Gender Defiant

Summer Camps

The other day, after JJ applied for a job at our local health food store, they realized with alarm that the business might try to contact them by phone. Gen Z, ever anxious, is far more comfortable with texting. “This caller has a voicemail that has not been set up,” a monotone voice informed me whenever I tried calling JJ. It enraged me. I could not reach the kid on the very phone I’d purchased for them. But I employed the “chose your battles” approach and let it go. 

This time, I pointed out that they might want to set up their voicemail. Then it turned out they didn’t know how. If you expect younger generations to be tech savvy about things you are not, prepare to be disappointed. I grabbed the phone from JJ, determined to demonstrate my iPhone expertise. JJ’s phone’s language was set in francais. This posed a problem, as French is a language I neither read nor speak. 

JJ has been studying French for years: at school, with tutors, on their own, and at French Immersion Camp. According to tutors, their accent is excellent.  

French Immersion Camp was last summer: a little fantasy that came crashing to the ground. I’d heard so much about its magic. It was a collection of language “villages” set in rural Minnesota. Each village (and there were many) emulated the language and culture it represented. 

Facebook friends rhapsodized about the songs they learned there, which, they claimed, they still sang to their own children at bedtime. A certain president’s daughter was an alumna. Secretly, I loved that the camp was cultish and prestigious, but I was even more compelled by the prospect my kid would exit with a firmer grasp of French, further ensuring their future as a diplomat. I hoped they’d find friends with similar leanings. JJ, I thought, could very well find community with other adolescents who cared about learning languages. (Other nerds, I thought to myself.)

We’d talked about JJ going to French Immersion Camp for years. They may well have attended before they came out as trans, if not for COVID. Hearing that JJ was ready to toss this dream aside because of gendered dorms was one of the first obstacles I faced as a parent of a trans kid. 

I called the camp. Did they have nonbinary dorms? There had been discussions, they replied, but no.

Something felt off about this. I rallied and called the camp again. I spoke to a very nice lady, who assured me they had “several” trans campers and camp counselors, and it was her impression that trans folks were very much welcome. While they could not, at this time, change the gendered nature of the dorms, JJ was welcome to choose whichever dorm they felt comfortable staying in.

JJ decided they would stay in the boys’ dorm. And I started to set aside chunks of money. French Immersion Camp does not come cheap.

JJ, 13 at the time, had been taking testosterone for about six months before they climbed aboard that coach bus in Minneapolis that would carry them off, along with other campeuse, to Bemidji, Minn., that fateful July of 2022. 

When camp was over, I flew to Minneapolis and rented a car to pick JJ up. I was dying to see what the camp looked like, to meet the counselors, and to meet my child at the closure of what I expected would be an intense experience. JJ seemed fine, and appeared to have formed many friendships, most notably with the camp nurse, who had performed acupuncture on them for their anxiety. There was a presentation for the parents in which counselors and campers sang French songs and lullabies. JJ sat in the back, refusing to join in. (This had nothing to do with being trans; JJ hates singing.) 

I wanted them to use the bathroom before the drive back to Minneapolis. But the bathrooms in the main building, where everyone conducted their leave-taking, were gendered. Facing gendered bathrooms with a nonbinary kid is like arriving at a dead end. JJ refused to use either. I eventually convinced JJ to use the women’s room, while I kept guard, and we drove into town for a late breakfast. JJ was so accustomed to speaking French, they were inadvertently speaking it while we talked! Gleeful, I assumed the camp had been a great success.

French Immersion Camp, I would learn, was not so much a success as it was an experience. Stories poured out of JJ in the weeks following. It was clear they learned a great deal and were exposed to the cultures of several French-speaking countries. But then JJ told me they would not be going back to French Immersion Camp next summer. Not unless they could stay in a nonbinary dorm. They’d been misgendered frequently in the boys’ dorm, which struck them as ironic, given that they’d purposely chosen to stay in that dorm in order to identify as male. (JJ is trans-masc, which means they use “they/he” pronouns and very intentionally hope to pass as male. Keep in mind that they are still nonbinary. I know, it’s confusing. Fear not, I will go more in depth about gender expression in a future column.) And then there were the gendered bathrooms. It’s always the goddamned bathrooms, I muttered to myself.

They had made two very close friends. Both were trans. JJ wasn’t the only one who would choose a nonbinary dorm! I suspect many kids don’t even consider this camp because of the lack of nonbinary dorms.

I e-mailed the camp: would they consider offering a nonbinary dorm next season? They responded that while they’d discussed it, they did not anticipate being able to offer it in 2023. 

“But,” I argued, “The Swedish Village offers nonbinary dorms!” This fell on deaf ears.

Here is my main point. Saying something doesn’t make it so. Saying you welcome trans people and not having housing to accommodate them is a contradiction. You can say it all you want, but until you have legit nongendered bathrooms, don’t tell me you welcome trans kids and encourage me to pay you tons of money to place my trans kid squarely in a situation in which they are gaslit. Trans folks are constantly told to “get over it,” as if their need for a safe space is not legitimate. 

Also, as a dear friend told me, accommodating a trans person is not supporting them. Real support involves creating the spaces that allow trans folks to lead full lives. 

This summer, I sent JJ to a camp for LGBT+ teens. As my partner and I eased our car down a dirt road toward a campground in Vermont, we knew we were in the right place when we spotted the rainbow flag by the roadside. As we got closer, a sense of excitement filled the air. There was a clearly trans counselor waving a giant rainbow flag in the parking lot to welcome the campers. The kids getting out of cars and lugging their bedding and stuffed animals donned a variety of fashions and hair styles (though there was notably a lot of pink and purple hair), and yet you could tell they were all LGBTQ+. The parents following them sported t-shirts that proclaimed their allyship. One individual, a man with a beard, wore the t-shirt of an organization of inclusionary blacksmiths. 

I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes behind my sunglasses. And in that moment, I felt an enormous sense of relief that I hadn’t felt in a long time, if ever. It felt like putting a very heavy weight down. I did not know I had been carrying it. 

JJ would be safe here. JJ would be with people who understood them. For once, they would not have to worry about being misgendered or mocked. As a trans friend of mine told me recently, “I am only ‘trans’ around non-trans people.” JJ could be themself. And JJ would not have to worry about discrimination, violence, or the negation of their sense of self.

The clouds moved gently above the lush hillsides of Vermont. In a week, I would pick JJ up. And when I got there, JJ would not be sitting in the back, refusing to join in song. JJ would appear with a group of kids at the top of the hillside, having exited the “closing circle,” at which the counselors wound embroidery floss around the campers’ wrists to create for each a bracelet that would keep them all connected after camp. 

And then the strangest thing happened. After introducing me to numerous friends they’d made, JJ went in for a group hug with a few of them. (JJ does not generally “do” physical affection.) While doing so, they smiled a huge, teethy smile, their braces glinting in the sunshine.

Tina Carson can be reached at

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