I turned ten the first summer my parents sent me away to camp. Two weeks in the Ozarks, knowing nobody but my sister. By the time I returned, I was independent, self-reliant, unafraid of bugs and most importantly, unafraid of my sister. Camp taught me that.
I swam in a lake, built fires, used a bow and arrow, and hiked for what seemed like endless miles through the forests. I slept out under the stars, after having road a horse to the campsite. I forged friendships with people that I never would have known, had I never been sent off to camp.
Those were always the greatest two weeks of the year.
It was a foregone conclusion that my own children would go to camp, when they turned ten. But not any camp: my camp. I taught Jake cheers and songs from camp since he was a little baby. I told him stories of the magical time he would have, the places he would go, the people he would meet. I imagined how much fun he would have, swimming out to the pier to sit and sunbathe or balancing his way across the spillway to get to his unit. I could see him, as clear as a picture, in the grotto on the final night, dancing and acting out a skit with his unit.
It wasn’t until a month ago, when my nieces were getting ready for their first trip to camp and the kids were excitedly planning the day that Jake would join them that the reality dawned on me: Jake would never go to camp. At least, not mine.
How could he? Every day, kids were required to go to the bathhouse, strip and shower. Every night, they divided by boys and girls and returned to their units to sleep. Even with the most sensitive of counselors, even with all the professional training and development we could possibly do, I couldn’t protect my son from being exposed in that kind of a situation.
Not to mention that camp is a Christian Camp.
I pulled Jake to the side and gently explained that he would not be able to attend camp. His heart filled his eyes as he looked up at me, clearly not understanding why. There would simply be too much risk.
“It’s okay,” Jake insisted. “I can handle it!”
I pulled him tightly into my arms and blinked back my tears.
“I couldn’t handle it, sweetheart,” I replied. “You would be with your unit every single day and night, showering and swimming and sleeping in the same cabins. We don’t know how any of those kids would react to finding out you’re transgender, and I wouldn’t be around to protect you or take you out of a potentially dangerous situation.”
I thought things were settled, that he understood on some level. But two days later, the nieces asked why he couldn’t go. I gave them the same answer I gave Jake.
“Why can’t he stay with the girls then?” my younger niece chimed in, finding what she thought was a simple solution.
“Because I’m not a girl!”
I explained that maybe one day the world would change. And maybe in a couple years, the world would change enough to include kids like Jake at summer camps. I went on to tell them that those kinds of camps already existed, where kids divided by gender preference and were free to express themselves how they wanted.
But Jake had heard tales of my camp since he was a baby, and in a week, he’d hear stories from his cousins about all the fun they had. I wanted so badly to be able to fix this for him, but didn’t know how.
At some point while the nieces were away at camp, an article surfaced in a support group. It showed pictures taken by Lindsay Morris of gender non-conforming boys and girls at a camp designed specifically to allow them the freedom to be themselves. I tracked down the poster and learned that not only did the camp exist in the Midwest, but we hadn’t missed it!
That camp took place last weekend. Jake and I spent the weekend among people and children who loved and accepted and supported us, and the feeling was relieving. Jake met a boy a few years older than him, who he’s able to look up to and admire. I’ve never known my son to have anyone like that before and it makes me so happy.
The kids put on a talent show and walked in a fashion show, they swam in a lake and roasted marshmallows around a bonfire. But most importantly, they were free to be themselves and to be around kids that got them in a way no one else ever would.
It wasn’t the full camp experience, with no parents in sight. But it made me realize how important that experience would be, in a couple years. Not my camp experience, but one for kids like Jake. Maybe the world would change enough in a few years for a camp like mine to allow that, but somehow, I doubted it.
And that was okay. My camp wasn’t for Jake. But a camp made for trans and gender non-conforming kids, that was exactly what we needed.
There are camps like that, for kids like Jake. And in a couple years, I have a feeling I’ll be flying him to the east or west coast, to send him off for a week. In the meantime, weekend camps like the one we had returned from are the next best thing. Having that support, having that unconditional love and acceptance…I think it made a difference for both of us.
I still hold on to expectations for Jake. I still have plans and hopes and dreams that I need to re-evaluate. And then let go. Because parenting a child like Jake isn’t like parenting any other child in the world. I realized that when I saw him walking, GQ-style, down the runway the parents had built, flashing peace signs for the cameras. I realized that when he danced freestyle to the song he chose: This is What Trans Looks Like by Lucas Charlie Rose.
And I realized that there really was a place for us and people like us and that we could get through this, when I asked him what his favorite part of Camp was.
“Nothing,” he replied simply. “Every single part of it was great.”
In true camp fashion, we started counting down the days until next year.
Don’t miss my video on Listen to Your Mother where I share my story of Jake’s transition.
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