Gay at Camp

Summer Camp
Photo: Merritt Brown via Creative Commons

I love camp. I loved it before I even really knew what it was. I remember watching a camp promotional video in a director’s office just prior to an interview for what would hopefully be my first job at camp. It was all I could do to stop myself from begging her for a job or offering to work for free just so I could be there. It was love at first sight!

Thankfully I didn’t need to do either. She offered me a job later that day. As she tells the story now, 18 years later, I was a male with a pulse and in 1994 that’s all you really needed. Back then she told me I was a diamond in the rough (never having gone to camp or worked with children before) and that she had a ‘good feeling’ about me. I suspect there’s some truth in both accounts. Either way she certainly didn’t regret the decision. I’ve gained some polish along the way and I am now one of her most trusted advisors on many things camp – a role that gives me tremendous pleasure.

Given my love for camp and my great love for my camp, I’ve had a difficult time writing about what it was like for gays and lesbians at camp in the 90s when I was on staff versus what it’s like for them now – the purpose for which I was invited to write this post.

Instead of writing about that, I only want to write about how incredible my camp experience was, how it had a huge impact on who I am today and that being there my first summer opened doors to a whole new world that ultimately lead to some incredible journeys and personal growth. All of which is 100% true.

Unfortunately that doesn’t tell the whole story though. It leaves out the parts where some of the most homophobic experiences I’ve encountered and participated in happened while I was on staff at camp in the 90s. I know what we did wasn’t condoned by the director. But I also know that it was fairly rampant without being overtly addressed. I would like to think that it didn’t trickle down to our campers but I think that might be a little naïve. And for that, I am sorry.

The impact that this had on me was profound. Two years later when I was ready to come out I couldn’t possibly fathom telling many of my friends from camp. Instead, I cut a huge swath of very important people from my life due to my fear of telling my former partners-in-homophobic-crime that I was gay.

I remember feeling like camp – and my camp world – should have been the place more than any to give me solace and support during that difficult time in my life when I was coming out. The vivid memories of all the homophobic comments, jokes and pranks we played, however, negated any sense of safety this community had once given me. The only solution I could come up with was to disconnect from the only place where I had ever felt connected and to turn my back on those who had done so much to nurture my growth and grow my spirit. The sense of loss this created was overwhelming then and still leaves me feeling a little raw almost 20 years later.

I came back to camp-related work about five years ago with some trepidation. I was sure that times had changed and that as a confident, out gay professional I could handle whatever I was about to face. In many ways, I was right. It was a different time. Trainings on homophobia, social inclusion, and bullying were the norm at many camps. In fact, I have since developed and facilitated these trainings myself at camps across North America.

What I can say after visiting and working with so many camps is that camp feels different now. Many feel more open and more willing to tackle the issues. And for that I’m grateful. I am also inspired by the incredible efforts of some pioneering camps – including my old camp – that are paving the way for full inclusion of LGB staff, campers and families.

I can also tell you that I’ve been working in partnership with Keshet for the past year as a trainer and consultant with camps and more recently in my role at the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) to encourage and support camps in becoming more LGB inclusive. This past year we promoted LGB inclusivity training at FJC’s Leader’s Assembly; co-facilitated workshops at the American Camping Association’s (ACA) largest annual conference, where we were also joined by the Jewish Community Center’s Association (JCCA); and developed a camp-track for Keshet’s National Training Institute which we began implementing at a Training Institute in New York in March.

Even with the great strides we’ve made and the incredible work being done in the camp field, there is still much more to do. For me, it will be finished when campers and staff find the role models they need from within – the role models who help them understand they are not alone, that they exist within the community and that they don’t have to give up the camp part of their life in order to integrate a new part of their identity. I can tell you first hand what a difference that would have made in my own life and I know from many others the difference it has made in theirs.

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