More and more initiatives are springing up around the world to accept and welcome trans children and to help them transition into the gender they identify with (if they identify with any gender at all). One such program has formed the subject of photographer Lindsay Morris' latest project, You Are You. Showcasing the lives of trans girls and gender non-conforming boys at an unidentified summer camp structured specifically for their needs, You Are You has been unfolding over the past three years. The resulting insight into the lives of these children is both beautiful and bittersweet.
Morris' photographs are diverse. In one, a typically girly child mugs for the camera, their yellow blouse set atop a green, frilly skirt. In another, a more boyish child with short hair and long basketball shorts sits concentrating on a make-up compact, a brush poised in their hand above their cheek. A third shows a small child dressed as Merida, the courageous princess from Disney's Brave.
The fact that all of Morris' subjects are biologically male is the least interesting part of a tableaux that explores fantasy and imagination. As Slate's recent profile on You Are You states, "it is unknown if the kids at the camp will eventually identify as gay or transgender" but Camp 'You Are You'; "allows the kids to look at themselves in a completely different way."
Places like Camp 'You Are You' (whose name has been changed to protect its members and their families) are instrumental in providing a safe space for trans kids to express themselves freely, without fear of persecution or bullying. The American Camp Association has taken a decidedly pro-trans stance, highlighting the role that the American camp tradition can play in creating safe and welcoming spaces for trans kids; Camp Aranu'tiq has been welcoming trans kids for years.
As Bedford Hope, the father of a trans child, wrote in 2010, “The camp experience is surreal, a trip to a planet where we're normal. The kids run wild, doing kid stuff, including improvisational theatre and dance, lip-syncing to Lady Gaga. They prepare for (and fret over) the weekend's climax - a fashion show in which each child, in turn, will march down a runway in a get-up of their own devising. Until they run themselves ragged and then sit in circles in our rooms painting their nails and telling poop jokes. For once, we don't hover over them. It's safe here.”
It's safe here.
Of course, there remains a cohort of people frightened by what might happen should we let this marauding band of boys frolic freely in mounds of pink glitter and swathes of organza. We're talking Old Testament! Dogs and cats, living together! Mass hysteria!
LifeSiteNews quotes Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council in Washington, who told the Christian Post he "fears well-meaning parents may be doing more harm than good by bringing their boys into an environment that reinforces and celebrates their gender confusion."
The historical and ongoing existence of trans people is evidence enough to show that gender identity can't be dictated by outside forces. Instead, trans people experience discrimination and heartbreaking levels of violence and depression. And people like Sprigg worry that parents, accepting as they are of their children's gender variance, "may be doing more harm than good".
Views such as Sprigg's reflect a hysterical fear of biological masculinity blending with stereotypically feminine traits and pursuits. We have words that can be conveniently apply to girls who prefer the supposedly rough and tumble play of boys. Mostly, we call them tomboys. Because the pursuits of femininity are considered frivolous and dull, the cisgendered girls who claim more of an interest in the exciting activities of boys are often spoken about with a hint of pride and (especially if they grow into effortlessly attractive, straight women) rewarded for this early rejection of the superficial froth that characterises their gender.
But no such system of reward exists for boys and men who reject the tropes of their sex. What do we call biological males who play with femininity, or enjoy 'girly' activities? Society has a vast array of hateful language designed to diminish them, and by extension the femininity they align themselves with. Sissies, pussies, wimps. Fags. They are less, because to be a woman is to be less.
A biological male child who wants to wear dresses, play at being princesses and run fashion shows shouldn't be thought of as an aberration, or the product of a confused culture that wants to destroy masculinity and brainwash its young. As Kate Doak, a journalist and trans activist, says, “Gender is only one small part of what makes a person who they are. Experimenting, challenging ourselves and opening up doors are all natural and normal parts of life, regardless of who we are or where we live.”
Camp 'You Are You' and similar provide a much needed outlet for trans and non gender conforming kids. Morris' project shows how beautiful it looks when children are given the liberty to express themselves without fear of repercussions or shaming.
But won't it be marvellous when society reaches the point where all of its members can feel free to express themselves as they like without the rigidity of gender expectations oppressing them? Where a little boy can dress up as a Scottish princess and feel brave not because of the anatomy of his body but because of his heart?