New Report Sheds Light on Gender Affirming Practices for Youth

A group of kids gather around a counselor holding a turtle
Photo courtesy of Camp Fire

NRF knows that outdoor recreation is a powerful tool for positive youth development. We also know that this can only be successful when everyone feels welcome and safe in every sense of the word – mentally, emotionally, and physically. Unfortunately, we are living in a time when many LGBTQ+ youth are being targeted because of their identities. This includes discriminatory legislation, social exclusion and bullying, restricted access to resources, and at times physical violence. In the most recent report from The Trevor Project, 27% of trans and non-binary youth reported being physically threatened or harmed in the past year due to their gender identity and 56% of LGBTQ+ youth who sought mental health care in the past year reported not being able to access it. This combination of experiences is having a devastating effect on LGBTQ+ youth. The Trevor Project found that 41% of LGBTQ+ young people seriously considered suicide in the last year.

A young person climbs a rock wall
Photo courtesy of Camp Fire

This data comes from a survey that includes over 28,000 people between the ages of 13 and 24. While it can be difficult to accurately determine how many youth across the U.S. identify as LGBTQ+, some studies estimate that approximately 9% of all youth under 18 and up to 25% of high school students hold an LGBTQ+ identity. For organizations working in youth development, it is essential to acknowledge these statistics and reimagine inclusive practices around LGBTQ+ identities. Sometimes it can be hard to know where to start or what to prioritize when making changes to existing program structures. We are excited to share how one organization is paving the way in terms of gender inclusivity.

A child blows on a roasted marshmallow
Photo courtesy of Camp Fire

Camp Fire, a national youth development organization, recently published a report called Space for Identity Exploration: Through the Lens of Gender, which studied the impact of identity and gender-affirming practices for transgender and non-binary young people in outdoor programs. Camp Fire began 114 years ago as an outdoors program designed to give girls the same opportunities to learn and explore outside that were readily available to boys at the time. Today, Camp Fire serves all young people through overnight camps, after-school programming, environmental education, and leadership opportunities in 24 different states.

Camp Fire’s report on gender inclusivity in its camp programs includes insightful reflection on its efforts to help all youth feel welcome and comfortable in outdoor education environments and serves as a jumping off point for other programs thinking about making changes around inclusive practices. The study found that several core elements helped trans and non-binary youth feel comfortable at camp:

1. The first was promoting a sense of belonging that allowed youth to have time and space to simply exist as their full selves.

2. The second was flexibility around gender identity and expression. Many young people were able to explore new facets of their identities while in a safe space at camp through open conversations and continued opportunities to self-identify rather than being locked into a specific label.

3. Additionally, the report found that representation of a wide range of LGBTQ+ identities among counselors and other camp staff also helped youth feel comfortable. Many campers noted that some level of shared identity and lived experience meant that they had to do less explaining to express themselves.

4. Intentional choices built into camp structures were also pivotal. For example, cabins were not assigned based on gender, private spaces were available for changing and personal hygiene, and policies around water activities included expectations for swimwear that took a wide range of bodies and comfort levels with exposing skin into consideration.

5. Finally, Camp Fire staff and researchers also noticed that LGBTQ+ affinity campers held identities that heavily intersected with other issues of access and marginalization. Some campers had to travel far to attend a Camp Fire session and many campers were neurodivergent or held other disability identities that required care and support from staff.

A child paddles a kayak on a lake
Photo courtesy of Camp Fire

While these results come from an overnight camp setting, they have clear implications for many kinds of youth-focused organizations. There are always ways to think creatively about program design and structure in any context that can help youth with marginalized identities feel welcome. What’s even better is that changes made to support one group can also have positive impacts for others. For example, Camp Fire has found that private changing spaces and new swimwear policies have also helped cis boys who might be anxious about their bodies feel more comfortable at camp. When programs create space to reimagine how to do things, it can have profound impacts for staff, volunteers, and kids of all different identities.

We’re grateful to Camp Fire for doing this important and meaningful work. It’s heartening to see outdoor recreation organizations at the front of gender inclusivity work. As Camp Fire president Shawna Rosenzweig put it, “Outdoor programs are already well positioned to help young people build connection, so why not us? Why can’t we be the leaders in inclusivity?” Here at NRF we couldn’t agree more, and we’re committed to supporting organizations that help all youth feel safe, comfortable, and connected in outdoor settings.