When I was a teenager, I spent several summers at a Montessori-inspired hippie socialist utopian creative-and-performing arts camp. The eight weeks I spent at camp were a respite from trying to contort myself to fit in enough during the rest of the school year. Camp was a place to be myself. It was a place where I didn’t worry about fitting in with the cool kids. Where my awkwardness didn’t make me stand out but was embraced as a part of me. Every year, camp began in late June, just days after school ended, about a month after my birthday.
Just before my sixteenth birthday, the DiVinyls song “I Touch Myself” reached number 4 on the BIllboard Hot 100 charts. It was a very popular song at camp that summer. And a few weeks after my sixteenth birthday, Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman) was arrested for indecent exposure in a movie theater in Sarasota, Florida. Neither of those stories was the most important sex-story of my summer that year.
No “Pair-Bonding?” What am I a Carbon-Atom?
Summer camps often have traditions that are carried from generation to generation. While this camp was anything but traditional, it certainly had a few… customs of its own. They were unlike any I was familiar with from previous camps. The camp routine and rules were unique. Rather than moving as a unit, we picked our own activities. We built our relationships not just based on who happened to be in our age group, but based on who we met in our chosen activities.
And dating of any kind was severely frowned upon. Camp rules, in fact, state: “Camp is for community and not for pair-bonding and exclusionary relationships. Campers cannot pursue physical relationships, nor are they permitted to have platonic, physical contact without consent. “ We often joked that the counselors carried around six-inch rulers to make sure that campers stayed far enough apart. We used to tease each other that, rather than a traditional camp anthem, we would show our camp spirit by calling out to each other “It’s not that kind of camp.” This rule was only a minor deterrent. Captive adolescents are going to find ways to pair-bond, whether it’s permitted or not. There were plenty of trips to Chicken Hill (one of the camp’s make-out spots) and the counselors in the Rat Patrol did their work after dark, wandering around with flashlights to find canoodling couples.
Learning to Read, Write, and…
That summer, I was firming up my own identity as a writer. I was quite experienced at writing melodramatic and nihilistic adolescent poetry filled with ennui. I’d been intensely reading Beat poetry for a year or two. I’d discovered a novelist/poet named Erica Jong the previous summer. During the few weeks after camp but before school. On one of my mother’s bookshelves. I usually ignored the piles of bodice rippers that my mother often read, gravitating more towards her incredible collection of classics mixed with the occasional best seller.
In a rush to find something to read one day, I grabbed the nearest thing that wasn’t about princes or dukes riding horses and seducing virginal damsels. What I picked up was Fear of Flying, a book that explored female sexuality like nothing I’d ever seen before. The sex described in the book was incomprehensible in comparison to my own awkward adolescent experimentation. I learned about the clitoris from Erica Jong.
In the Flesh
So that summer, when I came back to camp, I found that none other than Erica Jong was giving a poetry workshop at the Pub Shop (short for “publication.” In addition to hosting the creative writing, they also printed the yearbooks and the theater programs).The day after the poetry workshop, I went back to the Pub Shop to interview Erica Jong for an article in one of the upcoming camp periodicals.
Sprawled in an Adirondack chair in front of the Pub Shop, as I worked on my article, I began talking with a girl I’d noticed before–her abundant, curly, brown hair made her hard to miss, but I’d never sat quite that close to her. Close enough to notice the brightness in her brown eyes and her long eyelashes. To see how her smile took over her face as we chatted. Close enough that, as I looked at her, I felt all-too-familiar feelings. Feelings I had been fighting for years. Feelings that I had a well-rehearsed script for: It isn’t okay to feel this way. I shouldn’t be thinking those thoughts about girls. Focus on something else. I felt the blood rush into my face as I tried to bury my feelings under shame.
We talked and worked and talked some more. The gong rang to signal snack time and we paused for juice and cookies. I admired the skirt she was wearing–it was maroon, with navy blue embroidery and little shiny mirrored disks sewn into the design. We discovered a shared affinity for Rocky Horror Picture Show and the Indigo Girls.
The gong rang again to signal that shops were closed, ending the work-part of the day, signaling that dinner would be served soon, followed by evening activities. I left to meet friends for dinner, and to decide on evening plans. Rosalyn walked with me as far as the dining hall, where we went separate ways to meet friends.
We spent time together in the Pub Shop, and sometimes away from the shop. We’d get together on a secluded rehearsal stage with a group of friends and a tape recorder and tell stories, passing the role of storyteller from person to person, making copies of the tapes to ensure that everyone who participated could have a copy. On movie night, our separate groups of friends sat near each other, but did not share blankets. And one ordinary day we were hanging out in her bunk, sitting on her bed and talking. In a moment, the ordinary day would become remarkable.
She kissed me.
We were sitting on her bed, doing the things teenage girls do. We complained about our hair. Talked about music. We ate the snacks we’d received in care packages from home.
She kissed me. I liked it.
She leaned in, pressed her lips on mine, her hand rested on mine, and she kissed me. Her tongue pushed gently against my mouth, and I let it in.
It wasn’t my first kiss, but no kiss I’d ever received had ever made me feel like that. There was a softness to her face as our mouths came together that I’d never felt before. No kiss I’d felt ever made me feel like lightning was shooting through my toes, No kiss made me want to throw up in the riding-a-great-rollercoaster sort of way before. No kiss had ever excited the secrets inside me like that kiss.
I didn’t want it to stop. I didn’t know how to keep it going either. What I mean is: I knew what was expected when a boy kissed me. I had no idea whether kissing other girls came with the same expectations. I had no idea how long to wait before reaching out to touch her, or how to be sure that I was sending the right signals myself. And I definitely did not know how to navigate the shaky, adolescent understanding of consent with another girl.
I sat in the shadowy corner of her lower bunk, wanting more. More kissing. More of whatever was going to happen next. I was excited. I was frightened. By how much I liked this feeling. I was confused. I was ashamed. And I was kissing her right back.
“It isn’t That Kind of Camp”
Not long after, the squeak of door springs caused us to quickly pull back from each other. “It isn’t that kind of camp,” after all. And, while that rule was in writing, there was another, unwritten rule that we were breaking. Violating that rule was a far bigger deal. Getting discovered by friends would be uncomfortable. Embarrassing. Shameful. But what about adults? If we got caught, exactly how far would the consequences go? Would they call home? Would we get kicked out of camp? I could only imagine catastrophic scenarios. The idea that it might be treated the same way that it would if I’d been making out with a boy was inconceivable. Fortunately, I never found out.
When you’re twitterpated from a new liaison, you want to talk about it. Especially when that relationship comes with the extra adrenaline-rush of rule breaking. And even when it’s the kind of place where pairing off is discouraged as a rule, telling a few close friends is part of the thrill. You want to tell people. And you know your closest friends will cover for you if you get caught sneaking out to go to the tennis courts or the rehearsal stage after dark. That’s what friends do. That’s what summer camp romance is about. Ironically, the success of our “pair-bondings” usually depended on the support of our “community.”
Life on Fast-Forward
Camp life means relationships happen on fast-forward. The highs are higher, the lows are lower, and the bonds between friends grow deep very quickly.
This kiss, this relationship broke too many rules to talk about. I couldn’t tell my friends. Not even my best friend. Someone I’d known since we were three. The person I’d learned to tie my shoes with. The person who had introduced me to this utopian summer camp where, up until that kiss, I’d felt like I fit in.
One kiss changed everything about my world. One kiss meant I could no longer deny the feeling I’d been having. Kissing a boy wasn’t unpleasant. I liked kissing boys, too. But kissing a girl for the first time? That felt so much more right. But kissing a girl was also wrong. How could I go back home, back to school, back to a world where I already felt like an outsider and carry this with me?
Now that I’d discovered how good this felt, how could I stop?
There were a few more weeks of camp left. And two teenage girls hanging around together in a bunk “trying on clothes” and listening to music isn’t suspicious. We found ways to encourage our separate groups of friends to sit near each other on the lawn during movie night so we could hold hands. We claimed the Adirondack chairs next to each other at the Pub Shop so that we could be close. And we opened up our storytelling group to include a few more people. Somehow we kept a facade of separation, believing that we convinced people that we were just friends while still finding excuses and opportunities to discover each other.
The Romance Project
The last event of the summer was called Festival. A huge day of performances and art displays open to families of the campers. I auditioned for, and was cast in, a show called The Romance Project. Under the guidance of the director, we created the show ourselves through workshops. Rosalyn was also cast in the show. Our work began with a viewing of Wuthering Heights, and the two of us sat together, in the dark, in the back, clinging to each other.
Instead of being out on the lawn (like we usually were when the whole camp watched a movie as part of an evening activity) we were clustered around a VCR set up in one of the performance spaces. Perhaps it was the smaller group, or the darkness of the space, but Ros and I exchanged a few kisses during the film. Another of our assignments was to write love letters to celebrities. We were handed pictures torn from magazines and sent off to write. I was assigned Arnold Schwarzzeneger, ostensibly because I spoke German. I laughed at the idea of being in love with the Terminator but writing that letter wasn’t difficult whenI had these fresh experiences to draw on.
No One to Talk To
And at the end of the summer, we went our separate ways. It wasn’t a messy breakup, it was an ending. As if we knew that whatever we shared couldn’t last beyond the boundaries of camp. We didn’t live far from each other. But the idea of going back to our school year routines while somehow maintaining that kind of a relationship? Out of the question.
And I had no one I felt I could talk to. No one I knew I could trust. I had no one to share the thrill of being in love with. No one to share the pain of the ending with. My friends didn’t know. My family didn’t know.
What Kissing Really Meant
And I had no one to answer my questions about what that summer romance meant about me.
It would take three more years for me to begin to unpack what that kiss really meant. Three years where I often kept people at a distance because I didn’t want to answer their questions. Where I spent hours trying to teach myself not to want to kiss girls. Three years of hiding my feelings, of trying to make sure that I didn’t arouse any suspicion by looking for a little too long, hugging a little too tightly.
The feelings during those three years are significant factors in why I believe in living a life where I am as out as I can safely be, where I seek out connections with the queer community, not just allies and advocates. And where I believe in the value of being a queer role model whenever I can be. Even though at times I have continued to pursue relationships with men. Which means that my relationships often look straight. From the outside.
It was a scary and lonely three years. All because I kissed a girl and I liked it.