Coming of Age at Camp

I don’t want to write about camp.

Well, I do want to write about camp. I’m scared to write about camp. Even 17 years later.

I can write about the beautiful tie-dye shirt I made that summer. Yellow and green and blue and pink splattered together.

I can write that it was 2001, and I was nine years old, gay as can be, and didn’t know it yet. Others did.

I can write that I was wearing a large blue T-shirt on Visiting Day and posed with my mom and sister for a photo during lunch. All of our hair is blonde and we are smiling. A perfect family. My mom is wearing a name tag. She is an adult. Her identity is formed.

It is amazing, then, isn’t it? How a handful of photos can tell us so much about each other, about ourselves, but how they can’t actually tell us anything at all?

Because these photos don’t bear the most remote resemblance to what I experienced that summer.

The summer that altered my perceptions of sex.

**

I wrote a letter to Marco before camp started. He was my bunk pen pal. I’m sure they called it something else but that’s what I’m going to call it.

I was going through a phase of experimenting with every font Microsoft Word had to offer. Fonts that curved obnoxiously. That wasn’t something most boys did at that age. But I didn’t do many things most boys did at that age. I wanted to act, wanted to sing, wanted to dance — theater. That’s it. I didn’t understand that it was different, and my parents didn’t do anything to dissuade me from pursuing it.

My mother will tell you that she had an inkling of my feminine tendencies from a young age.

I was part of a playgroup of Jewish boys and girls when I was about a year old. In the beginning, my mom says, there isn’t too much interaction between children. It’s called “parallel play.” We all played within the same area of the room but didn’t interact with each other. Picture a singles mixer, except with blocks instead of cocktails.

We met once a week for a few years. When I was closer to two years old, and interactions began, it was clear I favored the girls over the boys. “You weren’t interested in the more aggressive play,” my mom tells me as we’re walking on a brisk November morning in suburban New Jersey, an awkward time as any to be discussing the events of 25+ years ago. “You weren’t interested in the ball play.” Oh, Mom, with the word choice.

Anyway, I wrote Marco this long letter, which I don’t have now, and can only assume was talking about how excited I was to meet him and be friends at camp. I included a graphic of some kind of performer – perhaps an opera singer? – mouth agape, bursting into song off the page. Like me.

That was my first mistake of the summer.

**

Camp Lohikan was – and still is – a sleepaway summer camp in Lake Como, Pennsylvania for girls and boys ages six through 15. Its mission statement: “Camp Lohikan is a warm, welcoming community of children and adults who come together summer after summer to experience the FUN and personal growth of ‘camp.’”

I wonder if they know that the experience was anything but warm or welcoming for me. That the scars of my experience have yet to fade. That my brain is like a broken etch-a-sketch – no matter how many times I try and shake it, I’m stuck with the same design that can’t erase.

My mother kept letters I wrote home then and those written to me. They’re in red and white envelopes, covered in star and rollerblading stickers and aged postage marks. They’re in the best condition they can be for what they are.

I empathize.

The letters tell a story – several stories, really. But there’s a lot missing. The tye-dye shirt is missing.

As 9-year-olds our minds were still so malleable – more like tar, instead of concrete. Whatever appealing thing anyone said to us, or told us was right or wrong, would stick to us and stain our brains.

We didn’t know the consequences of our actions. I didn’t know the consequences of others’ actions. Of my actions. Of my inactions – not telling my parents what was really going on.

A sample letter:

Dear Everyone,

Sometimes, we get to sleep ‘till 8:15! Otherwise 7:15.

This actually sounds great.

Today, I went horseback riding. It’s very cool. I learned how to control a horse!

A bit of a stretch there.

Here, we have something called canteen. It’s where we get two pieces of candy for free! As in (M&M’s, Nestle Crunchbars, etc.)

… OK this sounds like a lot of fun, why wasn’t I having fun again?

My camp bunkmates are nice.

There it is. Lie.

There is Matt – (MY BEST FRIEND)

Chris – (HE LIKES TO READ)

Marco – (HE’S SEXY)

Chase – (Loves “Skating & Skateboarding”)

Matt E – (He likes COMICS)

Jordan – (HE’S NICE)

& Cody – (THE ANNOYING ONE)

The nice counselors are Dan, Alex, Alex, and Ben. I still love and miss you!

It’s time I filled in what was missing.

**

Marco and I didn’t talk about my letter, or if we did, it wasn’t anything meaningful. Most nine-year-old boys wouldn’t think to discuss the virtues of fonts, like Curlz MT vs. Arial (ugh) vs. Comic Sans (double ugh).

But at some point, Marco and I did talk about something. I called him “cute” and everyone heard.

I must have been goaded into saying so, or trying to take part in the conversations about sex that were swirling around me that summer.

My parents tried to tell me about sex before I left for camp. They plopped down on my tiny twin bed and brought me a picture book. They often read to my sister and me at night so I didn’t think much of it. Except for the fact that it wasn’t bedtime yet and my sister was purposefully not in the room.

They opened the book and there they were: Naked male and female cartoons. Hair over body parts I didn’t know could have hair. Bushy, curly, like the hair on my mother’s head.

GROSS.

“I don’t want to talk about this,” I recoiled.

They didn’t push. We never talked about it again.

I should have let it be awkward and let them tell me things. Why didn’t I?

Maybe a part of me didn’t want to know, because it would’ve been confirmation of what I knew somewhere in the rainbow recesses of my mind. Maybe I wasn’t ready to know.

My admission that Marco was “cute” led one of my bunkmates to accuse of me of wanting to have sex with another bunkmate. I didn’t know what sex was, and here someone was telling me I wanted to have sex.

“You think Marco is cute. You want to have sex with Jordan,” Chase, this red-headed, heavyset bunkmate told me. He looked like a typical bully.

I don’t know what his intentions were. Why do little boys say things like that? Why does a bully say anything at all? Was he really a bully or was he being a boy? What did it mean to be a boy? What does it mean to be a boy? Is it OK for boys to make fun of other boys over the fact one of them might be gay? Boys boys boys boys boys.

It’s easy for me to say that he was malicious. That he took something from me.

But I don’t know if his thoughts were that concrete and intentional. It’s more that homophobia stuck to us like an invisible tar.

Chase passed it on to me.

He changed how I thought – and still think – about sex. That now when I think of sex and relationships I don’t think of myself and what I want, but I think about what he wants. He being any man, any partner.

His attempts to shame my supposed sexual proclivities worked two-fold. I learned that thinking boys were cute was wrong, and that I was incapable of exerting any kind of sexual power of my own.

I never went back to camp. But it always went with me, even though I didn’t realize it.

Any inkling I had of any boy from that point forward I scrunched up like a wad of notebook paper.  I rationalized away jealousies I had when a guy friend I had in middle school started dating a girl (why was I jealous? I liked him too). I rationalized away everyone thinking I was gay in middle school by asking girls out, and rationalized away my own lack of experience in high school by doing the same. No one said “yes.”

I rationalized away my first kiss to a woman early in college, which wasn’t even a first kiss but me ending up with a clump of her hair in my mouth. I just told everyone it was my first kiss to say that I did it.

I didn’t even know there was porn to watch because I didn’t know I could seek it out. One of the chief reasons I came out at all is because I finally did away with rationalizations, gave into feelings and let myself feel pleasure for the first time. It wasn’t until then that my memories about camp came bubbling to the surface – a reckoning of my past I had to deal with, unleashed in tandem with my sexuality.

It took me even longer to actually have sex, partially out of safety concerns but more so out of a fear of rejection and otherwise weakness. I had the power to come out, but would I have the power to come on my own terms?

Yes, it turns out. And even more now that I’ve channeled Chase’s taunts from my past into something self-affirming instead of self-deprecating.

**

I became an outcast. A walking gay cliche.

No one in my bunk talked to me much after all this occurred. I kept busy with the camp circus (yes, really), which involved me balancing on a bike with campers and trained performers. Otherwise, I was mostly interested in art. Mainly because I could cry there.

I spent most of the summer crying to the art teacher, who felt so bad for me that she awarded me third place for art at the end of the four-week session. Out of the whole camp.

My stick figures don’t have necks or ears. I didn’t deserve this award.

I didn’t need to be pitied. I needed a friend. A real one.

I sought escape by observing other people. I watched this cute boy Teddy sit in front of me during our camp’s version of the X-games, and talk to two girls smitten with him. Kids were doing tricks while Teddy skated on the half-pipe of pre-adolescent romance, sliding back and forth between these two and praying he wouldn’t slip.

He bumped into one of the girls in the cafeteria once, a “meet cute” straight out of a Nora Ephron film. Trays collided, food fell all over the floor. Everyone stared and laughed. Both leaned down to pick up the remains of their camp dignity, awkward and embarrassed.

I wanted that. I wanted Teddy. I wanted the meet cute. He would never talk to me. Look at me. Would anyone?

That was never going to be me. But I didn’t know it was OK to want that to be me.

Was that all because of Chase? No. Was it partially because of Chase? Yes.

It would be easy to blame him for everything, but I can’t. He was acting the only way he knew how, and so was I.

**

I made a tie-dye shirt that summer. Yellow and green and blue and pink splattered together.

I was walking with some fellow campers back to my bunk. We passed by some newly paved blacktop, the tar still fresh and black, black, black.

It somehow got on my shirt. A small spot, but a spot nonetheless. I was still a 9-year-old after all.

My rainbow tie-dye shirt, stained with tar. For as long as I had it, even years later, the stain wouldn’t come out.


David Oliver

David Oliver is an associate editor of social media at U.S. News & World Report, where he writes about health and wellness topics and works on social strategy. He's also a freelance writer and nonfiction writing graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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