These days, the coolest place to be on TikTok is a conversion-therapy camp run by Vice President Mike Pence. At Camp Pence, everything is free — from the electric full-body “massage chairs” to the signature bleach drinks. But most importantly, it’s invite-only. Because to get into Camp Pence, you have to identify as a queer youth facing discrimination for your identity. (Per Snopes, Pence infamously supported using federal funds to treat people “seeking to change their sexual behavior” during his 2000 congressional run, which many have interpreted as support for conversion therapy.)
Like previous TikTok trends — e.g., World War III, roasting Mayo Pete and dancing to a scumbag ex’s voicemail — Camp Pence is a nihilistic running joke in the face of ever-present doom (an imagining of what life would be like if Donald Trump were removed from office and Pence were sworn in as president). “We all know that if [Pence] tried to force people to go to camps, it would never be passed as a law,” explains 16-year-old Emily, who posted a video of her dancing while text pops up reading “pence announcing gay summer camp,” and later, “Me excited bc ill be able to spend quality time with the gays.” “I just find it funny to joke about that — like summer camp with the fellow gays.”
Still, she’s learning the limitations of TikTok popularity. Her video currently has nearly 190,000 views, but not everyone got the joke. She says many younger kids who dueted the video expressed fear that they might be forced to go to a real conversion therapy camp. Emily was sure to reply to them explaining that Camp Pence wasn’t a real place, but she’s vowed not to make another Camp Pence video to avoid further scaring her audience, which includes kids as young as 11.
Meanwhile, 19-year-old Hunter McDonald doesn’t find the Camp Pence experience so funny. He posted a video in which he uncuffs his jeans to appear straight — on the app, cuffed jeans are a meme for being bisexual — and paired it with a crying sound.
The biggest group roleplaying at Camp Pence, however, is the TikTok collective Cabin 6, a group of LGBTQ-identifying teens and young adults. A 16-year-old representative for Cabin 6 tells me over Instagram DM that the group was created by a 16-year-old girl they wouldn’t identify because she’s not fully out. She reportedly created the account on December 26th and held auditions by way of submitting funny TikTok videos to join Cabin 6 that week. She expected 10 to 15 videos, but the representative says she received more than 150. On New Year’s Eve, the 21 members of Cabin 6 were announced. They range in age from 13 to 24.
Cabin 6 doesn’t restrict themselves to roleplay videos. So while one member plays a camp lunch lady who doesn’t understand why everyone keeps disappearing (it’s the electric chair), the next video is another member simply dancing.
Unlike Emily, they also seem to understand what TikTok fame will mean for them. Case in point: The representative tells me it isn’t in their best interest to have an article written about underage queer youth, many of whom aren’t out to friends and family. “Our following [33,000 and counting] isn’t yet big enough to begin processes like these,” they explain. “We want to grow our following first.” That said, their public videos — including their names, ages and hometowns — are detailed in two humorous, sitcom-style intro videos.
More largely, for many Camp Pence campers (whether in Cabin 6 or on their own), the app is the one place in their lives where they’re surrounded by people like them, and where they don’t have to worry about bullies or disapproving parents. It’s a fictitious world where they’re in charge and Mike Pence has no actual power of their lives.
Not that Pence (aka “Daddy Pence”) scares them anyway. “An entire group of people are brought together by laughing in the face of a hollow threat,” says Zach, 16. “It’s just a funny meme in our community. He’s giving us free camp. Who wouldn’t want to sit down with him?”