Camp Glenburn welcomes gender-diverse kids because ‘the outdoors is for everyone’

CBC News
Raechel Huizinga
25 June 2022

Nestled on the St. John River, Camp Glenburn holds fond summer memories for many New Brunswickers.

Open since 1928, Camp Glenburn began as a camp for young women. In 2022, it will welcome about 700 kids — the most its director, Mark Cruz, has seen in a while.

The camp, run through the YMCA of Greater Saint John, will also welcome trans and gender-diverse youth — and now there’s a formal process for making sure they have the best camp experience possible.

“Their experience is meant to mirror the same as any other camper,” Cruz said. “The outdoors is for everyone.”

A province like New Brunswick doesn’t have many overnight camps that have plans in place for accommodating gender-diverse kids — aside from Camp Glenburn, none came to mind for Cruz.

“Summer camps, including Camp Glenburn, have historically really not done enough to serve gender-diverse kids and youth,” he said.

Careful to respect privacy, camp staff will work with kids and their families to create an individualized, gender support plan, which can include what name and pronouns the child uses, what cabin they want to stay in, and what bathrooms they want to use.

Staff also receive specialized training on diversity and inclusion, though Cruz added some of the staff members who identify as queer or gender-diverse use their lived experiences to help support campers.

Gender-diverse kids have always been campers at Camp Glenburn, said Cruz, who’s been going there each summer for 20 years, first as a camper, then as a counsellor, and now as the camp’s director.

Accommodating gender-diverse kids is something the camp has unofficially done for a long time, but Cruz said Camp Glenburn has only begun formalizing supporting gender-diverse kids in the past few years. Information about the accommodations is now part of the online registration process.

The camp wanted to move away from treating gender-diverse campers as special case scenarios, Cruz said, and instead make an official process that would help them feel validated.

Cruz said the camp has generally had positive experiences with their gender-diverse youth, both with staff and other campers — he’s even seen campers come out at camp. Having things like gender–inclusive cabins are a way to empower young campers, he added, giving them a sense of belonging.

“I think that we all benefit from learning from people who aren’t exactly like us. And that’s kind of our strategy here,” Cruz said.

Elle Nardi said having a place like Camp Glenburn to go to as a kid might have saved her a few years of doubt.

Nardi is a student at the University of Toronto. She’s part of a research team in the school’s faculty of social work that studies the mental health of gay and bisexual men, and actually came out herself last year as a transgender woman.

But that was based on feelings she’d had since she was 14.

Summer camp cabins by their very nature reinforce the gender binary, Nardi said.

In her community, she knows of one young, trans man who was going to summer camp and told Nardi, ‘This summer I have to be a girl.’

Elle Nardi is part of a research team at the University of Toronto that studies the mental health of gay and bisexual men. A transgender woman, she says Camp Glenburn has the potential to be a positive, life-saving space for trans and gender-diverse youth. (Supplied by Elle Nardi.)

There’s constant messaging out there that trans people aren’t real, Nardi said, but the rhetoric is particularly forceful when it comes to kids. Nineteen now, Nardi said it was one of the bigger questions she internalized growing up: Is this real? Are my feelings legitimate?

Nardi was homeschooled for the earlier years of her education, and described her household growing up as one that wasn’t really concerned with traditional gender roles. It was when she went to high school that she started having doubts.

A place like Camp Glenburn, she said, where kids just get to be who they are or explore who they are — and receive specific messaging that says it’s okay for them to do so — can give kids the opportunity to feel validated, and it’s a place she said could have helped her deal with some of her doubts.

Having the opportunity to form friendships with other gender-diverse kids, and even cisgendered kids, can positively affect a trans person’s mental health, Nardi said.  She said she felt empowered to come out after forming those kinds of friendships.

It’s like armour, she said, having those people to go to who can support you, adding research and statistics show that having supportive friends and family can make all the difference in the lives of trans and gender-diverse youth.

“I think this [camp] honestly will save lives and improve lives just hugely for young people,” she said.