Evolving Gender Consciousness in New Culture Camps

By Oblio Stroyman

Published in Communities Magazine  issue #162, “Gender Issues in Community.” March 2014.

It’s the year 2000 and I am 24 years old, sitting wide-eyed and wide-open in a slightly musty and incredibly magical “women’s tent.” It is “gender circle” time at my first Network for a New Culture’s (NFNC) Summer Camp West and we have finished our “check-ins.”

“Now we’re going to play the dating game,” the sparkly-eyed facilitator instructs. “The women will write on slips of paper to request dates with the men and change things up!”

There is chatter and excitement in the tent, and a woman quietly speaks up, asking “what if” she wants to request a date with another woman. The energy in the tent tangibly shifts; the air feels a bit heavier, a bit mustier. I never hear her request addressed directly. While I am pretty sure she is not told no, being told “you are at choice” does not feel like the same support the majority of the women are getting around asking the men out. I never will find out if she asks for a date with another woman. I’ll never feel comfortable.

I spent my first two years with NFNC as a camper, boldly going where no Oblio had gone before. I wholeheartedly threw myself into the NFNC experience, choosing to live with 100ish relative strangers for 14 days at a time deep in the woods, without cell phone signal, without wi-fi, doing personal growth and community-building work. I found a home in NFNC. For the first time I was surrounded by people who shared and furthered my understanding of polyamory, sex positivity, nonviolence, eco-consciousness, and transparent, authentic, respectful nonviolent communication.

It was through this experience that I recognized the power in community, in collective intention and accountability, in shared resources, vision, and values. I felt healthier in this community than I had ever felt in the nuclear style living situation I was enculturated into. With my head in the clouds, the niggling pain I felt over experiences like the one in the women’s tent seemed transient—more like the nagging of a thorn stuck in the bottom of my foot, a foot that was too involved in its joyous dance to stop and take stock.

Over time, the smallest of thorns unaddressed work their way into debilitating agony. In 2000 and 2001, I didn’t have the skills to take the thorn out myself, nor the language to ask my community for help, I just knew I didn’t feel good. After a nine-year break, a B.S. in Sociology and Women and Gender Studies and M.Ed. in Couples and Family Therapy, I developed an understanding, a language, and sense of embodiment to wrap around what did not fit for me in this New Culture space: the community’s old culture relationship to gender norms and sexuality.

Since this realization, I have run the gamut of emotions regarding the ways the community as a whole reinforces, challenges, rewards, and punishes adhesion to gender and sexual norms. I have seen this in a number of areas including; heterocentrism, gendered space allocation, gender identity, and LGBTQ inclusivity, to name a few.

So why do I return? Every time I feel decimated and torn down by gender/sexual ignorance in NFNC, I find myself rebuilt by the community’s capacity for compassion and willingness to expand its consciousness. I understand we are all working together to create New Culture, of which my pain, process, and showing up is an integral part. Isn’t this what community-building truly is?

This story started in 2000 in the women’s tent, a “sacred space” for women to gather and discuss what was present for them in a “safe container.” This was a protected space, set up for the duration of camp to be used by women at will, a container blessed with altars and decorations. I noticed right away that there was no space dedicated for the men except when a common space was off limits at the designated gender circle times. When I shared that I did not feel that the community demonstrated that it valued men’s space, I was told that “it is up to the men to make that happen.” At the time I did not challenge that answer, though now I would say it is up to the community, not male-identified people alone, to show that it values “men’s space” equally.

A decade later this dilemma still exists at Summer Camp West. While there is no longer a women’s tent, it was not until 2013 that the men at this camp were offered a comfortable, private meeting place during gender circle time, and this was because I chose where the gender circles took place. The women were asked to meet in “the lounge” where the men had met previously, an outside living room in “downtown” summer camp, between the kitchen and showers. The feedback was that it was “too loud, too public, too hard to make a container, too hard to focus.” This was a step up from where the men had met the previous year, in the beautiful-but-damp, dark, and chair-less garden. Often times we have to experience some discomfort to recognize the extent of our privilege; this year it was the women’s turn.

In the 2000 and 2001 women’s gender circles, I was struck by the way the bulk of the conversation focused on romantic relationships with men and/or negotiating how to feel comfortable sharing “their” men. I left those years feeling that the gender circles taught me a lot about the relationships women were in, but not so much about who the women were as individuals. As a female-bodied person I was not invited to sit in the men’s circle, though a male lover of mine shared that he felt disappointed by his experience that the men kept a physical distance from one another, did not share the space in a way that felt like everyone was heard, and did not have a designated space that stayed sacred to the men during camp. He shared that he did not feel closer to the men at camp after these gender circles and was uncertain what to do, so he didn’t attend any more. He never returned to camp and I never returned to the women’s circle.

Since then I have heard from women who continue to attend the West Coast women’s circles that the conversation has not changed much. From the men I have heard that their circles have changed for the better year after year, increasing physical and emotional intimacy and improving communication skills to include everyone in the circle.

In 2010 when I returned to NFNC Summer Camp West, I was delighted to see that in addition to men’s and women’s gender circles, a third “gender fluid” group had been established the year before. The existence of the group and the potential awareness it represented was an oasis and an invitation for me at camp. I ended up co-facilitating the group with the person who had started it, and the three-hour discussion time was abundantly filled with only six attendees. It became strikingly apparent that there were OTHER people who did not feel at home in the gender normative environment that had always existed, and in this I found my calling at NFNC. I joined the NFNC Summer Camp West organizing team (SCAMP) for the following year to become an unrelenting voice for the change I wanted to see.

I could feel my heart rate increasing before it was my turn to speak. The only thing I was certain of stepping into the 2010 debrief of summer camp was that it was a “make it or break it” moment for me and NFNC. As the only genderqueer/queer identified person on the Summer Camp West organizing team, I felt very passionate and a little nervous to state my feedback and make my proposal, imagining that many would not understand the gravity of what I was sharing. I took a deep breath in, and I came out. I shared that I felt that gender was at the foundation of all the healing work we were doing, that in order to truly do the work on a core level we needed to address gender and sexuality directly, and I proposed that gender be one of the early and primary camp workshops.

Deep breath back in and holding. The response was not only yes, but an enthusiastic, rapid-fire cascade of support! Deeply moved, I recognized that a powerful aspect of NFNC is that it is also wrought with the challenges and limitations of the “default” world, it was different in that it is a community open to owning and examining growth edges.

Running with the momentum into 2011, I excitedly invited my dear friend, the Dean of Students and Director of LGBTQ Services from the University of Oregon, Chicora Martin Ph.D., to open the gender discussion at the West Coast camp. She and I worked together to shape a presentation that would challenge and support the community. We raised consciousness regarding sex, gender identity, sexual identity, and LGBTQ identities. We offered experiential exercises to demonstrate the concept of gender norms as a social construction, encouraging the community to think meaningfully way about how they may want to create NFNC tenets around gender.

I expected some people to be inspired, some people to be challenged, and some people to be completely clueless as to why this topic mattered. Many people met my expectations, though I was particularly intrigued by the reactions I did not anticipate. When it came time to move into gender circles, after the presentation, many campers were frustrated and confused about which one to attend. They began questioning: “Are these biological sex circles or gender circles?” They began processing what it would mean to choose to participate in any one of these segregated circles. Chaos ensued.

“All of the people with penises are invited to attend the men’s circle,” the leader of the men’s circle stepped up and asserted. “Do you mean attached penises? “I inquired before the community “Are trans men who have not had bottom surgery welcome?”

The men’s facilitator did not seem enthusiastic to have that discussion on the spot, and he was even less prepared than I to figure it all out in the five minutes before lunch. The participants were again invited to self-select and continue to dialogue about the challenges with others, as we were to break for lunch. As if on cue, a beloved community leader entered the circle, enthusiastically announcing that the next day would be “Sadie Hawkins Day, where the women (female-bodied people?) instigated connection with the men (male-bodied people?), who were to await to be approached.

My heart and mind imploded. A couple of my trusted confidants just held me while I sobbed in anger and frustration. I spoke in an unfiltered stream of consciousness: “Can this community change? Are they willing to? Are they even listening? Am I in the wrong place?” I could see that so much work in this area was needed, and I was uncertain if I was the one to hold it for them when I could be so personally affected.

I have since come to believe that it is because I am so personally affected that I am the perfect one to hold space for the community. To witness me, a beloved community member, hurt by the ideas and behaviors takes the topic from conceptual to personal, semantic to humanistic. The next morning the man who had made the announcement asked to sit with me at breakfast, sharing that he realized that he had perpetuated the very thing we were working so hard to deconstruct. He spoke in the morning circle, humbly shifting his invitation to ask the extroverts to step back that day, encouraging the introverts to take a risk and instigate connection with others. He apologized publicly and the experiment was a success. In 2011 the Summer Camp West “gender fluid” circle was twice as big as the year before.

Between 2011 and 2012, I received a number of personal correspondences regarding the way that people were affected by the gender presentation, “coming out” about the alternative unexpressed gender and sexual identities of individuals in the community or in those they loved. This included a personal story from a set of parents who shared with the community the triumphs and challenges in supporting a gender-non-conforming child. Their pain and triumph became the pain and triumph of the community. Again I felt profoundly moved and resolved to continue to spearhead the topic of gender and sexuality in NFNC. Through fully showing up and being out and open, an environment was starting to take shape where others were able to come out. Very Harvey Milk.

In 2012, I continued to have the full support of the West Coast SCAMPS, and I worked with behavioral specialist and educator Shanya Luthier from Portland, Oregon to shape a presentation that took the work to the next level while still including new campers. We raised the consciousness of the community regarding the rewards and punishments for “passing” and adhering to gender/sexual norms. Through experimental exercises Shanya offered the community the opportunity to assess the ways unconscious biases affect views of self, views of others, and all interpersonal interactions. This “gender fluid” circle once again grew in size, though the discussion that year helped me realize that I was selling myself, and other members of the community, short. I realized it was time to invite the group to step into the next level of consciousness.

I do not identify as “gender fluid,” shifting from one gender to the other as inspired, but rather as “genderqueer,” something entirely different and non-binary. Once I was able to identify this, develop a language, and assert this, other campers came out to me as feeling similarly. Before the 2013 camp, I attended Gender Odyssey, a Seattle conference for trans and gender non-conforming people. For the first time I was immersed in a New Culture specific to gender and sexuality. Not only did I not have to advocate and educate people regarding my identity, I was clearly perceived and desired for who I am. Sometimes I do not realize how tense my muscles are until I release, and as I was able to release for even a moment into the Gender Odyssey community, I was gifted with clarity about how to hold NFNC in 2013.

“Hello my name is Oblio and this is Shadow, and we will be your hosts through the topics of gender and sexuality today. Let’s start with assumptions, and let’s start with us. The most dangerous assumptions are the ones unspoken, so what do you think you know about Shadow and me regarding our gender and sexuality?” I began.

“Check Your Junk at the Door: Exploring and Expanding Concepts of Sex and Gender Identity” was my playful, personal, and heartfelt offering to Summer Camp West in 2013. I walked into this workshop feeling more supported by the community than ever as they had requested that I be the primary presenter, showing me that that they appreciated the challenges I posed to their paradigms. The presenters for the other workshops jumped on board and took the initiative to coordinate with me before camp to incorporate the topic of gender and sexual diversity as threads that ran through their presentations. At the very least they were using same-sex and non-gendered examples in their work, and in that they watered the seeds of change.

“Do you have assumptions about my sex? My gender? Do you assume I was always the sex you perceive me as? Do you have assumptions about how we would interact sexually? Do you have assumptions about my sexuality? Do you have questions about yours in relation to me?” I inquired.

I relaxed into my trust of myself first and foremost, and trust of the community’s willingness to be kind while pushing their edges. It became clear that the best way to present to them was to be present with them. I shared my knowledge and personal experience from the heart, opened non-shaming and inviting dialogue with the community, and took them through experiential exercises in which we all looked one another in the eye and “came out” about our assumptions, the way these affect our abilities to connect, working on letting them go. In this space we all became more deeply transparent with one another. This year I introduced the “trans*” group in place of the “gender fluid” group. It was open to trans-identified and gender-non-conforming people by self-identification, including gender fluid and questioning people. It was the largest of the three gender circles.

“They are lovely and worth it, they are just very gender normative and heterocentric. It is not intentional, they just don’t know what they don’t know. We all have our blinders, and they are patient with mine.” It is 2011 and I am talking with one of my partners, a gay man who is considering Summer Camp West for 2012.

“It is hard to be in the Summer Camp environment as a queer person for many reasons, and I still believe it is really important. I am already seeing change,” I continue.

He chooses to attend in 2012 and 2013 for his own reasons, and is affected by the community’s biases in ways he did and did not expect. As a gay man he is certainly accustomed to the dangers, prejudices, judgments, and triumphs involved in being who he is daily. What is different about NFNC is that he lives in the woods for 10 days immersed in a group primarily comprised of people still ignorant about how their unconscious gender/sexual privilege affects him personally, developing bittersweet heartfelt connections and doing deep personal work.

“I am not gay but let’s have lunch. I am not gay but I feel attracted to you. I am not gay but let’s be sensual…I am not gay but…I am not gay but…” His experience of being able to freely relate from a heartfelt space, especially with male-bodied campers, is deeply affected by these ideas and attitudes. In 2013 he comes back as a SCAMP, and what seems clear to us both is that as long as the pros outweigh the cons we will continue to stay engaged as leaders in the community.

“Are there showers with a curtain?,” my transgendered partner asks me concerned. “Have there been other transgendered people who have attended, and how were they treated? Will they let me in the men’s circle? Will they be open to me if they do? “

I wish I could allay his fears, but the best I can do is share that I believe Summer Camp West will hear and help with his concerns, though he will have to advocate for them. He is already sharing heartfelt connections with many NFNC community members and the road is less bumpy than 10 years ago. I imagine his journey, and NFNC’s journey, will be wrought with its own unique triumphs and challenges that we cannot anticipate. I believe that all will be furthered through growing pains.

In NFNC currently, we are having the discussions about the changing role of gender circles, and ways we can create an inclusive environment that draws in people across the gender and sexuality spectrum. No longer do I hear the ignorant hands-off remark, “We are open, they just aren’t attending.”

With all of the growth still needed regarding gender/sexuality in the NFNC community, I continue to be soulfully grateful that I, my partner, and other gender/sexual-non-conforming folks are able to see through what is painful in the community to the beauty that also exists. I am grateful for our individual decisions to expend the energy and emotional fortitude it requires organize, teach, model, mentor, and be students in the community. With all of the growth still happening within my partners, myself, other LGBTQ and gender-non-conforming folks, I continue to be soulfully grateful to NFNC’s commitment and willingness to welcome us as teachers, students, and cherished community members. I believe we are all owning that as a community we are still at the beginning of an ever expanding gender/sexual consciousness and are actively choosing to walk willingly hand in hand into this social experiment.

Oblio Z. Stroyman is a queer-identified, gender-queer, trans-masculine former relational therapist turned Ecstatic Dance DJ who lives in Oregon’s Eugene/Springfield community. They are an administrator for Trans*Ponder, the largest Gender Diverse support group in Lane County, and are one of the members of TEAS (Transgender Education and Awareness Services) that provides trainings to the local agencies in the Eugene/Springfield area.

They have always been passionate about community and social trends, focusing undergraduate and graduate studies on family, gender, and sexuality. They have been connected to the Network for a New Culture community (www.nfnc.org) since 2000, participating as an organizer since 2010, helping to bring gender to the forefront of New Culture dialogs. They also offers regular trainings that focus on raising awareness in professional organizations regarding polyamory, gender, LGBTQI concerns, and community. Oblio strives to weave together strengths from their communities into group processes that cultivate increased intimacy, depth, learning, and social change.