Queer and Transgender at Summer Camp
How Camp Stomping Ground Loved Me Wholly
by Elijah Thornburg
I love camp. My idea of the right way to spend summer is frolicking through forests, singing silly songs, jumping in lakes, carefully weaving bracelets, watching the stars move slowly across the night sky, roasting marshmallows around campfires, and getting to know all kinds of new friends who I will love and cherish for the rest of my life. I have grown up reveling in the joy of camp, and wanting to share it with everyone I could.
I am also queer and transgender. Although I was assigned female at birth, I wear mostly masculine clothes, have facial hair and a flat chest, and use he/him pronouns. I am currently very much in love with a woman, but know that I could theoretically share love with a person of any gender. I have never fit into clean-cut boxes of gender or sexuality, and I never want to. That said, it can sometimes be really frightening to openly express the ways that I am different from the norm; I often have to spend time thinking about how I am going to dress, talk, and act, just to ensure my own basic physical and emotional safety.
When I arrived for the first day of staff training at Camp Stomping Ground last summer, I was nervous. I knew that I had always been a great camper, I was ready and excited to be a great counselor, and I knew the directors were extremely supportive, but I was scared of what my fellow counselors would think when they learned that I am transgender. As the other counselors arrived and we all started getting to know each other, I was overwhelmed by the love I felt. Everyone was so kind, so warm, so fun and friendly and easy to talk to. Within just a few days, I was starting to feel at home. I felt safe, and respected, and understood.
In the middle of a conversation we were having with the full staff about how best to support campers from a wide range of diverse experiences, I came out as transgender so that I could talk from a more credible position about how to support gender-diverse campers. A few people definitely seemed surprised, but not a single person in the room seemed uncomfortable or upset. Instead, they smiled, nodded along, and listened to what I had to say about how to best support campers. Afterward, I got a lot of hugs, and several people thanked me for sharing a vulnerable part of my truth with them. I had only met this group of people a few days beforehand; I was amazed at how easily they all welcomed me into their camp family regardless of gender identity.
By the time campers arrived, I had settled comfortably into what felt like my new camp home. I knew I was safe, I knew I was allowed and encouraged to be whoever I was, and I didn’t have to worry about what I looked like or how I talked or if I was acting too feminine to be taken seriously as a “real guy;” I could just relax into myself and dedicate all of my energy to being the best counselor I could be. There wasn’t a moment that passed all summer where I felt uncomfortable about my gender or queer identity with another staff member.
Once camp really started, I learned quickly that my transgender and queer identities were going to be completely irrelevant to almost all campers. I was in a tent with the youngest boys, and I’m pretty sure they would not have really noticed or minded if I had been a unicorn, let alone just a trans person. I also had only one camper ask me a question about anything to do with romantic partners; he wanted to know if I was married. I told him that I was not, and he immediately dropped the subject when he heard his friends outside playing with sticks. What mattered to my campers was not what gender I was, what my body looked like, or who I was in an adult relationship with, but rather that I was always there to help them out, to talk to them, to play games with them, to remind them to change their underwear and brush their teeth, to read them stories and give them piggy-back rides, and to get them where they needed to go.
To someone who did not know I was trans, the only obvious indicator would be the top surgery scars on my chest. I was in charge of boating during waterfront time, and I often wore my swimsuit without a shirt, but if campers noticed the scars on my chest from my top surgery, none of them seemed to care. They talked to me and interacted with me just the same as any other time, and I easily befriended all the campers of every age and gender who liked to take out boats. The only time a camper seemed concerned, she asked me, “What are those cuts on your chest?” I said, “They’re scars from getting surgery to get some stuff removed,” and she just said “Oh” and proceeded to ask me if she could please take out the green kayak.
One of the things I came to appreciate at Stomping Ground for the first time was that I did not have to always define myself by gender first. It was important to me that my co-counselors understand my gender identity so that I could build trusting peer relationships with them, but it was completely unimportant for most campers to know I was trans. It was liberating to have fun with campers and teach campers new skills and share amazing camp experiences with campers without having to worry about my gender or queer identity. In the few situations where it seemed like the best decision to disclose either of these things to a camper – for example, when a trans or queer camper was seeking support from someone who would understand – I felt completely safe and supported in doing so. I knew my co-counselors and directors would have my back.
Stomping Ground is dedicated to radical empathy, self-direction, and possibility. What better pillars are there to inspire the inclusion of queer and transgender campers and counselors? I believe there is a lot of value in minorities having spaces to themselves, and I have a lot of love for the camps out there dedicated specifically to LGBTQ+ people (shout out to Camp Brave Trails! If that’s what you’re looking for, head there next). I also believe that it is very powerful and positive for queer and trans campers and counselors to be part of a community that is not minority-specific, but that is intentionally and actively supportive of the whole individual. At Stomping Ground, everyone is expected to be kind, to be open-minded, to be gentle. Everyone is expected to be honest, to listen, and to include each other. The expectation creates the reality. Each camper and counselor is seen as a whole and complex person, with a unique combination of backgrounds, identities, interests, and needs.
As much as I love Stomping Ground, it is not perfect. The most notable challenge for campers and counselors who are trans in particular is that living spaces and some bathroom and shower spaces are still gender-specific. Campers and counselors are divided into cabins and tents by gender, and the bathrooms and showers most easily accessible from most activities and villages are divided by gender. That said, it is up to the individual to decide which gendered space they belong and feel most comfortable in, and they will be supported in their decision. Campers and counselors can expect that staff will do their very best to use their correct pronouns and to help campers do so as well. There are gender-neutral bathrooms and showers available for anyone at camp who doesn’t feel comfortable in either gendered area. If a camper or counselor wishes not to disclose information about their identity, they will never be required or expected to, and whoever on staff might know will hold confidence; similarly, if they wish to share something about their identity, they will never be prevented from doing so.
If you are queer and/or transgender and considering being a camper or staff member at Camp Stomping Ground, I can assure you from personal experience that you will be welcomed, respected, and loved. I cannot promise that it will always be ideal, or that there will be no confusing or difficult moments, but I can promise that the lived mission of the camp wants you to be as radiant a part of the community as anyone, that the staff will defend and support you, and that the campers tend to follow suit in being exceptionally kind and welcoming. If you have any questions or concerns that I could address, please do not hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org; I’d be thrilled to tell you more about my own experience, provide any advice that I can, and wholeheartedly assure you that Stomping Ground is an extraordinary place.