Kids always seem a little confused by me. I’m a camp counsellor, so I’m around them all day everyday but they still can’t seem to figure out what they’re looking at. I can’t blame them – they’re young, they’re still learning and, most importantly, they’ve been raised to treat the gender binary as fact. Through socialization – school, daycare, family learning – they’ve been taught that certain cues mean someone is a boy or a girl. So, when the little ones see me with short hair and typically-masculine attire but a female-coded body and voice, they don’t quite know what to make of me. I understand it’s new to them, so I take no offence but I do take the time to explain, which is usually prompted by them asking ‘are you a boy or a girl?’
This isn’t my first time working with kids but it is my first time attempting to answer this question. Last summer, I wasn’t as open about my gender as I am now. I had started this new job after a pretty shaky end to my life in high school and I worried that being non-binary would instantly ‘other’ me among these new people and prevent me from having the ‘normal’ work environment I desired. So I decided not to tell anyone on my staff team or my supervisors. I never explicitly stated I identified as female but being AFAB was enough for my co-workers to assume I was and I felt unable to say otherwise.
We were a primarily female-identified group, all but me, and a cis male counselor who didn’t seem to be all that interested in team bonding. Because of that, it became a girl-focused summer. There was a lot of ‘good morning, ladies!,’ ‘girl power’ and a group chat called ‘Camp Gals.’ This brought me immense discomfort but I still kept my gender identity as low-key as possible for the better part of the summer. Having people who had just met me assume I was a girl wasn’t out of the ordinary for me. Not talking about gender had always been easier for me, rather than having a potentially uncomfortable (or, in the worst case, violent) conversation. It was bearable.
That is, until campers began to ask questions about my gender. They were innocent questions from young minds, curiously trying to place me in one of the two categories they knew. They were having difficulty, so they opted to ask outright rather than get it wrong. But it placed me in a difficult situation. I felt caught between telling these kids the messy truth (for some, gender wasn’t as binary as they were taught it was,) and giving an untrue, uncomfortable answer, by picking a binary gender for myself that was incorrect. I was given a choice in those moments, to continue to live with the unfortunate assumption my co-workers had made or to correct it and shape how these children saw me.
This is not a choice that adults usually give me – I’m nonconsensually labeled a binary gender based on the arbitrary ‘gendered’ traits I possess before I am given the opportunity to tell them how I identify and how I would like to be referred to. This choice was a gift.
The first step I took that summer to reclaim my right to identify outside the gender binary was to refuse to answer. I was the authority figure to these six year olds, I was allowed to keep any information I wanted a secret. I became an expert in giving non-committal answers or shrugging continuously until they got bored of asking. The best thing about kids is that, after a while, their patience wears thin and they move on to the next, more interesting thing. But the questions returned and it wasn’t always the same kids asking, either. A majority of my campers still wanted to know, earnestly, desperately, if I was a boy or a girl.
I don’t lie to kids about things that matter. I tell white lies like, ‘It’s not going to rain’ or ‘We’ll play dodgeball tomorrow’ but never anything big. If I can’t tell the truth, I deflect but I try my hardest not to lie to kids. They trust adults so completely and treat our words as fact. It feels wrong and downright dangerous to lie to them. Over the course of that summer, I grew tired of withholding my truth from these kids. My non-committal answers shifted from ‘I don’t know’ to ‘Not everyone is a boy or a girl,’ and transformed from dismissive into opening up the conversation about gender.
That summer ended with me telling my supervisors I wasn’t cis, just in case any parent was less than pleased about the new information I had just taught their kids about gender. As far as I know, I didn’t receive a single complaint.
I went into this summer more confident in my identity. Riding the high of an incredibly affirming first year at university, I jumped into work knowing that I deserve respect and not being shy about demanding I be given it. Right out of the gate in some of the first emails I sent my new Camp Director, I let him know how I identified, and that I used they/them pronouns.
He was nothing short of wonderful and made it clear to me that any transphobia from our staff team or unwillingness to use my correct pronouns would not be tolerated. After a few awkward weeks of reminding and, in some cases, teaching my co-workers how to use they/them pronouns, everyone had figured it out and fallen into the habit of using my correct pronouns. But once again, the kids were a different story.
Questions about my gender began the first week of the summer but this time I was ready. While being as clear as I could manage without using complicated terminology I knew they hadn’t been taught yet, I began to explain, one conversation at a time, what it meant to be non-binary.
The kids have been, for the most part, wonderfully receptive. I use the term ‘half boy, half girl’ a lot and while this is a bit overly simplistic when it comes to my gender, it’s a good place to start and something that seems to make sense to most of the campers I speak with. I’ve taught some of the older kids how to use they/them pronouns for me, as has my Camp Director, and had some of the younger ones excitedly announce to their group that they’d just learned their counselor wasn’t a boy or a girl. It’s a learning experience for us all: for me in self-advocacy, for the kids in gender outside the binary.
Summer camp is a self-affirming experience for kids. For me, summer camp taught me independence and the ability to cope with my emotions on my own from a young age. I attended an all-girls summer camp and although I no longer identify as a girl myself, the messages of body positivity, self-acceptance and strength in the feminine aspects of myself helped shape my childhood and still remain with me today.
Camp allows children to live away from their parents/guardians for the first time or at least spend the day away in an environment that is less structured than the average school day. It puts emotional and behavioral self-regulation to the test while children interact with one another, navigating interpersonal relationships and conflicts. It rewards successes in the form of positive affirmations and praise from counselors, and it softens the blow of failures, as camp is often a more risk-free environment than school. The primary goal at summer camp is to have fun.
However, the first thing we tell the kids at camp when we begin each new session and start going over the rules, is that you can’t have fun at camp if you aren’t safe. This mostly refers to campers not hitting other campers or wandering away from the group but I can’t help feeling it also applies to the safety of having your gender identity respected and affirmed by your peers and counselors.
Specialized LGBTQ+ summer camps provide a validating and empowering environment for kids to explore their gender and sexuality. Surrounded by members of their community, young queer and trans kids experience camp in its purest form without the discomfort of being misgendered or forced into compulsory heterosexuality (for example, in the form of camp ‘hookup culture’).
My girlfriend spent a week volunteering at one of these camps and bought back many stories. What stood out to me the most, was that campers were not only able to use whatever pronouns they felt represented them best on any given day, but were actively encouraged to use them, even if they never had before. She told me about how many of these young queer kids and teens slipped into new pronouns for the week, pronouns they had secret thought about using or maybe had never even considered before. She told me about what it meant to these campers to have their still-forming identities affirmed in this way, lighting up their faces and bringing so much joy.
Summer camp, for many kids, is an escape from the monotony and expectation that school brings. It’s a place for self-discovery, flourishing independence and building relationships that can last a lifetime. However, the positive benefits and warm fuzzy feelings of a summer spent away from home can only happen if campers (and staff) feel like their identities are being respected by their peers. Camp is for everyone and it’s an experience I believe that every child should get to have, if they want to have it. By ensuring there are options for gender non-conforming kids to go to camp (whether that means a specialized camp for LGBTQ+ kids or a local day camp with staff who are accepting and willing to learn about gender identities), means that no kid gets left out.
About the author
Danny McLaren is a queer, trans and non-binary writer who uses they/them pronouns. They have an interest in exploring themes related to equity, resistance, and survival in their work, and often write about their gender, sexuality, and mental health incorporating these themes. Their work has appeared in Cleaning Up Glitter Journal, ENBY Magazine, and GlitterShip Podcast and Anthology, among others. They currently have a micro-chap with Post Ghost Press titled Sorry It’s Not better News, and are a 2019 Editor’s Pick poet in the Brain Mill Press National Poetry Month Contest. They can be found on twitter at @dannymclrn.
Note: An older version of this piece originally appeared in ENBY Magazine.