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Camping it Up POV 

Camping it Up

A child–clad in a “Disney princesses” nightgown–glances toward the camera, with one eye poking out beneath a brown tea towel covering an otherwise short hairdo. The child’s body language is on one hand shy, and on the other, defiant.

This is one of about a dozen kids who took part in an annual summer camp held three hours by car from Chicago, Illinois. The kids themselves come from all sorts of backgrounds and families from all over the United States. There is only one thing they seemingly have in common: they were all declared male at birth, and they have each shown an interest in things our culture deems feminine. This camp allows them to be, at last, amongst their peers for an all-too-brief period of time.

Photographer Lindsay Morris has been documenting the camp for the last three years, providing a glimpse of the goings-on. The kids are encouraged–but not coerced–to be themselves. For some, this may be the first time they have been in a social situation where they are free to be themselves amongst other kids like them, and not face the jeers and derision of classmates. 

My parents wanted a little boy. They wanted a kid who would be a part of Little League, show an interest in boyish pursuits, and one day grow up to be a strapping young man. I was to be, even before I was born, “Daddy’s Little Train Engineer.” I was seven before I was labeled a “sensitive kid.” It was not for many years before I realized that was a carefully coached euphemism– that perhaps I was gay or, worse yet, transgender. Not that I think the latter much crossed the minds of my parents as I grew up in the era of Wendy Carlos and Renée Richards.

There were no camps like the above then, though I had been threatened to be sent to camp a time or two. It would not have been one where I would have been free to explore my more feminine interests, either: as with many such threats, the goal was to “make a man out of me.” As you can imagine, these did not pan out.

What I would not have given for the opportunity these kids have had.

When I was first coming to terms with being transgender, I was in my 20s and at college. I scoured both the campus library and the local city library for information on transgender studies, of which there were scant few to find. Of those I found, they made it clear that people did not start to deal with being transgender until they were in their mid-30s or older, if at all. Being 10 or so years younger than that did not stop me.

Since then, I have been watching that age move lower and lower. These are kids in the single digits, happily enjoying themselves. 

One of my first public outings was to a monthly meeting of “cross-dressers and transsexuals,” a social event held in the back of a Holiday Inn. It was a clandestine affair, where many members might bring a change of clothing with them in order to somehow defy detection as they hit the unmarked rear door. While everyone felt free inside, everyone was keenly aware of the world on the other side of the door.

As chronicled in Morris’ photos, these young kids get a chance to have an experience in which they can explore, present as feminine as they wish to, and share their talents cat-walking in the big finale of camp. It is several days of being able to let down one’s guard, or not worrying about what is being said–just being one’s self with so many others just simply doing the same.

I never did have that camp experience: as close to it as I got was a handful of hours at a day camp held in the local mountains one year. And while I am okay with my own experiences as a transperson growing up when I did, I cannot help but smile hearing about these camps and seeing photos of happy children free to explore without constraints.

To be honest, I wonder how different I might be today, had I had such a program in my early years. I certainly would not have gone through such an experience unchanged, given I grew up knowing that I could not step out of line, gender-wise, on the playgrounds of my youth.

So to those who put on these programs, and to the parents of these kids, I salute you for helping make sure that the next generation of gender-variant kids will grow up feeling free, truly free, during the summers of their youth.


About the Author: Gwen Smith never did have a man made out of her. You can find her on the web at www.gwensmith.com.

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