How do you build teen leaders at camp?
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Being an "Other"
This summer at camp I sometimes felt like the odd person out, the outsider, the weirdo. At Brave Trails, a camp for queer youth, everyone around me was so comfortable in their sexuality and their queer identity that being straight felt out of place and different. This summer I got to live as the one on the outside and see firsthand what it must feel like to be the “other” in a camp community. It was such an important experience for me. After volunteering and living in this incredible community for a week, I know more about myself and more about how to be inclusive in the communities I direct and create. I am motivated now, more than ever before to intentionally create my camp as a place where kids of all sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, races, and backgrounds feel accepted and comfortable.
This summer Jack and drove all the way to LA to be a part of the first week of Brave Trails, a summer camp for LGBTQ youth and their allies that is dedicated to providing a safe and loving community centered on leadership and activism. Jack and I found Brave Trails through 2 of their directors -Kayla and Jess. They were looking to market their summer camp program, but because it was the first summer of camp, they were hungry for marketing material that presented the idea and vision of camp without the use of pictures. Jack and I happen to make videos where I graphically illustrate ideas, and then we speed up the drawings to match a script and music. We fell in love with the idea of Brave Trails after working on the video with them (you can check it out here). When we saw a post this spring that Kayla and Jess were still looking to fill a few cabin counselor roles, Jack and I jumped at the opportunity.
When Jack and I arrived at camp we were 2 of the 3 straight/cis counselors in a staff of 20. We were excited to learn about how we can be more inclusive of the queer community at Stomping Ground, the summer camp we run. We felt a little out of place when we didn't know some of the vocabulary and terms used by the other staff during the 2 days of training. Jess, Kayla, and the rest of the staff were totally accommodating and understanding of our lack of knowledge and helped to get us up to speed. They also matched us up with co-pairs that were inspiring and passionate advocates for the Queer community. I remember admitting to my co Jaq before the campers arrived how incredibly nervous I was. I was sure that I was going to use the wrong language and alienate myself. They assured me that the community would help me without any shame. They reminded me that everyone is a unique individual, and that if people in the community can see that one’s intention is to be respectful and inclusive, there is no harm in asking what the correct pronouns or terms are.
The week was wonderful. In my cabin, there were 11 beautiful people who were so grateful to be in a place that recognized them for who they are and valued them for their insight and passion. The week had a mix of traditional camp activities like archery, arts and crafts, and swimming along with leadership workshops lead by speakers that came in from the outside community. All camps that I have worked at or been a part of in some way are successful in creating emotional buy-in for their campers. Camps work hard to make their communities a place apart from the rest of the world. Brave Trails was incredible at building this culture in their first summer. The campers felt so supported and seen and heard by the rest of the staff and directors. It was not rare to see campers tearfully hugging and comforting each other after an emotional workshop, or laughing hysterically during a theater activity or dance class. At the closing banquet there was not a dry eye in the camp. I feel honored and grateful to have been a part of such a meaningful and inclusive place.
Here are some program fixes that I plan to implement at camp next summer to be more inclusive of transgender campers and other members of the Queer community.
1.) Asking for Preferred Gender Pronouns
At Brave trails asking anyone what their Preferred Gender Pronouns(PGP’s) were was totally normal. Campers and Staff wore name tags with their PGP’s on them. PGP’s are what an individual prefers to be called: he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/their, or any other combination. Having pronouns clearly visible for all members of the community allowed for everyone to be respectful and respected. At Stomping Ground this summer we took away the binary gender boxes on our application and just asked for campers gender identity. We plan on doing this again to clearly communicate to our camper families that we are inclusive of the queer community. Once campers arrive at camp, we are going to be intentional and explicit with respect to people’s pronouns. Having name tags available, and modeling asking for pronouns during cabin meetings and all camp meetings.
2.) Gender Neutral Bathrooms
Gender neutral bathrooms is a hot topic all around the country right now. Transgender individuals are fighting for their right to use the bathroom of the gender they identify as. At camp, in our safe and inclusive communities we have the opportunity to remove this pain point. I understand that going from gendered bathrooms to gender neutral bathrooms can be intimidating to a camp facility especially one steeped in tradition. After being at Brave Trails where everything was gender neutral, bathrooms seems like an obvious place for us to start. Some of the positives of gender neutral bathrooms, beyond the obvious respect and dignity it provides for queer individuals, is that there were rarely any lines of people waiting for the bathroom. Campers that needed to use the restroom could always find one that was not occupied. It is not uncommon for collages, restaurants, coffee shops, and other establishments to have gender neutral bathrooms. We hear about more places taking this step every day. Why not be a leader in this inclusive practice at camp?
3.) Normalizing Relationships
One of my favorite moments at Brave Trails was Wednesday morning before breakfast. The staff and directors were noticing more and more relationships forming among the campers. We had anticipated this happening not only because it is a camp filled with 12-20 year olds but also because for many of the campers this was the first time they were in a community of other queer individuals. The directors were passionate about not shaming, denying, or blaming campers for having such normal and healthy feelings for others. They remarked to us as a staff that relationships that form at camp are often happy and actualized and healthy. However, camp is not the place to act on such feelings and that acting on such feeling would indeed jeopardize the future of Brave Trails.
After brainstorming with the staff late into the night on Tuesday, together we decided that we would pull all of the campers together the next morning and just level with them. We outed the relationships that existed already on staff. Jack and I as well as 2 other couples stood up and told the campers the challenges as well as the benefits of being at camp with someone that we love. The campers were so grateful that we were able to be so vulnerable and real with them. It was amazing to see the way campers responded to our honesty. For most of them the relationships on staff were surprises, staff talked about how they want the goal of camp to be the growth of the campers and the leadership training. That if they were to just pay attention to each other, by holding hands, making out etc. they would be alienating and excluding the rest of the community that the love and are trying to form friendships with as well. This was incredibly affirming for me as a director of Stomping Ground. At Stomping Ground we serve a younger population of campers but we do not want to start shaming, or blaming campers for feelings they might have for others. Natalie Roberts-Day, the Associate Director at YMCA Camp Kitaki led a transformative workshop that I attended last year at a camping conference. She spoke passionately about how her time at a shelter for victims of domestic violence informed her thoughts on age old practices we promote at summer camp.
The concept of “purpling,” for example – a term commonly used to make light of not allowing kids to couple up and hang out with the opposite sex. Not only is “purpling” not inclusive of the queer community, but it is creating a culture of shame around love and relationships. Nat talks about how showcasing positive relationship role models, like Brave Trails did this summer, is a practice they are beginning to implement with at their program in Nebraska. I am excited to also create a space at Stomping Ground where campers feelings for others are recognized as normal and not forced underground, and a place where no matter who you love you are included in our family.
I would love to hear what you doing to build an inclusive community for members of the LGBTQ+ community and others. Please leave comments below with ideas and thoughts.
Brave Trails also got featured in People Magazine! Check their feature article out here.