Traditional overnight summer camps are about as stereotypically American as green bean casserole and eight-lane superhighways. However, due to the traditions deeply engrained in camp culture, it has been difficult for them to feel motivated to keep up with the social and societal progress that has been made since their founding.
According to the American Camp Association, more than 26 million kids between the ages of seven and 17 attend summer camp each year in the US. For the kids who attend, this is a quintessential and highly anticipated part of summer where they get to try new things, make new friends, and spend time outside being a kid without their parents around.
Although nowadays most camps are not segregated by gender, traditionally boys and girls attended separate campuses and participated in very different activities. Now, for the most part, boys and girls attend the same camps and are offered the same activities.
However, boys and girls sleep in separate cabins with counsellors of their own gender.
This was a seemingly logical setup for a long time, but in the last 20 years a light has been shed on the transgender community, especially trans youth, and there has been a push for trans inclusivity in traditionally gender-segregated environments, such as summer camps.
It used to be acceptable to ostracise and ignore trans children for fear of them “influencing other children to be trans”, however, the argument is now being made by many to offer them the same experiences as cisgender children.
Because of the traditional nature of these summer camps, many have done little work to provide a truly safe space for transgender or gender-queer campers.
A gender-fluid counsellor at a camp in Colorado, Salem Keller (he/they/she) spoke about their experience working as a counsellor at a camp they had previously attended for nine years as a camper.
Salem only changed their name the day before arriving at camp to work, so they ended up coming out for the first time at camp the year they began working there.
“I feel like it would have been a lot harder for me if I had started questioning my gender earlier. I feel like the separation of gender at camp would have made it a lot harder for me to understand my gender identity,” he said.
Although Salem didn’t question their gender identity until after being too old for the traditional (gender separated) cabins, she knew “that there are kids who are struggling with their gender identity, who are doing traditional camp and don’t get that Co-Ed experience” that might help them feel more comfortable.
“Being a trans counsellor was rough,” Salem said. “I feel like the admin team did not recognise my actual gender at all. You can memorise pronouns as much as you want but if you are forcing someone who is trans or non-binary or has a fluid identity into a cabin that is only related to what they were assigned at birth, I feel like it isn’t a good sign.”
According to summer camp director Alison Lum, the lack of room for gender-diverse campers goes deeper than just cabin assignments. Often it is down to the camp’s software itself as “the application system that we use for both staff and campers, that technology only gives us two options. You can either be male or you can be female, and we advocated for that change in our staff hiring systems,” she said.
Although there now is a non-binary option, Alison feels that the “software we’ve chosen to use isn’t thinking the same way that we are in this office.”
This isn’t a one-off situation either. The American Camp Association estimates that more than 3,000 transgender or gender-queer children attend their camps each year
When asked what the policy is for trans kids who sign up for camp, Alison replied that “there is not necessarily a policy.” She elaborated by saying “There are no cis-gender policies about how we operate camp so why would I have a transgender policy? That’s kind of the position we have taken at camp.”
As it stands, the camp “welcomes and registers campers based on their gender, not their sex.” Therefore, campers are allowed to choose which cabin they will spend their time in, within the male and female options.
Similarly, when Salem began working at camp he believed that he would be able to choose what gender he wanted to work with on a week by week basis, but once the summer began he realised that was not the case.
“I had mostly been with the girls all cabins throughout the summer. I think I had one week with the boys cabin, and I really liked being with the boys there because they were so much fun, but unfortunately, they did not let me go back into the boys cabin even though I think I was one of the only people asking for it,” they said.
The reason behind camps sticking with a traditional model is more complicated than one may think. “I honestly don’t even think it is a camp-specific problem, it is a society problem as a whole. I think this problem needs to be solved at the root, and society just needs to adjust how it thinks about gender and sexuality and camps need to evolve with that,” Salem said.
Alongside deeply ingrained tradition, Alison lamented that “we also work in systems of being run by a board or run by other leadership. And those are influential decision-makers who either help support or block these conversations from moving forward.”
As well as this, money can be a contributing factor to a lack of change. “If I rock this boat a little bit, we lose 10% of our customers and therefore, I think there’s a lot of fear that drives those financial and business decisions,” she said.
A possible solution
Despite all the challenges that most camps have faced in creating inclusive spaces, one in particular called Camp Brave Trails has struck out and created an entirely queer space for young people to experience summer camp.
Brave Trails offers cabins divided by age, not gender, which erases any complications with trans and non-binary campers that may arise at traditional camps.
The camp’s mission statement says: “We got rid of gendered housing and activities, did away with arbitrary gendered dress codes, and ensured our campers would not be bothered with having to prove or explain who they are. That way we could get to the real reason they are at camp: to make friends, grow, and have fun!”
Alison is aware of this camp set-up, saying “I see change happening already, which is good. There are definitely camps who are already operating all gender cabins. All gender for both staff and campers to have those options for housing. So I see that happening, and I see our camp having that in our future as well.”
Despite the challenges of this summer, Salem felt that he was able to make a positive impact on their campers: “I am a safe space for trans kids, so over the summer I met so many amazing kids, and they felt comfortable coming out to me, which was really awesome. They told me about their experiences, and being that comforting queer person to look up to that they might not have in their life outside of camp was really awesome,” they said.
In the future Salem hopes for there to be more awareness about gender-queer campers, saying that “I feel like just having a more open conversation about queer, non-binary, and trans kids would help. I feel like that would just make camp a lot better for trans kids who come.”
Alison is looking forward to change as well, saying “The way that I have been taught, and what I have learned, is that if you make the right decision, the human interest decision, you will not only create a more inclusive environment, but you will also find new supporters of your initiatives because they see you trying to be an inclusive environment.”
Featured image by Sophia Patrick
Edited by Rella Jefferies & Taysan Ali-Osman