Summer camps are great for children. They learn social skills, they become more independent, they connect with nature and they gain self-confidence.
The camp experience offers a nurturing environment away from the technological distractions and hostile vibes of the city. Children from small towns and rural areas can expand their horizons.
However, for LGBTQ children, camp life may not be an easy and fun transition. Their sexual orientation can be the cause of rejection from fellow campers, making their camp experience difficult, and at times, traumatic.
Ninety-two percent of LGBTQ youth say they hear negative messages
about being LGBTQ. The top sources are schools, the Internet and their peers. Four in 10 LGBTQ youth say the community in which they live is not accepting of LGBTQ people. LGBTQ youth are twice as likely as their peers to say they have been physically assaulted, kicked or shoved at school.
These are just a few sad truths the Human Rights Campaign — the largest civil rights organization that seeks equality for LGBTQ Americans — discovered when doing an LGBTQ youth survey.
Adolescence is a time when things such as peer influence and peer relationships are emphasized. This emphasis is even a bigger deal if the adolescent is LGBTQ or is still trying to figure out his or her sexual orientation.
Adam Bryant Miller is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He says that peer influence, especially peer rejection, is associated with a lot of mental health issues and mood disorders.
“A lack of social support from peers is one of the most consistent factors implicated in the onset of adolescent depression and even suicidal thoughts and behaviors,” he says.
Statistically, LGBTQ adolescents tend to have increased rates of mental health problems.
“We don’t know exactly why this is,” Miller says. “However, some theories and research studies suggest that it’s because of a lack of support regarding acceptance of their orientation.”
“This is especially true when these individuals lack family support,” he adds. “Sadly, LGBT adolescents have even higher odds of experiencing suicidal thoughts and behaviors, and have even completed suicide.”
In this situation, the most important thing for the psychological well being of the adolescent is support from his or her family.
But there are several resources available for families in such situations, including PFLAG — whose slogan is “Parents, families, friends and allies united with LGBTQ people to move equality forward.”
Another resource for families is the website effectivechildtherapy. org, which provides important information about finding providers who practice empirically based treatments.
And a great way of letting kids and adolescents be who they are is sending them to summer camp. Camps are known to help them improve their creative expression and participation in a community environment. It also makes them explore and expand the definition of who they are.
THEIR HAPPY PLACE
In America, the majority of summer camps aren’t organized based on the campers’ sexual orientation, which can sometimes cause LGBTQ kids to feel unsure about attending summer camp because of their fear of rejection.
But there are certain summer camps that are specifically organized for these kids. Their aim is to give LGBTQ individuals more support by surrounding them with other kids who share similar life experiences regarding their sexuality.
A few examples of these types of camps are Camp True Colors, in Minnesota, for those who identify as LGBTQ and are living out of home or at risk of homelessness; Camp Aranu’tiq, in New England and California, for transexual and gender-variant youth ages 14- to 18-years-old; Camp Ten Trees, in Washington state, a camp for LGBTQ youth and LGBTQ or nontraditional families; Wonderfully Made Camp, in Philadelphia, a weekend-long camp; the Spiritual Pride Project, in Texas, a camp that helps LGBTQ young adults explore their spirituality in relation to religion; Camp Lightbulb, in Massachusetts, a nonprofit overnight camp for LGBTQ youth ages 14-18; and The Naming Project, in Minnesota,one of the few faith-based organizations for LGBTQ.
Every summer in Durham, North Carolina, QORDS, the “queer oriented” camp for adolescents provides the traditional camp experience for those individuals. QORDS offers a wide range of creative and artistic activities as well as outdoors activities. Campers attend workshops on songwriting, drag performance, dance, creative writing, spoken word poetry, the history of LGBTQ music, the history of LGBTQ organizing in the South and self-defense.
They form music groups and write songs together to perform at the end of the week. They also do karaoke and host dance parties. And the campers are able to test their physical skills at activities like hiking, canoeing, aerials or wading in creeks.
“The idea for this camp came up after North Carolina lost the fight against Amendment One, which amended the state constitution to prohibit gay marriage,” says Tavi Hancock, founder and treasurer of QORDS. “This decision affected legal rights of many parents and families in the state and LGBTQ families were feeling discouraged.”
“So the four of us who founded QORDS just wanted to do something celebratory for LGBTQQIA youth and youth of queer and trans families.”
All of the camp counselors at QORDS are LGBTQQIA identified, and the cabins aren’t assigned by gender. Instead, they’re based on age and it’s a discrimination- free camp.
“We start the week with the campers creating the values and behaviors that will guide us at camp,” Hancock says. “We hold workshops on topics related to economic class, and this year we held POC (people of color) and white people caucuses.”
She says that sometimes campers have discussions with one another about these topics, and they usually tend to come out of camp having learned and grown in those areas.
Hancock says after this experience the campers gain confidence, support and new friends. They learn how to organize in their own towns around LGBTQ issues and, overall, have one week where they can freely be themselves without negative feedback. She says that some campers have told her that camp was the first time they really felt happy.
Some of the things she often hears among the campers are, “I don’t feel judged here,” “I can be myself here,” “I don’t know any other LGBTQ kids in my school or town,” “I can try out new pronouns or gender expression here,” “It’s really fun” or “I made good friends with the other kids and staff.”
QORDS has also been a life- changing experience for Hancock.
“The counselors grow and change and feel like we can be our best selves at camp,” she says. “I’ve actually made some of my best friends through meeting other QORDS organizers.”
BOY SCOUTS OF AMERICA
The United States has experienced much growth in the realm of LGBTQ support over the last few years — including, most recently, the legalization of same- sex marriage on June 26, 2015.
Another step forward for the LGBTQ community was the change of the Adult Leadership Policy of the Boy Scouts of America. This private youth organization used to prohibit “known or avowed homosexuals” from being members of the program.
But on July 27, 2015, the Boy Scouts removed the restriction on openly gay adult leaders and employees. Boy Scouts of America is composed of nearly 2.5 million youth members between the ages of 7 and 21, and approximately 960,000 volunteers throughout the United States and its territories. Consequently, the change affects a lot of people.
IT GETS BETTER
Hugo Fernandez is an LGBTQ 21-year-old student who went
to summer camp when he was 15 years old. He went to Culver Camp Summer Academy, a military camp in Indiana. Hugo says he didn’t tell the counselors he was gay, but he told his friends.
“At first I was a little scared that they would reject me, especially since we only knew each other for a few days, but that was who I was, and I couldn’t hide it from them,” he says. “When I finally told them, they completely accepted me.”
In terms of the difficulties someone LGBTQ has to go through while at camp, Hugo says there aren’t any.
“I don’t remember experiencing any awkward or hard situations,” he says. “I think that sadly you can find discrimination in any environment, but usually summer camps are well prepared for handling that kind of situation.”
“Summer camps promote integration and the counselors, at least in the camp I went to, were prepared for dealing with issues related to religion, diet restrictions, sexual orientation and others.”
Hugo advises other LGBTQ adolescents who are hesitant about summer camp to take a chance, as it was a positive and life-changing experience for him.
“I learned a lot at camp, and not only to ride a horse or play tennis. I made amazing friends, and I felt completely free to be myself,” he says. “You are very likely to find other people that are in the same situation as you and people who will accept you for who you are.”
Top Chef fans aged 4 to 14 can attend one, or several, of this culinary day camp’s week-long sessions. Each week has a different theme – past summers have included French Bistro, Cupcake Wars and Small Plates. For children with dietary restrictions, the Gluten Free or Meatless Mains and Munchies week may be a better option. Tiny Chefs has 21 locations throughout Maryland, Virginia and D.C., and costs $200- $425 per week, depending on the class and duration.
Science and math lovers can expand their technology skills and prepare for STEM-related careers by building robots and websites, learning how to produce films and designing video games and apps at iD Tech summer camp. iD Tech offers week- long programs for kids ages 7 to
17 at more than 100 universities nationwide, with six in Texas, including one at the University of Texas at Austin and another at Rice University. Day and overnight options are available, and fees.
Westchester Circus Arts Center:
Kids can run away and join the circus at day camp in Ardsley, New York. Activities include walking on stilts, juggling, tightrope walks, trapeze and more. In the first week, campers are introduced to a variety of skills, and choose their favorite to specialize in during the following week to prepare for the end-of-session showcase. There are three sessions from June to August, which cost $1,150 each, or campers can attend all three sessions for $3,000.
Second City Chicago Training Center Summer Camp:
Class clowns can channel their inner Tina Fey at this Chicago day camp. The comedy theater famous for cranking out Saturday Night Live cast members welcomes children ages 8 to 18 to attend one- or two- week sessions and learn the basics of improvisation, sketch comedy and stand-up. Depending on age, camp costs between $560-$1,000. Housing is not provided.
Cheley Children’s Hospital Colorado Summer Burn Camp:
This eight-day overnight adventure camp offers a supportive and fun environment for burn victims ages 8 to 18. Kids balance out continued physical and emotional therapy with challenge courses, crafts and horseback riding. Nurses, occupational and physical therapists and a psychologist are onsite at the Estes Park, Colorado camp.
Plantation Farm Camp:
This Cazadero, California sleepaway camp brings kids back to nature while instilling in them a sense of responsibility. The camp doubles as a farm, complete with goats, cows and pigs, and campers are active participants in the farm community. Cost of attendance ranges from $1,350-$4,800, depending on the session length and time of registration.
“Imagine watching a video of excited campers: dressed in buckskin and a buffalo headdress reminiscent of a “Flintstones” episode, the announcer walks to the microphone and does a roll call of various camp troops.
“Bella Coola makes us hula!” cries the Bella Coola troop.
Their rowdy response doubles the joy of the young boys and their troop leaders. Some say there’s no harm in fun.
Adrienne Keene disagrees. Keene is a postdoctoral fellow
in Native American Studies at Brown University. Her blog, nativeappropriations.com, works to dispel Native American stereotypes. In 2011, she wrote about her hometown’s YMCA program, formerly known as Indian Guides and Indian Princesses. The video was part of the post.
The roll call of the Native American-themed troops took place in 2007 despite the fact that the YMCA board of directors and the National Council of YMCAs changed the Indian Guides and Indian Princesses program in 2001 to be more respectful of Native American culture. The program was even renamed Adventure Guides and Princesses.
While the non-indigenous children in the video seem to enjoy themselves, Dr. Keene said Native American children don’t find joy in witnessing their culture on parade. Their displeasure, and that of other Native Americans, might be because camps are acting out their culture in the wrong way.
According to YMCA history, the Indian Guides and Princesses program stemmed from a hunting trip between Joe Friday, an Ojibwa man, and Harold S. Keltner, the YMCA director of St. Louis. Friday told Keltner about certain Native American traditions.
“The Indian father raises his son,” Friday said, according to YMCA history. “He teaches his son to hunt, track, to fish, to walk softly and silently in the forest, to know the meaning and purpose of life… while the white man allows the mother to raise his son.”
In the middle of the quote, Friday speaks of fathers giving their sons
hunting skills and an understanding of nature and spirituality. Keltner was an outdoors enthusiast and a person who appreciated Native American culture. He wanted to nurture father-son relationships like the one described by Friday. Thus, Indian Guides
was born – an imitation of Native American cultural traditions that Keltner admired.
Even though this program and similar ones used at other camps may have grown out of admiration for some aspects of Native American culture, some critics have serious misgivings about them. “Just because you have a native friend does not give you permission to do what he or she does,” said Randi Byrd, community engagement coordinator of the American Indian Center (AIC) in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Byrd said knowledge passed from only one member of the community does not align with traditional methods of cultural exchange between the tribe and outsiders.
Byrd said non-Native Americans may view dressing in regalia around a campfire as a sign of respect toward tribes, but actually such acts “desecrate the culture.” Items such as war bonnets must be earned, not bought, she said.
Similar thoughts were expressed in an article originally written for the American Camp Association in 2002, by Bonnie Dunn, who was the director of the Patuxent River 4-H Center in Maryland, and Denise Frebertshauser, coauthor of the curricula “More than Feathers and Moccasins.”
They wrote that many people associated with camps believe that tradition justifies the use of Native American customs in camp activities.
Like Byrd, however, the authors reasoned that having campers wear Native American regalia can dishonor Native American traditions rather than paying them homage. The article, featured today on the ACA’s website, does not demand that camps stop all use of Native American culture
but encourages camps to examine their program for traces of cultural appropriation that do not show respect.
Dunn and Frebertshauser ask, for example, if a camp uses a pipe ceremony to start a campfire session, would it also start the session by singing “Amazing Grace”? Camps focused on religion might. That kind of song is not taken out of context and is sung in a familiar language.
Since the 1970s with the American Indian Movement, and even before then, Native Americans’ voices have advocated against the stereotypes attributed to them by mainstream society. Advocacy also extends to fighting against the misuse of Native American culture.
“There’s a feeling that a culture that’s not your own is a commodity,” Byrd said. Byrd and the AIC seek to counter such notions. She has worked with various tribes and Native American-focused organizations inside and outside North Carolina, including the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs. She is also a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee.
The American Indian Center (AIC) works in association with
the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but it is a public service center. The center’s mission statement is: “Bridging
the richness of Native cultures with the strengths of Carolina in education, research and service through four areas of engagement.”
Byrd is grateful that people attempt to learn the difference between respecting and appropriating Native American culture. But teaching this lesson has become repetitive.
“I partly blame this on a lack of presence for contemporary American Indian issues in the mainstream media and in educational curricula,” Byrd said.
She recalls a mother who homeschooled her children and wanted to form a Native American culture camp for the neighborhood children.
“That’s not how it works,” Byrd said, cringing. She said part of the problem with cultural appropriation is the general lack of knowledge among people using the culture, which undermines reverence for it. The way you teach a culture determines whether you are appropriating it.
“Understand the level of bias when talking about other cultures,” said another AIC staff member who prefers not to be identified.
Byrd said most of the average person’s knowledge about Native American culture comes from Hollywood movies. A key factor
in ensuring that an activity teaches rather than appropriates culture is learning from a member of the tribe.
“Have Indians sit at the table,” said the AIC staff member. She said leading the discussion can turn a moment of ignorance to one of teaching.
The Boy Scouts of America, which sometimes uses Native American culture in its camps and other programs, has made an attempt to give Native Americans a seat at the table. The BSA website urges troop leaders to contact tribe leaders to be part of Boy Scout activities.
Josh Cole, now a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, joined the Boy Scouts as a teenager. He said the Scouts are still misusing Native American culture.
He remembered wearing actual Cherokee regalia – his troop focused on this tribe.
“There’s white bread America brand of Native American ceremony,” Cole said.
He said this brand of ceremony appeared in plays, in which Scout principles such as cleanliness, frugality and courtesy mixed with Native American values.
Cole also remembers dressing like characters of Cherokee legend. He said the program “ripped characters” from legends, such as Meteu the medicine man.
“I guarantee you he would not say how great America was,” Cole said.
Cole and his fellow scouts danced for an audience of Cherokee tribe members. He also attended dance competitions where scouts competed against Native American youth. The Scouts won a few times.
“I bet they weren’t happy about that,” Cole said.
Cole performed the grass dance at the Lodge, a building at Camp Daniel Boone in Canton, North Carolina. He enjoyed making the regalia that accompanied the dance.
He also said the misuse of Native American culture appeared during advancement in Boy Scouts, such as the Eagle ceremony.
No one in his troop ever made an effort to contact tribal leaders for their input into activities, he said.
“We have a weird relationship with Native Americans,” Cole said. “The founders must have admired the Native Americans’ relationship with nature, which is cool, but then they decided to take it.”
The unnamed AIC staff member said Native American culture is interesting to people outside the tribes, but it’s also ceremonial and an important part of the Native American community.
She stressed that truly understanding the dynamics of Native American culture requires lessons from a Native American. Another example of cultural appropriation has been carelessly mixing different tribes’ styles. Cole said his scout group played in teepees – a Sioux dwelling form – even though the patch on his sleeve signified his group as the Cherokees.
“That’s just strange to me,” said Teryn Smith, a graduate intern at the AIC. “You wouldn’t do that with any other race.”
One week each summer, Smith works at a camp for children who really are Native Americans and who learn accurate details about their tribal heritage.
Smith, who has a master’s in social work, is the intern co- director of the youth camp for the Sappony tribe in Person County, North Carolina. When Smith was about 10 years old, she was a camper. She shares her duties with other intern co-directors who are also her cousins.
Smith said the week-long camp, held on the tribe’s historical land, helps to keep the bonds strong among everyone in the Sappony tribe, no matter their age. Smith is a member of the Sappony tribe.
The Sappony tribe is made of seven families, each of whom is represented in the Sappony’s political council. That is why Smith said maintaining the familial bonds ensures the future of the tribe.
To maintain these bonds, Smith and the other co-directors organize activities that focus on heritage and culture. The children map their family trees, so they’re able to see that they share ancestors. Dante, who Smith calls the “CEO of the tribe,” teaches the history of the Sappony from the 1600s to the present. A Haliwa-Saponi researcher of the Tutelo language, a language that is also spoken among the Sappony, visited the camp to teach the children Tutelo.
Adult members of the tribe teach the children to farm and can vegetables. The co-directors also plan activities that promote healthy eating habits. Canoeing, fishing, swimming and team building exercises are planned to get kids moving and working together.
Smith said that the Sappony Youth Camp doesn’t have the Native-American-inspired activities seen in mainstream camps run by organizations such as the YMCA and Boy Scouts.
“We have prayer. We have morning pledge,” Smith said.
Smith said that it can be OK for mainstream camps to have some Native American activities – if they are done in the right way. But she said some of the activities that use headdresses and mix different tribal practices generalize Native American culture.
“They don’t need to emulate or mimic,” Smith said. “It’s appropriation at that point.”
The way culture is taught determines if it has been appropriated.
“There’s a difference between ignorance and willful ignorance,” Byrd said.