Out and About: Creating a Safe Environment for LGBT Campers and Staff

Bob Ditter

It was June 2006. I had been conducting staff training at a coed camp in the Northeast. I had already spoken to the entire staff about the “real work” of camp, which I see as helping campers use the activities and their relationships with one another and with staff to grow into more mature, well-rounded people — to develop character. As I typically do, I had spoken about the incredible impact staff can have on a young person and how children look up to staff in ways they might not always make obvious to us.

In the afternoon I had done breakout sessions, first with the female staff, then with the male staff, to discuss more specific age- and gender-related camper behavior. In each breakout session, I had asked the staff to group up according to the age of the campers with whom they would be working. I had noticed that the guys who had been assigned to the youngest boys in camp were already hanging out together. I am not sure what it was that caught my attention, but I had been struck by the casual, appropriate, and open consideration these young men showed one another, as well as their sincere and serious interest in the boys with whom they were about to work. Their questions were probing, thoughtful, and revealed a keen sense of nurturing. These were certainly some of the most exceptional male staff members I had encountered in the years I have done camp staff training. They were at once strong and sensitive. I had also been struck with how comfortable the rest of the male staff was with the sensitivity these young men so openly displayed.

At the end of the day, for reasons I can’t totally recall, I decided to ask the director, a burly ex-football coach and imposing individual of a man, whether he thought that he might have any gay men on his staff. “Of course we do!” he surprised me. “We have five or six guys who come down every summer from Nova Scotia who are all gay. They tell their friends about camp, and I have to tell you, they do the best job with those little boys of anyone I know! And anyone who has a problem with that can speak to me!” So much for my own stereotypes!

If you are on staff at camp this summer, regardless of whether your camp is forprofit or nonprofit, day or resident, religiously affiliated or sectarian, odds are there are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT) young people — both campers and other staff members — at camp right alongside you. By reporting and writing about this topic, I am not arguing about people’s personal religious beliefs regarding sexual orientation (or gender identity, which is different — see sidebar below). Everyone’s beliefs are a matter of personal conviction and are not under scrutiny here. I am also not trying to make a political statement.

The point of this article is to invite us all to think about the fundamental cause of bias and prejudice and to reaffirm the value of camp for all who attend regardless of sexual orientation or race or religion or any other identifying factor, for that matter. In other words, the purpose of this article is to talk about us as people and the enduring value camp has for young people of all stripes and colors.

Chances are that you already know someone personally who identifies as LGBT. Chances are also good that you will encounter a youngster or a fellow staff member who is LGBT at your camp this summer. If what we say about camp is true — which is that counselors are role models, mentors, and protectors of young people and that the mission of camp is to help children grow in a physically and emotionally safe environment — then the question is: Does this apply to all young people or just those whose identities or beliefs are the same as ours?

Terms Regarding Sexuality: Gender and Identity

Sex is one’s biologically determined gender at birth.

Gender identity is one’s private sense of being a man or a woman — the gender a person perceives he or she is. Basic gender identity is usually formed by age three and is extremely difficult to change after that.

Transgendered children feel they are trapped in the wrong body. This feeling is reported as early as three years old, and by five years old, such children can be suicidal if not taken seriously.

Sexual orientation describes an enduring pattern of attraction — emotional, romantic, sexual, or some combination of these — to the opposite sex, the same sex, both, or neither, and the genders that accompany them. These attractions are generally subsumed under heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, and asexuality. According to the American Psychological Association, sexual orientation also refers to a person’s sense of “personal and social identity” based on those attractions.

Sexual behavior is what one actually does sexually with another person.

Gender roles refer to the set of social and behavioral norms that are considered to be socially appropriate for individuals of a specific sex in the context of a specific culture. Camp has always been a place where gender roles have been mixed and nontraditional. Men are caretakers as much as women. Women are strong and capable and leaders just as much as men.

Genderqueer (alternatively, nonbinary) is a catchall term for gender identities other than man and woman, thus outside of the gender binary. People who identify as genderqueer may think of themselves as one or more of the following:

  • Both man and woman (bigender, pangender)
  • Neither man nor woman (genderless, agender)
  • Moving between genders (genderfluid)
  • Third gender or other-gendered; includes those who do not place a name to their gender
  • Having an overlap of, or blurred lines between, gender identity and sexual orientation

Some genderqueer people also identify as transgender, and may or may not wish for physical modification or hormones to suit their preferred expression. Many genderqueer people see gender and sex as separable aspects of a person and sometimes identify as a male woman, a female man, or a male/female/intersex genderqueer person.

A Tough Question

This is a tough question. For some of you, as staff members, the answer will be easier and more apparent than for the directors you work or volunteer for. That is because views about LGBT people are changing dramatically among young people. In 2010, Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) reported that 37 percent of high school students are supportive of gay peers, meaning they “respect and admire gay people.” About 50 percent of high school students report being “fencesitters,” meaning homosexuality in their peers “doesn’t bother [them] as long as they [are left] alone.” In their article in Camping Magazine in 2003, Rob Alexander and Christa Kriesel report that LGBT youth were “coming out” at increasingly younger ages.1 Almost ten years later, in 2013, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) reported that nine in ten LGBT youth say they are “out” to their friends, and 64 percent say they are “out” to their classmates. In addition, 56 percent of LGBT young people say they are “out” to their immediate family and 25 percent are “out” to their extended family.2 Another indicator of changing attitudes toward LGBT people comes from a 2012 Gallup poll, “U.S. Acceptance of Gay/Lesbian Relations Is the New Normal,” which reports that 54 percent of Americans now state they consider gay and lesbian marriages “morally acceptable.” Again, my point is not to promote the cause of LGBT people. It is to make note of the increasing openness of LGBT people and, consequently, the fact that a camper or fellow staff member who is LGBT is increasingly likely to make him or herself known to you at camp.

For many of you this is not a challenge. For those of you who are Christian, Muslim, or Jewish and have a strong belief that God says homosexuality is wrong or sinful, you may have a conflict. I am neither a theologian nor a religious expert, nor am I arguing that people give up their personal beliefs. I am an expert on human behavior. I know that accepting an LGBT person does not mean renouncing your belief. I also know, however, that for many people who believe strongly that homosexuality is wrong or sinful, it may feel this way. This is an explicable, yet false, choice — the result of an age old “trick of the mind.” I will explain.

Our belief systems are a central part of our identity — a part of who we are. When we come across someone who doesn’t fit into our belief system, we experience it as a threat or negation of who we are. To defend against this “annihilation,” this apparent undoing of our core self, we invalidate the outside threat. This happens because the mind, sensing that the other person’s identity or beliefs threaten our sense of ourselves, makes that other person wrong as a matter of “self-preservation.” It is extremely difficult for our binary brains to hold two disparate things (as in, “I believe homosexuality is sinful,” and, “this person has a right to his or her own self-determination”) at the same time.

One fundamental truth about human beings is we don’t like ambivalence; we like certainty. When two conflicting notions confront our minds, we often choose one or the other rather than hold each. We certainly do not choose what is foreign to us. This is what I mean by a false choice. It is a leftover from our reptilian brain and is designed to help us survive, because we couldn’t always trust that members of tribes other than our own weren’t going to be hostile to us. When we consider the struggles of the Palestinians and the Israelis, Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims, people on the conservative end of the spectrum and people on the liberal end of the spectrum, or white people and black people — or just about any race versus any other race — we can see there is plenty of evidence that overcoming this ancient reaction is still something we have not mastered as humans. It is also true that when people make us “wrong,” we turn around and make them wrong. Some LGBT people are just as guilty of judging people with strong religious beliefs as people with strong religious beliefs are guilty of judging them. To “turn the other cheek” is to rise above this mutual gut reaction and halt the judgment.

Critical Implications

In writing about this, I am not simply posing a philosophical discussion. The way we answer the question at camp (specifically, does our care and concern extend to anyone at camp or just those people who are like us?) has practical and critical implications for the level of emotional safety at camp. Looking at school environments for a comparison, according to the GLSEN survey from 2010, if teachers intervened on behalf of LGBT students when other students were using homophobic language or harassing LGBT students, the incidence of homophobic remarks dropped from 73 percent to 37 percent. That is a dramatic change in the social environment! Likewise, when LGBT students sensed that teachers were supportive, feelings of safety increased and levels of absenteeism decreased significantly (GLSEN, 2010). By contrast, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2011), LGBT students are five times more likely not to go to school because they do not feel safe either in school or on their way to and from school, and they are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers.

By intervening at camp, I am not talking about humiliating a camper or staff member who uses a homophobic slur or making them feel guilty. I am suggesting that you can take a simple yet clear stand by saying, “We don’t use those words here at camp. There are other ways to say what you want to say.” Addressing homophobic language in this way may take courage at first, but it is a straightforward way (excuse the pun!) of taking a stand for fairness and emotional safety. “I know you didn’t mean it,” (unless the speaker did mean it), “but what you are saying is hurtful to some people,” is another simple way to confront language or behavior that is potentially wounding.

Having a discussion as a staff about the social and emotional climate you want to create at camp is another deliberate step you can take. Part of this discussion should be a clarification about what is appropriate to share with campers or with one another in the public (shared) space of camp. For example, stating that one is gay, lesbian, or transgendered is a matter of identity and is no different than saying that you are from Chicago or that you are Jewish. Talking about what you do sexually is about behavior and would be inappropriate regardless of your sexual orientation. In fact, people at camp should be judged only on the basis of their behavior — what they do and say — rather than on who they are.

We do not often have the opportunity to be deliberate, or intentional, about creating the kind of community we want to live in. Camp can be one of those opportunities, but only if we take action to make it so. Those campers or staff members who identify as LGBT are at camp because they want the same benefits of this special community that other children or young adults seek. Giving them shelter from insensitive and hurtful remarks or behavior can have a significant positive impact on them. In a study done at McGill University in Montreal, researchers found that gay and bisexual men whose sexual orientation was accepted by peers and family had “lower depressive symptoms and allostatic levels3 than did heterosexual men” (Justier, 2013, p.11). Providing LGBT people at camp the same sense of safety everyone else is entitled to can only have a positive impact on the entire social and emotional climate there. As Kevin Jennings, GLSEN’s founder, said to camp professionals in his opening keynote address at the 2012 Tri-State Camp Conference, our beliefs are a matter of personal conscience for each of us to decide individually. When it comes to the care and well-being of the children who are entrusted to our charge, however, our beliefs cannot preclude us from providing the same wholesome, respectful, nurturing, safe experience to LGBT children as all the children we serve. To act otherwise would be to say that camp is only for some children, not all children.

Notes

  1. “Coming out” is a lifelong process of recognizing one’s sexual orientation and revealing it as a matter of identity to others.
  2. HRC’s report, Growing Up LGBT in America, is a survey of more than 10,000 LGBT-identified youth ages thirteen to seventeen.
  3. “Allostatic levels” refers to levels of stress hormones in an individual as a result of chronic stress. Allostatic load is generally measured through a composite index of indicators of cumulative strain on several organs and tissues, but especially on the cardiovascular system.

 

Discussion Questions

  • What kind of social and emotional climate do you want to foster at camp?
  • Has there ever been a time when you thought you might not get along with someone, but after getting to know him or her you became friends? What did this teach you?
  • What are some ways you can address inappropriate comments or language at camp?

 

References

Alexander, R. & Kriesel, C. (2003). Don’t assume I’m straight: Providing a safe environment for GLBT youth at camp. Camping Magazine, 76(6).
Gallup. (2012 May 14). U.S. acceptance of gay/lesbian relations is the new normal. Retrieved from www.gallup.com/poll/154634/acceptance-gay-lesbian-relations-newnormal.aspx
GLSEN (2010). 2009 national school climate survey. Retrieved from www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/all/news/record/2624.html
HRC. (2013). Growing up LGBT in America: HRC youth survey report — Key findings. Retrieved from www.hrc.org/files/assets/resources/Growing-Up-LGBT-in-America_Report.pdf
Jennings, K. (2012 March 14). Keynote address. Atlantic City, NJ: Tri-State Camp Conference.
Justier, R., et al. (2013). Sexual orientation and disclosure in relation to psychiatric symptoms, diurnal cortisol and allostatic load. Psychosomatic Medicine, Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine. Retrieved from www.psychosomaticmedicine.org/content/early/2013/01/18/PSY.0b013e3182826881.full.pdf+html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). Sexual identity, sex of sexual contacts, and health-risk behaviors among students in grades 9–12 — Youth risk behavior surveillance, selected sites, United States, 2001–2009. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 60.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. For more information about the author, visit www.BobDitter.com.  

Originally published in the 2013 May/June Camping Magazine. 

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