Thunder Bay·Audio

A space for gender identity exploration and expression, youth attend unique summer camp in Thunder Bay, Ont.

A group of young people sat around a long, narrow table in a board room at the Norwest Community Health Centre. The discussion ebbed and flowed as they worked on a creative activity. At times, the conversation was light and laughs aplenty, and it seemed like any other summer camp for teenagers.

It's the third year for Gender Adventures, a six-day summer program for gender non-conforming youth aged 12-17

A peer panel of gender non-conforming young people speak to their peers about their own journeys to understand and express their gender identities at the Gender Adventures summer camp program in Thunder Bay, Ont. (Logan Turner / CBC)

A group of young people sat around a long, narrow table in a board room at the Norwest Community Health Centre. The discussion ebbed and flowed as they worked on a creative activity. At times, the conversation was light and laughs aplenty, and it seemed like any other summer camp for teenagers. But then the discussion would turn towards heavier, more complex topics like bullying, problems with family and friends and self-esteem, and it became clear that this is a unique youth program.

For most in the room, it was their first time attending the Gender Adventures weeklong day camp and their quiet, nervous energy was apparent.

According to Cameo Ferguson, one of the program volunteers who helped with the camp last year as well, by the end of the week, the individuals will become a coherent support network and each person will leave stronger and more self-aware.

"Over the rest of the week, they have a large journey of self-acceptance and exploration and expression."

A group of young people attending Gender Adventures work on a creative project as part of the summer camp programming. (Logan Turner / CBC)

The Gender Adventures camp began two summers ago to provide support and educational resources for young people aged 12 to 17 who identify as transgender, non-binary or questioning. It adapts lessons from the Gender Journeys adult trans-support programming and applies them to activities more suitable for teenagers trying to navigate their own gender identity. The program this year ran Aug. 19-24.

Ferguson added, "We go through a bunch of activities with the kids about life and coming out and dealing with discrimination and family and the whole world around you. So it is just teaching them how to navigate all of that and helping them express that and become the best them they can be."

Providing up-to-date and relevant information

Laurie Hollis-Walker, a psychotherapist with Norwest Community Health Centre and one of the Gender Adventures lead facilitators, said the camp was created to help gender non-conforming youth find each other and learn more about themselves and the possibilities for their own gender journeys.

"We hold firmly to the belief that all kids have the right to be with people who are like them and all kids have a right to be included and to be respected for who they are. That doesn't necessarily happen even if it is allowed or inclusive in the schools."

Hollis-Walker added, "I like to quote Hershel Russell, who started Gender Journeys, who said 'there's no one way to be trans.' There's all this diversity about how to be trans. This camp is intended to open some doors of possibilities for how these young people might be in these days going forward."

These are a few of the resources and activities that are provided to the Gender Adventures program participants to help them discuss and learn about the spectrum of gender identities. (Logan Turner / CBC)

A crucial component of the camp, is providing the young people with relevant educational information. Some of the activities over the course of the six days include a visit from a medical professional to speak about the biological processes involved in transitioning, as well as the screening of educational films.

"There is a lot to learn about being a trans- or non-binary youth. So we provide up-to-date, relevant, very well-vetted information based on research, based on evidence. And we bring things that are real that the kids and their parents can trust as a resource that they can depend on."

'Wow, I'm actually going to make it to adulthood'

Ferguson said that despite the camp having 20 spots for young people to attend, there is a waitlist of youth hoping to participate. That reality demonstrates the need for the programming in the community.

"A lot of youth can't actually access services until they are 18. But it's much easier to get support earlier on in your life to build up healthy coping skills and your self-esteem, so that you have the resources that you need in order to power through whatever life and society are going to throw at you."

When I was 12 to 17, I didn't even think I was going to make it to 18.- Cameo Ferguson, Gender Adventures program volunteer

Ferguson added that even seeing other transgender youth and adults and hearing their experiences can be helpful.

"When I was 12 to 17, I didn't even think I was going to make it to 18. So that's a pretty big thing just to see a trans person who is older than you to be like 'wow, I'm actually going to make it to my adulthood.' Then, when they start to hear your experiences, it just shows them that there are other people that have been through it, that they're not alone and they always have someone they can turn to."

Not too young to know

Kal Hardy is a 14-year-old "female-to-male transgender" high school student from Thunder Bay, Ont. He attended the camp last year and came back to sit on a 'peer panel' to share his own journey of transitioning.

Hardy said, "I was getting mistaken as being a boy in public a lot. And I love that feeling. I don't know why, but I loved that feeling of being called 'sir' in public. And that's when I really started to think, 'am I trans?'"

Kal Hardy, a 14-year-old "female-to-male transgender boy" who attended the Gender Adventures camp last year, is back to visit the program participants and speak on a 'peer panel' about his own transition from female to male. (Logan Turner / CBC)

At the time in elementary and middle-school, Hardy didn't want to accept that he may be transgender.

"I know what the word meant, but I was like, 'that's not me.' I was scared, because 41 per cent of all trans people commit suicide in their life. I didn't want to become a statistic."

Since then, Hardy has undergone several steps in the process to transition from a female to a male. He had his name and sex officially changed, started taking Lupron Depot - a hormone blocker that stops female puberty - and has been on testosterone for 10 months. Now Hardy is on his way to Montreal to receive top surgery to remove breast tissue.

Hardy said he often has received criticism for being too young "to know what he wants" or to undergo these procedures.

"If I didn't come out when I did, I personally think I would have committed suicide by now. Sure I may be young, but that doesn't mean I don't know what's good for me. I believe I have the right to say what I need for medical care."

He added, "being trans is not a choice in my eyes. You have to take processes to try and match your body with your gender identity."