Trans­gen­der chil­dren play, open up at camp

The Denver Post - - NATION & WORLD - By Jo­ce­lyn Gecker

In some ways, Rain­bow Day Camp is or­di­nary. Kids ar­rive with a packed lunch, make friend­ship bracelets, play bas­ket­ball, sing songs and get silly. But it is also unique, from the mo­ment campers ar­rive each morn­ing.

At check-in each day, campers make a nametag with their pro­noun of choice. Some opt for “she” or “he.” Or a com­bi­na­tion of “she/he.” Or “they,” or no pro­noun at all. Some change their name or pro­nouns daily, to see what feels right.

The camp in the San Fran­cisco Bay Area city of El Cerrito caters to trans­gen­der and “gen­der fluid” chil­dren, ages 4 to 12, mak­ing it one of the only camps of its kind in the world open to preschool­ers, ex­perts say. En­roll­ment has tripled to about 60 young campers since it opened three sum­mers ago, with kids com­ing from as far as Los An­ge­les, Wash­ing­ton, D.C. — even Africa. Plans are un­der­way to open a branch next sum­mer in Colorado, and the camp has been con­tacted by par­ents and or­ga­ni­za­tions in At­lanta, Seat­tle, Louisiana and else­where in­ter­ested in set­ting up sim­i­lar pro­grams.

On a sunny July morn­ing at camp, the theme was “Crazy Hair Day,” and 6-yearold Gra­cie Max­well was danc­ing in the sun­shine as a Mi­ley Cyrus song blasted from out­door speak­ers. The freck­led, blue-eyed blonde wore her hair in a braid on one side, a pig­tail on the other and snacked on ce­real as she twirled and skipped.

“Once she could talk, I don’t re­mem­ber a time when she didn’t say, ‘I’m a girl,’ ” said her mother, Molly Max­well, who still trips over pro­nouns but tries to stick to “she.”

“Then it grew in in­ten­sity: ‘I’m a sis­ter. I’m a daugh­ter. I’m a princess,’” Max­well said. “We would ar­gue with her. She was con­fused. We were con­fused.”

Liv­ing in the lib­eral-minded Bay Area made it easier. The Maxwells found a trans­gen­der play group and sought spe­cial­ists. And at 4 years old, Gra­cie grew her hair, dressed as a girl and even­tu­ally changed her name.

“I see her now, com­pared to be­fore. I watch her strut around and dance and sing and the way she talks about her­self. If she was forced to be some­one else,” the mother trails off. “I don’t even want to think about that.”

Gen­der spe­cial­ists say the camp’s growth re­flects what they are see­ing in gen­der clin­ics na­tion­wide: in­creas­ing num­bers of chil­dren com­ing out as trans­gen­der at young ages. They credit the rise to greater open­ness and aware­ness of LGBT is­sues and par­ents tun­ing in ear­lier when a child shows signs of gen­der dys­pho­ria, or dis­tress about their gen­der.

“A decade ago, this camp wouldn’t have ex­isted. Even­tu­ally, I do be­lieve, it won’t be so in­no­va­tive,” camp founder San­dra Collins said. “I didn’t know you could be trans­gen­der at a very young age. But my daugh­ter knew for sure at 2.”

Collins’ ex­pe­ri­ence as the mother of a trans­gen­der girl, now 9, in­spired her to start the camp, and an­other for 13- to 17year-olds called Camp Kickin’ It.

“A lot of these kids have been bul­lied and had trauma at school. This is a world where none of that ex­ists, and they’re in the ma­jor­ity,” Collins said. “That’s a new ex­pe­ri­ence for kids who are used to hid­ing and feel­ing small.”

Fourth-grader Scar­lett Rein­hold, Collins’ daugh­ter who was born a boy, says at camp she can be her­self. “I feel com­fort­able for be­ing who I am and who I want to be,” says Scar­lett, a con­fi­dent 9-year-old in a frilly skirt who wears her dark hair long and wavy.

There is lit­tle com­pre­hen­sive data on young chil­dren who iden­tify as trans­gen­der, but ex­perts say as the num­ber of young peo­ple com­ing to their clin­ics in­creases, the pre­vail­ing med­i­cal guid­ance has shifted.

The fa­vored pro­to­col to­day is known as the “gen­der af­fir­ma­tive” ap­proach, which fo­cuses on iden­ti­fy­ing and help­ing trans­gen­der chil­dren to “so­cially tran­si­tion” — to live as the gen­der they iden­tify with rather than the one they were born with un­til they’re old enough to de­cide on med­i­cal op­tions such as pu­berty block­ers and, later, hor­mone treat­ments.

The Cen­ter for Tran­syouth Health and Devel­op­ment at Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal in Los An­ge­les, started a decade ago with about 40 pa­tients, now has more than 900 peo­ple, ages 3 to 25, en­rolled in its pro­gram, with 150 on its wait­ing list, said Jo­hanna Ol­son-Kennedy, the clinic’s med­i­cal direc­tor.

Jeff Chiu, The As­so­ci­ated Press

Campers and coun­selors dance at the Bay Area Rain­bow Day Camp in El Cerrito, Calif. Or­ga­niz­ers say the camp gives kids a safe, fun place to be them­selves. Plans are un­der­way to open a branch next sum­mer in Colorado.

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