Summer camps provide an excellent setting for all youth to socialize, learn, make friends, and enjoy themselves in a safe setting. For LGBTQ+ youth – especially trans youth – an inclusive camp can also provide deeply-needed social and emotional support.
For most LGBTQ+ youth, there are not many others who share their identity within their immediate school or community, causing many to struggle with exploring, expressing, or being themselves without fear of rejection, judgment, or harassment. Further compounding this outsider feeling, hate groups across the U.S. are currently targeting trans youth through an unprecedented wave of bills introduced in state legislators, including Virginia – and regularly flooding school board meetings with hateful and inaccurate rhetoric.
Camp Free2Be, located in Arlington, offers such an experience with a one-week day camp for transgender, nonbinary, and gender-diverse youth ages 6-14. They also provide a “Junior Counselor” program for teens ages 15-18 to serve as role models and assist with programming.
The camp was founded by Director Liz Matthews, who also facilitates the Northern Virginia chapter of He She Ze and We, a Richmond-based organization that serves families with transgender loved ones through support, education, and advocacy. She was seeking out a positive summer experience for her daughter, who is trans, but she wasn’t ready for a stay-away camp far out of state. “I wanted her to find her tribe – her community” said Matthews, who says the program has grown from eight campers to over twenty, with almost as many Junior Counselors, since its inception five years ago.
Registration for Camp Free2Be is currently open at bit.ly/FCNP0223cf. This year the camp is being held in collaboration with SMYAL, an organization focused on empowering LGBTQ+ youth.
Kelly Merrill, mother of a trans teenager in Hanover County, decided to send her son to a gender-diverse program after a positive experience at a playgroup for other trans kids. Merrill first brought her son to the group just after he came out as trans, at the age of ten, because he was feeling alone at school.
“He was the only trans person he knew or had even heard of.” Merrill recalled. “He was pretty sure he was strange and unlike anyone ever, which led to some serious isolation issues.” Coincidentally, Merrill was able to find the group through the aforementioned He She Ze and We, via their main operation in Richmond.
The initial experience didn’t go smoothly. “At first he was very upset by the experience, assuming he was the only trans kid there. I guess he was assuming he’d be able to tell.” said Merrill, who had to explain to him that the group was exclusively for other trans kids. “When we told him that every kid there was trans, he lit up in delight and relief!”
“For just one week of his life he got that chance to be just like everyone else.” Merrill added. Her son now attends a local summer camp that is affirming and friendly. He hopes to be a counselor there one day.