By Charlotte Lieberman
Within mainstream media, childhood and adolescence are typically depicted as “magical.” As a kid, I was probably my most anxious, self-doubting and socially-neurotic self. I felt estranged from my body, and mistrusting of my friendships. And all of this was as a cisgender, white, pretty privileged kid. What I mean to say is this: growing up is—or can be—hard.
I felt this to be especially true at my first summer sleepaway camp—where I went when I was nine years old. I began getting panic attacks there a couple of summers in, and I missed my parents more than I can adequately articulate. The memories are painful.
And then I found the camp that became my home. My place. I was myself. My friends knew me, heard me, saw me. It was then that I really tapped into that magic, that sense of authenticity, of friendship, of relinquishing fear, of learning to be myself, away from home.
Thanks to Nick Teich, CEO + Founder of Camp Aranu’tiq, there is now a place for trans and gender variant youth to go to camp, to experience the potential magic, and inevitable BS, of childhood and adolescence—away from home, under the roofs of bunks organized by transmasculine, transfeminine and non-binary. The camp nurtures kids and teenagers of all gender identities—but Teich is very clear that the camp is not therapeutic. It’s camp. A place for kids to be kids, to be themselves— to be known, heard, and seen by others.
I was fortunate enough to talk to Nick about how he embarked on this path of unconventional trans advocacy work—giving kids the simple opportunity to be kids, and be trans, at the same time.
Charlotte Lieberman: I’m interested in the particularity of your advocacy work for trans‑identified youth. Why summer camp?
Nick Teich: I'm trans myself. I transitioned in my early 20s after college, and I had gone to a girl's camp for years and years as a kid. I really loved it. It was a place where I could be me.
Although it was a girl's camp, most of the activities were very sports‑oriented. We also all had to wear a uniform of white t-shirts and blue shorts, so we all looked the same. I was able to be me with my short hair, and I fit in really well. I went there for eight weeks every summer.
As I got older, I was not able to go back because I had a year‑round job. I was a camper there, and then I worked there. I was there for 13 years.
Then I started to volunteer at a one-week long camp, which was a different camp from the one I went to, because that was the time frame I could get to be at camp, to get my kicks and help a good cause at the same time. I started working at a charity camp, volunteering there one week a year. When I told them that I was transitioning, they said that I couldn't come back for the good of the kids.
That was a big shock to me. I had been there several years, and I knew the people that ran it. I was very surprised. They had their board on the phone and a lawyer on the phone, and they said, "You can't come back for the good of the kids."
I have to explain to people that that was not the camp I went to.
So like I said, that was really shocking to me, and I started to think about kids who know that they're trans as kids and are able to articulate that. They don't even have to know that they're transitioning but know that they are not fitting in gender‑wise, so to speak, with their classmates or people at home.
I talked to some parents who said that there was really nowhere for the kids to go, and were resigned to the fact that their kids would not get to go to overnight summer camp. So I decided that I wanted to start a camp.
It would be a one-week long thing on the side I did because I had so much camp experience and I had experience as a camp administrator at the camp I went to.
I read up on nonprofits and got it started. It was a combination of my love for camp, my being trans, and then this thing that happened to me and seeing that there needed to be a place for these kids.
I got together some friends who I thought would be really good as a board, and we incorporated the nonprofit and started to get donations. We were able to do the first summer tuition‑free for 41 campers.
CL: There are obviously other youth‑centric communities one could do this kind of work in—like after-school programs, weekend extracurriculars, even school itself. But clearly you have a history with camp. Would you attribute your decision to funnel your advocacy work into camp simply because of your personal history? Or are there other reasons?
NT: It’s a few things. An overnight camp can accommodate kids from all over the country, really all over the world. We have kids who come from other countries. After-school programs for kids are usually right in their community whereas we can bring in kids from really everywhere.
The main thing, though, is that overnight camp is a special thing. It is a special medium that I think is so important because it teaches independence. It brings you outside your comfort zone. You're living with people 24/7. You develop friendships and bonds with them that you cannot develop any other way—not in an afternoon.
There's something that can happen within one week, and now we have really expanded that. But even within one week, you can make these bonds that are really special and different from something you can do. Camp as a medium is really important.
CL: Related to that, I was wondering if you could highlight certain things about how the camp runs itself that are particular to creating a nurturing place for trans‑identified and gender‑nonconforming youth. Or is it just that creating a camp for trans youth is the mission statement and therefore the camp runs itself as any other camp would but happens to be accommodating for these children?
NT: The latter, really. The most specific thing is that mission. We don't do any specific advocacy there. We don't do groups or anything. We have the kids just be kids.
Within that, they end up talking about their gender and all of the things that go along with that among themselves, with the staff, the volunteers—but that's really something they often do if they want. If they don't want to talk about it, then they don't have to.
We feel like a lot of these kids are constantly talking about their gender to therapists, to people who are asking outside of camp, so camp is just a place where they can, if they want, try to forget about that and just be a kid truly.
CL: That’s amazing. How do living arrangements work? Sleeping and bathroom stuff. What are the logistics like on a granular level?
NT: The bathrooms are all communal bathrooms. There's one community-style bathroom for each cabin cluster. Then there's a shower house. They are all “any gender, all genders.” To get a little bit more integrated for the showers, we have times for each cabin to shower.
What we do is we split up the cabins into the following categories, trans‑feminine spectrum which is anyone who identifies as female or feminine and is typically assigned “male” at birth. Then trans‑masculine, which is the exact opposite. Then gender‑neutral, we've always offered a gender‑neutral cabin, but we have never gotten enough people interested in a specific age group.
If we have two 9‑year‑olds and four 15‑year‑olds who chose gender neutral, we can't really make that work.
CL: That makes sense.
NT: Within a given gender, there are age groups. Let’s say there are several kids who are age 14 who identify more non‑binary or genderqueer, we will put them with each other. Even if someone is masculine, they might just fill a trans‑masculine spot in a genderqueer cabin. We don't really identify them as such.
CL: It sounds like a lot of the work you are doing could be just as applicable, in a way, to a larger audience if it were able to scale somehow—perhaps even to include cisgender kids. I wonder if you feel that it needs to remain connected to the mission.
NT: I think that there are a lot of camps and other programs that are starting to be more loose with gender, but I think it's hard. You might have someone who says, "Oh, this sounds like a place I would want to go," that's less binary just because they like that community better. That's not the same as a trans kid attending a camp for trans people, because there are the people who think of it as a positive thing for comfort or advocacy. Then there are people who are like, "This is me. This is my experience. I need this community."
The former is something that is becoming a lot more common, because there are camps saying, "You know what? Let's just make all our bathrooms gender‑neutral, and let's have gender‑neutral cabins. Let's stop this traditional thing.” And I think that works for a lot of people and it’s being done. What makes us more unique is the specific population.
It's funny. When we have family camps, we include siblings and parents. At our last family camp, I had at least three sets of parents who came up to me and said that their cis gender child wants to come to Aranu'tiq for the summer because they had so much fun. We actually had one of them, a boy, who said, “I wish I was born a girl that turned into a boy so I could go to camp here."
CL: That is incredible, and funny. On that note, I guess, I'm curious about the parents. I've read other interviews with you and saw that you have said that there is a high percentage of LBGTQ parents of children who come to camp. Is that right?
NT: Yeah, there is. I've never been able to specifically compare it to other camps, but my assumption is yes. I don't know why that is, but I have a couple of theories. It's mostly two‑mom families.
I think that they are more in tune with actually listening to their kids who are talking about gender, who might be saying, "I may be trans.” In contrast to a typical straight, cisgender couple who has never encountered queerness in their life. They might be like, "Oh yeah, you want to be a boy. That's cute." Whereas somebody who is in the queer community might be more able to say, "Hey, this is something. This is real,” or at least “This could be real."
The second part being access to resources in LBGTQ communities where they can go and talk to other queer people and say, "My kid is feeling this way. Where do I go from here? What can I do?" and then getting those answers.
That's just a theory that I have because I can't think of any other reason why we would specifically have more parents who are LGBTQ, short of saying something genetic, which, obviously, no one really has any idea about that.
CL: How do you find people/recruit/hire administrators, counselors, volunteers? I imagine there's some degree of self‑selection, people who find out about camp and want to come.
And I know you said there are trainings. I know you don't focus on gender at the camp itself, but I imagine you don't want people who aren't informed working with the kids. I'm just curious to know about that process.
NT: Most of our counselors, like our camp counselors who live in the bunks, and our activity counselors, are all volunteers. Our administrative staff, the leadership team (what we call the A & L Teams) and some of our nurses and kitchen staff members are paid.
We are lucky in that people find us. We have people even wanting to volunteer, many more people than we can even accommodate. I would say the cause is word of mouth. It's just the most common way that both campers and staff find us.
First, we have volunteer applicants fill out what we call a pre‑application, which just tells us more about them, and whether they're going to fit into the needs we have.
We might need more counselors who are transfeminine or something. We might only be able to take a certain number, or we might need people who have more camp experience, things like that.
Then when we go through that, they go through a full application process with interviews and references, and background checks. I would say somewhere around two‑thirds to three‑quarters of our staff/volunteers are trans‑identified or somehow identify in that community.
I would say the other quarter to third are cisgender, but maybe 90 percent of those people are queer, LGB, something like that. There is just personal experience with people who are trans.
We typically like to talk to people about the fact that, especially if they're trans, that they're going to encounter some personal feelings that they may never have encountered when they're faced with 100 or 130 trans kids.
These kids are getting a completely different experience probably than you did as a kid. They're lucky, in some ways. People who are really still entrenched, struggling with coming out, and just bogged down by that typically are people that we ask to just wait a little while until they're more secure in their identify, and they feel like they can really give back.
Our number one thing is, "Camp is for the camper." We're not looking to be a therapy program for adults, so for the most part, we get people who are ready in their lives, and ready to concentrate on the kids, and are excited about that. They are wonderful, and whether they're cisgender or transgender, or whatever, they come to us with a good background.
Because we have so many people interested, if we had someone who was like, "Yeah, I'm really interested in trans issues, but I know nothing about trans people," probably that person's not going to make it very far, because we have so many people who are so well‑versed in trans issues.
Then what we do is we have a 48‑hour training before camp starts. We're actually going to do some more than that.
We're going to do some integrated Web videos that we send to them beforehand. We've had that training for a lot of how to deal with camp and campers. Also the gendered language, and what are appropriate things to say to the campers. For instance, we train counselors not to say to a kid, "Oh, attagirl," or, "Girls, come here," or things like that. Let's just keep it with "campers." We do that type of training. Then we do definitely, since a lot of times people struggle with mental health issues because of how they're treated, mostly, we do a lot of training around that as well.
CL: Related to the mental health point: do you find that there are instances of bullying at the camp ever, even though the community is so inclusive?
NT: We definitely have the social hierarchies, the cliques, and things that are unfortunate.
We do our best among the staff to deal with that. A lot of it can happen when the staff are not there, because the kids are walking to another activity, or they're just in their free period, hanging out, and the staff can't hear what they're saying. There's a lot of dating drama that goes on. I would say it's very typical of other camps in that way, that we aren't, certainly not immune to that, because they won’t be making fun of their gender, but they'll pick something else.
CL: Of course. Kid stuff. To conclude, I’d love for you to share any highlights or stories of things that happened this summer that are either just personally gratifying, or could maybe provide an implied takeaway for other organizations of what type of changes are available to children who are given an opportunity to feel authentic in a social space.
NT: I can give you our stats from our last year's surveys that we gave to campers.
At least 93 percent of campers said that they feel more comfortable with their gender than they did before Aranu'tiq, have more confidence than before attending Aranu'tiq.
They have better tools to get through difficult times in their lives after attending Aranu'tiq, and they are more part of a community of transgender, gender-variant, gender non‑conforming people after attending Aranu'tiq.
That's really what we just want to instill, is the confidence, and the resilience. The fact that they can get better tools to get through difficult times, that's great. That just means that they're using their relationships. Your other question?
CL: Oh, would you mind sharing just an anecdote or two about a moving thing that happened or some extraordinary moment you maybe witnessed?
NT: There's so many. One of the stories I like to tell was during the first year of camp. It was the first or second year. There was a kid who was complaining of a stomach ache, and was meeting with his counselor who was trans.
The counselor was telling him that they were married, and they had kids. The kid was just amazed that that was possible, and didn't have a stomach ache anymore after having that discussion, and said, "I don't have to go the nurse anymore." That was a great moment of our counselors just being wonderful role models, and being able to talk about themselves and that being enough for the kids to feel like, "I'm going to be OK."
Not that marriage and kids is everything to everyone, but all of our counselors are successful in some way that encourages kids to look up to them. Stuff like that happens all the time. There's a lot of stories like that, really amazing and special. It definitely keeps me going.
Charlotte Lieberman is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor whose work often concerns the confusing journey of self-acceptance, feminism, body image, healthy communication and relationships, and meditation. Through her own writing, Charlotte hopes to inspire empathy and empower readers to feel happier and healthier. Her articles have been featured in Cosmopolitan, The Harvard Business Review, Marie Claire, ATTN, Issue, i-D, Sonima, mindbodygreen, Refinery29 and her poetry has been published by The Boston Review, The Colorado Review and Nat.Brut. You can find her at her website.