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Camp unites transgender kids on outskirts

There are few places transgender youth feel accepted. Camp Aranu’tiq was created to change that.

Kids headed to the pool at Camp Aranu’tiq in Connecticut.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Kids headed to the pool at Camp Aranu’tiq in Connecticut.

On the volleyball court, a boy spiked a shot and his teammates cheered. Nearby, some campers lay on mats, doing yoga stretches. A girl executed a series of cartwheels. Over in drama, the kids performed a “cranky old lady” talk show; everyone cracked up.

Before the week was over, there were campfires, Capture the Flag, a skit night, and a talent show. Camp Aranu’tiq seemed like a traditional New England camp, complete with requisite lake, rustic cabins, and 65 shrieking campers.

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Only when you see tags around campers’ necks, with the words “(HE)” or “(SHE)” under their names, do you realize something’s different here. It is the only camp of its kind in the country, a camp for transgender kids, where idle chatter on sports, music, school, and teenage crushes blends right in with talk about “coming out,” “transitioning,” puberty blockers — and bullying.

For privacy and safety reasons, Camp Aranu’tiq has never allowed media inside, but recently let a Globe reporter and photographer spend a day at its wooded Connecticut grounds during its weeklong session in late August. Campers, parents, and staff are required to sign a confidentiality contract, and the exact location is not revealed until the child is enrolled. “They know it’s a safety issue,” said founder and director Nick Teich.

Aranu’tiq, he said, strives to remove the fear and isolation that transgender children experience back home. According to a 2007 study by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, 90 percent of transgender youth report being verbally harassed and more than half physically harassed. Two-thirds of them say they felt unsafe in school. Many have changed schools. Some just upped and moved, to a new city or new state.

A safe haven

Teich, who lives in Newton, started the nonprofit camp in Connecticut in 2010. A transgender male, he had a personal interest in providing a safe, fun place for kids who live on the outskirts of society. Teich loved the camp in Maine he had attended as a girl. He was there for 13 years, as a camper, counselor in training, counselor, and finally, member of the leadership team.

Some of those camp colleagues then began their own weeklong charity camp, where Teich volunteered for three summers. But five years ago, when he announced he was transitioning into becoming a man, he got a call from the head of that charity camp, with a lawyer on the line. “You can’t come back for the good of the kids,” he was told.

“It took me months to get over my serious anger,” said ­Teich, 29, a social worker who is pursuing a doctorate in social policy from Brandeis. “Then I said, you know what? I know a lot about camp, and there are kids who don’t fit into society, gender-wise. Why don’t I just start my own camp?”

In 2010, he put together a board of friends and co-workers and leased space for a week from a regular summer camp. He put out the word on various transgender sites. He chose the name Aranu’tiq, which is an indigenous Alaskan word for a person who was thought to embody both the male and female spirits.

In August 2010, the camp opened its doors to 41 children, ages 8 to 15, most of them from New England. This year, in ­July, Teich opened a branch in California; 36 kids enrolled. At both camps, he sees joy in the campers’ faces and hears relief in their parents’ refrain: “I never thought my kid would be able to go to camp.”

Society has long stigmatized transgenderism; it is included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — though many physicians and psychologists disagree with that designation.

“People demonize these kids,” said Teich. “But this is who they are. The other choice for many of them is going to be suicide.”

Most of the campers are on medication for anxiety and depression, he said, and “100 percent are bullied back home.” According to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, nearly half of transgender youth have seriously contemplated suicide, and one quarter report having made an attempt.

Before he found Aranu’tiq, Damien, who lives in Florida and whose mother asked that his last name not be used to protect him from abuse, had been hospitalized several times for depression. In middle school, a student tried to choke him in the hallway. Once, as he was walking to see a movie, a car swerved at him and passengers screamed: “Faggot!”

“Before camp, I was really shy and not confident,” said Damien, 15, who has attended camp all three sessions it has been open. “Now, I feel less alone and way more confident.” He was relaxed and chatty as he described some of the “hilarious” narrow escapes he and his bunkmates have had in gym class and on camping trips, trying to hide their private parts.

Sporting a mohawk tousled on top and a black Antischism T-shirt, Damien talked about what camp has meant to him. “Here, I realized there isn’t anything wrong with me and there were people like me,” he said. In fact, transgender topics don’t come up all that often at camp, he said. “It’s like it’s not even there, but if we want to talk, we feel totally safe talking to each other.”

His mother said the camp has changed her son’s life. “It saves kids’ lives,” says his mother, Tori, who is now on the board of directors of Aranu’tiq. “It’s the one place on this Earth that he can relax and be just like any other kid — to romp and play without judgment or ridicule.”

In fact, she reports, since camp ended in late August, her son has been “Skyping and chatting with his bunkmates nonstop.” Many of the campers remain in close touch and some get together during the school year.

Damien, like some of the others, had been on hormone blockers to keep the estrogen at bay and last year started taking testosterone.

Gender spectrum

Two years ago, Nicole Maines arrived at camp an anxious 12-year-old and is now the campus queen, known for her dramatic bent. She has an identical twin brother at home in Maine but has always felt that she was a girl.

At the talent show this year, Nicole led a group who wrote, directed, costumed, and performed a skit based on the game and movie, “Clue.” Nicole was Mrs. White — the role played by Madeline Kahn in the 1985 movie. She was funny and melodramatic, and got loud feedback from the audience.

“We’re all trans here,” she said. “There’s nothing different among us. We don’t have to worry about that.” This year, she was “big sister” to a new 8-year-old camper, checking in on her regularly. “She’s having a good time,” Nicole reported.

At Aranu’tiq, the “Girls” and “Boys” bathroom signs are covered by signs that say, “All Camp Restroom.” But the bunks are segregated by “gender spectrum,” Teich said: “the masculine spectrum or the feminine spectrum.”

About half of the campers identify as girls, the other half as boys.

They will tell you they knew from their earliest years that they were assigned the wrong birth gender. At camp, the adolescent girls — born boys — look like girls: clear faces, some budding hips, nail polish, earrings, pony tails, shaved legs, bras. The boys — born girls — look like boys: baggy shorts, T-shirts, the occasional hat, some stubble.

But some are “in between,” Teich said. These “gender-variant” kids are not quite sure where they fit in. Like the teenager who’s a boy at home but at camp can get his nails polished and carry a purse. Or the little girl who feels — and looks — like a boy but hasn’t yet started to live as one.

“Gender isn’t always as cut and dried as people think,” said Teich.

If the kids are self-conscious anywhere at camp, it may be at the pool. Gender-reassignment surgery, if they choose it, is not done until at least age 18. At Aranu’tiq, campers are allowed to wear what they please in the pool.

The girls tend to wear bikini tops with shorts or little skirts, while the boys wear knee-length swim trunks but leave their T-shirts on. Some, Teich said, wear a binder to flatten their chests. The few who have had chest surgery display bare chests — with horizontal scars.

Jordan Koronkowski — “Korn” at camp — said he felt suicidal when he finally decided two years ago that he had to live as a boy. “Ever since I was born, I knew I was a boy,” said Koronkowski, 13, who lives in California. Other children tease him and, he said, he has few friends outside camp.

This was his second summer at Aranu’tiq in Connecticut, but he also attended the new California camp. Last summer, he met his best friend at camp, and the two keep in touch during the school year. “Me and him, we talk about anything,” said Koronkowski. “If we have girl trouble, we talk about it. He told me I was like a brother to him.”

At Aranu’tiq this year, he developed a crush on another camper. “She held my hand and kissed it,” he said. “I think she likes me.”

Another camper, Chris Redick, who lives in upstate New York, met his girlfriend at camp last summer; she was back this year. “People here like me for who I am,” said Chris, 14.

Who is he? “I’m an artist, a poet, a musician.”

Like most camps, Aranu’tiq has its little romances. There is also gossip, and kids who don’t listen to counselors. “Adolescents are difficult,” said Teich. “It’s not about transgender. It’s just your typical adolescent obnoxiousness.” That particular day, in fact, counselors had to deal with hurt feelings and apologies after one girl had written something snide about another.

At lunch — one day, it was chicken and cheese quesadillas, brown rice, and broccoli — the kids heartily sing the camp song written by campers that first summer: “Aranu’tiq, a great place to be. I love this camp, I love this camp, ’cause I can be me!” But the camp anthem is Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.”

Except for the chef, the staff is entirely volunteer. Since the start, Teich and his team have not taken any salaries.

Many of them take a week of vacation from work to come to camp, and pay their way to get there. Half the staff is transgender. All go through an orientation session, where they are told to respect boundaries in discussing gender identity with campers.

“We don’t want staffers talking about their specific medical intervention,” said Teich. “And if a kid asks, ‘What do you think I should do?’, we tell them that needs to be a family decision.”

Penelope Wilhelm is a transgender woman from Quincy who has been a counselor from the start.

“My childhood was incredibly isolated,” said Wilhelm, who is 42. She has long, dark hair and was dressed in lilac pants and shirt. She was married in December. One of her campers was the flower girl, another was ring bearer, and at least 20 others attended the wedding.

Wilhelm said it’s important to have a mixed staff of those who are trans and those who are not. “It’s good for the kids,” she said. “It’s easy to be accepted by transgender people, and they understand each other. But when a ‘normal person’ ” — she used her fingers for quotation marks — “accepts them, it means more, even for us adults. It validates us as real people.”

The camp drama teacher is a transgender woman who is married and has two adopted children. “I came to camp to celebrate life with these kids,” said Leslie, who only wanted to use her first name because she lives in a small town where few know her story. “When I was their age, I couldn’t even voice it, much less have a place like this.”

A compass for older kids

Last year, on the first night of camp, a 9-year-old boy was anxious and homesick and asked to see the camp nurse. While he stood in line one day talking with Leslie, who is curvy and blonde, he realized that she was transgender, and had a family.

“Transgender people can adopt?” he asked her.

“When I said yes, I literally watched his color and expression change,” said Leslie. “His face was flooded with relief and he said, ‘We can go back to the cabin now.’ ”

Tyler Sanchez, 15, is from California and attended both Aranu’tiq West and East this summer. “Here, you don’t feel as dysphoric as you usually are,” said Tyler. “No one’s going to bug you or make fun of you.”

His mother has also benefited, he said, by meeting other supportive parents. “She just didn’t really like it,” he said of his transition to being the boy he has always felt he was. “But she gets it a lot better now.”

Like the others who will be older than 15 next summer, Tyler has aged out of camp. When they speak of leaving Aranu’tiq behind, the older kids look doleful. But Tyler brightens: “I am definitely coming back as a volunteer when I’m 21.”

At the campfire one night, as the week wound down, Teich gave Tyler and the other seniors a compass bearing the camp’s name. Whenever you feel lost, he told them, let this be your guide.

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story implied that a Maine camp Nick Teich had attended as a young girl told him years later that he could not return when he was transitioning into becoming a man. It was a separate charity camp that told him to not return.

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