Lindsay Morris Revisits the Kids of 'Camp I Am' - 27 East

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Lindsay Morris Revisits the Kids of ‘Camp I Am’

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Photographer Lindsay Morris at work during her residency at The Watermill Center. ANNETTE HINKLE

Photographer Lindsay Morris at work during her residency at The Watermill Center. ANNETTE HINKLE

Lindsay Morris photographs of Rafi in 2023 and at right, in 2010. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Lindsay Morris photographs of Rafi in 2023 and at right, in 2010. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Trans youth advocate Reed J. Williams and photographer Lindsay Morris during their TEDWomen 2023 presentation

Trans youth advocate Reed J. Williams and photographer Lindsay Morris during their TEDWomen 2023 presentation "Two Steps Forward" on October 12, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. ERIN LUBIN/TED

Trans youth advocate Reed J. Williams and photographer Lindsay Morris during their TEDWomen 2023 presentation

Trans youth advocate Reed J. Williams and photographer Lindsay Morris during their TEDWomen 2023 presentation "Two Steps Forward" on October 12, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. ERIN LUBIN/TED

Lindsay Morris's photograph of trans youth advocate Reed J. Williams today. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Lindsay Morris's photograph of trans youth advocate Reed J. Williams today. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Lindsay Morris's photograph of Reed J. Williams as a young camper at Camp I Am. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Lindsay Morris's photograph of Reed J. Williams as a young camper at Camp I Am. COURTESY THE ARTIST

authorAnnette Hinkle on Mar 18, 2024

Back in 2007, Sag Harbor’s Lindsay Morris enrolled her young son, Milo, in a very special summer camp. There, his days were filled with lots of outdoor activities of the sort you would expect to find at any sleep away camp. But there were also other offerings that were entirely unique — piles of makeup, dresses, boas, tiaras, wigs and heels, all of which found their way onto the campers and the runway for the camp’s culminating event — the red carpet fashion show.

This is (or rather, was) Camp I Am, a safe space where the children — nearly all assigned male at birth — were free to express their more feminine tendencies without fear of judgment or reprisal. Milo was one of them, and it was there that he and other children from around the country first found their tribe.

Camp I Am, this annual retreat for gender nonconforming children, was held at different religious camps in Wisconsin that were rented for the purpose from property owners who were generally accepting of the concept. The camp was organized by parents themselves who sought each other out because they felt alone in dealing with their children’s gender issues (while some campers were assigned female at birth, they were in the minority). No matter what they were facing at home in their schools or communities, Camp I Am was the one place where their kids could be themselves, meet others like them and feel at ease for one week each year.

From 2010 to 2014, Morris, a photojournalist, was given permission by fellow parents and the campers to take their photos. She published the images of the children, who ranged in age from 6 to 13, in “You Are You,” a book that came out in 2015. The New York Times picked up on the story and in 2012, ran a cover piece in the Sunday magazine.

It’s hard to fathom just how much attitudes have changed in the years since, but suffice it to say, quite a bit. In 2024, opinions on the issue of gender nonconformity have only become more heated and polarized with several states outlawing medical treatments for trans youth altogether.

“It’s really sad we have to still talk about it,” Morris said. “To say I am perplexed by those using these kids for political gain is an understatement.”

Which is why Morris felt it was time to revisit the project.

“It’s been 10 years, and I’m still in touch with the campers. I’m sure they’d be interested in telling their stories from their perspectives,” said Morris, who, throughout the month of March, is in residency at The Watermill Center, where she is working on a new book project highlighting the campers, who are all now young adults. In 2021, The New York Times did an updated magazine piece on Morris’s project, running some of the “then” and “now” photos she took of the campers.

The new book that Morris is looking to create is much different than “You Are You,” as the kids — and this country — are in a much different place now than they were in 2015.

“That was a family-friendly, sweet book with resources and poems,” Morris said. “It was something grandparents, parents and kids could look at. It was also very colorful.”

This time around, she’s looking to take a very different approach to the material.

“Kids in their 20s are struggling, period. Now I want to show something a little more real,” she said. “Those were really innocent times. We thought, ‘You guys are going to have it easy in the world.’

“My proposal for this residency [at The Watermill Center] was very focused on looking for a publisher and coming up with some early sequencing with the first 13 kids I photographed. I still have a potential 20 more around the country,” explained Morris, who has received funding for the project from the JGS Fellowship for Photography, a grant through the New York Foundation for the Arts. “That’s a huge honor and I can use that money for travel.”

It turns out, the stories and identities of the campers are as unique as they are. As young adults, some identify as gay (Milo falls into this category), while many have fully transitioned to female. Others present as male, but still dress in feminine attire.

“Some of the kids, because they transitioned so early and took blockers, never went through male puberty, so they don’t even identify as trans,” Morris said. “They wouldn’t go to a pride march, and they say, ‘I’m just a girl,’ which is kind of interesting. You have the fierce advocates or the kid who is just a girl or boy.

“Most of the kids have gone through gender affirmation surgery, but there are a few who did not take blockers and grew into their male frames. I do know some kids who waited and struggle,” she added. “I hate to feel I’m speaking for them, which is why I want to include text from them in the book. There are also kids who transitioned early enough that they just work in the world and no one knows them as anything other than a young woman, and they don’t want to be photographed or be a part of it.”

That’s why Morris is reaching out to the campers to write their own essays about their lives for the book. She is also searching for high profile LGBTQ+ writers who could take part in the project.

“My passion would be to have Lady Gaga,” grins Morris. “I’m not convinced I can’t do that.”

Today, one of the most visible children from the camp is trans youth advocate Reed J. Williams, a senior at the University of Virginia and a Virginia Youth Poet Laureate. Morris first met Williams as a 7-year-old camper at Camp I Am.

This past October, Reed and Morris reunited on a stage in Atlanta to present “Two Steps Forward” at TEDWomen 2023. The subject of their TED Talk, which was delivered to an audience of 1,500, was trans youth, and Williams shared her experience as one of the first campers at Camp I Am, highlighting the support and acceptance she received there.

“She’s telling her story as a kid who was supported and was experiencing bullying daily until the family had to move out of state,” said Morris. “The other parents thought that Reed would make their kids gay.

“Today, Reed is 21 and no one speaks to this experience better,” added Morris, who, in her portion of the talk, focused on her own journey of acceptance for her son. “That’s where it’s important to say, we let them take the lead. You want dolls? Have a doll. I wasn’t as open minded a parent or as progressive as I thought I was when my son wanted ruby slippers.

“I thought that was the most important thing I could add to the talk,” she said. “I changed. He changed my mind. I love him and I want him to thrive. How can they thrive if you don’t support them? That’s important for me to say. I don’t represent the LGBTQ+ community. I represent parents showing support for this group.”

Morris and Williams’s TED Talk went live on March 13 for all the world to see, and the responses — both positive and negative — came quickly.

“We had 50,000 views the first day. Three days in, we are at 230,000,” Morris said. “It’s been so politicized. We had to disable comments on the talk.”

This Friday, March 22, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Morris will offer an “In Process” presentation at The Watermill Center, where she will share imagery from her residency, including photographs of the children, both then and now, and screen the TED Talk.

“I’ve gotten emails this week since the TED Talk came out. People said, ‘I remember when your piece came out in The New York Times in 2012. That gave us the courage to face our family and our community and to embrace our child’s identity.’ I get a lot of that.”

Morris also gets emails from older trans people who lament that there was no Camp I Am for them when they were young.

“There’s deep resentment that they don’t really present the same way,” she said. “Many of them were married with kids or transitioned very late.”

Though Morris and some of the other parents handed off the reins of the camp to newer families once their children aged out, she’s sad to report that those parents dropped the ball and Camp I Am is no more. But now, she is focused on this next project in collaboration with the campers.

“When you publish a photography book, you choose a publisher of photography books,” she explained. “I want to straddle both worlds. I want to make an art object and a book of beautiful images, but I also want there to be a lot of text people will gravitate to, maybe because of who wrote it. I want it to be a popular book that everyone wants to look at, not necessarily because you’re interested in LGBTQ+ rights, but because it’s a fascinating story of a very unique community that was a first of its kind.

“There is no documentation of a group like this. It started in 2007 and I really want to see them into adulthood, so I will continue to take portraits of them as they grow older and start families,” she noted. “It’s not just an art piece. This is more serious. It’s a call to activism and education. I’ve set up talks and panels and people can ask questions. These kids have grown up and they have very strong opinions on what we should do.

“Some of these kids I’m just getting back in touch with now. We spent so much time together,” Morris said. “I thank Milo all the time for taking me to this world. He introduced me to an incredible, smart loving community.”

Though Milo, today a student at FIT in Manhattan, declined to be involved in his mother’s photography project, he did travel to Atlanta with her for her TED Talk.

“I took Milo as my guest,” Morris said. “I named him, and he’s OK with it. He was sitting in the audience with Reed’s mom and they were asked to stand up.

“They got a standing ovation.”

“In Process” at The Watermill Center is Friday, March 22, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. In addition to photographer Lindsay Morris, artists-in-residence taking part are: visual artist Joana P. Cardozo; dramaturg Katherine Profeta; and interdisciplinary artist Sara Stern. Admission is free. Register at watermillcenter.org. The Watermill Center is at 39 Water Mill Towd Road in Water Mill.

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