A camp designed for transgender or gender-nonconforming children, Camp Born This Way provides a safe space for “gender-creative” kids and their families to connect, express themselves, and most importantly, have fun.
Located in Arizona, the 4-day, 3-night camp was started organically by a group of parents whose children questioned or defied the gender binary. With very little research on the topic of gender, many parents have no frame of reference on how to approach gender issues with their children. Parents can prepare themselves for many challenges and obstacles that may arise when raising children, but for some parents, “transgender” isn’t even a part of their vocabulary.
“Her father doesn’t get it,” the mother of a transgender girl who attends Camp Born This Way, Amy D’Arpino, said in an interview with 429Magazine. “It is very hard for him to support her as her.”
Society strictly enforces its own mandate that a person’s sex (i.e. their genitals) should match their gender expression. We have become accustomed to the construction that views any identity which challenges our notion of normal as “unnatural” or “deviant.” To that end, there are very few resources for gender-nonconforming children and their parents.
In light of this, Arizona parents of gender-nonconforming kids formed a support group, The TransParent Support Group, to discuss gender issues, gain perspective, and to share parent-to-parent advice. (As not all of the kids identify as trans, they may change the name.)
“We have a group of parents that meet [once a month]that have kids that are trans or ‘gender creative,’” the program coordinator for Southern Arizona Gender Alliance, Rae Strozzo, said in an interview with 429Magazine. Looking for an opportunity to give their children a safe space to be their unwavering selves, and to provide a chance for parents to discuss and share advice, Camp Born This Way was brought to life through the support group.
“Two parents had the idea to put together this camp,” D’Arpino explained. “[It is a] safe environment to have fun and enjoy themselves while the parents talk.”
“[We] share stories, talk about our journeys, it’s a great place for people to ask questions.” D’Arpino continued. “We talked a lot about schools and gender neutral bathrooms.” The parents were able to tell each other which schools were supportive of transgender students and provided gender neutral bathrooms, and which did not. They gave advice on the best therapists, doctors, and how to obtain puberty blockers and hormonal treatments for their kids. They swapped stories on how to combat bullying, how to tell family members, and how to deal with their reactions.
The parent group also offers sensitivity trainings for schools and are happy to talk with educators about the best way to support their children.
D’Arpino’s daughter, Rachel, was born with male genitalia, but from the age of five she insisted on using the girls’ bathroom, wearing female clothing and “wanted to cut off her male part,” her mother said.
“She would [use]a blanket to make a skirt,” sneak into her mother’s closet and try on female clothes, and use a towel to emulate long hair.
Amy took her daughter to a therapist. At first the therapist believed Rachel was just going through a phase and dismissed her gender-bending tendencies as “cute.” Soon, though, it became clear that this was no phase: Rachel was not just pretending to be a girl.
The therapist prompted a few questions, to which Rachel responded, by saying, “she was a girl, [she]wanted be a girl, [she is]a girl,” her mother recalled.
Camp Born This Way provides traditional camp activities, such as, “swimming, volleyball, hiking, [and]crafts,” Strozzo explained. “[There are] also lots of kid directed moments so they could do what they wanted to do.” Last year marked the camp’s first year, and the kids decided to put on a fashion show, where many explored their personal styles using an assortment of wigs, dresses, and make-up to express their true identity.
The camp, which charges $50 for the Labor Day weekend session, is funded by two local grants and a fundraising effort put on by a Tucson yoga teacher, who raised almost $4,000 through a self-initiated endeavor, “Project 108.” She committed to doing “108 sun salutations and had people sponsor,” explained Strozzo. The instructor would have been happy to raise the estimated $500, but to her surprise, she raised several thousand dollars, which she donated to the camp.
“The community pretty much comes out to be supportive,” Strozzo said.
He explained one child’s experience who had recently come out as transgender and took his grandmother to camp so she could better understand her grandchild’s gender expression. “The child was super happy to be [at camp],” and the grandmother left with a level of acceptance and a sense of empowerment to be able to be there for her grandchild, Strozzo explained.
This is a place where the children can be their full selves without worrying what other people may think. They don’t have to defend themselves for being who they are. They just are. “They wish life was like camp,” said Strozzo.
In order to make life a bit smoother at home, the parents created a “safe folder” which they use as a guide for explaining their child’s transition to neighbors or other acquaintances who may have trouble understanding it. The main focus of the guideline is to show that the child is naturally developing, that nothing is wrong with them, and their parents are doing what they feel is right to help their children. The “safe folder” basically puts to rest any concerns from outsiders.
Camp Born This Way lends an opportunity for kids to gain some footing in being who they are and presenting to the world as such. It is a launching pad of self-exploration, self-expression and self-advocacy, an experience which undoubtedly readies them for a much more successful and easier adulthood.
“Helping people express themselves [at a younger age]gives them a bigger opportunity to express themselves when they are older,” Strozzo said.