On Camp: Girl Scout Camp – Freedom, Feminism and Hobo Pies

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There’s a certain smell that takes me back to Girl Scout camp right away: sunlight on a carpet of pine needles. And there’s a certain feeling I’ve tried to recapture ever since: lying peacefully awake beneath wood smoke and starlight, talking with women. I’m 26 and I live in the city, but I jump at any opportunity to get deep into nature, either with my girlfriend or, for a few years running now, during an annual camping trip with our queer feminist book club. My first year at Camp Juliette* I was six years old. I went with a girl from down the block, who sobbed with homesickness all night and then promptly told her mother I’d been the one bawling inconsolably, as if somehow our parents would scent tears on us in the minivan on the way home. My mom didn’t believe that for a moment, since I had come home complaining that I couldn’t stay longer. I kept going back every summer until I was 16, working the last two years as a counselor-in-training.

via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Throughout this time I was kind of a loner, a weirdo. I read too much and cried at dumb things and made jokes that nobody liked. My awkwardness should have followed me along to Girl Scout camp, but somehow I managed to shed most of it in the 40 miles between the city and that patch of unremarkable forest. At the time I supposed that everyone else fit into their normal lives as well as they did into camp, and I was getting away with something extraordinary. Looking back, it’s clear that the woods had this normalizing effect on everyone. It’s clear because this “everyone” included: the hyperactive blonde (there on scholarship as I was) with seven siblings, all of whose names began with the letter K. The group of girls who, for an entire week, annexed the identities of the British royal family. The camp director, a dour-looking 30-something with a severe black bob, knee-length pleated shorts, and deep love for both romance novels and Star Trek. Counselors from Australia and South Africa and Russia, with accents of varying comprehensibility to our Midwestern ears. Counselors with dreadlocks and shaved heads and, sometimes, relationships with each other.

By my last few years at camp, it had become clear that one of the things that marked me as a weirdo was liking girls. I was well convinced that there were no lesbians in my town and very few in the rest of the world, and consequently it seemed both frightening and pointless to come out beyond the tiny handful of friends who knew. I felt sublimely at ease under the pines of Camp Juliette, and precisely because of this, I felt like I couldn’t be out there, either. It was a place of unceasing group intimacy — aside from half an hour a day of quiet time, we lived together. Connections were forged instantly. I had a hard time making friends at home; what relationships I did have tended to be chilled by reflexive irony and the need to seem much older than we were; the days of slumber parties had dried up. This closeness at camp was precious, and I wasn’t willing to risk making my camp friends uncomfortable around me. (Especially since I usually did have a burning crush on three or four girls at a time.)

I dropped a few little hints: talking about my love of Ani DiFranco, making rainbow-themed friendship bracelets during arts and crafts. And my eyes were wide open. As I watched and listened, rumors coalesced into miraculous facts: I was surrounded by gay women. They didn’t talk about it, but they also didn’t try to hide it (there had been glimpses of hand-holding, couples leaving camp together), and wouldn’t deny it if you asked. Word got around: some of the most beloved counselors were definitely queer. The astonishing fact was that nobody cared. I had sometimes flinched at casually homophobic remarks tossed off in the manner of preteens everywhere, but the same girls who made them continued to worship even the dykiest of counselors and jockey for a seat beside them in the dining hall. For the first time in my life, I had proof that you could be a gay woman and be not only tolerated, but liked. You could even be gay and weird and still be liked.

I knew Allie from the city, where we competed in poetry slams together. She was bisexual and Wiccan and had a boyfriend who believed he could contact real dragons. She also had caterpillar-thick, self-inflicted scars laddered from shoulder to wrist, which, at camp, she repurposed as an object lesson about why you should never scratch your mosquito bites. There was Sam, who had a buzz cut and no feeling in part of her hands because she’d punched out a garage window in a fit of anger. Among my closest mentors were Hayley and her girlfriend Kathy, who had been my counselors since I was tiny. By the time I was a counselor-in-training, I was carrying around biographies of Abbie Hoffman and registering my disapproval of the Bush administration and other American sins of the era by clasping a fist rather than an open palm over my chest during the daily flag ceremony, to complement my punk band and ineffectual political organizing back home. Hayley made a point of asking what I was reading and once whispered to me that when she dressed up as a kind of off-brand Captain America during assemblies, she took secret pleasure in letting the flag she wore as a cape drag on the ground.

via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, 1917

In the context of the woods, removed from our normal social circles, nothing seemed odd or unacceptable about any of these women. When I tell people about my camp experience, they’re surprised that such a climate could flourish within a quintessentially all-American institution — an institution for American children, no less, who must be protected from just about everything. At the practical and local level, I think it worked like this: unless they’re instructed not to, kids are predisposed to adore the adults in their lives. It was only a bonus that these adults were young and cool and teaching us to build one-match fires, scare away raccoons, and sing songs that would stay in our (and our unlucky parents’) heads for the rest of our lives. Sure, some parents might have arched an eyebrow at the less-traditional-looking counselors, but what were they going to say when their children raved about the fun they’d had with them?

via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

At the institutional level, the Girl Scouts are a whole different species from the conservative-minded, no-gays-allowed Boy Scouts. Autostraddle reported in October on the Girl Scouts of Colorado’s explicit statement of inclusion of all girl-identified children, whether cis or trans. Diversity is a core value, and in 2001, national president Connie Matsui confirmed publicly that the organization does not discriminate according to sexual orientation. They’ve rarely foregrounded these issues, preferring to carry out their mission of tolerance and girls’ empowerment through action rather than controversial proclamations. Even so, conservative ire does find its way to the Girl Scouts every so often. In February, Indiana State Representative Bob Morris issued a letter railing against their purported “close strategic affiliation with Planned Parenthood” that advocates “sexualizing young girls” and list 47 (!) “lesbians, feminists, or communists” as role models. He ends by announcing his decision to transfer his daughters from their Girl Scout troop into a scouting organization that will teach them “values and principles that will not confuse their conservative Hoosier upbringing.”

What strikes me about my gay Girl Scout camp days is just how confused we weren’t when it came to the queer women we looked up to. Most of us hadn’t encountered anything like them in our conservative Midwestern upbringings, either, but we were too busy learning how to fold a tent and make hobo pies to spend much time reeling with confusion. Give your girls some credit, Bob. They’re tough and resilient and confident in their own individual character — at least they should be if Girl Scouts has accomplished its goals.

via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

* All names changed to protect a wonderful place.


Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.

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31 Comments

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      Dear Girl Scout friends,

      First, really enjoyed this article. Great job to the author.

      Ironically and very uncannily, just about the same time this piece was published on Autostraddle, I launched an e-project that I’ve been pondering since 2010 called, “ScOUT of the Closet: Members of the LGBTQA Community Reflect on Their Girl Scout Experiences.”

      Blog with two first-person narratives (and lots more background info.) posted as of now:
      http://www.scOUTofthecloset.blogspot.com
      (Check it out!)

      If anyone is interested in sharing a GS story, I’d really love to chat with you. Drop me a line at scOUTofthecloset@gmail.com to talk about submitting your story or being interviewed for a blog post.

      Best wishes,
      Stefanie

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    Girl Scout camp is so great it’s almost mythical. I’ve been ging to my camp (as camper or staff or whatever) for 11 happy, happy years and I wouldn’t trade my experiences there for the world.

    Plus the songs can’t be beat. I think Tegan and Sara should do an album entirely of songs from Girl scout camp. I’m actually serious though.

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    I’m returning to camp this summer for the 12th time, and I couldn’t be more excited!! Growing up my best friend and I would try to guess who was dating who at camp. Queer women became so normalized to me, that by the time I realized I was gay (and it took a while) I was totally cool with it, and never had to deal with internalized homophobia. Even when many of my friends and family outside of camp disapproved of “how I’d changed” after I came out, I always knew that I could return to camp. Certainly not everyone at camp was wonderfully accepting, but they were in the minority.

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    The week before I was supposed to go to my first ever Girl Scout Camp, I stole a pack of my Mom’s cigarettes so Julie Letsun could teach the rest of us how to smoke and make “smoke rings”. Well, one of the girls ratted us out, and Julie and I got “punished” by not being able to go. I quit the Scouts a few months later, so I never did get to go to a Girl Scout Camp. It wasn’t a total wash though. While the other girls went to Camp, we stayed home and Julie taught me how to French Kiss!

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    Girl Scout camp was absolutely the best. I went for like six years.

    Fun story: my very first time getting drunk was about a month after camp, my senior year of high school, at a counselor’s 21st birthday party. She was dating one of the CITs, a friend of mine (yea statutory). Also in attendance was one of the lifeguards, who was dating another counselor (there were a LOT of couples at camp.), who had just left. Anyways, little drunk 16-year-old me was falling all over (physically) the lifeguard, and there is an entire series of pictures on Facebook that looks like we’re making out. I think I woke up in her lap or something.

    So yea. First time drunk was at a sleepover with three lesbians, and I didn’t even realize I liked girls for another THREE YEARS. Fail.

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    I know what you mean about having your first sustained exposure to lesbian role models, it’s something that stays with you no matter the length of years that go by. That’s neat it was in the Girl Scouts. I was in the GS and didn’t even know the tradition behind GS camp, or that other troops went to camp-site locations.

    I went on a GS camp just once at 11, it was some camp AND beach site because there was a dead seal on the beach and we threw pebbles at a hole in its abdomen (yes, I’d never do it today). We’d been split into tents and there was this silly rivalry the second we got there, both groups tore down the other’s tents and kept doing so throughout the weekend. My tent yelled at each other pretty much the whole time, and on the first morning a girl was banished from our tent, I can still see as clear as day our tent “leader” (another 11 year old) hurling out the exiled girl’s luggage and it sailing into the dirt. Then people started fighting over a radio, which I don’t think worked anyway, and then a tape player, that did. I was watching and enjoying myself but since the tent was small, vaguely remember getting sat on. Nobody began to chill out till the smores and Scary Stories To Tell in The Dark were dispensed that night. It was early Summer and the mom who ran the troop was pretty much done with us after that.

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    I recommend Nancy Manahan’s book, On My Honour, Lesbian Girl Reflect On Their Girl Scout Experience.
    http://WWW.goodreads.com/book/show/365573.On_My_Honor

    My understanding is that its not uncommon for American Girl Scouting to divide onto troop level organisation being run by moms, and councils and camps having a much larger percentage of lesbian staff, but I’m sure that it varies a lot around the country. Here in NZ camps are run by the same unit (troop) leaders that they have all year, and we have very few paid staff, so its not quite the same.

    I’m certain that Girl Scouts and Girl Guides around the world owes a lot historically to those women who never married, cared deeply about girls education and enjoying female companionship, and I’m glad that they’ve remained (mostly) very open. Here we have explicit non discrimination policies, which is nice.

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    I love reading articles that reinforce my own experience! I always tell people how gay Girl Scout camp is, but I only have my own experiences working at two camps to back that up, so reading this article and going, “Yes, yes that is exactly what happens, and yes there are always queer couples among the counselors!” was really fun. Additionally, you should know that at least half of the queer counselors didn’t come out or even really consider that they were queer until they came to camp. I’ve worked at GS camps for five summers, during all of which I’ve known people who would previously have identified as straight start dating other counselors. And then last summer I fell for my best camp friend and came out as bi…on the same day as she and one of my other best friends at camp told me they had started dating. All of a sudden, 3/4 of our group of friends were queer! All those feelings of shedding your awkwardness at the gates — the staff do the same thing, trust me :)

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    I was a girl scout for 13 years, and I loved every minute of it. Oddly, though, I only went to one weekend overnight at GS camp in all that time. I think I was too busy going camping with my family/going to other camps. But yeah. Camping with my troop was always fun. S’mores. Snake bread (it’s like monkey bread, but wrapped on a forked stick?). Moonlight canoeing.

    I really want to go camping now, darn it.

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    My cousin and I went to GS camp for the first time when we were 8, and we were in the cabin with all the other girls nobody wanted to be with, except there was one girl who was wanted by one of the cooler cabins and was really upset when she was forced to be with us so she put up a bedsheet around her bunk to make a little cave and said it was because she didn’t want all of the “lesbians” in our cabin to see her change. I didn’t know what a lesbian was because I grew up in a small city with no gay people and I didn’t watch tv, but I tore down the sheet so she had to change in the open like the rest of us and started to chant “we are lesbians” but no one else joined in. It was like my own little PRIDE. Ten years later it all made sense. My cousin was not surprised when I started dating girls.

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    i think that, had i not passed out at girl scout camp during before-lunch singing, i would’ve kept going and figured out that i was gay earlier because apparently girl scouts are super mega gay. i liked this story.

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    I love this story! I unknowingly met ‘my first gays’ at Girl Scout camp. I didn’t know they were gay until I became a staff member. Quite a few years later when I first realized that I was probably gay, it was easier to come to terms with because I knew many gay women who I strongly admired and respected. Then a few years after that, I met my girlfriend/love of my life at camp…and we’ve been together for over three years : )

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    I have so many strong feelings about this and I have been trying to type it out, but I have no idea how I want to phrase it.

    This was beautiful. I have so much praise for you because I would never be brave enough to write something like this.

    Girl Scout Camp is the thing in my life that matters the most. As a child, camp was fun and I liked learning new things. As an adult, camp was the only place I ever felt safe and welcome.

    Camp is different. I can be out at camp (I am not at home). Camp has been the only place where that part of me is accepted without hesitation, but not focused on. I am proud of being a role model for the girls at camp. In high school and college, my camp jobs were the only place where I had real bi and lesbian role models. It was the only place where I saw that being gay didn’t mean you had to dress a certain way or act a certain way, it just meant that you wanted to date girls. At Girl Scout camp I learned that your life doesn’t have to change after you come out, you just keep doing all the same things you used to do, along with dating girls. I don’t know who I would be without it.

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    Fuck yeah, Girl Scouts and GS camp.

    I was a Girl Scout until I was 18, when you have to switch over to being an adult member. I got my Silver Award, and narrowly missed out on my Gold. I went to Encampment (when our whole council went to camp for a weekend) every year, and my troop of 5 or so chicks ran encampment for 3 or 4 years. It was an amazing experience. Also super queer. I think every year I went to encampment, someone else came out to me.

    Basically: Girl Scouts. I recommend them highly, and would like to lead a troop someday.

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    I used to say that girl scout camp was actually my first home and the house I lived in the rest of the year was my second home. I miss it so much…it really is my favorite place in the world.

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    the first people that i kinda told i was gay were my GS leader and troop members (in HS, so it was only one or two girls). never really said the word “gay,” but bless their hearts, when i said something about it so many years later on Facebook they knew what i was talking about #sisterhood

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    This has come up in conversation so many times lately! Start talking about memories from girl scout camp, and other queer ladies will almost certainly join in on the reminiscing. Apparently, girl scout camp is pretty universally gay (even if not all of us realized at the time!)

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