What I learned about kids, camp, and myself from a camper who “came out” as transgender.
All names changed to ensure privacy.
This summer we had the pleasure of working with a young man who has spent his whole life being called a girl. You can’t blame people, I suppose. After all, he was born with female anatomy. But that inner voice inside his head? It had been telling him something else.
His birth certificate says, “Christine,” but he prefers Chris. He preferred Chris last summer, too, but never told us why.
You see, until this summer, only a few people knew that Chris identifies as a male. When he came to camp this summer, he told his counselor on the first day that he was a male, but asked that counselor not to share.
On the second day of camp, the counselors in Chris’ lodge had all the campers seated, and were asking the campers if there was anything they thought the group should know about them to help everyone have the best time possible. You know – pet peeves, stuff that grosses them out, or to warn other people that they snore.
That’s when Chris piped up.
“I’m a dude,” he began, “And I don’t care if everyone here knows it.”
A little while later, two other campers revealed that they, too, identified as something other than one of the binary genders. They called themselves “gender neutral,” and asked that we used gender neutral pronouns.
Even at a place where acceptance is the norm, and not the rule, I was a little nervous. I felt so protective of these young people, and so grateful that they felt comfortable enough to share these huge parts of themselves here at camp.
But when that first joke was let slip, what would I do?
It never came. I learned that kids are a lot less old timey and out of touch than I am – that this news was hardly news at all. Chris and his friends were just people. Cool, interesting people. Normal campers. Chris’ week at camp looked pretty much exactly like his weeks from previous summers. Hanging out with friends, drawing, talking about TV shows, and telling inside jokes.
Life was great.
Week 2, and a whole new experiment
Then, Saturday came. Most of the kids at camp were leaving, and some were staying for another week. One of those was Chris.
I talked with one of the counselors who had connected with Chris the most. We blessedly found out that this counselor identified as gender-queer very early in the summer (hooray for diversity!), and so these two had a very special bond.
“How was Chris’ week? Did everything seem like it went well?” I asked.
“Yeah, for sure. Chris seems to be doing great. He’s really looking forward to next week,” the counselor responded.
“Awesome, I will be finishing up housing shortly and I’ll let you know where he is staying.”
HE is staying.
I had already assigned Chris to a girl’s lodge.
“Say, do you think Chris would prefer to be in a boy’s lodge, or a girl’s lodge?” I asked.
The counselor paused for a second. “I’m not sure. He’s pretty new to being “out” about this. I’ll ask.”
I got pulled away from the conversation – a counselor was going to have to go to urgent care – and couldn’t get back to it that night.
A note on my desk
When I came back the following day to finish housing, I saw a note on my desk.
“James – Chris wants to stay in the guys’ lodge. Thanks.”
So, we put Chris in the guys’ lodge. Our lodges are set up a little differently than most camps. They are basically large estate houses with bedrooms that sleep 2-6 people. We put Chris in a room with his counselor confidant, and assigned them to a group with all guys.
Sunday came, and the rest of the kids showed up. Again, I was nervous. It was one thing when Chris’ friends were there, and he was surrounded by the same female faces he had always been comfortable with. But what would happen when he was put in a lodge with 23 other guys?
The answer? Pretty much… nothing. Camp was still camp. I followed up with Chris before writing this article to ensure that he was okay with me writing it. He wrote back, and said:
“You can totally share it!! I mean, camp was part of the help with coming to with it, so of course you can!! Thanks a lot! I felt that it went great with most of the other campers, I mean there’s always a few that don’t understand, but the counselors and you were a big help.”
So, this thing that felt like a huge deal when I’ve considered it in the past came and went without any incident whatsoever.
What was more – a young man came through and felt totally seen and heard as to who he is for the very first time.
To lifelong learning
When you’ve been doing camp for a long time, it’s easy to get bogged down by the day to day tasks that make up a lot of our days. But this young man’s experience showed me so much.
1) Kids are awesome. For the most part, campers weren’t the least bit phased at encountering someone (in many cases, for the first time), who on the surface seemed to be quite a bit different from them.
2) Camps are awesome. Having a young person come to camp and immediately think, “THIS is the place where I can show the world who I am,” is one of the most gratifying feelings in the world. We always say that camp is a place where kids can come to be themselves, but in this case, a young person actually was himself, literally, for the first time.
3) I have a lot to learn. Before this, I knew almost nothing about the Ts of the LGBT community. I’m so grateful for the trust that was given to me by both this young man and the counselor who helped him along.
Here’s to you, “Chris,” for having the courage to share that bright light that is inside of you. My guess is that your story will be a lot more common 50 years from now – but the courageous people who are first to face possible ridicule to be themselves are the ones who shape history. It was an honor spending the summer with you. Thanks.