Wisps of dried pine tree branches were rolled into a ball in the center of the fire pit, the kindling placed in a tight square around that, and the larger pieces of wood we’d collected, the fuel, formed a makeshift log cabin frame. I leaned in closer to the structure I had carefully crafted and struck my single wooden match on one of the rocks that formed the pit, touched the flame to the tinder, and gently blew. Moments later, with my one-match fire brilliantly blazing I found an empty spot on a log that formed the fire circle and glanced askance at the woman I’d fallen in love with that summer. A stalwart Brit who was part of a counselor exchange program, she wasn’t given to overt displays of emotion, but through the curls of smoke and the light of the crackling fire I could just about make out the tears streaming down her face as we locked eyes while singing “Leaving on a Jet Plane” a cappella. It was all so stereotypically lesbian, I know, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I was 22 and on hiatus from the touring theater gig I’d landed eight months earlier, so I returned as a senior counselor to the Girl Scout camp in the northwest corner of Connecticut I’d attended as a camper from ages 7 to 14 and then for several years as a counselor into my teens. It was the final campfire of summer, when we serenaded the campers as they fell asleep as many of them sobbed in their tents at the thought of having to leave for another year, something I’d done at the end of every summer as a kid knowing I’d soon be forced to leave my Paradise Island and reenter the world where boys flirted by stealing my oversize comb from my back pocket and smacking me on the ass with it or by obsessing over my prematurely impressive rack.
I cried at the end of every camp session in August when I eyed my parents’ turquoise convertible Beetle inching up the dusty road to the big red lodge where I inevitably clung to my new best friend or to a counselor to whom I’d formed a deep attachment. But that summer, gazing across the fire at the woman with whom I’d been clandestinely meeting in fields under stars for weeks, I’d have suspended time if it were possible. It wasn’t the first time I’d fallen in love at my all-girls camp, but it was the first summer I’d returned fully out in my personal life, and I became acutely aware of how spending my July and August surrounded by strong, independent women cooking meals, erecting tents, hauling wood, and lighting one-match fires (a badge of honor if ever there were one) helped me realize what I wanted my life to look like sooner than if I’d stayed at home shooting hoops and avoiding unwanted attention from the boys in my neighborhood.
It was the summer of ’75 when I arrived at camp for the first time, sporting a navy blue windbreaker, a bowl cut, and a slight fever. Once the camp nurse determined I wasn’t a health risk, my parents and I set off down a rocky path to the unit for the youngest girls. My mom made up my cot with a plastic covering to ward off the dew, my sleeping bag, and my dad’s woolen Navy blanket. She offered parting advice on showering and washing my clothes and promised postcards every day, and then I was left to fend for myself, a 7-year-old in jeans and construction boots who was often (almost always) mistaken for a boy.
While memories of that first year are fuzzy, I recall the candy truck that came around during our rest hour and the 10 cents I could spend on something sweet — watermelon-flavored Jolly Rancher sticks were my confection of choice — and I remember swim lessons in a murky pond that slightly terrified me. I also recall that the other girls wanted to know why there was a boy (me) at camp. But the moment that stuck with me, that made me feel special, was when a counselor on whom I now realize I had a nascent crush, who went by the nickname Fonzie (not knowing any of the counselors’ real names was a part of the allure of my camp), told me she knew I was a girl right from the start because I was “too cute to be a boy.”
In the real world my tomboyishness gave me the freedom to play, roam, tumble, and climb with the boys, but at camp, I didn’t need to hide, and, oh wow, the emotions I had for this person I admired sticking up for me were completely new. Summer after summer my affinity for this world where women in green shorts and white polos sang songs with us at dinner, hugged us goodnight, chased away spiders at 2 a.m., and led us to shelter during tree-toppling thunderstorms grew and helped me blossom into the lesbian I would eventually become.
A counselor I clung to obsessively as a 9- or 10-year-old once sat me down on the big lawn by the red lodge and relayed a fable about the wild grapevines smothering the trees before us. I was as perceptive as I was precocious, and while I understood her tale — that I should lay off and let the other kids sit beside her at dinner or walk with her to the waterfront — I didn’t allow her cautionary arbor-themed yarn to get in my way of trying to be the funniest, most sarcastic, and most likable kid she ever met. Several years later, she came out to me and was one of the first out lesbians I ever knew. She was my “Ring of Keys” figure. I mean, she showed me her Olivia Record collection once when I was in my late teens and visiting my aunt in her hometown, and we’re friends to this day.
If camp was where I learned to show affection for women in an environment that felt safe, it was also the first place where I encountered backlash for my intense feelings for women. I was 12 and I was deeply fond of a CIT with long curly blond hair, who I thought was just the coolest. My camp was a place where hugs were given freely and where physicality between women was normal, but while I had no name for my feelings for this cool CIT, she had a name for me — “Queer," something she hurled at me once while saying goodnight and I must have hugged her for what seemed like an uncomfortably long time or maybe too firmly. I can’t remember what I did in the immediate aftermath, but I’m sure my heart was broken in a mixture of confusion and rejection. From there, I learned to boast about boys I liked at camp to keep a safe cover, lest I be so roundly spurned again.
Once, at the Boy Scout camp dance, when I was 14, one of the cutest guys asked me to dance the final song and then kissed me in front of everyone. I was the envy of the camp, but I still ended up crawling into a tiny cot with and falling into deep sleep holding the hand of a girl who would become my first love, although we had no name for it until ardent letters of longing and desire passed between us and one day her mother got on the phone and told me that I was not allowed to contact her daughter because I was "queer." I was 14 and beginning my freshmen year of high school depressed from a breakup for which I had no words.
As an older counselor and as an administrator I would eventually fall in love at camp with other counselors three more times to varying degrees of length and success. Always, the moment of mutual realization of interest, connection, or falling occurred during an earnestly camp-only activity — while teaching a session on lantern maintenance during staff week, while boning up on my swimming with a waterfront director in a blue Speedo, wielding a whistle, and a ring of keys tied to a small flotation device that she flipped around on the end of a lanyard, or while learning group dances we would later share with the kids. I don’t necessarily want to “blame it on the Bossa Nova,” but if the dance fits…
It’s been 20 years since I worked at camp, but each year, at the end of summer, when kids don their new backpacks and crisp jackets and the school buses fill the side streets, I feel a pang for those idyllic days when knowing all of the words to “House at Pooh Corner,” building the perfect s’more, and lighting a fire with a single match and only kindling, tinder, and fuel (the Boy Scout camp used kerosene, after all) gave me certain cachet. Obviously, summer camp didn't make me a lesbian, and a few of those early experiences were painful, but for a kid who loved women in the late '70s and early '80s with no language to define it, camp sure helped me figure out who I was faster.
TRACY E. GILCHRIST is the feminism editor of The Advocate. Follow her on Twitter @TracyEGilchrist.