Is my child welcome here?
As a parent, this is a question that brings nervousness, fear and fierce protectiveness.
As a United Church minister, this is a question I want to be able to answer, “Yes, always. Jesus’ radical welcome is for all people.”
At Camp Pringle, we were asked this question—and it spurred us to make some changes.
A parent contacted the camp office and asked how their child, who identifies as trans, would be welcomed at a youth event Pringle was hosting, with our traditional model of separate cabins for boys and girls. We were at a board strategic planning retreat when this parent’s question was brought up, and I remembered that a neighbouring YMCA camp had recently announced they were introducing gender inclusive cabins that summer—parents could choose to have their children in boys, girls, or mixed cabins. When I proposed we try it at Pringle, the board said a brave “yes.” We chose a week in July 2019 to try it out for the whole camp—every cabin was “gender neutral.” Children were placed in a cabin solely based on their age—no “special” cabin for those who didn’t fit into neat binary roles. There was no “special” permission or arrangements that needed to be made. Every child was welcome to be who they were, to just be a kid at camp.
Because summer registration and staff hiring was already in process, it meant making the change mid-stream. We contacted every family who had already registered to let them know about the change and let them make the choice to stay for that week or choose another. A few decided to register for a different week, especially those who had older children (our overnight camps are for ages 6-14).
Our director, Claire, identified the major concern was that all children had enough privacy for changing, so she built extra time into the schedule for changing in and out of bathing suits and pajamas in the newly designated gender-neutral bathroom stalls. She sourced some “pop-up” changing tents for extra privacy spaces. We decreed that for that week everyone – staff, children, lifeguards, everyone—was to wear a shirt at the waterfront. We brought in a resource person with lived experience to lead two sessions during staff training week to help identify issues around language and leadership in this new camp, as well as a place for staff to articulate what they were worried or excited about. I was staying on site 24/7 that week and enrolled my eldest child in overnight camp, as a commitment to the week. We were all nervous—we hadn’t done this before, and didn’t really know any other camp that had—and we didn’t know what we didn’t know.
The week arrived, and it was a huge hit! The staff loved the extra changing and travel time built into the schedule, and everyone loved the pop-up changing tents (including the mosquitos—we had to de-bug the a few times). We had one child who was nervous about coming to an overnight camp, but found out they could be with their different-gendered sibling, which made the difference. A lot of children felt happier about wearing shirts at waterfront, and it helped with sun exposure. The staff reported the children in mixed gendered cabins were a lot calmer than the weeks of segregated cabins.
There were struggles too, and we can’t claim we did everything exactly right, but trying something new in order to offer welcome to people who often feel excluded is worth the experimentation. School groups who rent our space in the spring and fall are beginning to arrange themselves in gender-neutral cabins, so it’s not unheard of. There was very little negative feedback in the wider community—the positive chatter on a parenting Facebook site in Victoria prompted a reporter from the Goldstream Gazette to call me for an interview.
This summer, we are doing it again—the week of July 12-17, 2020 will be Gender Inclusion Week. We are also offering an LGBTQ2SIA Family Camp June 5-7, 2020—something I am personally looking forward to. Our two children have two moms, and don’t see many families that look like ours in their schools, their lives, or in the media. As a queer person of faith, I long to have spaces that offer spiritual integrity and depth for me. So I’m working to create them where I can. Our deepest longing, is to know that we belong—and to know that our children are truly welcome.
Gender Inclusion Week at Camp Pringle is one small step in offering that welcome. May it be the beginning of a long and fruitful journey.
—Katherine Brittain is a wife and one of two moms of two strong and feisty children. She is also an ordained minister, serving a new partnership between Sylvan United Church and Camp Pringle, in the Cowichan Valley of Vancouver Island.