A lot of summer camps had to close this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including Camp Aranu'tiq in New Hampshire, a camp for transgender and nonbinary children. Julie Be is a music therapist who has helped run the camp since it was founded in 2009 and also one half of the children's musical duo Ants on a Log, alongside Anya Rose. So the stuck-at-home campers would feel connected, Be and Rose put out an open call for songs that reflect the trans and nonbinary experience, use gender neutral pronouns or use humor to talk about gender. Together, they curated an album of children's music called Trans & Nonbinary Kids Mix.
The album hopes to connect with kids across a spectrum of ages: from elementary school up through early high school. Be says that older kids will hear the music in a more nuanced way, but that we need to give kids in the lower age range more credit, too.
"I think people underestimate the ability for younger kids to know about gender," they say. "There's a lot of research that shows that kids know what their gender is, even around age 2."
Songs like "Be Who You Are" and "Shine Bright" tackle finding love and support in affirming a kid's identity from their perspective; others, like "Daughter" by Ryan Cassata, tell a story aimed more towards adults. Be says they wanted to show kids and adults what the other might be thinking, but also stressed the importance of parents being open to conversation, even at a young age.
"You can't tell a kid to not think about something," Be says. "I would say in general, if a parent is uncomfortable with talking about anything big like this, like how a kid identifies, you are missing a big opportunity to connect with your child, to love your child and support your child. That's a big problem, gender aside."
For Be, an album like Trans & Nonbinary Kids Mix would have meant a lot to them at a young age. "It definitely would have given me language that I did not have," they say. Be hopes it can do the same for kids today.
NOEL KING, HOST:
A lot of summer camps had to close this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic including Camp Aranu'tiq in New Hampshire. Julie Be helps run the camp and is also one-half of the children's musical duo Ants on a Log. Julie created an album of children's music so campers who were stuck at home could still feel connected.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BE WHO YOU ARE")
TWO OF A KIND: (Singing) Be who you are. Be brave. Be loud. Be who you are. Be bold. Be proud.
KING: Camp Aranu'tiq is for transgender and nonbinary children, and so is this new album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BE WHO YOU ARE")
TWO OF A KIND: (Singing) I have a friend, loves to wear a dress. His parents were distressed. He had it bad in this cold world. But now, she's a brand-new girl.
KING: The album is called "Trans & Non-Binary Kids Mix." And the producer, Julie Be, is with me now. Hi, Julie.
JULIE BE: I really appreciate you doing this. Thank you so much.
KING: So you put out a call to musicians and asked if they wanted to contribute. What kinds of songs were you looking for, what characteristics?
BE: Yeah. I put out an open call for songs that reflect the trans and nonbinary experience or use gender neutral pronouns or use humor to talk about gender, and specifically songs that would speak to kids in elementary, middle, maybe early high school.
KING: I want to ask you about humor because there is some on this album, there's quite a bit. The song "Snowpeople."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNOWPEOPLE")
THE OKEE DOKEE BROTHERS: (Singing) Snowmen get a scarf and a carrot for a nose - black hat, black pipe, black boots, I suppose.
BE: The Okee Dokee Brothers are a Grammy Award-winning band. They play kid's music. And it's like when you're watching a really good Pixar movie and the kids get it on one level and the adults get into it on another level.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNOWPEOPLE")
THE OKEE DOKEE BROTHERS: (Singing) But why do we roll up circles just to put them inside a square, showing them who they should be by telling them what they can wear?
KING: The audience you're trying to reach - and you said young kids up until early high school. So maybe ages 5 to about 14, 15?
BE: Yep. Exactly.
KING: The experiences of a 5-year-old who is thinking about whether they are a boy or a girl or what gender means versus a teenager, a 14 or 15-year-old, who has much firmer ideas about who they are - and I wondered, as you were putting the album together, if you thought whether the messages would make sense for a little kid and also a teenager?
BE: Yes. I think that people underestimate the ability for younger kids to know about gender. There's a lot of research that shows that kids know what their gender is, you know, even around age 2. So I think that, first of all, we need to give kids way more credit. And second, older kids will hear this in a more nuanced way. So I could imagine a 15-year-old listening to this and thinking, oh, I wish I had that when I was a kid. I'm not going to listen to it a hundred times. I'm going to move on to the next song, but excited to hear music that's for younger kids talking about gender.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL THEM 'THEY'")
EMILY JOY: (Singing) You can call them they because it's what they like. You can call them they to get the pronouns right. You can call them they when you want to say they're super awesome in every way. They're super awesome in every way.
KING: Some of the songs are clearly there for adults. Tell me about the song "Daughter" by Ryan Cassata.
BE: Yeah. Oh, that's interesting that you think it's clearly for adults. Yeah. I think that it is for adults in some way. But kids hearing this will definitely relate to parts of the story. And I think that it's great to show, you know, the kids and the adults what the other one is thinking.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAUGHTER")
RYAN CASSATA: (Singing) I didn't change who I am. I've always been a man. Still, it changed your world. But, Dad, I'll always stay your little girl.
KING: Talking about children and gender in some circles is easy and it's fluid. And everybody's willing to be open and discuss it. But I think, still, that's not the majority of the country. What would you say to a parent who says of this album, oh, no, my kid is too young for this, to be thinking about this kind of stuff? - I'm just not comfortable with this.
BE: You know, I'm a music therapist by my day job training. And what you're describing is repression and avoidance. And you can't tell a kid to not think about something. And I would say that, in general, if a parent is uncomfortable talking about anything big like this, like how a kid identifies, you are missing a huge opportunity to connect with your child, to love your child and to support your child. And that's the big problem, you know, gender aside.
KING: Do you mind if I ask how old you are?
BE: Yeah. I'm 36.
KING: Growing up, when you were a kid, if you had been able to get your hands on an album like this at, say, 5 or 6 or 7, what do you think it would have meant to you?
BE: Oh, wow. It definitely would have given me language that I did not have. I was confused because the cause of gay marriage, which was really the only thing that we talked about as a young queer community - we didn't even have the word queer, really. And while I wanted that to happen, that wasn't really speaking to me. That's not - that wasn't fulfilling my activism needs. And once I started working at Camp Aranu'tiq - we founded it in 2009. And I realized immediately, oh, I see, what I was missing was the discussion about gender. It wasn't a discussion about sexual orientation for me. It was a discussion about gender. And I realized a lot about who I was.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NUMBER ONE")
CATHY FINK: (Singing) We're all a bit different. And we're a little the same. We come in different sizes, but we have lots of names. But deep inside, the most important thing is respecting everyone. And that includes respecting yourself. That's No. 1.
BE: I think if I had music like this, I would've looked up every single thing that I heard and understood so much more in the same way that I looked up "We Didn't Start The Fire" by Billy Joel when I was a kid.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEPPIE SONG, "NOT PINK NOT BLUE")
KING: (Laughter) Julie Be, producer of the album "Trans & Non-Binary Kids Mix." Julie, thank you so much for being with us.
BE: Thank you so much.
KING: You can stream the album if you want at antsonalog.bandcamp.com. The proceeds go to Camp Aranu'tiq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.