Camp Ten Oaks is a celebrated overnight camp for children and youth ages 8-17 from LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, two-spirit, queer) identities, families and communities. Based on Eagle Lake in eastern Ontario, Ten Oaks is the first camp of its kind in Canada.
Julia Wagg was a co-founder of Ten Oaks. The camp community is in mourning after Julia passed away after a 15-month battle with leukemia.
In the past six years, on three separate occasions, Ted Lockie (Manager, Camp and Youth Programs, Western Canada, Canadian Diabetes Association) received a request from parents asking him if he would register a transgender camper. Ted shares his experience.
When Lockie was asked to register a transgender camper, he did not hesitate. Ted simply asked the parent to identify whether their child chose to live in a female or a male cabin. In all three cases, a female was transitioning to a male. Ted was confident that the child would not behave in any way to make the cabin mates uncomfortable as that would be difficult for themselves as well. In most cases, the other campers were unaware of the gender change. Only the camper’s counsellor and the medical staff were informed.
In Ted’s experience, no problems arose and he received no negative feedback from other parents. He states, “It is not a problem; don’t make it a problem.” Ted is a millennial and completely comfortable with the situation. He speculates that older camp directors may be less at ease because they have had less experience with transgender youth. He considers that the issue may be more of a challenge for those with strong religious beliefs that do not accept gender change.
Ted believes that because camp is an inclusive, accepting, supportive environment, it is a great place for transgender youth to learn how to navigate society. They become accustomed to using a different washroom, have the opportunity to play on a different sports team or even start talking about the changes that they are experiencing.
“Camp is a place where I can truly be myself!” As a camp director, there’s nothing better than hearing those words. But for gender variant children and youth, summer camp can be a place where rigid gender roles and gender-segregated spaces make it incredibly difficult to “be yourself”. It’s time to start the conversation about how to support gender variant children and youth in our summer camps.
Let’s start with some basic terms. Sex refers to a person’s anatomy, and can be male, female, or intersex. Gender refers to the social and cultural roles of men and women; it can be helpful to think of gender as a spectrum ranging from masculine to feminine, with lots of space in between. Many people with male sex characteristics think of themselves as men, and many people with female sex characteristics think of themselves as women. However for some people, including children and youth, their gender is different than what we usually associate with their sex. For children, this is often described as gender variant or gender creative. For youth and adults, this is often described as transgender. The key here is that every child or youth is the expert on their own gender, and has the right to express their gender on their own terms.
Before a gender variant child or youth arrives at camp, we need to do some thinking and preparing to make our spaces and programs safer for them. Do we have a policy in writing to support gender variant children and youth? Have we trained our staff to understand and support gender variant children and youth? Do we employ transgender people on our staff team? What are our legal obligations under relevant human rights code legislation? If a parent or young person approaches us and discloses that the young person identifies as gender variant or transgender, how can we work with them to live as their self-identified gender while attending our summer camp? It is respectful (and, in many places, the law) to fully recognize people as the gender they identify for themselves. This means always using the names and pronouns they prefer, ensuring they have safe access to washrooms appropriate for their gender, placing them with a camper or cabin group that reflects their gender, and much more.
Once campers arrive, we can help all children and youth by challenging gender stereotypes and encouraging them to discover their unique skills, talents, and interests. We can make sure not to have different expectations of people based on their gender. We can provide role models – from the physically strong women who lead our backcountry canoe trips, to the emotionally secure men who cry on the last day of camp. We can validate them by knowing them the way they want to be known, and reminding them that they, too, are part of what makes our camp special. And hopefully, gender variant children and youth will feel that camp is a place where they can truly be themselves.