that means is just that some group of friends got together and filled out a form months before the event, and got assigned to camp in a particular spot somewhere in the city. This is by no means required. There is plenty of open space in the city to set up your camp by yourself, or with a smaller, unofficial group. If you do that, you’ll find that the campers around you can become your unofficial family.
Organized camps range in size from two people to hundreds. Many camps are new, but some have been going for over 20 years.
The history of queer burners goes back to at least 1993, with the first queer theme camps organizing as early as 1995, when Burning Man was just a few thousand people. Over the years, a wide variety of queer and queer-friendly camps developed. Many of them happened to form a gayborhood in and around the 7:30 sector of the city. Once that happened, a lot of straight and ally camps wanted to move into the 7:30 sector because it had so much fun nightlife. Over the last few years, a lot of LGBTQIA+ camps set up a new “East Village” in the 4:30 sector, where there’s a slightly different vibe.
Over 75 camps were listed on the 2022 edition of the Queerburners directory. These camps all had significant queer participation, and represented all parts of the LGBTQIA+ community.
A camp is just a group of friends that has gotten organized in the year leading up to Burning Man, and thus camps are as diverse as any group of friends. Some camps are really just a handful of friends who set up together once a year. Others have become major institutions both on- and off-playa; their blowout fundraising parties have become a significant part of the gay social calendar in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York.
In any case, finding a camp that reflects your vibe, your form of expression, and, most importantly, your friends, is the key that unlocks a lot of what makes Burning Man magical. And if you don’t find one, go ahead and start your own! There’s no reason you can’t start a new theme camp even if you haven’t been to Burning Man before.
Your ticket to Burning Man says, “You voluntarily assume the risk of serious injury or death by attending,” in big bold print.
It’s true. The Black Rock Desert is inhospitable.
Everything must be brought in: food, water, shelter, everything. And it all has to be carted out at the end. That includes the dirty water you used to brush your teeth this morning. The logistics of just staying alive are rather intense. And that’s one of the reasons people organize as camps: so that you can do things together, rent a big truck, share a camping stove, buy a little generator or solar panel, and get a barrel for trucking out grey water.
Pretty soon, you’ll notice that the collaboration with your friends is as much fun as the event itself. Indeed, at some point every burner realizes that the preparation and collaboration and working together is the point of Burning Man, not the price of attending a “really cool party.”
And that really leads to a discussion of the Burning Man calendar. The event itself is always held in late August, in the week leading up to Labor Day Weekend. But most camps start preparing in January or February. They start figuring out who is going, how many people want to return, and if there are any newcomers that might want to join. They start planning their art projects, their interactivity, and their gifts. They start organizing their camping gear, replacing things that broke, cleaning and repairing other things. They start planning meals, reserving truck rentals, and shaking out dust from their sleeping bags.
If you’re new to a camp that you want to join, January is the time to get involved. Make friends and meet the people. Go to events and meetups. Volunteer to help with things. Participate. By the time the summer rolls around, most established camps already have enough people, and your chances of joining a new camp that doesn’t know you is much slimmer.
Every year since 2012, Burning Man has sold out. Tickets are very hard to come by. But, with tenacity and focus, where there's a will, there's a way!
In early January, the Burning Man Project (which everyone just calls “The Org”) announces the timeline of ticket sales. There are several different programs for buying tickets, with a different number allocated to each program. The system is really complicated and it rewards people who are paying attention.
Typically around half of the tickets to Burning Man are reserved for the Stewards Sale, which “ensures that those critical to the culture of Burning Man … gain access to tickets.” That means that being highly involved in an art project, a theme camp, or a mutant vehicle, or volunteering to help build the city itself, are all great ways to gain access to tickets.
In any case, even though tickets sell out instantly, sometime in July and August, many people who have tickets realize they can’t go for some reason or another. Those excess tickets tend to be sold at face value to friends through the network. That’s how theme camps, for example, almost always manage to find enough tickets for the people who have been working hard to help prepare. But it’s a word-of-mouth network that works best if you’ve already found your local burner community and made friends.
The options for LGBTQIA+ participation on playa are insanely broad. You can spend as little or as much time as you like doing things that are as crazy or as tame as you prefer.
To get a taste for some of the officially listed events, download this 2022 guide. As you can see, events range from “Escape the cold desert night with miso and marshmallows” to a “discreet, enclosed man play tent packed with adult men.” And if you need to recover from that, the Little Lesbian Lending Library or the Introverts’ Lounge might help you recharge in time for the Whitney Houston extravaganza party.
The FOMO will be strong as you try to pick the best things to go to, but don’t forget that you can just gather some friends and head off on bicycles to check out (and climb on) the amazing art out in the deep playa, or just head for a quiet walk through the neighborhoods of Black Rock City. One secret of Burning Man is that everyone is friendly and everyone is happy to meet you.
Burning Man is literally awash with introverts playing at being extroverts for the week via such mediums as playa names, interesting fashion choices, theme camps and various volunteer responsibilities that provide the kind of clearly defined roles that some introverts tend to appreciate (from “I’m inspecting your vehicle for the DMV” to “I’m handing out bottom-shelf mixed drinks with a bad, punny name, because that’s how my camp rolls”).Mark Day on the r/BurningMan subreddit