While the visibility of the LGBTQ+ community becomes increasingly more common and stronger across the US, we can’t think of a place we feel more at home, and safe, then when we’re at camp. As everyone should feel, regardless of their sexuality or gender identity. Camp is a place where our differences can be celebrated, and of course, an environment where each camper and counselor are encouraged to become the best version of themselves.
Would having stronger LGBT visibility at camp be beneficial? In short, yes of course!
Even small reminders of your camp being an ally could make a staff member, camper, and even visiting parents feel more welcome. It’s not always obvious who is an ally and that could cause anxiety amongst some LGBT staff and campers. Little cues such as a safe space sign in your main office or a pride flag hanging proudly in a bunk could make a monumental impact on not only how your staff speak about the LGBT community, but also how your campers may perceive the LGBT community. You don’t have to be a part of the LGBT community to be an ally.
Taking time to address your staff the possibility of a conversation between them and a camper about their sexuality is more important now than ever. It’s not a conversation that should be shutdown. LGBT youth sometimes feel isolated from their friends because of their mixed feelings, especially if they don’t match their peers, and their counselors are sometimes the only ones they feel comfortable talking too. If your staff isn’t comfortable or wanting to speak on these issues they should give that camper another option for outlet.
Some questions to consider in these situations:
Is this the right place and time?
Camp can be a busy place! Odds are, especially as a bunk counselor, you’re running from one activity to another. The downtime bunk staff have is valuable to them and often times needed to recharge and recover. This conversation might happen on your way out of the bunk to lifeguard at the waterfront or during a group activity in the middle of a bunk night. If this situation arises, and you believe you can assist; acknowledge that you appreciate them coming to you, explain that you’re on the way out and ask if they’re comfortable talking about this at a different time. “Hey, thanks for coming to me with this. I would love to help but I’m on my way out to lifeguard. Is it alright if we talk about this during rest hour later?” IMPORTANT: If you set a time and place to meet, you MUST deliver. Also, if you feel this a conversation where a group leader or supervisor should be present, make sure you ask the camper if they’re comfortable with that. Never put that camper in a situation where they could feel ambushed. They trust you.
Am I the person? If not, who is?
These conversations are of the utmost importance and should not be shrugged off. If you find you’re unable to assist, make sure you let them know that you’re not the best person to talk to but there are other counselors able to help them out. Also, thank them. Coming out can be one of the most difficult things for a young LGBT individual to do. “Hey, thanks for talking to me about this. I’m not sure if I’m the best person to help out, let’s see if ______ is available.” Respect whatever answer they give you. Sometimes it’s just as valuable to listen with limited feedback. Simple active listening techniques can make that individual feel more comfortable when communicating with you.
What if my camp doesn’t approve of this type of conversation?
Odds are that if you’re reading this you’re either a camp professional looking to make your camp a more welcoming environment or a seasonal camp staff member that’s interested in the same goal. Unfortunately, there are still camps around that may disapprove or even condemn members of the LGBT community. On a positive note, if camps run by such beliefs, there are usually warning signs during the hiring process that hopefully deter you from signing a contract before it’s too late. If there are questions on the application that relate to your sexuality and/or “homosexual thoughts” (yes, this is a real question on summer camp applications) that’s an immediate red flag. Do some research when applying for camp next summer. The best advice we have would be to check out the camp’s mission statement and see if it correlates with your values as a potential employee. Many camps also have video introductions covering everything from ‘day in the life’, activities offered, and even what it’s like to work there. Often times in these videos, camps love to show off their diversity in campers and staff. Cliche? Maybe, but it’s quite possible you’ll see a bit of “pride” somewhere in the background. Again, small reminders can make all the difference.
As stated before, camp is place where our differences can be celebrated, and of course, an environment where each camper and counselor are encouraged to become the best version of themselves. Some camps rather avoid the conversation altogether, we don’t recommend this. I’m sure you know this already, but camp is where some individuals feel most comfortable to be themselves. If your camp hosts the age where sexuality is a possible conversation, then your staff should be properly prepared for that. Set your staff up for success. Simply adding a sexuality and gender identity workshop to your staff orientation could mean the difference of one campers summer where they felt able to express themselves in a positive and encouraging light or shutdown and felt even more like an outcast.
This is one of the specific topics that Bunk Discussions was created for. There’s no one answer to these difficult questions that happen every summer around the world, but ignoring the question, or worse, shaming it, can create an environment we don’t want our campers or counselors a part of. Camp cultures have no room for bigotry in their community of acceptance and encouragement. Shout out to LGBT camp professionals new and old! We hope you feel appreciated and valued in your camp community.
Your unofficial co-counselor,