This past summer, I returned work at an overnight camp in Wisconsin for my fifth summer, and my second as a counselor. My past summers had been filled with fond memories. As summer 2014 approached, I became increasingly excited.
During the middle of staff week, the entire staff participated in a discussion-based program about gender. While the discussion did not go as well as I had hoped, something was clear by the end: camp is a place that continuously claims to be “inclusive,” but is not currently inclusive to trans individuals. To be clear, camp is not “anti-trans,” but rather, it is not actively pursing a way to be trans-inclusive at the moment. I applaud a friend of mine who spoke up during the program, calling out our old-fashioned camp director, who was not present, on asking a male camper to remove his nail polish.
Throughout the summer, I found myself noticing countless gender norms and standards of masculinity. While I could go on forever listing examples, I won’t. Something that caught my attention was a seemingly arbitrary rule made at the pool. In the shallow end, there is a five-foot long toy alligator that kids climb on. One morning at the pool, I heard a lifeguard blow her whistle and say, “girls off, it’s time for the boys’ turn.” I immediately questioned the gendering of this and asked the lifeguard about it. She told me that because boys are too violent, it was not safe for boys and girls to be on the alligator at the same time. I went straight to the aquatics director to inform her that I felt as though the lifeguards were making an assumption about boys being violent. She was very understanding. Nevertheless, most of the lifeguards continued to enforce this rule for the rest of the summer.
Not all of my experiences were negative though. During the second two-week session of camp, one of my co-counselors, Zoe, is a women’s studies major. For those two weeks, our cabin thrived on body and period-positivity. As a cabin bonding activity, we made SHEro posters, which involved printing out a photo of each girl’s famous female role model, decorating them, and saying why each of us picked these women.
During these two weeks, I had a conversation with another counselor. “I’m not really a feminist,” she told me one evening. When I asked her what she meant by that, she said, “Well, I’m not like Zoe.” I told her that you don’t have to be a women’s studies major and constantly talk about bodies in order to be a feminist. “I’m not not a feminist,” she replied.
I had the opportunity to examine these issues most critically during a learning session with a few other counselors led by an educator at camp, a young man in his late twenties. All of us were in this session by choice. Therefore, we were all counselors for whom gender equality was at the forefront of our thinking. The educator presented us with an article, “A feminist camp counselor unpacks her baggage,” published in Lilith, a feminist Jewish publication. Maya Zinkow, the author, wrote about her experience at her Jewish summer camp specifically after completing her sophomore year at Barnard. “I was returning to a place I loved deeply…but deep internal change is harder to accommodate in a space that must remain the familiar and idyllic home for hundreds of campers who return every summer,” the article read. Everything began to click; Zinkow got it.
In the learning session, I raised a concern about how to make the changes around gender norms that were referenced in the article. “The change has to come from the counselors,” the educator told us. When he first said this, I didn’t know what to think. I felt powerless in the entire bureaucracy of camp. I was only a counselor after all. I began to think about the big picture. Where does effective change usually stem from at Goucher? The students. The counselors (and sometimes campers) were the students in this situation.
A few weeks later, I saw a letter written by a group of ninth-grade campers. The letter called out the camp administration on asking boys wearing dresses to change. The boys were wearing dresses as part of “switch day,” where the campers dressed up like their peers. “We openly challenge traditional gender roles…we believe the actions taken were unjust and we hope you can respect our voice,” read the letter.
Though change is slowly starting to happen, I definitely felt out of place at camp this summer. I partially dealt with this by sending letters (yes, letters by mail) to Goucher friends explaining my experience. One reply read something along the lines of, “it can be hard to critique a place you love so much.” Camp no longer feels like the place where I can be my truest self, but part of me still wants to return to hopefully be part of the change.