2SLGBTQIA+ Campers at Summer Camp

2SLGBTQIA+ Campers at Summer Camp: Inclusion Best Practices

By: Bradley Henry (he/she/they)
Co-Founder and Training Specialist, TQAMP

Creating environments that promote equitable safety for all can change, and in some cases save, the lives of 2SLGBTQIA+ campers at summer camp (acronym explanation is below). TQAMP is a non-profit whose mission is to support camps and youth-focused organizations to become spaces of belonging for people of all genders and sexualities and make them safer for 2SLGBTQIA+ campers and staff. Our goal for this resource is twofold. First, to share information about language best practices. Second, to highlight actions that will make your camp safer for campers of all genders and sexualities.

All the content in this resource relies on non-negotiables that the TQAMP team uses as the basis for our work. To do the work of creating safer spaces for 2SLGBTQIA+ campers at summer camp, we invite you to be in total agreement with these ideas to move forward. Think about them like foundational truths.

  • Trans girls are girls, trans boys are boys, non-binary identities exist, and all these identities are valid.
  • 2SLGBTQIA+ people are not dangerous and should not be treated as controversial.
  • The safety of queer and trans people should be prioritized over the discomfort of others.

Operating with these truths in mind ensures that we are considering the full personhood of trans* and queer folks by prioritizing their needs in spaces in which they are usually forgotten, ignored, or harmed. If any of those statements bother you, sit with that. Each of us comes to these ideas from a particular place. Sometimes that informs how we feel, and that’s normal. It’s not helpful to be ashamed of or shamed for those reactions. Own how you feel. It might be uncomfortable, but we promise there is so much opportunity for growth in pushing against your boundaries.

Terms to Use (and Not Use) for 2SLGBTQIA+ Campers at Summer Camp

Some readers might recognize the acronym, 2SLGBTQIA+ in its entirety, or earlier versions like LGBTQ. The way this acronym continues to change is great because it means we are creating more language to help people feel seen. That’s powerful stuff. We get the opportunity to deepen our understanding of one another. To make sure we’re on the same page, let’s look at each part of 2SLGBTQIA+:

  • 2S: Two-Spirit, a culturally specific Indigenous American term that describes someone who identifies with both masculine and feminine. 
  • L/G: Lesbian or Gay, someone attracted to those of the same gender.
  • B: Bisexual, someone who is attracted to two or more genders.
  • T: Transgender, someone whose gender does not align with the sex they were assigned at birth.
  • Q: Queer or Questioning, someone who does not identify as both cisgender and heterosexual (or thinks they might not).
  • I: Intersex, someone born with sex characteristics that do not fit the typical sexual binary of male and female.
  • A: Asexual/Agender/Aromantic, terms to describe someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction, gender, or romantic attraction respectively.
  • +: to describe all who aren’t listed here, or for whom we haven’t found language yet.

Some other terms you might see are sex assigned at birth, which describes the sex given to newborns based solely on their external genitalia, non-binary, which describes someone whose gender does not align with the typical gender binary, and cisgender which describes someone whose gender identity does align with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Most of these terms describe either gender: a measure of someone’s identity in relation to male or female, or sexuality: who someone is attracted to either, romantically or physically. While gender and sexuality are often used interchangeably, they shouldn’t be. Each term describes a distinct aspect of identity. 

While a person’s understanding of their gender or sexuality may change over time, aspects of identity cannot be changed by an outside party. Attempting to do so will only cause harm or trauma. It’s our job to meet all campers and staff where they are and make space for them as they come.

There’s also language that we should not use:

  • We no longer use words like transgendered (which is an example of incorrect grammar), transsexual, transvestite, or cross-dresser. Instead, we use transgender, trans*, trans man, or trans woman. Those other words come from a time when being trans* was thought to be based on medical designation or purely based on cosmetic and clothing choices. We now recognize transness as an element of identity.
  • Preferred” or “real” before names implies that important identity markers like names and pronouns are choices, rather than parts of who we are. Where someone must include a legal name, government name, or “deadname” (a name no longer used by the individual) alongside the name they go by, you should make sure it is clear which name they wish to be called. In person, you might ask: What name do you go by? As a current solution, Campminder software uses “preferred name” in this situation.
  • We no longer use “biological” or “birth” sex. Instead, we say “sex assigned at birth.” Despite what a lot of folks were taught in school, defining sex isn’t always straightforward. There are several marks of sex from a biological standpoint, including chromosomes, genitalia (internal and external), and hormones. 

All these words are self-referential. What non-binary means to one person might be different for someone else. Language is hard to pin down especially because these terms have and continue to evolve in different community contexts. Keep this in mind, and allow 2SLGBTQIA+ campers at summer camp, and all campers and staff, to give you their words.

It can be hard to remember all these terms and use them correctly. You’re going to make mistakes and that’s alright. Own your mistakes and do your best to get better. Using correct terminology might feel like a small thing, but it has been well-documented that queer youth experience suicidal ideation much more often than their straight peers. Affirming behaviors, like using someone’s name or pronouns, allowing them to express themselves in alignment with their identity, and being knowledgeable about their identities and experiences dramatically reduce the suicide risk of queer and trans* youth. 

Queer and trans* youth are sometimes coming from homes and schools where they aren’t being affirmed. For some 2SLGBTQIA+ campers at summer camp, it might be the first opportunity they have to experience safety. Camp is an opportunity to build connection, community, and joy — queer and trans* youth can deeply benefit from these classic camp attributes, while possibly being affirmed for the first time in their life. Doing so might be extra effort and it might even be uncomfortable. 

Build Inclusive Actions into Your Camp Environment

Tighten up your Policies!

  • Have clear policies, and ensure that decision-making aligns with your values. A murky policy is confusing, and a confusing policy is ineffective.
  • Make sure there are systems in place to bring your policies into reality. If you have the best inclusion policy in the world, but it only exists on paper, it defeats the purpose. You have to do the work to ensure that tools are present to bring your policy into action.
  • Your policies should include appropriate pronoun use, who is allowed at your camp, how disclosure is treated, and how cabins are assigned.

Having these sorts of policy elements clearly stated, easily accessible, and implemented goes a long way to fostering a sense of safety that will allow your queer and trans* youth and staff to feel seen and included. Your policies should be a reflection of your camp’s reality. Promising something you can’t deliver will erode trust, and perhaps put 2SLGBTQIA+ campers at summer camp and staff into unsafe situations.

Train your Staff

Your entire staff, not just the frontline team, should be trained on your inclusion policy and its implementation. There’s a common misconception that support staff don’t need to know this stuff, but inclusion is a culture. Having people on staff that aren’t part of your culture weakens that culture, and exposes your queer campers and staff to preventable harm. Bring everyone into the conversation. Your staff training should include things like:

  • Basic terminology: what words mean, what to say, and what not to say.
  • Frontline conversations: topics that might come up and how to navigate them.
  • Safe facility use and supervision: identifying vulnerable spaces, who gets access to which spaces, and what appropriate supervision looks like there.
  • Identifying and addressing bullying: generally, but also what identity-based bullying might look like and how to respond.
  • Mental health considerations: knowing the risks, the whys, and how affirming practices help.

Inclusion training is a form of safety training. We take the time to teach staff how to use EpiPens. Inclusive spaces can be just as life-saving.

Plan for Camper Disclosure

Disclosure, more commonly known as, “coming out,” is when a person reveals information about themselves to you. Whether it’s about their gender identity or sexual orientation, we want to lead with affirmation. Disclosure can be such a vulnerable experience for a camper. There’s a chance that this might be the first time they’re saying those words out loud. Use your active listening skills and mirror the body language of your camper.

Feel honored, you’ve created a connection and fostered a sense of safety for your camper. That’s huge. Thank them for their trust, because trust is earned and also a gift. Finally, ask them what they would like done with this information. Do they want any other folks to know, and do they need help navigating those conversations? Is there a name change? When should that name be used and when? Are there any tools you can think of to ensure that your camper is going forward empowered and that you have a full understanding of their wants and needs? Remember: this conversation should always center on the camper and the camper’s agency. This might be a big moment for 2SLGBTQIA+ campers at summer camp, and we don’t want to dim their spotlight.

Sharing a camper’s gender or sexuality without consent is not an act of affirmation. Kids are generally terrible at keeping secrets. They want the people in their lives to know things about them, to be heard and seen. So, if a camper has chosen not to disclose to their caregivers, let’s put our trust in what is known, and follow their lead. 

Understand Your Responsibilities at Camp and Beyond

When campers leave the safer spaces created for them, we don’t have much power in the wider world. However, that doesn’t mean camp staff are without options or responsibility. 

  • In the instance of self-harm or suicide, follow your reporting protocol. Even if you know (or suspect) specifics of a camper’s identity, it is not up to you to determine contributing factors so leave that information out. Most camp folks aren’t therapists, and we know how important it is to get professional help in serious situations. We also know that many campers are returning to potentially unsafe conditions. By sharing sensitive information nonconsensually, we create the possibility for more harm even as we seek to help.
  • You’ve shown your camper what safety looks like. Now, empower your camper to find another safe adult. This could be a family member, a teacher, or a community member. It’s vital that they have access to safety outside of camp.
  • Consider creating a resource bank to give your camper tools to seek safety outside of camp. These could be websites, phone lines, community centers, or leaders. The best resources are the ones campers can easily access.

The actions above aren’t perfect solutions, but we think they give your camper a better chance of accessing safety outside of the safer space that you’ve created for them.

Prepare for Caregiver Pushback

One last thing to consider is how you respond to caregiver confrontations. Without proper planning, these encounters can be a bit daunting. Hopefully, they won’t happen, but it’s best to have protocols and training to deal with them should they occur.

  • Know who on your staff will deal with caregiver confrontations, and train them accordingly.
  • Keep conversations to one medium (text only, phone only, etc), and keep them timebound. Once a conversation becomes unproductive or starts going in circles, find an offramp.
  • If things are heated, try to give yourself space and room to organize your thoughts. Schedule a time to call or respond to an email. It’s okay to ask for a pause.
  • Figure out exactly what a caregiver wants and if that is possible. This requires you to know your hard lines, which should be informed by your policy and values.

Many confrontations can be prevented by having your policies clearly stated and accessible to caregivers. Doing so allows caregivers to make informed decisions about whether or not your camp is right for their values. Remember, clearly stating your values works two ways. It tells caregivers that you might not be right for their values, and it also tells other caregivers that you are exactly right for theirs.

Let’s Get to Work

Your camp environment is one you should be proud of!  You have put so much work into creating a joyful experience and can continue to expand your program to be a belonging environment for campers regardless of gender and sexuality. Let’s do all we can to ensure that our 2SLGBTQIA+ campers and staff can show up in their authenticity and brilliance.