“Mommy, I’m scared,” my daughter said from the backseat of our SUV, surrounded by her backpack, a sleeping bag and some other odds and ends that never made it into her duffel bags. We were still about an hour away from camp and other than “why can’t I just stay home this summer?” these were the only words she’d muttered in the past 90 minutes.
“I know, *Gabby,” I said, empathizing. “It can be scary going to a new camp. But I’m sure that once you get settled in, you’ll make friends and have fun!”
“You don’t get it, Mom,” she said. “No one wants to be friends with the new kid.” And then a few seconds later: “Especially the new trans kid.”
I honestly didn’t think being transgender would prevent her from making friends. Hell, I hoped it wouldn’t. Regardless, I knew she was feeling anxious. And even though I loved my camp experience (eight summers as a camper, four as a counselor, and I still sing color war cheers and alma maters in the shower), I could only imagine the anxiety she was feeling.
Privacy at sleepaway camp is minimal, often nonexistent. Picture an old-school Loehmann’s dressing room — add some beds, cubbies and a multi-stall bathroom/shower area, and you’re looking at a traditional bunk. Yes, things had gotten a little awkward one summer at my old sleepaway camp when my boobs started growing before some of my bunkmates, and when my friend sprouted pubic hair when the rest of us hadn’t, but for the most part, all of us girls were in the same boat. Breasts and bushes aside, we all looked similar and had few qualms about dressing or undressing in a crowd.
But how would my penis-bearing daughter feel changing in a room full of vaginas, I often wondered when the topic of camp arose. And how would the vagina-bearing girls — and let’s be honest, their parents — feel about their kids changing, let alone living in the same bunk as a girl with a penis?
When we first began researching camps, my husband and I weren’t even sure sleepaway camp would be possible for our daughter. Especially after Gabby told us vehemently, “I’m not going to trans camp,” which was a decision we respected. While there are a handful of incredible camps for gender-nonconforming and transgender kids, our daughter wanted a traditional sleepaway experience where she could simply be “one of the girls.”
“Why can’t I go to cousin Amanda’s camp?” Gabby asked for about the fifteenth time a week before camp was slated to begin. We were sitting outside, just the two of us, eating dinner at a neighborhood café.
“Honestly,” I replied, setting down my glass of cabernet, “for a few reasons. One, Amanda’s camp is a little over the top for my and Daddy’s taste. Let’s just say it’s a bit fancier than I’d expect a camp to be. And most of the girls seem to be wearing the same outfits” — expensive outfits, I thought but didn’t say — “in all the pictures I’ve seen. It seems a bit much to me.
“And besides,” I started to say, but then stopped.
“Besides what?” Gabby asked.
“Just tell me, Mom!”
“I’m not sure they’d let you go to that camp,” I admitted softly.
“Let me go?”
“Yes,” I said, and paused again, trying to buy some time before having a conversation I’d been dreading since my son Gideon became my daughter, Gabriella. “Not all camps accept transgender campers.”
“Oh,” she said dejectedly. “Well, did you ask Amanda’s camp?”
“No, we didn’t. Because again, it’s not a camp we’d consider for you.”
“Did you ask other camps that said no? Is that why I’m going to this new camp?”
“That’s not why you’re going to this camp,” I told her, which was the truth. “We looked at several camps we thought would be great for you. And this is the one we thought would be the best fit.”
“But mom, did some camps say I couldn’t go? Can you please tell me?”
“Sweetheart, a couple told us they’d never had a trans camper before and weren’t sure they were ready for one. And one camp said they’d need to ask the other parents if they were OK having a trans kid in their daughters’ bunk. That was so not OK with me and Daddy. Because you, my love, don’t need anyone’s permission to be who you are.”
Gabby looked down at her plate silently. I chose not to tell her that a fourth camp — the one I spent more than a decade of summers attending, didn’t bother calling me back after I inquired about sending my trans daughter there.
Ultimately, our research confirmed what I had suspected: Camps aligning themselves with the Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish movements seem ahead of the curve when it comes to LGBTQ issues. (The Reform movement has called for gay rights since 1977 and in 2015 adopted a resolution on the rights of transgender and gender-nonconforming people, specifically.) Not surprisingly, both sleepaway camps Gabby has attended fall under the Reform and Reconstructionist umbrellas.
Aside from offering awesome activities, seemingly cool counselors, a postcard-worthy lake and kids who looked like they were having a blast when my husband and I visited, there was something else that I appreciated about her new camp. Its website explicitly addresses the camp’s diversity philosophy and it does so front and center, for the whole world to see. Beyond being “committed to maintaining an inclusive and welcoming culture and community,” the site explains that this philosophy includes welcoming transgender campers and counselors, placing them in bunks that affirm their gender identity and offering all-gender community restrooms wherever possible.
No asking permission. No caveats. No excuses. Just acceptance. And isn’t that how camp is supposed to be?
“Mommy, how much longer?” Gabby asked as we crossed over the Massachusetts border.
“Just a few more minutes,” I told her. “How are you feeling?”
“I guess OK,” she said.
You know what? My daughter’s summer was more than OK, judging from her letters, pictures and stories about camp, not to mention the telephone calls and get-togethers with her new friends throughout the following school year.
Gabby told me that being trans wasn’t a “big deal” at camp and said her bunkmates didn’t even believe her at first when she told them. We collectively agreed that using her hands to cup her privates — over her shorts — might not have been the best way to demonstrate her transness to her new friends, but we’ve filed that episode in the “you live, you learn” category.
One year later, we took a similar drive to my daughter’s no-longer-new camp. This time there was little anxiety and no talk of penises on the way there. And when we finally rolled past the front gates, Gabby jumped out of our SUV to hug one of her best friends before my husband even had a chance to put the vehicle in park.
I turned to my husband and smiled. “I guess we picked the right camp, huh?”
“And our daughter,” he replied, “most certainly picked the right friends.”
*The name of the author’s daughter has been changed to protect her confidentiality.