Gender at Summer Camp East
My first encounter with New Culture was the 1999 Oregon Summer Camp (the only New Culture Summer Camp at the time). As a lifelong social radical and activist, coming to a place that was accepting of polyamory, radical transformation, concern for the earth, and more, I felt I was coming *home*. I was challenged in new ways, and it created opportunities I had never had before. Foremost in what I had found there was the absence of any dogma or defined leadership; *every* topic was available to be explored, challenged, or changed. I came back to Virginia with new tools and renewed vision of how to bring needed change to the world.
But one thing bothered me deeply. In the men’s circle, the talk and behavior didn’t reflect the enlightened attitudes that permeated the rest of the experience. Women were objectified, and men played their conventional roles, keeping their physical and emotional distance from each other. Though I present as white/male/heterosexual, my reality is anything but. I grew up in a multicultural environment where men (and women) cried with each other, kissed on the lips, and touch was a near constant. Men were considered to be the emotional gender, and the women, if anything, were expected to keep the level head in the family. So my experience of being physically male left me with virtually nothing in common with what US males in a men’s group talk about.
My role model for women was a mother who was a reconnaissance pilot in World War II, a journalist, novelist, occasional university faculty, a first-class sailor, a sharpshooter, and someone who did hard physical labor—all while filling the traditional roles of wife and mother. She said she had never experienced gender-role limits because when anyone suggested them, she had always thought they were kidding; so she laughed, and did it anyway.
Consequently, gender roles in my intimate relationships never played a part—I had no way of assigning tasks, behaviors, or expectations on that basis. For me, gender had little meaning at all. One of my nesting partners, who presents as femme, expresses it best when she referred to gender as a “performance”.
This was underscored further by my other nesting partner’s experience. She is nearly six feet tall, muscular, and walks with assurance. She identifies as heterosexual female, and her gender expression is certainly as valid as any other. Yet, even if her clothing clearly shows her breasts, she is often mistaken for a man! (She does appreciate the fact that it lets her use either kind of public restroom, though!)
Realizing how different my experience was from others here in the US, I had spent years in both neurobiological and sociological research, trying to determine what the core reality of gender must be. The more I explored, the less I found that could be considered essential gender. more I concluded that “when you got there, there wasn’t any ‘there’ there.”
I next attended in 2001, and saw many positive changes in the community, but the gender issues still permeated much of the program and culture. The same question that Oblio asked about the Dating Game in their article on Evolving Gender Consciousness article here was on my lips as well. If I was to continue participating, I had to do something about the toxic gender environment. So in 2002, a friend of mine and I decided to “queer things up”.
The men’s group was held in the same dome that the entire group met in--and yet there was *less* usable space in the dome than there was when the whole group was there! Each man had an empty space of at least 3 feet around him. So my friend and I went directly to the center of the dome, sat cuddled together, and said “If this camp is about love, then I think that men shouldn’t be afraid to show it for each other. Come join us when you are ready.” Dead silence. Then one man moved in close to us, then another two or three, and soon most of us were cuddled in the center, and had our meeting that way.
In 2003, my friend and I got together ahead of time to strategize what to do to shift the energy again, and we had great plans. But when we arrived at the men’s group, the men were all in a giant puppy pile in the middle. Not much more to do right then but to join them!
Still, much of the gender-normative culture remained. In 2004, in addition to attending the Oregon camp, my nesting partner and I started New Culture Summer Camp East in the Mid-Atlantic area. Starting fresh, we were able to eliminate some of the most oppressive gender structures, but we were still learning ourselves, and many of the people who came to camp had not explored the issue at all, much less challenged it.
The first year of Summer Camp East, we had several exercises to raise awareness around gender. One of the first stereotypes we encountered were men who were resistant to touching other men, claiming among other things that they could tell the difference between a man’s touch and a woman’s. We created an exercise where half the people were blindfolded, and the other half would give them non-sexual touch, on the cheek, the arm, or the back, and had the blindfolded people guess whether it was a man or woman touching them. The men who had been most adamant about there being an important difference found that their guesses were no better than random chance—they got it wrong half the time!
Over the next several years, the organizers and experience campers were able to create more and more of a culture that saw gender as malleable and diffuse, rather than binary and fixed. Grappling with the concept itself, trying to identify *anything* that could tie gender to biology, we came to the realization that there was far more difference between some men and other men, and some women and other women, than there were between the average or normative man compared with the average or normative woman. Other than basic reproductive functions, there was nothing that was true for the vast majority of men that was not also true for large numbers of women, and vice-versa. For virtually any characteristic we examined, we saw two bell curves that overlapped, with far more overlap than separation. Coupled with a deeper understanding of how societies shape and control behaviors that tend to exaggerate whatever natural differences there might be, we came to realization that gender, for all practical purposes, is an arbitrary construct.
From the beginning, the mix of participants at Summer Camp East included a growing range of gender expressions and sexual orientations: gay, lesbian, transgendered, non-gendered, intersex, bisexual men and women, and more. Perhaps because of the culture of radical acceptance that we were creating, there was never much attention focused on these variations, nor did anyone seem to have much charge about the issue. Where queerness at the West Coast camp seemed to have a strong political dimesions, at the East Coast camp it just seemed “normal”. People were who they were, they did what they did, and no one seemed to be particularly concerned about it.
We continued our explorations with workshops on gender, and one year brought in two fabulous drag kings. One of them was on stage exploring the issue, but was disrupted by a man who challenged much of what she was saying. In a rapid sequence, it turned out the man was actually her female partner, who began switching roles so rapidly, from clueless male to clumsy male stripper to hot female stripper to presenter that much of the audience couldn’t tell which role was “real”, and which was a put-on.
From the beginning of Summer Camp East, we had had men’s groups and women’s groups. After a couple of years, we added a third group, which had various names from year to year. Some of us who also attended Summer Camp West started the third gender group there as well in 2007. To describe this third group, we most often used “gender fluid”; not meaning that each individual was gender fluid, but that we welcomed *all* gender identities—or none. The group’s *focus* on gender was fluid. Perhaps the best term might be “gender inclusive”.
Over the years, most returning campers have come to see gender as an arbitrary choice, with few if any assumptions associated with any individual’s choice. Newer campers often are challenged by the perspective on gender of the camp’s culture, but most adapt surprisingly quickly. Those that don’t often provide the opportunity for further exploration and education.
In between camps, we have many shorter gatherings and informal get-togethers, and many of us maintain regular contact through e-lists, Facebook, and other social media. Whenever gender topics come up, there are many articulate individuals who provide insight into these issues, so the exploration and discussion continues throughout the year.
Overall, I would say that the most accurate description of our community’s perspective on gender is that rather than focus on identifying gender differences of any kind, we prefer to see each individual as being who they are, and making choices to present however they wish, which may change from moment to moment or day to day, and not assigning *any* characteristics as “gender”, nor *needing* to use a label. Of course, if an individual *wants* to assert a named gender, that is respected as well. Others choose not to think or act in terms of gender at all. This assumption-free approach, which flows from our practice of radical acceptance, allows the greatest freedom and respect for each individual.
We continue to have discussions and workshops on gender issues, and we keep discovering new dimensions that need to be explored, tested, and included in our shared perspectives.