July 9 – August 21, 2015
Boys will be boys. Or, nowadays, will they?
This exhibition, titled You Are You, by Long Island-based photographer Lindsay Morris, brought together a selection of photographs taken over the course of seven years that document a summer camp for non-gender conforming children. It is only now that the attendees at the camp agreed to let Morris share the photos. Could the timing of these images’ release be any better, given the recent discussions about gender in the mainstream press that ensued in the wake of Caitlyn Jenner’s highly public transformation?
In many ways, the camp that Morris’s images depict is a typical one. There are campfires and hikes, rock climbing and swimming activities, arts and crafts. But there are also fashion shows, and it is a lot more colourful than any camp I can remember going to as a child. (Granted, though, the camps I went to were through my parents’ church.) Because the children in Morris’s photographs are so young, it is sometimes difficult to tell the boys from the girls, though the gender experimentation at the camp does seem to be undertaken more often by children that otherwise express as boys. Morris’s subjects are touching, their faces still round with baby fat, their limbs all gangly and awkward. Hair is sometimes one giveaway, though many have short haircuts… unless they’re in wigs, and then it’s anyone’s guess. Morris notes that the camp has “a relaxed atmosphere free of judgement where the kids are allowed to express themselves naturally,” though there is a sense that these kids are very aware of being photographed, even in ‘spontaneous’ moments, and convey different comfort levels at the scrutiny.
Consider four of the posed portraits. In one, a child poses wearing a tasteful hat, dress and a necklace, with a relaxed and open smile. In another, a child reclines on a stone bench, looking a bit like a showgirl in a flashy bandeau-like top and skirt, a tulle bow in their hair, their widely smiling mouth smudged messily with lipstick, a hand resting jauntily on the hip. Beside sits a boy (although this could very well be a girl) wearing ‘typical’ boy’s clothes: a tie-dyed t-shirt, brown corduroys and running shoes. A third child, wearing a sparkly beaded headband, looks warily at the camera, arms folded defensively, as though Morris ought to turn her attention elsewhere. Lastly, a fourth child in a sundress, blonde hair pinned down with barrettes, confronts the camera head-on, serious, no mugging for the camera, hands on hips, planted firmly, looking like the type of kid who wouldn’t be intimidated by a schoolyard bully.
Many of the photographs are poignant. In one, a child wearing a long dress stands on, presumably, their crouching father’s back, a lovely image of support and acceptance. In another, a child wearing a pink dress stands wedged between two pillars, which captures the feeling of living between worlds that these kids could be experiencing. Lastly, another child in a big pair of butterfly wings sits on a bench, bending over a ball of yarn; this is the goal of any summer camp made literal—to give kids the confidence to spread their wings and fly.
Full disclosure: I do not have children, nor am I likely to. But, I’d like to think that I’d be open-minded enough to support my child if he or she wanted to express themselves in the way that the kids in Morris’s photographs do. Would I be anxious? Of course… what parent wouldn’t be? While wealthy celebrities can insulate themselves from judgement and negative repercussions, the average person can’t. It feels brave for the families to have allowed these photos to become public. For some of the children in Morris’s photographs, their gender non-conforming behaviours will stop with the natural onset of puberty. But, what about the others who continue to question their gender identity — those for whom it is not ‘just a phase’ — on top of all the usual pressures faced by teenagers today?
Suicide rates for LGBTQ youth remain higher than their straight and cis-gendered counterparts. Western society’s attitudes towards gender are changing, but not as quickly as we’d like to think they are. Gauging society’s acceptance of LGBTQ people based on our social media feeds, which are mainly populated by ‘friends’ who feel the same way about such things as we do, is a mistake. For every Facebook feed like mine, filled with chants of “You Go! Be Yourself!” in support of LGBTQ people, I know there are those filled with hateful sentiments like “You’re Going To Hell You Freaks!” Morris’s photographs would probably make the latter people’s heads explode. For the rest of us, they provide a hopeful picture of a world not of “boys being boys and girls being girls”, but one of kids simply being.
Bill Clarke was the Executive Editor of Magenta Magazine Online from its inception in September 2009 until May 2017. His writing has been published in Modern Painters, Art Review, Canadian Art, Artnews and several other publications. In January 2017, he assumed the position of associate director at Angell Gallery in Toronto.