I started going to Rowe Camp, a small summer camp nestled in the mountains of western Massachusetts, when I was twelve years old. I fell in love with the camp immediately and spent every subsequent summer of my teenage years in the verdant woods and graffitied cabins of Rowe. Everyone I’ve met who has gone to Rowe laments how hard it is to explain what is special about the camp to others. For me and many others, our explanations often begin by describing the hilarious, weird programming, the intense friendships created, and trail off into throwing our hands up and exclaiming “you can just be yourself at Rowe.”
Rowe Camp offered one of the only places in my life where I felt I could be completely myself, however weird or goofy that was, without fearing judgement or exclusion. Every year when I left that space, I would fiercely promise myself that this was the year I would figure out how to bring my Rowe self, home. Every year it was a struggle because the outside world doesn’t operate like Rowe. The acceptance I found there was not to be found everywhere. But Rowe gave me a place, even if for only a few weeks a year, where I would find support to continue growing. I think Rowe made me into who I am today: confident in my identity, compassionate toward others, constantly pushing my own boundaries, and striving to expand my opinions and knowledge. Having a place where I could explore my presentation and identity was integral to my coming out as transgender as an adult.
As soon as I was too old to be a camper, I wanted to go back as staff. I wanted to give back to the place that had given me so much – I wanted to help make that space for new campers to discover themselves. I waited a few years, working with kids and growing into a place where I felt confident in my abilities to do a good job. During those years I explored my gender, my sexuality, and my relationships and learned a lot about myself and the world. I wanted to share the experiences I had gained as a queer, polyamorous, asexual, trans person with a new generation and provide a role model so that younger people could know that these identities were a real and positive possibility. I guest staffed a few times and found that staff and campers were both incredibly accepting and welcoming of my gender identity as a non-binary trans person. Staffers that I had known since I was twelve switched to my new name and neutral pronouns seemingly effortlessly. That experience made me feel safe staffing there.
This year was the first summer I had the time to staff for a full camp session, and I applied to work at Junior High Camp (Rowe is split up into four camps for different age groups, Junior High being for campers aged thirteen to fifteen). My application was accepted, and then the co-directors sent me an email asking if I would be interested in staffing the first ever gender-neutral cabin at Rowe. I was ecstatic. A gender-neutral cabin was an idea that had been discussed since I was a camper, but had never happened. For it to happen this year of all years, for me to be the one who got to make it a reality, was such an amazing possibility. I immediately said I would love to help make that idea a reality, and we sent out the word to parents that this would be an option if any campers were interested.
At first it seemed like it would be a very small cabin – only four campers plus a counselor-in-training (Campers who are going into 9th grade or above can apply to be a CIT. There is one CIT per cabin, and they help the staff run the cabins and camp, as well as going through leadership training and learning about what goes into being a counselor at Rowe). I was still really excited. No matter how small the cabin, there were four campers who wanted to be in it! I couldn’t wait to be a resource for them and help make the gender-neutral cabin the best experience ever. But by the time camp started, there were six campers in my cabin and more who were incredibly disappointed they couldn’t be in it.
That level of interest was the first sign that was going to be an amazing session to create this cabin. Meeting my campers, learning their names, pronouns, interests, and fears, and talking with them about my own identity and life was wonderful from the start. But having a gender-neutral cabin seemed to open up a conversation about gender for the rest of the camp as well. During the yearly all-camp meeting known as Sex Talk, where we talk about consent, relationships, and safe sex, I gave a little primer on gender and was amazed to find that not only were there campers who knew all the terms on my list, but several others I hadn’t thought to put on. After that I led several gender talks where we talked about what gender meant to us, how it is created and applied to people, and our problems with the way gender can be policed “in the real world”. Throughout camp, I had conversations with campers outside my cabin who knew I was the gender-neutral cabin counselor and wanted to talk about exploring their gender or sexuality. By the end, a handful of campers began trying different names or pronouns.
Over the course of the session, I saw camp transform into a space where campers could openly be queer, trans, or questioning. The explosion of exploration and conversation about these things was something I had never experienced there before as a camper. Watching young people be unabashedly themselves around the rest of camp, whether it was borrowing one of my binders or dresses and wearing it all day, smearing glitter over their face and proclaiming they were “the sparkliest of gays,” or making a t-shirt proclaiming their pronouns, made me feel like we had really created something new and special. I felt honored to be a part of this experience, which was largely camper driven once we created the space for them.
Halfway through camp, there was such a push from campers for a queer morning workshop that we created one – QT Party. The workshop was a daily, closed workshop for queer, questioning, and trans campers to come together and talk about their identities and related issues of oppression. Having the interest and ability to create that space felt truly amazing. I was really excited for there to be another intentional space where campers could explore those topics, in addition to informal conversations with me and others.
But even outside of this closed space, the rest of camp continued getting into the conversation about gender. One of our themed days was Gender Day, a day in which we encouraged campers to explore presentations, names, and pronouns that they felt interested in experimenting with. The majority of camp got into it in a respectful and experimental way, trying different clothes, accessories, makeup, and pronouns. It was a wonderful space to try out something new for a day, especially for campers who were gender-questioning. For me, I went by a different name and pronouns for the day. All of the campers used my new name and pronouns without hesitation, which felt really amazing. As a trans person, I had never been in such a large group where I felt I could be totally myself and totally seen.
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So much came together this year that made this cabin and this conversation about gender such a success. This long-standing idea finally became an option, and I got to contribute my experience and drive to bring it to life. At camp, the co-directors and staff gave so much support to help this conversation and exploration happen. Other staffers worked to create a safe space for campers to explore sexuality and gender. Then there was the lucky coincidence that there were a huge amount of campers who were interested in exploring gender and sexuality. And it there were even more campers who were already incredibly knowledgeable about gender identity and sexuality. All of the returning staff expressed how new all of these factors were. It was an amazing confluence of events and people, and it led to one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
It’s difficult for me to know if the stars aligned to create such an amazing space, or if our focus on creating this space allowed for what was always there to finally express itself more fully. Either way, I am so honored I was able to help make this idea a reality, and I can’t wait to go back and continue growing this incredible space where teenagers feel safe exploring their gender and sexuality.
There is a saying at Rowe that I never understood as a camper but that I think I finally understand after this summer. “Those who best embody the spirit of Rowe are those who learn to live on this edge.” As a camper, I thought the “edge” was the edge of what was socially acceptable. Now I realize that the edge at Rowe is the line between the individual and the community. What do we need to do as individuals to make our communities better, cohesive, supportive, safe places? And what do we need as individuals to take care of ourselves and be taken care of by the community?
At Rowe, that edge can mean exploring the things that are fun for you but figuring out how not to overstep so that they become destructive for the community. You and your friends might be having fun listening to loud music or throwing playing cards across room, but how will that affect the other people using the space? Exploring that edge can mean pitching in to clean up, talking to someone when they look upset, or navigating an argument among a friend group. It can also look like taking time and space for yourself and seeking support from others in the community.
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I learned many skills at Rowe that helped me explore the edge between the individual and the community. Some I learned explicitly, through workshops and trainings, and others I learned by practice and example. I think the most important tools we can bring into our communities are learning how to express our needs, how to actively listen to others, how to communicate in relationships, how to support others, and how to take care of ourselves. I am still working to become even better at all of these skills and to use them with my communities and my loved ones.
These lines between ourselves and our communities are difficult to navigate. Exploring this edge also means talking about issues that arise due to individual actions or community patterns. But creating spaces in which everyone intentionally explores this edge can help create groups in which we feel safe being ourselves because we know that we will be supported, and in turn we will support others.