Disco-Ball Dresses and Spandex

A dispatch from transgender camp for kids.

The face of a young man in a baseball cap fills the screen at the center of a circle of 30 or so children.”It’s Johnny!” they yell, meaning Johnny Weir, the “flamboyant,” figure-skating Olympian. * The kids are part of an annual gathering of gender-variant and transgender kids—kids born boys who look and act like girls. Outside of this camp weekend, it’s rare for them to hear “how great I think you all are … being true to yourselves,” as Weir tells them. He says he loves the electric-blue spandex suit with the lime-green lightning bolt designed by one boy. He tells a 6-year-old that, no, he doesn’t have a girlfriend, but one day he would like to have a family of his own. And, yes, “Bad Romance” was his favorite song to skate to. “I’ve fallen,” he tells them, referring to the ice, not sin. “I’ve screwed up. The thing is just sparkle so much that nobody notices. Yeah, that’s it. Sparkle! We’ve got to sparkle!”

Welcome to the guarded world of families with gender-variant kids, where a word like sparkle can move you to tears. Started by a parent support group out of Children’s National Medical Center, this year the camp hosted 25 families and was held in a rural retreat a three-hour drive from Chicago. Most of the “Camp I Am” kids will one day end up somewhere in the GLBTQ spectrum—maybe cross-dressers, gender queer, or another term yet to be invented. But if past experience is any indication, the majority of our girly-boys will one day consider themselves straightforwardly gay. For the kids who turn out to be truly born in the wrong body, their parents will continue to wrestle with pronouns, possible hormonal intervention, and possible surgery down the road. In the meantime, many of us have learned to accept ambiguity, “holding all options open,” as some supportive therapists say. Many of us attempt to avoid labels for something that may or may not fade away in a year—or 10.

Of course, humans—and particularly parents—despise ambiguity, and things without labels. In my family, we have wrestled for a decade with who to tell and when, exactly, to tell them. Gendered bathrooms in public places? Women use stalls, and so does my son. Teachers? Definitely, every year, the full debriefing. Summer camps? Yes. Family members? For us, everyone was cool (the gay brother-in-law had paved the way with the Christian mother-in-law); for others, disclosure has meant losing relationships with grandparents, brothers, sisters, churches. Of course, all nuance and delicacy would fall apart when my younger son would tell strangers that the older child with the hair to his waist and the pink hello kitty shirt was his brother, not his sister.

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.

Our kids are from Boston and San Francisco, the Great Salt Lake, New Jersey, Kansas City, and Mississippi. Other than the usual suspects (liberals, therapists, yoga instructors), the parents here are Republican, Catholic, Mormon, or otherwise conservative. Some tried to “fix” their kids as the best psychiatrists of the ‘70s used to advise (and as some still do). But when the fix didn’t take, the parents at the camp decided they preferred a happy kid to a normal one, and they ended up here, watching the annual fashion show.

A boy in black leather pants and a blondish forelock spiraling above smoky eyes frets on the porch outside the runway, a raised platform flanked by recessed seating, familiar to anyone who knows or cares about fashion. An African-American boy cavorts in a flashing disco-ball dress. Lee, the first grader who next year will socially transition to Leela (a change of names and pronouns without medical intervention) smiles angelically and throws his/her arms around the boy twice her/his size. Kent hurls a paper pom-pom in my face as I snap his photo with my chunky DSLR. A toddler in a pink tutu bumps into my knees. The undisguisedly pretty gender-queer girl with the magic marker mustache and goatee poses with her long-haired, cis-gendered (that means normal) sister. Is it nature, not nurture, that separates our kids from the normatives? Talk to the experts, and you’ll discover that nobody knows. The pair of twins attending, one girly, one not, only deepen the mystery.

The first year, the fashion show felt odd to me, as if we were goading them, crafting a troupe of transgender JonBenéts *. But the truth is stranger than that. We’ve learned that this desire to strut, vamp, slink, march down the runway in tuille, chiffon, lamé, and feather boas, teetering on go-go boots or towering heels comes from deep inside them—at the core of their identity. We couldn’t squash it if we tried.

My wife wears no makeup, owns no high heels, and works as a senior programmer analyst; I’m the science-fiction-graphics geek in the beard and Birkenstocks. No older sister. No broken home. No trauma. No trans family, no trans friends, no trans role-models. A gender-normative younger brother. This Princess-Ballerina-Mermaid world came out of nowhere. Well, there’s the millionaire gay uncle on my wife’s side, and a great uncle whose hunting buddy wept openly at his funeral. So maybe it was always there in hiding.

On the runway, the little kids tend towards the Disney princess, pink tutus, and rhinestone tiaras. The older boys range from handsome short-haired young men in evening gowns to lavishly attired divas in wigs and makeup whom you’d never guess were anatomically male. The boys here for the first time sometimes wear street clothes and a few accessories. They didn’t really believe this was real, that it was actually going to happen. Next year, they’ll sparkle.

The show itself is a bit too intense for me, like Christmas morning, or some other occasion that can’t possibly live up to expectations. I prefer the moments outside, before the show, when I can take the photos that no one but the families will ever see. The light is much better, outside the barn.

After it’s over, we pack and load the rental car so we can drive back to O’Hare airport and home. In the meantime, the kids enjoy themselves to the last possible second. My son’s head is cradled in Lance’s lap. His hair is splayed out in a tangled halo. Lance is the group’s premier thespian, the orchestrator of a dozen skits and songs at the talent show. In Oscar’s lap lies Leela’s head, blond ringlet curls framing a perpetually laughing, cherub’s face. We all assumed he was a sibling the first year we met him, a bio-girl, and not one of the kids. Next year, he’ll use female pronouns at school—or, rather, she will. I relish these last moments, but soon it will be time to return to America.

My kid once screamed at a classmate, who wondered out loud why he was wearing the pink skirt, “It’s a free country!” We who have allowed our kids to be themselves, if sometimes only behind closed doors, know it’s not completely free yet. But we’re working on it.

Correction, Aug. 2, 2010: The original version of this piece said that Johnny Weir is openly gay. He is not. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) The piece also originally spelled the first name of JonBenét Ramsey incorrectly. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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