Nick Teich builds camps for transgender youth
Published: Monday, September 10, 2012
Updated: Monday, September 10, 2012 16:09
With days filled with sports, drama, arts and crafts and rock-climbing, a day at Camp Aranu’tiq doesn’t feel all that different from most other summer camps. But founded in 2010 by Nick Teich, a third year Ph.D. candidate in the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Camp Aranu’tiq is the first camp in the world for transgender youth, according to Teich.
A weeklong summer camp for kids ages eight to 15, Camp Aranu’tiq seeks to provide transgender and gender-variant youth with a fun camp experience and to foster leadership skills in a place where campers are able to express themselves comfortably, according to the camp’s website. Located in Southern New England and Southern California (the exact locations are not disclosed by Teich for the youths’ safety), the idea for the weeklong camp was conceived when Teich realized the need for a camp environment for transgender kids.
Teich himself spent 13 summers at a camp before he began identifying as transgender. It wasn’t until he was older that he began to think about other kids who do, as well. Recognizing that camps are gendered for reasons including the separation of cabins, Teich, a 29-year-old social worker from Newton, Mass., realized that transgender youth had no comfortable place to go to enjoy the summer camp experience.
Around the time he realized this, Teich received a call from another camp where he knew the directors and had volunteered as a girl before he identified as male. “Once I announced that I was going to transition, they basically told me not to come back. They outright told me not to come back,” Teich said.
Knowledgeable enough about the workings of a camp from his own experience, Teich decided to begin a camp of his own where transgender youth could find a weeklong oasis. “I knew that there’d be enough kids because I had started learning about trans kids and meeting them and working with them in different capacities, so I knew that wouldn’t be a problem,” he said.
After gathering some friends and putting together a board of directors, Teich began his research on how to start a nonprofit organization. Reaching out to donors and fundraising for the camp, Teich gathered 41 campers and 20 staff members for the first camp of its kind. Though there are a handful of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer camps geared toward gay and lesbian teens and some organizations that arrange retreats for transgender youth and their families, Camp Aranu’tiq is the first camp solely for transgender youth, according to Teich.
“There’s nothing that distinguishes it, except for the campers, which is very intentional,” said Teich, who noted that no one spending a day at his camp would know that it is different. “What we want to give these kids is a normal experience,” Teich said. “A lot of times at home they’re constantly having to defend their gender or talk about it, go to therapy, or all this stuff that we just want to give them a break from.”
Evenings are spent playing capture the flag, sitting around a camp fire or running around on scavenger hunts.
“We have parents and kids who have said that we’ve saved their kids’ lives. These kids now know that there are other kids like them, and even though the camp is only a week, they keep in touch,” Teich said. According to surveys the camp sends out to its campers, about 80 percent of campers keep in touch with one another on a regular basis during the year, and, of those, 96 percent speak on a daily basis.
“They are keeping in touch year-round, and that’s a big part of what we encourage because we want when they leave camp for them to be able to go back to their schools and their home being empowered and not feeling stuck for the next 51 weeks,” Teich said.
The camp has continued its success, enrolling 65 campers at the New England location this year and opening a new campsite on the west coast. Starting with 36 campers in California, Teich is confident the number will be up by at least 20 for next summer.
Equally strong is the volunteer list that has grown so long that many are being turned away for positions to work at the camp. While about half the staff members identify as transgender or gender-variant, the other half do not. “We definitely like the mix because we feel the kids should have role models of all different types,” Teich explained.
While Teich is wrapping up the third summer of Camp Aranu’tiq, he is also beginning his third year as a Ph.D. candidate at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, where he is working on a dissertation related to the bullying of transgender youth. While his work is not focused specifically on camps, much of Teich’s inspiration has come from Camp Aranu’tiq. In addition to his dissertation work, Teich wrote a book that came out last spring titled Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue.
“A lot of my thinking of that has come out of seeing the kids at camp and knowing that when they go home to their schools at home they’re harassed and bullied,” Teich said. “And to think that such wonderful kids have to endure this, what does that mean for their lives ahead of them?”
The word Aranu’tiq is a word from the Chugach Alaskan tribe that means somebody who embodies both the male and female spirit and is revered for it. “In that culture, people who were in between genders were thought to have natural powers and were people who were looked up to,” Teich said. “I thought it was cool to have the kids know that there are other cultures that don’t see this as a bad thing.”