Summer Camp, Transformed

Summer camps for Trans kids combine safe space with fun.


Courtesy of Camp Aranu'tiq

In the last column I wrote for Curve, I discussed the importance of family acceptance for LGBT people, and linked the lack of this to serious societal and psychological ramifications. It’s a topic very much on my mind these days as I bear witness to, and participate as an advocate and ally in, the amazing transgender civil rights movement happening today.


Most adult gay men and lesbians remember growing up wishing for more positive mirroring of our emerging identities. With queer and trans youth coming out at ever-younger ages, the stakes have never been higher to support and protect our most vulnerable community members.


While legislative changes and social services support are crucial, it is equally important for LGBT kids simply to have normative childhood experiences. Thus the increase in organized events for LGBT youth across the country, including queer proms, open mic nights, and gatherings of gamers. 


However, the most wondrous, significant, and positive social change I’ve seen yet emerge from and for our community has to do with summer camp. Yes, summer camp. Specifically, summer camps established for young trans and gender creative kids, to allow participation in an ordinary childhood experience without worrying about bullying or other abuses caused by societal fear, ignorance and prejudice.


And primarily, these camps are being founded by the heterosexually identified parents of trans kids, who understand that social change will only come through fearless, highly organized, parental advocacy.


Bay Area Rainbow Day Camp, launching next summer, is the visionary project of founder Sandra Collins, the mother of a young trans child.  As a bi-racial woman who faced prejudice while growing up, Collins hopes to help eradicate the teasing and bullying often experienced by trans children. The day camp will be the first in the country “to provide a safe space for the exploration of gender identity and expression, to build community for gender expansive youth and their families, and to support these youth and their families with self-empowerment and resiliency curriculum,” as well as provide all the regular sports and arts and crafts activities you’d expect at any kids camp. 


A few years ago, Arizona parent Diana Wilson attended Camp "You are You", to better support the needs of her own gender creative child. That camp, which has recently become famous through the incredible photographs of Lindsay Morris, (you can view them HERE) inspired Wilson to take the old adage  “Think Globally, Act Locally” to heart. Born of a mother’s love, Wilson says she "started Camp Born This Way to provide the same opportunity we'd had to connect with other like-minded parents who are choosing to love and support their gender creative and transgender children."


Held over Labor Day weekend, Camp Born This Way is free for families, the result of tireless fundraising work by Wilson and her team. The benefit, Wilson says, is that “campers leave the long weekend of hiking, swimming, dancing, crafts, campfires and the much-anticipated fashion show, feeling accepted and validated by the camp community.” In addition, Wilson says that parents feel relieved to meet other families dedicated to supporting their children. Although her camp only serves Arizona families at this time, Wilson urges other parents to start their own camps, wherever they may live. ”If this working mom figured out a way to make this happen,” she muses, “why not have a camp for these amazing kids in every state in the country?” A NPR affiliate captured the camp in this story.


It’s not surprising, of course, that adult trans people also care deeply about supporting trans children. An early pioneer in the trans camp movement is Nick Teich, a transgender man with years of camping experience and a degree in social work.


After facing discrimination at a summer program while transitioning, Teich decided to reframe this experience by helping others. He says, “I knew camp would be the right medium for a wonderful, safe, active place where kids could grow, feel completely normal, and make lifelong friends.” Teich then founded the non-profit Aranu'tiq, the first camp in the world dedicated to trans and gender-nonconforming and gender-variant youth. And although Teich acknowledges that camps serving lesbian and gay youth have existed previously, he states that “the differences between L/G/B and T are pretty important, and we've seen that just focusing on gender as the reason to bring our kids together at camp has been a wonderful success.”  


Camp Aranu'tiq began as an all-volunteer operation of one week at a rented camp in Connecticut in 2010 with 41 campers. Today, the camp has expanded to include a branch in Southern California and just purchased its own 116-acre property in New Hampshire. Campers have come from nearly every US state and several other countries. Most of its camp counselors are volunteers, and about two-thirds identify as trans or gender-nonconforming. Teich also continues to work with mainstream camp organizations to ensure better policies and protections for transgender kids at other facilities. Learn more about this camp HERE.


As LGBT community members, as parents, and as allies of the trans community, we can feel pride in the groundbreaking work being done by these camp founders. By ensuring that the young trans children and teens of today grow up knowing they are loved, valued, and accepted, we help build resiliency to protect them from future prejudice, bullying, and abuse. As one young camper told Teich last summer, "I've never felt as normal as I do here... I've never made friends like this, and I've never felt ok like this.” Because ultimately, don’t all children, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation, deserve this experience?

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