It’s the most wonderful time of the year — Girl Scout cookie season, and as a first year leader, I’ve been thrilled to watch my kindergarten and first grade Daisies annihilate their goals.
At first, I kept things modest: participate and sell one box, I said, and I’ll get you a fun patch to put on the back of your vest. I was the kid who never earned any of those rad Council incentives, even the easy ones like a pencil topper or a hair clip, and I knew how much of my Daisies’ successes rested on the willingness of their parents to sling Samoas.
But the girls plowed right through that goal. And they quickly sold enough boxes to cover the money I’d spent starting up a troop — buying art supplies, paying for a CPR course, and purchasing badges shaped like daisy petals which symbolized the values of the Girl Scout law. When they sold 90 boxes each, I promised them, we could all go to Build-a-bear and have a Girl Scout themed party there. They’ve flown past that marker, too. At the beginning of sales, I promised — not really believing these five- and six-year-olds would achieve this — that they could throw a pie in my face if they sold 125 boxes each, the number our troop needs to meet to get a bigger slice of cookie profits.
Right now, with just weeks left in the first phase of our sale, we’re only a few dozen boxes away. “We’re going to go on so many adventures!” I promise them. “Camping and baseball games! We’re going to build robots and learn about space! Badges! There will be so many badges!”
At meetings, they grin wickedly at me. “You’re going to get a pie in the face.”
If you’d asked me ten years ago if I would have ever led a Girl Scout troop, I would have laughed at you.
For one thing, then, I was still painfully shy, a curse that had overshadowed my public life since my own Brownie days. The first time I ever went to Girl Scout camp at age nine, I wet my pants rather than ask an activity leader for a bathroom. When I shakily admitted this to my tent mates, surreptitiously changing behind my rickety cot, they curled their lips. “Ew, that’s gross,” they said. I was almost too afraid to tell my counselors, and relieved when one washed my clothes for me — discreetly and without judgment — and returned them, neatly folded, before the one-week session was over.
This was the beginning of the era of my public speaking anxiety, too. Though I’d once been game for school plays, now I’d get up on stage and my voice would just squeak out to nothing. My hands would sweat and shake. This happened in front of audiences large and small. It felt like a bone deep, visceral response, almost instinctive. I somehow muddled through teaching English classes in graduate school, but the thought of volunteering — without pay! — to get up and speak in front of seventeen children in the community room of a public library two times a month? That would have been a nightmare for me, back then.
What’s more, my own Girl Scout experiences were mixed. I’d always been excited by the idea of Girl Scouts — the sashes and the badges, the mythology and history, camping and cook-outs and knots and knives. But in practice, my troops mostly focused on arts and crafts. We rarely camped. We planted flowers in the local park, that perennial Girl Scout favorite, and marched in a parade or two, but my sash — often worn backwards, falling off my shoulder — was sad and largely bare except for the few snack, babysitting, and fashion patches the leaders’ daughters were eager to earn.
Camp, though? Camp was another matter entirely.
I spent four summers on campership at Camp Lou Henry Hoover in Northern New Jersey. I was never one of the kids who spent the entire six week session there, instead only attending for a week, maybe two. But I envied those kids, with their tight-knit friendships, their encyclopedic knowledge of camp songs, and their close relationships with counselors — who, I was sure, were the coolest people in the word.
The counselors went by camp names; their real names were a closely guarded secret. Instead, they went by names like Oops and Lolly and Duckie and Pony and Dan and I admired them and I lusted after them, in a way I couldn’t articulate then, at ten or eleven.
They introduced us to feminism. One year, we did a performance of “I Am Woman,” and I can still sing all the words, to this day. They protected us. On a camp field trip to the Sussex County Fair, an anti-abortion group handed us little plastic babies with notes of propaganda tied to their legs. “They’re kids,” one of the counselors — Dan, maybe — said to them with an anger and force that impressed me. She took the cards off and handed us back the toys. “It’s inappropriate that you’re talking to them about this.”
Not that camp was a total safe haven of appropriateness. On the sandy banks of the lake one summer, while we wore our color coded bathing caps (mine, red, always, indicating the weakest group of swimmers), an older camper read to us from Judy Blume’s Forever, introducing the idea to me that sex should be safe and consensual and maybe even pleasant. These moments — camp moments — would ripple out into the rest of my life.
The summer before seventh grade was especially memorable. I changed my look that summer — cut off all my hair, started wearing men’s shorts and knock-off Doc Martens and a bicycle chain around my neck. In a lot of ways, my fashion rebellion was typical for 1997. But it was new for me. I’d had a hard handful of years. My dad, who was my best friend, had died when I was eight, and though I’d initially muddled through an unhappy home life with childish optimism, I was teased mercilessly in sixth grade and had become essentially friendless. I’d dropped out of Girl Scouts that year after a bunch of troops merged and ours was suddenly filled with girls who were, already, unkind to me at school. Puberty had started, and dysphoria with it. I decided I needed to be hard.
This set me apart at school, but not at camp. At camp, it made me interesting. That year, I was invited to share a tent with cool punk girls who were a few years older, on the cusp of graduating from their camp experiences and becoming counselors themselves. It was the last week of August, and it was magical. We talked about riot grrrl bands and sex and queerness, and it was the first time, and the first place, that queerness was okay. We were funky and political. We went on long hikes and talked in hushed voices. Everyone wore childish jewelry, dyed hair, oversized clothes. One of my tentmates hung a plastic piggy bank from the wooden tent supports. “Death to pigs,” she’d written on it.
“We hate cops,” she said. “I hope that’s okay.”
It was a position I’d never even considered.
My own Girl Scout experiences in some way exemplify a political split in the organization that continues to this day. On the one hand, there are troops that embrace suburban values. They salute the flag at the start of every meeting and do loads of volunteer work. They’re more likely to teach their Girl Scouts about civic duty and homemaking skills than environmental stewardship or outdoor survival. Now, bear in mind that there’s nothing wrong with civic duty or homemaking skills. In fact, Girl Scout programming is explicitly meant to be girl-led, where the Girl Scouts choose their path and how to pursue it, mostly only facilitated by friendly and helpful leaders. But there is a vein of undeniable authoritarianism in certain types of Girl Scout troops.
I see it online, in various Facebook groups meant for Girl Scout leaders, where they complain about children who act out, where they require dues contrary to Council guidelines meant to encourage low-income children to join, where they make cookie sales obligatory rather than simply encouraged, where they tell their Girl Scouts that they have to wear an American flag patch and bring their Daisies to police stations for the “respect authority” petal. They never, ever tell their girls that they can substitute any word for “God” in the Girl Scout Promise. The idea, they’ll say, brings them to tears.
On the birthday of Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low, some of these leaders give their Girl Scouts strands of fake pearls, because Juliette Gordon Low sold her own strand of pearls that had been given to her on her by her husband on her wedding day to fund the organization early on. Leaders often emphasize that these pearls were “beloved.” They know that Juliette called the Girl Scouts her “pearls,” but perhaps they don’t realize that, by this time she sold her pearls, her husband was long dead. He was abusive from the early days of their marriage. They’d been separated for years already, and he’d given the entirety of his estate to his mistress rather than Juliette. Still, she funded the organization with her own money, paying employees out of pocket. The point of the story of Juliette and her pearls always seemed to me to be that the pearls themselves weren’t precious at all — but that to Juliette, her girls were.
When people complain that Girl Scout troops don’t do anything other than sewing and crafts, it’s often these troops that they mean. And I don’t doubt that many Girl Scouts have experienced this brand of the organization. I did, too, after all. Many bemoan the fact that Girl Scouts of the USA is not more like Boy Scouts of America, which, despite recent controversies, has firmer religious and political requirements and a more explicit outdoor programming focus. They don’t like that Girl Scouts is leadership focused and girl-led; they want to go family camping like they do in Cub Scouts — never mind that this practice introduces adults who have not been vetted or background checked around vulnerable children and in an environment where, already, there is a history of abuse.
They’re often surprised to hear about my experiences at Camp Hoover. They don’t know that Girl Scouts camp in tents in New Jersey bear country, and that they have for decades. They didn’t realize that girls are taught to build a fire and cook over it, that they might learn archery or knot skills or go on a two-week hike of the Appalachian Trail, as my camp friends did. Yes, we also learned to sew sit-upons and make butter in film canisters and sang songs about real Canadian historical princesses. As Girl Scouts, at camp, we did all of these things— all while in an environment that welcomed atheists and queer folks, as leaders and Girl Scouts both, way back in the 90s.
There’s another reason it might seem strange that I’m a Girl Scout leader. I’m not, strictly speaking, a girl.
I came out at 33 as non-binary. Three years later, I consider myself on the trans spectrum — trans masculine, specifically. I use they/them pronouns and have had a shaky history with femininity, generally. Had it been presented as an option to me as a child, I probably would have preferred to join Cub Scouts. They did cool boy things, you see, and my Girl Scout troop at the time mostly made GORP. Having a child assigned female at birth — one who embraces her gender joyfully and freely and without hesitation — has in some ways challenged my own gender feelings. Did I have the skills to teach her how to do her hair, or paint her nails? Would it be awful to be asked to play Pretty Pretty Princess? The truth is, I quickly found that parenthood mellowed and contextualized my own ambivalence around feminine things. They’re not mine — they’re hers. But she’s wonderful, and so I’ll help her embrace that side of herself, and every side of herself, even if it isn’t personally appealing.
Turns out Pretty Pretty Princess is pretty dang fun. And so is exploring the world together however it’s gendered. We do science experiments and I cheer her on in karate and horseback riding. I let her lead the way, and do my hardest to enable her to reach her full potential. And I do the same for every child in my troop.
I wouldn’t be a troop leader if it weren’t for therapy. I wouldn’t be a troop leader if I hadn’t gotten my ADHD treated, or discovered my gender, or beaten my anxiety, or done EMDR.
And I wouldn’t be a troop leader if it weren’t for a friend I’ll call Pea.
We shared a unit my second year of camp, but weren’t particularly friendly. In my third — my punk rock Girl Scout summer — they stayed at the other end of camp, but my tent mates assured me that Pea was awesome. They were the same age as a me, with a round, kind face and a sort of openness I found surprising. I was painfully shy, unpopular at school. I was frequently dissociative while they seemed to easily inhabit their body in a way I admired.
One day, while we hiked with our friends to find an old, half-destroyed house way out in the woods, I found myself walking with Pea. They confided that this experience — being punk, being weird — was a new experience for them.
“I have a lot of friends at school,” they said, when I said I mostly spent my time alone. “But that’s why I can never admit to anyone there that I’m not really a girl.”
I didn’t know what Pea was, didn’t know how to name it. Maybe they didn’t then, either. But now I know that Pea was the first trans person I ever met. I stayed in touch with a few of my camp friends over the years, but lost track of Pea — and before I came out, I couldn’t find a way to admit to our mutual friends why I thought of Pea often. I heard rumors that Pea had a new name — a masculine name — and a new way of presenting themselves, which made my occasional internet searches even more frantic and even less fruitful. I didn’t learn Pea’s new name until last summer, when their face — looking just like I remembered it, in a photo taken that same summer, the summer before seventh grade — popped up on a mutual friend’s Instagram feed. The post was months old by that point already. And my friend was sharing the sad news: her old camp friend Pea had passed away.
I spent the next few weeks in mourning, reading everything I could about Pea online. It felt strange and a little nosy. After all, in a way, we’d barely known one another. But they had been important to me. They’d shown me something new, something I shared with them but couldn’t admit. In their blogs and social media accounts, I learned that Pea was a generous person beyond our short tenure of friendship, a cyclist who vowed to always be the kindest person on the track. They revealed over time that they’d started to come to peace with their non-binary gender presentation. One thing they cited was their experiences at camp. “I’ve always known I wasn’t a girl,” they said, “but I was always proud to be a Girl Scout.”
I knew, then, with a sudden ferocity, that I had to go back to Hoover, to visit this place that had been so influential on me. I had to bring my spouse and my five-year-old daughter. She’d grown-up having camp songs sung to her as lullabies, and now, I remembered, with vividness, Pea’s face as she sung along at the last night campfire to my favorite song, one written by a New Jersey Girl Scout camp counselor in the 1970s, “On the Loose.”
Have you ever seen the sunrise turn the sky completely red?
Have you slept beneath the moon and stars with a pine bough for your head?
Have you sat and talked with friends, though a word was never said?
Then you’re like me and you’ve been on the loose.
Pea and I are far from the only trans or non-binary Girl Scouts. In fact, Girl Scouts USA has an explicit policy of acceptance of trans girls. One Council made the news a few years back for turning down a large monetary donation that contained the stipulation that it not be used to help trans girls. That Council clapped back: Girl Scouts is for all girls.
In the wake of the news that Boy Scouts of America would now accept girls, Girl Scouts USA has been firm that they would not be taking boys. They are an organization centered on empowering girls specifically. And theoretically, this goes for trans boys, too — ideally, Girl Scouts USA recommends a gentle and supportive transition to other scouting organizations for male-identified children. But in practice, trans boys are often allowed to remain present in their troops and at summer camp, as are non-binary children. The safety of all children must be considered, and that includes the safety of the transgender kids who are particularly at risk for social isolation, suicide, and bullying. Because they may not be able to find a scouting organization that welcomes them, and because they have likely made important and supportive friendships in Girl Scouts, many Councils make the decision to let them remain with their troops.
Camp Hoover wasn’t only the first place I encountered another trans person, after all. It was the first place I encountered another trans person who was open and out about it — and openly embraced by their friends.
My family and I went back to Hoover, and were charmed by it, just like I was in the 90s. It’s not a fancy place. It’s a little shabby and well-worn. But you can feel the love on those paths, in those tents. We sang campfire songs and went swimming on the beach — no bathing caps needed these days! — and roasted marshmallows. I watched my daughter’s eyes light up with admiration for the counselors, just like mine had, years before. One day during archery, a counselor asked my daughter if she was a Daisy yet. That lodged a seed in my brain: I had to go home and find her a troop.
I put feelers out online, but there was no Daisy troop in my town. There had almost been one, a year before, but the leader had pulled out last minute, leaving 20 would-be-daisies stranded. “Would you want to lead?” the service unit manager asked me. I had no idea what I was getting into; it’s possible that if I understood the labor involved, I wouldn’t have. A joke online is that leading a Girl Scout troop takes one hour per week — per girl. We have seventeen Daisies right now, and the troop just keeps on growing.
When I was contemplating the decision, complaining about unpaid labor and my general disdain for volunteerism, my spouse rolled his eyes at me. “You need to be the Girl Scout you want to see in the world,” he said, and I thought of Pea.
“I’ve always known I wasn’t a girl, but I was always proud to be a Girl Scout.”
I think it’s no mistake that my most passionate parent volunteers, including my co-leader, spent time at various Girl Scout camps around the east coast. It’s a place that inspires passion about Girl Scouting as a practice. So in my troop, I’ve tried to bring the best of camp to my kids. We sing songs that are loud and gross and feminist and funny. We do crafts, sure, and play games. We talk about consent and sexism and inclusion. We visit places like the roller derby and do astronomy workshops and go ice skating and make wishes on wishing bridges at the local Girl Scout camp. We’re looking forward to warmer weather, so we can go outside and run our sillies off. Our kids do a lot of running and wrestling. They can be loud and passionate and challenging. One girl spent the first few weeks complaining about stomach aches.
“Where’s my mom? My stomach hurts,” she’d say over and over again. When she finally stayed for a whole meeting, I felt triumphant. At the end, after we did our closing circle, singing “Make New Friends,” and sending a squeeze around their linked hands, she came over and whispered in my ear: “I’m so happy I’m a Girl Scout.”
Some of my Daisies will grow up to be women, and I hope they grow up to be amazing women — strong and passionate and fully able to follow their own dreams. Some of my Daisies will be like me and Pea and grow up to be something else, someone else. They deserve a leader who will make them feel safe and empowered, too. I hope I can honor the potential in all my kids — each and every one.
In January, a movie debuted on Amazon Prime called Troop Zero. Starring Allison Janey and Viola Davis, and set in the 1970s, it tells the story of a strange little girl named Christmas whose mother has died. She loves space, and tries to talk to her dead mother in the stars, and wants to win a contest to have her voice recorded on the Voyager Golden Record. In order to do so, she needs to join a scout troop. This film is explicitly not about Girl Scouts — the scouts here are called Birdie Scouts. But unlike the bland Smart Cookies, a film released on the Hallmark Channel in honor of GSUSA’s hundredth anniversary, it feels like a film that conveys the spirit of the Girl Scouts I know — a place where outsiders can find friendship and community.
There’s even a gender non-conforming scout, assigned male at birth, who loves fashion and David Bowie. Joseph is the only Birdie Scout in his troop who wears a uniform skirt, and fellow troop members don’t even mention it, or question whether this scout belongs there. Joseph is their troop member. All troop members belong.
The grown-ups in the film curse and smoke and occasionally make mistakes. There’s a mean, perfectionistic leader of another, more successful troop who seems generally overwhelmed by her charges and at a loss for how to nurture them. Christmas and her trauma are at the middle of all of this, and throughout the film she’s teased by this other troop for wetting her pants. And while I don’t want to spoil the ending — which had both me and my daughter sobbing — I will say that it doesn’t resolve this problem magically like a weaker film might. Instead it shows her troop members embracing her in solidarity.
Troop Zero was heavily advertised on Facebook to troop leaders. Many of us watched it in the first few days after release. And the debates on the film’s merits were fierce. Was this really a movie that leaders were supposed to show their Girl Scouts? Was it even appropriate for children? After all, some of the parents drink, smoke, curse, and even have criminal records. Worse, some leaders said, it doesn’t show values consistent with the Girl Scout law. The little girl is weird and gross and socially inappropriate. She wets her pants, one leader said in disgust. And no one even tells her it’s wrong.
Of course, not every leader agreed. Many — myself included — thought it was a powerful piece of art, meant to show how you can find community after trauma, and how you can potentially do that through scouting. Call it Birdie Scouts or Girl Scouts, but the lesson is the same: there’s a place for you in our troop.
I think of my own experiences at Girl Scout camp — how I was so afraid to raise my hand that I made the same mistake, at around the same age, and under similar conditions of trauma. I think about the way the other girls in my tent that year sneered at me and told me I was weird.
Then I think about the counselor who didn’t care, and, more, I think about the friends I made in the years that followed, anyway. Those Girl Scouts embraced weirdos like me and Pea, and they showed me that you could be a sister to every Girl Scout even if you weren’t, strictly speaking, a sister yourself.
And I know what kind of leader I want to be.