Friday, October 30, 2020

Selecting Trans-Affirming Camp Sites for Retreats

Why T-Camp -- An InterCampus Retreat for Transgender, Nonbinary, and Gender Questioning College Students -- Will Return to Pilgrim Pines Camp


Or... please enjoy my yelp review!


On the last day of the 9th annual T-Camp - an intercampus retreat for transgender, nonbinary, and gender questioning college students - I asked Pilgrim Pines Camp Director Connie if I could write a guest blog post for the camp’s web site. I wanted to share with future T-Campers why we return every year to this particular camp facility in the San Bernardino mountains in Southern California, as well as give organizers of similar retreats some tips for what to look for when researching locations. And I wanted to do a happy shout out to our excellent camp hosts.


That moment was in early 2020, and the rest of 2020 has been… interesting. Due to COVID-19, we are delaying our next T-Camp by a year. And Pilgrim Pines Camp has barely survived the El Dorado wildfire. But T-Campers will be back, and here are my thoughts on why we will return to Pilgrim Pines Camp.


At T-Camp, we create an intentional community over three days in which T-Campers can be our authentic selves with minimal need to defend against strangers’ hurtful comments. Thus we look for camp locations where we can use the entire facility without running into other camp guests. We also need a camp that can accommodate around 60 people in one big circle. And Pilgrim Pines Camp can accommodate us in the Main lodge. We need multiple indoor breakout spaces, and Pilgrim Pines Camp offers several smaller lodges.


Learn more about Pilgrim Pines Camp.


At Pilgrim Pines Camp, we are able to reserve Upper Camp for ourselves due to our numbers of 50+ people. While there is a possibility that another group could reserve Lower Camp and we would see the other group during meals in the Dining Hall, we usually avoid this by choosing our early in the year camp date. My university has also used Pilgrim Pines Camp for a separate social justice college retreat in October in which we did share the Dining Hall, with no incidents. But there is something magical about getting away from everyone except the folks who are part of our T-Camp community.


Speaking of which… most mobile phones will not get a signal at the camp. People have feelings about this, believe me. But it does cut down on distractions and we can access a wireless network in the Dining Hall or use land lines in an emergency. We always share the land line phone number in case family members are concerned about reaching a student. 


Of course we are not alone at the camp, as we interact with Pilgrim Pines Camp staff. And like every other human, including T-campers ourselves, there are times when camp staff stumble over misgendering people by assuming pronouns or using “ma’am” or “sir” based on appearance. Or, using “you guys,” an expression that is not gender inclusive.


But here’s the thing: Camp staff not only take gender inclusivity seriously, they acknowledge their mistakes and try harder when they do stumble. Connie spent some time on the microphone her first year with us apologizing with deep sincerity for unconsciously misgendering people. The next year, she shared she had been practicing dropping the “you guys” from her language entirely. I grew up in Texas and I sometimes imagine trying to drop “y’all” from my conversations. So, I appreciate the effort but mainly I appreciate the true follow through by camp staff to be respectful and gender inclusive.


When selecting a campsite, we look at other practical considerations. Since we usually hold our retreat in January, we don’t want to be too high in elevation in the mountains to avoid heavy snowfall. (Our first T-Camp was at a different but equally lovely camp facility, but the snow levels were so high that walking between cabins became treacherous to T-Campers used to warm SoCal weather.) Pilgrim Pines Camp has iced up a few times in early January with some mild snowflakes, but we’ve never been snowed in. We do repeatedly reassure T-Campers that the cabins are heated.


We feel very strongly about gender inclusive facilities at T-Camp. Other camp facilities I’ve approached over the years have very firmly told me “we have boys cabins and we have girls cabins.” This camp policy probably stems from traditional arrangements for youth camps and also because most camps are owned by churches avoiding “shenanigans.” Except our LGBTQ+  community does not live in a binary of “boys and girls.” We ask T-Campers to choose whatever cabin they wish during check-in and no cabin is labeled by gender.


We also require gender inclusive restrooms and showers. The two restrooms closest to the Main Lodge are in the Dining Hall right next door, and they are already single occupancy gender inclusive. The sleeping cabins include single-occupancy restrooms. The main “shower house” has two sides, one labeled “Men” and one labeled “Women,” but Pilgrim Pines Camp lets us cover the signage and T-Campers can choose to use either side. Inside are individual toilet stalls and curtained shower stalls. Mostly we hear from T-Campers that it's a cold walk to the Shower House, and that it is not heated inside except for hot water. No comment on whether or not college students take showers at camp.


We also want a separate space for T-Camp staff facilitators to sleep and meet. The Leadership Lodge includes multiple bedrooms and restrooms with showers, plus a small kitchen and living room. It accommodates 10 people. T-Campers know where to find staff if they need us after organized activities are complete for the day.


We’ve also needed to use the accessible apartments for T-Campers unable to walk up paths to sleeping cabins. They’ve also helped house staff who snore very loudly! (Ahem.) Apartments A and B are below the Dining Hall (same building) and around the corner from the Main Lodge. Cars can park right outside the doors, with no steps required.


However, be advised that none of the showers, including the ones in Apartments A and B, allow wheelchairs to be rolled in. This has prevented some staff using wheelchairs from staying overnight. Buildings such as the Main Lodge, Dining Hall, and Leadership Lodge are wheelchair accessible.


We need to accommodate many dietary needs and, quite frankly, we seem to statistically be over-represented by vegans. Pilgrim Pines Camp prepares separate meals as needed for vegetarians and vegans and for those with various food allergies. The entire camp is a nut-free facility and no one can bring food with nuts to camp. However, the camp has not been able to provide halal or kosher meal options. Recently staff learned better options for diabetics requiring low carb meals. I’ve appreciated their care. Also, it’s tasty food in my opinion.


One thing I’ve learned about camp facilities is that we need to provide our own first aid. We make sure a facilitator is CPR-certified and we bring up our own first aid supplies. Thankfully, Pilgrim Pines Camp is located closer to hospitals and clinics than other camp facilities at higher elevation in the mountains, in case of an emergency.


Finally, I want to return to an earlier comment that most camp facilities are owned by churches. Many members of the LGBTQ+ community have experienced religious trauma at some point in our lives. We also know that some religious organizations actively seek to support discriminatory laws and policies against LGBTQ+ people. So T-Campers want to know both about the religious iconography at camp and the actions of the church that owns it. 


Pilgrim Pines Camp has minimal iconography. A podium with a cross on stage in the Main Lodge can be simply moved to the side, for example. One T-Camper shared with me that the “Jesus fish and posters” in the Dining Hall took them aback at first. However, that’s the extent of it.


And the United Church of Christ, which created Pilgrim Pines Camp, is one of the most LGBTQ+ affirming religious denominations in the U.S. You can check out their history of Social Policy Statements on LGBT Concerns here.


When I think of T-Camp, I think of T-Campers and of message bags taped to the wall full of affirmations and of Home Groups and of sticky notes and of endless coffee and hot cocoa and of Talent(less) Shows and of fireplaces and of pine cones dropping on our heads and of that one woodpecker and of the ziplock bag of krispy marshmallow treats camp staff set aside for me. The T-Camp community is transformative and Pilgrim Pines Camp helps create that community every year. We’ll be back.


Written by Nancy Jean Tubbs, director of the LGBT Resource Center at the University of California, Riverside