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Gender, Sexuality, & Queer Culture in Summer Camps

Penny Harvey’s 2017 thesis "It's Camp": Summer Camp Culture, the Renegotiation of Social Norms and Regulation of Gender and Sexuality, described the larger implications that the summer camp environment has on young people and their understanding of self-development, gender identity, and sexuality. Traditionally, summer camp was and continues to be a heteronormative institution, but that doesn't mean LGBTQIA+ people of all ages have not been an integral part of them. In fact, topics around gender and sexuality were taken into consideration in summer camps as far back as the early 1920s.


Particularly in girls' camps in the early 20th century, directors and parents were concerned with gender conservation as girls were not always “maintaining feminine qualities” during “the adventure” of summer camp. In Children’s Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp (2008), Leslie Paris described how:  “Crushes—like homosocial communities more generally—came under suspicion. Speaking at the Seventh Annual Camp Leadership Course at Columbia University’s Teachers College in 1926, Elizabeth Kemper Adams, educational secretary of the Girl Scouts, called on counselors to beware of their consequences: “such an outpouring of emotion, natural as it may be at such an age and under such circumstances, may, unless it is wisely directed and turned into more objective and social channels, stand later in a girl’s way when the time comes for her to fall in love.” Because of this, typical camper activities such as cross-gender play and “masculine” attire (pants, overalls, shorts, etc.) began to come into question and were often frowned upon. In the 1950s, camps shifted to co-ed enrollment as both young boys and girls had been participating in similar camp activities already up to this point. But, as camps made the shift to co-ed, they now were responsible for addressing gender exploration and development. They also were responsible for responding to “adult concerns about children's heterosexual development, which resonated among postwar American parents and youth leaders at a time when the heterosexual family was imagined to be a bulwark against Communism“.  This change would continue to develop in the 1970s and beyond, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s in the wake of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. 


In 1986, Camping Magazine, now housed under the ACA, published its first article What about AIDS? in May of that year. Through 1995, many more articles were realized describing the impacts of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and how summer camps could support and care for their campers during this time. In February of 1987, the magazine published an article titled Retreat ‘Makes Life Worth Living’ describing the powerful support a camp provided for AIDS victims. In the same month, AIDS activist Cleve Jones created the first panel of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. In December of 1991, the article Camp Sunburst Offers Hope and Fun to Children with AIDS was published in Camping Magazine. Queer and LGBTQIA+ individuals have always been an integral part of the American summer camp, even when the majority population did not support or accept them. Visibility to issues of gender, sexuality, and queer culture began during this time and would continue to evolve into the 21st century. 


For more information about these topics, check out: 


It's Camp": Summer Camp Culture, the Renegotiation of Social Norms and Regulation of Gender and Sexuality by Penny Harvey (2017) 


Queer at Camp: The Impact of Summer Camps on LGBTQ Campers in the United States by Penny Harvey, Juhwan Seo, Emily Logan (2022)

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