When camp professionals come to me regarding how to institute LGBTQ+ inclusive practices at their camps, one of their most pressing concerns is how parents and caregivers in their community will react. Over the past two years, as I have worked alongside many camps as they worked to institute practices that create welcoming spaces for LGBTQ+ campers, there have almost always been fewer caregiver confrontations than anticipated. But clearly, walking into these conversations prepared will enable you to feel confident and grounded in your mission and values.
As I have supported camps through this process, I have outlined the following seven steps that can hopefully help additional camps as they strive to manage these conversations. The most important thing to remember is that leading with bold and brave inclusion is going to make some folks angry — but that doesn’t mean you did something wrong. You should challenge yourself to be prepared for these conversations, not paralyzed by the fear of them.
Step 1 — Illuminate Your Why
This work is hard, but it has also proven to be lifesaving. The suicide risk for LGTBQ+ young people is cut by more than half when they are part of communities that they describe as very accepting (The Trevor Project, 2022). Make this your objective as you decide what steps you can take to create welcoming and affirming spaces. Grounding this work in your camp’s core values can be a real positive, because your camp community likely understands and supports these values. You are simply taking into consideration information that illuminates the need to use them for this vulnerable and beautiful population.
Step 2 — Prepare Clear Policies that Center on Equitable Safety
To effectively communicate to your camp community about what LGBTQ+ inclusion will look like in your space, you need to have your own clear picture of that information. The concept of universal design can really help here. So many folks are worried about what will happen in bathrooms, cabins, and locker rooms when we embrace LGTBQ+ campers and staff in our spaces. But the truth is, if they are unsafe after we affirm and include queer and trans* campers, they were unsafe to begin with. Let’s focus on the areas where we can make kids with all bodies safe. With appropriate boundaries and supervision, no one should be afraid to use a restroom or change their clothes.
Step 3 — Communicate at a Community-Appropriate Level
Take some time to think about your camp’s social climate and what the reaction to inclusive policies may look like. If you are in a community where you do not fear a huge backlash, being as clear as possible is a great benefit to you. If you can answer parents’ questions before they are asked, you will save yourself some energy. However, if you expect your community to use your well-thought-out, well-researched policies as a weapon against you, keep your declarations at a high level. For example, “We prioritize the equitable safety of all campers above all else. This means we will continue to have stellar supervision in all areas of camp, including bathrooms and changing spaces, and we will talk to all campers about respecting each other’s privacy and personal boundaries.”
The choice of what to communicate and how to deliver your message will vary greatly from camp to camp, and you will need to think this through with your team. Some questions you may ask are:
- Have camps in our area instituted a similar LGBTQ+ inclusion policy?
- How was the inclusion policy received by campers’ caregivers?
- How are schools in our community handling this?
- What has the reception been?
As a reminder, this is not about whether you are going to institute inclusive practices. This is just meant to help you discern how you will communicate with your community and give you the opportunity to prepare for a foreseeable response.
Step 4 — Prepare Talking Points for Foreseeable Concerns
You are most likely going to have angry caregivers once you institute trans*-inclusive practices. I am sure many of you weathered some not-so-kind phone calls when you instituted a COVID-19 masking policy. But you still instituted the mask policy, because you knew it was the safest thing to do for the campers in your care. The same principle holds here. I suggest preparing for the most outrageous questions, because, worst-case scenario, you’ll get them. However, most of the questions you receive will be about better understanding your policies from parents who truly want to keep their kids safe. Work with your team, remembering your why, and craft responses for the questions you believe you might field. If you don’t know what the best language to use is or are looking for additional information on talking points, this is an excellent time to enlist the aid of an expert who can help you build a bank of responses.
Step 5 — Pinpoint Your Response Team
Once you have prepared your talking points, the next step is to have a team in place who can meet the moment of the conversation. Just because someone has a certain title does not mean that they are equipped with the skills or knowledge to respond to questions, fears, and frustrations. Identify those members of your team who feel confident to champion your inclusive decisions while showing empathy and setting appropriate boundaries. Those who may field these calls or emails need to:
- Feel secure in the language
- Understand the reasoning behind the policies
- Feel comfortable engaging in escalated conversations
- Understand the data used to build the policies
Additionally, those on the response team should not be individuals who would be personally affected or harmed if the conversation turns hateful from the caregiver’s end. This is an opportunity to make sure that LGTBQIA+ staff do not have to shoulder the burden of the negative opinions about their personhood.
Step 6 — Manage Conversations with Clear Information
Caregiver interaction types can fall into three main categories that will affect how you address their questions.
- On Board. On boarders may even think that you haven’t gone far enough yet (and this might be true). They may have a few clarifying questions, want to know how you plan to expand these practices in the future, or just want to call to let you know how excited they are. Be grateful for the on boarders, and tuck away their compliments for when you need to remember your “Why.”
- Unsure But Not Unwilling. Unsures may have lots of questions. Although they might need some loving redirection on appropriate language usage they mostly have the best interests of their camper in mind and are simply unfamiliar with some of the concepts of LGBTQIA+ inclusion. While unsures might need additional resources to understand why you’ve made the decisions you have, they often can be brought along on the journey with some care and attention.
- The Never Going to Get Its. This group doesn’t understand why you are taking the actions you are, and no amount of thoughtful information or resources will help them understand. Be mindful of the amount of time you spend worrying about folks who are never going to accept your expanded knowledge of inclusion.
When we make the choice to be boldly and bravely inclusive, we must lovingly help people who are not in alignment with our program’s values understand that this might not be the camp for them. (I will always hold space for how hard this concept is, but also know that those who self-select to not align with inclusion cannot be the reason we don’t do it.)
When someone calls, you will probably be able to quickly determine whether they are contacting you to express genuine curiosity about your policies or to express their belief that your policies are unsafe and inappropriate and they want you to know it. In either case, clearly explain your policy, any rationale that you find reasonable and appropriate to share, and try to refer to your camp’s mission and values as often as necessary. Reassure folks with clear language that safety will always be a priority — but that safety must be equitably distributed to all campers, and including trans* campers does not pose a threat. In fact, trans* youth are significantly more likely to be harmed than to do harm.
If someone comes in hot, and you don’t feel like you are able to keep your composure, take a time out. Reflect, give yourself space, and then reengage the conversation. For example, on the phone you might say, “This sounds really important to you and I want to give you my full attention. Give me five minutes, and I will call you back and answer your questions without disruption.” In those five minutes jot down some notes for what you need to share, gather your preformulated talking points, and take some deep breaths. Remind yourself of your why, and remember that you are in control of the conversation.
Please also remember that you don’t owe anyone the space to abuse you, your staff, or your camp. If a caregiver starts to become belligerent and engages in name calling or other abusive language, I recommend stating clearly that the behaviors they are exhibiting are not effective communication and that if they continue you will have to conclude the conversation. An excellent sample script for ending a call due to hateful or nonproductive speech would be: “I have answered your questions, but at our camp we believe that people of all genders and sexualities should feel welcome and have access to safety. This stance is nonnegotiable. I am ending the call now, but if you feel like we can have an appropriate conversation about this in the future, you may reach me then.”
Step 7 — Create a Support System for Vulnerable Staff
If you have staff who are members of the LGBTQIA+ community who may have direct knowledge of negative feedback, it will be important to make sure to remind them that they are valuable members of your camp family. Furthermore, they are welcome and honored in your space. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community can easily internalize some of the mean things people say and start to wonder if they are a burden or a liability. Please take care to remind them they are not. Think about affirming one-on-one conversations, or, if the situation is particularly harmful (like angry folks taking it to social media), consider some sort of healing event where concerned staff can share what they are feeling, name what they need to feel safe at camp, or just be in community with their camp peers who they love and trust.
The Bottom Line
Creating safe spaces in our camp communities can literally save the lives of trans* campers. So each of us must think about how we can be the safety they deserve.
Just remember, for every parent who wants to fight you about gender-inclusive policies, there is a parent hoping that their child will be safe in your space because they haven’t found safety elsewhere. For every caregiver who questions why you invite people to share their pronouns during introductions, there will be a child who gets to use a pronoun that fits them for the first time in their life.
You all are the most powerful people in the world to these kids — and they deserve to feel loved and respected just as they are. Let’s get to work!
The Trevor Project. (2022). 2022 national survey on LGBTQ youth mental health. thetrevorproject.org/survey-2022/#support-youth
Chris Rehs-Dupin is cofounder of Transplaining, an organization that works to create a safe(r) world for transgender and gender nonconforming youth and adults through education, community conversations, and empathy. Chris spent 17 years in youth development in the outdoors, including 8 years in overnight programming and 9 years in day programming. He is a speaker, trainer, and educator who has spoken at numerous conferences, camps, and organizations.