Latest Updates from Camp  Queer Jewish Homecoming

Queer Jewish Homecoming

by Jonathan Branfman
Galil Unit Head

We hope these couples would also feel safe in our camp community. Creating that inclusive environment takes active, thoughtful change.

  • What’s “intersex?”
  • Where should transgender campers live?
  • What if my camper comes out to our bunk?
  • Why are there so many letters in LGBTQIA?[*]

Our staff explored these questions and many more in Harlam’s first-ever full-staff training on LGBTQIA inclusion. Although I’ve led similar trainings before, this one left me euphoric: Harlam is my home, but a home where my welcome had always felt incomplete before. I spent four amazing summers as a Harlam camper (2001-2004), and four more as a C.I.T. and counselor (2006-2009). But through all those great times, I saw clearly that my happiness and safety at camp depended on hiding: laughing along with homophobic jokes, censoring my thoughts before I spoke, deflecting questions about who I wanted to date. I always knew many staff members who voiced support for LGBTQIA people; however, I saw over and over that any campers or counselors who were openly gay, or even just rumored to be gay, risked exclusion and disrespect from their peers. I stopped returning after 2009 partially because I felt ready to live fully out of the closet, and did not think I could do so at camp.

Pictures illustrated by Jon’s friend, Erin Roper

After five years away from camp, I am thrilled to find that Harlam is becoming a much more welcoming place for gay campers and staff. It’s this sea change that has allowed me to return this summer as Galil unit head, a position I am honored to fill. I am also very grateful to Aaron, Beth, and Alex for the chance to participate in this cultural shift by helping to train Harlam’s 2014 staff. Alongside basic information on LGBTQIA people, our training emphasized action. For example, if campers come out of the closet, what can we say and do to help their bunkmates respond supportively? If a female camper identifies as a boy, where can that camper comfortably live? It was awesome to see our staff see how good intentions (i.e. “we support gay people”) must translate to concrete actions in order to make Harlam a truly welcoming place for members of our community who are LGBTQIA.

Although this training opens my ninth summer at Harlam, it feels less like I’m returning than arriving home for the first time.  This summer, my full self is finally present in this wonderful place. And without the stress of self-censorship, I can focus my whole energy on supporting Galil’s outstanding staff as they lead our campers through an amazing summer. I think back to the Galil camper I was in 2002, huddled with my bunk on one side of L pool while Galil Girls 2 waved from the other side. Everyone had decided in advance that I should ask out the girl in the middle, and there was no safe way I could say no. Through the proactive changes and discussions that we’re beginning this summer, I hope and believe that all the campers and staff in Harlam’s care will find camp a safer, more welcoming place than it was then. A place where everyone, including the gay, or transgender, or intersex members of our community can devote themselves to thriving rather than hiding.

[*] LGBTQIA is an acronym referring to many different sexual and gender minorities. It stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual people, as well as their straight allies.

Jon Branfman is a fourth year staff member at camp, and was also a camper for four summers.  He is a doctoral student at Ohio State University in Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies.


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