Too young to admit I was gay, here's how I learned to stop complaining and love summer camp
Shy and sports-averse, I was hardly sleepaway camp material. But by the summer’s end, I had changed — thanks to counselors who saw my hidden spark.
A few weeks back, our son Lucas, age 9 – who’s surely owed an adventure after the masked-up pandemic summer of 2020 – selected these electives for his upcoming time at sleepaway camp: the climbing wall, the ninja warrior course, and not one but two sessions of soccer.
My picks when I went to camp at Lucas’ age were a touch different: drama, singing, and two sessions of arts and crafts.
Outdoorsy and athletic, Lucas told me and his other father, Jack, that he wants to maximize the experience and attend camp for all seven weeks: “Dad and Pops, I can’t wait to get to the woods.” Quiet and flabby, I could only bear to attend for a fraction of that: “Mommy, do I really have to go?”
See, I was never cut out for sleepaway camp. But by the summer’s end, I had changed – and it was because of camp and specifically, a handful of supportive counselors.
The great indoors, and outdoors
While too young to acknowledge I was gay, I was hardly fit to spend a summer with a bunch of boys in the wilderness. A lover of the great indoors, I was already deeply fixated on movies, TV and books. I shined in the schoolroom, far from the soccer field. I was attached to my mother, sister and my female teachers. As my cousin says, I was always one of the girls.
While the boys in my bunk were thrilled to play sports, I sat on the sidelines waiting for 3 p.m., when I got to dull the pain with M&M’s at the canteen. My nemesis, an aggressive kid named Micah, took advantage of my athletic ineptitude, constantly tripping and punching me. The sunset mosquitoes seemed to target me more than the other campers, munching me up and down my arms and legs. At night, I’d quietly sob myself to sleep.
But then a funny thing happened once I stopped whining. With guidance from some empathetic counselors, camp made me a better version of myself.
USA TODAY's Louie Villalobos:We're vaccinated but our son isn't. The CDC lifted mask rules. So what do we do now?
I discovered untapped skills. A chubby kid who never wanted to take off his shirt, I found I was actually decent at one sport – swimming – and the college-aged lifeguard counted as I clocked dozens of laps in the camp pool. When it came time for “Color Wars,” an athletic competition where the camp was divided into teams, I advanced quickly, encouraged by a nurturing male leader who showed me the game was largely strategic – more brain than brawn. Plus a trusted counselor slipped me some B-1 pills to help solve my mosquito problem.
Camp also gave me the chance during afternoon downtime to dig into new obsessions that would deepen as I grew into a teenager. One of them was music. When the other boys played tag outside, I was free to lie on my bunk with headphones, rewinding cassettes of singles again and again that I’d recorded from the radio.
Most crucially, I fell in love with the 7:45 p.m. “Evening Program,” where all the bunks gathered in the central mess hall to watch skits and musical comedy. It was heaven for this future theater junkie. I was so enraptured by the presentations that by camp’s end, staffers installed me as a mini emcee, introducing acts and entertaining the campers, most of whom looked up at me either scornfully or bored out of their little minds. I didn’t care. I was a natural. The next morning, I’d jump out of bed and immediately ask my male bunk counselors, “So what’s the Evening Program tonight?”
I was showing – and starting to embrace – my theatricality, my exaggerated mannerisms. My, well, campy behavior.
Find your tribe
Still, I never went back to sleepaway camp. In those years, my parents were struggling, drifting toward their eventual separation and moving homes regularly. My sister and I changed schools four times in four years.
Follow the science:Let my children take off their masks, the science says it is safe
Reflecting on it today, I wish I had returned to those woods every year. With a safe refuge from my family’s issues, perhaps I would have benefited from the stability and developed confidence earlier? Maybe I could have found my tribe faster and come to accept that I was gay without so much self-torment? Many kids experience their first kiss at camp. Why not me?
I know Lucas will succeed at camp in ways I never fathomed. He's already well ahead of the game, far more comfortable in his youthful skin than I ever was. (Asked by a stranger in a park at age 5 if he needed help finding his mother, Lucas shrugged and said, “I have two dads,” then rejoined his game of hide-and-seek.) I’m excited for our son, at the outset of his wonder years, to start to unravel some of life’s great mysteries in an environment designed to nurture one’s character.
A month after camp ended that long-ago summer, a memento arrived in the mail. It was the flimsiest of yearbooks: eight or so pages, stapled together, with a section for each bunk. On my cabin’s page, my counselors wrote, “Bradley’s Pet Peeve: Micah.” Guess he and I never got over our issues. But it said something else: “Bradley’s Favorite Quote: ‘What’s the Evening Program?’”
I didn’t get it at the time. But today I see that, like the best mentors, those counselors were helping kids find their true selves. Those nurturing young adults – similar to a few key teachers I’d meet in the following years – were celebrating campy little me.
Bradley Jacobs Sigesmund, an NYC-based journalist who’s written for Bloomberg, Newsweek and Us Weekly, is penning a TV pilot about a sports-averse gay dad with a soccer-obsessed son. Follow him on Twitter at @BradleyJacobs