It’s been nearly 10 years now since Ivy Hill began formulating a vision: “Imagine being a transgender or nonbinary person that has spent your whole life in a world not built for you, and then for four days, you get to be somewhere designed just for you.”
That vision eventually came to fruition as Camp GB, an annual retreat that serves as an opportunity for transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people across the South to come together for resources and fellowship. Hill, executive director of South Carolina-based transgender community organization Gender Benders, will be on hand this month for the ninth annual Camp GB, to be held virtually from Nov. 16 to 21.
Alongside co-founder Ethan Johnstone, Hill held the first iteration of Camp GB in 2013 in the basement of Hill’s parents’ house, where 20 campers made $250 stretch for the course of one weekend by eating ramen noodles and sleeping on borrowed air mattresses. Campers broke bread together, discussed their victories and challenges with transitioning and bonded over shared experiences.
The tiny budget presented some constraints, but it was apparent to Hill that, for those involved, the experience was necessary.
“A lot of what we needed was just each other,” Hill said.
There is no typical camper at Camp GB, as the camp is “intentionally intergenerational,” Hill said. Over the years, attendees’ ages have ranged from 12 to 75 years old. Prior to creating Camp GB, Gender Benders staff identified an enormous generational gap between trans youth and elders, with both age groups feeling disconnected from their communities. One of Hill’s goals is to help close that gap through the camp.
According to Hill, transgender and nonbinary people in the South also face a gap in resources, which the camp aims to address. Adequate health care and good jobs can be difficult to come by, making life in the American countryside even more challenging for transgender and nonbinary residents.
According to a 2019 report by the Movement Advancement Project, transgender rural residents are more likely to live in poverty than their cisgender neighbors and twice as likely to lack health insurance. Institutional transphobia and social stigma against those living with HIV mean lifesaving gender-affirming health care, supportive employers and safety from violence can be impossible to find outside urban areas.
Gender Benders program coordinator Wynston Cornelius, who lives in Union, South Carolina, understands the hazards and hardships rural trans residents face in the South.
“The resources for transgender people in rural areas are either obsolete or very, very slim,” he said. “Meaning, to access hormone-replacement therapy, some of us have to drive an hour or an hour and a half out of our way to get that affirming health care. If rural areas had just better access all-around, we wouldn’t even have to leave our hometowns.”
Also having grown up in South Carolina, Hill struggled to find quality and trans-friendly medical care in their area, too.
“There just weren’t any existing networks or resources in our area that were specifically for trans folks,” they said. “If you wanted to find a medical provider, you just had to find someone else who was trans who’d tell you about their doctor, or make a ton of phone calls until you found someone who would treat you with dignity and respect.”
That’s why Camp GB consists of much more than roasting marshmallows. In past years, Camp GB has offered HIV testing, hormone-replacement therapy (HRT) consults and treatment, legal name-change and gender-marker-change services, suicide prevention workshops and other health services — all for free. Campers have also brainstormed regional social justice projects and used microgrants from the Southern Equality Fund to make some of those ideas a reality.
Gender Benders also aims to combat isolation through connection with community. For the 500,000 transgender and nonbinary people living in the South, loneliness is a major issue. Lack of internet and broadband access mixed with the conservative cultures in many small towns have contributed to a sense of malaise among rural trans people that’s only been magnified in light of COVID-19.
For Cornelius, while the tangible services that Camp GB offers are critical, finding community among other transgender and nonbinary people is what truly makes the experience special.
“Fellowship and companionship are crucial things…” he said. “It feels so great to have this space that is just ours, just for [transgender and gender-nonconforming] folks to call ours.”
As the pandemic continues, the current challenge for Gender Benders is to maintain that sense of community through Zoom. Camp GB will be held online this year for the second time, with campers calling in for virtual campfires and reiki sessions. Still, trans health remains a priority; campers will conduct at-home HIV testing and carry out HRT consultations with trans-friendly doctors.
The retreat will also include a virtual pet show, regional breakout rooms and the traditional camp talent show.
“We asked ourselves a lot of questions when planning,” Hill said. “Like, how do we still create a space that feels like trans queer magic and not like a webinar?”
Beyond this year’s Camp GB, the Gender Benders team remains focused on forging community with transgender people in the rural South.
“We’re here, and we’re visible and we’re not going anywhere,” Cornelius said. “Because this is home.”