Raising a child who doesn’t conform to gender roles is a minefield, for even the most supportive parents. How do you let your children be themselves while also protecting them from bullies? That question led a number of parents to organize an annual four-day camp in the wilderness for their kids.
The result was an annual long-weekend camp that serves nearly 30 families, many of whom met several years ago through a therapy group for gender-nonconforming children in Washington, D.C. It started in a few hotel rooms in D.C. and evolved into a real camp usually held at religious retreats in various rural settings around the country. The children, ages 6 to 12, attend with their parents and siblings.
In 2007, Sag Harbor photographer Lindsay Morris began attending camp. She took pictures of the children and their families to document their camp experience. But as the years passed and her photo library grew, Morris thought about doing something more with the pictures. In 2012, thanks to the courage of some of the families, Morris’ photographs appeared in a cover story for the New York Times Magazine. The book, titled You Are You, is an expansion of that project.
At camp, the children do all the typical camp things. They canoe, they craft, they roast marshmallows. Almost all of the children are biological boys who like to wear girl’s clothing. The weekend culminates in a fashion show with the works: red carpets, a runway, and fans to blow the kids’ hair back. “We try to make them feel fabulous,” says Morris, “I think it helps carry them through the year — the memory of their parents and siblings in the audience clapping for them.”
The kids in Morris’ photographs fall across the gender spectrum. But they are too young to know which category they will grow into — if they fit into a category at all. Some will grow up to be transgender, others will be gender-conforming adults. Still more may decide to embrace a more fluid concept of gender. “Living with ambiguity can be very hard,” writes one of the parents in a reflection in the book. The beauty of the camp is that it allows the kids to live comfortably in the middle, a difficult space to occupy during the rest of the year.
Morris had many goals with the book. She wanted to illustrate gender-creative children in a joyful, supportive setting to counteract the painful things we associate with children who don’t conform. She wanted gender-variant kids and the adults who advocate for them to see that they are not alone. Along with the images and reflections, she has included a list of helpful books and support organizations available to families.
But her work’s greatest value may be in teaching us to see the potential joy of children who are allowed the freedom to be themselves.