At the Laurel Foundation’s summer camp in California, kids swim, sail, hike and do crafts. They may also opt to take a Trans 101 workshop, a transgender history course and a transgender rights class.
All of the campers in the program, which started in 2017, are transgender or gender nonconforming.
At many traditional summer camps, it’s all fun and games until campers gather in their cabins and realize that one of them is not quite like the others. To cater to these kids, there are many new camps, including gender-fluid and L.G.B.T.Q. sleep-aways.
“It’s helpful for a young person to attend a program where there are other kids like them,” said Tom Rosenberg, the president and C.E.O. of the American Camp Association.
While many traditional camps may describe themselves as inclusive and tolerant, it can be difficult for L.G.B.T.Q. children to attend when they are required to sleep in gendered cabins or are trying to fit in while pretending to be straight or gender conforming.
Ethan Palmer, a 17-year-old from Pennsylvania, attended a Jewish summer camp for many years before switching to Camp Lightbulb, an L.G.B.T.Q. camp founded in 2011 with locations in Massachusetts, New York and Los Angeles.
He said he had a great time at the Jewish camp, “but I had a harder time connecting with the other guys than most kids did. Even when they didn’t know I was queer or didn’t care, I had to find the sweet spot where I was acting straight enough to fit in, but still being my natural self.”
That’s why the transgender and L.G.B.T.Q. camps function differently.
At Camp Quest Chesapeake, a southern Virginia camp designed for all gender identities, there are gender-inclusive cabins; no programming is split by gender; and everyone wears a name tag labeled with their preferred pronoun.
Camp OUTdoors in Phoenix, which was founded in 2008 and will serve about 250 L.G.B.T.Q. kids this summer, assigns all cabins based on age only.
Parents and kids so far have been incredibly supportive of the alternative cabin division, said Kado Stewart, the founder of Camp OUTdoors, in an email:
“The infrastructure and programming for traditional summer camps are not set up for the likes of L.G.B.T.Q. youth. There are action items in our planning stages that we have to consider that are often not taken into account at more traditional camps — like restrooms, changing rooms, lodging assignments and more — all of which make the camp experience inclusive to our young attendees.”
But is it necessary for L.G.B.T.Q. kids to have their own camps? Or can traditional camps be more adaptable to their needs?
According to Ann Gillard, a former camp director for the Girl Scouts, and a volunteer with the American Camp Association who has written about the issue, both approaches are needed.
Trans campers deserve choices in their camp experiences.
“For some transgender youth, being around a camp full of other people like them, who get it, can be a powerful, life-affirming experience,” Ms. Gillard said. “For other transgender youth, going to a camp they’ve attended in the past and feeling welcomed and affirmed in their gender is a different kind of powerful experience.”
Before they go to that traditional camp, however, some changes may be necessary. Often Kryss Shane, a social worker and L.G.B.T.Q. expert, is the consultant asked to advise.
The first step, Ms. Shane said, is to train counselors and other staff to fully understand the gender and sexuality needs of the campers. The camps also need to determine protocols for dividing campers and counselors by means other than gender.
Camp Tawonga, a Jewish summer camp in Northern California, has managed to blend the traditional with the inclusive. This summer, the camp is offering an all-gender cabin for fifth grade through seventh grade during one session. If campers feel more comfortable in a single-gender cabin, they can choose those.
“There is not one right way to be a girl or boy or any gender, and camps can encourage all campers to just be themselves,” said Jamie Simon, the executive director of Camp Tawonga. “All campers should feel welcomed, included and celebrated for who they are, regardless of differences.”
Ms. Simon said that all campers are bunked by the gender they identify as, rather than the sex they were assigned at birth.
Yet, some L.G.B.T.Q. campers, and their parents, are thrilled that there are finally summer spaces of their own. When Pruett Cunningham, of Rhode Island, sent her son to Camp Lightbulb, it was his first experience in a place with kids who were having the same experience as he was.
“He was starting his transition and was very lonely,” Ms. Cunningham said. “Going there showed him that there were other kids like him, that he could make friends and feel loved and accepted.”
Many who have attended the L.G.B.T.Q. camps echoed Ms. Cunningham’s thoughts. Lou Pendergrass, 16, of Los Angeles, has been attending Brave Trails, an L.G.B.T.Q. camp in California, since it was founded in 2015. While Brave Trails is similar to her former Girl Scouts camp in that they both offer swimming, low ropes, hiking and large group meals, she said, she really gained self-confidence at her L.G.B.T.Q. camp.
“I found a very accepting space to learn who I was,” she said. “It’s helpful to have spaces where minorities can be in the majority for once because it allows our voices to be heard, and our situations are understood far better in a group of our L.G.B.T. peers.”