Summer camps for gender-whatever kids: Expanding or shrinking horizons?

Summer camp was a formative experience for me as a child. I’ll never forget the counselors who taught me archery, how to steer a canoe, and the right way to build a campfire. Swimming, singing, and giggling with new buddies, away from the watchful eyes of parents—all of it was magical, and crucial to my girlhood.

Perhaps most important was the chance to get to know kids from outside my own little neighborhood and school. Sharing adventures with youngsters from different parts of the country, with different backgrounds and ways of seeing the world, expanded my view of what was possible.

In the past several years, summer camps have been established for young (5-12 year old) children who define themselves (or who are defined by others) as “transgender.” Most of these camps also make a point of welcoming kids labeled as one (or more) of the following in publicity materials:

  • gender nonconforming
  • gender expansive
  • gender creative
  • gender variant
  • gender independent
  • gender fluid

I’m going to collapse this unwieldy bundle of terms into just….gender-whatever.

I doubt I’m unique in my baby boomer nostalgia: running around in scruffy shorts and a T-shirt, getting dirty, and playing a variety of games with both boys and girls, without the need for anyone to define me as gender-whatever. I mean, just exactly what has happened the last few decades, while we slumbered through the gender-fication of childhood?  Evidently a bunch of entrepreneurs found a new way to make money and influence kids by defining girls and boys who don’t “conform” to stereotypes as “expansive” or “creative.”

What does this even mean? There must surely be only a tiny number of school-age kids who “conform” to what—only wearing dresses and hair ribbons, and playing with Barbie Dolls if you’re a girl? No tree houses, Capture the Flag, or cavorting in the mud for you, young lady! Or only playing with trucks and dinosaurs if you’re a boy? No long hair, pink, or dress up for you, young man!

Now, “transgender” kids—we know what that means. Kids who are called by “preferred pronouns,” who are “affirmed” (the latest buzzword in activist/gender lingo) that they really are the opposite sex; the ones on blockers, the socially transitioned.

But the fact that they market these camps to the gender-whatever kids, not just trans kids? What do these activists think happens in regular summer camps for (ugh) “cis” kids? You don’t see ads for Camp Cis Kid.  Gender Uncreative Campfire Kids? Camp Gender Invariant?

We are talking about summer camp here, not school, where maybe the rules of behavior might be a tad more rigid–although public schools are anything but “gender conforming” anymore. (Do any public schools require girls to wear dresses or skirts these days? How many force girls into home economics, cooking, or typing class, with only boys allowed to take auto mechanics or shop? Answer: NONE.)

What would a “gender conforming” girl do in summer camp? Sit in a corner and sew doll clothes? As I recall from my own long-ago camp escapades, kids pretty much wore whatever and behaved however they liked in camp. It was kind of the point of it —to try out different stuff, do different activities. Have fun, you know, with all kinds of kids?

In recent years, “inclusion” has become the norm in classrooms and other children’s activities. For instance, you don’t stick the kids with autism, or Down syndrome, or a physical difference in a separate classroom or group. You include them with all the other youngsters. In fact, ensuring the “least restrictive environment” for all children is a matter of law in many places, because we want kids who are somehow different to be included and accepted by their peers. The goal is to encourage everyone to know and make friends with diverse others.

These camps are going in exactly the opposite direction by segregating kids in a separate summer camp based on their “gender expression.” Having an exclusive camp for young gender-whatever and “trans” kids reinforces the idea that they are different—so different, that some are encouraged in the notion that there is something wrong with their bodies that will have to be medically changed in the future. What does it actually do for these kids, to get the message that they don’t “conform” (to WHAT?) and need to go to camps only for kids like them? Conversely, how does it serve kids who do “conform” (to WHAT?) to attend different camps than their gender-whatever peers?

Let’s take a look at a couple of camps I’ve found for young gender-whatever and “trans” kids.

A cursory look at the promotional material and website for Camp Aranu’tiq shows…kids. Kids roasting marshmallows, climbing walls, canoeing, swimming. Kids doing gender-whatever stuff with other kids.

aranu'tiq home

The camp has garnered quite a lot of media attention, including from Katie Couric and Caitlyn Jenner. It was founded and is currently managed by Nick Teich, who identifies as a trans man and also works for the National Center for Transgender Equality.

In a story last year in the Huffington Post, Teich offered some insight into the reason for establishing Camp Aranu’tiq. It seems to mainly come down to bathrooms and bunkmates:

 Well, I started the camp for transgender youth in 2009. I myself am trans and I didn’t fully realize it until my early 20s, about ten years ago. Now that that the climate has changed and the Internet exists, more trans people are finding their identities and issues affirmed online and they, and their families, are discovering resources earlier. I went to camp as a kid and I really found it a formative experience for me.

As I got older, I started to think about kids who know they are transgender or gender-variant and how they could possibly go to camp. I found out from talking to some parents of trans youth that most camps were not equipped to take their children. Many camp administrators didn’t feel comfortable because they didn’t know where they could place the kids in terms of bunking them or which bathrooms they could use. And so the parents were told, “We can’t possibly do this, the child will have to go elsewhere.” Around that same time I was volunteering at a weeklong charity camp and when I told them that I was transitioning, they said I couldn’t come back for the good of the kids. So that was unfortunate. It was learning about trans youth’s lack of access to camp coupled with this incident of discrimination that motivated me to start Camp Aranu’tiq.

I sympathize with Teich’s experience of being let go from working at the charity camp. Trans-identified people should not be discriminated against in employment or housing. But I wonder about the bathroom/bunkmate issue. Do the “gender-whatever” kids just choose whichever bathroom and bunkmates they want? Do they get to switch around while they’re at camp? After all, they’re “variant” and maybe even “fluid.”

While Camp Aranu’tiq has been in operation for several years, Teich and others have raised money to purchase 115 acres of land in New Hampshire for a new camp facility. The site lists four individuals as “trustees” for the fundraising campaign (which they say is 65% towards its $3.6 million target), a veritable Who’s Who of the trans illuminati: Activist-author Jenny Boylan, WPATH president and activist Jamison Green,  founder of the first US pediatric gender clinic at Boston Children’s hospital Norman Spack, and PFLAG activists Marsha and trans-son Aiden Aizumi. (Some readers may recall a post of mine from last year about Ms. Aizumi and her Advocate profile, wherein she discussed her difficulty with accepting her then-daughter’s lesbianism, but came to embrace her child as a trans man.)

trustees for fundraising

A second camp for young kids is Camp Born This Way, which was featured on PBS affiliate Arizona Public Media in a 2014 story. Like Camp Aranu’tiq, the camp welcomes “gender variant” and “gender creative” kids. Were these children also “born this way?” Are gender variance, gender creativity, gender independence and all the rest of the gender-whatevers mutable traits, or does the camp’s moniker only refer to kids who think they are the opposite sex?

BTW fashion show

The fashion show photo reminds me of my own times playing dress-up as a little kid. I well remember putting on shows for my family. My kindergarten haute couture comprised princess gowns, cowboy chic, and mixed-gender attire. Odd that in the 1960s and 1970s, there was no special camp for those of us who were “gender creative.”

Lest anyone insist that gender-whatever kids are about much more than toys and clothes, a “Born This Way” parent says this in the news article:

 Kerrie had a baby boy five years ago. But growing up, her child wanted pink underwear for potty training and liked wearing sparkling dresses and high heels at childcare.

“We really just thought, ‘Our child is a creative spirit and loves this stuff, it’s bright, it’s fun,’ and we didn’t really think that much about it,” said Kerrie, who asked her last name not be used.

She and her husband would buy their child boy and girl clothes, trucks and dolls. The parents didn’t want to interfere with their kid’s current likes.

“As parents we thought, this is something that our child is interested in and there is no reason to discourage it,” Kerrie said. “Around the time that our child was three and a half or four years old, he started asking for clothes, like dresses, that he could wear to school, wanted to wear them every day. He wanted to be called a girl, he’d always say, ‘I want to grow up and become a mama and have my own babies.‘”

The group has helped clear many of Kerrie and her husband’s doubts and concerns.

“Our biggest value as parents is to raise a child who is confident, who is intelligent, who is kind in the world,” Kerrie said. “We raise our child as a girl, she goes by a new new name, she likes to be called a girl, she likes to have long hair, to wear dresses. In talking to people and to our family, I always say, ‘Our child is the same child she’s always been,’ we just understand who she is.”

Born this way? Either way, the camp counselors will be there to set things straight:

At camp, adults speak about concerns and successes, kids participate in activities seen at any other summer camp. And volunteers, many of whom are transgender adults, are there to advise the parents, and to ensure families that they can overcome any challenge.