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CNY summer camp breaks gender barriers for the second year

Campers at Camp Beyond Binary.
Camp Beyond Binary
Campers at Camp Beyond Binary.

Fifty campers ages 12-18 are gathering over the next two weeks on Cayuga Lake at Camp Beyond Binary, which breaks away from the typical gender divisions of summer programs, in order to help prepare young people for their lives as non gender conforming adults.

They’ll roast marshmallows, go hiking — and discuss the very core of their identities in daily small-group sessions. And no one has to choose which bathroom to use, or cabin to sleep in, says Camp Director Chris Kukenberger, who goes by the pronouns they and them.

“And we take out that problem completely, we don't care," they said." It doesn't matter which way you are, were born, are now, want to be tomorrow, everywhere is all-gender, everywhere is all-inclusive, and it is incredibly empowering.'

Kukenberger says kids don’t have to “pause and question ‘Where do I go? Where am I safe? Who’s around? Who’s looking? Can I sneak into that bathroom and feel OK there?’ And that's really to get to the heart of the mission of our camp, that it's to create such an inclusive space, such an immersive, inclusive space, that you don't have to pause.”

Camp Beyond Binary is run by the Girl Scouts of America and open to all members of the LGBTQ community and their allies, says Kukenberger, and they accept pretty much all who apply. However, says the camp director, most campers are trans or non-binary — and mainly from rural areas of New York. So they haven’t met many people like themselves.

“Youth of any identity must see adult versions of themselves so that they know how to model and grow into and identify ‘Oh that’s me. Those are my people. That’s my tribe.’" Kukenberger said. "If we don’t have the opportunity to see versions of ourselves as adults we really struggle knowing how to get there, how to plan a path in life."

Many of the staff members are also non-binary or trans, including Kukenberger, a trans man, which further alleviates feelings of isolation and fear, says Karen Fuller, a Family Peer advocate of the Q Center, which provides LGBTQ resources to Central New York youth.

“Oftentimes you only hear the bad things, right? You only hear the struggles that people have, when they transition, or about the harassment or the harm that comes to them, right. You don't hear the positive stories," Fuller said. "So it's important for these youth to see that there is a future. That can be very encouraging and helpful to their mental health."

Fuller says a camp specifically tailored to allowing vulnerable, marginalized youth really express themselves means they can also just focus on being kids.

“Here all those things are taken care of so that they can focus on building relationships and having fun and enjoying the camp experience,” Fuller said.

Camp Beyond Binary runs through August 6-18.