At transgender camp, children as young as 4 find safe space

EL CERRITO, CA (AP) — In some ways, Rainbow Day Camp is very ordinary. Kids arrive with a packed lunch, make friendship bracelets, play basketball, sing songs and get silly. But it is also extraordinarily unique, from the moment campers arrive each morning.

At check-in each day, campers make a nametag with their pronoun of choice. Some opt for “she” or “he.” Or a combination of “she/he.” Or “they,” or no pronoun at all. Some change their name or pronouns daily, to see what feels right.

The camp in the San Francisco Bay Area city of El Cerrito caters to transgender and “gender fluid” children, ages 4 to 12, making it one of the only camps of its kind in the world open to preschoolers, experts say. Enrollment has tripled to about 60 young campers since it opened three summers ago, with kids coming from as far as Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. – even Africa. Plans are underway to open a branch next summer in Colorado, and the camp has been contacted by parents and organizations in Atlanta, Seattle, Louisiana and elsewhere interested in setting up similar programs.

On a sunny July morning at camp, the theme was “Crazy Hair Day,” and 6-year-old Gracie Maxwell was dancing in the sunshine as a Miley Cyrus song blasted from outdoor speakers. The freckled, blue-eyed blonde wore her hair in a braid on one side, a pigtail on the other and snacked on cereal as she twirled and skipped.

“Once she could talk, I don’t remember a time when she didn’t say, ‘I’m a girl,’” said her mother, Molly Maxwell, who still trips over pronouns but tries to stick to “she.”

“Then it grew in intensity: ‘I’m a sister. I’m a daughter. I’m a princess,’” Maxwell said. “We would argue with her. She was confused. We were confused.”

Living in the liberal-minded Bay Area made it easier. The Maxwells found a transgender play group, sought specialists, and at 4 years old, let Gracie grow her hair, dress as a girl and eventually change her name.

“I see her now, compared to before. I watch her strut around and dance and sing and the way she talks about herself. If she was forced to be someone else,” the mother trails off. “I don’t even want to think about that.”

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