Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Camp You Are You

Recently, Slate ran an article on You Are You, a summer camp for children who were assigned male at birth and who would like to have two weeks in which they are free to dress in feminine attire.  The article, illustrated with photographs by Lindsay Morris, has gotten a lot of attention in my online social circles, and I wanted to reflect on it.

(The photo on the left is not one of Morris' photos, which are copyrighted; it's a portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a young boy.  No, he wasn't crossdressing--young boys wore frilly frocks in his day.  Gender norms change a lot over time. . .  But you can look at Lindsay Morris' photos by clicking here.)

I celebrate camp You Are You for giving children and their families a safe space to enjoy freedom of gender expression.  What I want to do here is to discuss the article, and the commentary on it I've encountered in my online milieu.  I'm not going to attempt to respond to the public comments on the Slate site, as reading such comment sections often makes a sane person despair of the human race.  Instead I want to address the issues raised by people with good intentions.

As such articles go, the Slate article is a good one.  I appreciate the framing of camp You Are You in the article as being about the joys of gender expression, rather than about "tragic" children's lives, which is a more common and frustrating trope.  Now, the subtitle of the article is "A Boys' Camp to Redefine Gender."  I appreciate the recognition that a person--child or adult--can identify as male but prefer a feminine gender expression. People so often assume that gender identity and gender expression need to match, which is silly--I myself know a young boy who is both very clear that he is male, and very, very glittery and feminine in his presentation. He's lucky enough to have parents who support him in his desire to wear what makes him happy, and correct others who say "what a lovely girl you have" in a matter-of-fact manner.

All of that said, I see that this is a camp that is really for kids who were male assigned at birth and who enjoy feminine gender expression, whatever their gender identity. I presume, as the article notes, that some of these kids are trans* girls. Framing a trans gender girl as a "boy" troubles me, as does calling all the kids "he".  I understand that this is an article for a Slate audience, but I don't think it would be very difficult to say, "'You Are You' is a camp that lets children who were assigned male at birth enjoy the freedom to glory in feminine dress in the company of others who enjoy the same thing. Camp organizers don't care how these children will identify in adulthood--as gay or straight, as cis or trans*, as genderconforming or gendertransgressive. The camp just gives these children a space to enjoy themselves as they are now, however they identify."

Interestingly, in discussions of the issue of the author referring to all the children at this camp as boys, I saw people coming to opposite conclusions by looking at the photographs: either seeing the kids as mostly trans* girls, or seeing them as mostly self-identifying as boys. 

My perspective is that from the article and from looking at the pictures, none of us can tell how these children identify. Some of them may look just like cis girls to us, and others we may perceive as clearly male-assigned-at-birth children wearing dresses. That has no relevance at all to gender identity. Some people who have gender transitioned look like cis people, and some of us are visibly trans* our whole lives. The only way to tell a person's gender identity is to ask them.  I find people's speculating on others' gender identities based on how well the person "passes" as a cis person hurtful, not helpful, and I hope as a trans* person that our allies will soon learn to avoid it.

Another theme that I encountered in responses to the article was a concern that the photographs of the children at You Are You revealed that someone was teaching or forcing the children to be hyperfeminine, perhaps sexualized, in their expressions of femininity.  This often came up in comments from cis feminist women.  It arises, I believe, out of a lack of frame of reference, especially since so often references were made to drag queens, and how their hyperfemininity made the commenters uncomfortable by seeming to "mock" or stereotype women.  So I want to elaborate a frame of reference for understanding the many different sorts of gender expression engaged in by different groups that can all find themselves collected under "the Trans* Umbrella."

Let's start with adults, and the drag queens often cited in this conversation.  In adult culture, drag queens and kings generally display an exaggerated femininity or masculinity that we call camp. It's not meant to be a portrayal of how everyday women or men look--it's performance, often ironic. It can explicitly address, acknowledge, and play with gender stereotypes, and pay homage to cis gender celebrities' gender performances as just that: iconic enactments of particular styles of embodying and displaying gender.

People who are unfamiliar with the genre of the drag show may presume that drag queens (or kings, but as a culture we're much less fascinated by them) are attempting to embody everyday femininity (or masculinity) and not getting it right. But a drag queen performing a Lady Gaga routine is aware of the artifice of Lady Gaga's performance of femininity, and that the women she sees at the grocery store rarely look like that. So the concern is misplaced and comes from lacking the frame of reference.

Then there are adult crossdressers, who are not performing in shows, but dressing up at home. The key phrase here is "dressing up." A cis woman who is dressing up for a date often dresses in a manner not just more carefully considered than her everyday clothes, but more self-consciously feminine (the party dress, not the jeans). If someone is crossdressing at home for sexytimes, of course they're going to want to put on a sexy outfit. Because of the way our culture associates femininity with beauty and sexual attractiveness, even a very straight, very male-identified man may at times slip on a pair of thigh-high fishnets at home and feel sexy. He may be uncritical about the way in which articles of feminine attire are considered sexier, and how this constrains women in everyday life, but he's certainly aware that most women don't wear thigh-high fishnets every day.

And then there's the phenomenon we can call "Halloween crossdressing." Halloween is one day a year in which we're encouraged to costume in the U.S., and many people take the opportunity to crossdress and go out in public. ( I've found that while cis people tend to be a lot more comfortable with Halloween crossdressing, trans* women who have transitioned are often uncomfortable with it, because they encounter a lot of bro-ish men who base their costumes on their vision, not of cis women, but of some conflated image of drag queens and trans* women.)

And so we come to trans* folks. People who have transitioned are just living our lives in our identified genders (female, male, or some other gender). That is not to say that there's nothing performative about that, as we must often calculate how best to present ourselves in a manner most likely to ensure that others recognize and reflect our gender identities back at us.  Depending on our bodily configurations, this may mean that we need to display some very carefully selected, quite gendered items to maximize our chances of being recognized in our identified genders without somehow coming across as "overdoing it," which can make dressing for the day more work for us than it is for many cis people.  But cis people perform gender as well. Anyone needing proof of that should just spend a day at a middle school (egad: the selfconsciousness, the awkwardness, the hypermasculine grunting, the oddly-applied makeup). It's just that after reaching full maturity, many cis folks stop being aware of the performative nature of gender, as it's become as second-nature as riding a bike. And people who gender transition experience a similar trajectory: at first, there's a period of awkward exploration of one's personal style, but it eventually becomes second nature.

OK, then, what about the kids at camp You Are You? Well, first of all, I'd point out that in the contemporary U.S., kids' clothing is more highly gendered than that of adults. I know that my cis gender daughter and her friends struck me as a pool of miniature drag queens when they were around five and moving through the Princess Phase, dressing up as their favorite icons of exaggerated Disney femininity and prancing about in glittery pinkness. Meanwhile their male-assigned peers ran around with masculine emblems emblazoned on everything (Batman, sports heroes, dinosaurs driving trucks emitting lightening bolts). It seems to me that our society teaches children to learn to do binary gender by sending them all to Camp Camp.

Now, the hypergendered nature of kids' attire drops off as they get older, though it re-emerges in a pseudoadult form at puberty. Many of the children at camp You Are You look to be in the "big kid" range, when boys and girls alike tend to run around at summer camps in t-shirts and shorts. But "dress-up" clothing for big kids remains highly gendered.

So my take on the kids at You Are You is that they are going to a special camp that allows children assigned male at birth to wear feminine attire. They could go to some other generic summer camp and wear shorts and t-shirts very easily--but here, they are allowed the freedom to glory in feminine expression. So of course they want to dress up! Perhaps some of them are trans* girls living full time as such with the full support of their communities, but I presume that this is not the case for many of the children. So maybe in their everyday lives, they can wear t-shirts designated "for girls" without harassment, but showing up at school in a dress is a very different story. This is their chance to do that. And remember: kids' dress-up clothing is often hypergendered. It's not that these children think, "real females must wear lots of flounces and makeup and heels instead of jeans, and mustn't play sports or build things because they'd break a nail." They're just dressing up in the same way cis girls putting on a fashion show for their friends would, in the attire our society sells for girls of their age.  And note that the photographs of the fashion show are the ones used to illustrate the Slate article.  A good part of the reason that readers get an impression that these children are wearing very feminine attire that would make hiking around at camp difficult is that we see photographs of them at their fashion show, but not of them going for a hike in more practical girls' clothing.

As for the accusation that the children are acting in a sexualized manner, I think that's an adult projection. We associate crossdressing with sexuality in adult lives, and project that onto children who are just embodying femininity. (Trans* women often suffer from a similar conflation of ideas, and are rudely presumed to be hypersexual.) Yes, it is problematic that our society sexualizes femininity, but these children are not to blame for that fact. I find it creepily reminiscent of rape culture when people (often feminists!) accuse trans* girls and women, and feminine boys and men, of being sexually provocative. Any person of any gender and any age should be able to go out in a dress without being assaulted, and without being accused of "asking for it."

So: for those who feel uncomfortable with the photographs of the children at camp You Are You, please bear these things in mind. The kids are dressing up, and are aware of that fact, and how girls and women dress to go to the supermarket. The photographs we see are those that are most "dressy," because of our society's anxiety about, and fascination with, crossing gender lines. And we should not demand that those who are marginalized be the people who solve the social problems associated with gender, such as the association of feminine dress with sexual provocation, when those with gender privilege can wear the same clothes to go out to a party or on a date without the same demands being made of them personally.


  1. "Dinosaurs driving trucks emitting lightning bolts."

  2. Thank you for a great response to the Slate article. I read about the camp the other day, and the EXCESSIVE pushing of the pronouns really stood out to me.

  3. Really interesting discussion of the issues around the article.

    One other thing that I noticed about the article was that it said the photographer asked the parents' permission to photograph their children, but it didn't say if she asked the children, which I think she should have, no? Also, do you share any of the concerns of some people on the comments thread as to whether some of the children may be bullied because of the article/photos, whereas the camp is supposed to be a safe space for them?

  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughtful, carefully considered insights on this Slate article. Clearly we still have a great deal of growing to do, together as a society. I hope that pieces like this provide food for thought for those looking for a meaningful way to move beyond the easy but not-realistic binary gender norms many of us were taught in childhood.

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