Free To Be: Lindsay Morris Captures Gender Creativity In ‘You Are You’

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The summer campers and their families arrive, taking in the open, rural expanse, and the dozens of faces around them—some of them smiling and familiar, others visibly nervous. In whatever setting the camp is held, throughout the country, they unpack and settle in, the veterans welcoming the newbies into what feels like a reunion.

Before long, all tense shoulders have relaxed. The children’s eyes have lit up. All glances behind them are searching for a friend, not anticipating a bully.

And, from the sidelines, some of the parents cry tears of joy, watching their biological sons climb rock walls in dresses, paint their nails, play with dolls, stomp down a fashion show runway, and free themselves from gender norms—right alongside children just like them.

Camp You Are You—an annual weekend retreat for gender-nonconforming kids ages 5 to 13, and their families, though the camp’s name has been changed here to protect the privacy of participants—is unlike any other in the country, according to Lindsay Morris. The Sag Harbor photographer first attended with a loved one in 2007, camera in tow, and saw a world she always wished had existed.

Starting this week, she is showing it to the masses.

Through her book, “You Are You”—which features 80 of her photographs and was officially released on Tuesday—Ms. Morris gives a face, and personality, to a growing equal rights movement that has gained significant traction over the last decade. It was recently brought sharply into focus by Bruce Jenner, who is transitioning from male to female and openly discussed his journey with Diane Sawyer on the television show “20/20” last month.

Ms. Morris approached the broadcast with trepidation, hesitancy and even fear, she said, but came away relieved.

“I really think he did a great job,” she said. “I was surprised by how carefully and thoughtfully he articulated his experience, and really how sad I felt for him that only at 65 is he able to start taking his life into his own hands. And that’s the whole point of the camp: to give kids a genuine summer camp experience, but to also give them the strength and courage to live healthy and authentic lives. And, beyond that, maybe happily.”

Many of the children who attend the camp, and who appear in the photographs, are too young to know where they will fall on the gender spectrum. Some will grow up to be transgender, others will not. Some will reject categorization altogether, deciding upon a more fluid gender identity instead.

According to Dr. Norman Spack, an endocrinologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, societal acceptance is moving in the right direction, but it is not there yet.

In 2007, Boston Children’s Hospital was the only major pediatric medical center in North America with an interdisciplinary program for gender-nonconforming youth, which he helped found. As of 2014, there are 37 programs, including every province in Canada, and the numbers are only rising.

“I hope Morris’s photos lead us to ask how we collectively might embrace more such children more of the time,” Dr. Spack wrote in “You Are You.” “I hope we wonder more pointedly how many of them are unable to express themselves fully when away from camp; how many are bullied for not conforming to conventions; how many are at risk for self-harm. Can we embrace them as the whole, vital and worthy human beings they are? Can camp act as a sort of seed bank to sow more communities that provide, in the very same ways camp does, the safety, acceptance and celebration that ought to be the norm for every single child everywhere? These photographs are a crucial step in that crucial direction.”

Ms. Morris, who is the photo editor of the local magazine Edible East End, said she never intended to turn the peaceful moments she captured within the rambunctious chaos into a book—until a few parents suggested it. Many of them had met through a therapy group for gender-nonconforming children in Washington, D.C., and turned their modest annual gathering, which started in a few hotel rooms, into a real camp, typically held at the end of August at various religious retreats across the country.

With a few key differences, the camp is much like any other. There are canoe trips and craft time. The children roast marshmallows, dance and tell stories around the campfire. They play make-believe and change their outfits as many times as possible, all the while speaking a universal language only they know.

They are comrades from the beginning, Ms. Morris said.

“They don’t have to edit themselves. There’s no gender police. They’re playing, they’re wild,” she said. “The images don’t really convey the sounds. It’s not still and quiet. It’s not still at all. The moments I’m attracted to are poetic pauses between all the action. Really, it’s loud and vibrant, and there’s sequins and tulle and textiles, and yelling and screaming and wrestling. There’s a little bit in there that’s biological boy. They’re like exaggerated girls. They’re daring and go on rope courses with so much more courage than their bodies reveal. You look at them and say, ‘That girl’s a real tomboy.’”

All of the action leads up to the camp’s culmination: a glamorous fashion show complete with red carpet and backstage makeup, hair and clothing stations. The moment each child breaks through the streamers, looking their absolute best, is an explosion of affirmation and newfound confidence, met every time with supportive cheers and, again, overwhelmed tears.

“I want to change how the public understands these kids,” Ms. Morris said. “I just feel this growing compulsion to do something with these images and to have an audience look into the eyes of these kids and take pause, and change their understanding of them, and the families who stand behind them.”

Lindsay Morris will discuss her new book “You Are You” on Sunday, May 17, at 11 a.m. at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill. A signing will follow. Admission is $10, or free with book purchase and members. For more information, call (631) 283-2118, or visit parrishart.org.

To learn more about “You Are You,” visit youareyouproject.com. For more information about Ms. Morris, visit lindsaycmorris.com.

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