Being LGBT at a faith-based summer camp

Advocate and journalist Eliel Cruz draws attention to an unacknowledged problem for LGBT people in the summer camp world: they are fired or disallowed, often without warning or explanation. These decisions are made behind closed doors and based out of ignorance and fear; some camps are opposed to LGBT identities or do not know how to include LGBT lives in their structure or policies and underhandedly fire them as a way to avoid the problem. This exacerbates the bigotry LGBT individuals often face from some faith-based organizations, and creates stressful and disempowering experiences for young people trying to participate in a common activity for religious youth.

 In the words of one camp counselor fired for affirming to her boss that she identifies as a lesbian, "As a 19-year-old, I am still in disbelief that the Boy Scouts discriminated against me… I felt alone and scared, but most importantly, I had no idea how my rabbit, Thumper, and I were going to get home." During formative years of life, these camps are sending a message to faithful youth that LGBT young people's dedication deserves no place in their religious community simply because of their identity.

However, this need not be the case to create a camp environment that is comfortable for all campers and carries on the tradition of celebrating and creating communities of faith through summer camp for religious youth. For organizations accepting of LGBT people but unsure how to incorporate them into a camp environment, the common concerns of single-sex living and sleeping arrangements can be mollified: Sexual activity amongst campers is always illegal, and LGBT youth deserve no additional policing to maintain that policy.

Excluding LGBT campers only serves to promote the stereotype that these children are predators and deserve to be isolated to preserve the safety of their peers. In reality, LGBT kids are just kids, looking for community, support, and to grow in their faith through a summer camp experience. A similar story holds for LGBT staff members at faith based summer camps; these are often also young people looking for inclusion and participation in their faith community, who are negatively affected when their community decides to systematically exclude them.

Several camps, such as The Naming Project, Spiritual Pride Project, and Camp Lightbulb, demonstrate that LGBT identities and a celebration of religious faith can be brought together under one roof. These camps offer spaces for religious young people to come together in their shared intersections of religious and LGBT identities. Furthermore, these innovative programs highlight that camp, at its core, is about building diverse community around shared experiences for people who may not have otherwise been brought together.

The difficulties LGBT youth often encounter with their local faith communities makes clear the especial need for faithful LGBT youth to find a safe space to live their truths. Reverend Brad Frosley, co-director of the Naming Project explains, "Our goal is to walk with and accompany these kids wherever they're at on their journey. Some are extremely religious. ... Others have already experienced such hurt or loss within the church that they've given up on religion."

Several Christian organizations, such as St. Paul's Lutheran Church of Minnetonka, cite bullying and suicidality as concerns for LGBT youth, propelling faith-based groups into inclusive action. Many youth also live homeless or out-of-home due to anti-LGBT attitudes and actions within their family structures. Camp Lightbulb is paving the way in this area, working with centers for homeless LGBT youth, such as the Ali Forney Center in New York City, to provide camp services to youth who do not have the financial or family means to sign up for camp.

These faith based summer camps designed for LGBT youth set an example for all faith based youth initiatives. LGBT employees or participants need not be excluded to maintain camp functioning. In fact, communities of faith can be made stronger by incorporating and celebrating these religious lives in their presence.