Don’t Assume I’m Straight: Providing a Safe Environment for GBLQ Youth at Camp

by Rob Alexander with Christa Kriesel

Controversy. Dialogue. Differing opinions. Some would say that this is the foundation of enlightened inquiry. This inquiry may be rational, emotion-filled, or obstinate. The choice is yours.

Perhaps few issues have the potential to draw a larger “line in the sand” over which there can be the expression of strong personal, philosophical, and religious views than the issue of sexual orientation. It has been likened to views about race relations in the 40s and 50s. For some, it is an issue of deeply held religious convictions. For others, it is an issue of constitutional freedoms in America.

Whatever your view, there is no doubt there have been campers and staff at your camp who have a sexual orientation that is different from yours and which may be different from the philosophy or teaching of the ownership/sponsor of your camp.

The authors share what it means for a camp to take the position that providing safe environments for all children, youth, and adults — regardless of sexual orientation — is foundational to its reason for being.
Agree or disagree. But do so based on a thoughtful exploration of how we can work together to find support and positive development for youth as they transition to adulthood.

The American Camping Association has taken no public policy position on the issue of sexual orientation. We believe that such issues must be handled by individual camps consistent with the philosophy and mission of their owners/sponsors/directors. We encourage camps to establish policies and procedures consistent with their mission and purpose while seeking to provide positive development for the youth and adults in their influence.

What follows is one camp’s approach, and an opportunity for you to consider your own camp’s response to this segment of our diverse and dynamic society.


Preparing for my first year as a summer camp director in North Carolina, I felt on top of the world and ready for anything. I had risen through the staff ranks at my camp and thought I had seen or experienced everything that could possibly happen at our summer program. That is, until “Anna” arrived for her leadership training experience.

She stood at the registration table — a returning camper of several years with the same gregarious smile and carefree attitude. What was different was the rainbow flag patched to her daypack and the T-shirt exclaiming, “Don’t Assume I’m Straight.” Here was a young teen asserting her sexuality and a new camp director with no idea what to do.

“How will this affect the other campers? Will my staff be comfortable working with Anna?” “Anna is open with her sexuality. How many campers do I have who are not?” And most importantly, “How can I be sure that Anna has the same positive camp experience that we provide every other youth in our care?”

The visibility of sexual orientation diversity appears more frequently in the lives of young people today than any time before. Television sit-coms, Internet Web sites, popular movies, and the news media all discuss and debate sexuality issues frankly and openly. At the same time, young people are “coming out” as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning (GLBQ) earlier and earlier. Given that many youth identify summer camp as a place to explore their self-identities, it is not a surprise that more and more camps have begun to share similar experiences to mine. If a goal of camp professionals is to provide positive growth experiences for all campers, it becomes important to prepare our programs and ourselves for young people like Anna.

This article provides current infor-mation regarding sexual orientation and youth and describes specific ideas for reacting to camper sexual identity in a manner appropriate to the camper’s well- being and consistent with our camp missions. The article refers to nonheterosexual youth as “GLBQ” — which stands for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and questioning (See list of terms for definitions). Gender identity is not addressed although terms for gender have been included in the resource section.

What Does It Mean to Be GLBQ?

Two of the first questions staff asked regarding Anna were, “What do we think we know about sexuality?” and “What do we actually know?” The answers provided some interesting misunderstandings and obvious needs for up-to-date information.

Many misconceptions that have persisted over the years about GLBQ youth have been shown to be incorrect by the medical, psychological, and educational communities. A 1999 document developed and endorsed by such groups as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the American Counseling Association enforces the fact that homosexuality is not a choice. Rather, “sexual orientation is one component of a person’s identity, which is made up of many other components, such as culture, ethnicity, gender, and personality traits (www.apa.org/pi/lgbc/publications/justthefacts.html, accessed 9/7/03).”

Although researchers have not proven the cause of a person’s sexuality, the National Mental Health Association affirms that “many researchers believe sexual orientation to be complex with biology playing an important role. Many people are born with their sexual orientation, or it is established at an early age.” Similarly, “you can’t raise a child to be gay nor can parents or therapists change a young person’s sexual orientation, just as they can’t change their eye color, race, or height (2002, www.nmha.org/whatdoesgaymean/questions.cfm, accessed 11/14/02).”

A common and very incorrect misconception about sexuality is that there is a link between GLBQ individuals and child molestation. The American Psychological Association posts on its Web site that “there is no evidence to suggest that homosexuals are more likely than heterosexuals to molest children (www.apa.org/pubinfo/answers.html, accessed 9/7/03).” Sexual orientation does not define the behavior of an individual. One should therefore not assume that a GLBQ staff member or camper may be a danger to others because of their sexual orientation.

Many individuals wonder why GLBQ people feel a need to disclose their sexuality to others. “Coming out,” as this is called, refers to the lifelong process of acknowledging one’s gay, lesbian, or bisexual attractions and identifying to oneself and disclosing this fact to others. Coming out is a normal tendency to want to share personal information with important others and takes a certain amount of courage and trust (Just the Facts About Sexual Orientation & Youth, 1999). Unlike their heterosexual peers, GLBQ youth must learn to manage their identity without sufficient support and modeling from parents, family, and traditional mentors. Coming out enables them to find that support and is an important step in a youth’s development towards becoming a healthy adult in our society (Ryan and Futterman 1998). Often, youth spend several years aware that they are different from their peers and undergo a sometimes painful internal process of coming to understand that difference. Some youth are “outed” by others before they are ready — when someone with knowledge of their sexuality makes that information public. This can lead to emotionally damaging situations for the outed youth.

The average age of coming out has been dropping in recent years. In 1982, males were coming out at age fifteen while females at age twenty. By 1993, these ages dropped to thirteen and fifteen (www.glsenco.org 2003). This may or may not be a sign of society becoming more tolerant of sexual diversity amongst young people. Regardless, this statistic does suggest that youth organizations will experience more situations involving youth who identify as GLBQ.

Camps should all have a policy that is discussed in staff training relating to what is and is not suitable to discuss with campers and each other. Because of the variety of parental values around these issues, discussions by either heterosexual or GLBQ staff about their view or experiences are not appropriate.

Challenges Facing GLBQ Youth

Over the course of our camp session, Anna revealed some of the challenges she faced on a daily basis at school and in her home community. Much was learned from talking with her directly, but further research after that summer uncovered some disturbing information.

Two studies in the states of Washington and Massachusetts (1995, 1997) found GLBQ youth to be five times more likely to experience violence and harassment, twice as likely to partake in heavy drug use, and seven times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. In school, between 30 and 70 percent of GLBQ youth experienced verbal or physical assault and almost 28 percent eventually dropped out. Half of the youth surveyed believed that all homosexuals were unhappy (www.advocatesforyouth.org 2003). The recent documentary, Out in the Cold, declares that half of all homeless youth in our country are GLBQ, many of whom leave home or are turned out because of their sexuality.

After Anna, we wondered how many GLBQ youth actually came through our programs and whether or not we were inadvertently reinforcing such statistics. We wanted to provide a safe place . . . but how could we do this without completely transforming our regular camp program?

Building Safe Spaces

Before we could begin finding the answers to this question, we had to agree that our programs must support all youth, including those who may be GLBQ. This challenged us to understand our own limitations regarding sexuality issues. We realized that the extent to which we were comfortable talking about or dealing with these issues directly related to our ability to support GLBQ youth . . . and staff, for that matter. If we were not comfortable and did not have the necessary knowledge but were determined to be supportive, it was important that we accessed resources outside of our organization.

Doing just that, we established nine ideas from interviews with youth pro-fessionals, existing literature, and accounts of actual summer camp experiences. Together, they provide a range of specific actions applicable to any camp program.

  1. We examined our organization’s non-discrimination policy for staff and campers. Did it include “sexual orientation”? Having these words included provided a rationale for creating safe environments for GLBQ youth and staff in our program areas.

  2. Campers may not identify as being GLBQ themselves, but may have GLBQ parents. We considered the text of our registration forms concerning spaces for parent names. Instead of assuming “Mother” and “Father,” we inserted more neutral words such as “Parent” or “Guardian.”

  3. We looked at our staff hiring and management practices to determine if they were inclusive of GLBQ staff and campers. If we are not creating a safe environment for GLBQ staff, then our staff will not create a safe space for GLBQ youth. Carolyn Thompson, program manager at Mountain Meadow Camp in southern New Jersey, suggests that camp directors include questions in staff interviews about comfort levels and experience working with GLBQ people. This helps inform the potential staff member of an intent to maintain open communication about GLBQ issues.

    Just having the words “we do not tolerate discrimination against GLBQ individuals” included in the staff manual is another step. Reading these words out loud in a staff training session breaks the ice that it is OK to talk about GLBQ issues and to ask questions. Incorporating GLBQ information in a diversity awareness workshop begins a dialogue that will help staff collect accurate information and understand their own limitations regarding GLBQ issues. It also lets GLBQ staff know that they are a resource for other staff.

  4. We gave our staff the skills to create safe spaces. We knew that well-prepared staff received accurate information about GLBQ youth and had the opportunity to ask their own questions and explore their own comfort level with GLBQ issues. Staff training included role playing situations like campers “coming out” to staff, campers using the words “that’s so gay” to describe something they think is stupid, and campers talking about having GLBQ parents, to name a few. Many organizations provide such information and training for those who don’t have the resources available within their own organization.

  5. We learned that the most effective, but most often overlooked, method for creating safe spaces is being aware of assumptions being made and of the messages conveyed through what is — or is not — talked about in a program. For example, using the general word “partner” when discussing boyfriend or girlfriend relationships allows youth to define for themselves who their partner can be. Also, asking campers to clarify what they mean when they say “that’s so gay” in a situation and explaining that “gay” is a word to describe a group of people. How might the camper feel if someone said that something strange was “so tall?”

    Thompson reinforces this notion of language and communication. “A lot of creating a safe place has to do with conversation. GLBQ people know that they are not going to get away from homophobia. From a director’s standpoint, if you know that you have GLBQ camp members, check in and ask how their experience goes. Not talking about it is the most hurtful experience.”

    Kim Summers of YWCA Camp Westwind in Oregon agrees. “Camp is such a critical place . . . a place where campers need to talk about hard-to-discuss topics. There is a difference between facilitating discussion on these topics and changing the subject.” The difference can have long-lasting impacts on your campers.

  6. We established a clear policy for staff on how to respond to campers disclosing personal information regarding sexuality. As mentioned before, “coming out,” even as questioning, is an important developmental step. Our staff policy therefore encouraged positive listening support and made available referral to supplemental information. If a camper is already “out” like Anna, we informed staff that their role is to affirm the camper’s identity and to enforce a safe space for them in their peer group. However, be clear with your staff that listening to a camper question their sexual identity does not authorize the staff member to disclose sexual experiences. We reminded our staff that sexual identity is not the same as sexual behavior and that identity support does not require discussion of personal sexual behavior.

    In the case of a camper having questions beyond the boundaries of this staff policy, we identified one administrative staff with training and experience regarding GLBQ issues to provide more in-depth support and information for the youth. Remember, when staff members tell youth that it is not appropriate to talk about GLBQ issues at camp, it sends a message that camp may not be safe for GLBQ youth.

  7. We examined what sort of behavior expectations we had for our campers. Does the camp’s anti-bullying policy specifically mention targeting youth who are or who appear to be GLBQ? Letting campers and parents know ahead of time that camp does not tolerate such bullying can prevent future conflicts. Many staff members have heard both campers and staff words used in a derogatory manner such as “homo, fag, faggot, dyke, queer, sissy, and pansy.” Specifically addressing the use of these words takes this prevention one step further.

    In training, Summers facilitates a staff brainstorm of all the different ways kids can be picked on for things over which they have no control — like weight, skin color, gender, and sexuality. The staff then create their own anti-bullying policy on how they want to be treated and how they want to treat others. It is a technique that provides stronger ownership in the policy.

  8. We used diversity images like “Safe Zone” signs and stickers at our facility. These images enforce respect for all diversity, not just sexual orientation. Inclusive signs and symbols consistently remind the camp community of camp policies.

  9. For those of us in leadership positions, we must never forget that our behavior serves as a model for how staff and campers alike will act. When asked what makes her program more inclusive of GLBQ youth, Kim Summers replied, “The biggest difference is simply that we encourage our staff members to talk and listen to campers on these tough issues versus referring them on to others.” By leading this example, the difference becomes widespread.

What Summer Camp Is All About

The camp session with Anna ended up being very positive for campers and staff alike — thanks to two outstanding leadership program staff and a supportive camp community. However, as a camp director, I was lucky. We could have faced many negative situations that might have adversely impacted not only Anna, but other campers and staff in our program. What has stayed with me the most from that summer with Anna is her strong belief that our summer camp was a safe place where she could be herself without fear of harassment or discrimination.

Since that summer, I have researched GLBQ resources in my own community and worked to educate myself about the needs these youth present. The process may be slow, but with this information, programs can become increasingly safer for all youth who check in at the registration table. After all, isn’t that what summer camp should be all about?

Resources for the Camp Professional on GLBQ Youth
National Youth Advocacy Coalition (NYAC)
nyac@nyacyouth.org

800-541-6922
 
Up-to-date resources specific to GLBTQ youth and their needs
Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN)
212-549-2627
 
Extensive information for youth workers and educators.
Advocates for Youth
info@advocatesforyouth.org
202-347-5700
 
Information directed to people needing information on GLBTQ youth.
Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)
info@pflag.org202-467-8180
 
Easy-to-read pamphlets on basic GLBTQ information in multiple languages.

Ten copies of “Safe Zone” posters may be received free of charge from the Boulder County Public Health in Boulder, Colorado, by contacting mjohnson@co.boulder.co.us or by calling 303-678-6164.

Terms

  • Straight/Heterosexual — a person who is emotionally and physically attracted to people of the opposite gender.
  • Gay/Lesbian/Homosexual — a person who is emotionally and physically attracted to people of the same gender.
  • Bisexual — a person who is emotionally and physically attracted to people of any gender. (Please note that identifying himself/herself as any of the above sexual orientations does not imply that a person is sexually active.)
  • Queer — a term many youth use to describe their sexual orientation. The general belief is that "gay," "lesbian," and "bisexual" are too limiting and that "queer" gives a greater depth of expression. This can be confusing to some, as "queer" is often considered a derogatory term in other contexts.
  • Questioning — a legitimate identity of still formulating sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • Gender Identity — a psychological term referring to one's core sense of maleness or femaleness.
  • Gender Dysphoria — a clinical term used to describe unhappiness or discomfort experienced by someone whose biological designation does not match his or her internal gender identity.
  • Transgender — a person who challenges "traditional" gender roles by various means including wearing clothing not generally associated with his or her own sex or even modifying his or her bodies. Individuals identifying as transgender may identify with any sexual orientation, including heterosexual. H
  • omophobia — a fear of homo-sexuality usually caused by ignorance and often leading to discrimination and marginalization of GLBQ people.

Available from the ACA Bookstore

· Diversity in Action by Sharon Chappell and Lisa Bigman

 

References
Sarchet, Nick. Transgender 101. Equality Colorado. 1999.
www.youthresource.com/library/trans.html (accessed 3/13/00).
www.nmha.org/whatdoesgaymean/questions.cfm (accessed 11/14/02).
Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. Ten Things Educators Can Do. 2002.

www.glsenco.org/Educators/Counselors/coming%20out.htm. Accessed 2/20/2003.

Just the Facts about Sexual Orientation & Youth: A Primer for Principals, Educators and School Personnel. American Academy of Pediatrics et al. 1999.
Ryan, Caitlin and Donna Futterman. Lesbian and Gay Youth: Care and Counseling. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/factsheet/fsglbt.htm. Accessed 2/20/2003.
Interview with Carolyn Thompson 4/4/2003. www.mountainmeadow.org.
Interview with Kim Summers 4/15/2003. www.campwestwind.org.
Out in the Cold, documentary (viewed 4/6/2003).

Rob Alexander is the Executive Director of the Wilderness Education Institute in Boulder, Colorado. He also serves as a volunteer facilitator for the Open and Affirming Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Support (OASOS) Program at Boulder County Public Health. You may direct comments or questions about this article to rob@weiprograms.org.

Christa Kriesel is the coordinator of the Open and Affirming Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Support (OASOS) Program at Boulder County Public Health. A former high school English teacher, Christa has worked with GLBTQ youth for the last seven years. For more information about the Boulder program, please write to OASOS at ckriesel@co.boulder.co.us.

Originally published in the 2003 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.

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