The Gay Outdoors

Rethinking how we do CAMP

Meet Jordan, a trans youth who went to summer camp hoping for adventure and camaraderie. Instead, they found themself at a crossroads of exclusion and fear. Here's a snapshot of how that played out for this LGBTQ+ camper:

Navigating cabins, Jordan felt a gnawing anxiety at the forced choice between single-gender 'boy' and 'girl' spaces, each option not really an option at all.

At swim time, their feeling of disconnect deepened when everyone else seemed comfortable with the unspoken dress code of bikini tops or trunks and no shirts. Jordan's choice of a swim shirt and trunks brought about questioning stares from peers. They probably won't join swim time again.

Stark reminders of their otherness continued at meal times, amidst bursts of laughter and table chatter about which boys have crushes on which girls. Jordan can’t relate and stays quiet.

In the evening, a well-meaning cabin mate who was genuinely eager to make a new friend could not seem to get Jordan's pronouns right as campers rounded up to prep for bed. Jordan tried not to mind, but each time it happened, Jordan retreated into themself a little more.

This string of experiences is all too common among LGBTQ+ youth in today's outdoor camp experiences, and we know why:

  • Gender Norms and Practices: The traditional camp structure is often rooted in rigid gender norms, which sideline LGBTQ+ youth living outside the gender binary and forces them to grapple with the stress of vigilance, anticipating harm and living with fears of bullying, exclusion, harassment, violence, and trauma. Being the 'only one' can be a grueling experience.

  • Lack of Awareness and Training: Many camps lack essential training for their staff that focuses on LGBTQ+ and other marginalized youth needs, let alone the knowledge, skills, and commitment necessary to transform a camp's culture to genuinely celebrate everyone's unique identity.

  • Policy and Legislation: The ACLU is currently tracking 507 anti-LGBTQ bills in the U.S., a majority of which target LGBTQ+ youth, stripping them of their rights to gender-affirming health care, participation in school sports, and access to school curriculum, facilities, and systems that reflect their lived experiences. Imagine being at a camp located in a state where proposed or existing legal frameworks are attempting to wipe out your existence. This profoundly influences the atmosphere of camps, specifically, who is - or is not - protected.

  • Representation and Visibility: The scant presence of LGBTQ+ peers or role models among campers and staff cohorts can leave LGBTQ+ youth feeling othered and unseen. We should all be able to find our people at Camp.

While pervasive, these are not unique, accidental, or unavoidable challenges. In fact, we know how to solve them, and together, we must do better.

You may be familiar with Outrights' Queer Ethic and Guiding Principles, which highlight our organizational values. "Queer it Up!" a foundational pillar, is defined as follows:     

"We create opportunities to do things differently. We invite play and joy and work to resist binary thinking. We believe in the power of transformation and move from a place   of abundance. We create spaces for our complex, full selves to unfurl, centering the humanity in each of us. We lean into seemingly disparate ways of being and doing, knowing there is wisdom and value in the in-betweens."

"Queer It Up" in the context of the outdoors and youth camps, means:

  • Challenge traditional cis/heteronormative assumptions by Incorporating principles and practices that

  • Creating spaces that are not just inclusive but glittery, vibrant, and celebratory of all LGBTQ+ identities and experiences.

  • Finding people you trust and with whom you are willing to risk traversing new ground in the great outdoors - a setting historically inaccessible to folks without social capital or privilege.

According to the Vermont Department of Health's 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey data, an average of 30% of Vermont's youth identify as LGBTQ+. If you can't design programs that meet their needs, you aren't developing programs that meet the needs of youth.

In the end, when it comes down to it, it's actually pretty simple. After five days at queer Camp Outright, when asked 'what are you taking away from this experience?' one youth said

"I deserve to live. Suicide is no longer an option;
I want to live for moments like this."

At camp, youth are meant to find life-changing safety, the power of cultivating a relationship with nature (a first for so many), and, ultimately, community connections. A move to make the great outdoors the gay outdoors is genuinely about putting youth to the front. It lets them see that we can chart new paths forward together. It's about reclaiming typical youth development experiences and ensuring they are safe and celebratory.

  • Hiring and supporting a representative and diverse staff, including camp leadership.

  • Creating welcoming policies, procedures, and traditions that reevaluate dress codes and cabin policies.

  • Shedding the vestiges of racism that many summer camps cling to.

We must intentionally help youth increase leadership skills and tools for community building so they can replicate the feeling of Camp all year round.

  • Honor Indigenous Land and People: Begin by acknowledging the traditional Indigenous lands on which the camps or outdoor activities occur — and don’t stop there. Cultivating relationships that heal ourselves and the land is crucial.

  • Create Inclusive Education: Incorporate educational activities about the Indigenous history and present-day realities of the land into the programming.

  • Collaborate with IndigenouRs Communities: Engage with local Indigenous communities respectfully and reciprocally.

  • Change Camp Names and Traditions: Change camp names, traditions, and activities to ensure they do not appropriate or disrespect Indigenous cultures.

  • Promote Indigenous Leadership: Foster and support Indigenous leadership within the camp or outdoor program.

  • Develop Sustainable and Respectful Use of Land: Embrace and teach sustainable practices that respect the land, drawing on Indigenous knowledge and land stewardship principles.

  • Reflect on Power Dynamics: Encourage reflection and conversation about the power dynamics involved in land use and management, considering both the legacy of colonialism and the ongoing marginalization of LGBTQ+ and Indigenous peoples.

Now, let's think about Jordan at a queered-up camp.

Their day begins in a gender-neutral cabin, a space of comfort and understanding shared with peers who are excited to talk about identity.

At breakfast, the conversation is a hotly contested debate about whether hotdogs count as sandwiches, or if cereal is a type of cold soup.

Workshops on the history of LGBTQ+ rights are interwoven with a guided nature hike emphasizing land and water stewardship.

Teams are formed based on interest rather than gender for games and activities.

The first night's campfire becomes a space for queer joy and skits where campers and counselors build a shared sense of community, presenting cabin flags, eating s'mores, and being silly together.

That’s how “Queer It Up” at camp deepens Jordan's sense of community and self-acceptance in this inclusive, vibrantly joyful environment.

As another camper shared:

"Camp Outright meant the world to me. Its very existence is proof that queer joy is beautiful, accessible, consensual, and forever possible."

Let's Queer It Up for all the Jordans who deserve it!

Speaking of the outdoors, check out this awesome Lake Champlain 2024 Calendar crafted with love by amazing supporters. It's a great gift idea just in time for the New Year, and all the proceeds will support LGBTQ+ youth. Happy holidays!"

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