How Outdoor Programs Are Empowering Transgender Youth
Camps and wilderness expeditions offer a refuge from prejudice and political battles, giving trans kids the tools they need to face future challenges
In mid-October, the American Academy of Pediatricians (APP) released its first ever policy statement for caretakers of transgender children and teenagers. The guide calls for adults to adopt a gender-affirming, nonjudgmental approach that helps trans kids feel safe in a society that often marginalizes or stigmatizes those seen as different. Even though transgender kids will face many challenges in life, the policy states, like all children, they can grow into happy and healthy adults when supported and loved throughout their development. Roughly one week later, the Trump administration announced it was considering defining gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth, a move that could eliminate the term transgender and, trans rights activists say, lead to discrimination based on sex. This isn’t the first effort by the administration to undermine transgender rights. In early 2017, the Trump administration rescinded Education Department guidelines recommending that students be allowed to use facilities and pronouns consistent with their gender identity.
For trans adults, this is infuriating and, for some, a call to activism. For trans youth, this open hostility and attack on their rights could have dire impacts on their mental health and development into adulthood.
But not if Perry Cohen can help it. Cohen, founder of the Venture Out Project, a nonprofit outdoor-education organization founded in 2014 for transgender kids that’s staffed almost entirely by transgender counselors, is creating a space where trans children can develop an indefatigable sense of themselves, a confidence that they are strong and they matter. “I don’t know a single trans or nonbinary child or adult who doesn’t feel the [political] attack directly,” says Cohen, who is also transgender. “Now we can be fired, or not hired, for being trans. We know that our government is trying to invalidate our identities.”
For transgender youth, this open hostility and attack on transgender rights could have dire impacts on their mental health and development into adulthood.
Cohen’s Venture Out Project and other organizations like Camp Aranu’tiq for trans and gender-variant youth are relying on traditional outdoor education and summer camp models to deliver an invigorating, affirming experience to trans kids. Both Cohen and Nick Teich, CEO and founder of Camp Aranu’tiq, had formative outdoor experiences in childhood that endowed them with confidence and, ultimately, contributed to each embracing his individual identity. Cohen and Teich each have transitioned to the gender they identify with. Driven by a desire to help others, they have become leaders in the outdoor education and summer camp spaces.
“It’s really important for adults who care for transgender kids to give hope and positivity in the climate we are in right now,” says Teich. “What we’re seeing now is an administration that says ‘We don’t believe you,’ ‘Get real,’ and ‘This is not who you are.’ ”
“Transgender kids are consumed with thoughts about who is going to ask them about their identity or judge them,” adds Teich. “We provide a place that is all about free play and the outdoors, where they don’t have to worry about the next person who is going to ask if they are a boy or a girl.”
Founded in 2009, Camp Aranu’tiq is a typical lake-based New England summer camp that offers activities like canoeing, archery, and rock climbing. Kids have bunkmates in rustic cabins. Campers and counselors are called by their preferred names and pronouns, they eat at communal tables, and they have no access to screens or devices.
The Venture Out Project facilitates backpacking and wilderness trips in New England and the Pacific Northwest for trans youth ages 13 to 19. The organization also coordinates day-hike meetups and a multi-day camping weekend for kids and allies, including family members and caregivers. Participants discover a supportive, physically challenging environment, and for many kids, it’s the first time in their lives that they’re with a trans community in real life. (Many transgender youth find support and friends online, says Cohen.) The combination of excelling at something hard in the outdoors, like summiting a peak or camping in a tent for the first time, with the empathetic students and staff creates an uplifting dynamic that typically manifests in increased confidence and self-acceptance, Cohen says. Although the program doesn’t explicitly explore what it means to be transgender (both Teich and Cohen emphasized that their programs are not about counseling), participants inevitably share their experiences and find comradery, advice, and the opportunity to help others like them.
“It’s really powerful to have instructors who have lived through these experiences and understand what it’s like to be misgendered,” says Cohen. “Many trans youth and adults have never been around trans folks for any extended period of time. They may have a strong online community, but to actually be in the presence of people like them is different.”
Although the program doesn’t explicitly explore what it means to be transgender, participants inevitably share their experiences and find comradery, advice, and the opportunity to help others like them.
In these programs, children are not separated—into sleeping groups, cabins, or otherwise—by gender. They all receive the same messaging from the adults in charge. For example, at the Venture Out Project, all backpackers learn what to do if you “squat when you pee, or if you happen to bleed during a trip,” says Cohen. “It’s simple: if you experience this bodily function, here’s what to do.”
The programs create community and strength, something transgender youth need to endure the challenges they face. According to the AAP policy statement, transgender youth face obstacles “in nearly every social context, from lack of understanding to outright rejection, isolation, discrimination, and victimization.” One survey of nearly 28,000 transgender respondents found that among those who were out or perceived to be transgender between kindergarten and eighth grade, 54 percent were verbally harassed, 24 percent were physically assaulted, 13 percent were sexually assaulted, and 17 percent left school because of maltreatment. Education and advocacy from the medical community on the importance of safe schools for youth who identify as transgender can have a significant and positive effect.
“Every day, trans and nonbinary people wake up to have our very existence up for debate,” says Cohen. “Even kids can’t escape it. Venture Out is in no way an escape. We are an incubator. With all that is going on and the constant assault of news and information, everyone needs a place to share stories, talk about issues, and build strength to go back into the fight.”
Both Aranu’tiq and the Venture Out Project offer scholarships to make camp accessible to a diverse population of kids. And more queer- and trans-specific camps are opening every year; check out a working list of them here.
The experience of attending camp or a wilderness expedition could prove transformative, say both Teich and Cohen. Results of a 2017 survey of Camp Aranu’tiq’s participants show that 92 percent felt more confident after attending Aranu’tiq, and 97 percent felt that they were part of a community afterward.
That echoes the feedback Cohen has gotten at the Venture Out Project. This summer he received a letter from a participant that said, “For the first time, I love myself not in spite of being trans, but because I’m trans.”