Unfortunately, transgender and gender variant youth and staff sometimes fail to receive such an experience. Transgender individuals often face prejudice and harassment at school, and sometimes even in their home. When they arrive at camp, they are looking for a place that accepts them for who they are, and does not pressure them to conform to social norms and stereotypes.
If you have not had a transgender or gender variant camper or staff member yet, there is a good chance you will. Here are some steps you can take to make sure that they feel welcome and safe:
The burden of educating the rest of the world about a minority group's needs should not fall on members of that group alone. Take time to understand the challenges that transgender and gender variant individuals face, and make sure your staff is familiar with terms like gender expression and gender transition. GLAAD has a useful glossary that explains some transgender-specific terminology, and offers advice about what terms and phrases to avoid.
Often our camp facilities are set up around traditional gender binaries. How will you make sure that a camper or staff member that does not fit these binaries still feels welcome at camp? Are there underutilized restroom and shower facilities that gender variant individuals could make use of if they want to avoid the traditionally gendered facilities?
These decisions will affect not just transgender campers or staff themselves, but also everyone else who uses your facilities. This was demonstrated by a recent new story in which a woman was barred from her gym after acting with surprise and concern about a transgender woman (whom she perceived to be male) using the women's locker room. This story illustrates why it's important to address the needs of transgender campers preemptively, and also why it's important discuss any changes to protocol at staff and board meetings, and to communicate those changes with all campers and their families.
Of course, there is a huge diversity of preferences and comfort levels amongst transgender and gender variant individuals, so a solution that works well for one individual may not work for another. Even if your plan will need revision, having one on hand demonstrates that you are committed to making gender variant individuals welcome in your programs.
It is only recently that society, let alone camps, have started to fully recognize the needs of transgender and gender variant individuals, and there are no set “best practices” yet. The greatest resource you have to formulating an environment that welcomes transgender and gender variant individuals are those individuals themselves. Admit that you are still learning about the issue, and see if they are willing to work with you to further improve the experience for future transgender staff and campers.
There are a variety of different pronouns that gender variant and transgender individuals use. A great way to show respect is to include “pronoun preference” during introductions, so that individuals have a chance to let others know what they prefer to be called. This also signals to everyone in the circle that you are committed to creating a safe space.
Camps assist in positive youth development, but at times, they can encourage campers to develop according to traditional gender norms. Are boys cabins doing more sports than girls cabins because they asked for it, or because you expect them to be more into sports than arts and crafts? Even individuals whose gender matches the sex at birth (sometimes called cisgendered) can feel stunted when they are discouraged from certain passions because they do not match their gender. Individuals that do not fit into traditional gender binaries will be more comfortable in an environment that treats everyone as a unique individual, rather than as part of a group that is expected to act in certain ways.
Gender diverse individuals are often tremendously courageous and adaptable, and can be a wonderful asset to the camp community. If you take these steps, camp will be one of their favorite parts of the year, where they can continue to develop and grow into unique individuals.
For more information about how to turn your camp into a welcoming place for transgender and gender variant staff and campers, check out the article on Transgender Youth in Camping. The American Camp Association also has webinars on Talking Transgender at Camp and Transgender Staff at Camp.
Speak with your organization's legal counsel about your state's laws, and how they affect your policies and practices for transgender staff and children.