By Lisa Fernandez
Anshel Mammet loves everything about overnight camp.
"I love being in nature. I love meeting new people. I love the food," the 13-year-old said. "Every day was different and really awesome."
There was just one thing Anshel wished were different.
"I didn't like being put in the all-boys bunk," Anshel said.
Anshel, an eighth-grader at the San Francisco Friends School, does not identify with being a boy or a girl and doesn't like the pronoun he or she. Anshel is "gender queer" or "gender expansive" and speaks in the third person much of the time because the English language does not provide an ample vocabulary for people who feel non-gender binary.
Camp Tawonga, a Jewish camp headquartered in San Francisco but which draws campers from all over the Bay Area, is trying to address this gap. For the first time this summer, the camp, set just outside of Yosemite National Park, is offering "all-gender cabins" for the final session of summer. The cabins will be open to fifth- and sixth-graders, and seventh- and eighth-graders, with room for 12. The cabins will be open to anyone, but they likely mostly will appeal to children who are gender fluid. There are a handful of camps across the country that provide all-gender opportunities, including Camp Rainbow that offers weeklong summer sessions for 4- to 11-year-olds in El Cerrito and Campbell.
But as far camp director Rebecca Meyer knows, Camp Tawonga is the only overnight, all-gender camp in the state of California.
"We aren't the very first, but we are at the front end," Meyer said.
Tawonga's missions are equity, justice, and inclusion. "And offering housing options for campers is another way of doing that," she said.
Over the last five years, Meyer said there's been an increasing number of gender, non-binary, "they them" campers who don't fit into gender boxes of boy and girl. More and more campers, parents, and staff began advocating for the camp to adapt.
"We felt that this would help more people feel seen and be supported if we added more options," Meyer said. "We want to celebrate diversity, not just tolerate it."
So far, she said, the response has been very positive. Some parents have already written her really nice letters. There has been no blowback, she said. "We're fortunate to be in Bay Area, where people are open-minded and progressive," she said.
Anshel's mom, Julie Mammet, said what Tawonga is doing is amazing and she hopes it sets a national trend. "It's like we are evolving as humans. I think this is something that will we will see more," she said.
So, what does an all-gender cabin look like?
There's just a few key differences.
The most notable is that there is no nudity in the cabin. There will be privacy curtains for campers to change, and they can also change clothes in the bathroom or in their sleeping bag. The other is that they have access to any bathroom on the camp campus.
And then there might be some special program. Last year, Anshel attended a non-binary campfire, while there were simultaneous boy's and girl's campfires going on.
Other than that, the cabins should feel like every other cabin and camp and the campers should be able to enjoy all the traditional Tawonga past times: backpack trips, song sessions, tie-dye.
Anshel is excited for all of that: The teen can't wait to hike and swim and be outside. The only thing that will be better than last summer, Anshel predicted is the bunk arrangements: "I just feel better with people who are all genders."