Theory to Praxis: Training a Summer Camp Staff in South Alabama in a GSS Framework

During the summer, I work at an Episcopal summer camp in south Alabama in which the majority of both the staff and the campers come from predominantly white, conservative communities. Many members of the camp community attend private schools, which indicates a certain level of socioeconomic privilege, and about 60% of staff and campers identify as religious. All of this is coupled with regional customs and beliefs that tend toward overbearing patriarchy and heteronormativity. However, every year we are encountering more diverse staff and more diverse campers, some of which identify as LGBTQ. Therefore, many of our GSS 101 topics are relevant to the camp, but a majority of the staff are uninformed on issues of gender, sexuality, rape culture, and the intersections of these issues with race and disability. So, I would like to use the materials and research from GSS to develop policies and training for staff in order to foster an inclusive camp community.

I have noticed multiple situations in my years at camp that are worth addressing. The first, and possibly mostly difficult to overcome, is the physical infrastructure that reinforces the gender binary. For housing purposes, cabins are delineated strictly as “male” or “female.” However, in the last couple of years, we have had two campers who have identified as trans. This has been a tricky situation to navigate due to the lack of resources for gender-neutral housing and demonstrated transphobia, particularly on the part of male staff. At this time, there is no written policy concerning the housing of trans* identifying campers, and I think it would be worthwhile to establish such a policy, even if we are not in a position to be the most accommodating, so that parents and campers know that we are open to considering options that work for all campers.

The establishment of this strict binary reinforces heteronormative expectations based on a perceived obligation to spend time with and impress the opposite sex. For example, there are camp traditions such as adopting cabin “sweethearts” who are counselors of the opposite gender, or serenading cabins of the opposite gender. At times, fake marriages are staged between a male and female counselor. All of these promote heterosexual relationships without any regard for campers (or staff) who may not be interested in such thing. The language used by staff can also contribute to this idea by suggesting that the “norm” is interest in heterosexual relationships, such as a counselor asking a female camper “Is there a boy you like?”

To counteract potentially ostracizing language on the part of the staff, it is important to incorporate a workshop into the pre-existing week long staff training that in the most simple way possible addresses gender, sexuality, and their role at camp. However, it is also worth noting that a large number of the staff I have worked with have expressed blatant sexism, homophobia, and transphobia through the language they use around other staff members. Many come from strong religious and cultural backgrounds that have influenced their personal belief systems. Therefore, the most effective training would like not involve attempts to change individual’s ideologies; instead, the focus should be on establishing languages and practices that are designed to keep all campers safe, not just those who identify as cisgender and heterosexual.
Potentially, staff could do an assessment of their own implicit biases using online materials as a way to be aware of the biases that they bring to the camp setting. Since I have heard staff perpetuating widespread stereotypes about different groups, i.e. gay men, or lesbians, perhaps training could also include an activity in which the the staff engage with any stereotypes that they represent. This would give counselors the opportunity to become aware of how other people perceive them, and perhaps experience first hand the overgeneralization that accompany stereotypes so that they can work to counteract them at camp.

Finally, a very tangible area that could use both revised camp policy and staff instruction is camp dress code. As it stands, the camp recommendation is that all girls bring a one-piece swimsuit to camp, but when a girl does not, the expectation is that she will be asked to wear a t-shirt over her swimsuit, whether it is a tankini or a bikini. Male staff strongly support the enforcement of the policy and have used terminology such as “it protects them from boys” to justify their beliefs. This type of language reinforces rape culture, since the idea is that women who do not cover their bodies appropriately are at fault if men advance upon them. Instead, the policy and training of staff should reflect a level of accountability for all parties such that the objectification and potential victim-blaming of women is not tolerated. Particularly for younger campers who are are too young to understand why they might be asked to cover up when the heat index reaches 114 degrees, being asked to put on a t-shirt over a new swimsuit reinforces the shaming of female bodies as young as 7 years old.

Breaking down the gender binary, heteronormativity, and nascent rape culture would be very solid steps forward for the camp setting. I have no doubt that some of these ideas would be met with some degree of resistance by the staff, but in the long run, they would promote a healthier, more inclusive camp environment.