Trouble Fitting In
When she was in pre-school, Hadassah “Hadzy” Cohen, 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 Mike.
“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 said, "My bunkmates were nice, and my counselors were kind and supportive."
Taking a Step Forward
At the beginning of every Tawonga session, all campers attend one of two simultaneous campfires – one for boys and one for girls – to explore the pressures and expectations they feel growing up in their gender. This program empowers kids to be their best selves, encouraging them to challenge stereotypes and support one another.
During the summer of 2017, for the first time at Tawonga, campers had a new option: they could choose to join a third campfire for those whose gender is not reflected in the other options. This way, every camper would feel seen and supported in their gender identities.
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 a traditional gendered construct.
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, spending time at arts and crafts and singing her heart out at song session.
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 Mike were not shocked by Hadzy’s story and responded with loving support. Back home, Myriam shared the gender issue of National Geographic with Hadzy, which provided helpful terms and definitions. Hadzy learned that she was “gender fluid” – a person who does not identify themselves as having a fixed gender. Hadzy also decided to go by 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, the Cohens’ 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.”