When Jewish Transgender Teens Come Out of Closet, Many Leave Camp Behind

Alternatives Spring Up as Camps Struggle To Be Inclusive

Beyond Labels: Camp Ten Trees in the Pacific Northwest caters to transgender kids.
Courtesy of Camp Ten Trees
Beyond Labels: Camp Ten Trees in the Pacific Northwest caters to transgender kids.

By Sarah Seltzer

Published July 24, 2013, issue of July 26, 2013.
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Perhaps because so few transgender kids remain at Jewish camp after they transition, camps have little experience in making them feel welcome. Representatives from several Jewish camps said they had trained to be “inclusive” but had not encountered trans kids or made specific accommodations for them. For instance, Louis Bordman, senior director of Eisner Camp, said the camp strives to be a model of inclusivity with co-ed activities but hasn’t made some basic changes to welcome trans kids, like creating a gender-neutral bathroom.

“We train our staff on working with LGBT campers along with working with introverts and extroverts” and other diverse campers, he said. “We maintain an accepting environment based on Torah and Jewish values.”

“Our experience is limited in the area, but we train our staff to be aware of different configurations of families,” said Nancy Scheff, communications director of the National Ramah Commission, a network of camps affiliated with the Conservative movement. “Individual camps may have made plans, but we’re not aware of it within the national office.”

Officials at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, an advocacy group for Jewish camp professionals, said the organization was also unaware of specific camp policies but had participated in trainings on the issue.

But LGBT camping experts say that this approach is lacking. “A camp needs to do more than simply label itself inclusive,” said Airen Lydick, executive director of Camp Ten Trees, a not-for-profit in the Pacific Northwest that hosts camp sessions for kids and families with a range of sexual and gender identities. “It takes work.”

For instance, camps should consider the particular ways that transgender kids come out over the summer, Lydick said. They may want to sleep in a different bunk, wear different clothing, use new pronouns or be called by a new name.

Elsa Vasquez, director of Camp Common Place, a similar organization in the Hudson Valley, agreed that there’s a lot to consider in advance.

“As just one example, it’s important to create an environment in which people’s preferred pronouns are not just assumed,” she said. “How do you deal with swimsuits? What if someone wants to wear a swimsuit of the opposite gender, or isn’t comfortable showing off their body?”

If camp officials don’t go out of their way to make transgender kids feel welcome, Lydick said, “campers are in the same place they are in the rest of their lives: a world that doesn’t understand.”

Welcoming transgender children, however, becomes complicated when camp directors must weigh the needs of trans kids against the feelings of the parents of other campers.


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