Like any mom, Lindsay Morris took photos of her son at summer camp.
But she had no idea when she started that those images would be the beginning of a more than decadelong project that would chronicle LGBTQ and gender-fluid children coming into their own.
“All of the adults had some sort of ‘job’ at camp – mine was to take photographs,” said Morris from her sunny home in Sag Harbor, New York, on a February afternoon. “The images were a way of keeping our kids connected back in their regular lives—where they were always having to explain themselves, always looking over their shoulders and often did not feel safe.”
Those kids—including Morris’s son, Milo—were among the first to attend Camp I Am in rural Wisconsin created for LGBTQ and gender-fluid young people. “The first year only three families showed up,” Morris said of the camp’s debut summer in 2007 in an interview with LGBTQ Nation.
“These kids didn’t believe that other kids like themselves even existed,” recalled Morris. As a child, Milo, who was 7 when he first attended the camp, naturally gravitated toward clothes, toys and activities traditionally favored by girls. “It still gives me chills thinking about [these kids] meeting each other for the first time. They were all so similar, all so alike in what they loved — and the parents just cried and cried.”
At first, the camp took the form of an informal get-together in a suburban Washington, D.C., hotel. But soon the numbers—and needs—became too great, and the idea for an actual summer camp took hold and migrated to Wisconsin. Although it mostly focused on children under 10 years old, Camp I Am was a true family affair with parents and siblings also taking center stage.
Not all parents were as accepting as Morris. “It was hard for some; there were certainly a few divorces along the way,” Morris said. “But if you were not there to support your child you were out. Because we knew the statistics, we knew about the suicide rates—we just wanted to keep our kids alive.”
[According to a 2020 survey by the Trevor Project, 40 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered ending their lives in the past 12 months, with more than half of transgender or nonbinary youth having seriously considered suicide.]
Although Camp I Am closed in 2016, its trail-blazing spirit has had an outsized impact on campers and their families well beyond their time there. Today, there are dozens of similar camps nationwide, with several solely focused on supporting gender-non-conforming children.
Some photographs Morris took of campers fully expressing themselves accompanied a New York Times Magazine feature in 2012, “What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?”, and she turned her collection of images into a 2015 book, You Are You. Morris revisited the same kids last year, now that many are young adults, in “The Kids of Camp I Am.” Discovering her passion for photography while on a youth exchange program in South Africa, Morris has continued to document the power of unconditional love and self-expression throughout her career with images appearing in publications ranging from Vanity Fair to Scientific American.
That passion for depicting profoundly liberating self-expression has left an indelible mark on many of her subjects. Elias Matso, now 20, graced the cover of the magazine for Morris’s most recent feature and also was photographed for the 2012 article.
Originally from Maine, Matso now lives in New York City, where he studies fashion at Parsons School of Design and is a self-proclaimed vintage fashion fanatic. When he’s not studying, Matso posts his fabulous looks and creations on Instagram.
“Camp I Am really helped kids like Elias build an incredible sense of character,” Morris told LGBTQ Nation. “They are all still just awe-inspiring to me.”
“Camp I Am was so important in validating my complicated gender identity and showing me that my interests were important,” Matso said. “It also provided a creative outlet and a stage (literally) for kids to stretch their self-expression to the limit and explore what we didn’t feel comfortable exploring otherwise. Looking at my life now, I am so grateful that I was able to have that escape as a kid because it taught me to exist in my own reality, rather than one formulated for me.”
Matso has a message for parents raising LGBTQ kids. “My advice is to listen to them, indulge their interests and be understanding of their shifting identities,” he said.
“From a very early age, these kids constantly had to advocate for themselves, to verbalize and defend their differences,” Morris added. “The trauma this causes can be very anxiety-inducing, but it also builds incredible character. The camp—and their camper friends—helped these kids feel less lonely in the world during a time when the Internet and social media were not such massive presences in our lives. At camp, my son learned to stand up for himself and came to understand that he was not alone—that there’s this amazing group of parents and family and peers alongside him.”
For Morris, the camp provided a crucial opportunity to unlearn as much as learn many of the assumptions that had kept her from better understanding her son, now 21, and the challenges he was facing. It’s a process many parents will likely understand.
“I just didn’t know how to listen to my kid when he was young,” she said. “But kids are literally telling their parents what’s going on through their actions, how they present themselves. It’s hard for a lot of parents because they ‘want to be the parent,’ but if you want your child to be happy, healthy and survive, then we need to let them lead the way.”
“Kids are literally telling their parents what’s going on through their actions, how they present themselves.”
Despite decades of progress, Morris knows that plenty of work remains. The restrictions on LGBTQ public education in Florida and the state-sanctioned “investigations” into pediatric gender-affirming care in Texas are “keeping me up at night,” said Morris. “The way they want to teach sex education, the way folks struggle with pronouns, the efforts underway to alienate folks from one another—we’ve taken some really serious steps backward.”
Nearly 15 years after she first began to chronicle the lives of queer and gender nonconforming young people, Morris is still behind the camera and committed to kids like those who made Camp I Am so special. “I’m working on a cookbook as sort of a side project, but mostly I am applying for grants so I can follow up on the lives of 25 more camp kids,” said Morris. The new camp project will include an array of families that Morris said she wishes had been represented in her earlier photo projects, indicating a greater multicultural presence and broader scope of gender identities in the camp’s later years.
“In progressing with this series, I would like to illustrate more accurately the full spectrum of campers who attended Camp I Am,” said Morris, who recently joined the board of Gay Sons & Mothers, a nonprofit that uses interviews and multimedia to chronicle these special relationships. “I will also reach out to the 20 or more campers whose early images speak to something beyond the existing portraits of female transgender and gay male adult identities, but also to trans men and nonbinary campers.”
As Morris launched her new project, LGBTQ Nation asked her to reflect on the images and experiences of Camp I Am.
“Here, two friends take some time away from the group and engage with both the natural world and their own journeys through identity, childhood and gender. At Camp I Am, children are encouraged to wander freely through its bully-free campgrounds where they often, for the first time, can just be themselves.” (2011)
“Campers take time away from family—many folks don’t realize Camp I Am is a camp for the entire family—to roam freely and explore all that is offered to them in this safe haven. The setting is very traditional, but activities such as the long-awaited runway fashion show are not; professional-level hair, make-up and seamstresses give the runway show serious doses of glamor and gravitas. The campers all wanted to feel authentic when they hit the runway.” (2014).
“Camp I Am was a welcomed distraction from some of the less protective spaces experienced by many campers—along with their parents and siblings—who may also endure phobias and bullying. Some of the parents struggled, for sure, but each of the families experienced their own evolution around their child at camp. But in the end, these families emerged fiercely loyal to their children. Here, a child proudly wears his wings while finding ways to incorporate a pink skein of yarn into an outfit that he might not be allowed to so freely wear back home.” (2013)
“Today Hannah is in college studying English and computer science at a top university—no word on whether she still likes to accessorize with a classic strand of white pearls. Here, Hannah relaxes on a rock with friends enjoying downtime before sunset and more nighttime activities such as the talent show, dance party, and fashion show. After that, the families—whom I truly consider to be courageous pioneers—will partake in the age-old camp tradition of sitting around the campfire, singing and making s’mores.” (2011)
“Nicole, now a college sophomore, poses in a field of wildflowers in one of three ‘looks’ selected for the camp’s eagerly anticipated annual fashion show. In a follow-up photo 10 years later for The New York Times Magazine, Nicole wore a similar gown, only this time one that she performs in as a vocalist. Today, Nicole is a trans activist and was a teen ambassador for the Human Rights Campaign. And Nicole is not alone—I am constantly amazed at how self-assured these kids are today—they have a sense of wisdom that is well beyond their years. This is probably what happens when you’ve had to explain who you are and how you present yourself since you were 3 years old.” (2013)
“Stefi, now a college freshman, poses in a gown he selected for the camp fashion show. His mother went on to form her own summer camp for LGBTQ youth in their Arizona hometown. Nearly a decade after this photo was shot, Stefi is a music and theater major in college. Stefi sort of embodies the entire point of camp—it was a place where we could celebrate kids who felt authentic and worthwhile in a world that quite often didn’t see them this way. These kids face a lot of hurdles, a lot of bumps along an unpredictable road.” (2013)
“This is Danny, who today is a waiter and host at a New England restaurant. In this photo, Danny takes a moment to pose in a dress whose cut, drape and design would make it a favorite over the many years at Camp I Am. Many campers would design dresses throughout the year that they could wear at the camp, which often gave these young people a real sense of self-worth. Today, some of these kids are activists, a few of them are drag performers, and some of them just want to live very quiet lives. It’s all very individual, but most of these kids are pretty solid today.” (2011)
“This is Elias Matso who poses on his apartment rooftop, ten years after his first photoshoot at Camp I Am.”
LGBTQ Camp Resources
One Heartland’s Family Camp True Colors — One Heartland welcomes LGBTQ campers ages 5 to 17 and their families to experience classic camp activities in an attentive environment that provides one counselor for every two campers. In operation since 1993, the camp’s mission is to “improve the lives of children, youth and families facing significant health challenges or social isolation,” according to its website. Willow River, Minnesota
Camp Lightbulb — Puck Markham founded Camp Lightbulb in 2011 for LGBTQ youth ages 14 to 18, focusing on seven core principles: art, community, fun, learning, outdoors, service and well-being. According to its website, 92 percent of campers reported feeling more connected, and 89 percent reported growing confidence. Locations in Provincetown, Massachusetts; New York, New York; and Los Angles, California
Rebels of the Moon — Operated by the Willowell Foundation, which supports initiatives for sustainable ecological land use, Rebels of the Moon is designed for young women and gender nonconforming folks ages 12 to 17 interested in connecting to nature, yoga, social justice, community and radical self-love. Monkton, Vermont
Camp Highlight — Three different programs offer campers and parents the opportunity to connect, grow and play. Camp Highlight is for participants ages 8 to 15 with an LGBTQ parent, Highlight Leadership Academy (ages 16 to 18) helps teens build skills in active listening, public speaking and facilitation, while Highlight Family Camp offers an introductory retreat for children up to age 18 and their parents to experience a weekend of fun and community. Wernersville, Pennsylvania.
Camp It Up! — Since its founding in 1990, Camp It Up! has welcomed more than 4,000 LGBTQ campers. The Board of Directors has prioritized increased access for BIPOC and the broad spectrum of queer children and teens and their families. Quincy, California.
For more LGBTQ camps, visit pflag.org/youthcamps.
Editor’s note: This article mentions suicide. If you need to talk to someone now, call the Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860. It’s staffed by trans people, for trans people. The Trevor Project provides a safe, judgment-free place to talk for LGBTQ youth at 1-866-488-7386. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
David Kaufman is a New York-based editor and writer who covers the intersections of politics, culture and pop culture. A former editor at the New York Post, The New York Times and Architectural Digest, Kaufman lives in Manhattan with his twin sons.