The Importance of Camp to LGBT Youth

June 22, 2018
Kate Akerman

The month of June holds a very special place in my heart. Warm weather, the joyous arrival of seasonal staff and campers, and of course, LGBT Pride Month. Pride is a time to celebrate the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community and all the communities that support and affirm us in our authentic identities. For many campers, that affirming community is their camp family. Pride is a time to celebrate the progress we’ve made, but it is also a time to remember the work we still have yet to do.

GLSEN, one of the leading research and education nonprofits in the LGBT+ field, produces The National School Climate Survey. This study shows us areas of growth and areas where we need to put in the work to grow. The 2015 study reports that 75 percent of transgender/ gender non-conforming students report feeling unsafe in their school building. These concerns of safety and experiences of bullying and harassment stem from a lot of behaviors. Yes, there’s still the big acts of violence where the bully shoves somebody down and calls them a hateful slur.

Additionally, 85.2 percent of LGBT+ students experience verbal harassment based on their sexual orientation or gender expression.  That still happens every day across the nation, but these feelings of fear and lack of safety also stem from the fact that every time our campers walk into the hall at school or even on our very own kickball field, they hear things like “that’s so gay” all the time. When I speak with students I ask them “How many of you have heard the phrase ‘that’s so gay’ today?” In every classroom, no matter the district, no matter the grade level, at least half the class raises their hand.

So where are the adults? GLSEN’s 2015 National School Climate Survey reports that 63.5 percent of students who reported these bullying and violent behaviors said that their school staff did nothing in response or told the student to ignore it.

Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is schools are not doing enough to protect our young people. That’s where we come in. For years, camp has been the safe haven for young people from all different walks of life. Camp is where our children become strong, resilient campers, who become competent and compassionate human beings. 

It’s time that we start putting in the work to bring our own camp communities into the conversation. It’s time to start putting in the work to create an affirming environment for all of our campers, especially those who are not experiencing that support in other corners of their lives.

Now, there are some camps out there who are already doing really amazing queer-inclusive work. I love that! Are you hiring?

Here are some tips for the rest of us, who are still working in that space where we want to do our best to be inclusive and affirming to all campers.

  • Name tags. Encourage your campers to make their own name tags with the name they want to be called. This name tag may change five times in the course of a session, and that’s okay! If your camp doesn’t wear name tags, consider this as an easy way where a camper can creatively explore their chosen name without having to take on the courageous effort to reintroduce themselves.
  • Pronouns. everyone uses pronouns! Pronouns are how we talk to and about one another when we don’t want to say our names eight thousand times over. Normalize the question “What pronouns do you use?” by asking everybody. We never want to single any person out by only asking for pronouns when something seems different. By asking everybody their pronouns we save ourselves from making it weird for one person.
  • Think. How does gender effect your camp activities? Think critically about de-facto gender segregation in elective activities. Think even more critically about how your programming is limiting campers by gender in obvious and nuanced ways.
  • Live authentically. Encourage your staff to live authentically. Show LGBT+ representation in leadership and resources. Tell stories with LGBT+ characters. Show your campers and staff members that they are welcome to be their true authentic selves with you through active allyship.
  • Continue the conversation!

Pridefully yours,
Kate

Photo courtesy of Camp Brave Trails

Kate Akerman is a long time camper turned counselor, turned camp director, turned LGBT community educator. You can find her hiking with her fiancé and dog having passionate conversations about the intersection of faith and queerness. As a queer person, growing up Kate found herself in her identity through resident camp. While no longer working full time in the camp world, Kate still spends most of her days dreaming of summers gone by and fighting to educate youth workers in camps, schools, and everywhere on how to creating safer spaces for all of our young people.

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