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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According to Teich, who has conducted inclusion trainings with Jewish and secular camps, many directors worry that parents will reject the idea of a transgender girl staying in the girls cabin, or a transgender boy in the boys cabin.

Camp directors, he said, “are very fearful of what the parents of other campers will say.” He acknowledges that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But he encourages camp directors to look beyond bathrooms, bunks and bathing suits to focus on the broader needs of trans kids, many of whom haven’t undergone surgery or physically transitioned yet: Will they be called by their preferred names and pronouns? Will they be able to express themselves freely? Will they be protected if they are bullied?

Alex, the former Eisner Camp camper, agreed. For him, getting pronouns right every single time is “important,” but “being overall accepting is more important, because people will know that you’re actually trying.”

“Camp directors get so worried about some of the little logistics like bathrooms, or about what the parents of other kids think, they might not remember that this is supposed to be a loving community,” said Emily Rosenbaum, a mother of a transgender child who had a difficult time coming out as transgender at a Jewish camp and did not return. (Her other child, who is not transgender, still attends the same camp.)

“Camps have enough bathrooms, enough spaces. This thing could all be figured out without having to send kids home,” Rosenbaum said.

Alex’s mother, who asked not to be named, echoes Rosenbaum’s point. She notes that camps already deal with potentially awkward situations around gender and sex. “We know there are LGBT campers, which means you have people who are attracted to the same sex in the same cabins. And we know stuff happens at a co-ed camp that is not appropriate,” she said. “So why is this such a problem?”

Ware said that camps must figure out these issues on a case-by-case basis. Not every transgender boy wants to sleep in the boys bunk, she notes. It depends on what each camper wants and where each camper will feel safe. “Maybe he’ll be fine because girls are the ones he’s been with for years,” she said. “Maybe all he wants is to not have his counselors saying, ‘Girls, let’s get ready for Shabbat.’”

Ware helps camps examine every aspect of programming, from ceramics to canoeing to candle lighting, on Friday night to see if there’s a gender component that can be made more inclusive. But she also encourages them to look beyond the programming to their philosophies. It may be more important in the big picture to stick up for the needs of a family of a trans kid, even if it causes discomfort for other camp parents, she said.


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