Twenty years ago I was a middle-aged guy with a corporate job that never felt like a good fit for me. Today, I run an unconventional summer camp where up to one in four teens identifies as transgender or gender non-conforming. The journey has been an unexpected one.
An idea of a camp for teens
In 2002, I started Odyssey Teen Camp as kind of a hippie camp for teens. At first, maybe it was more the staff that were hippies and the campers were typical creative, insecure, sensitive, confused, and wonderful teenagers. I knew nothing about gender pronouns and, if you were to ask me then, I’d probably have said that I thought there were boys or girls and that it was biological.
Shortly before I started camp I was floating around searching for something that would give my life purpose. I was in a men’s support group and, one day, I asked the members, when did they first became so stuck in their anger and sadness? Most of them replied that it started when they were teenagers. I was suddenly struck with an idea: I should spend my time starting a camp for teenage boys. I thought perhaps I could create a place where they could feel safe, free, and encouraged to show their best self. I came up with a catchy tagline, “A great place to be exactly who you are,” rented a space, and we were off.
Watching camp grow
I was plenty naive, knew very little about teenagers and even less about running a camp (you know, Board of Health type stuff). But the kids came and kept coming, and now, nearly two decades later, it’s been a wonderful ride. Naturally, since the day we opened, my original vision of a camp for boys has been replaced with a camp that is 65% girls. I’m not sure what made me think all these boys would be flocking to a camp that featured yoga, dance, and art.
Our staff has always been made up of plenty of people who identify as genderqueer and, within the last few years, more and more teenagers who are coming to camp are uncomfortable and unwilling to be put in a gender box. They are determined to come up with the gender that feels best to them: their true gender self.
At camp, these young people have been able to create a safe new world for themselves, where the judgment and bias they often experience in the real world doesn’t exist, at least for a few weeks. While we offer typical camp activities like art, dance, sports, music, nature, swimming, and boating, there are also many unique Odyssey activities like firewalking, trance dances, sacred geometry, political discussion groups, tarot, henna, and hip-hop appreciation classes.
Creating space for gender-questioning kids
Over time, things at camp have changed. One weekend each summer used to feature a boys and girls day, where we would separate by gender. That stopped making sense for us a few years ago, and now we have a third group for teens who are more comfortable with a gender-expansive group.
I’m not exactly sure what made our camp attractive to so many transgender or gender-questioning teens, but I think it has been a great thing and that they add so much fun, kindness, creativity, vulnerability, and leadership to our community. I am continuously learning how we can best support the LGBTQ+ teen at camp. I am learning that gender stuff is complicated and that a person’s gender is a weaving together of nature, nurture, and culture. I am learning that an individual’s true gender identity has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with what is between their ears.
I’m happy we can create a space for everyone at Odyssey, particularly gender-expansive teenagers. Housing can sometimes feel a little tricky but we work hard to put everyone in a cabin that feels right to them, and despite the fact that we are living in close quarters we are conscious of the needs for privacy when changing, showering, etc.
Showing teens that they are not alone
I think a big source of healing for gender creative teens at camp comes from being with slightly older counselors, many of whom themselves are transgender or identify as genderqueer, and who have lived through a lot of the same feelings these teenagers have. They are kind, loving, empathetic role models who show the younger campers they can live full, rich, and exciting lives as whichever gender feels true to them. It is also helpful for these teenagers to be with other kids their own age who may be sharing similar thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Campers recognize they are not alone, and teenagers in particular benefit from connection and friendship with their peers.
Ultimately, supporting all the transgender and gender creative teenagers who come to camp is no different from what we’ve tried to do for every teenager for the past eighteen years: give them a place where they can feel seen, loved, accepted, respected, and honored for exactly who they are.