In writing about my childhood, I have often used the phrase to describe myself as ‘a child who would be gay’ or ‘a child who would become gay’. But I recently read an author who used the term, ‘gay child’. I have hesitated to use the term, gay child because it seemed to connote something sexual in childhood. But seeing the term used well has had me rethink my use of the term.
Importantly, the term ‘gay child’ is not about sex. A gay child is a child who was gay from birth. Whatever makes a person gay seems to be present from the day a child is born. When I think about my own childhood, I knew I was different from a very young age. Some of my earliest memories that caused pain were around my feelings of not fitting in with the rest of boy culture or adult male culture. From a very early age I hated sports, particularly football; liked art; loved to play with dolls; loved to sew, once my grandmother taught me how to use her sewing machine. I could go on, but these are some of the more obvious ways my interests were different than straight boys.
When I was five years old I was sent to a summer day camp with an emphasis on sports. I hated that camp; hated the sports; hated my counselor; but liked the art and crafts. I have memories of a male camp counselor who was tough, driving, all macho with a crew cut. I remember him pushing me at sports and feeling bad about myself for my lack of sports ability. I tried to tell my parents how unhappy I was at camp but my parents were not good at listening to their children and taking their concerns seriously.
One day, mid-summer, I was very upset about going back to the camp. I have vague memories that something was to take place that day which I did not want to participate in. I was driven to camp by a young camp counselor who would carpool a few campers in his Volkswagen Beetle. That day I sat in the front seat of the Beetle and one or two other boys sat in the back seat. I had just been picked up for camp and we were about half a block from my house, heading slowly down the poorly paved hill that was our street.
I was in a desperate internal fight. I could not go back to the camp and needed to find a way to escape. I remember thinking that we were going slow enough that I could just jump out of the car and run home. And that is exactly what I did. I jumped out of the moving car as it slowly headed down the hill on my street and ran up the embankment and into the woods behind my house. My memory is that the counselor never stopped his car or looked back. I snuck back into my house through the back screen door.
At the time my mother had a maid who worked for her named Hellen. Hellen was a very large, taciturn, African American woman. Hellen and I did not get along. (Hellen quit a few months later, blaming me and my mean words for her leaving. Through the screen, I saw Hellen working in the kitchen and when she left the room I snuck into the house and hid under a countertop desk. I was not there for long before my mother found me hiding. I remember her surprise and upset that I was home.
When I recently asked my mother about this day she expressed how angry she was at my father that he made me go to the different camps, both day camp and overnight camp. She said that this was a topic that she had fought with my father for many months. My mother had never gone to a camp and said that she did not believe in making children do things that they did not want to do. But I do not think my mother ever really understood the cause of my upset, just that I did not want to go.
Until that day when I jumped out of a moving car, my unhappiness that summer was not real to my parents. I never went back to that camp again. The next summer I went to a different camp, which was somewhat better, less sports-focused, but which still had a degree of team sports, which we had to participate in. I remember often feeling bad about myself whenever we played soccer, baseball or other team sports, but I did not have a choice
When I was eleven years old my parents sent me to an overnight camp. Again, I did not have a choice about going to the camp. My family, with my grandmother and aunt, threw a special party the night before I was to leave for the overnight camp in Maine, with all kinds of camp-related gifts. The next day, with my mother at Philadelphia International Airport, amidst my tears and sobs, I refused to get on the plane from Philadelphia to Maine with the other campers. My father was angry at me and told me I had to go to the camp. They threatened to return all the gifts I had gotten the night before. I guess I agreed to go to the camp because the next day my father flew me up to Maine in his plane, drove me to the camp, and dropped me off. I was embarrassed I had come late to camp and felt homesick and alone for most of that first summer. I was terrible at sports and always felt bad about myself because of my lack of sports skills. But like the other camps I had gone to, we had to participate in sports, and I suffered through it. I did find that I loved arts and crafts and swimming and spent as much time as I could at both.
All of this camp experience was prepubescent, and at eleven, I did not know very much about sex or sexuality. I certainly had never heard the word homosexuality at eleven. But I knew early on that I was different than the other boys and that I did not fit into mainstream boy culture.
There is a father I know, the brother of a close friend of mine, who is all hard-edged male macho. He huffs and puffs and is full of himself in his male ego. His son, who is eleven now, based on my own experience growing up gay, has all the signs of a gay child. The child, although he excels at sports, also loves to try on grandma’s wig and dress in her clothes. His father demeans him often in front of family and friends for being weak, scared, a sissy. No one ever says a word to the father about his behavior. I am not a part of this family and can not easily intervene. But I wait for the day when this child enters adolescence and begins to discover who he is. I hope to be there for him at that time in the future if he needs me.
I tell these stories about my childhood to bear witness that being gay was not a choice made in adulthood. Being gay was the person I was when I was born. It is clear to me, that from an early age, of which my camp stories bear witness, I was different. I had all the signs of a child who would grow up into a gay man. I guess I was a gay infant, who became a gay child, who grew into a gay man.