Started no scandalous story ever…
Actually, that’s a lie. For two reasons. One, I’m sure plenty of scandalous things happen at computer camp, and two, my story is slightly scandalous. Prepare to be scandalized (but don’t really, because it’s not actually that scandalous. It’s more tragic than anything).
And since I can’t seem to write anything without all kinds of back story, let’s get that out of the way:
In 1993 or so, I went to visit family in Canada and my cousin had just gotten something that I had never dreamt possible for girls: short hair.
Okay, it was a pixie cut and maybe I was just sheltered, but I had seriously never seen a young woman with short hair before. My mind was blown.
OMG. SHORT HAIR.
I hadn’t even dared to dream! Lies, I had totally dared to dream of short hair (and boys clothing, and baseball cards, tiny hockey sticks, etc) but never knew how to ask for it because it just wasn’t something that any girls I knew did. Until my cousin.
I kept thinking about the haircut. I coveted the haircut. When we came home from vacation, I declared that I wanted the haircut.
I went to a hair stylist, who, while she was skilled at doing some things, really had no business giving me a pixie. But there I was.
To be clear, what I got was not a pixie cut. I can’t really describe what it was, but I have incredibly thick hair, and what she did ended up looking more like a puff on the top of my head than anything. It was legit the worst haircut I’ve ever gotten, but I was so excited to have short hair that I didn’t notice or care.
But I digress, this story is supposed to be about computer camp.
It was the summer of 1994, I think. I’m not sure how I got into this computer camp, because it was hosted by Johns Hopkins University for wicked fahkin smaht kids, but I must have qualified by some application process or another.
It was a fun camp, I did some really cool (for 1994) animation and computer building and code writing that I don’t even remember, but I was definitely an outcast. I’d always been kinda shy and as I got into my tween and teen years and became more anxious, new social situations became harder. I dreaded lunch every day because I had no one to sit with and was too terrified to start a conversation with anyone I didn’t know. A group of people would always gather in one of the dorm lounges around pickup time and watch Animaniacs, Tiny Toons and Tazmania, and even though I spoke to exactly zero people during those times, I still remember them with fondness. Don’t get me wrong, in spite of my lackluster social skillz, I had a pretty good time at camp.
So picture me, 13, a fluffy mop haircut and clothes that were as gender-neutral as possible. I probably should have been wearing a bra, but was still living in the blissful ignorance of boobs in general. My own boobs, I mean. I was very aware of other boobs, which is kinda where this story is going.
IT’S NOT RAUNCHY. I promise, it doesn’t get raunchy.
My point there is that if you didn’t know me, you might have mistaken me for a 13-year-old boy.
This, friends, is the story of the first time I passed as male.
I can’t remember how many weeks of camp there were, but this happened at the very end. Projects were winding down and during one of the classes we were given some free time before the next class began. A group of boys was sitting on the floor in front of my desk, huddled around a laptop and for whatever reason, when I was done with my work, the oldest one, who was maybe 15, made eye contact with me and gave me a subtle head nod.
I knew what that meant. I was being invited to take part in whatever they were doing. I may have been a social outcast, but I was craving companionship. No one had so much as spoken a word to me for most of the camp, and to suddenly be included was an incredible rush. Silently, I answered the call to join them, standing up and awkwardly walking across the room to where they were sitting. I settled down on the floor and looked at what had them all transfixed.
Y’all already know where this is going.
It was porn.
Literary porn, to be fair, but porn all the same. It was the first smut of any kind I’d encountered, except for that of my own imagination, and horribly written though it was, I too was transfixed. My heart was racing, I was feeling all kinds of crazy things all over my body and how I didn’t know right at that moment that I was attracted to women is beyond me. I was hyper-aware that it was incredibly unseemly for a girl to be doing this and then it dawned on me… the boys thought I was a boy too. I at once felt exhilarated and incredibly naughty.
My mind was blown. I had never felt included in such a way before, like I was suddenly a member of some super-double-secret club. I mean, yeah, it was just some crappy porn story, but the belonging I felt was astounding. The whole time I kept thinking “Don’t fuck this up, yo.” If they’d discovered I was female, I would have been completely ashamed. I absolutely couldn’t let them know. I didn’t say anything the entire time, and when class was over, we just shared solemn nods as if to say “Yeah bro, that was some good shitty porn writing.”
My high didn’t last for too long, however.
Recently I read that the human brain is wired to remember negative experiences more than positive ones, it’s an evolutionary thing. That makes sense in light of how clearly I remember this scene.
It was a surprisingly cool day for August, just a few days after being included by the boys. I was wearing some kind of weird cowl-necked sweatshirt with thick red and white horizontal stripes. It was pickup time and I was sitting on a rock outside with a large group of kids.
“Look, it’s Pat.” I heard one kid say, quietly snickering to his friend, who also laughed. And by “Pat”, they meant the SNL character of indeterminable gender. I stole a glance at them. I had no idea who they were, but I knew they were talking about me.
Those three words crushed me. I was overcome with shame and humiliation and if I could have willed myself to vanish at that moment, I would have. When I got home, I didn’t mention what happened, I didn’t tell anyone, I just took my pain in silence.
I tried to step up my femme game after that, because clearly the fault was with me for looking too genderless. I got my first bra, started shaving my legs and pretended that I now hated my short hair and eventually grew it out. It took almost 20 years for me to revisit cutting my hair short and wearing clothes that actually made me feel comfortable.
People are cruel, man.