Aranu’tiq – A great place to be

By , July 21, 2012 1:36 pm

Just saw that a co-counselor of mine, Courtney, wrote up her experiences about her time at Camp Aranu’tiq, and it made me realize I still haven’t posted any thoughts on my time there. Aranu’tiq is a weeklong sleep-away camp for trans and gender-varient youth, ages 8 to 15. Right now, there’s one weeklong session in California (where I volunteered) and one in Connecticut (I’ll be at IndyFringe during that, and unable to go). The camp is structured as a classic summer camp, with tons of summer-camp-y activities: drama, arts and crafts, swimming, canoeing, hiking, archery, volleyball, ga-ga (an Israeli form of dodgeball), and more.

Initially, I was skeptical of this structure. No time built in to talk about gender stuff? No structured conversations? But I quickly realized this was the way to go: These kids needed a chance to be, well, kids. I was a co-counselor (with two other women, both cis) for a cabin of nine eight-to-ten year old trans girls. They were, in a word, hilarious. But, first and foremost, they were kids. It was kind of amazing to see them just be, without having to think about gender or expression. From the Aranu’tiq camp song:

Aranu’tiq, it’s all in your hands
You can wear what you want, you can be who you are, everyone understands

And it’s true: Everyone did understand.

I did hear occasional conversations about trans issues. I loved hearing my cabin talk about how they all chose their names. The older campers also had a really cool trans advocacy workshop that they could (but were not required to) attend. There was also at least one camper using gender neutral pronouns, and another who changed names and pronouns mid-week. Which was fucking awesome; the other girls simply accepted her as one of their own, helped her get clothing for the big dance, and off she went.

From Courtney’s post:

There was lots of talk of Justin Beiber, Hannah Montana and Carly Rae Jepsen in our cabin, and the girls became fast friends. There was no discussion of who was transgender and who wasn’t, because that wasn’t necessary. All of the kids accepted each other and were just there to have a good time without being discriminated against or scrutinized.

I still have ‘Call Me Maybe’ (this is crazy!) stuck in my head.

Watching my campers was fascinating, particularly in how they defined themselves as girls. Some of them were intently femme (one girl cried, upon arriving to camp, “Oh no! I forgot my waterproof eyeliner!”) while others were content to sit back and observe the giggling absurdity. I talked about this with other counselors, and wonder how much was simply age (all girls explore their girl-hood at that age) and how much of it was from being trans. That is, makeup and clothing are easy ways to “show off” one’s femininity, so it’s no surprise that these girls may go to extremes to ‘prove’ themselves as girls.

The other counselors were a mix of cis and trans folks, although there was only one other trans woman on staff, even though the campers split about 50/50 between trans masculine and trans feminine. The counselors talked a bit about that, and why that might be, and I put forth the idea that trans women have the deck stacked against them a bit more than trans men. This was (and remains) anything but an attempt to engage in oppression olympics, or an attempt to say that ‘trans men have it easy.’ Rather, we live in a patriarchal society. In addition, testosterone can be a more powerful body modifier  than estrogen for lots of people; growing facial hair is easier than getting rid of it. For whatever reason, there were maybe half a dozen trans men on staff, but only two trans women (including me), out of a staff of 18-20.

There were discussions about the pros and cons of this, and I’m still not sure what I think. From a practical reason, having cis people on staff is more practical than exclusively hiring trans people. And, as a few people noted, it’s important to show these trans and gender-varient kids that really strong cis allies exist in the world, and are able and willing to help them out. On the flip side, I’ve found trans-only spaces that I’ve been in incredibly empowering; I think it’s kind of sad that these kids likely don’t have any space populated exclusively by trans folks.

A few funny stories:

The first night or two, most of our cabin had a little trouble getting to sleep. (By the end of the week, they were all exhausted enough – counselors included – to conk out almost  instantly.) One of my campers said, “I didn’t sleep at all last night! I tossed and turned all night!” I replied, “Well, when I got up to go to the bathroom you were asleep.” I paused, and then continued, “And now I’ve become my mother.” Word. For. Word.

I overheard two (ten year old) campers talking. One said “Yeah, but how do you look sexy?” The other responded, “I don’t know, but you don’t need to look sexy until fifteen, so it’s OK.”

There was also a story about a camper who went canoeing. He saw another camp at the lake canoeing, and asked his counselor, “Do they know who we are?” The counselor responded, “Do they know we’re a camp? Or what kind of camp we are?” The camper said, clearly worried, “What kind of camp we are….” The counselor reassured him, saying, “I don’t think so. We don’t know what kind of camp they are, so there’s no reason they’d know what kind of camp we are.” The camper thought about this for a few minutes, then opined, “I think every camp should be a trans camp.” The counselor said, “But what about kids who aren’t trans? Shouldn’t they have a camp, too?” With a note of finality, the camper said, “They can have one camp.”

Wouldn’t that be a cool world? Where trans people had an excess of resources?

The camp also brought up a lot of bittersweet thoughts about “What could have been…” I talked a lot about this with other trans counselors, and we all kind of had the same response: How awesome for these campers. How nice it would have been for us.

I’m still processing my experience at camp, but am hoping it will help relieve some of my guilt and regret over not transitioning earlier. Because, ultimately, these kids were just kid. They were at this camp because awesome, supportive adults in their lives were helping them out, not because they were magically adults at the age of ten or fifteen. Some of them were absolutely badasses, and I’m so excited to see them grow up, but that’s the takeaway I’m trying to hold on to: Kids need supportive adults in their life.

I’m excited to have been one for these campers.

4 Responses to “Aranu’tiq – A great place to be”

  1. Jadey says:

    Oh, summer camp. I went to so many camps as a kid and it’s such a different experience, for good or ill. At their worst, when staffed by people who are under-trained, under-supervised, and over-worked, they can worse than a bad week of high school: shorter, but you have to live with your bullies 24/7. A recipe for trauma.

    But at their best… at their best they can be a completely transformative experience (no pun intended) – when I worked as a counsellor, I started the week by telling the kids that for as long as they were at camp, then whatever rules they were used to back at home did not apply unless they happened to be the same as the camp rules, and it was a chance to live an entirely different way, for just a week. Then I outlined the camp rules, which included respect for others, respect for self, boundaries, co-operation, personal safety, listening, etc. – the stuff you hope everyone lives with no matter what, but so often they don’t. I told them it was a chance to try completely new things, stuff they never would dream of doing in front of their family or their school friends (as long as it was within the camp rules, natch).

    If they need an escape, an adventure, a reinvention, a release – whatever they couldn’t do with the rest of the weight of the world pushing down on them every other week of the year. And if they couldn’t do it again until they came back to camp next year, then okay – take a little bit of camp home in your heart and hold out for next year, because camp will be waiting. Ideally they can do even more than that, but that’s what a week (or more!) away in a caring, supportive, transformative environment can do, and I love it. The only thing better would be to create the same experiences in their actual homes, schools, and neighbourhoods. So the idea of a camp for trans and gender variant youth sounds perfect and amazing and I would love to hear more about it when you have the chance.

    Oh man, camp nostalgia, sorry! Might need to blog on this myself!

    • Rebecca says:

      I never actually went to a sleep-away camp growing up, so this was a really new experience. Maybe if something like this had been around, I would have gone. In any event, I think the bullying issue is interesting. It was delightful in that no one was bullied or excluded for gender or gender expression. On the other hand, they were – ultimately – normal kids. They excluded over who was ‘cool,’ how kids acted, and anything else. We watched it as much as possible – and with a 2:1 camper:counselor ratio, we did a pretty good job – but it was disappointing to see these kids engage in shitty behavior.

      I started the week by telling the kids that for as long as they were at camp, then whatever rules they were used to back at home did not apply unless they happened to be the same as the camp rules, and it was a chance to live an entirely different way, for just a week.

      YES! How many times did I have kids say, “But at home we do X!” Well, kid, you’re not at home!

      So the idea of a camp for trans and gender variant youth sounds perfect and amazing and I would love to hear more about it when you have the chance.

      Any particular questions or things you want to know about? I’ll try to post more general thoughts when I have a chance.

  2. Kelli says:

    Not only would I like to hear more stories. I am very interested in volunteering for something like this myself. I think it would be so awesome to be able to show young trans children that it is okay for them to be themselves along with setting the example that there are others like them that lead normal lives themselves. This really hit home Rebecca, I am glad you had such a great time.

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