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Why One Mom Had to Create America's First-Ever Summer Day Camp for Trans Kids

05/18/2015 11:38 am ET | Updated May 18, 2016

Last summer 6-year-old Scarlett had the worst experience of her life at day camp: Her best friend told the other girls that Scarlett has a penis.

"Our daughter was going to an all-girls camp in stealth and hadn't told anyone that she was born a boy," Sandra Collins tells me. "Full of anticipation to meet her best friend, she left that day brimming with joy and excitement, only to return home in tears. She cried for hours, vowing never to return to camp, because in a moment of anger at being left out of a game, Scarlett's best friend had told the other girls that our daughter was in fact a biological male."

Amazingly, the little girl had enough inner resilience to return to camp the next day and finish out the rest of the week. But it was the genesis of the day camp that Sandra is launching in California this summer: the Bay Area Rainbow Day Camp for transgender and gender-non-binary youths, of which she is Executive Director.

(Quick terminology clarification for the uninitiated: Overall, "transgender" has come to be the umbrella term for those individuals whose gender identity does not align with the sex they were assigned at birth based on their external anatomy, while "gender-non-binary" refers to gender identities that don't fit within the accepted binary of "male" and "female.")

"I knew that it was hard for transgender and young children to keep 'secrets,' especially that of being transgender," she says. "Going to a summer day camp where they didn't know other children for a week would be especially hard. There were plenty of sleep-away camps for transgender youth, but no day camps. There was such a need for creating a safe space and to teach these young children how to deal with mistreatment and how to stand up to mistreatment. The idea is for the camp to prepare gender-non-binary kids to proactively deal with bullying and teasing, and to feel self-empowered in a safe and comfortable community facilitated by experienced counselors."

As a biracial woman of Japanese and American heritage, Collins is no stranger to teasing and bullying herself. She was one of the first mixed-race kids growing up in both Japan and the United States -- but her resilience and tenacity put her on track to become a Fulbright scholar, gain a Ph.D. in modern Japanese history at the University of Chicago and pen a number of publications.

Currently a tenure-track professor of East Asian history at California State University at Chico, Collins and her husband Jim already had two older boys (Max, now 14 years old, and Luke, now 11) when their third son, Ezra, was born in 2008.

"We began to notice that something was amiss when Ezra was 18 months old. He would leave for preschool dressed as a boy and return home in girls' clothing. It was the 'extra' clothing that girls would wear when they got wet or messy from their busy day at preschool. After three months of this, the preschool teachers, who were trained by Gender Spectrum, an organization focusing on gender sensitivity, explained to me that this was a deliberate choice by Ezra in his gender expression, and that they were supporting him, as should we."

After a couple of years, it became clear to Collins and her husband that this "gender journey" was becoming, as they put it, "persistent, consistent and insistent." The signs were there to suggest that gender expression was transforming into gender identity and what gender specialists call "gender dysphoria" -- a feeling of discontent with the sex that one is assigned at birth.

This is how Collins recalls the turning point for her child: "I remember the day clearly and perfectly. It was a summer day in August and a month before school was set to begin. Ezra was beginning to no longer say that he was a boy who liked girl things. Ezra said, 'Mom, I think I am suppose to be a girl.' And I knew that after three years of dressing in pink and purple 24/7 that he was indeed a she. So we got the book The Transgender Child, and we informed the school to have Gender Spectrum do a professional training and parent education. This was the beginning of Ezra's social transition as a girl. Ezra chose the name Scarlett, because it was close to the color pink."

So Ezra became Scarlett. But it was an uphill struggle. She had a difficult time in kindergarten, as there was a lot of questioning by the kids and some mistreatment from fellow students and parents. But Collins says the school was very supportive and proactive in helping establish a kind and safe culture for her, so much so that now Scarlett is thriving. "It was tough getting families to understand what 'transgender' even meant for a young child," says Collins. "It's an educational process of both the heart and mind. I am so grateful to the school for being open and willing to be a trailblazer in being a courageous partner with my family. They also built a gender-neutral bathroom!"

Scarlett is now a lively 7-year-old who has found some good friends and now writes poetry; one poem includes the line "When I am happy, my brain is having a party with my heart." She enjoys swimming and Minecraft, while her older brothers play competitive club soccer. "It's a busy, chaotic and fun life," exclaims Collins. "Our family just happens to have a daughter who is transgender."

To those who question the seriousness of Scarlett's gender issues, her mother puts it this way: "I know that for my own daughter there is nothing playful to her identity at all. Being gender-non-binary or transgender is important to her identity, and it's not going away anytime soon." Collins is also quick to point out that gender identity is different from sexual orientation.

"You may have an effeminate little boy, which has become known as a "princess boy," and he may or may not grow into a gay teenager or adult. Most people do not know their sexual orientation until they become older. It's hard to know, and we shouldn't intrude into our young children's development either. There is a great graphic online called the "Genderbread Person" that shows the separation of gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation and biological sex."

Adapting to this new gender situation wasn't always easy for the family. But Collins is proud of how the older brothers coped.

"Growing up with Ezra/Scarlett dressing up in pink going to their soccer games, at first the brothers were embarrassed: 'Does he have to wear that outfit?' However, over time everyone got used to it. Now in the home, sure, there is the typical sibling rivalry of calling shotgun, who gets the bigger slice of pizza, and whose turn it is to choose the TV show. But outside the home they are extremely protective of Scarlett. They helped educate their friends when questions arose about her name and gender change, especially if there were any snide remarks. This is no easy feat for middle-school kids, where gender policing is rampant. It brings tears to my eyes, because this is what you hope for in the later years, after they settle down from the surge of teenage-dom."

Meanwhile Collins' husband Jim had slightly more qualms. Although their family is very supportive of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) community, as Jim's sister is a lesbian -- and he was the sperm donor to his sister's ex-wife -- it was a different issue when it came to his transgender daughter.

While Jim was always supportive, he says he was extremely concerned about what other people's reactions to his child's behavior would be. "Early on I was worried that Ezra would get teased for wearing girls' clothes," Jim tells me. "And later, as Ezra was transitioning to Scarlett, I wanted to make sure that she was sure about her choice -- again, to protect her from teasing, should she change her mind."

The Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University has ample material on why it is critical for the whole family to accept children, no matter what their gender identity or sexual orientation may be.

In Jim's case, he not only supports Scarlett through and through but even agreed to a TV interview in the wake of the media coverage surrounding Bruce Jenner's transgender announcement.

As she looks forward to the doors of her unique day camp opening in just a few weeks' time, Collins has this to say to other parents who might be dealing with similar issues within their families: "I'm a big believer in giving youth the time and space to develop along their own timeline according to their own pace. Stay close and attuned; they will come to you with questions if you offer your stories of your own development."