Gender-specific bunks and activities have historically been a big part of the camp experience, especially at sleepaway camp. While this can be a positive experience for some campers, it can also be a negative experience for others. In particular, it can cause discomfort and distress for some trans and non-binary campers who may be questioning their gender identity and where they fit in gendered spaces. The following are some suggestions from a trans person and former camper to help alleviate potential stress around gender identity at summer camp. Keep in mind that this does not necessarily require doing away with gendered spaces entirely, it merely calls for increased options, empathy, and emotional resources, all of which are totally worth it for your campers!
If you work at, or are involved in the administration of a summer camp, here are 7 ways you can make your camp a better and more welcoming place for trans campers:
- Offer gender neutral bunks and hire trans and non-binary counselors for those bunks. Gender neutral bunks allow trans campers a sense of community, and a way to avoid the discomfort of feeling as if they don’t belong in single-gender spaces.
- Hire trans staff members and leaders in general! Trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming campers should have access to the support of staff who share their experience. Representation matters.
- Encourage optional pronoun sharing. No one should be required to share their pronouns, but training staff to share their pronouns during introductions and at other times (if they are comfortable doing so) will normalize the practice. This helps avoid a culture of assuming others’ pronouns or identity based on stereotypes.
- Implement a “no body talk” rule. This helps all campers avoid questions about their gender expression and general appearance that may cause discomfort, especially around the age of puberty. The “no body talk” rule disallows negative, neutral and positive comments about any person’s appearance, and can benefit everyone alike because we all get self-conscious!
- Require staff to use a child’s chosen name and pronouns. Trans campers will feel more respected and heard. Doing so has been shown to greatly improve mental health outcomes.
- Respect anonymity. If a child asks to be called by a name or pronoun other than the one on their registration forms, do not share this information with a child’s parent without explicit permission. If a child is not already out to their family, sharing this information can force them out of the closet prematurely, possibly creating a dangerous situation for the camper.
- General de-gendering. Gender identity is real and valid, with tangible real-world consequences, but it is also a social construct. Build the habit of questioning whether certain spaces are really benefiting from being gendered, or whether that choice is actually excluding people.