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Heller PhD candidate founds camp for transgender children

Published: September 14, 2012
Section: News


Nicholas Teich, a social worker and doctoral candidate at Brandeis’ Heller School, has founded nonprofit Camp Aranu’tiq, the U.S.’s first and only camp for transgender and gender-variant children aged eight through 15. Teich, who is a transgender male, founded Camp Aranu’tiq in 2010 after making it known that he had decided to begin the gender transition process. Teich was subsequently told he could not return to a camp in Maine that he had previously attended as a girl for 13 years.
“Growing up I attended a camp in Maine that I absolutely loved,” Teich said. “I went for eight weeks every summer. I was a camper, counselor and member of camp leadership for a total of 13 summers. I always wanted to be a boy and looked like one until adolescence when I grew my hair and tried to “fit in” more, though I never felt like I did. Because the word “transgender” wasn’t in the vernacular until the last decade or so, and resources were scarce, I didn’t realize that there were others like me and that what I was going through was more than just a “feeling” of being male; it was real! I transitioned at age 24 [five years ago].”
After recovering from his anger, Teich decided to found Camp Aranu’tiq. Since it’s founding in 2010, Aranu’tiq has welcomed many children for its annual one-week sessions in its locations in Connecticut and California, where half of the campers identify as boys, and half as girls. For the safety of its campers and counselors, the exact location of Aranu’tiq is not disclosed.
“I founded Aranu’tiq because I realized that kids who know they are transgender or gender-variant at a young age are very often rejected from overnight camps,” Teich explained. “Camps separate kids in terms of ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ and when a kid transitions from one gender to another, or is in-between genders, there is no space that allows for that. I wanted to create that space that would be safe and also give these kids friends who were going through the same thing they were.”
When first forming the camp, Teich chose “Aranu’tiq” for its name, because it is an indigenous Alaskan term that describes a person who embodies both male and female spirits. Teich and other Aranu’tiq staff members work entirely on a volunteer basis, and have received extremely positive feedback from campers and parents alike.
“I have received amazingly good feedback from parents and campers,” Teich said. “Many parents tell me that the experience has changed their child’s life. The vast majority of our campers keep in touch with each other on a regular basis and some of them tell me they ‘live for the week of camp.’ It’s pretty powerful and it’s wonderful to be able to create and maintain a space where the life-changing effects are able to be seen immediately.”
In an interview with The Boston Globe, Teich further explained that 100 percent of transgender children are bullied back home, and before the existence of Aranu’tiq, many parents feared their children would never be able to attend a camp due to bullying from other children. “People demonize these kids,” Teich told The Globe.
Aranu’tiq offers a typical camp schedule, including meals, five activity periods, rest periods and singing circles. The most important part of Aranu’tiq to campers, counselors and Teich alike, is that all campers feel safe and accepted in Aranu’tiq’s highly unique environment. Camp restrooms are not designated for boys or girls, instead they are designed to be used by all campers and counselors alike. Bunks on the other hand are segregated by the “gender spectrum, the masculine spectrum or the feminine spectrum,” Teich said to The Globe.
In addition to founding Aranu’tiq, Teich wrote “Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue” in March of 2012. “I wrote Transgender 101” because I felt that there was a lack of literature out there for ‘beginners’ or anyone who wanted to learn more about the topic. There are plenty of clinically-oriented books and autobiographies of transgender people, but nothing that explained things thoroughly without dragging on, and nothing that started from the beginning. So, I decided to write it,” Teich explained.
In “Transgender 101,” Teich offers a straight-forward and conversational approach to discussing exactly what it means to be transgender, the etymology of the word “transgender,” and how to come out to oneself.
Teich concluded by expressing one powerful hope. “I think in the future there will be [other camps] like [Aranu’tiq] because of the demand. My hope is to someday not need a camp like Aranu’tiq because all camps will seamlessly accept transgender youth into their programs.”