Why we need gay camp

20 Mar

I find it hard to think of summer camp without the racism and homophobia. Yet I still have fond memories of the summers I spent as a camper and counselor, covered in dirt and bug bites and staring at the stars.

While many of my friends have summer camp memories that involve inappropriate and stereotypical appropriations of aboriginal culture, the camp I went to as a kid had its own special brand of problematic traditions. My parents sent me to a Jewish sleepover camp in Cloyne, Ontario that seemed perfectly “normal” from the outside. It promised Israeli dancing and Shabbat dinner on Friday nights in addition to canoe trips and swimming in the lake. Designed to emulate a Kibbutz it even preached socialist and progressive values. I remember the day we elected representatives from our cabin to administer the collective pot of contraband candy and decide when the whole group got to indulge. The place was a bit of a dump because it had no maintenance staff. So every morning before breakfast, us kids put in half an hour of elbow grease, whether it was cleaning toilets, painting cabins or making decorations for Friday night celebrations. On Saturdays, we split off into earnest discussion groups where we discussed the images of women present in magazines and how this was emblematic of the patriarchy. Sounds pretty great, doesn’t it?

Except this particular camp was also a propaganda machine designed to convince teenagers to move to Israel and join the army. Instead of focusing on shared values and teaching compassion, counselors taught a warped and racist view of history. On one “special day”, we were encouraged to re-enact the Seven Day War in seven hours — with half of the (all Jewish kids) forced to play “Arabs” and run around with towels on their heads. I kid you not. Camp staff continued to refer to Canada as the “diaspora” and regularly brought in former members of the Israeli army to talk to us about how much fun it was to run around with guns and defend “the land.” But nothing caused my little self more anxiety and fear than the middle of the night wake-ups, where we were forced into the dark woods and told to find our way back to camp all by ourselves. We were told that we were Jewish resistance fighters trying to sneak into the Promised Land and had to evade potential torturers in an effort to protect the Jewish homeland. If caught, kids were taken to the mess hall and “tortured” by having old food poured on their heads. At the end of the night, all of the kids gathered to celebrate Jewish victory and eat cake at two in the morning. I am proud to say that I managed to fake a stomach ache all but one time and generally avoided this particular form of torture. But despite all of this, I still remember camp as being fun. I begged to go back year after year. Why? Because the independence and camaraderie that sleepover camp provided was too exciting to pass up. It was only when I was in my 20s that I started to unpack the problematic nature of my camp experiences and realize how racist and xenophobic that camp was.

Fast forward to the summer I was 17. Having escaped Zionist Nightmare Camp, I signed up to teach drama at an affluent sleepover camp in Haliburton, Ontario. While this place skipped the nationalist indoctrination, it was big on mandatory gender roles and compulsory heterosexuality. The place was divided into “girls’ camp” and “boys’ camp.” They made a Big Deal about how the kids were not allowed to cross into enemy territory. But then they widely encouraged 11-year-old children to go on “dates” and meet at the “kissing rock” that divided both camps. If that wasn’t bad enough, the rampant homophobia among the staff wasn’t just encouraged, it was celebrated. Every summer, the counselors would put on a talent show to entertain the campers. And at some point, the male camp staff would dress in drag, act “faggy” and prance around stage. This elicited laughter from children and adults alike. And it made me want to puke.

I wasn’t out as queer yet, but my brother had come out as gay the year before. And as the director of the camp musical, I was quite sure that at least one of my acting prodigies was gay (as it turns out, he grew up, came out and become an activist and student politician). The toxic nature of this homophobic “humour” finally drove me away from camp forever. This is not to mention the fact that the vast majority of the female counselors had eating disorders and passed on negative messages about food and body image to their charges. The camp directors made a few futile attempts to address this issue, but the fact that the female staff wasn’t eating much was the biggest open secret at the camp.

Many of my friends have similar stories about summer camp. We all recall camp fires and hikes with fuzzy glee, but have trouble reconciling these memories with the racism and homophobia that was so rampant at the time.

That’s why I am so passionate about The Ten Oaks Project. It makes me so happy to know that my daughter will have a place to go to where she can enjoy the thrilling independence of a week without her parents while avoiding the toxic norms that ruled my own camp experience.

If you have a few dollars to spare, please make a donation to Camp Ten Oaks today. Because camp should be all about the fun, without the taint of racism and homophobia to cloud her summer time memories.

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