Going Beyond the Binary

By Casey Cohen

Trouble Fitting In

When she was in pre-school, Hadassah (Hadzy) began sporting shorter and shorter haircuts until it was eventually completely shaved. She recalled, “Kids called me ‘weird’ all the time. They didn’t understand.”

Hadzy didn’t totally understand either. She wasn’t interested in girly things or particularly masculine things either. She was unsure where she belonged and yet also keenly self-aware and confident, according to her parents, Myriam and Mikey.

“I knew I wasn’t a girl, but I didn’t know there were other options like something in between. I would think about it at night time a lot when I was going to sleep and get very sad, and I didn’t quite know why. I didn’t tell anyone because I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t think it was a thing. I didn’t want anyone to think I was crazy.”

She had a hard time making friends in elementary school. In the middle of class, a girl said to Hadzy, “Why are you wearing a skirt? I thought you were a boy.”

When Hadzy was nine, she attended Camp Tawonga for the first time, and immediately knew she was going to like it. She had felt alienated at the other camp she tried, but at Tawonga, Hadzy’s bunkmates were nice, and her counselors were kind and supportive.

Taking a Step Forward

A Tawonga tradition since 2001 takes place on the second night of each session. Campers are divided by gender to participate in a special campfire where each group discusses stereotypes and how to break free of them while at Camp.

During the summer of 2017, for the first time at Tawonga, campers could choose to join a third campfire if they didn’t feel like they fit into either of these traditional gender categories.

At first, Hadzy was unsure where to to go, but she eventually stood up, surprising herself, and joined three other campers (including two from her bunk) at Tawonga’s first-ever Beyond the Binary campfire.

Sitting in a circle, the group discussed issues Hadzy had never talked openly about with anyone, not even her family. They discussed the tricky subject of belonging and the discomfort that comes with not fitting into the binary gendered norm.

The campers also took part in an activity where each person was encouraged to take a step forward if a statement resonated with them. For instance, “I often feel out of place,” and “I have felt that I don’t belong in either gender.” For Hadzy, it took some courage to take that latter step – but she took it. The staff emphasized that it was ok to be who you are.

Hadzy said, “That’s when I realized that I wasn’t a girl – that I was in between. I was really happy.”

The rest of the session was fantastic. “I felt comfortable there, doing what I wanted to do.” For the next two and a half weeks, Hadzy had a blast building friendships, getting gnarly (a wildly silly and messy Tawonga activity), swimming at the pool and enjoying more campfires.

Opening Up

Hadzy was both nervous and eager to share the campfire experience with her parents on the drive home from the bus pick-up.

Myriam and Mikey were not shocked by Hadzy’s realization and responded with loving support. Back home, Myriam shared the gender issue of National Geographic with Hadzy, which provided helpful terms and definitions. Hadzy realized that she was “gender fluid” – a person who does not identify themselves as having a fixed gender. Hadzy also decided to go by the pronouns “they, them and their,” a topic they first explored at the campfire.

“The campfire option really clicked for Hadzy,” Myriam shared. “That there is another alternative, a safe space, the connection that it doesn’t have to be a binary.”

Hadzy soon opened up about their new gender identity and preferences with their sisters, neighbors, friends, and eventually, their entire class.

Though Hadzy’s 4th grade friends still get confused by the pronouns sometimes, on the whole, their entire community has been accepting and inclusive. Hadzy is feeling more comfortable at school and making more friends.

In 2018, they will return to Tawonga for the longest session. Thinking about their return to Camp, they say, “I’m just hoping it will never end, ever, ever.”

“Tawonga helped me to understand that what I was feeling and thinking was ok, and that I had the courage to tell other people.” Hadzy still goes to bed at night thinking about where they belong. The difference? “I’m not sad about it anymore. More changes are going to come, and I will be ready for anything that happens.”

Casey Cohen in Camp Tawonga’s Communications and Operations Director.