No parent should feel scared to send their child to summer camp, but Fran Forsberg had a lot of anxiety: “I was afraid to give my children the experience of camp . . . the life of cabins, beaches and friends. I was afraid that my children would be singled out as weird, bullied by staff and other children.”
Through adoption, foster parenting and biology, Forsberg has 12 children. Two of them are gender variant: Renn, a quiet and loving 7-year-old who is transgender; and Tanna, a smiling and enthusiastic 11-year-old who identifies as two-spirit. Trans people, whose sex at birth is different than the gender with which they identify, still face discrimination: being trans is often viewed as a problem to be fixed.
So when Forsberg began researching camps, she looked specifically for wilderness settings that welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, two-spirit and queer young people. To her dismay, she soon learned that only a couple of the dozen-or-so LGBTQ camps in the country enrol kids under age 13, and none were in the Prairies. Ever the advocate, Forsberg asked an existing church camp to host a gender-creative week for younger kids. They rejected her idea. Another request to another church camp, and Forsberg got another “no.” Then she asked Camp Tapawingo, a United Church camp on Candle Lake, Sask. They responded with a resounding “yes.” Forsberg called it Camp Caterpillar, and I became its director.
A few months later, on a warm evening in August 2015, I sat with Tanna and Renn on a log pew watching the sun set over Candle Lake, the water calm and silver. The congregation at vespers was over 30 strong, and more than half of the campers were trans. As we sat among spruce and tamarack swaying gently in the breeze, we didn’t think too much about the fact that we were making history. Camp Caterpillar is the first overnight camp in Western Canada for trans and gender-creative young children, and the first in Canada to include their siblings.
Having directed a number of camps, I knew that it would be a massive undertaking to program a camp from scratch. There would be spiritual care time to arrange, and vespers services to plan that wouldn’t trigger a community often persecuted by religion. There would be new policies to consider at a camp where people aren’t easily divided by gender. We opted for all-gender bathrooms, all-gender cabins, and we allowed campers to choose whatever style of bathing suit they preferred. I encouraged some counsellors to wear T-shirts over their suits so that if self-conscious campers wanted to do the same, they wouldn’t feel out of place.
It came as a surprise and a relief to learn that parents and campers didn’t need camp to be about being trans, it just needed to be an inclusive and fun place.
Megan Cheesbrough, whose now 8-year-old son, Noah Jensen, attended the camp, says she simply wanted Noah to experience “relaxing in the wilderness . . . this core part of childhood.” She says she’s pleased whenever Noah can feel that being trans “is just a normal thing. . . . It’s just a tiny fact about him.” According to Noah, “I don’t really feel like I am transgender. . . . I just am a boy, and usually I don’t care about it much.”
With that in mind, Camp Caterpillar was scheduled just like Camp Tapawingo, complete with two swims every day. The staff, who were a mix of Tapawingo’s paid counsellors paired with LGBTQ volunteers, performed funny skits after meals and taught archery and outdoor cooking during activity time. Trevor the alligator was still in the swamp — or so they said — and counsellor Abner Brown woke up one morning to find his boxers strung up the flagpole in a classic prank.
Sound idyllic? For the campers, it really was. Noah (camp name: Funky Banana), later said he “really liked it when we would go out to the lake to swim,” and he thinks camp is “important to have because it’s a good way to experience what life out in nature is like.” We created a place where kids could just be kids. When we ran a trans workshop for the 7- to 9-year-olds, they itched to get back to playing. One camper made a convincing pitch: “We already talked about this with our parents. Can we go on the monkey bars now?”
The scene at the firepit was much different. There, Abner Brown held a trans workshop for the 13- to 14-year-old campers. They talked about typical pre-teen concerns such as starting to date, but also about hormone blockers, wait times for gender specialists, anxiety about using public washrooms, the fear of harassment and the reactions of friends and family when they changed their names or asked to be referred to by a different pronoun.
Brown, who is trans, says, “it was amazing, really inspiring and incredible” to hear the youth speak openly about what he had experienced a decade ago. He added there was an immediate connection and understanding among campers because of their shared experience. Trans youth face higher rates of verbal harassment and mental health concerns due to discrimination than their peers who are cisgender (those whose gender identity corresponds with their biological sex). The 2015 Canadian Trans Youth Health Survey found that 50 percent of older trans youth reported cyber bullying; 70 percent of trans youth reported sexual harassment and one-third of younger trans youth had been physically threatened or injured. A 2011 study found 78 percent of Canadian trans students feel unsafe at school. Given these statistics, it’s no wonder some parents drove over seven hours to give their children this safe camping experience.
On the last morning of camp, parents gathered for a caregiver workshop. Sitting around a table in the mess hall, one family spoke of having to leave their church because their child came out as trans. Rev. Nora Vedress of Calvary United in Prince Albert, Sask., which supports the camp, sat in on the gathering. She says she wanted to be there because “too often the voice of the church that’s the loudest is the negative.” Vedress later wished she “would have been able to dress up like a bishop and walk in — big hat — and then they would know: ‘The church is here!’” She wanted it made clear that “this was a United Church of Canada camp that has welcomed you into this space. You belong here, you are welcome here, you are accepted here.”
The previous evening, our last night at camp, in the glow of a roaring fire, campers belted out a campfire song. A small voice cut through the singing: “Look!” shouted the red-headed, self-proclaimed “fusion-kid,” pointing skyward. Every voice stopped, and we looked up in awe. The black night sky above seemed to fold in on itself as northern lights — green, red, blue — danced as bright as I had ever seen. As we shared that unforgettable moment, it felt as if we were all one. And, as Funky Banana later reminisced with a happy sigh, “They were really pretty.”
Alison Brooks-Starks is a writer in Edmonton.