Overview of Gender-Inclusive Practices
Nature Camp seeks to foster a deep and abiding connection with the natural world, to instill a commitment to wise stewardship of the Earth and its natural resources, and to inspire a lifelong love of learning—for all of our participants, regardless of race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or gender identity and expression. Throughout our nearly 80-year history, including 70 years at our current location in the Big Mary’s Creek valley of Rockbridge County, Nature Camp has housed campers primarily in two large bunkhouses, designated simply the Girls’ Bunkhouse (GBH, comprising Shenandoah and Southwest, separated by a central hall) and the Boys’ Bunkhouse (BBH, comprising Tidewater and Piedmont, also with a hall in between). For the past four or more decades, the wing of the Staff House (or office building) has also been used as a de facto annex to the GBH, with accommodations of up to an additional 10 girls.
While this strictly binary housing arrangement has generally been satisfactory, it is no longer an adequate model, nor does it reflect or conform to the diversity of the camper population we now serve. While binary options may be sufficient for the majority of participants, a non-trivial percentage of campers now identify as non-binary or gender fluid, and creating a space in which all campers and staff can feel affirmed, accepted, supported, and safe should be as fundamental a part of our mission as providing opportunities for learning, growth, and fun.
In 2019 we began inviting campers to share their pronouns during introductions that happen on a daily basis at camp, and the following year the camper application explicitly included a place to provide that information. This past summer we ended the practice of gendered election of emcees for the camper talent show and Best All-Around Campers at the end of each session. More than ten percent of campers in 2021 identified as non-binary, and this has led us to develop a third housing option for campers who would prefer mixed-gender housing or who do not identify with either of the traditional binary genders of female and male. The majority of campers will continue to reside in the two large, same-gender bunkhouses, but beginning in 2022 we will use one or both rooms of one wing of the Staff House for gender-inclusive housing. On the application prospective campers may indicate whether they would like same-gender housing or gender-inclusive housing or if they have no preference.
Our decision to offer a gender-inclusive housing option is the product of extensive research on best practices in the summer camp industry and careful deliberation by the Nature Camp board of directors. It is also motivated in part by some alarming statistics that underscore the difficulties that many LGBTQ+ youth (including those who identify as non-binary) face.
- More than 40% of LGBTQ+ youth have seriously considered attempting suicide in the last year
- One in five trans* youth attempts suicide each year (but when a transgender youth is empowered to share pronouns and is affirmed for who they are, that risk is cut in half)
- Substantial majorities of LGBTQ+ youth report feeling unsafe at school because of bullying and harassment
- An overwhelming majority of trans* youth never play a team sport
For more information about why gender-inclusive spaces are so important for trans* and non-binary youth, please watch this video by Chris Reys-Dupin of Transplaining, who has assisted Nature Camp in developing this housing policy.
We view this expansion of housing options as a critically important step intended to create an environment in which all campers to feel safe, affirmed, and validated at camp and as part of our broader efforts toward justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI). We also recognize that this new policy may make some parents, guardians, and campers uncomfortable and that you may have many questions about why we are doing this and just how this policy will be implemented. We welcome such questions, and while we have tried to answer many of them below, we also invite you to share any lingering or additional questions or concerns to Director Philip Coulling at email@example.com or 540-460-7897.
Learning more about LGBTQ+ identities and the particular challenges that non-binary and trans* youth encounter as they seek acceptance and affirmation can be a hard, awkward, and vulnerable process, and as a camp community, we acknowledge that we still have much more to learn. We invite you to participate in that journey with us and to help us create an even more inclusive and more transformative camp experience for all of our participants—without judgment or barriers but with dignity and grace.
Glossary of Terms
Gender identity—a person’s own, innate identification as a man/boy, woman/girl, or something else. Gender identity may or may not correspond to someone’s sex assigned at birth.
Gender expression—the external manifestation of a person’s gender identity, which may or may not conform to cultural norms for “masculine” and “feminine.” Gender non-conforming is a term that is sometimes applied to someone whose gender expression is neither masculine or feminine or is different from stereotypes or expectations.
Cisgender (or cis)—refers to someone whose gender identity and expression align with the sex assigned to them at birth.
Non-binary—someone who does not identify as either male or female, or someone whose gender lies outside the male/female binary.
Sex assigned at birth—designation as either “male” (or “boy”) or “female” (or “girl”) based on external anatomy or internal biological characteristics (such as chromosomes).
LGBTQ+—one of many variations on an acronym that refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, queer and/or questioning, intersex, and asexual or ally. The Q for “queer” is often considered an inclusive term to refer to all types of marginalized genders and sexualities.
Trans*—an umbrella term that comprises a range of identities within a spectrum of those who are not cisgender men or cisgender women. Trans* is a more inclusive term than transgender.
Frequently Asked Questions
How will campers be assigned to bunkhouses?
On the application for enrollment, prospective campers will be able to choose from the following housing preferences: same-gender, gender-inclusive, or no preference. Those who identify as girls and who request same-gender housing will be assigned to one of the wings (Shenandoah and Southwest) or the hall in the single large bunkhouse traditionally known as the Girls’ Bunkhouse, whereas those who identify as boys and who request same-gender housing will be assigned to one of the wings (Piedmont and Tidewater) or the hall in the single large bunkhouse traditionally known as the Boys’ Bunkhouse. Gender-inclusive housing is available in one wing of the Staff House/office building. We will make every effort to place in gender-inclusive housing every applicant who requests this option, but since space is much more limited in the Staff House than in the same-gender bunkhouses, we cannot guarantee that we will be able to meet every such request. Campers whose applications indicate no housing preference may be placed in the Staff House as space allows. All campers whose applications indicate a preference for same-gender housing will be assigned to the bunkhouse corresponding to their indicated gender.
How will counselors be assigned to bunkhouses?
Counselors reside in the bunkhouses with campers. Typically two counselors and up to 16 campers live in each wing of the two bunkhouses, with one counselor and up to seven campers in the hall. Additional counseling staff are accommodated in the staff room in the rear of each bunkhouse. The two rooms in the wing of the Staff House can accommodate 8-9 campers and 2-3 staff. Staff are assigned to housing units based on housing preference, with consideration given to gender identity and expression. Housing assignments are made by the two head counselors, in consultation with and subject to the approval of the camp director. Gender-inclusive housing may include staff of any gender.
What if there are not enough campers expressing an interest in gender-inclusive housing to fill the available bunks in the Staff House in a given session?
The wing of the Staff House can accommodate up to 10 campers and two staff and is divided into two rooms separated by a latching door. In the event that fewer than 10 campers in a session indicate a preference for gender-inclusive housing, additional campers whose applications indicate no housing preference may be assigned to the Staff House. If this number is insufficient to fill up the two rooms, only the inner room will be used for gender-inclusive housing, the outer room (closer to the GBH) will be used to accommodate additional girls, and the door separating the two rooms will be latched and kept shut throughout the session.
Will you be asking campers and staff to share their pronouns during introductions?
We have been routinely inviting campers and staff to share their pronouns during introductions since 2019 and we will continue to do so as a way of affirming and acknowledging everyone’s identity. Campers are not required to share their pronouns if they prefer not to, and staff are trained to explain what personal pronouns are and to illustrate their use by example for those campers who may be unfamiliar with the process or unaccustomed to sharing their pronouns. Because campers take different classes and participate in different activities nearly every day, introductions and the opportunity to share pronouns happen almost daily, and campers and staff are welcome to change their pronouns at any time and as often as they would like during a session.
If my camper asks to use a different name or set of pronouns will that information be shared with me?
If camper prefers to go by a different name or uses different pronouns than those identified on their application, we will ask them if they would like that information shared with their family members. We always wish to affirm a camper’s identity, but we also recognize that some campers may feel comfortable expressing who they are only at camp. Summer camp is an opportunity for young people to try many new things—new foods, new activities, new games, even new behaviors and names or nicknames. Some of these may last, and others may not, but all are part of safe exploration that is a fundamental component of healthy adolescent development. We hope and expect that campers will share details about many of these new experiences with their parents or guardians, but we trust them to do so at a time and place and in manner that they feel is right.
Will campers be allowed to switch bunks once they arrive at camp?
We will make every effort to ensure that all campers have lodging and bunk accommodations with which they feel safe and comfortable. Because of space limitations, however, we cannot guarantee that a camper will be able to switch bunks after arrival, nor can we guarantee that everyone who wishes to be placed in gender-inclusive housing will be. Similarly, we will not require any camper who comes out as trans* while at camp to move to a different housing unit, but we will engage them in a conversation about where they would feel most comfortable living while at camp.
We strongly encourage parents and guardians to have an open and honest conversation with their campers about their names, pronouns, and housing preferences before submitting an application. Some resources that may be helpful in framing that conversation are listed here.
If my camper changes their housing unit during their session will that information be shared with me?
As camp leaders and youth development professionals, we consider our highest priority to be the safety and wellbeing of the campers entrusted to our care, and we always strive to make decisions and take actions that are in their best interests. This includes informing parents and guardians of goings-on at camp when we deem that it would be in a camper’s best interests to do so, such as if a camper experiences an injury that requires external medical care or an illness that requires isolation in our health center overnight. But we also respect the privacy of campers and the independence that they can enjoy at camp, and information that is not pertinent to a camper’s health or safety will not necessarily be shared with parents or guardians, particularly if doing so might negatively affect that camper’s mental or emotional wellbeing. Switching housing units poses no intrinsic risk of harm, and if a camper wishes to move for a legitimate reason and available space permits such a move, we would be happy to accommodate that request confidentially and without fanfare.
Nature Camp’s policy is that confidential information about a camper is shared only with those who need to know it and who we are sure can help that camper. If a camper switches housing units or changes their name or pronouns, we will ask if they would like us to notify their parents or guardians, and we will work with them to try to identify at least one trusted adult outside the camp environment in whom they can comfortably confide. In addition, we take seriously and fulfill our collective role as a mandatory reporter, but if safety is not an issue, then we do not automatically share information that campers disclose with parents or guardians.
How will counselors be trained in gender inclusive practices?
Nature Camp’s commitment to gender inclusivity is emphasized throughout the process of onboarding staff, including the interview, preparations before the summer, and on-site training. Staff training includes an overview of all camp policies and protocols; discussions about the importance of gender inclusivity as part of Nature Camp’s larger commitment to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI); and role-playing scenarios that help staff prepare for difficult conversations, challenging situations, and sensitive topics related to gender inclusivity. Staff are also provided with Safe Zone Project training for effective LGBTQ+ awareness and certification in Youth Mental Health First Aid, which includes a section on support for LGBTQ+ youth.
How will my camper’s privacy be maintained in the bunkhouse?
We believe that campers in both same-gender and gender-inclusive housing should have the opportunity for privacy when desired, including a private space for changing clothes. In the interest of everyone’s comfort and safety, campers are asked not to change clothes in front of one another, but to do so in the privacy of a toilet stall or shower or in a private, portable changing station available in each housing unit (i.e., wings and hall of each bunkhouse and each room housing campers in the Staff House). Staff are trained to respect and maintain the privacy of campers and to reinforce a culture in which campers respect one another’s privacy, and each housing unit is encouraged to develop and define their own boundaries and ensure that staff then help to support and reinforce those boundaries.
We recommend that campers who bring gender affirming undergarments or prosthetics keep them in a bag that can be stored inconspicuously with their other belongings and easily brought to a staff member for cleaning or laundering during the session as needed.
How will you be ensuring the safety of all campers in their bunks?
The safety and wellbeing of all campers is our highest priority, regardless of where campers reside. As part of orientation on the first night of each session and throughout their stay at camp, campers are taught the importance of respect for others and respect for the property of others, consent, and proper boundaries. In addition, we emphasize to campers that certain spaces (bunks, showers, and toilet stalls) are always single-occupancy. Nature Camp maintains a camper to counselor ratio of approximately 4.5 to 1, and counselors supervise campers throughout every day and ensure that campers are never out of their eyesight or earshot.
What about showers and bathrooms?
Campers residing in the two same-gender bunkhouses have access to adjacent same-gender “T-houses” (bathhouses), which each contain individual shower and toilet stalls. Campers in gender-inclusive housing in the Staff House have access to the single-occupancy lavatory (with shower) in this building, as well as the single-occupancy lavatory in the health center, but may also choose to use one of the T-houses. In addition, campers living in the bunkhouses may use the lavatory in the Staff House if they are uncomfortable using their designated T-house.
Won’t creating gender-inclusive spaces encourage more kids to change their gender?
Abundant evidence indicates that most children have a stable sense of their gender identity by age four, and polling data suggest that people only rarely change their minds about their own gender expression. Moreover, organizations of experts such as the American Association of Pediatrics, World Health Organization, and American Psychological Association agree that neither gender nor sexuality can be changed by an outside party. By creating space for trans* campers and providing a gender-inclusive housing option, we are giving campers opportunity to explore a part of themselves that already exists.
What if my camper has questions or concerns about these practices before or during camp?
Campers and camp families are welcome to ask any questions to or address any concerns with director Philip Coulling before or during camp. From the first day of each session, we encourage campers to find at least one trusted adult at camp whom they can feel comfortable talking to. For some campers, this might be their assigned counselor who checks them in and helps them get settled. For others it may be their major class instructor or a staff member at their first meal table or their favorite counselor from summers past. We emphasize to campers that they may bring any question to the attention of any staff member at any time, and staff are trained to bring any concerns about campers to the immediate attention of the director, assistant director, or one of the head counselors.
Isn’t this a lot of work to accommodate a very small number of people?
To us it isn’t a question of the amount of work required or the number of participants who might be directly served by the decision to offer a gender-inclusive housing option. It’s about doing the right thing and providing affirmation and safe accommodations for all participants, regardless of gender or gender expression. While most campers will continue to be housed in same-gender accommodations as generations of campers have been before them, creating an environment of greater inclusivity benefits all participants.
Allowing my child to be housed with someone of the opposite gender is against my religious or cultural beliefs. Will this be taken into account when making cabin assignments?
Nature Camp respects the cultural and religious beliefs of all of our campers and camp families. The majority of campers will continue to be housed in same-gender housing (available in our two large bunkhouses), and no camper whose application indicates a preference for same-gender accommodations will be assigned to gender-inclusive housing.
- Children and Gender Identity: Supporting Your Child (Mayo Clinic)—Contains information for supporting and advocating for a gender non-conforming or transgender child
- Transplaining—Seeks to create a safe world for transgender and gender non-conforming youth and adults through education, conversation, and empathy
- The Trevor Project—Provides information and crisis support 24/7 for LGBTQ+ youth; also publishes Guide to Being an Ally to Transgender and Nonbinary Youth
- Gender Spectrum—Works with children, families, and institutions to create gender sensitive and inclusive environments; includes guidance for families considering camp for their gender-expansive children
Is your camp now only for LGBTQ+ campers?
Nature Camp welcomes and seeks to provide a safe, supportive, nurturing, affirming, and caring environment for all participants, regardless of gender, gender identity, gender expression, sex, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, race, ethnicity, or country of origin.
Why is your camp taking a side on such a politically charged issue?
We don’t view providing safe, affirming, comfortable accommodations to each and every participant as a politically charged issue; we view it as fundamental to our mission and integral to the mental, emotional, and social health of our campers and staff. Being forced to conform to strictly binary options and not being allowed to express their own identity has been severely damaging to the health of trans* and non-binary youth. Every major health organization (including the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics) has asserted that trans* inclusion significantly lowers suicide risk in vulnerable youth. The decision to expand our housing options is not driven by politics or an interest in taking a side; it is grounded in health, safety, and inclusivity.
We wanted to send our kid to camp to have fun, not to learn about these types of issues. Can you ensure this will not disrupt their childhood?
Nature Camp prides itself on providing a camping experience that is engaging, engrossing, educational, memorable, transformative, and above all fun. That is not to say that campers will not encounter challenges—physical, mental, emotional, social—but we believe that camp is a place where young people can take healthy risks; explore new and existing interests with like-minded peers and young adult mentors; develop lasting friendships; and learn more about themselves, one another, and the world around them, including other people who may be very different from themselves. Expanding one’s worldview, developing the skills to live respectfully in community with others, and confronting rather than ignoring societal issues are critical mileposts in the process of growing up, and camp is a uniquely safe and supportive place in which to take strides toward those mileposts. We do not believe that allowing campers to be who they truly are and to have the opportunity to feel accepted for who they are will disrupt their childhood, but that it will only enhance their childhood and fortify their adolescent development.