By: Nick Teich, MSW
The first time I knowingly met a transgender child was on a summer cruise for GLBT families two years ago. In fact, I met two of them, and they had only just met each other that week. I was struck by how comfortable they felt together, but I knew that they didn’t feel comfortable in most places. The cruise was a refuge. At school, they dealt with constant bullying from teachers and students alike. Watching these kids play together on the cruise was a picture I kept in my mind long after I returned home.
Though I have only been a social worker since my graduation this past May, I have been a camper all my life. Each summer, beginning the day I arrived home from eight weeks at summer camp, I would count down the days until it started again. After 13 summers as a camper, counselor, and camp leader, I moved on to the “real world,” but I missed camp terribly.
As an adult, I began to volunteer at a weeklong charitable camp for children who had lost a parent. I got involved specifically because it was run by people from my childhood camp with whom I felt very close and loved to be around. Several years later, when I told these friends that I was transgender and would be transitioning from female to male, they seemed to be very supportive. In a mutual decision between the camp director and me, I skipped camp that following summer (2007), so as not to confuse the campers. We talked about how after hormone treatments, I would begin to look and sound completely different, and skipping a summer would give me plenty of time.
So, as soon as the 2007 session was over, I contacted the camp director, excited to talk about plans to attend the next volunteers’ winter retreat in anticipation of the following summer. It was then that I was met with hostility, and, after a vote by the board of directors, I was told that I would be unable to return to camp “for the good of the campers,” and that the camp director had brought in a lawyer in case I tried to sue the camp for discrimination. This was all before I even had a chance to respond. I never got that chance. I could not believe what was happening. These were close friends, or so I’d thought. A few volunteers bravely stood up for my cause, but to no avail.
Nearly all of the board (including the co-director of the camp, a licensed independent clinical social worker with her own private practice) permanently ceased communication with me, as did nearly all of the camp’s volunteers. It was personally devastating and utterly confusing for me. I had been told that I “took away from the mission of the camp” (remember, this is a camp for kids who have lost a parent) and that the parents/guardians of the campers would probably sue the camp, because they are “the type that watch Jerry Springer” (true quotes) and would be freaked out by a transgender volunteer being around their children. I didn’t even have a chance to prove to the directors that I was the same person I’d always been, just happier and more myself. I thought, if this can happen to me as an adult, what about kids who are turned away from camps because of their gender identity?
Between societal pressure, hiding oneself, and bullying, it seemed nearly impossible for these kids to have the traditional camp experience. Transgender children would be hard-pressed to find a summer camp—boys’, girls’, or co-ed—that would let them be who they are. Gender-variant children who may not identify completely as “female” or “male” would certainly be deprived of the camp experience.
This all led to a discussion with a close friend who is now Aranu’tiq’s vice president, Emily Engler. We threw around the idea of starting up a camp for transgender youth. However, I was working on my MSW, and I didn’t think I quite had the time, energy, or wherewithal to start a business. The idea spun around in my head for weeks and weeks, until I told Emily that I wanted to start such a camp, regardless of the work involved. With the tasks of finding a site, planning, preparation, and fundraising ahead of us, we decided summer 2010 would be a good time to open the program. Three short weeks after we submitted our application for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt public charity status, we got the good news that we had been approved.
If there is one thing I have learned from being involved in summer camps, it is that a camp director must be a jack-of-all-trades. A social work background is a great start, especially for helping deal with the alienation these kids feel at home and with the homesickness they will no doubt feel at camp. But then, there is: recruiting and screening volunteers and campers, raising funds to allow the camp to be tuition-free, creating bunk placements and a schedule for each camper, working with a chef to create a full menu for the week, having the ability to fix leaking toilets or chase a bat out of a bunk in the middle of the night, and being able to run a business in all the traditional aspects. It’s a daunting prospect, but it’s also incredibly exciting. As far as we know, Aranu’tiq will be the first camp in the world catering only to transgender and gender-variant youth.
Throughout both years in social work school, I worked clinically with youth. In my final year, I did therapy at a community health clinic with young people, some of whom were transgender. Each person I worked with gave me more inspiration to develop this camp—a place that would foster self-confidence at as young an age as possible for a sleep-away camp.
Aranu’tiq’s focus is simple: give transgender and gender-variant youth ages 8 through 15 a week of fun and friends with whom they can keep in touch. The importance of the experience is allowing a camper to be with others who are going through what that child is going through. Most schools are full of bullies, ignorant administrators, adults who turn their backs, and misunderstandings about the subject of gender-variance. Camp should be different. As a social worker, I believe therapeutic intervention is important for these children, but I do not believe that camp is necessarily the place for it. Camp itself is a therapeutic intervention. The week is about those great camp activities: swimming, canoeing, arts and crafts, land sports, dance and drama, team-building, campfires, s’mores, and late-night chats in the bunks. However, several volunteers are therapists in their lives outside of camp and will be there for campers, if necessary.
Transgenderism and gender variance affects families of all colors, creeds, and religions. I was lucky enough to attend camp as a child not only because I was not acutely aware of my transgenderism at the time, but because my family had the means to pay for it. Aranu’tiq runs completely on volunteers and donations. It is very important to me that it be tuition-free when it opens in 2010, and it will be.
“Aranu’tiq” is a word derived from a language of indigenous Alaskan people. Aranu’tiq people embodied both male and female qualities. Their experiences transcended traditional gender boundaries, and they were revered for this. Imagine a place where gender variance could be revered and not ridiculed. The name of the camp was chosen as a symbol to show campers that not all cultures see them as “freaks” or second-class citizens.
One very important component to consider—one that is not a major issue at most summer camps—is the subject of confidentiality. The location of Aranu’tiq will never be publicized by the camp, nor will any names of volunteers, campers, or campers’ families. It is up to those in the camp community to maintain these high standards of confidentiality, which can be very difficult for kids, especially in the age of Facebook and MySpace. It is our hope that campers will keep in touch with each other’s consent, but we will have campers who are not “out” in their home schools and communities, or even to their extended families, and the safety and mental well-being of the community is our first priority. It is sad to think that we still live in a world where kids are not safe being who they truly are, but we as social workers know that reality is not always pretty.
In February 2009, the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) published a study entitled Harsh Realities: The Experience of Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools. Research thus far on this topic has been scant; GLSEN’s study is one of the first focusing solely on transgender youth. The report found that “[The] hostile school climate had very negative repercussions on transgender students’ ability to succeed in school—a high incidence of harassment was related to increased absenteeism, decreased educational aspirations, and lower academic performance” (Greytak, Kosciw, & Diaz, 2009). The GLSEN report goes on to say:
In addition to experiencing high levels of in-school victimization, many transgender students lacked the institutional supports that may ameliorate the negative effects of victimization. Transgender students who were victimized in school were unlikely to regularly report the events to school authorities, the very people who are tasked with ensuring that all students have a safe learning environment. Unfortunately, among those who did report incidents to school personnel, few students believed that staff addressed the situation effectively. (p. 44)
Since Aranu’tiq’s incorporation, I have received many heartwarming e-mails from parents who are incredibly thankful that such a camp will exist for their children. One parent wrote: “This camp is the answer to my dreams as the parent of a 14-year-old who has been living as a boy since he was 12. Last summer he had an absolutely terrible time [at camp] having to stay in a girls’ bunk. He was teased and bullied a lot.”
It is my hope to be able to help 30 to 40 children gain newfound self-confidence for a week and experience friendship with those like them for a lifetime. Unfortunately, the bullying will be there when the campers return to school, but they will be equipped with new and understanding ears to listen to them, shoulders to lean on, and experiences to guide them. And, as more school social workers and those who work with youth understand the importance of this subject, schools and communities will become safer places.
Greytak, E. A., Kosciw, J.G., and Diaz, E. M. (2009). Harsh realities: The experiences of transgender youth in our nation’s schools. New York: GLSEN.
Nick Teich, MSW, is the founder and president of Camp Aranu’tiq, a weeklong overnight summer camp for transgender and gender-variant youth opening in 2010. He graduated from Boston College Graduate School of Social Work in May 2009. His main area of interest is in gender and transgender issues. He lives in Newton, MA.