At summer camp, sneaking into the boys side or the girls side is as classic an activity as roasting marshmallows. But what if the side you were assigned isn’t where you think you belong? Or what if you don’t fit into either side?
Jewish summer camp — with its gender-segregated bunks, bathrooms, activities and rituals, not to mention emphasis on heterosexual “hookups” — can be a minefield for transgender kids and their families, a newly-visible population that is gaining increasing recognition in the Jewish and political mainstream.
Now, just as public schools are complying with legal orders to allow trans children to use the bathrooms of the gender they identify with, camps, too, are becoming aware that trans kids have always been present among the legions of youngsters who hop off the bus for a summer of fun. Making Jewish camp trans friendly is a brand-new undertaking, and no one knows exactly what lies ahead.
“Alex,” a 15-year old transgender boy from Newton, Mass., attended Eisner Camp, a Reform Jewish sleepaway camp in the Berkshires, for three years before he came out as transgender. (Alex asked that the Forward identify him by a pseudonym to protect his privacy.) He slept in the girls bunk and was treated as a girl. Sports, which were coed, were a favorite activity, and the Jewish traditions and community at camp were “cool” and “interesting,” he said. But at age 11, as he began to consider living as a boy, Alex chose not to return to the camp. “I didn’t want to have to go through being in that awkward in-between phase of, ‘Which cabin did I go to?’” he said. His mother jokes that he blamed his choice to leave on the dining hall food. But Alex added, “The vibe I got was that the counselors or older people, the campers, wouldn’t be that great about [my transition].”
Instead, in 2010, Alex attended the inaugural session at Camp Aranu’tiq, a nondenominational weeklong program for trans and gender-variant youth, founded by Nick Teich, a transgender Jewish social worker. While Alex returns to Camp Aranu’tiq each summer, he said that he’s still nostalgic for Eisner Camp; he wishes he could have had both experiences. “I liked the community at the Jewish camp,” he said. “It felt like regular camp.”
Alex’s story is similar to those of other trans youth and families with whom the Forward spoke: Kids report a positive Jewish camp experience initially, but when they come out as transgender they disconnect from camp. Sometimes campers bow out on their own, as Alex did; other times, they may not be asked to come back as counselors or as counselors-in-training, losing that final connection to a community they love.
Some Jewish and secular camps are actively trying to stave off this parting of the ways, while others are just beginning to consider transgender issues. Trans kids are a “hot” discussion topic in the camping world, says Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association. “The trans kid at camp is not a risk, the risk comes with not knowing how to manage it well,” she said.
For Jewish camps in particular, knowing how to include trans kids can be an important part of maintaining a mission. “Summer camp is understood in the Jewish community to be one of the most impactful spaces for young people,” Joanna Ware said. Ware, who works for Keshet, a Jewish lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group based in Boston, conducts inclusion trainings for camps. “If [trans kids] feel alienated at camp or if they feel affirmed, that can affect how they feel about a Jewish space.”