|Kids headed to the pool at Camp Aranu’tiq in Connecticut. Above right, Chris Redick and Nicole Maines, both 14, danced during a drama, arts, and crafts class.|
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At lunch — one day, it was chicken and cheese quesadillas, brown rice, and broccoli — the kids heartily sing the camp song written by campers that first summer: “Aranu’tiq, a great place to be. I love this camp, I love this camp, ’cause I can be me!” But the camp anthem is Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.”
Except for the chef, the staff is entirely volunteer. Since the start, Teich and his team have not taken any salaries.
Many of them take a week of vacation from work to come to camp, and pay their way to get there. Half the staff is transgender. All go through an orientation session, where they are told to respect boundaries in discussing gender identity with campers.
“We don’t want staffers talking about their specific medical intervention,” said Teich. “And if a kid asks, ‘What do you think I should do?’, we tell them that needs to be a family decision.”
Penelope Wilhelm is a transgender woman from Quincy who has been a counselor from the start.
“My childhood was incredibly isolated,” said Wilhelm, who is 42. She has long, dark hair and was dressed in lilac pants and shirt. She was married in December. One of her campers was the flower girl, another was ring bearer, and at least 20 others attended the wedding.
Wilhelm said it’s important to have a mixed staff of those who are trans and those who are not. “It’s good for the kids,” she said. “It’s easy to be accepted by transgender people, and they understand each other. But when a ‘normal person’ ” — she used her fingers for quotation marks — “accepts them, it means more, even for us adults. It validates us as real people.”
The camp drama teacher is a transgender woman who is married and has two adopted children. “I came to camp to celebrate life with these kids,” said Leslie, who only wanted to use her first name because she lives in a small town where few know her story. “When I was their age, I couldn’t even voice it, much less have a place like this.”
A compass for older kids
Last year, on the first night of camp, a 9-year-old boy was anxious and homesick and asked to see the camp nurse. While he stood in line one day talking with Leslie, who is curvy and blonde, he realized that she was transgender, and had a family.
“Transgender people can adopt?” he asked her.
“When I said yes, I literally watched his color and expression change,” said Leslie. “His face was flooded with relief and he said, ‘We can go back to the cabin now.’ ”
Tyler Sanchez, 15, is from California and attended both Aranu’tiq West and East this summer. “Here, you don’t feel as dysphoric as you usually are,” said Tyler. “No one’s going to bug you or make fun of you.”
His mother has also benefited, he said, by meeting other supportive parents. “She just didn’t really like it,” he said of his transition to being the boy he has always felt he was. “But she gets it a lot better now.”
Like the others who will be older than 15 next summer, Tyler has aged out of camp. When they speak of leaving Aranu’tiq behind, the older kids look doleful. But Tyler brightens: “I am definitely coming back as a volunteer when I’m 21.”
At the campfire one night, as the week wound down, Teich gave Tyler and the other seniors a compass bearing the camp’s name. Whenever you feel lost, he told them, let this be your guide.
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story may have implied that a Maine camp was the camp that told Nick Teich he could not return. It was a separate charity camp.
Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.