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  • Nick M. Teich, PhD, LCSW

When (gender) politics can't help but enter camp

Legislation targeting transgender kids has now gone into effect in many states in the U.S. These laws are not just about sports teams, which were bad enough for trans youth; these laws affect the ability for trans youth to peacefully exist.

As an example, here are some components of the Kentucky law, which recently went into effect after lawmakers overrode the governor's veto:

The law:

  • Prohibits conversations around sexual orientation or gender identity in school for students of all grades.

  • Requires school districts to forbid trans students from using the bathroom tied to their gender identities.

  • Allows teachers to refuse to use a student’s preferred pronouns.

  • Bans all gender-affirming medical care for trans youth.

  • Requires doctors to de-transition minors in their care if they’re using any of the restricted treatment options. (Source: USA Today 3/29/23)

This is an unprecedented time for trans youth in America fueled by misinformation about what "gender transition" means for youth. Even if they are living in a state without these bills, kids are hearing about what is going on around them. If they're living in a state that is passing, or has already passed, anti-trans legislation, then they're living it. How are you going to prepare your camp to be there for them and allow them to just be kids? It used to be that politics could stay out of camps, and camps could stay out of politics. We're way past that now, and have been for a while. Political decisions are affecting everyday lives. How are you going to make sure your staff have the tools to have conversations around issues like anti-trans legislation?

Staff will need direction on how to handle these issues as they come up. Many staff themselves will want to talk about them. Setting boundaries around such issues is important, and maintaining consistency around these boundaries is necessary. For example, don't set boundaries around some political discussions and not others if some affect one group and others affect another. Don't draw unrealistic lines around them, either, such as telling staff to "tell kids we don't talk about those subjects at camp." When politics affect everyday lives, kids need the space to have some discussion.

When you approach these discussions in staff training, you help give parameters to staff so that they feel equipped to talk to kids and know when to move the discussion to a leadership team member. Start simple: being there to listen and validate shows kids that camp people are the best kind of friends. Staff should come from an optimistic, supportive, yet realistic place when speaking to campers. "What is happening is very tough for trans people and their supporters, and we don't know what the future holds, except that things will keep changing; hopefully for the better. There are lots of people doing work to help trans youth. If you need someone to talk to about feeling sad or frustrated, talk to camp staff or camp friends. We are here to listen even if we can't make everything change politically right now." If the campers are persistently sad or upset about certain political issues, staff should let a supervisor know so that they can step in to help guide those discussions and get family involved, if necessary. Don't leave your front-line staff to shoulder the burden of discussing these issues in-depth with kids when they themselves may feel helpless and upset by the same issues.

The key is getting staff to know that they can't, and aren't expected to, solve these issues for campers or anyone else. They are expected to listen, affirm, and hold space. Teaching them these skills will help them in many different situations. Sometimes our instinct is to rush to fix, and most of the time what kids immediately need is for someone to really listen and be supportive.

For now, check in on your trans/non-binary/LGBTQIA+ campers and staff. Send a text, message, or email. They need to know their camp friends are there for them.

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