How Camps Welcome Transgender Youth
Getting ready for summer camp is equally exciting and scary for most first-time campers, but add in being a transgender kid and the prospect can be quite daunting. That’s why many camps today are focusing on educating their staffs and providing simple accommodations to make the traditional summer experience a great one for transgender youth.
At first, some parents may be uncomfortable with the idea of a transgendered camper sharing a camp, activities, or even a tent with their child, “but what is under someone else’s clothes is no one else’s business,” says Jeff Perrotti, who consults with camps and schools on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. He also teaches psychology at Harvard University and is director of the Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “With any social change or learning a new way of thinking, there is always a certain level of discomfort, but this is a necessary component of learning and growth.”
“If a transgender youth is out with their parents, we start with a frank discussion with them,” says Ryder Scott, statewide director of UMaine 4-H Camps and Learning Centers, which offer transgender-specific programming and also welcome transgender campers in open enrollment. “How can we make them feel comfortable? Do they want to be in the boys tent or the girls tent? What reasonable accommodations can we make to reduce anxiety?”
“Private changing areas reduce anxiety,” Perrotti adds. “This improves the experience for all campers. Not only transgender campers, but all young people go through periods of time where they are not sure about their bodies. We want kids to have as anxiety-free an environment as possible, and having facilities they use in private does that.”
Summer camp anxiety for transgender youth can often center around traditional summer camp activities, such as swimming and boating. “Many transgender kids don’t swim well,” Scott notes. “It is anxiety around the changing into suits, so they don’t learn.” Most camps talk to campers individually to find out what they need to feel comfortable and offer options such as private changing areas and leveled swim instruction.
Making reasonable accommodation is required of some camps affiliated with larger institutions, and there are easy things all camps can change to be welcoming to everyone, experts say.
“Some of the accommodations we’ve made were very simple, like gender-neutral bathrooms,” Scott says. “Going to the bathroom is a basic human need and we want campers to be comfortable, not to have anxiety over which bathroom to use.”
Whether a transgender youth is attending camp is private, and most camps will not disclose this information. How much or little is shared with other campers is left to the discretion of the camper, their parents, and the camp director.
Summer camps usually have policies and practices that provide a safe and supportive environment for gay, lesbian, or bisexual staff. Now this environment is often being extended to transgender campers, too.
There are many ways sleep-away camps are welcoming transgender campers. “This can be a challenge when the camper went one year as John and the next as Julie,” Perrotti notes.
How staff and parents interact with a camper working to socially establish a new gender can be delicate. Parents, staff, and other campers want to be supportive and welcoming. Most camps start with training their staff to be supportive and then, within reason, making the camp flexible. This may mean offering a camper a private place to shower, their choice of camp tents, or even just a tour before camp begins.
“We start our training with staff learning about special accommodations to campers with food allergies and medical conditions,” Scott says. “Some of my staff are still teenagers themselves, and this can be an eye-opening discussion. But we make it clear that gender expression and gender identity are not about sexual attraction. Sex and sexuality have no place at camp.”
For all youth, transgender or cisgender (the opposite of transgender), camp can be a place to try on roles that may differ from those they live at home. For example, athletic kids can explore their artistic side, or introverts may want to work on being more outgoing.
“This is true of all kids, but especially transgender kids,” Perrotti says. “Camp is a place to explore who you are. Camp is a great place for all kids. It is a non-sexual environment in a sexualized world.”
“Sometimes, if a camper has not come out to their parents, they may try on that role at camp,” Scott adds.
“Most of the time when I train camp staff,” Perrotti says, “they say they found it easier to have a transgender camper than they thought. The unknown can be overwhelming, and a little education goes a long way.”