Earning My Feathers
It’s safe to say there was nothing like Camp You Are You in the summer of 1969, when my parents loaded up the Impala and drove the six hours from Philadelphia to a camp in the western mountains of Massachusetts. We’d been given a detailed packing list by my boy’s camp—bug spray, a flashlight, a sleeping bag, T-shirts, a day-pack, and something called “white duck trousers,” which, to my great disappointment, had nothing to do with Donald, or for that matter, Daisy.
I spent that summer among boys, making lanyards out of gimp, hiking through swamps, and earning feathers for good behavior, feathers bestowed upon us at our faux-Indian campfires by the camp’s director, “The Moose.” I got a feather, for instance, for learning how to swim, a skill I had been resisting for years, and which, at long last, I finally mastered in that cold New England lake.
I got another feather when I learned the names of trees; a third when I hit a bull’s-eye with an arrow.
I was glad I finally learned how to swim, and the ability to tell the trees apart is a skill I’ve used many times in the years since then. But it’s fair to say that none of these were the skills I yearned for.
What I really wanted to know was how to put on eyeliner. Or how to do a French braid.
But there was no one to ask, or at least so I believed back then.
As it turns out, the thing I most needed to learn was not how to do any one particular thing; my eventual identity as a woman, which did in fact emerge over thirty years later, would itself not depend so much on eye makeup (which I rarely wear) or braiding hair (which I’ve mostly given up on). No, the thing I needed to learn, back then as well as later, was that I was not alone. The thing I needed to learn, in fact, was that the world was full of people very much like me.
Not that you could have convinced me of that back then. I was convinced that I suffered from a condition that existed almost entirely within my own head, a state of mind that I hoped would surely retreat if only I immersed myself in enough gender-affirming projects. Like shooting a rifle at a target of a moose, for instance. I shot that cardboard moose to smithereens that summer, not because I bore it any particular ill will, but because I believed that if I killed enough pretend moose, if I shot enough arrows into the center of the archery target—if I did all this, I would at last win the feather that made me a boy.
In mid-July I stood by a quiet lake one night and watched the moon rise up over the horizon. Its yellow reflection rippled in the water. The air was full of the sound of crickets. From across the lake came the sound of singing girls’ voices—girls from my camp’s sister institution, just a mile or two away. I stood there alone on the banks of the pond and listened. Those voices, those achingly beautiful girls’ voices hung in the air. They were singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
Comin’ for to carry me home.
It was the moon landing summer, and it was impossible not to look up into the night sky that July without imagining the tiny craft hurtling away from the gravitational pull of Earth, preparing to land on that mysterious world. At times the moon seemed like those girls across the lake: so near, but so unknowable.
We all knew that things were changing, even as kids. The summer before, we’d suffered through the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the disaster at the Democratic National Convention, the election of Nixon. Every night we saw Vietnam on the television—cities burning, helicopters crashing, blood-soaked men being loaded onto stretchers. I remember at the time telling my parents that I never wanted to go to college because “that was the place where the buildings were on fire.” As writer Lorrie Moore once wrote, summing up what it was like to be a child in the 1960s, “we went ice skating to the protest song ‘Eve of Destruction.’”
I wasn’t aware of it that summer, but another change was set in motion that June. On the 28th, there was a riot at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City. That was my first Sunday at the camp, a day on which I’d had to wear the hated “white duck trousers” at the Christian service in the woods. This service was slightly more ecumenical than the ones I’d attended at the Lutheran church back in Philadelphia, and it included a lengthy period of meditative silence during which you were supposed to have a quiet conversation with God. The services were presided over by the wife of the camp’s director, a woman we all referred to as “Lady Moose.”
I don’t remember exactly how my conversation with God went that Sunday, but I feel fairly certain that I asked, in my own frightened way, for success in my quest, that by the time I headed home, with a full headdress of male feathers to my name, a lanyard of gimp around my neck, I would stop feeling like a girl, that I would at last come to find a place to fit in this swiftly morphing world.
My friend novelist Richard Russo likes to observe that our prayers are frequently answered ironically—that is, the responses we get are rarely in the form we ask and often arrive years and years later, which, Russo says, is the result “of our not knowing what to ask for, or how to ask for it.”
If that’s true, then it’s possible to view the years since that summer of 1969 as an answer to the homely prayer that I and countless others made that same July. For the changes that began in that Greenwich Village bar on June 28 did ripple out across the culture in the years that followed. The world that the Apollo astronauts returned to that summer was not the same one they had left. Things were in motion. The arc of the moral universe, as Martin Luther King had said, was long. But it was beginning to bend toward justice.
Now, just shy of fifty years later, the world is a slightly more just place in which to come out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning. In my home state of Maine, men and women who love each other can get married, whether they are gay or straight. I came out as trans just after my fortieth birthday; I have been married to my wife for over twenty-five years—twelve as husband and wife, thirteen as wife and wife. All around the world parents are learning that if their children ask the same questions of themselves that I asked when I was at camp, that shock or anger or disappointment are not the only responses appropriate to the occasion. It’s true that parents continue to feel uncertain about their children’s future and can be frustrated about frequently uncooperative school administrators, but there’s pride and admiration as well: for the courage of children and for their individuality. And there is hope as well: the hope that these sons and daughters, against all odds, might just be able to be themselves in the world and thrive.
For the last few years, Camp You Are You has provided young people who are gender creative a safe space to come out and express themselves. In this book, you will find evidence of the wide spectrum of children’s gender truths. You will see examples of the love these parents and their children share. You might even see some lanyards.
Lindsay Morris’s photographs, I hope you will agree, are deeply moving. In these portraits you will see young people finding the bravery to be themselves in the world—many of them for the very first time.
I suspect that at least some of the young people at Camp You Are You will end their summer having learned, at last, how to put on eyeliner. Others might have begun to practice the fine art of the French braid. There are a lot of things to learn about gender that some parents might take for granted and that their children might experience at Camp You Are You for the first time. But many of them leave the camp having learned the most important lesson of all, the thing I yearned, above all, to know back when I was the age of these children—that they are not alone; that there is nothing wrong with the way they feel; that no matter how they wish to express themselves they are precious, noble souls who deserve no less than any other child the chance for joy, and wholeness, and peace.
This last summer, forty-five years by my count, after I stood by the banks of a lake, listening to the far-off sounds of girls singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” I was signing books at an author event in Maine when an older woman stopped and came over to my table and asked me, in so many words, if I was me.
I said that I was.
She took my hand in hers, and her eyes filled with moist tears. “I know you don’t recognize me,” she said. “But it’s me. Lady Moose.”
It took me a moment, but I recognized her—the woman who, back in 1969, had officiated over our Sunday services in the woods, who had urged us to take a moment for silent meditation in our white duck trousers and offer up our prayers for ourselves, and for the world.
She told me that her husband—The Head Moose—had passed away some years earlier, and that the camp now had other owners. But I’d be welcome, she said, to come back to a reunion in the autumn, there on the banks of that lake in the Berkshire Mountains.
“Really?” I said. “They wouldn’t mind having me back?”
“Of course not,” said Lady Moose. “Don’t you know the world has changed?”
I drove home from that reading thinking about that long-ago summer, and as I drove it occurred to me for the first time, that I’d never thought about that “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” moment from the point of view of the girls across the lake. All along I’d thought of myself as alone, standing there watching the reflection of the far-off yellow moon.
But for all I knew, there was someone who’d snuck away from the chorus at the girls’ camp. There he was—my opposite number, at the exact same moment, a young trans guy standing on the opposite bank, watching with longing and with hope as the sparks from our campfire slowly rose toward heaven.