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Encountering Homophobia at My Jewish Summer Camp for Girls

Marshmallows over a campfire. Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay.

When I’m at Jewish sleepaway camp, I live in a bubble (if only for a few short weeks). It’s not because I don’t have my phone and therefore don’t have to worry about Instagram story views and Snapchat streaks. It’s not because the only news I’m given is that talent show auditions are being held and counselors need to move their cars if they haven’t already done so. It’s not even because everything I could want is available within the confines of the camp fence. I spend those weeks in a bubble each summer because I go to an all-girls camp. A network of resilient Jewish women—campers, counselors, and staff alike—maintain the bubble. But the summer before eighth grade, prejudice threatened this bubble I adored so much; at my all-girls camp that summer, I encountered homophobia.

As a seventh grader, I was out as bisexual to most of my friends at home. My middle school was inclusive, and it never seemed like it was a big deal to anyone that I had just as much of a crush on Hermione Granger as I did on Harry Potter. Even so, a little voice inside my head told me to tread carefully while at camp. I didn’t want anyone to make a big deal out of it or to treat me any differently. I shouldn't be treated any differently. So, I kept my mouth shut, if only during those glorious summer months at camp.

That summer, I walked out onto the bunk porch one morning to find some of my friends giggling with a girl from another bunk. "Guess what?" one of the girls tittered, waving me over with an arm embellished by friendship bracelets. "You will not believe what someone submitted last night during Snowball!"

“Snowball” was a trust-building activity where campers wrote down a secret anonymously, and then counselors read them aloud. The tiny, crumpled up pieces of printer paper resembled snowballs (hence the name). "We don't know who, but someone wrote that they like girls," she said. "We're trying to figure it out. It’s so creepy." I forced a laugh and excused myself to go fill up my water bottle. Red hot shame rose in my throat.

The purpose of the “Snowball” activity, I knew, was to foster honesty and a supportive environment between women. It wasn't meant to create rifts in the bunks. Hearing the way my friends talked about that girl terrified me. What was an ordinary and even celebrated facet of my identity at home had suddenly become a target on my back at camp.

The "Snowball incident" was the first in a string of microaggressions I experienced that summer. When I came out on social media later in the summer, I made it very clear that I didn't want anyone to make a big deal out of it. I hope to someday live in a world where people don't even need to come out because heteronormativity will have been abolished; but clearly, our society has not reached that point.

I think because I was so intentionally low-key about coming out, some girls in my cabin didn't mind being homophobic to my face. "Listen," one girl said, "I feel, like, so okay talking to you about this because you usually like boys anyways. Isn't it weird that there are girls in this bunk who like girls? I would feel so weird changing in front of them!" I didn’t say anything, but I was inwardly seething. Regardless of how "often" I had romantic feelings for girls, I was still bisexual. Not to mention, this girl was basically stating that queer women are more likely to be predatory than straight women, which is an incredibly harmful belief.

Another time, some friends of mine were playing cards and talking about boys. "What about you, Judy?" one girl asked me. "Have you gotten with any boys or girls this year?" "Oh my god!" A different girl screeched. "You can't ask people stuff like that!" We’d been passionately catching up about boys for twenty minutes, but as soon as my friend brought up girls, it was as if someone had dropped a bomb.

These microaggressions were especially frustrating because my camp does an amazing job at being inclusive and exhibiting positive representation. Our camp rabbi is a queer woman, and we are given a middah to focus on each week that always showcases kindness, diversity of viewpoint, and acts of lovingkindness. When I was thirteen, same-sex marriage was legalized while camp was in session, and the whole camp celebrated. The contradiction of being in a wholesome, feminist space and still experiencing ignorance when interacting with other campers was difficult to process.

I’m happy to say that the microaggressions, at least the ones I experienced, became less common as I got older. For the past few years, I've also had amazing counselors who encouraged me to try new activities, stand up for myself during group discussions, and who gave me hope that someday, I would be as mature and compassionate as they are. Some of them are even out as bisexual themselves, which I think helped hugely in normalizing queerness at camp.

During my ten years at camp, I’ve learned that the beauty of all-woman spaces lies not in the lack of men, but rather, in the strong presence of women. There are no outside pressures from the patriarchy in the camp bubble; but that doesn't mean that bigotry is eradicated within the boundaries of the camp. Jewish sleepaway camps, no matter the denomination or gender majority, clearly have a long road ahead if they are to participate in creating an accepting society. Having counselor-facilitated discussions about the numerous identities that campers hold within Jewish sleepaway camps would open up many necessary conversations. I hope to be a counselor in the coming years at this place that helped me grow up. If I do, I will leave from camp every summer knowing that I’ve tried to make it a more accepting space for Jewish women in all their identities.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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How to cite this page

Goldstein, Judy. "Encountering Homophobia at My Jewish Summer Camp for Girls ." 28 October 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 2, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/encountering-homophobia-my-jewish-summer-camp-girls>.

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