On the volleyball court, a boy spiked a shot and his teammates cheered. Nearby, some campers lay on mats, doing yoga stretches. A girl executed a series of cartwheels. Over in drama, the kids performed a “cranky old lady” talk show; everyone cracked up.
Before the week was over, there were campfires, Capture the Flag, a skit night, and a talent show. Camp Aranu’tiq seemed like a traditional New England camp, complete with requisite lake, rustic cabins, and 65 shrieking campers.
Only when you see tags around campers’ necks, with the words “(HE)” or “(SHE)” under their names, do you realize something’s different here. It is the only camp of its kind in the country, a camp for transgender kids, where idle chatter on sports, music, school, and teenage crushes blends right in with talk about “coming out,” “transitioning,” puberty blockers — and bullying.
For privacy and safety reasons, Camp Aranu’tiq has never allowed media inside, but recently let a Globe reporter and photographer spend a day at its wooded Connecticut grounds during its weeklong session in late August. Campers, parents, and staff are required to sign a confidentiality contract, and the exact location is not revealed until the child is enrolled. “They know it’s a safety issue,” said founder and director Nick Teich.
Aranu’tiq, he said, strives to remove the fear and isolation that transgender children experience back home. According to a 2007 study by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, 90 percent of transgender youth report being verbally harassed and more than half physically harassed. Two-thirds of them say they felt unsafe in school. Many have changed schools. Some just upped and moved, to a new city or new state.
A safe haven
Teich, who lives in Newton, started the nonprofit camp in Connecticut in 2010. A transgender male, he had a personal interest in providing a safe, fun place for kids who live on the outskirts of society. Teich loved the camp in Maine he had attended as a girl. He was there for 13 years, as a camper, counselor in training, counselor, and finally, member of the leadership team.
Some of those camp colleagues then began their own weeklong charity camp, where Teich volunteered for three summers. But five years ago, when he announced he was transitioning into becoming a man, he got a call from the head of that charity camp, with a lawyer on the line. “You can’t come back for the good of the kids,” he was told.
“It took me months to get over my serious anger,” said Teich, 29, a social worker who is pursuing a doctorate in social policy from Brandeis. “Then I said, you know what? I know a lot about camp, and there are kids who don’t fit into society, gender-wise. Why don’t I just start my own camp?”
In 2010, he put together a board of friends and co-workers and leased space for a week from a regular summer camp. He put out the word on various transgender sites. He chose the name Aranu’tiq, which is an indigenous Alaskan word for a person who was thought to embody both the male and female spirits.
In August 2010, the camp opened its doors to 41 children, ages 8 to 15, most of them from New England. This year, in July, Teich opened a branch in California; 36 kids enrolled. At both camps, he sees joy in the campers’ faces and hears relief in their parents’ refrain: “I never thought my kid would be able to go to camp.”
Society has long stigmatized transgenderism; it is included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — though many physicians and psychologists disagree with that designation.
“People demonize these kids,” said Teich. “But this is who they are. The other choice for many of them is going to be suicide.”
Most of the campers are on medication for anxiety and depression, he said, and “100 percent are bullied back home.” According to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, nearly half of transgender youth have seriously contemplated suicide, and one quarter report having made an attempt.
Before he found Aranu’tiq, Damien, who lives in Florida and whose mother asked that his last name not be used to protect him from abuse, had been hospitalized several times for depression. In middle school, a student tried to choke him in the hallway. Once, as he was walking to see a movie, a car swerved at him and passengers screamed: “Faggot!”
“Before camp, I was really shy and not confident,” said Damien, 15, who has attended camp all three sessions it has been open. “Now, I feel less alone and way more confident.” He was relaxed and chatty as he described some of the “hilarious” narrow escapes he and his bunkmates have had in gym class and on camping trips, trying to hide their private parts.Continued...