Hot sunny days, cool clear lake waters, peanut butter jelly sandwiches washed down with Kool-Aid for lunch. These are reminders of my summers spent at the lake. Mixed with these halcyon days of summer are memories of angst and confusion growing up transgender.
I remember at 7 or 8 feeling so awkward that I always wore a tank top with my bathing suit. We were in the water constantly and played all kinds of games, Marco Polo, Hide and Seek, and predictably, there would always be a round of “pushing the girls in the water.” I recall the odd look my best friend Jimmy gave me when I asked him to push me in.
In the midst of all these summer memories, I was thrilled to read a recent article in The Huffington Post about Camp Aranu’tig. It is a camp for transgender youth that has grown from one New England camp and about 60 campers in 2010 to the addition of a West Coast camp, a family camp and a leadership camp with 400 campers in 2014.
I’m sure this camp will not only save lives, but will also change lives for the better. Regrettably support like this wasn’t available when I was growing up. However the summer of ‘74 was a summer of discovery and could perhaps be called my ad hoc version of a transgender summer camp.
I was 15-years-old when my parents planned a three-week trip across the country to visit a cousin and her new baby in California. Our itinerary took us by air to my Aunt Natalie’s in Chicago. From here my parents and Aunt Natalie, who was afraid to fly, would travel by car to Los Angles for a two-week visit with my cousin Helen.
I would stay behind in the Avondale section of Chicago and house sit my Aunts two dogs and one cat. By today’s standards leaving a 15-year-old alone for two weeks may seem odd, but taken in the context of the my family, it was not.
My grandparents had come to this country alone at age 16, my father was orphaned and living and working alone at 16. Both my Mother and Aunt began apprenticeships in Manhattan’s garment industry at that age traveling each day into Manhattan from Brooklyn. As many boomers will tell you, we grew up in age that allowed us a lot more freedom. However, with my two weeks of freedom came responsibility in the form of a list of odd jobs that included yard work, tending a giant vegetable garden and painting.
I was glad to be free of my parents watchful eye and the tortuous car ride and visit out west. By this time in my life I had been crossdressing in my mother’s and sister’s clothes after school since I was 9-years-old. My cousin Helen was married and out of the house and lived in California. I was given her old room and was astounded by the opportunity I found. The closet was packed tightly with clothes and dresses from my Aunt and both my cousins. The dresser contained an assortment of lingerie, slips, bras, girdles and even an old bullet bra that would become a favorite. But best of all was my cousin’s old vanity, still used by my Aunt daily to do her makeup. There was an assortment of cosmetics and accessories that lay out across an art deco vanity with a huge circular mirror. To say this got my attention would be an understatement.
I’d like to say I exercised restraint; however, my parent’s car hadn’t been out of the driveway 5 minutes before I was upstairs trying on a lavender bridesmaid gown that peered out at me the past two days. The rest of the day was spent relishing my new found freedom of gender expression. I tried on dozens of different outfits and began experimenting with makeup. The painting project started early that morning was forgotten and it was dusk by the time I found a cute set of pajamas and called it a night.
Over the course of the next few days I developed a routine. I would wake up in a pretty night gown or pajamas and have breakfast. Then I would put on a skirt and blouse and spend a few hours playing house. Lost in a dream world, I would saunter through the house caring for the dogs and cat, cleaning and sometimes cooking. It was easy to fantasize and visualize myself grown up as woman and a wife. Some days filled with guilt and shame over these feelings, I would become disgusted with myself, rip the clothes off and pack them vowing to change.
But like a moth back to a flame, each evening found me down in the coolness of the basement where my Aunt had her sewing room. There on racks and packed away in boxes was a collection of dresses and gowns accumulated during her career as a seamstress.
Things got even better mid-week when I uncovered a wig and a box of size 10 shoes. My size!
My Aunt was the type of person who didn’t clear out her old clothes. Add to that the fact that she worked as a seamstress and raised two girls, there were boxes of clothes, shoes, hats, and lingerie stored throughout the house. Each night I would get lost in the revelry of it all, so much so that one night after collapsing in bed I saw the early gray dawn filtering through the curtains.
I remember spending hours styling that wig and trying to master eye makeup. Some nights I looked like Mrs. Doubtfire, others like Milton Berle. Nevertheless, with practice and patience came progress. Slowly in the mirror she began to stare back at me, not a 15-year-old girl, but more a young woman. Like the ones who caught the bus in the morning on Milwaukee Avenue, going downtown to work in the offices. I lost myself in the dream of someday joining them. No wonder I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t want to be an engineer, accountant or fireman. I wanted to be a woman!
My parents and Aunt were due back Friday evening. My idea was to wake up early and act as if I was one of those young professional women that I admired and envied so. What was it like to wake up and get ready for work like they did?
I woke early, showered, did my makeup and then hair. After that I put on my dress, I still remember how wonderful it felt as it fell down around me. I primped then added jewelry. After that selected a purse. As I preened in the mirror, I saw that I had come a long way in the two weeks.
It was about 7 AM and the neighborhood was slowing coming to life, dogs barked in the distance, and delivery trucks roared by on Milwaukee Avenue. I walked over to the door, opened it and stepped out. A stylish handbag in the crook of my arm and a pair of white gloves held delicately in the other. For a few seconds I experienced pure joy, and then at the stop sign on the corner I saw it: a 1968 Dodge Coronet. My parents! I turned inside and raced for my room. Nothing was ever said. Camp was over.
My Camp Avondale surely was beneficial and came at impressionable time in my life. I learned how to dress completely as a woman. Yet instead of feeling joy and hope in light of myself discovery, I went home that summer feeling shame, disgrace and filled with anxiety and confusion. There was nobody to ask for help. If I did I would be branded “sick” and a “pervert.”
Today, we are seeing that change and programs like Camp Aranutiq are helping lead. Nowadays schools are starting to assimilate transgender students and counselors are being trained to understand and help students.
We are seeing transgender homecoming queens and prom queens. Transgender college students are given support and medical benefits. Still far from perfect, today transgender youth have options.
Remember that you are part of a community and share a common core of experiences with your sisters and brothers. Take pride in who you are and what you have been a part of until now. Support the fight for transgender rights anyway you can.
Gradually people are being educated and feelings are changing. No longer will transgender people have to feel the ridicule, guilt, shame and have to struggle as many of us did searching for answers all alone with a borrowed prom dress in our Aunt’s basement.
The late great Robin Williams femulating Barbra Streisand in the 1993 film Mrs. Doubtfire.