This Camp Aims to Create a Safe Haven for Gender-Nonconforming Kids
We talked to photographer Lindsay Morris about the eight years she spent capturing the camp, where little boys are encouraged to dress as girls and there's a fabulous gender-defying fashion show.
Lindsay Morris has dedicated the last eight years to photographing an American summer camp with a twist. A camp for gender-nonconforming children and their families, it provides a safe place for biological boys who feel more – or just as – comfortable in dresses and wigs than in Spiderman t-shirts and jeans.
Morris is both a photographer and board member of the camp, giving her a close insight to what goes down. There's the same kind of stuff as regular camps, such as lake sports, kayaking, swimming and arts and crafts. But on the second and third evenings a talent and fashion show take place, where gender-creative children are allowed to be as flamboyant at they choose. Kind of like a drag show for kids.
We spoke to Lindsay about her reasons for putting the project into a new book, You Are You, the struggles that are specific to LGBT children and their families, and how a safe space like this camp can aid kids to develop more comfortably in their true gender identities.
VICE: Hi Lindsay. Why did you feel it was important to create the book?
Lindsay Morris: The book has been a long time coming. I'm very much a part of the community and it's been a personal project. For the parents who attend the camp they agree that the first step to empowerment is visibility. I started photographing the kids at camp for the first two years just as a service to the camp community so that they wouldn't have to be distracted by taking pictures. What we started to see was a beautiful story was beginning to be illustrated through the photographs and they suggested that we think about a book.
Can you explain the term "gender-fluid"?
We use so many different terms. A lot of the kids don't like referring to themselves as boys. Some of them will be gay, some of them will be trans and some of them will be somewhere in between. "Gender-creative", "gender-independent", "gender-variant", "gender-nonconforming"... essentially I would define it as children who do not conform to society's expectations of what a typical boy or girl should be. I think we're just beginning to form a vocabulary.
Why is the summer camp so important to some families? Why is it so positive that the camp exists?
It's really just a very safe place for them where they don't have to look over their shoulders and where they're experiencing 100 percent support from their family members and siblings. It's very important to us that the siblings attend camp so that they can see their brother or sister being celebrated. It's not all biological boys at camp, there are a few girls.
What are some of the anxieties parents have when raising gender-creative biological boys?
I think the biggest concern is bullying at school. Often the children might be excluded from activities – especially sleepovers and birthday parties – because the other parents aren't really open to having a child who is atypical in their midst. That's why the parents of these kids have become the most incredible advocates. They just hope to normalise gender-nonconformity.
What sort of mental-health problems and social problems do gender-nonconforming children tend to face?
A lot of these kids experience low-grade bullying. It creates a lot of stress and anxiety about going to school or being in public places because of the fear of being excluded. However, if the school is very progressive and keeps an open dialogue, it can be great. Schools have such power to normalise gender-nonconformity; some choose to and some really push against it.
Do you feel society has come a long way with in their attitudes towards gender-nonconforming people?
Absolutely, every day I think you see it. Especially in the past year or two, with the change in gay marriage laws, nonconforming people and the rights of LGBT people in the work place. We're seeing laws shifting. I think we're living in a historical moment and it's happening as we speak.
What kind of reactions do the boys have when they first arrive at the camp and realise they are surrounded by other children just like them?
Some of the kids really stand back observing and are quite shy while others jump in and it's like they've found their clan, their soul mates. The images don't really convey the wild frenzy of camp. They're more flowing and poetic while the camp is kind of a beautiful chaos. The kids are constantly changing clothes and dolls; they're like immediate kin and friends. It's very moving for the parents, most of all.
Are some family members at the camp still coming to terms with their child's gender-nonconformity or is it a very empathetic and understanding environment?
The parents spend a lot of time together and they realise it isn't just their child. But not every parent who goes there is fully on board. It's difficult, it's a transition. If you're there you're there because you love your child, they know it's a move in the right direction. I hate to say it but a lot of the fathers – especially the fathers – come in a little bit shell shocked. This is not the little boy they anticipated raising and they're doing the best they can because they want their children to have a healthy life and a healthy mental state that comes from the support of your parents.
What happens during the fashion show?
The highlight of the camp is a fashion show, so a lot of the kids really go to great lengths to create incredibly accessorised outfits. We have a red carpet, we blow their hair back, we do make up and nails. It's just like this incredible celebration. I feel like the kids leave and they are set to carry on for the whole year. We always have a rack of clothing that the kids can use. Some of the kids make their own dresses with their mums or aunties; it's a really anticipated event.
Can you recall any special moments at the camp?
One of the new campers who came two years ago brought all of the adults to tears. He's since transitioned to female but at the time he was going by his birth name. His parents had separated and his father was in complete denial, giving the mother a very hard time. When going through divorce court it can get very complicated when one parent supports a gender-nonconforming child and another doesn't. The father and stepmother of this child were not allowing him to dress in the clothes that he felt comfortable in.
At camp he spent a whole weekend in beautiful gowns; he dressed himself so carefully and it just meant so much to him to have four whole days of complete and utter honesty and authenticity.
At the end of camp the kids are allowed to tell everyone about something that has particularly moved them. He announced in front of everyone: "I am so comfortable here and I am so comfortable in the clothes that I am wearing. I'm going to go home and I'm going to tell my dad who I really am, I'm not going to be afraid." Everybody was in tears. He has since transitioned and is an amazing, confident and self-realised human being. That's sort of the goal of camp.
Do you know if there are plans for any further gender-nonconformity camps?
We hope it will inspire a lot of other camps. We just organise each year near to where the parents are living and we want to create a template for people who want to create their own camp in other parts of the country.
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