Summer Camp for All: Serving the Need of Trans Campers

lore m. dickey
March 2018

Author’s note:

lore m. dickey was previously known as Mary D. McKinney. He made a gender transition in 1999. lore is a licensed psychologist and assistant professor at Northern Arizona University in the Department of Educational Psychology. Correspondence should be directed to lore at the following: Dept. of Educational Psychology, PO Box 5774, Flagstaff, AZ 86011; (928) 523-4082; lore.dickey@nau.edu.

Summer camp can be a very special place for youth. Summer camp allows a person to explore new activities like hiking, horseback riding, arts and crafts, and other outdoor adventures. For some campers, as was the case for me, summer camp was the first place I felt like I could be myself without any filters or expectations. As a child, I only attended Girl Scout camps. When there was a male in camp, he was either the camp ranger or the dishwasher. It wasn’t that other men weren’t allowed, but looking back, it was the first space I visited where I was surrounded by women. The opposite is true about the Boy Scout camp that is 23 miles away. What happens though when a gender-diverse child wants to attend summer camp, especially if that camp is designed to serve a single gender?

Whether a camp is intended for youth of a single sex (girls or boys) or is a co-ed facility, there are numerous ways that boys and girls are segregated such that it might as well be a camp for children of a single sex. This traditional approach to summer camp programming leaves out those children and youth who are gender diverse. In this article, we offer some basic guidance on ways you might address the needs of transgender youth who want to attend your camp.

Gender-Diverse People

Who are gender-diverse people?1 For the time being, we will focus on children and adolescents. We will address staff members later in this article. Gender diverse children and adolescents are those youth whose gender identity and expression is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. Different terms are used to describe these children and adolescents: gender diverse, gender creative, gender nonbinary, genderqueer, gender expansive, trans boy, trans girl, and many more. However, an important difference exists between trans children and adolescents. Speaking in general terms, trans children make a social transition, while adolescents consider medical interventions. Social transitions include a change in the name and pronouns used by a child (having made a social transition could also be said to have affirmed one’s gender). Social transitions also include a change in the manner of dress (also known as expression). The difference for trans adolescents is their readiness for medical interventions. One such intervention is the use of hormone blockers that suspend the adolescent’s puberty. It is possible, with parental support, for an adolescent to begin “cross-sex” hormone therapy at the age of 16. However, it is unlikely that a trans person will have genital surgery prior to becoming an adult (age 18). If a more thorough understanding of the needs of trans children and adolescents is required, please see the list of additional resources at the end of this article.

For the most part, trans campers with a binary gender identity (identifying as a boy or a girl) create few challenges. Campers with nonbinary identities may be confusing to you and may bring some additional challenges you haven’t begun to explore. People with nonbinary identities believe that gender is on a spectrum, and they do not believe their gender is limited to the immutable concept of the gender binary (i.e., only two gender choices of male and female). Youth and adults with nonbinary identities may use pronouns that are not commonly used among cisgender2 people. Pronoun options for nonbinary people include they/them/theirs that would be used in the same fashion as she/her/hers and he/him/his.

Will addressing the needs of trans youth in a summer camp setting require a change in “business as usual?” The obvious answer is yes. Are these changes impossible? Will they disrupt campers’ experiences? The answer to both questions is no. In the following sections, we will focus on several areas related to campers, including whether and how to accept a trans camper, housing at camp, the use of hygiene facilities (e.g., bathroom and showers), and the use of gender-inclusive programming. Following this focus on trans campers, we will address the needs of trans staff in the camp setting and the need for cultural knowledge as a part of staff training. Some of the concerns with staff members are no different than they are for campers, but the focus is different since the primary role of a staff member is camper safety.

Trans Campers at Camp

In an ideal world, you will know prior to a camper’s arrival about their gender identity. However, sharing this information prior to camp will not always be the case. The challenge this poses is that you may not have had a chance to consider how this camper’s needs can be met and whether the staff have any training to understand how to best work with a trans camper. Although you may not have personally confronted any transgender issues, enrolling trans campers is becoming increasingly common. In 2016, according to the ACA Fall Enrollment Survey, one out of every five ACA camps indicated they had served trans campers. Additionally, several camps operate in the US that only serve LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning) campers.

The possibility exists that a camper will arrive at camp and inform the camp staff that they have a trans identity and would like to be housed with other campers whose sex is consistent with the trans camper’s affirmed gender. The assertion of their gender identity may be accompanied by a request from the camper that their parents not be informed, as the camper would face harsh consequences (e.g., abuse) if their parents found out. One of the challenges, aside from the logistics of placing another camper in a sleeping area, is whether and how to address this request. Assuming that you can accommodate the request of the camper, some bigger picture concerns need to be considered. For example, would you allow the camper to be in the sleeping area that is consistent with their affirmed gender? What is your responsibility to share requests like this one made by the camper with their caregivers? In another example, campers often develop strong connections at camp and decide to stay in touch after the camp session ends. If the trans camper has been known by their affirmed name and pronouns, what happens when their new friend reaches out to them and uses this affirmed name when the parent is unaware of this change? How will you address having accommodated the camper’s requests to the parent? Although no easy answers exist, considerations of these types of questions before the camper arrives prepares you and your staff with viable options for solutions.

You might be wondering whether you can or should accept trans campers for your programs. As a word of caution, before making a decision to not allow the child to come to camp, you should consult with an attorney. Legal precedence is building that makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone on the basis of their gender, which includes people with trans identities. For example, if you use any federal facilities (e.g., US Forest Service land) you are required to have a statement of equal opportunity. Most of these statements are inclusive of sex or gender, and these very policies have been used to support a trans person’s right to access of programs, employment, and housing. To this point, we are not aware of such a legal decision regarding a camp setting. However, legal advice is critical to ensure that you are not putting your organization or business at risk by not allowing the child to enroll in and attend camp based solely on their gender identity or expression.

A final word about trans campers in the camp setting. When you are first faced with this question, you may struggle to figure out how best to proceed. One of the first steps for you to take is to examine your mission statement or the purpose for your program. If serving the trans camper falls within your mission or purpose, the answer is easy. You will serve the camper. If serving the camper does not fall within the mission or purpose, you have more to consider. It is important to use the resources that are readily available to you, including your agency or program administrative support structures, as you make that decision. You might also reach out to other camp directors or administrators in your local area. Lastly, another resource is to consult with the staff at ACA. You may be surprised to find out that they have resources applicable to your situation.

Addressing the Safety Needs of Trans Campers

Years ago, when I was a camper, the first thing I wanted to know was where I was going to sleep each night. Prioritizing the designation of sleeping spaces for campers and staff alike helps them to gain a sense of safety and assurance that they have a space they can call their own. For me, until I had that assurance, I exhibited anxiety and had trouble concentrating. Anxiety can be especially true for campers who are new to sleepover programs or to campers who have traditionally marginalized identities (e.g., racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender minorities).

Nothing is more sex segregated than housing and hygiene spaces. Sex segregation is present in summer camps, schools, and other public facilities (e.g., swimming pools, locker rooms, and restrooms). The accepted, affirming practice is to allow the trans child or adolescent to use those facilities that are consistent with their expressed gender. For example, a trans female camper (assigned male at birth) would sleep in the same tent or cabin with other girls and would participate in all other areas of the camp that are designated for girls. The most obvious area of concern is how to handle dressing, bathing, and the use of restrooms. Ideally, the camp would have one or more gender-inclusive or all-gender changing and hygiene spaces. There is certainly some cost associated with this type of facility addition, but to expect a camper to use a centrally located facility that is far from their sleeping area is unreasonable and singles out the camper in a way that can be used against them. Although summer camps should be a space where people are treated with respect, we know that campers may engage in mistreatment of one another, especially when someone seems different from everyone else.

Unless your camp has a large endowment, it is unlikely that you will be able to make significant renovations that would include gender-inclusive hygiene spaces. However, simple, cost-effective ways are available to address some of these concerns. One of the easiest solutions is to place shower curtains in communal bathing spaces to ensure that all people who are showering are afforded privacy. It may seem like a good idea to just put up one shower curtain; however, whoever uses that shower stall may find that they are singled out in a way that feels unsafe. Another possible solution is to set a shower schedule and allow campers to decide which shower time (based on gender) best fits their identity. With the right physical accommodations, one or more time periods could be designated as a time for people of all genders to use the space, with the understanding that people of other genders might use the shower facilities at that time.

Often, cisgender people have some difficulty understanding people with nonbinary identities. The challenge in the summer camp setting is mostly related to the housing and hygiene issues. Ideally, all-gender housing with sleeping areas would be an option. Another option is to ask the camper and/or their parents where the child will feel safest. The same approach should be used with hygiene facilities. Depending on the experience of the camper, you may need to have a conversation about how things are going. It is preferable to engage in this conversation proactively with the camper rather than wait for the camper to bring an issue to you. The conversation does not need to be a big production. It is simple enough to speak with the child during a meal or some other all-camp activity.

Camps need to have policies about how they will work with trans campers. These policies need to have some flexibility so the needs of each camper can be handled on a case-by-case basis. One of the best resources for understanding the camper’s needs is to have a conversation with the child’s parent(s). The parent(s) will likely be open to this conversation, because they want their child to have an enjoyable and safe experience at camp. By partnering with parent(s) you have demonstrated your willingness to understand and address the unique needs of their child in that camp setting.

A final area of safety concern is related to campers who return in a subsequent summer after having made a social transition. All of the recommendations made to this point apply. If the camper is returning with a group of children with whom they attended camp the previous year, it is best to allow the camper to decide when and if others should know about their social transition.

Summer Camp Programming

This section is devoted to co-ed camps. Few, if any, programs offered in camps need to be sex segregated. However, programs are often set up for girls or boys depending on the activity. Any child with an interest in a program should be able to take part. The only exception to participation should be related to skill level. As such, most directors would agree that programs are offered at all skill levels as appropriate to the facilities and the level of staff training. However, there may be times when a group of girls or boys may choose to participate together, but this engagement must not be at the exclusion of any trans campers. If a camper identifies as female, she should be allowed to participate in any activities or programs that cisgender girls are offered. The same is true for male-identified campers.

Who Needs to Know

It is easy to make the case that certain people need to know about a trans camper’s identity. However, the knowledge of camper’s gender identity status should be protected in the same ways that health information is protected. The need for privacy and confidentiality is especially true for adolescents who may be taking hormone blockers or cross-sex hormones. Besides the camp director, the camp nurse is an important person to have on board. The staff in the camper’s unit or living area should know about the child’s identity, but generally do not need to know more details about the child’s experience as a trans person.

Parents of other campers are another likely source of concern for many directors. No logical reasons exist for informing the parent(s) of other campers about the trans camper’s attendance at a camp their children will attend. Camps that are committed to serving the needs of trans campers should openly describe their policies and options like all-gender living spaces. In this way, if a parent wants their child to be in a single gender living space, they can identify that in their registration.

Addressing the Needs of Camp Staff

Two areas related to staff need to be addressed. The first is related to the needs of staff members who have a trans identity. The second area is the training that all staff need to complete to ensure culturally competent interactions with campers, staff members, and parents.

Just as a cisgender person may have the desire to work at a summer camp, the same could be said of a transgender person. Similar to the warning about a policy of not accepting trans campers without exploring the legal ramifications, directors are cautioned against making an unfavorable hiring decision for a person, who is otherwise qualified, based on their gender identity. As most staff members are at least 18 years old, a discussion is needed with the trans staff member about their privacy needs. For example, several years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a week at a summer camp for youth with diabetes. My work at the camp came after I had made a medical transition. I was assigned to oversee a cabin group of boys. I asked the camp director for the ability to shower and change clothes out of the sight of campers. Fortunately, the camp facilities were such that this request was easy to fulfill. Outside of the camp director, no one else in the camp knew of my status as a trans person.

Staff Training

We all know that many content areas need to be covered in staff training. The challenge is how to add training content when the schedule is already full. Many camps may already have a segment about values that could be tweaked to accommodate a broader discussion around cultural knowledge. Such training could include an exploration of values that staff members hold and the ways that those values can impact the safety of all members of the camp community. Staff members’ personal values should not be discounted; however, in exploring their values, staff should come to an understanding of the ways their values may negatively affect other community members. The goal of this type of activity would be to ensure that staff members have a good understanding of how and when to make these values known to others, especially campers, and how they philosophically relate to the camp’s policies. In order to work in a culturally competent manner, staff must have a basic knowledge of camper backgrounds and identities. This cultural knowledge does not need to be specific to just trans campers, but should address all of the demographic differences that may exist.

Conclusion

As said in the beginning of this article, camp can be a very special place. With some attention to the needs of trans youth, it should be easy to ensure that trans campers also have wonderful memories of their time at camp. Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind as you make plans to welcome trans youth to your camp:

  • Camp is for everyone.
  • The needs of trans campers should always be taken seriously.
  • A trans camper’s identity should be respected.
  • Gender-segregated programming is likely not needed.
  • Be proactive in working with campers whose needs are different than most other campers (regardless of gender identity).

The American Camp Association has long believed that summer camp is for all children. Trans children are in need of a positive camp experience as much as any other child. With some considerations for the specific needs of a trans child or staff member, it is possible to create a safe and enjoyable summer camp for all.

Additional Resources

Angello, M. & Bowman, A. (2016). Raising the transgender child: A complete guide for parents, families, and caregivers. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.

Brill, S. & Pepper, R. (2008). The transgender child. San Francisco: CA: Cleis Press.

Brill, S. & Kennedy, L. (2016). The transgender teen. Jersey City, NJ: Cleis Press.

Nealy, E. C. (2017). Transgender children and youth: Cultivating pride and joy with families in transition. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Testa, R. J., Coolhart, D., & Peta, J. (2015). The gender quest workbook: A guide for teens and young adults exploring gender identity. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Press.

Photo courtesy of Tom Sawyer Camps, Altadena, CA

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