This morning, as I lay awake in the wee hours of the morning, I was thinking back on yesterday: the drop off at Jessie’s weeklong overnight camp. We have all been looking forward to this since back in January when I learned that a wonderful camp exists which is exactly like any other camp with the exception of the fact that all the kids in attendance define themselves as either transgender or gender variant. There was something magical and surreal about stepping onto those grounds. A place that, a mere year ago, never would have been on my radar, was suddenly in my nav.
Early in the afternoon Jessie, Harrison, Rich and I piled into the car to head to camp located just over two hours away. Speaking for myself (which is all I can ever really do, although I have been criticized for being “me” focused) I will cop to an underlying anxiety over what lay ahead. I had very little idea what to expect and tried to imagine how it felt for Jessie to be heading away for a week with all new people who were, in a profound way, very much like her. Just as I was driving into a world I can never completely understand, she was leaving a world that doesn’t quite understand her and heading into one in which they do. That is something that you and I have the luxury of living in every day. Stop and think about that for a moment.
When we pulled onto the grounds we were greeted by a team of friendly faces welcoming us to camp and directing us where to pull the car for unloading. As we parked, another car came in directly next to us and out stepped a beautiful teenage girl and her father. We parents exchanged immediate “hellos” as did Jessie and the other girl. It took me a beat to realize that she was the camper. Had I been in any other locale I would never have thought twice about her gender. Seeing (and not taking a second look at) this tall, beautiful long-haired teenage girl who, I belatedly realized, was a biological boy, was a brief and powerful moment for me. That could well be Jessie in a few short years.
From there we (and by “we” I mean Rich and Harrison) pulled Jessie’s luggage from the trunk (including a huge, fluffy, bright pink pillow) and worked our way over to the welcome table. I admit that in my head I was silently trying to determine who was transgender and who was not. It was not that it mattered as much as it was a peek into the future and an attempt to de-emotionalize the experience and see if I could even tell. Wanna know something: had I not known that we were at a camp for transgender and gender variant kids, I would never have guessed it. We were at a rustic (read: RUSTIC) camp, with a volleyball net set up in the middle, kids running to embrace friends from last summer, counselors trying to learn who was who and parents hastily throwing sheets over half-inch thick mattresses. Sounds like any other camp to me.
There were, however, a few telltale signs that this was a special place. For starters, despite my having made Rich stop at McDonald’s for a Diet Coke on the way up (and having used the bathroom while I was there – which I am telling you for a reason…) upon arrival I had to go to the bathroom (see Diet Coke comment). I asked a nice young man (hmmm) where the bathrooms were and he pointed to a shack a few hundred feet away. Out of habit, before entering I took a look to see if it said “girls’” or “boys’” but instead was greeted with a sign that said “everyone’s”. It was a small, but meaningful sign that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. (Aside: Having been in that bathroom I think it is safe to say that Jessie is going to be longing for her bathroom at home. She is my kid, after all.)
We proceeded to her bunk where we were greeted by two counselors who, upon learning her name, handed Jessie a sheet of construction paper which had been adorned with her name and allowed her to choose her bed for the week. After having discussed it in the car, she (in opposition to my suggestion) opted to take the top bunk, with a window at her head. (I understand the allure, I just never liked being on the top bunk in anticipation of night-time bathroom needs. I never said I wasn’t neurotic.) We put together her bed, turned around and noticed that she was gone. I went to the door of the bunk and found her, along with a girl from her cabin, wandering across the central lawn to explore the camp. As she did that first day of school as Jessie, she never looked back. I took that private moment to inquire as to the make up of the bunk and was told that it was made up of all MTF (Male to Female) children, ages 9-11. Just a beat off of your kids’ bunk assignments, right?
Rich, Harrison and I then began to wander around ourselves checking out the waterfront, the dining hall and the expanse of the grounds. Set on a lake on a picture perfect afternoon it felt serene and surreal all at once. At one point while we were strolling I asked Harrison if this all felt “strange” to him. Without skipping a beat he responded that, “it would be strange if it didn’t feel strange.” Amen.
With Jessie nowhere in sight, we hung out chatting with some parents that we have met over the past year as well as meeting new ones. We are parents with a unique bond, coming from varying walks of life, parts of the country and stages of the process. About 45 minutes after arriving we attended a parent support meeting for all of us to unload and feel the love of the others who are trying to navigate the same waters. Some of the stories are strikingly familiar (Barbie dolls!), and others (almost exclusively of people other than the parents) would break your heart in a nanosecond. Harrison attended the meeting as well and was given the opportunity to share his unique insight with the parents as to how their other children may be feeling. His comment that “more upsetting than his brother becoming his sister is the fact that she can be irritating” garnered laughter and nods of agreement all around. (Go, Harrison!)
At the assigned end time of the meeting the powers that be told the families that it was time to go. I spotted Jessie in the middle of the volleyball court among scads of other kids. I grappled with getting her attention so I could give her one last squeeze before we left but it was clear that she was comfortable and engaged. We had said our goodbyes earlier and she was officially at camp.
As we were heading to the car, Rich began a conversation with a gentleman with the name tag “Wayne” (oh, by the way, we were all wearing name tags). We chatted for a few moments when I realized that this was Wayne Maines who (see if you can follow this…): is the father of the twins who were the focus of the article in The Boston Globe which I was reading on George’s tenth birthday which resulted in his (gender and name choice intended) responding with, “you mean I’m not the only one?” and from which this whole adventure was unleashed. (Insert exhale here). I introduced myself and, having read some of my writings, he knew just who I was. Again: unique bond. I told him that Jessie will be ecstatic to learn that his daughter is there and that we are grateful to him and his family for their willingness to put themselves out there to make things that much less difficult (I won’t say “easy”) for the rest of us. It seemed an apropos note on which to take our leave.
In the car heading home, the three of us decided that we would take a detour and enjoy a nice dinner just the three of us – something we seldom get an opportunity to do. We stopped in Newport, Rhode Island and gorged ourselves on fried clams with ice cream chasers while sitting on a deck overlooking the yachts and energy of the pier. I found myself looking at people wondering if perhaps they were transgender since I had a new understanding that you really cannot tell…more than you might expect.
As I toyed with getting out of bed this morning (no one needed me to wake them up or make them lunch!) I reflected on the notion that when camp ended for most kids it was just the moment it started for mine. I think that pretty well sums up a lot of how things go for this kid (and her mom): being just a beat off. I wondered if she slept all night in that (icky) cabin and if she will manage to brush her teeth even once in the trough that camps consider a sink. I hoped that her social connections would come more easily given the fact that every girl in her bunk has a penis and shares many of the same thoughts, concerns and issues that she has. But mostly, I lay in bed hoping that Jessie is having the time of her life.
p.s. I wish I had a picture to show you but, out of respect for the families and the kids who are stealth in their gender identity, no cameras are allowed at camp. Again, just a beat off.