Standing up for the rights of transgender campers even when others complain about it

My experiences after "coming out" as trans friendly, and how we're responding

A fair warning - today's post is a divergence from the usual "you might find this useful!" sort of post. I'm feeling pretty fired up, and words are on their way that not everyone will agree with. But here goes.

Two years ago I was the executive director of a non-profit summer camp. During one of the last weeks of camp, one of the campers came out as transgender. I was simultaneously very excited that he felt so comfortable at camp, and also sort of terrified as to how to handle it. As a camp that prided itself on helping kids to "become who they really are" and "explore using freedom wisely," a young person coming out as transgender presented an interesting situation. If this young person is saying he's a boy, why is he sleeping in the girl's lodge? Did he want to sleep there?

We ruminated on it for a few days, and decided to just ask him. He was staying for another week and indicated that, yes, he would like to stay in the boy's lodge in the following week. I wrote a whole post about it, but basically, it was one of the most touching weeks of camp I've ever had in my entire life.

All the fears I had about him being excluded, or picked on, or even ridiculed - they were all for naught. A bunch of pre-teen and teenage boys had no problem with the situation whatsoever. That young man ultimately met a lifelong friend that week, and they're both working for us at the Stomping Ground this summer.

I posted about the experience, and several camper families from that camp reached out to say how proud they were that their child attended such an inclusive camp.

So, case closed? Happy ending? Well, yes and no.

The second-hand backlash problem


Months after writing that post, backlash started trickling in. But a weird kind of backlash. No one reached out to me directly and stated any explicit problem with it. It was always second hand.

"Well I don't have a problem with it - but a lot of other parents are reaching out and saying they won't come back if a policy isn't put in place to stop this from happening again!"

Another person reached out to me and implored me to take the article down, since it could be damaging to the camp.

Only two people bothered to reach out to me directly, but I'm sure that others had similar concerns. I got on the phone with both of them to say that there was no way I'd take the article down, and to explain my position.

What struck me was how practical the arguments against letting campers define their own gender were. Neither of the two people who addressed me said that they had concerns about what had happened - they only wanted to talk about how other people perceived it. About how it might cost the camp money.

Sacrificing values for a better bottom line?

Image lovingly borrowed from Mother Jones
Image lovingly borrowed from Mother Jones

So here's my question to the camping community: Is it worth sacrificing your values to please people who don't hold the same values as you do?

My answer, of course, is "no."

I'm not calling any campers' parents to "warn them" that there's going to be a transgender camper in their lodge.

I'm not going to ask to see anyone's birth certificate to decide which gender they need to be at camp (this was a real suggestion).

I'm not going to force them to be the only camper who uses the mixed-gender solo bathroom.

I'm not going to make a child get parental approval for something as personal as their own gender identity.

And I'm sure as hell not going to force a camper to continue to be misgendered and sleep in the "girl's lodge" if they don't want to.

Cool? Cool.

We're at a civil rights crossroads

Or make a movie
Or make a movie

And we can decide what side of history we want to be on. Do we want to be like Camp Joy, who proudly started racially integrating in 1948, or camps that integrated when the law forced them to much later on?

I'm sure Camp Joy got all sorts of nasty comments leveled their way when they went public with their decision to racially integrate. I'm sure some camper families defected. I'm sure some hand-wringing board members tried to suggest that they understood why they should racially integrate, but argued that the timing wasn't quite right.

And if you decide to welcome transgender campers the way we have, you'll probably hear the same arguments. But me? I'm less worried about the people that might be mad, and a lot more concerned about the people we know we can help.

The beauty of coming out as trans friendly

Flash forward back to the recent past - it's March, 2015. I received a message from an old friend who I worked with at the camp of my childhood. She had seen my blog post somehow, and was reaching out because her child had recently come out as transgender, and was looking for a camp home for the summer. We had just launched promotional material for the Stomping Ground, and she was thrilled to know there was a camp that would accept her daughter for exactly who she was.

Three months later we were in the throes of staff training, and I get a call on my cell phone. It's another old friend - the wife of my former boss - her daughter had just come out as transgender to the family, and wanted to go to a camp where she'd be accepted for who she was. She was going to drive from Virginia to Northern New Jersey specifically to come to our camp because she knew we were trans friendly. It was all so new to them, and they felt too scared to reach out to a camp that might not fully support their daughter.

By the time camp rolled around we had several transgender campers registered for camp, and the common feeling among them was total joy that they had found a place that didn't just "accept" them, but that found real happiness in being able to bring them to camp.

And isn't that what camp has been for kids forever? Isn't that our primary role in the world, in many ways? To serve as places where kids can be themselves, come to life in their true identities, and thrive as exactly who they are without judgment?

And to those other families who don't feel like this is "right for them?" No problem. They don't need to come to our camp.

Being on the right side of history

My guess is that in 40 years I'll be patiently explaining to my disbelieving grandchildren that there was a time when a lot of people thought that society should decide someone's gender for them, rather than the person themselves.

They'll understand on some level, but look at the photos of people counter-protesting at LGBTQ rallies with the same confusion and horror that we view counter-protesters of the racial civil rights movement in the 20th century.

And me? I hope I can be honest with them about my own transition in all of this. I hope I'll tell them to have some compassion for people who didn't yet understand this issue. I hope I'll be courageous enough to let them know that when I was a kid I used to use the word "gay" to mean "bad" because I didn't know better. I hope to show them that the key to acceptance isn't always being right, but embracing the truth as it comes to be known. That we can't change our past mistakes, but we can admit them, and learn from them.

I know I'll feel proud to tell them that I overcame my own ignorance and prejudice to try and stand up for people who really needed it.

In every civil rights movement there's a wide spectrum of involvement - it's not just the protesters standing up for equality, and the counter-protesters seeking to deny them. The much larger group is the unseen majority, standing idly by and siding with one side or the other, waiting to see what happens. But history isn't written by the wallflowers. I hope you'll join me on the front lines in playing whatever small role we can by welcoming in transgender campers with open arms.